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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My favorite found object caused me a lot of speculation and confusion, but I still love it to this day.  While writing a dissertation on the “flaneur” or urban stroller, I was well-immersed in the art and literature of the picturesque landscape-you know, the bucolic painter or writer who gazes in the distance and freeze-frames the scene.  There was a long tradition that became even more fervent as industry started to encroach on the countryside.  For example, while Rousseau waxes ecstatic about the pleasures of botanization, he interrupts his poetic speech when he  hears a recurrent clicking sound. This turns out to be a stocking factory humming busily in a clearing. Oh well.

At any rate, these stories had been on my mind although I embarqued on the more Surrealist quest to find baffling found objects in the flea market, on this day, Vanves.  I was near finished, a bit discouraged because most of…

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Psychogeography and the urban walk

Breton and crew

One place to examine walking as a cognitive technology is the field of psychogeography.  This tongue-in-cheek “science” was pronounced as such by the Situationist Guy Debord in 1955.  In Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, he describes it as the “”the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” As a concept, it was archly serious, especially for Debord, but he was not the first to make it formal exercise.

The Surrealists had adopted the practice of “deambulations” which were organized walks that traversed both city and countryside as a means of achieving a state of hynosis and disorientation, probing the boundaries between waking and dream life, no doubt from exhaustion. As Breton explained, walking was a strategic device to to relinquish conscious control, submit to risk and chance, and to reveal the unconscious zones of urban life. And to succeed in this endeavor a walker must adopt an “ultrareceptive posture” to “put oneself in a state of grace with

chance” so that “something will happen.”

So walking is an aesthetic, educational,  and political practice, in fact one that is prescribed as a means to effect real changes in the mind of the stroller.

The Situationists updated the practice in the 50’s and 60’s in a way that supported their more socially radical agenda.  Since the situation of capitalism valued work, play was the type of action that would help vanquish the seductions of the spectacle. And play was a serious business that involved the planning and execution of events (“situations” ) that released this impulse. Tactics in deliberate confusion called “detournement” (“diversion” or “subversion” ) moved the process of revolution along. Like and unlike were scrambled in just about every art form, including architectural models for the urban space.

Organized derives (or drifts) were particularly prized as means to transform both body and mind.  Participants were instructed to wander through an urban landscape, guided only the  subconscious contours of the streets and architecture.  Debord specifically describes it as a “technique” which, with some argument, can be defined as something akin to a technology of sight and exhaustion. A formal derive was ” “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

However, one aspect gives me pause in connecting psychogeography with my focus on walking technology: As a field, psychogeography examines the effects of the urban space on the mind and emotions of the walker. To be a true cognitive technology, the emphasis should be on how the forces of vision and cognition transform the space and potentially create a new one. The practice should’nt be seen  as a means to observe the mind while walking the landscape. The training involved should be creating a new set of brain processes that are more creative and adaptable, not just awakened.

Nadar Balloniste

One of my all-time favorite artists, Nadar photographed every available subject.  His portraits included one of the most famous of Baudelaire, notable for the way it portrays him defiant, coat on, and ready for the business of solitary investigation. But one of the ways he’s most connected with the promotion of vision and technology was through his flights (in 1863)  in the hot air balloon he christened “Le Geant.” The attention he garnered from his aerial photographs was unprecedented. A brief Googling turns up numerous American accounts, including articles in the New York Times and Harpers about an ill-fated crash of the vessel in November of that year.  Although the balloon capers seem like mere publicity stunts (and Nadar, who worshiped money and fame didn’t ignore their value as such), they had a much bigger impact.

Robert Hughes’ program, “The Shock of the New” ( describes the impact of the view from the Eiffel Tower as creating a new perspective of the city and on man’s view of himself. Seen from the sky downwards, the viewer meets a landscape of flat patterns and absent men.  Well before its construction in 1889, Nadar took the new mass media by storm with the narratives of Le Geant, and the photos taken from up high.  Both city and country were small abstract ciphers, and one can only imagine the bafflement  of the average Parisian. Big vistas on ground had only recently been built by Haussman and and the impression of the urban swarm as up close and personal no doubt dominated in the average mind.

In the mid-nineties I recall seeing a many of these photos at the Porte de Vanves flea market. The fact that the 4x 6, post-card sized views were so numerous is a testament to just how popular they were. I still regret not buying them, but alas it was the end of the day and the wallet was emptied. They’d hold a special place in my 19th-century photo collection if I had.

A nomadic moment in Tokyo

An old friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, sent me this poem. It’s an idyll catalyzed by his wanderings around Tokyo. It’s a bit of everything picturesque. The smell of rosemary in a very urban setting provokes a whole scenario in a flash.

