Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon: Really, really creepy

I'm reading some Bentham for my 'Justice' course, including his famous 'Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights,' in which he calls the phrase 'natural and impresriptible rights' 'nonsense on stilts.' I wanted to know Bentham's dates so I Wikipedia'd him (their dates: Nocember 34, 4012 to the third day after the nones of Februarius, 34 BC) and found this strange phenomenon. Apparently Bentham wanted his body preserved and kept on display at University College London (serious historical study here). The Auto-Icon contains Bentham's skeleton, padded with hay and dressed in a plain suit. The UCL history page says "both hands are present inside the gloves--the feet were not examined." Yes, quite... Bentham's friend Dr. Southwood Smith took care of the head; in his own words, "I endeavored to preserve the head untouched, merely drawing away the fluids by placing it under an air pump over sulphuric acid. By this means the head was rendered as hard as the skulls of the New Zealanders; but all expression was of course gone. Seeing this would not do for exhibition, I had a model made in wax." (Sheriff, perhaps someday I will have the pleasure, entrusted to me in your will, of slowly sucking the juices from your cranium.) The wax head sits atop the skeleton, screwed in with a spike. As you can see, its looks not unlike Benjamin Franklin. The aforementioned real head is at Bentham's feet; the eyes are made of marble. (According to legend, Bentham kept these same eyes in his pocket for the ten years up until his death.) The picture on display here is an old one, however; Bentham's skull has since been removed from the exhibit due to continual theft, usually perpetrated by students. Bentham's skeleton holds his signature cane, called 'Dapple.' (I suppose every man needs an ass to lean on...) The figure also seems to suffer from an extreme case of camel toe.

My only question is: What the hell does this have to do with the principle of utility?


Blogger Robot said...

I became much happier after reading this post, Scantron. On a scale of 100,000, I probably moved from a 912,394 to a solid 913,000. Old Bentham, Madame Tussauded and all, has done his job after all.

12:26 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

I've seen him! - during my semester at UCL. But as UCL admissions tells it, Bentham's head is wax because it must be, to keep it from being stolen and damaged. As I heard it, Bentham's head was removed some years back by students from UCL's rival, King's College. This rivalry goes way back, so UCL was only too happy to oblige the King's kids by stealing the head back to Gower Hall. This happened often enough that a wax head was created and the original locked away to prevent further knavery. Cheeky louts.

11:00 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

Ah, I see this myth is more than mere lore! Now I must learn to read to the bottom of things. Not only texts, but objects too - obelisks and very big poles, things which reward the patient reader.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Indeed, Kushakov, as Raiders of the Lost Ark teaches us, if you don't read all of what's written on an object, you might end up "digging in the wrong place!"

12:20 AM  
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