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 case for stereotypes is a materialist one. If a group of people have shared roughly the same material conditions over long periods of time, it would be astonishing if they were not to manifest some cultural and psychological traits in common. Only idealists and liberal individualists find this hard to swallow. This does not mean that such people will all be clones of one another; but habits of mind, patterns of behaviour and emotional dispositions are bound up with the way we live with others, rather than being purely personal affairs. It is not true, for example, that the Irish are a feckless bunch much given to carousing, but this stereotype may be based on the fact that work on an Irish tenant farm involved sporadic bouts of hard labour while allowing for a fair degree of leisure time. On a rented smallholding, working harder might not prove profitable to the tenant: what mattered was the size of your farm rather than your rate of productivity. In any case, the landlord might confiscate whatever improvements you might make to the property by raising the rent. All this, when transported to the context of building English roads and canals, was quite likely to look like bone-idleness to the industrially disciplined natives. Besides, the Irish enjoyed their numerous feast days, and saw no point in overdoing things.

That the Irish sometimes display a cavalier attitude to the law, compared say to middle-class suburban Americans, is not entirely without foundation either. But this is largely because the law in Ireland was for several centuries a colonial implant, not because Celts are genetically anarchistic. Most liberals would scoff at the belief prevalent on the streets of Belfast and Derry that Catholics and Protestants can be visually distinguished from each other. But Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants stem by and large from different ethnic groups, and in some cases, if by no means all, this is reflected in their physical appearance. As usual, popular mythology is not entirely mythical.

Academics who study these facts are known as sociologists, and like Stalinists have no interest at all in individuals. Without stereotyping of some kind, social life would grind to a halt. If the plumber turns up to fix the drains dressed in tights and a tutu, I would naturally be liberal-minded enough to invite him to perform a few pirouettes at the sink; but if the bank manager insists on discussing my loan in Latvian, I might take my business elsewhere. Human freedom is a question of life being reasonably predictable, not of being joyously liberated from rules. Unless we can calculate the effects of our actions, which includes the way others might typically respond to them, we will be incapable of realising our projects effectively.

All this, to be sure, is a long way from slit-eyed Japs and nigger minstrels. But it is important to distinguish between those collective images which have some basis in reality, and those which are pure fantasy. Generally speaking, the English upper middle classes are more reserved than, say, Robin Williams, but this is more a matter of their prep schools than their genes. To reject this claim in anti-stereotyping spirit is an excuse not to do something about the prep schools. English sangfroid has much to do with how you should treat colonials, and liberals who defend the English against this stereotype do less than justice to colonialism. Refusing to acknowledge that the Scots have not been famed for their cuisine is to suppress the history of poverty which underlies this fact. The real argument is not over whether people sometimes conform to type, but whether the causes of this are historical or biological.

Ewen and Ewen might belatedly concede that some stereotypes are neutral or affirmative, while continuing to condemn the more negative varieties. But some derogatory stereotypes are perfectly justified; and if only these authors would stop thinking almost exclusively of gender and ethnicity, they might come to recognise the fact. Some of the most abusive stereotypes of US corporate lawyers are far too tender-minded. One should not let the Nazis off the hook by denying that they tended to share a particularly repulsive set of personal characteristics.

You can always tell a liberal by his aversion to labels. Yet some labels are surely admirable. Nobody enjoys being called a female Caucasian, but ‘anti-racist’ is a different affair. It is neurotic to object to a label like ‘anti-racist’ because someone might think this was all there was to your inexhaustibly complex personality. This would be rather like never wearing purple because someone might think you did so all the time. A clutch of medieval nominalists aside, the idea that generic categories are invariably falsifying dates largely from Romanticism. Even the politically correct Ewen and Ewen concede that stereotyping in the literal sense (the word refers originally to an improved 18th-century printing technique) hastened the growth of a mass readership. Materially if not always culturally, stereotyping was a progressive affair.

For pre-Romantic aesthetics, the typical is a far more compelling matter than the individual. Just as Samuel Johnson could not enjoy a literary work he judged morally repugnant, so he thought the individual trifling and rather tedious compared to the universal. He just couldn’t see the point of particularity. Hegel, too, praised the typical; but by this he meant a fusion of the individual and the universal, by which general truths could be fleshed out in sensuously specific form. Pace the neoclassicists on the one hand and the postmodernists on the other, there need be no necessary opposition between the two. This Hegelian synthesis then became the basis of much subsequent Marxist criticism, all the way from Engels to Lukács. The typical was the opposite of the isolated individual, but also of the stereotype – of the reduction of individuality to a lifeless schema. In modern literary terms, it was the enemy of both Modernism and naturalism.

With Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, however, individuality reigns supreme. Nietzsche regarded language as a form of violence, riding roughshod over the uniqueness of things in its unavoidable generality. A tepid word like ‘leaf’ had to make do for all the millions of uniquely different bits of foliage on the planet. Language is a sinister simplification of reality. It is a curious kind of nominalism which fails to see that the generic nature of language is no more a deficiency than buttonholes are a flaw in a jacket. But it underpins a good deal of postmodern thought, sinking to its nadir in the work of Michel Foucault. ‘Naming,’ Ewen and Ewen write in Foucauldian vein, ‘is a form of exercising power,’ a claim which implies that power is always objectionable. It is not a view that the powerless generally share.

