Project (2008-2009)

Strokes and Expressions: The History of Graphological Knowledge (1750–1950)

The basic idea of graphological knowledge is a rather simple one: by the strokes of his pen, man records significant evidence revealing the secrets of his character and true nature. Thus, reliable anthropological knowledge results less from the written utterances and their propositions—subjects of manifold skills of manipulation—than from the unmistakable traces of man’s hand.

Writing was first designed to be a self-recording system of knowledge about individuality in the context of Johann Caspar Lavater’s sensational Essays on Physiognomy (Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, 4 vol., 1775–78). The evaluation of these traces obtained its methodical routine as well as its name (i.e., graphology) in the second half of nineteenth century. Despite partly offensive efforts at institutionalization and its well-timed connections to fin-de-siècle psychology, psychiatry, and criminology, graphology remains a controversial, if not dubious part of anthropology. Even its supporters soon split up into at least two parties disputing the scope of graphological knowledge. “Minimalists” were inclined to regard it as its limited to the identification of individuals from the strokes of their pen (e.g., in forensic graphology), while “maximalists” tended to claim a complete interpretation of individual personality, considering the traces of writing as expressions of character.

Nonetheless, or maybe in fact because of this discord, the history of graphological knowledge can be regarded as a model of the genealogy of modern anthropology as well as for the central role systems and functions of notation play in this field. Oscillating between the concepts of individuality and subjectivity, between the competences of physical/psychological and cultural anthropology, between the effects of the dispositif of literacy and those of corporeality, graphology covers the complete area in which both scientific and cultural knowledge of man has been acquired in the past three centuries.