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Elective Physiognomies

Physiognomy is the reading of a person's character from the physical features of their face. It became very popular during the late eighteenth century. While it has since fallen into disrepute as a scientific method, it still emerges as a subject of interest in popular culture.

"Don't judge a book by it's cover is all very well, but imagine the benefits to your business or romantic life if you could judge a person's character just by looks"
"Their Faces Give Them Away", Adelaide Advertiser 1994

Historically physiognomical studies consisted of drawings of faces accompanied by a written analysis. The authors' commentaries often spoke more about themselves and the cultural values of their period. The notions of superiority (racial, moral, intellectual etc.) that permeate many of these readings are particularly offensive.

"Physiognomy takes cognisance of races and nations as well as of individuals. It holds that as, physically, there is a difference between the tawny Mongolian of the far East who rears his miserable wigwam of twigs and turf and the civilised Caucasian, from whose hand springs palaces of crystal which he crowds with the triumphs of science and art."
The Mind in the Face, W McDowall 1792

Obviously we use non-verbal means of communication. Physiognomy demonstrates a desire for exactness in the knowledge of these inexact things. Its reductionist methodologies often involved positioning the subject on a scale of binary opposites (eg spiritual versus sensual), or as deviations from idealised norms.

"It should be sufficient to contemplate the abyss separating the rigid schematism of a physiognoics treatise from the flexible, yet precise, physiognomic penetration of a lover, a horse dealer or a card player." C. Ginzburg

Physiognomy claimed to reveal the true person behind social appearance and decorum. This raises questions about the nature of identity. To what extent is identity predetermined. Physiognomy's desire to know the invisible substance behind the visible surface seems to parallel modern non-invasive medical technologies such as ultrasound, CAT scans and gene mapping.

The recent "discoveries" of gay, criminal and addictive genes suggest medical science is shifting towards a more genetic determinist position. Contemporary fields of scientific research such as the Human Genome Project seem just as prone to tendencies of over-simplification and projection as those of the enlightenment.

"The genome project promises to find the pieces of our genetic code responsible for diseases, but it may also find genetic markers that determine personality, temperament and sexual orientation. As we re-engineer the genome we are also re-engineering ourselves as programmed beings"
Science, Sherry Turkle 1995


John Tonkin 1995

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