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July 11, 2007 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Per his wishes, Jeremy Bentham is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room at University College London to take his place at regular meetings of the College Council there. The minutes always record him as "present but not voting." Since 1850, he's only missed a few meetings due to illness.
posted by miss lynnster (58 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
By the way, that's a wax head. Bentham intended that after his death his head should be preserved by a process of desiccation that is practiced by New Zealand Maoris. For ten years before his death he carried around in his pocket the glass eyes that were to adorn it. However, after the mummification was done, his head deteriorated rapidly and was replaced on the Auto-icon by a wax head. His real head used to sit at his feet but it was found to be too much of a target for college pranks.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:24 AM on July 11, 2007


This is so cool. I <3 teh Bentham.
posted by grobstein at 9:26 AM on July 11, 2007


I think if I were doing the wheeling, it would be "solemnly" for maybe the first 2 times, then "hilariously" for the next 10 or so, then "reluctantly and with bad grace" thereafter.
posted by DU at 9:27 AM on July 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


There's a joke about utilitarianism to be made here, but I can't figure out what it is.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:29 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


University College London Council: Everybody gets a little head
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:32 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


The picture of his real mummified head sitting between his feet cracked me up and then made me feel very uncomfortable. Jeremy Benthem is not corpse to be messed with.
posted by heatherbeth at 9:33 AM on July 11, 2007


two things:

1. the title of this post is amazing.
2. If I were the executor of that portion of the will, my first thought would be "You fucking bastard."
posted by shmegegge at 9:35 AM on July 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's fun to do weird things without really understanding why. That's how religions get started. Especially if the weird things involved dead venerated people.
posted by humblepigeon at 9:39 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks shmegegge. It's no "Play that funky music, bok choy" though... that one was my crowning achievement, really. ;)
posted by miss lynnster at 9:41 AM on July 11, 2007


You know, I used to have dreams just like this, except, instead of it being University College, it was my high school, and instead of being a corpse with a wax head, I was naked.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:41 AM on July 11, 2007


This is at least 8x better than a Futurama-style head-in-a-jar.

I predict someone's gonna think this is a good practical application for plastination.
posted by ninjew at 9:42 AM on July 11, 2007


ewwww
posted by amberglow at 9:44 AM on July 11, 2007


"...Jeremy Bentham... proved to be something of a child prodigy: while still a toddler he was discovered sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England, and he began to study Latin at the age of three...

Bentham, however, soon became disillusioned with the law... Instead of practising the law, he decided to write about it, and he spent his life criticising the existing law and suggesting ways for its improvement. His father's death in 1792 left him financially independent, and for nearly forty years he lived quietly in Westminster, producing between ten and twenty sheets of manuscript a day, even when he was in his eighties."

What an amazing character and then with his desiccated head and glass eyeballs.

"Bentham thought it to be a "sacred truth" that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation." Bentham supposed that the whole of morality could be derived from "enlightened self-interest," and that a person who always acted with a view to his own maximum satisfaction in the long run would always act rightly."

huh, no empathy there, no consideration for others, or love. Nope, don't think that makes sense of morality.

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior
posted by nickyskye at 9:45 AM on July 11, 2007


The "Auto-icon" is an example of disgusting narcissism. I would be ashamed to request such a thing be done with my corpse. It's as bad as Lenin's tomb, merely a difference of scale.
posted by davy at 9:48 AM on July 11, 2007


Well, you would have to be pretty selfish to think that it's no big deal to expect people to haul your dead body to meetings forever.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:48 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is that (maximum satisfaction) (in the long run would always act rightly) or (maximum satisfaction in the long run) (would always act rightly)?

I think the first is clearly false. The second is also false if only because there are psycho/sociopaths out there who don't give a crap about other people, but more true than the first.
posted by DU at 9:50 AM on July 11, 2007


Cal Ripken seems so much less impressive now.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:52 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


So he's dead, but he still has to turn up to meetings? Sucks to be you, Jez.
posted by RokkitNite at 9:54 AM on July 11, 2007


How extraordinarily British.
posted by chuckdarwin at 9:54 AM on July 11, 2007


When I was a kid I read a Ripley's Believe It or Not comic book about this. In that comic, he would come alive at night and rampage around looking for his head. At the time, I believed everything that was in Ripley's and couldn't understand why this wasn't more widely reported.
posted by marxchivist at 9:59 AM on July 11, 2007 [6 favorites]


Flagged as fantastic.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:00 AM on July 11, 2007


The 'sit at his feet' link is almost beyond belief.
Maybe the 2 heads in the picture represent pleasure and pain.
posted by MtDewd at 10:10 AM on July 11, 2007


