Book Reviews: March / April 2007

By Staff

Skin Deep: TYPECASTING: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality

African American soldiers before World War I “showed an average mental age of ten” based on an “intelligence” test requiring knowledge of card games, Becky Sharpe, ensilage, advertising jingles, and the most prominent industry of Gloucester. And the New York Sun once required job applicants to undergo personality assessments based on the shapes of their noggins, a practice Oliver Wendell Holmes called “an attempt to estimate the money in the safe by the knobs on the outside.”

Typecasting isn’t just a history of such stereotyping. The 555-page tome also is a disturbing collective biography of people who measured heads with calipers to determine the best and brightest, exhibited dark-skinned men in zoos with apes, cut open the skulls of criminals, organized state fair competitions awarding the “fittest families,” and carried out compulsory sterilization. People, in other words, bent on preventing “the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society.”

In capable prose, media historians Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen describe the way minstrel shows, films, thesaurus-making, criminal anthropology, and the Adam and Eve story developed or prolonged “the notion that society was divided between those whose fertility should be encouraged and those whose hereditary lineage called for curtailment.” * The authors make it clear that the “eugenic” policies of Nazi Germany were inspired by practices started in the United States. Less explicitly, but no less significantly, they describe the historical roots of contemporary social control and practices such as racial and ethnic profiling, mug shots, fingerprinting, identity cards, and databases.
Chris Dodge


SURVEILLANCE

by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon)

Travel writer turned novelist Jonathan Raban has crafted a disarming portrait of American society set in the not-too-distant future, an eerie tableau laced with ruminations on the “War on Terror,” and our consequent transformation into a surveillance-hungry society. Everyone is watching everybody else: A journalist investigates the reclusive author of a best-selling memoir; daughters monitor mothers; and tenants spy on landlords (who are spying on them). No one is spared and no one is innocent. As Raban articulates this vision of post-9/11 society, where information is an imperative (and is constantly confused with knowledge), he implicates even his readers, offering a guilty and fascinating peek into the private motivations of all-too-real characters as they carry out their acts of surveillance.
Julie Hanus


INFIDEL

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is best known as the scriptwriter of the controversial film that rocked the Netherlands and led to the slaying of director Theo van Gogh. Less known, however, is her conviction that Islam perpetuates ignorance and inequality. The Muslim world needs an Enlightenment, she argues, and, indeed, she has a matchbook in hand. With poignant honesty, this autobiography traces Hirsi Ali’s lifelong struggle with her faith; describes the war, poverty, and fundamentalism that plagues Africa; and peers into the hidden, often dismal, lives of Muslim women. Hirsi Ali challenges the reader’s opinions about Islam and warns of the dangers of moral relativism. Whether you agree with her or not, Hirsi Ali is asking the hard questions that no one else dares to ask, and for that, this is an immensely important book.
-Elizabeth Oliver


GOTH: Undead Subculture

edited by Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby (Duke University)

“It is a more powerful position to reject society than to be rejected by it,” states one essay in Goth: Undead Subculture, and glimmers of insight like this keep the casual reader churning through this collection of writings that probe beneath its subjects’ pale skin. The academic-minded book is best suited to cultural studies aficionados and goths themselves, but may be useful to anyone seeking to understand the ideologies and lifestyles of the black-eyeliner set. It exhumes the roots of goth in punk rock, vampire lore, Renaissance fashions, and other sources; probes identity and community; and traces goth’s arc in pop culture, from David Bowie and Siouxsie Sioux to Edward Scissorhands and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The upshot: Though it’s been appropriated, assimilated, and imitated, goth isn’t about to give up the ghost.
-Keith Goetzman


THE AVERAGED AMERICAN: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public

by Sarah E. Igo (Harvard University Press)

Most people don’t bat an eye at the myriad statistics and studies cited by the media, the government, and the dinner guest. In The Averaged American, Sarah E. Igo documents the “movement of social data into everyday life,” a fascinating shift rarely mentioned in discussions of the United States in the middle of the 20th century. Igo’s well-written, well-organized book focuses on three iconic moments: the Middletown studies of the “supposedly typical American community,” the emergence of the Gallup and Roper opinion polls, and the controversial Kinsey reports on sexual behavior. Though some people disputed the methods or results of these studies, most accepted their newfound importance as the “inevitable product of a modern ‘mass society.’ ” But, as Igo compellingly argues, the studies themselves were every bit as responsible for creating and maintaining that mass society.
Danielle Maestretti


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