Typecasting is an encyclopedic browse through the annals of stereotyping, with a particular focus on the United States. The book contains some surreally potted history, whisking us from feudalism to Jefferson in three pages; it also feels the need to explain what ‘homo sapiens’ and ‘xenophobia’ mean, though not ‘genealogies’ or ‘taxonomy’. Even so, it is crammed with intriguing data. We learn that it was the journalist Walter Lippmann who introduced the term ‘stereotype’ into American culture; that Marx always judged the mental qualities of a stranger from the shape of his head, which may be carrying materialism a bit too far; and that so-called nigger minstrels in the United States were quite often blacked-up Jews and Irishmen who may have hoped to ingratiate themselves in this way with white society. Noses are of supreme importance. According to one phrenologist, ‘the nose alone . . . tells the story of its wearer’s rank and condition.’ In the view of one O.S. Fowler, acquisitiveness ‘is on each side of the middle portion of the nose . . . causing breadth of nose in proportion to the money-grasping instinct as in Jews’. For Johann Kaspar Lavater, the nose is ‘the foundation, or abutment, of the brain’. 19th-century phrenologists taught that nations with smaller heads were more easily conquered than those with large ones, while an inability to blush was thought to be characteristic of criminal types. Franz Joseph Gall, who invented phrenology, believed that the moral and religious faculties were located at the top of the brain, since this was the area of the skull closest to God.

Roosevelt, Coolidge and Churchill all expressed their enthusiasm for eugenics, and Rockefeller money funded eugenic research in Nazi Germany. The Kellogg cereal business supported the Race Betterment Foundation in the US, which awarded medals in a Fitter Families for Future Firesides contest with the inscription ‘Yea, I have a goodly heritage.’ Unexpectedly, however, William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted John Thomas Scopes for promoting evolutionary theory in the 1920s, turns out to have been less of a villain than he is usually painted. Scopes may have famously defended evolution, but he was also a keen advocate of eugenics, a creed which the anti-Darwinist Bryan rejected on grounds of social justice.

There are some eminently readable accounts here of the great scientific stereotypers, from Lavater’s new science of physiognomy to Linnaeus’s animal taxonomies, from Francis Galton’s physical measurements of ‘deviants’ to Lombroso’s infamous inquiries into the typical criminal cranium. (Today’s standard line on criminals is the reverse of this sham science, though just as suspect: the latest cliché is that criminals look just like you and me, always have a polite word for their neighbours, but keep themselves to themselves.) Galton, who coined the term ‘eugenics’ and whose racist arguments had some influence with his cousin Charles Darwin, frequented the slave markets of Constantinople; he noted how delighted young African women seemed to be at the prospect of their impending enslavement. ‘They seemed as merry as possible at the prospect of being sold,’ he enthuses, ‘and of soon finding, each of them, a master and a home.’ He also ranked women he passed in the street in terms of their beauty, though this is a practice hardly confined to eugenicists.

Typecasting does an excellent job of reminding us just how fearful of racial degeneration some of our recent ancestors were. Around the turn of the 20th century, mass immigration into the United States, in the wake of the emancipation of African-Americans, provoked a positive orgy of eugenicist anxiety. The American lawyer Madison Grant, whose book The Passing of the Great Race became Hitler’s bible, waxed lyrical about the distinction between ‘the Piccadilly gentleman of Nordic race and the cockney costermonger of the old Neolithic type’. The moral significance of nostrils and ear-lobes became something of a national obsession. Before that, the scientific inspection of supposed ethnic types had often enough merged with spectacle and entertainment, as with the exhibiting of the so-called Hottentot Venus in 19th-century London. Spectators could feel her protruding buttocks for an extra fee. When she died at the age of 26, the naturalist Georges Cuvier removed her genitals and presented them with a flourish to a gathering of the Academy of Science. There were public parades of ‘Bushmen’, wild men of Borneo and ‘Man-Eating Feegees’. Many of those exhibited did not survive their public exposure.

How far can you deduce reality from appearances? For Dickens, there is a continuum between the physical and the moral, as characters wear their consciousness like an eccentric piece of clothing. This is not true for George Eliot, for whom the truth of things cannot be read off from how they present themselves. If they could, Marx commented, there would be no need for science. What you see is not what you get. Yet Marx regarded the deceptive way in which capitalism presented itself to the observer as a material part of it, while Lenin spoke in similar terms of the ‘reality of appearances’. It is a phrase which Oscar Wilde, a man who was superficial in the deepest possible way, would surely have endorsed. Freud considered the ego and its impressions a kind of fiction, but one deeply anchored in the reality of the unconscious. For his part, Nietzsche dismissed this whole surface/depth model as a clapped-out piece of Platonism. Depths were a metaphysical illusion; but if one could not speak of depths then one could not speak of surfaces either. Swift plays both sides of the street in Gulliver’s Travels: there is an obvious link between the minuteness of the Lilliputians and their moral pettiness, but the gigantic hulks of the Brobdingnagians do not reflect any particular impulse to aggression.

If the art which finds the mind’s construction in the face is as bogus as Shakespeare’s Duncan suspects, does this leave us with a disabling dualism? The other side of stereotyping is the puritan insistence that what matters is what’s ‘inside’. To avoid being typecast, the self is dematerialised. The external trappings of human beings are discarded as so much dross. In Kantian style, freedom and value lie within, not in the degraded world of phenomena. It is hard to know how to avoid the more odious forms of stereotyping without falling for this lofty idealism; and if only Ewen and Ewen had reflected on their topic as much as they have researched into it, the point might have occurred to them. Their concept of stereotyping is as narrow as their survey of it is wide.

In one sense, stereotyping is the inevitable truth of existence in an increasingly uniform world. Like most distorted perceptions, it has its roots in reality. To view it as no more than a false perception, as this book tends to do, is to risk emptying it of substance. Yet stereotypes are by no means the whole truth either, even if the absurd ideology which insists that everyone is ‘special’ will not do either. The dilemma is beautifully captured in an exchange in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, in which Biff Loman angrily urges his deluded father to back off from his fruitless search for recognition: ‘Pop, I’m a dime a dozen and so are you!’ To which Willy returns the dignified response: ‘I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman!’ And both of them of course are absolutely right.