Thursday, February 25, 2021

Courtney E. Thompson's "An Organ of Murder"

Courtney E. Thompson is an assistant professor of the history of science and medicine and U.S. women’s history at Mississippi State University in Starkville. She received her Ph.D. from the program in the history of science and medicine of Yale University in 2015.

Thompson applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of An Organ of Murder is the last page of the fourth chapter, where I wrap up an exploration of the “prison as laboratory” by applying Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon to the phrenological prison:
[…] While the phrenological gaze within the prison was not persistent or constant in the same fashion as the disciplinary gaze within the panoptic prison, the entry of the phrenologist into the prison added to the observational power and unequal gaze imposed upon prisons, by contributing an aspect of predictive anatomical knowledge and judgment through vision. Phrenologists, including Spurzheim, Gall, the Fowler brothers, and others, gave prison wardens, as well as attorneys and judges, detailed reports on their observations of inmates, sometimes warning wardens of particularly dangerous inmates who might try to escape or behave in a violent manner, and they also acted as expert witnesses on the stand, testifying as to prisoners’ potential for future bad behavior, based on the evidence of their skulls, as discussed in previous chapters. This “laboratory of power” and its disciplinary gaze both produced and were produced by phrenological vision.

The phrenologist also carried this visual regime out of the prison and translated it into daily life. Practical phrenology, by creating and perpetuating a culture of vision predicated on the identification of “good” and “bad” heads, enabled the production of judgment by appearances in daily life, as we shall see in the next chapter. As Foucault observed regarding the mechanism of the panopticon, “the more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk of the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed.” As in the prison, so too on the street: power grows more diffuse as more eyes are encouraged and empowered to look and judge. But beyond the structure of the prison, all people are both seeing and seen, an inversion of the dynamic of the panoptic prison that does nothing to dilute the disciplinary power of vision. A student of practical phrenology in midcentury America was primed to engage in panoptic practices on the street, seeking “bad heads” and a propensity for crime before its commission. As Foucault has suggested, a panoptic system “was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function.” In mid-nineteenth-century America, phrenology provided the means, Foucault’s warning realized: “The gaze is alert everywhere.”
In this case, the Page 99 Test works quite well; if I had to choose a short selection from the book to sum up my major arguments and interventions, this page would be a good choice, as it signals the high stakes involved with the phrenological attention to the question of crime. Phrenology was used in prisons, in courts, and on the streets to distinguish between “good” and “bad” heads, and that resulted in real effects on people’s lives. (This is also, amusingly, the most theory I engage with in the book, with the heavy Foucault influence here; in this, this page is not a great representation of the writing style and overall approach of the text.)

The one important piece missing, however, is the language of criminality. The book explores both language and image: this passage speaks only to the visual culture and visual signs of phrenological criminality. The language used to describe criminal potential, however, was equally significant, leading to long-lasting effects on how we describe criminality in law, medicine, and culture today.
Learn more about An Organ of Murder at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue