Decomposing Bodies

Late in the nineteenth century, Alphonse Bertillon, the French policeman, anthropologist and inventor, developed a system of criminal identification that sought to classify human beings on individual standardized cards, each containing a consistent set of biometric measurements and observations. He called this method “anthropometry,” and he conceived of this work as a key weapon in the fight against recidivism—an increasingly central criminological issue of the day. This process, now known more familiarly as “Bertillonage,” was essentially a system that dissasembled the visual forms of the human body into small pieces so that the police could individuate, and thus identify, a single human body out of thousands, even millions. Each Bertillon card—one per human being—contained information about a series of eleven physical measurements taken from the body, along with photographs and a coded description of the visible attributes of the human form to create a summary, a hash, a digest, a decomposition of the human body into numbers, letters, codes and sparse images.

Before the age of digital machines, before the rampant quantization and normalization of the physical world were taken in stride, this practice of dissolving the body into numbers, still images and letters was novel, unknown. Decomposing Bodies seeks to defamiliarize this process of breaking down and defining what we see into quantized digests, by collecting, analyzing, digitizing and re-presenting the data created by the process of Bertillonage, specifically as practiced in the United States. Consequently, the project also represents a thorough examination of the historical information management principles that lay behind Bertillon’s innovative approach to decomposing bodies into a series of numerical and visual components.Ultimately, this project seeks to create new means of understanding the implications and possibilities inherent in this nineteenth-century process of treating human beings as numbers and letters, and how this approach to the visible world might relate to the dawn of computing.

Decomposing Bodies

  • Image Credit: MacRumors

     

    Alison's Stab at Defining the Humanities in the Age of Big Data

    Trying to explain what humanists do and how they take an interest in their object(s) of study...

    Humanists study humans in all of our variety. The art that we create, the writings we leave, the receipts we generate, the programs we write, the games we generate, the music we compose, the poetry we craft, the buildings we design, the policies we implement, the dances and plays and movies we produce—all such activities are the stuff of the humanities, and humanists often study them through the only means left to us: their records, data, traces, leavings. Sometimes we study this material closely, one piece at a time, sometimes we study it in the aggregate, finding large-scale patterns and shapes, but at all times we study and describe what it means to be human.

    Humanities scholarship has always been deeply invested in, and tied to, its research data. Indeed, the totality of the source material studied by humanists is amongst the bulkiest, least thoroughly-investigated, most valuable data that humankind possesses. It fills millions of cubic feet of space in the archives, museums, libraries, attics, and crypts of the world. It now also fills terabytes and petabytes of storage space on computers scattered across the globe—sometimes in places inaccessible even to their creators. The material that the humanities takes as its primary sources comprises the totality of the enduring records of human existence.

    Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many disciplines of humanist inquiry are acknowledging and confronting the vast amount of source material not yet tackled by our predecessors. It is almost as if it had not previously been possible for us to fathom what it would mean to grasp at the totality of the information stored in all the various sites of human recordkeeping. While it is doubtful that any humanist assumes that we can read it all or know it all about ourselves—generations of past humanists have already made it clear that this is not a fruitful line of attack—digital technologies have offered us the power to transform our approaches to this immense amount of material, allowing us to make thinkable many issues and questions that we had not dared approach previously.

    What is more, the very means by which all scholarship is being produced is undergoing radical transformation. Before the global reach of the Internet, before the assumption of instantaneous communication and collaboration across the planet could be made, humanities research had the habit of being a solitary activity—the researcher against his/her currently available sources. At the present historical moment, however, collaborative research, often enabled by technology, has not only become possible, it is showing its advantages. For one thing, it allows the disciplines of the humanities to interact and reinforce one another, as different perspectives are often present to challenge and transform assumptions that do not always hold true. For another, working together, we can see more than we could individually. Indeed, final research products are also taking on new forms—such as interactive digital projects or publicly-available web sites—that not only allow researchers to investigate new methods for visualizing and presenting their studies, but also allow them to reach audiences and publics that proved more difficult to address when academic print publishing was the de facto norm.

