I recently visited University College London in the course of my studies and I encountered Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Auto-icon’ at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building. It is fascinating…
Bentham is remembered now primarily for his advocacy of utilitarianism, he lived between 1748 and 1832, and in his will he requested that his body be dissected as part of a public lecture. The Auto-icon is what followed. It is a glass-fronted wooden cabinet (either a very compact room or a generously ample coffin) which contains Bentham’s skeleton stuffed out with hay and wearing his Quaker regalia. Although Bentham had anticipated the Auto-icon incorporating his actual head, unfortunately the experimental attempts at mummification by his disciple, Thomas Southwood Smith (unlucky fellow) left it looking ‘distastefully macabre’. According to Wikipedia, it did not, as intended, ‘resemble its appearance in life’.
However, all this remained unknown to me at the time I first saw the Auto-icon. Consequently, the plaque informing the viewer that it is not, in fact, Bentham’s head they see but a wax model adorned with some of his hair, and that the real head is located in a nearby safe, seemed to me an unnecessary, not to say rather bizarre, detail. Yet it is, after all, significant, since despite defying Bentham’s exact wishes, the head (‘origin’ of such wishes) was displayed separately within the Auto-icon case for many years. However, it became the repeated target of student pranks – better than a traffic cone, I assume… ‘It is now locked away securely’, Wikipedia assures.
What I did know about Jeremy Bentham was second-hand from my school-friend’s housemate, who had studied at UCL. She told me the morning I left for the College to watch out for its founder, kept stuffed in a display case for posterity. I immediately imagined a man (naturally) standing upright in relatively modern dress – corduroys, tweed jacket, leathered elbows – with a pipe in his mouth, who had been embalmed – possibly against his will. What I actually saw was not only, quite literally, willed, but also both unexpected and much stranger.
I had been struggling the previous evening with trying to explain to my school-friend the premise of my thesis, and had become preoccupied with unraveling Jacques Derrida’s notion of the return of the always yet to come… I said: ‘Take, for example, my filter tips, they do not achieve full presence – ruptured, segmented, corrupting site that they are! So the appearance of the filter tips on the table is a return – a recognisable one, in my case, yet different every time – of an imperfection signifying a ‘to come’, a flawless arrival, which cannot be anticipated. Consequently, later when I texted my friend a photograph of the ‘stuffed dude’, I entitled it the return of the always yet to come, as a potentially clearer example than my box of filter tips.
A genius, an agitator, anachronistically, a sufferer from Asperger’s syndrome – in life Jeremy Bentham bore the hallmarks of fragmentation and contradiction that defy full presence – riven with nonpresence, Derrida suggests of Van Gogh’s artistic body. Bentham’s skeleton returns, recognisable, yet different, a re-presentation, explicitly in terms of the head, which is wax. This facial replica is a copy without original, since the mummified physiognomy held securely in a nearby safe was always already a deconstructed ‘origin’. Detached, decayed and dissembling, it is merely another simulation of resemblance – it is not a privileged site, however ‘secure’. The Auto-icon highlights Bentham as no more or less present alive than ‘dead’. For example, although stationary, for the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the College, the Auto-icon actually attended the Council meeting and was listed as ‘present but not voting’. Perhaps Derrida might describe such abstinence as ‘already talkative’. And notice the Auto-icon is not Bentham, it is his figure, or outline, within the space of the enclosing cabinet. The Auto-icon is not a ‘he’, but an ‘it’, it does not vote – ‘it becomes the very place of a word that is all the more powerful because it is silent’ – ‘The Spatial Arts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’.
Although my text to my friend was technically wrong, in that Bentham is not stuffed – the hay, contrarily, is without his bones not within his flesh – he is, and was, a dude – proponent for the abolition of slavery, capital and corporal punishment, equal rights for women and the decriminalisation of homosexuality – he was always already ahead of his time, and remains so within the Auto-icon. And the name, Auto-icon, a signifier, with a bite of Apple about it, that emphasises the always yet to come of both Bentham’s body and his work. As Derrida argues of such a paradox, with the paradox ‘Long live ghosts!’ – I say instead, long live the Auto-icon, present but not voting…