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The Eyes Have It: Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen on the “Science of First Impressions”

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Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen at home, NYC, 2006. Photo: Yoko Inoue. © Yoko Inoue. From my December 2006 ID magazine Q&A with the authors.

(In its December 2006 issue, ID magazine ran my interview with Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen, two of our most incisive thinkers about the politics of images and the social history of consumer culture. But that wasn’t the half of it. ID didn’t have room for my intro, and had to truncate the interview for reasons of space. Here’s the director’s cut, with all of the insights that ended up on the cutting-room floor restored.)

Amid the cultural crossfire over illegal immigration, at a moment when 60 percent of the respondents to a Quinnipiac poll applauded the racial profiling of people who look “Middle Eastern,” the visual-culture critics and social historians Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen are pulling our stereotypes up by the roots.

Their new book, Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality (Seven Stories Press), is a history of stereotyping in racist science and popular culture. (Poke your browser into the Ewens’ spirited, intellectually omnivorous blog, “Stereotype and Society.”)

Revealing the origins of the pictures in our heads—the powerful images that shape our attitudes toward “enemy aliens,” the lower class, or anyone in a different skin—the Ewens make sense of our most pernicious myths by restoring their lost historical context: the eugenics of Francis Galton, the criminal anthropology of Cesare Lombroso, and other systems of scientific racism that molded the visual imagination of the modern age.

If that sounds like 497 pages of sternly self-flagellating political correctness, it isn’t. Profusely illustrated with period images, the book is an intellectual thrill ride, rollercoastering from the sad tale of the Hottentot Venus to hidden agendas in Roget’s Thesaurus; from the cannibal stereotype in King Kong to the deeper meanings of the minstrel show. In Typecasting, the Ewens open our minds by opening our eyes.

Mark Dery: In Typecasting, the act of stereotyping turns out to be central to our attempts to make sense of the social worlds we inhabit.

Elizabeth Ewen: That’s why we started with [the journalist and early writer on mass culture] Walter Lippmann. He says that first we define and then we see; what we see is already conditioned. Stereotypes become unconscious reflexes, ordering the world as you navigate it.

Stuart Ewen: Lippmann makes the argument that this repertory of presuppositions that we bring to interactions with other people is shaped by our culture. For instance, the first thing you see when you look at another person is this biological fiction—race—that gets in the way of other ways of seeing.

EE: There emerges this way of thinking that leads up to the ability of a culture to produce one image that represents a whole category of people. [The 18th century Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper, who classified humans according to a racial hierarchy], has this enormous array of skulls. One day, he pulls them down and fondles them and decides, on the basis of that, who has the proper facial angle and who doesn’t. But it’s based in each case on one skull representing entire groups of people. What it leaves out is as important as what’s in the frame of vision.

SE: Every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. One of the things that is built into the way in which [the 18th century Swedish botanist Carolus] Linnaeus defines a species is that there’s a single image that becomes the encompassing ideal of what that species is.

In [the sexual researcher Alfred] Kinsey’s work, the picture of a species is not about a single ideal type but about multiplicity. He’s been studying gall wasps forever, but what is the ideal gall wasp? In all of the hundreds of thousands of gall wasps he’s seen, none of them are the same! So, in fact, the law of nature is not the ideal type; the law of nature is that there is no ideal type.

Part of the history that we’re dealing with is the systematic intellectual and aesthetic tradition in which exclusivity—the ideal type—becomes the iron law of understanding. Notions of multiplicity are marginalized from what is considered to be scientific or aesthetic truth.

EE: The interesting thing is that these images work through juxtaposition. Every image has its counter-image. When you went to the phrenology museum, you saw the busts of presidents but you also saw the busts of miscreants.

SE: What we live with today is the intrinsic outcome of a process that’s been going on for some time.

The repertory of fixed impressions that is developed in phrenology and criminal anthropology gets animated within Hollywood. The movies dramatized the ability to give you stereotypes that would allow you to know who the good person was and who the bad person was in an instant.

We have a whole chapter on King Kong, the most recent version of which portrays the natives of Skull Island as much more atavistic and less comical than they were in the original. It’s closer to a 19th century vision of atavism as a primordial menace lurking within dark people. The inner core of stereotype is this fear that there may be a transgression, that the degenerate is gonna run away with your woman. Stereotype is how peoples’ deepest fears about themselves get projected, imagistically, onto others.

MD: Or even onto a design aesthetic, which then becomes “degenerate,” to use the Nazi term of art. I’m reminded of Adolf Loos’s essay “Ornament and Crime” (1908). Loos, a modernist, is horrified by Art Nouveau—the “feminine” sexuality of its writhing lines, its “primitive” love of ornamentation.

SE: Modernism was predicated on certain ideal forms. It’s incumbent upon designers to think about the extent to which certain aesthetic ideals may contain some of the same premises that taxonomies of human difference have reinforced in other realms. The notion that there are ideal forms—certain typographies that are ideal for producing this, that, and the other kind of response—is a particular way of seeing that designers really need to re-evaluate.

Let’s go back to this whole question, well-discussed in the book, of taxonomies that are predicated on the idea that there are ideal types—”This is what a Negro is,” “This is what a Caucasian is.” The notion that Stephen Jay Gould argues in much of his work on natural history—that the ideal in fact is a complete obfuscation and that variation, not fixity, is the truth about form—would be a major challenge for design, because I think fixity is part of the kit bag of design traditions: “Here is this tradition, here’s that tradition.”

EE: If you’re a designer, I think you have to think in new ways. You have to examine where popular culture is going and what images truly represent peoples’ desires outside of the framework of stereotype, because if it’s true that on the one hand conservatism has this hold on the culture, on the other there’s a wide variety of diversity happening.

SE: Linnaeus’s system for categorizing plants is based completely on physical structures—on visual evidence. Before Linnaeus, the taxonomy of plants was based on their use within human existence.

Design and architecture need to re-connect to the utility of those forms within human lives—the way in which they mesh with human behaviors, the passed-on “finger knowledge” that people on survive on. Rather than becoming students of design, designers need to become students of society—of the human uses of things.

For example, early forms of government-built public housing utilized nature as a grid and placed people’s lives within it, leaving cars on the outside, creating pedestrian walks for shopping and leisure-time activities, with public meeting houses placed in the center.

The design world is still very much married to the logic of typecasting—the logic of ideal types. For the designer to really imagine the way in which the form connects to how people live, the kind of uses they make of things (I realize this is very hard within the world of the client) would represent a revolution in design.

EE: When you teach about mass media and mass culture, one of the things that you do is you ask people to freeze the frame, to think about what’s in the image. Once they understand the composition of the image, they begin to see the world in different ways.

SE: What we’re asking in Typecasting is: What does each generation pass on to the next that will prepare that generation to deal with the moment when they encounter people not like themselves? Do we hand them fixed taxonomies that are designed to serve the interests of power, which is what Lippmann and most of the people in Typecasting are talking about? Or do we provide them with tools to unpack these visual narratives—to be able to see themselves in others, to imagine seeing through other people’s eyes?