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Decomposing Bodies

Langmead, Alison and Ellenbogen, Josh (2014) Decomposing Bodies.

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Late in the nineteenth century, Alphonse Bertillon, the French policeman, anthropologist and inventor, developed a system of criminal identification that sought to classify human beings on individual standardized cards, each containing a consistent set of biometric measurements and observations. He called this method “anthropometry,” and he conceived of this work as a key weapon in the fight against recidivism—an increasingly central criminological issue of the day. This process, now known more familiarly as “Bertillonage,” was essentially a system that dissasembled the visual forms of the human body into small pieces so that the police could individuate, and thus identify, a single human body out of thousands, even millions. Each Bertillon card—one per human being—contained information about a series of eleven physical measurements taken from the body, along with photographs and a coded description of the visible attributes of the human form to create a summary, a hash, a digest, a decomposition of the human body into numbers, letters, codes and sparse images. Before the age of digital machines, before the rampant quantization and normalization of the physical world were taken in stride, this practice of dissolving the body into numbers, still images and letters was novel, unknown. Decomposing Bodies seeks to defamiliarize this process of breaking down and defining what we see into quantized digests, by collecting, analyzing, digitizing and re-presenting the data created by the process of Bertillonage, specifically as practiced in the United States. Consequently, the project also represents a thorough examination of the historical information management principles that lay behind Bertillon’s innovative approach to decomposing bodies into a series of numerical and visual components. Ultimately, this project seeks to create new means of understanding the implications and possibilities inherent in this nineteenth-century process of treating human beings as numbers and letters, and how this approach to the visible world might relate to the dawn of computing.


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Item Type: Other
Status: Published
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Langmead, Alisonadlangmead@pitt.eduADL400000-0002-9159-9797
Ellenbogen, Josh
Date: 2014
Date Type: Publication
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History of Art and Architecture
Refereed: No
Official URL:
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Date Deposited: 17 May 2016 14:55
Last Modified: 24 Feb 2021 14:55


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