    Categories: 
    • Temporalities
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • VMW
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    One Record's Journey at the Ohio State Reformatory

    A particularly confusing component of our Decomposing Bodies research has concerned the inconsistent and seemingly illogical tangle of records that surround any particular inmate within the grim walls of the Ohio State Reformatory (I alluded to this in my January post). In an attempt to get a grip on the record-keeping system of this institution in the late 18th and early 19th century, I took a few hours today mining our own unofficial image archive and trying to connect the various recordkeeping nodes extant at the Ohio History Connection's archive. I made a little timeline (see image attached) following, in particular, prisoner #1087, a laborer arrested for burglary and larceny, for whom we have both a Bertillon card and a photo of his corresponding page in the Bertillon Examination Record ledger. It seems that, as he was received in 1901, it is likely that the OSR had a version of this prisoner's record in three different locations: the Bertillon Examination Record, the Ohio Reformatory Historical Conduct Record, and his Bertillon Card. Based on the information in the Examination Record, it is evident that inmate #1087 was a recidivist, so he was within the prison system until 1919 (although he was released from the OSR in 1904).

    So, to review, prisoner #1087 was evident in three different locations: two of which included Bertillon descriptions, and the third of which (the Conduct Record) included information about the inmate's ancestry, upbringing, and "condition on admittance," none of which adhered to the Bertillon system of anthropometric measurement. Had this inmate stayed at the OSR until 1910, he would likely have acquired at least a fourth record: in the "Register of Identification," which tracked the movement of inmates among institutions, but also later incorporated the categorization of prisoners by race. Finally, if this inmate had been admitted to the OSR after 1913, he would have had at least 5 extant records: in the Bertillon Examination Record ledger, the Ohio State Reformatory HIstorical Conduct Record ledger, the Bertillon card system, the Register of Identification, and the Bertillon Photo Book, a literal face book comprised just of mugshots without any additional metadata.

    Why was each inmate recorded in so many disparate ledgers and drawers? When were these different recordings made, in relation to one another? How did recordkeeping occur at the Ohio Penitentiary, in contrast? These are all things that we're still trying to figure out, but I thought I'd get this initial timeline out while it's still hot off the press.
     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
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    The Men on the Cards

               This semester, I’ve taken a more active role in the research of Decomposing Bodies headed by Project Lead, Alison Langmead, and Project Manager, Aisling Quigley of the Visual Media Workshop. One of my tasks is to transcribe Bertillon prisoner identification cards of the Ohio Penitentiary, a collection comprised of around 40,000 cards created throughout the late nineteenth to early twentieth century; a pre-computer database of criminals.

               At the start, my progress was slow. My eyes were still getting accustomed to reading the rushed scribbles of numbers and my fingers were still working on developing the quickest and most accurate way of inputting the information into the database. I was only focused on efficiency; the montage of the indifferent young or aggressive old held their place only as unfamiliar faces in a century old crowd.

               By the next day, I had a swift system going.  With my right hand splayed across the number pad and my left draped atop the space, tab and ctrl+c, I was able to swiftly complete the transcription of each card in under a minute without having to look down.

               There seemed to be something cruel, though, in devoting such short lengths of time to each card. These cards were created to define the men depicted on them. For some, it was most likely the only ever recorded photo or official document of himself, the only mark proving his existence in history. (yes, I realize I have a tendency of romanticizing the smallest of things, bear with me). Although these cards are in no way accurate representations of the people they were meant to capture and though I am not glorifying the crimes the men may have committed, zipping through the documents felt akin to disrespecting their existence, downgrading each status from “individual” to “card” to strictly “numbers”.

               I’ve since made a conscious effort to devote more time to each individual card. This effort was also motivated by my want to understand the work I was doing, my thought process being that I should have knowledge of the subjects being described on the cards and be on the lookout for interesting outliers. Of course, if you asked me whether or not I recognized a man, I would still find it extremely difficult to remember him in the crowd of thousands, but I feel it’s granted me a more personal connection and appreciation for this research project.

