Ewen and Ewen
Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality
Terry Eagleton writes:
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.
Excerpted from LRB, November 30, 2006. An earlier excerpt was taken from the web site of the London Review of Books Bookstore, and was quoted verbatim from there. Now that we have a full copy of the review, we have reposted the pertinent section of the review, including wording not seen on the Bookstore site. The above contains Eagleton's only substantive discussion of the book and its contents.