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Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads…

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

by Frances Larson

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Great book. Original and well written. Also very learned, but accessible. Each chapter has its own theme and disciplinary approach, ranging from art history to medical history and postcolonialism. You can read them separately but I would not recommend doing that. Taken together they offer you an enjoyable introduction to the anthropology of things and their agency so in the end it's not about human heads: it's about humans and what humanity is all about. ( )
  Rudolf | Apr 13, 2017 |
Though its title sounds relentlessly gruesome, Severed is less a look at severed heads themselves and more an investigation into the human fascination surrounding them. Anthropologist Frances Larson looks at different ways humans have approached heads throughout history, including the gathering of trophy skulls during World War II, the pseudoscience of phrenology, and dissection for modern medicine.

Early in the book, Larson discusses the collection of Shuar shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which have long been a constant source of attention. The heads, once used by the Amazonian tribe in rare religious ceremonies before being discarded, quickly gained value when the Shuar realized Westerners were willing to buy them for a high price. Soon, the Shaur were making the heads specifically to sell and the market was flooded with fakes made from animal skulls, including some in the Pitt Rivers collection itself.

“People think that large, raucous crowds at executions belong to a distant era in our past, and so they do, but the more I have read about the history of executions, the more I think that the gradual concealment of executions from the public eye over the last two hundred years—and even, to some extent, the demise of torture as a method of punishment—has had less to do with popular opinion and more to do with the preoccupations of polite society.”

The idea of being fascinated by severed heads while ignoring the barbarism of viewing decapitation itself crossed over into the public executions of the French Revolution and even modern terrorism. Though her text was written before the recent rise of viral beheadings by ISIS, Larson touches on the issues of morality that circle when we have access to executions at our fingertips. These videos quickly become and remain leading search terms and top downloads, contributing to Larson’s theory on “polite society”.

While the topic itself may make readers squirm, the actual content of Frances Larson’s book is quite contained and endlessly interesting. More than just a look at decapitation, Severed is a history of human minds, bodies, thoughts and fears.

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Homo sum, humani nilhil a me alienum puto
Terence, Heauton Timorumenos
for Greger
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Josiah Wilkinson liked to take Oliver Cromwell's head to breakfast parties.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871404540, Hardcover)

A serious and seriously entertaining exploration of the dark and varied obsessions that the “civilized West” has had with decapitated heads and skulls.

The human head is exceptional. It accommodates four of our five senses, encases the brain, and boasts the most expressive set of muscles in the body. It is our most distinctive attribute and connects our inner selves to the outer world. Yet there is a dark side to the head’s preeminence, one that has, in the course of human history, manifested itself in everything from decapitation to headhunting. So explains anthropologist Frances Larson in this fascinating history of decapitated human heads. From the Western collectors whose demand for shrunken heads spurred massacres to Second World War soldiers who sent the remains of the Japanese home to their girlfriends, from Madame Tussaud modeling the guillotined head of Robespierre to Damien Hirst photographing decapitated heads in city morgues, from grave-robbing phrenologists to skull-obsessed scientists, Larson explores our macabre fixation with severed heads. 25 illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:13 -0400)

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