                Focusing on the cards themselves, it’s interesting what information was prioritized. The front face of the cards are fully dedicated to numerical facts, listing first the Bertillon measurements, followed by codes of the eye-class, age, forehead size, profile dimensions, etc. Any personal facts such as the name or occupation are included on the back, as if unimportant second thoughts. With the goal of efficiency in sorting in mind, this admittedly makes the most sense; one could easily falsify statements about his name or his permanent residence, while restructuring facial features may prove to be a more ambitious task. However, the decision of ordering the data in this way further encourages a disconnect between the man on the card and the user. The man becomes reduced to his list of numbers (hence, decomposing bodies <into a set of data>), and while they may be digits specific to himself, it is nevertheless a cold description that doesn’t hold the same personal weight as one’s name might. Decades later, it makes it easy to dismiss the fact that these are cards of previously existing humans, to regard them as statements of data rather than cards of heavy biographical weight. (maybe that was the intention?)

                Most of the questions that rose in my mind through the transcriptions were ones regarding the process of obtaining these numbers and photographs. Were the photographs taken before, during, or after the measurement appointments? Some cards include second or even third re-measurements, what situations prompted those, the leaving or re-entering into the system? Were the prisoners and officers inclined to exchange words? How long did each appointment take? The routine probably required a decent amount of time, and was also a somewhat intimate process, seeing that the measurements needed are of small areas such as ear or finger lengths and observations of bodily scars. The most pressing, though, is how this technical system has evolved and inspired other such programs over time.

                People like knowing who other people are. This is especially prominent now, with our population increasing into the billions. How far might this practice of identification pervade into the daily lives of the public? As of now we have the standard issued drivers licenses, passports, fingerprints, what have you, but in the last few years, more advanced systems have begun to arise, namely facial recognition. This developing program uses a similar set of measurements as the Bertillon system to identify people, which may grant higher safeties but at what cost? As was read in Jen Donnelly’s research through her post discussing the application of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was a sense of breached privacy and humiliation involved in the use of one’s physical measurements, though it was in part due to the connotations of Bertillon measurements at the time. Even still, with the advancements of these systems of identification, the definition and importance of privacy begins to shift.  

                In the course of the next couple months, I plan on exploring these questions and topics further, namely focusing on the argument of how biometrics may or may not cause change in the social structures standing today and what benefits or repercussions this new sort of identification may bring.

     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW

    Postcard of the Ohio Penitentiary from 1908.

     

    Debriefing on DB: February Edition

    On Monday, January 29th, Jen Donnelly, Alison Langmead and I braved a wintry mix of snow and slush, arriving at the Ohio History Connection (OHC) in Columbus by mid-morning. We came for another marathon digitization session, equipped with tripods and digital cameras, laptops, and sufficiently dexterous hands. Our task for the 36-hour visit was to photograph as many Bertillon identification cards as possible, while retaining a sufficiently high-quality image for transcription, and ensuring the safety of the already-brittle cards (some of which are almost 120-years-old).

    Alison tackled boxes of cards from the Ohio State Reformatory, beginning in 1907, while Jen and I convened around a less-familiar set of Ohio Penitentiary cards dating from 1896. The Ohio State Reformatory, to clarify between the two, operated from 1896-1990, and was located in Mansfield, Ohio (about 67 miles Northeast of Columbus). The OHC has Bertillon cards from the Reformatory dating back to 1901. As Alison spent the most time engaged with these cards on the most recent trip, I will leave subjective observations on that set up to her.

    The Ohio State Penitentiary was a prison operated in Columbus, Ohio between 1834 and 1984, and was infamous for its corruption and inhumanity (for example, newspaper clippings from a 1908 scrapbook allude to various kinds of torture: including instances of paddling, being “hung up,” and enduring the “water cure”- modern day waterboarding). The postcard photographed here illustrates the Penitentiary circa 1909 (the card was postmarked August 1909, and represents a relic from the odd genre of prison tourism- is that even a genre?).

    In the midst of all this, or at least until 1919, the Bertillon system was alive and well at the Pen. Marvin E. Fornshell’s The Historical and Illustrated Ohio Penitentiary (1903) provides insight into how the Bertillon system was implemented at the Penitentiary, although his account is extremely skewed (as demonstrated by his effusive subtitle: “How the Wonderful System Works in Picking Out Any One Particular Individual,” p. 49). The Pen adopted the Bertillon system in 1887, taking its first measurement in October of that year (so almost 15 years before the Reformatory adopted the system).

