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Obesity and personality

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22/12/2009

By | From the Collections

Collotype after photographs by E. Muybridge.Wellcome Library no. 27769i

Collotype after photographs by E. Muybridge. Wellcome Library no. 27769i

Long before and long after the photographer Eadweard Muybridge shot and killed his wife’s lover Major Larkyns in San Francisco in 1874, he has never been far from controversy. The picture above (click on image to enlarge) is one of the 781 collotypes in Muybridge’s series Animal locomotion (1887), and the Wellcome Library’s description of it has attracted comments from Charlotte Cooper on her blog Obesity timebomb, as well as from others commenting on her posting.

The Wellcome Library catalogue record for this picture (Muybridge’s plate no. 268) described the subject as “A gargantuan woman getting up off the ground”. Having considered the comments, I have removed the word “gargantuan” from the catalogue record (sorry, wriggles, you approved of it!). Gargantua was the name of a (male) giant in a 16th-century book by François Rabelais. If “gargantuan” was meant to mean “gigantic”, I’d rather use the word “gigantic”, but we don’t know that this woman was particularly tall, and why drag in Rabelais anyway? I’ve changed “gargantuan” to “obese”, though some will not consider that an improvement: why mention her size at all?

One purpose of describing her in terms of her gender and body-mass is to distinguish this plate from the 780 others in the series. The photographs were designed to show how different creatures conduct themselves in locomotion (broadly defined), and someone who has a lot of body-mass to carry will have somewhat different locomotor processes –- or in plain English, they will move differently — from someone with small body mass. (Even more so with this particular plate, which shows the woman getting up off the ground: there is another one of her walking). As we shall see, her size was a factor in Muybridge’s selecting her as a model.

Charlotte says in her blog:
She’s described as ‘gargantuan’ in the catalogue, and one of the accompanying keywords is ‘huge’. Again, I wonder who she is, what it was like for her to be photographed naked. I’m searching for the scraps of her humanity that have been obliterated by the way she has been classified by whoever catalogued these photographs of her. I’m appalled, though not surprised, by her Othering in the eyes of the anonymous picture librarian who labelled her, and that this way of seeing her is constructed here as neutral, scholarly, scientific fact.

and one of the comments makes a similar point:
The last picture made me feel quite sad, because she’ll forever be known as ‘Search: “fat.” ‘ Rather than whoever she really was.

Wouldn’t we all like to know her story! However, the comments reveal the extent to which the catalogue is not self-explanatory. The fields in the catalogue record are of three different types. Some, e.g. “Title”, are merely transcriptions of words on the document. An example here would be the title of Alexander Ross’s 1646 publication (in reply to one by John Wilkins),

The new planet no planet: or, the earth no wandring star: except in the wandring heads of Galileans. Here out of the principles of divinity, philosophy, astronomy, reason and sense, the earth’s immobility is asserted; the true sense of Scripture in the point, cleared; the Fathers and philosophers vindicated; divers theologicall and philosophicall points handled, and Copernicus his opinion as erroneous, ridiculous and impious, fully refuted. In answer to a discourse, that the earth may be a planet.

By merely transcribing this title, and labelling it as “Title”, the cataloguer can easily convey the author’s view that the earth is immobile without appearing to endorse it.

A second type contains assertions of fact in so far as they can be established empirically, such as the size of a book or engraving, who wrote or created it, when it came into being etc. Even fields of this type contain interpretations, or even in some cases distortions of the facts to suit the conventions of the database. For instance wrong life-dates may knowingly be given for a person because those dates are established in the international name authority-files that are maintained for the benefit of all libraries and their users: any library can put different dates in its catalogue, but at the risk of having the computer interpret the second form as the dates of a different person (though ways of preventing that could, and probably will eventually, be introduced into library databases).

In the third type of field, the cataloguer describes the work in his or her own words. These fields (labelled e.g. “Description” or “Notes”) are particularly needed for non-verbal documents such as pictures or moving films. The current in-house Wellcome Library guidelines for these fields are as follows:

Descriptions are written in British English established at the time of their creation. The data should be intelligible to the majority of Wellcome Library users who can read British English. Language should be brief, anonymous in character, not knowingly partisan, and simple in vocabulary (normally limited to words in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary except where the use of technical terms is unavoidable e.g. écorché).

There are several problems here. First, the reader of the catalogue is not told which of these three types of data occur in which fields of the record (though one can sometimes guess). There needs to be a “What is this?” link for each field to explain what is going on. The second problem particularly affects the third type of data. Should the language be non-partisan as between (for example) racist and non-racist viewpoints?

