Alesha Sivartha and the Phrenology of Culture
Posted by dlende on September 20, 2008
BibliOdyssey featured the Brain Maps of Alesha Sivartha two years ago, a fantastical collection of illustrations created by Sivartha as part of his 1912 “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man.” You can explore the book some through Google, but the better spot to go is Sivartha’s great-great-grandson’s website which covers the book in some detail.
Sivartha goes well beyond the typical phrenology of the nineteenth century, which generally focused on individual traits (i.e., the “mind”) as located in specific parts of the brain. History and culture and religion find their way into Sivartha’s work, and even the brain/body. He might even be called an early representative of cultural neuroscience!
Indeed, I see the illustrations as showing us how problematic it can be to force cultural and social phenomena onto the metaphor or image of the brain. Our enthusiasm must be tempered by critical neuroscience and by neurocriticism. Everyday life matters greatly, whether while camping without worrying about culture or brains, or dwelling more specifically on our “everyday brain” or the flavors of cultural brain we might enjoy.
Still, I find Sivartha’s illustrations quite wonderful. Just like early anthropologists trying to cover all the important domains of one culture in one book, so Sivartha tries to jam everything in, to create an impossible representation. It doesn’t work, but the images do provide much to reflect upon.