The use of the dead present in legal proceedings reminds me of the Cadaver Synod, perhaps one of the best stories out of the Vatican:
No trial transcript of the Cadaver Synod exists. Nonetheless, it is reasonably clear what happened. Sitting on a throne, Stephen VII personally presided over the proceeding. Also present as co-judges were a number of Roman clergy who were there under compulsion and out of fear. The trial began when the disinterred corpse of Formosus was carried into the courtroom. On Stephen VII's orders the putrescent corpse, which had been lying in its tomb for seven months, had been dressed in full pontifical vestments. The dead body was then propped up in a chair behind which stood a teenage deacon, quaking with fear, whose unenviable responsibility was to defend Formosus by speaking in his behalf. The presiding judge, Stephen VII, then read the three charges. Formosus was accused of (1) perjury, (2) coveting the papacy, and (3) violating church canons when he was elected pope.
posted by thanotopsis at 10:12 AM on July 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


i saw bentham accidentally once while visting a friend at the college, and shrugged. not far was the british museum where far more impressive mummifications of for more mysterious people stolen from far more distant lands born much longer ago were available. bentham was just another corpse on the wall in the museum.

what was the enlightened self-interest of the auto-icon, anyway? i want to maximize satisfaction... should i stage my skeleton somewhere public? where?
posted by ioesf at 10:14 AM on July 11, 2007


This is awesome! I keep my father's head in a jar on my desk but clearly I was short-sighted. I should have created an auto-icon to roll to Kiwanis meetings.
posted by astruc at 10:17 AM on July 11, 2007


Unless I'm missing something, solemn wheeling has only occurred twice, on the centennial and sesquicentennial of the college's founding. That's why the "present but not voting" links say:

Not surprisingly, the unusual nature of the Auto-Icon has given rise to numerous legends and anecdotes. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion. (Emphasis added)

I'm taking that to mean that it does not in fact happen routinely.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:31 AM on July 11, 2007


Unfortunately Jeremy's attendance at meetings is largely a myth. He only attended, as the Auto-Ikon, two meetings of the College Committee, the 100th and 150th, "present but not voting", but this has given rise to the legend that he does so regularly.
posted by beagle at 10:32 AM on July 11, 2007


You beat me to it, Horace.
posted by beagle at 10:33 AM on July 11, 2007


Well, they really should fire him then.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:35 AM on July 11, 2007


I'm taking that to mean that it does not in fact happen routinely.

Awwwwww...
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:36 AM on July 11, 2007


When I was at UCL in the early eighties, a pub across the road from the university was being renamed "The Jeremy Bentham" so we dutifully walked him over to it for the naming ceremony.
posted by liam at 10:37 AM on July 11, 2007


So it's just a perfectly normal corpse they have kicking around?
posted by vbfg at 10:41 AM on July 11, 2007


huh, no empathy there, no consideration for others, or love. Nope, don't think that makes sense of morality.

He and Mill do seem cold, but I'd say that Bentham's conclusions are extremely considerate of others, in that they assert certain inviolable rights, protections, and autonomy to every individual. As an example, try finding other statesmen of the day who were willing to argue against slavery and for equal rights between the sexes. That Bentham doesn't arrive at these moral conclusions through gushy feelings or supernatural and religious appeals, but rather through a process of logical inquiry, shouldn't make him less qualified to speak about morality. After all, your own link shows that evolutionary biologists try to explicate morality, as do many scientists and philosophers, with the tools of their own trade.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:44 AM on July 11, 2007


Also, Jeremy Bentham is a mummy and if you know anything about the powers and proclivities of the undead you'll beware his wrath.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:48 AM on July 11, 2007


Adding to the fascinating but totally eewww disturbing images factor in the thread. Not safe for the squeamish. Kuntz-Kamera of St. Petersburg from English Russia.
posted by nickyskye at 10:49 AM on July 11, 2007


The first RealDoll.

Well, hell, I don't know. Why don't you open his pants?
posted by dhartung at 11:02 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


HE MAY BE LURKING IN THIS VERY THREAD
posted by brain_drain at 11:04 AM on July 11, 2007


On the topic of the head:
Bentham had originally intended that his head should be part of the Auto-Icon, and for ten years before his death (so runs another story) carried around in his pocket the glass eyes which were to adorn it. Unfortunately when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive. The wax head was therefore substituted, and for some years the real head, with its glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham's legs. However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from King's College London, who stole the head in 1975 and demanded a ransome of £100 to be paid to the charity Shelter. UCL finally agreed to pay a ransome of £10 and the head was returned. On another occasion, according to legend, the head, again stolen by students, was eventually found in a luggage locker at a Scottish Station (possibly Aberdeen). The last straw (so runs yet another story) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice, and the head was henceforth placed in secure storage. (Source)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:29 AM on July 11, 2007