    On this January trip, Jen and I lingered mostly in 1896 and 1897, making several subjective observations (as well as more concrete discoveries) along the way. For example, we noted that these early Bertillon cards featured remarkably gaunt and emaciated-looking prisoners, and these inmates tended to be older than their Reformatory counterparts. This may be attributable to the fact that when the system was implemented, some of these prisoners had already been in prison for a while, whereas the Reformatory seemed to mostly track incoming prisoners (again, this is a theory that we may later refute).

    Our more concrete findings included locating and photographing the identification card of William Haas, the first prisoner to be executed by the electric chair at the Penitentiary. We discovered- much to our horror- that Haas, convicted of murder, was only seventeen at the time of his execution (shockingly and disturbingly, the policy on juvenile executions was only formally changed in March 2005. The United States Supreme Court ruled that “the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes at under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment and hence barred by the Constitution” (DPIC)).

    We also located not just one, but TWO sets of twins in our selection of cards. Twins are particularly interesting in the context of the Bertillon system because of the famous Will West case, which was blamed for revealing the cracks in Bertillon’s system. If twins had identical measurements and similar photographs, this would obviously render the system fairly useless, although we are not arguing that identical twins necessarily had identical measurements. We found one set of identical twins and one set of fraternal twins (the latter is photographed here).

    It was, overall, a fruitful and thought-provoking trip, yielding digital documentation of over 3,500 that will now enter the transcription phase.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
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    Debriefing on DB: January Edition

    On the eve of winter break, Alison Langmead, Josh Ellenbogen and I once again emerged from our cozy domiciles at a cold and dark hour and found our way to I-70, onward to Columbus. Columbus: the 15th largest city in the United States, the namesake of Christopher Columbus, and home to over 40,000 Bertillon identification cards.

    The Ohio History Connection (OHC), our destination, is vital for Decomposing Bodies, the VMW research project investigating the implementation and interpretation of the Bertillon system in the United States. In the high-ceilinged reading room at the OHC, we have explored and photographed thousands of inmate cards. On this most recent trip, however, we devoted our time to the documentation that occurred outside the edges of the cards: Bertillon ledgers, Warden’s reports, scrapbooks, inventories, blue prints, postcards, newspaper clippings, etc.

    The Ohio Penitentiary’s robust Registries of Anthropometric Descriptions provided documentation of the first recorded fingerprint classification of Ohio Felons in June 1910 (see image), and helped us to concoct various hypotheses about when and how Bertillon measurements were taken—and when this data was transferred from the cards to the ledgers (simultaneously? retroactively? why weren’t the measurements of pardoned or transferred inmates included in the ledger, while escapees’ measurements were?). Although we didn’t answer these questions, the process of investigating them provoked thoughtful conversations…

    Indeed, the trip provided more evidence of redundant or inconsistent recordkeeping than anything else, but also helped contextualize the cards in a way they hadn’t been previously and certainly substantiated further research.

    Transcription of the cards continues on the home front, but the related records will certainly be incorporated into our ongoing work. A new configuration of the research team will reconvene in Columbus next week, and we will undoubtedly return with new theories and questions that will contribute to this rapidly unfurling research project. Stay tuned. 

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Is Your Cloud Truly Open?

    How long has the question asked above been thinkable? Is it even yet thinkable? Check out the entire image up there. Why don't we just substitute "server" for cloud? Because if we do that, the fact that IBM is talking about robust server-terminal architectures suddenly becomes one of #areyouSTILLtalkingaboutthat rather than something more existential like, how can clouds be closed??

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
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    The Act of Identification: Bertillon and Chinese Exclusion

    Last week’s break-through led us to begin researching the use of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 to 1943.  Whereas prisons and police departments used the Bertillon system to identify criminals, the United States government used the Bertillon system from approximately 1903 to 1906 to identify those Chinese immigrants who were allowed in the United States because they met certain sets of requirements, while excluding all others.

    The use of the Bertillon system of identification to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act was short-lived, but was the result of twenty years of increasingly stricter immigration polices. After 1882, the any Chinese laborer who was already in the United States was banned from obtaining citizenship and needed to obtain a certificate to leave and re-enter the country.  Furthermore, Chinese members of the groups still permitted entry, such as students and wealthy travelers, were required to obtain certificates verifying their status and their access to enter the United States.  After 1902, the regulations were stiffened, and all Chinese residents in the United States were required to obtain a certificate of residency or risk deportation.  Shortly thereafter, around 1903, the Bertillon system was briefly implemented.  These regulations also burgeoned an extensive human smuggling and document forgery industry.

