Have you seen my Dada boss?

Terry Eagleton

  • Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality by Ewen and Ewen
    Seven Stories, 555 pp, $34.95, September 2006, ISBN 1 58322 735 0

If the authors of this book sound like a firm of estate agents, it’s because they have virtuously repressed their first names as a protest against gender stereotyping. But one wonders if they have failed to carry this resistance far enough. There are, after all, several million Ewens knocking around the globe, and this particular pair might fear that their unique personalities are threatened by a blandly generic term. Perhaps the best strategy would be to vary one’s surname from day to day to avoid the indignity of being labelled.

Stereotypes, however, are not always pejorative, whatever these authors may think. They write in their preface of the ways that ‘deeply ingrained stereotypes shed negative light on a wide range of populations and communities’; but the assumption that all such typecasting is negative is itself a postmodern stereotype. The Welsh do not take kindly to being regarded as a race of cunning runts permanently coated in coal dust and sheep shit, but they tend to protest rather less hotly when one praises their musical abilities. The Scots prefer to be thought hard-headed rather than tight-fisted. Lancastrians like to hear that they are warmer than people from Dorking, but not that they are generally fatter as well. Stereotypes may be objectionable because they cram complex individuals into general categories, but they can do this in admiring as well as demeaning ways. Though this does not necessarily constitute a defence of them, one would expect a couple of authors who set out to write a 500-page book on the subject to notice the fact.

Some stereotypes are simply neutral, another fact which Typecasting fails to note. Swedes, for example, are very often tall, fair and blue-eyed. This is neither a criticism nor a commendation, simply a fact. There are no doubt postmodern theorists who would argue that the blue-eyedness of Swedes is a cultural construct rather than a biological phenomenon, but it is best to give such people a wide berth, rather as it is with those who ask you whether you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Many stereotypes, to be sure, are vicious and repellent, but it is scarcely very original to say so. The discourse of stereotyping has long been exhausted. Nothing is now more predictable in cultural theory than an aversion to the predictable.

It would make for a bolder, more innovative study than this one to put in a good word for stereotypes, even though academics at certain American universities might find themselves under fire for doing so. Those of us who are not American academics, however, may feel less constrained. It is an open secret, for example, that Ulster Protestants are not by and large dandyish aesthetes notable for their extravagant wordplay and surreal sense of humour. The English middle classes are for the most part less physically and emotionally expressive than Neapolitan dockers. It is unusual to meet a working-class Liverpudlian who dresses for dinner, other than in the sense of putting on a shirt. Corporation executives tend not to be Dadaists.

Stereotypes are sometimes thought to be offensive because they are fixed and inflexible, but the fixed is not necessarily to be regretted, or the fluid to be celebrated. Capitalism is endlessly fluid, whereas the demand that the Israelis stop mistreating the Palestinians should be unwavering. The belief that the malleable is always preferable to the immovable is a postmodern cliché. There is a good deal about human history which ought not to alter (educating our children, for example), and quite a lot of change which is deeply undesirable. Change and permanence are not related to each other as radicalism is to conservatism. In any case, all genuine radicalism respects tradition. It respects among other things the tradition of resistance to racial stereotypes, rather than the tradition of promoting them. One of the interesting features of this study is just how robust a history of opposition to such belittling images there has been down the centuries. It didn’t all begin with modern-day liberal pluralism.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in