 A large man presides over a table as other people lay goods.Wellcome Library no. 33088i

A large man presides over a table as other people lay goods.
Wellcome Library no. 33088i

In a desperate attempt to be neutral, a Wellcome Library cataloguer described the subject of this mezzotint (above, click on image to enlarge) as “A large man presides over a table as other people lay goods on it for him to look at”. The people who made the mezzotint in 1777 intended to show crooked Jewish second-hand dealers trying to swindle a robber out of the value of his hard-won stolen goods [1] but any cataloguer who blithely described it in that way without any historical distancing might be in hot water. If some now deprecated viewpoint is relayed by the cataloguer, how will the reader of the catalogue know when the cataloguer is merely reporting a third party viewpoint and when he or she is speaking in his or her own words? The print is currently described by the Wellcome Library with the aid of the British Museum [2] as “A highwayman tries to sell stolen articles to a group of Jewish receivers”, which does not suppress the Jewishness of the recipients though it still suggests a residue of guilt about antisemitism by putting the blame on the single vendor rather than on the Jewish gang of fences. Likewise, if an artist has a particular reason to portray a person with a large body mass, the cataloguer has to find some way of describing the work without wilfully suppressing or distorting the artist’s intentions.

If one looks at fields of the third kind, even cataloguers who scrupulously follow the guidelines could not represent obesity, or crimes committed by Jews, as “scholarly, scientific fact”, as Charlotte suggests, or claim that they are constructed without input from social and historical determinants. That very stuff out of which the data is constructed, “British English” and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, are social constructs, as are the edifices built from them such as descriptions involving “obesity”, “crimes”, and “Jews”. Far from aiming at scientific fact, the cataloguer will want to enter to some degree into Muybridge’s mind and inveigle his intentions. So let’s look at how Muybridge himself described his models. He did so in Animal locomotion … prospectus and catalogue of plates, Philadelphia 1887, which is available online.

Men are generally described in terms of their professions and ages. One is “an ex-athlete, aged about sixty”, another is is “a well-drilled member of the State Militia” and a third, identifiable as the painter Thomas Eakins, is “a well-known instructor in art”. Each model has a number: for men the numbers are given in bold type, whereas women have numbers in a lighter typeface (presumably as being more dainty). The women are described as follows (in full):

The female models were chosen from all classes of society.
Number
1, is a widow, aged thirty-five, somewhat slender and above the medium height ; 3, is married, and heavily built ; 4 to 13, inclusive, 15 and 19, are unmarried, of ages varying from seventeen to twenty-four; of these, 11 is slender ; the others of medium height and build ; 14, 16, and 93, are married ; 20, is unmarried, and weighs three hundred and forty pounds.
The endeavor has been in all instances to select models who fairly illustrate how – in a more or less graceful or perfect manner – the movements appertaining to every-day life are performed.

20 is of course the ex-“gargantuan” woman. So physical build is usually given, and I interpret marital status for women as equivalent to profession for the men and/or perhaps an age indicator where an age in years is not given. Names and other personal details are not given for either gender, presumably in part to protect the models, in part because the names are not relevant to animal locomotion, and in part because they would particularize the physiological lesson when the aim was to generalize it. At all events, the obesity of the woman was clearly important to Muybridge, and the cataloguer should try to represent that fact – in a way which will not give unnecessary offence.

Incidentally the keyword terms “search: fat” and “huge” which are quoted in one of the comments on the blog are not in the Wellcome Library catalogue but in one of several databases which take data from the Wellcome Library catalogue and repurpose it, in this case the Wellcome Images website. Changes in the Wellcome Library catalogue data do not currently trigger the same changes in the downstream websites, so you might continue to find terms in the latter which have been removed from the former, and vice versa.

Thanks to those who commented: if convenient you can also use the new feedback form “Comments or corrections for this record?” which appears in the Wellcome Library catalogue at the end of every record, as in this example.

Meanwhile in the New Year Brits can look forward to the Muybridge exhibition which has been organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.: it will travel to Tate Britain in London, 8 September 2010-16 January 2011, and will then be shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from February 26 through June 7, 2011. Eadweard Muybridge, there’s no getting away from him, but who would want to – apart from Major Larkyns?

[1] Constance Harris, The way Jews lived: five hundred years of printed words and images, Jefferson, N.C. 2008, p. 122

[2] British Museum, Catalogue of political and personal satires, vol. v, London 1935, no. 5468

Author: William Schupbach

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