    Therefore, for potential immigrants, having, creating, or purchasing the "correct" identity was key; identification was the avenue to immigration.  Paperwork was the basis of entry and exclusion.  As the certificates of residency attest, "laborer" did not refer to an occupation but rather was a statement of fact that enabled thinly veiled racial exclusion.  In one such certificate from 1900, a baby-laborer's occupation is listed simply as "infant."  Thus, the language of exclusion was bound-up in the identification requirements, which evolved as the twentieth century approached.

    In 1882, when the law was first enacted, it was required that the Collector of Customs board all departing vessels carrying Chinese laborers to foreign ports, and "on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall by entered into the registry books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks or peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the customs house."  Likewise, every every Chinese person who was not a laborer and who was therefore allowed to enter the United States need to be "identified" by the Chinese government in an official certificate, translated into English.  The certificate stated "the right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title, official rank if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China" and required the applicant’s “proper signature.”  In 1884, “individual, family, and tribal name in full” were added to both methods of identification.  By 1888, the identification certificates for the eligible classes, “Chinese officials, teachers, students, merchants or travelers for pleasure or curiosity” were required to include “a full description of the person, of his age, height, and general physical features.” 

    Notably, between 1884 and 1888, fifteen years before the implementation of the Bertillon system for Chinese Exclusion, identification requirements changed from “peculiarities” to “general features.”  What does this shift mean for the nature of identification? The initial focus on “peculiarities” marks the person by his or her difference.  In this case, that difference is what permits the person to be identified as one with special rights and priveledges.  The later turn towards “general features” suggests that instead of individual marks of uniqueness, the entire body much be subjected to the systematization of the identification process.  Eventually, this will lead to the implementation of the Bertillon system.

    Furthermore, the shared use of the Bertillon system on criminals as well as immigrants created problematic parallels.  Those who received identification cards using the Bertillon system were permitted into American society, while the prisoner identification cards were meant to keep repeat offenders out.  In the case the prisoners, the act of measuring renders the prisoner into a permanent piece of metadata.  The goal, in an extreme interpretation, is to identify the person as a criminal and remove that criminal from society, made invisible behind a prison cell.  For the immigrants, the metadata is instead a tenuous guarantee to remain visible in the United States, yet also a reminder of the invisibility of the uncountable, unwanted potential Chinese immigrants banned from admission to the country.

    Thus, the act of subjugation to the system and judgment under the schematization of numbers was a humiliation.  "Lan Qiche…noted how his country people were measured 'as if they were criminals.' Like many others he found this 'an insult to our nation's dignity.'" (Parenti, The Soft Cage).  The question here lies in the nature of the insult of the Bertillon system.  What was commonly known of the Bertillon system and how was it received?  The shame of the Bertillon system was folded into a deeper institutional insult, revealed in language of exclusion of the law and its appeals.  "The exclusion of paupers, criminals, and persons afflicted with incurable diseases, for which statutes have been passed, is only an application of the same power to particular classes of persons, whose presence is deemed injurious or a source of danger to the country.  As applied to them, there has never been any question as to the power to exclude them.  The power is constantly exercised; its existence is in solved in the right of self-preservation…"

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Visual Media Workshop Fall Newsletter

    Whether you are interested in one of our longer term collaborative research projects, primarily use the lab for short-term support for your own work, or are just curious about what’s happening, you will find that we are an interactive team interested in a variety of cultural questions and embedded in the dynamic interplay between the humanities and information science.

    Constellations Website [www.constellations.pitt.edu]: This year, all the grads in the lab are encouraged to post their thoughts on their current work every two weeks on the Constellations Website.  Feel free to browse through our work, and be sure to check out Katie’s “Knitting Subjectivity” post, an insightful comparison between knitting and the Bertillon system. 

