Typecasting: On The Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality
By Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen. Seven Stories Press, USD 34.95
Reviewed by Steven Heller
Stereotyping was the name given by the French printer Fermin Didot in 1794 to his novel printing process by which papier maché moulds were made from pages of handset type and used to produce duplicate plates, cast in metal. That stereotyping – the all-too-common act of classifying human beings – began as a graphic arts process is sobering. As Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen note in their important new book, Typecasting, ‘Within recent history, the media’s capacity to spawn mass impressions instantaneously, has been a pivotal factor in the dissemination of stereotypes.’ By more than mere implication graphic designers and illustrators have been in large part responsible for the mistruths.
In this encyclopedic collection of brief but intense essays, the Ewens trace the origins and manifestations of ‘typecasting’ or stereotyping and the myths largely perpetrated for the purpose of maintaining power and establishing hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. They show how the exploitation of difference has been used as a political, social, and religious weapon in the propagation of hierarchical systems.
The stereotype became a more significant social tool – a means to shape what Walter Lippmann called ‘public mind’ – during what the Ewens label the ‘Age of Spectatorship’ of the early twentieth century. But the reliance on stereotyping as a social determinant begins earlier during the Middle Ages when nascent capitalism emerges.
A world engaged in exploration and mercantile trade obliterated many of the boundaries that separated peoples and cultures. Population shifts from rural to urban owing to ‘enclosure movements,’ whereby once open farm and grazing lands were now circumscribed by strict boundaries, forced migration to cities. The new inhabitants needed to be taught their respective places, and thus fit into proscribed types . . .
In Typecasting, The Ewens' exploration brings together science, myth, religion and art in ways that few graphic design books have ever done. In chronicling taxonomies of numerous official types, the Ewens have provided an invaluable textbook on the way in which our visual perceptions and misperceptions have been perpetuated in ways both benign and evil...
Their study shows that even in the realm of stereotyping everything is contextual. Certain fears of difference seem to have made sense at various times in history, even if the results—exploitation, persecution, extermination—are senseless by our standards today. Eugenics, the pseudo-science developed by the Englishman, Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, had many adherents, including such liberals as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. Little could they predict that the Nazis would take Eugenics to its next radically criminal extreme—but the roots were there.
The Ewens have provided a valuable history, but Typecasting also sheds needed light on the processes of persuasion and misinformation today. In many advertising agencies, publicity firms and design companies, typecasting is carried out as a matter of course. It has become such a part of our communications business routine that it is easy to ignore. The Ewens show that too many of world's persistent ills derive from the populace's happy ignorance.
© eye magazine, quantum publishing
For the full text of this review by Steven Heller, see Eye No. 63