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“Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America”

This is my first “official” post for LUC HIST 479 and is a reflection on Wendy Bellion’s “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America.”

Bellion’s article explores the role of the physiognotrace within the political culture of the early-1800s. Bellion posits that an examination of the physiognotrace offers insight into the political mindset and cultural worries of Jeffersonian-era politics. Bellion argues that society praised the physiognotrace for its ability to depict actual representation, which in the rhetoric of the age meant direct and true political representation. As such, the physiognotrace became a medium through which Americans could “enact a fantasy of Jeffersonian political subjectivity” (Bellion, 31).

The physiognotrace was developed by John Isaac Hawkins, an English immigrant to America.  The machine was, essentially, a drawing machine.  Individuals would sit alongside the machine and a mechanical arm would trace the outline of the individuals face.  The device then created four miniature silhouettes that came to be referred to as profiles.

The physiognotrace was popularized in America thanks to the work of Charles Willson Peale, a portraitist and proprietor of the Philadelphia Museum.  This quickly became a source of great wealth for Peale, as it brought visitors and their money to the Philadelphia Museum.  Peale allowed anyone to use the machine for free so long as they paid for entrance to the museum.

A large part of the physiognotrace’s success lay in its democratic nature, something ingrained within the rhetoric of Jeffersonian America.  Not only was the machine inexpensive and relatively fast to operate, but it was “affordable and available to a social spectrum of Americans who had neither the means nor use for an expensive portrait in oil paints” (Bellion, 36).  Bellion does an excellent job in this essay explaining the history of the physiognotrace and the ways in which it gained popularity in the United States, particularly her discussion of Peale’s entrepreneurial insight as he used the device to draw crowds to his museum.  The argument for the democratizing effect of the device is particularly strong, and one worth considering in relation to the role of media in the 21st century.

The bulk of Bellion’s essay addresses the idea of representation and politics as it pertains to the physiognotrace.  Bellion believes that notions about visual and political representation coalesced around the physiognotrace because contemporaries believed it provided an accurate representation of the individual’s portrait.  For contemporaries, representation played an important role because accurate representation became a way of gauging truth.  There were many types of representation – visual, political, classificatory, didactic – and the physiognotrace was one more way to create a sense of representation.  By having one’s outline traced by this device, the individual was taking part in this rhetoric of visual representation thus giving them a sense that they were involved in the Jeffersonian political climate.

There lies one interesting irony and contradiction with the notion of accurate representation coming from the physiognotrace.  Bellion argues that society wanted direct, particular, and accurate representation.  Jeffersonian voters wanted politicians who represented, and resembled their constituents.  They often elected candidates in whom they saw themselves.  And because the physiognotrace was viewed as a device creating actual representation, it stood as a model for Jeffersonian-era politics.  The irony lies in the fact that the physiognotrace does represent Jeffersonian politics, but not for this reason.  Bellion argues that Jeffersonian politicians often carefully modified their appearance so their constituents believed they resembled them, effectively calling into question the veracity of that public image.  Additionally, the physiognotrace could not actually obtain an accurate depiction of the individuals who used it.  Many of the small details, such as wisps of hair, were added later, usually by an artist.  Even the notable portraits of Thomas Jefferson made by Peale were taken from a bust of Jefferson, thus twice removed from Jefferson’s actual representation.  Thus the physiognotrace contradicted the desired ideal of actuality.  So in this sense, the device does represent the era’s politics because it, like politicians, presented an image believed to be accurate, but in truth somewhat distorted and modified.

Bellion’s point about the role of the physiognotrace as a representative device for contemporary politics is certainly intriguing.  But as someone with little exposure to the theory of representation, I found Bellion’s language to be confusing at times.  Several instances throughout the text left me with the feeling that Bellion is assuming readers have previous knowledge about representational theory.  This, paired with occasional jargon, dilutes the effectiveness of her connection between the physiognotrace and America’s political culture.

Bellion’s essay provides an interesting insight into a fundamentally flawed piece of technology.  In many ways, I couldn’t help but compare the physiognotrace to many modern technologies.  For starters, I see many parallels between the democratizing effects of the physiognotrace and the democratizing role of the internet.  I wonder if part of new media, regardless of whether it’s new media in the 19th or 21st century, is the fact that it helps to level the playing field.  The other point that stuck with me throughout the essay was the idea of whether or not this representation is real.  The physiognotrace creates a portrait thought to be real, but in actuality is somewhat artificially constructed, especially when taken from a bust.  Can the same be said about the internet?  How accurate is the representation of an individual who posts on a message board, uses some instant messaging program, or writes a blog?  Does this individual purposefully craft their image, much in the same way an artist my add strands of hair to a portrait after the fact?  If someone does create a persona on the net, is that an accurate or real representation?  I’m not sure I know the answer yet, but it’s a question worth asking.

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