    Decomposing Bodies [http://bodies.haa.pitt.edu]: The VMW team and Josh Ellenbogen continue to collaborate on Decomposing Bodies, cataloging and data scraping thousands of identification cards collected last fall at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio. These cards are artifacts of the “Bertillonnage” criminal identification system, developed by Alphonse Bertillon in Paris, and a popular method of criminal systemization and identification in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The Decomposing Bodies team is also actively brainstorming ideas for a future exhibition.  Alison, Josh, Aisling, and Jen plan to make another research trip to Columbus in January of next year.

    Itinera [http://itinera.pitt.edu]: The Itinera project, a collaboration between the VMW team and Drew Armstrong, maps culturally-motivated travel.  Beginning with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European travel, Itinera continues to expand into new geographic and temporal networks. Presently, the Itinera team is developing a set of standards that would allow a wider set of researchers to contribute data to the project.  As Itinera opens to a broader spectrum of travel, and our network becomes denser and more complex, more inter-related opportunities emerge.  For example, Jen’s work on Alexander von Humboldt expands the body of European travelers into networks within nineteenth-century South America and Russia.  

    Bunker-Haskins: In order to provide scholars digital access to the Bunker-Haskins slide collections, we have been working on configuring an instance of ResourceSpace, an open source digital asset management platform.  A key objective of this project involves enabling user-contributed metadata by subject specialists to enhance resource discovery, but users will also be able to download digital images, create collections, and more.  

    Network Ontologies [http://www.networkontologies.org]: Scholars from all over the country will convene at the University of Pittsburgh on November 21 and 22 for a workshop entitled, "Network Ontologies in the Early Modern Period," co-sponsored by a number of local and regional groups. The aim of this workshop will be to share experiences implementing data ontologies in digital humanities projects, such as our own Itinera, and to develop a metadata structure that would then support the interoperability of these networks over the long term.

    Undergrad Activities:  The work-study students in the lab have been very productive on a number of different projects.  Linda and Leah are digitizing the Bunker-Haskins slides and researching a crowd-sourcing space that would allow experts in the field to contribute descriptions.  Linda has also been scanning images to support teaching, including the ongoing project to catalog all of the images from Terry Smith’s textbook, Contemporary Art: World Currents. Dan does a little bit of everything and anything.  He is currently preparing videos on printmaking for the art gallery, working on code for the digital humanities website, and transcribing criminal identification cards for Decomposing Bodies.

    Grad Activities: Aisling, Jen, Katie, and Christie collaborate on several projects in the lab.  Aisling begins her second year working in the lab with a variety of responsibilities, including the supervision of the undergraduate students digitizing and organizing facets of the HAA slide collection and pursuing a new project related to the "Images of Medieval Art and Architecture" website [http://www.medart.pitt.edu].  Jen has been working on editing and standardizing Itinera data and expanding Itinera’s geographic network to include Alexander von Humboldt’s voyage to South America.  She is also researching Bertillon furniture with the hope of reconstructing the measuring apparatus and creating an interactive component for the potential exhibition. Everyone contributes to research on Itinera as well as a bi-weekly sprint cataloging the criminal identification cards collected during last fall’s trip to the Ohio History Connection.  In addition to Decomposing Bodies, Katie is contributing to the Bunker-Haskins Resource Space.  Christi’s projects include creating a digital space for the History of Art and Architecture Department to collaborate on pedagogy, providing social media maintenance for both the VMW and the Department of HAA, and assisting Kirk Savage with a research project.

    HAA Twitter feed: Follow the Department of the History of Art and Architecture on Twitter! Find us at https://twitter.com/haapitt

    The Digital Research Ecosystem at Pitt: The VMW exists as part of a larger ecosystem, extending beyond the HAA department, and even beyond the campus-wide DHRX [www.dhrx.pitt.edu], to the national conversation about the changing profile of the humanities in the age of digital hyperproduction. The VMW has evolved into a unique hub of cross-disciplinary energy, where students, faculty, and staff of all levels can engage not only with digital tools, but equally, with each other. 

     

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Bertillon Identities: Who are they?

