Doctrine of the Skull

phreno cabinet

Fowler & Wells Phrenological Cabinet, New-York Illustrated News, 1860 (detail).

My dissertation is entitled Doctrine of the Skull: Phrenology and Popular Knowledge in Antebellum America.

Phrenology illuminates the relationship between popular culture and new ideas about the self that circulated in nineteenth-century America. To promote their controversial doctrine of the skull, phrenologists mobilized a range of media forms. Novel modes of introspection and observation spread through lecture tours, plaster casts, character charts, phonography (shorthand writing), books, and other varieties of print, visual, and material culture.  Practical phrenology became an influential technology of the self, promising individual self-knowledge through engagement with mechanically reproduced media.

My dissertation examines phrenological sites of production and experience, loosely following the story of the Fowler & Wells family of phrenological entrepreneurs while drawing in related phenomena, from mesmerism to Transcendentalism to the introspective practices of diarists. I explore, in a material sense, how the self was made in the era of the idealized “self-made man.”

The cultural foment of the early nineteenth century is in some ways analogous to our present digital age, as industrial print culture exploded, knowledge became more accessible, citizens questioned old hierarchies of expertise, and new forms of self-fashioning became available. Within this context, phrenologists emerged to sell an entertaining and accessible form of mental philosophy that elevated the individual – or at least, appeared to – amid the disjunctures of modern market capitalism.

The saints and sages in history — but you yourself?
Sermons, creeds, theology — but the human brain,
and what is called reason? and what is called
love? and what is called life?

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855