The physiognotrace, the selfie-stick of 1802

New media has altered our lives in countless ways. Technology affects nearly every aspect of our lives, how we work, how we play, how we communicate. It has also impacted how we represent ourselves socially and politically. Wendy Bellion in her article “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America” examines how a novelty mechanism located in a museum influenced peoples’ representations of themselves in 19th century America. She delves into the history and use of the physiognotrace, a machine that creates miniature profiles of peoples’ heads. You would sit down at the machine and use a stylus to trace the outline of your face. The stylus was connected to a piece of meal that would create indentions in the shape of your face on a small piece of paper. An artist would then cut the profiles out and add nuances the stylus could not pick up, such as hairstyles and bowties. Bellion analyzes this machine in the context of older forms of self-representation such as the self-portrait, shadow painting, and the physiotrace.

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Sketch of the physiognotrace

Bellion argues that many people believed these minimalist profiles were highly accurate representations of themselves. One of the reasons for this belief was that you created the profile yourself, a form of self-portrait. However, Bellion argues that these profiles were not as direct as people thought they were. Yes, a person would trace the outline of their own face, but it was truly the artists cutting out of the silhouettes that created the final product. Bellion compares this to the political representation of Jeffersonian America.

As the Federalists gained political power citizens worried their elected officials would not accurately or fairly represent them. People believed a politician who was geographically close to you, held similar beliefs, and even looked similar to you would directly represent you in the political process. Bellion successfully argues that people were mistaken about how directly represented they were by their physiognotrace profiles and their elected representatives. In reality, both forms of representation were not as direct as people presumed they were.

Completed profiles

A modern day form of the physiognotrace is the selfie. We use it to represent ourselves and document specific dates and events, such as visiting a museum. But how accurate of a representation are slefies? They capture the moment they were taken, but how well do they embody the rest of the minute, hour, or day? We use countless technological methods of portraying ourselves. The amount of websites dedicated to this task is staggering. Facebook ,Snapchat, and LinkedIn are all platforms we use to represent ourselves, but each one is usually used to exhibit a different side of ourselves. How accurate or direct are these representations? How do the platforms themselves affect the representations?

Bellion conveys a lot of important information in the dense and archaically worded article, but she provokes even more vital questions about media, technology and self-representation.