    Recording data set after data set of prisoner identification cards, a curious abstraction occurs.  The brain seeks the numbers, driving the input process of thirty or fourtly files in a digitized sequence and distilling the final phyiscal traces of these men into an endless chain of data.  The numbers are cold, firm, but not completely infallible (How did his arm get THAT much smaller between 1902 and 1906?)  The computer asks for the data, but the card itself tells another story.  The man himself looks back through the photograph.  He is typically of European or African descent, and almost always relavtively young.  Sometimes he is an immigrant.  The youngest in the batch, claiming to be 16, is a baby-faced adolescent.  The oldest, not more than 35, appears haggard beyond his years.   He represents a cross-section of rural life in early twenthieth-century Ohio, often listing "farmer" in addition to another profession.   He is also labeled by his crime: larceny, horsetheivery, forgery, manslaughter, and so on.  The photograph, in the case of the Bertillon identification cards, is the criminal's one limited space of autonomy.  Many of the men stare blankly ahead with a hard stare; they look straight into the camera and defiantly reveal nothing of themselves.  Others, especially the younger boys, cannot hide their fear and confusion.  One teenager, imprisoned for throwing rocks at cars, stares out on the verge of tears.  Another set subtly smirk at the camera, their eyes dancing with private amusement.  A cocky teamster cracks a smile, and seemingly mocks the camera, the Bertillon process, the ever-diligent R.U. Hastings who has just taken his measurements, and, perhaps, even the twenth-first century researcher who still finds these cards relevant.  

    The photographs reveal a humantity not capable of being described, contained, or limited by the numerical system of measurement and cataloging.  The sublte reactions intueted from the photographs are subjective, they can never be known.  But the human side of the Bertillon process could become an increasingly interesting question.  Recent research into the use of the Bertillon system with the Chinese Exclusion Act tenatively reveals that subjects found the process humiliating because they were treated like criminals.  This begs several questions: How well were the criminal identification cards known to the broader population?  What were the societal implications of submitting the such a system? And, pertaining to the subjectivity of the men in the photographs, how does the limited autonomy of the photograph reveal the identity of the man behind the numbers?

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Decomposing Bodies
  • Cold Mountain Stole Chart A

    This chart is from the Cold Mountain Stole pattern by Keiran Foley, published in Summer 2009 issue of Knitty: http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEsummer09/PATTcoldmountain.php

     

    Knitting Subjectivity

    Transcribing Bertillon cards last week I got to thinking about knitting.  When I was a more prolific knitter, people would sometimes admire my creations (not that I was particularly gifted – just good at following instructions) and say things like, I Could Never Do That.  In response, I’d try to explain why it seems hard but isn’t.  After a while I began to think that knitting is, in many ways, like computing.  Writing a knitting pattern is a lot like writing a computer program – forget one step and it might not seem like a big deal until many thousands of stitches and rows later when your delicate lace sock more closely resembles a glove knit by cats for an octopus. 

    Designing knitting patterns can be hard and requires the skill, patience, and creativity to understand how each stitch constructs the whole.  Like the 1s and 0s that make up binary code in computing, knitting stitches are in the binary knit and purl.  The most complicated patterns are conceived of in charts where each “cell” contains a symbol representative of a stitch.  The comparison to pixels is not only irresistible; it is almost an exact translation. 

    Though not binary, Alphonse Bertillon tried to do something similar, encoding the features of the human body in to an elaborate (and problematic) classification of measurements and codes.  At least one goal here was to break down the human form in to objective constituents that can be consistently interpreted by anyone (purl and knit each mean one thing, whether accomplished in English, Continental, or other style) in order to solve the problems of recidivism and identification of defectors.

    Yet, as Dr. Langmead is prone to pointing out in her classes, none of these things are done in a vacuum of objectivity.  Computing platforms, programs, algorithms, and displays are designed by humans with human biases.  Subjective humans likewise construct knitting patterns.  Knitters use different yarns and needles and knit with different tensions, all of which contributes to a slightly different stitch or purl.  Bertillon officers inscribed their own prejudices and meanings to the system they employed. 

    The danger of subjectivity in knitting a scarf is obviously not equal to the danger of subjectivity in “objectively” describing the human body (see post by Jen about agency, authority, and control).  I’m excited to participate in the transcription of these cards and I look forward to seeing how these issues are explored in the work that results, including the installation proposed by Jen in the aforementioned post.  What other standardized systems do we conceive of as objective and what are the implications of overlooking their subjective origins?   

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW

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