Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Phreddie’s phrenology

It is just about Halloween and the third season of The Walking Dead has begun, so what better topic for discussion than Freddie’s skull.

If you’re a fan of the io9 website, “…a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future,” then you’ve probably come across this series of skulls based on famous deceased artists, activitists, and politicians, all courtesy of Romanian artist, Istvan Laszlo.

Perhaps there were more in his series but here are the famous 20th century figures Laszlo chose for a public release:

•  Mahatma Gandhi
•  John Lennon
•  Freddie Mercury
•  Mother Teresa
•  Moa Tse Tung
•  Andy Warhol

In order to make these skulls retain any recognizable likeness to their owners, Laszlo had to intentionally blend physical characteristics of the individual (e.g., Freddie’s overbite) as well as any external adornments that that person was known for, such as eyeglasses or a piece of clothing. Certainly, without the nod to her unique Missionaries of Charity headscarf, Mother Teresa’s skull probably wouldn’t be read as being hers. Throw in some subtle references to hair, such as Mao’s receding hairline or the dark shadow above the upper jaw on Freddie and Gandhi, and voila, you’ve got an otherworldly portrait.

Without those defining external characteristics, a skull is just a skull as any episode of Bones or Dateline NBC will tell you. It’s really not recognizable until the skin and muscle tissue is methodically reconstructed  that the likelihood of their likeness is finally revealed.

Perhaps the most interesting side effect of the io9 article is in the comments section where people began labelling the drawings as racist, in particular the implied epicanthic eyefolds on Mao’s skull. While I agree that if Mao’s portrait was generically labelled as “Chinese” instead of “Mao,” there would be an element of racism to the portrait because mongoloid skulls do not have eye sockets shaped like this.

Introducing racism into the cranium discussion inevitably draws phrenology into the debate as there have been numerous attempts from across the ethnicity spectrum to have science validate a hierarchy in the races based on skull measurements and other phenotypical attributes.

Is there a scientific basis to race superiority? Jean Philippe Rushton, a recently deceased University of Western Ontario professor, made it his life’s work to prove that there was. To the frustration of his many critics, he was tenured at UWO and couldn’t be muzzled for his unpopular and dangerous views.

As happens with discussions about race and “the other,” a sampling of a few members of an identifiable group — as we have seen in this series of drawings — can be interpreted as a generalized perception or stereotype of that particular group. Was Laszlo’s portrait of Mao meant to represent all Chinese people? Of course not. Is it meant to represent a single, Chinese individual? Yes, but with artistic license to borrow and manipulate certain stereotypes assigned to his ethnicity.

One could wonder how Laszlo decided on which historical figures to include in this series. Where’s Einstein (as activist of sorts)? Martin Luther King? Whitney Houston? Hitler? Were the final selections based on his own personal list or was it simply which larger-than-life figures could offer the best source material (i.e., photographs) to work from?

Whatever the case, Freddie gets first billing on the io9 article which could be interpreted as the editors at io9 believing that his persona would be the most favourable in capturing readership. They could easily have mentioned John Lennon right out of the gates for that story, but they went with Freddie. I’d wager, though, that Mao’s skull is probably more immediately recognizable than Freddie’s but would giving Mao more airtime, to so speak, sit well with most readers?

What I find curious is that out of the six historical figures Laszlo portrayed in this series, three of them are associated with India. How would phrenology explain away the individual triumphs that these three have accomplished on such a grand scale?



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