Oh sure, but when I wheel a dead body into a meeting everyone gets all pissed. I'm so sick of this double standard.
posted by quin at 11:34 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Went to UCL for my undergrad (which I, uh, underachieved at), passed by his UV-filtering window on the world many times. Definitely an interesting chap.
posted by lowlife at 11:36 AM on July 11, 2007


"HE MAY BE LURKING IN THIS VERY THREAD"

Present, but not snarking.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:40 AM on July 11, 2007


So, in between other projects, I've been working on a coloring book about the deaths of famous philosophers. Ever since I started working on it, I've looked at Bentham as an interesting problem.... like, do I go with the obvious route and draw the auto-icon, or try to find some other, more obscure approach?

He causes a lot of trouble for a guy with a wax head.
posted by COBRA! at 11:44 AM on July 11, 2007


If you ever get into an argument with someone over just how apeshit-insane the English are, this business of wheeling Bentham's corpse into College Council meetings is a useful bit of proof in favor of the pro-apeshit thesis.
posted by metasonix at 11:45 AM on July 11, 2007


do I go with the obvious route and draw the auto-icon

Yes. Trying to be obscure in a coloring book about the deaths of famous philosophers is always more clever in theory than in practice.
posted by wah at 12:57 PM on July 11, 2007


If you ever get into an argument with someone over just how apeshit-insane the English are,

When your country gets to be as old as Britain, it too will be apeshit insane.
posted by humblepigeon at 1:03 PM on July 11, 2007


"...Jeremy Bentham... proved to be something of a child prodigy: while still a toddler he was discovered sitting at his father's desk reading a multi-volume history of England, and he began to study Latin at the age of three...

Aw, man. My kids are almost two. I'd better go purchase a multi-volume history of England, and leave it laying around.
posted by davejay at 1:31 PM on July 11, 2007


When we start measuring insanity in terms of mammals from bat to ape, then you can call us insane.
posted by vbfg at 1:52 PM on July 11, 2007


Trying to be obscure in a coloring book about the deaths of famous philosophers is always more clever in theory than in practice.

That's what I'm thinking. Bentham will probably just be the auto-icon with the real head between the feet.
posted by COBRA! at 1:53 PM on July 11, 2007


This is truly awesome. A coworker was telling me about this a few weeks ago, and I hadn't gotten around to looking into it.
posted by Tehanu at 3:41 PM on July 11, 2007


Does anyone else think it's creepy that the mind behind the panopticon wants to stare at you beyond the grave?
posted by bibliowench at 5:17 PM on July 11, 2007


huh, no empathy there, no consideration for others, or love. Nope, don't think that makes sense of morality.

Bentham considered it to be in a person's self-interest to love and to be loved. This is his reason for why psychopathic behavior is, in the long term, sub-optimal. As a psychopath you get to have all kinds of fun for a while, but pretty soon, people stop returning your calls.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:30 PM on July 11, 2007


The first RealDoll.

Oh god, this was almost exactly my thought when I saw that picture of the "auto-icon." I think it's because the content of this post has been seared into my mind for the past several days. GET OUT OF MY MIND DAVECAT

Still, I'd be kind of amused to see an actual RealDoll based on Mr. Bentham.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 6:00 PM on July 11, 2007


Brilliant as Bentham was, he was hardly the handsomest of men.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:19 PM on July 11, 2007


"Bentham considered it to be in a person's self-interest to love and to be loved. This is his reason for why psychopathic behavior is, in the long term, sub-optimal. As a psychopath you get to have all kinds of fun for a while, but pretty soon, people stop returning your calls."

But if you're really a psychopath you're incapable of loving people and you don't care if people love you; to you they're tools, means to an end. So that pretty much moots that right there.
posted by davy at 6:45 PM on July 11, 2007


Oh, the things I have seen today.
posted by moira at 9:44 PM on July 11, 2007


I think he hoped to become a kind of atheist's saint. You know UCL (my old college) was founded for atheists, Catholics, non-conformists and Jews at a time when you had to be a member of the Church of England to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

Maybe Richard Dawkins should consider having himself stuffed and mounted?
posted by Phanx at 2:29 AM on July 12, 2007


Whenever i told anyone my uni had a corpse they never believed me :(
posted by cardamine at 9:04 AM on July 12, 2007


Maybe Richard Dawkins should consider having himself stuffed and mounted?

If the religious right get hold of him, that may well happen. And not in the way you're thinking. Or maybe it will. It depends what kind of imagination you have.
posted by humblepigeon at 2:34 AM on July 13, 2007


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