Physiognomy the bodily technology

In trying to sort out the definition of technology for this blog, I’ve reached a point where the abstract description of technology of self and perception just won’t do.

One of the clearest examples of the refashioning of vision into a tool lies in the late 18th and early 19th century craze of physiognomy.  Invented or at least promoted by Johann Christian Lavater the practice became a fad that swept the western world. The practitioners of this, it must be said, quackery, were well intentioned and inspired by the idea that the human face and posture could be read as easily as the novels they were devouring. Lavater maintained that physical traits could reveal a pure inner makeup. The subject need not be present; character was so visibly obvious that, with earnest study,  an artistic rendering could suffice.  A careful scan of superficial beauties and defects of the human face could reveal the essence of the bearer.  To an expert in the science, a pug nose or receding chin could speak volumes.

Lavater identified the most significant bodily features in painstaking detail and developed a system for cataloguing them.  An endless supply of guides were produced and published. And endless numbers of society gatherings focused on this pastime.

Although this form of study was usually a stationary activity,  gathering visual detail was soon reapplied to the study of urban culture, especially in unstable historical moments like the ancien regime and its aftermath.  City dwellers clearly needed a technology of understanding as things fell apart.

Louis-Sebastian Mericier (1740-1814) was an innovator in physiognomy applied to crowds, things, and events. In the early pages of his most famous work, the Tableau de Paris (1782-1783 he announces a project to analyze and evaluate the people, customs, and physical structures of the Parisian street.  Seeing the city as a theater of potential decline and revolution,  he pledges the documentation of the “situation actuelle” (the conditions of the moment).  To Mercier, a city landscape is more than just a place.  It’s an encyclopedia of physical and behavioral detail made all the more interesting because they’re all in a state of flux.

Elsewhere in science there was a lot of interesting in collecting and cataloguing information. But Mercier cites Lavater’s as a forerunner. He declares his intention of creating  “moral physiognomy of this giant capital.”  In this sense, “moral” refers to nearly infinite actions of all classes and conditions of man.  The Tableau  de Paris moves from micro-to  macro techniques of observation as the narrator parses a large trove of visual and behavioral detail.  His urban stroller is a connoisseur of the trivial because the moral and historical secrets of the  ancien regime society hide there.  The body politic and the fate of the crumbling monarchy  are as legible as the low brow of a criminal simpleton.

Paris in the time of Mercier


Cognitive Technology? What?

Years ago, my doctoral advisor advised me to think of a quick definition for use in casual conversation, a response to a question like , “Flaneur? What is that? A fancy French pastry?” Much as I was tempted to leave it at that, I normally countered with a quick and bland explanation that “This was a solitary stroller in a 19th-century urban metropolis.”  This was an efficient enough response, but it generally left doubters wondering just how I got paid (through fellowships and such) to write on such a thing.

Now that I’ve updated my general thesis about flanerie as a cognitive technology, I have to be ready again. Using a French term is bad enough, but getting science-y  means that many’s an encounter will feature a quick change of subject.

Hope not.

Let’s start with the most basic translation of the word technology: The Greek term, technología, combines the concept of téchnē, meaning “art, skill, craft”, and  logia meaning “study of-.” Fair enough. The term implies the study of useful arts, which would seem a pedestrian occupation for authors and artists, but was actually a preoccupation of the pre-industrial and industrial age.  Science was formerly a gentleman’s pursuit, but applied science was connected with many less savory things such as the “Satanic mills”  of capitalism, the pauperization of the poor, and various other phenomena that caused much consternation.

However, there are other ways to think of technology, since not all tools are bad.  Factories and steam engines are inhuman, as the philosopher Bernard Stiegler famously put it, “organized inorganic matter.” In many ways, the salvation of the human spirit and the sanity of man could be found if naturally occurring human tools could be leveraged.  Reason, vision, and emotion were available to every man, woman, and child, if the proper method could be found to use them properly.

Foucault’s “technologies of self”  would cover these aims. In his “The History of Sexuality” he conceived the idea in the concept of the self-abnegation practiced by the early Christians. However, it’s clear he felt the idea could be applied much more broadly. He explains:

As a context, we must understand that there are four major types of these “technologies,” each a matrix of practical reason: (I) technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform, or manipulate things; (2) technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols, or signification; (3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; (4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform  themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (From Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, 1988

The goals of technology #4 might seem hopelessly romantic for the difficult task of surviving industrialization. But by combining the old mechanical concept of technology with this one, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to apply it to the many 19th century projects to reconcile art and general humanity with industry and capitalism. The skills and tools to solve cultural and individual crises were promoted in almost every society. The nomadic optic was championed by a select group of aesthetic thinkers who knew about such things. This is not to say that any of them had a clear idea of what cognition would be in the modern sense. But their instinct about the crucial role of vision and the manipulation thereof, was, by modern standards, spot on.


High on the list of forgotten professions is the ragpicking trade. But looking back to the 19th-century we see that he or she was a figure of import, a kind of urban seer whose daily toil paid  off in inestimable wisdom. In The Ragpicker’s Wine, Baudelaire describes the nobility of this silent ghostlike presence:

One sees a ragpicker knocking against the walls,
Paying no heed to the spies of the cops, his thralls,
But stumbling like a poet lost in dreams;
He pours his heart out in stupendous schemes.
He takes great oaths and dictates sublime laws,
Casts down the wicked, aids the victims’ cause;
Beneath the sky, like a vast canopy,
He is drunken of his splendid qualities.
Ay, but it’s a hard life of suffering and exhaustion:
Yes, these people, plagued by household cares,
Bruised by hard work, tormented by their years,
Each bent double by the junk he carries,

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