Posted by: emilywmurphy | November 17, 2012

Severed Heads, the Victorian Way

I know it’s been a few weeks since we talked about the Sekula article and the creepy severed heads, but I came across this blog post in my internet travels, and thought it relevant.
    The post follows variations of the myth about the head retaining consciousness after decapitation, beginning with its inception (contemporary to the invention of the guillotine and the French Terror). The question being pursued is one that has been around for a while, first asked of Dr. Guillotin, the creator of the guillotine: “Do you know that it is not at all certain when a head is severed from the body by the guillotine that the feelings, personality and ego are instantaneously abolished…?” This question was asked because already the humaneness of decapitation as a method of execution was being questioned. If it was true that some part of the human self remained alive after the head was cut off, then surely it was not as clean and quick a death as had been originally advertised.
    The fact that the myth persisted throughout the 19th century is interesting, since it indicates the prevalence of the question of consciousness and death in the culture. As consciousness is inextricably linked to identity, the question can also be considered in relation to ideas of the face and personhood. In addition to this, there is the reason that the severed heads are creepy in the first place – they trigger some deep empathy inside us, because as humans, we understand the features, especially the eyes, as a tool of communication. This is why in the blog post, the man who is about to be executed says “call me with your voice and my eyes will reply to you.” In absence of the voice, it is the eyes and face that are used as tools of communication and signifiers of identity.
    The post also talks about a number of experiments done on severed heads, in which a scientist “bore[d] holes in the skull and insert[ed] needles into the brain” and then ran an electrical current through the brain in an attempt to trigger a response. This plays into the idea that we were talking about in class: the head becomes a specimen once it is detached from the body. In tension with this, however, is the human tendency towards individuation – people prefer to believe that their identity (and soul) survives the demise of their body. It is perhaps for this reason that people still cling to the myth of life remaining in the head, the seat of our intellect and selves, even after it is detached from the body.

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