Visualizing Race Science in Benito Cereno
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Visualizing Race Science in Benito Cereno

Alexandro Aranda’s skeleton displayed as the ersatz figurehead of the San Dominick and Babo’s severed head impaled on a pole are perhaps the two most striking images from Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. The deliberate public exhibition of the bodily remains of both the Spanish slave owner and Senegalese rebel mastermind is central to the turn and resolution of Melville’s novella; yet these scenes are significant deviations on the part of Melville, who otherwise based his story on an episode from Amasa Delano’s memoir Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in which the American captain thwarts a revolt onboard a Spanish slave ship.1 The narrative’s presentation through the limited perspective of the American captain Amasa Delano makes Benito Cereno, according to the prevailing reading by critics such as Carolyn Karcher, “an exploration of the white racist mind and how it reacts in the face of a slave insurrection.”2 Delano’s notorious misreading of the racial dynamics of the San Dominick, a misreading of the slave revolt [End Page 130] due to the Africans’ deft masquerade that plays into his assumptions about black inferiority and white superiority, appears symbolic of the failure of white epistemological mastery. This essay proposes to examine the scientific knowledge that structures the authority of Delano’s gaze and, in turn, naturalizes his sympathies toward those he observes. The gruesome spectacle of the corpses of Aranda and Babo points to the novella’s exploration of the intersection of nineteenth-century everyday visual culture with race science’s dependence upon a morbid corporeality that elevates some bodies as ideals and reduces others to objects.

The publication of Benito Cereno in 1855 situates Melville’s writing amid the fraught interdependence between visual culture and race science. Through the influence of science on nineteenth-century American visual culture, faces, heads, and skulls acted as the visible material signifiers not just of character and ability but also of differences within the hierarchy of the human that affirmed the supremacy of whiteness. The overlapping disciplines of physiognomy, phrenology, and craniology affirmed vision as a technology of scientific judgment; these now maligned “head sciences” allowed for the development of the respectable fields of anatomy, psychology, and neuroscience but also influenced race science and the theory of polygenesis: the separate evolution of each “race.” Johann Kasper Lavater’s physiognomic study of faces as the reflection of the soul gave way to Frank Josef Gall’s more scientific phrenology, a critique of the head whose external bumps quantified the inherent faculties of the brain. The widespread acceptance of phrenology in nineteenth-century America derived from the work of phrenology’s proselytizers such as the Scottish lawyer George Combe, who wrote The Constitution of Man, one of the bestsellers of the era, with 200,000 copies sold before the Civil War, and the American Fowler family, who published numerous pamphlets on practical phrenology and undertook lecture tours and public demonstrations.3 The promise of a scientific knowledge that would train the individual to enable self-knowledge and, therefore, self-improvement was crucial to the successful dissemination of phrenology’s precepts. Coeval to phrenology’s life as a popular science, the study of skulls was practiced by esteemed craniologists such as Samuel George Morton, expanding the analysis of individual heads to the mass collection of data for a practice of comparative anatomy that correlated differences between civilizations and groups of people to evidence polygenesis. These scientific discourses helped to train the average American gaze in the techniques of scientific visual evaluation, combining the expertise of the Foucauldian clinical gaze with a culture of everyday [End Page 131] panoptic scrutiny, thereby providing widespread justification for racial prejudices naturalized to be as evident as sight itself.

Science drew on art and, in turn, art drew on science.4 The scientific dependence on the visual as a primary tool of analysis meant the proliferation of images of faces, heads, and skulls in order to illustrate theory: one edition of Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy boasts 360 engravings on its title page, while practitioners of popular phrenology used its iconic diagrams of the head’s faculties...