Wake up and smell the rosemary
Japanese cinema 1960s
Gins bergs howl
San Francisco 1967
So it’s a beat girl
And a flower child
Who meet and fall in love with Japanese movies
They scheme to get out of san fran
And take a boat to japan
And arrive
And end up working in a rice shop
They work
Gi to the movies
They fall in love with 2 Japanese poets
They open up a restyarant
And serve fondue in an old shogun shack
It’s called Rosemarys.
The O collection this season is what we found in
Elizabeth and Rosemarys closet.
A rosemary laden time capsule.
All of the things that they wore discovered made and cherished.
Even down to Tokishiros flower strewn beret worn in an
Anti war protest in Tokyo .
A collection of love and happiness.
And poetry

Diss. Rework: A very early movement in brain training

The farthest back I can knowledgeably talk about is the “picturesque” aesthetic that was all the rage in the 18th century. Most famously promoted by William Gilpin in the last quarter, the movement became a major driver in the growing role of visual aesthetics in poetry, literature and every other popular art of the time. Gilpin published handbooks aimed at training the average educated reader in his or her enjoyment of a bucolic landscape. And it was not just a case of enjoying the view. The picturesque way of seeing was an important means to making the walk productive and transformative.

Typical were publications like “Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1776 on Several Parts of Great Britain and Particularly the
Highlands of Scotland.” (1786). Here,  Gilpin acknowledges his debt to Dutch landscape and genre painters. The solitary walker needs to consciously adopt a “saccadic” gaze that sweeps across land, air, and sea. Further, the viewer needs to carefully frame the landscape and compositional techniques of the Dutch masters.  It’s a practice that requires hard work and talent to do well.
Unexpectedly in this age of the noble savagery, Gilpin consistently maintains that the picturesque way of seeing can only be practiced by a walker who follows a disciplined methodology of seeing.  Natural talents and affinities are required, as is the education that enables the viewer to attend the exceptional scenes of nature while referencing artistic history and convention. A less sensitive practitioner miss the crucial visual detail overlooked by the masses.  Artificial attempts to please will be ignored because the viewer will naturally fix on “..some accidental, rough, object, which the common eye would pass unnoticed.”
Yet talent is not enough. The method is rigorous, demanding physical strength and moral determination.
1. First, the walker must seek elevated ground to execute a “noble sweep” of a panoramic landscape. From a suitable vantage point the subject will find the harmony, propriety, and distinction necessary to compose the scene. The selection and framing of the landscape is crucial to the success or failure of the experience. The natural landscape gets the same close analysis as painting on a wall.
Gilpin: Under every circumstance, a country retiring into remote distance is among
the most beautiful parts of the landscape, and is a very pleasing study to the
lover of nature…He will discover more and more, her magical secrets in the
illuminations of distant objects. He will see with what vivid touches of light
he often marks each prominent part-nearly as vivid as those upon the
foregrounds-at the same time, the shadows being suppressed, and every little
detail, the object takes its proper place in the distance, notwithstanding its
strong illumination.”
This distanced appreciation of natural phenomena becomes a more or less formal “study” of the landscape. The “foreground”, ” shadows” and the “placement of illuminations” are all noted to reveal the “mode of creation” born of the imaginative spirit of an active yet impersonal natural force.
2. Once accomplished, the analytical concentration of nature stimulates the imagination of the observer, who is then moved to immortalize the scene. The painting, poem, or musical composition will overcome the limitations of natural, untutored perception. The picturesque enables the spectator to :
“…body forth,
The forms of things scarce seen,
turn them to shape, and give to airy
a local habitation.”
Walking, seeing, and selecting a transformative landscape becomes the most effective tool to creating Romantic art.   In the later pages of this volume, he places a sketch book in the hands of the walker, and counsels him on the principles of composition and the techniques of drawing the “sketch”. Moreover, according to Gilpin, the written text is an equally feasible product of these moments of experience. In his introduction to this work, he asserts that this method of observation engenders a “novel mode of writing” characterized by luxuriant language and a penchant for “deviation into poetical phrase.”

Diss. Rework: Why flaneur?

The flaneur was always a man who meant to say no: a solitary figure in a city touches a nerve. Obviously, he’s broadcasting a desire for non-doing, opting out of a society by refusing to join, make, or earn in it. But aesthetics, rather than laziness dictate his attitude.
Back in the 19th century heyday, he became strangely central to popular culture. There were many reactions in the new mass-market press: How does he look? What is he seeing? What does he do with what he’s seen? Making sense of outsiders is never an easy task. The more serious-minded dismissed the figure as middle-brow-trivia but a  number of bystanders felt a certain grudging admiration.

The flaneur became a staple of popular journalism Every day new copy is needed -and the newly-created genre of the feuilleton helped any writer on a deadline assume the role. Everyone understood the hard-working observer who gaped a bit on the sidelines. At the same time, the more alienated metropolitan creatives had a means to describe their position in the society of capitalism. Wandering the city alone is only a mobile way of practicing what they do.

Finally, much later, postmodern theorists grasped the figure because this kind of  19th-century refusal very nearly seems an an indictment of suburbia in the 21st.
So it’s safe to say that dismissing the figure ignores many layers of importance to what it represents. Flanerie almost always functions as ethnographic commentary on how humans act in a modern city, where every traditional certitude seems bizarre or debunked.

Most critics today examine the ethnographic project. But there’s a facet of the figure’s gaze that’s even more interesting: Seeing is more than a means to observe the strange. It’s also a means to overcome the default wiring of vision, and only then does the understanding of the emerging industrial city get possible. Looking back on the ways that vision is increasingly embraces seen as a cognitive technology reveals the role that one character actor in the ad hoc stage outside informs the most crucial philosophical debates of his day.