Friday, February 23, 2007

Historically Contingent Features

Mark Kaplan points to this Valve discussion of Terry Eagleton's recent review of a book about stereotyping in the London Review of Books (subscribers only, which I am not, so I haven't read it). Eagleton apparently offers a strange defense of stereotyping (strange, I guess, because it's coming from him and is so common, and easily punctured). I like Mark's comment:
. . .what makes it a stereotype is [. . .] that it essentialises what are historically contingent features. The English stereotype of the lawless Irish (under colonial rule) overlooked that it was this foreign and imposed law that was being resisted or disavowed, not ‘Law itself’. (Indeed, ‘Irish’ itself might be seen as proto-stereotypical, since a diverse population, having in common the fact being of under colonial rule, is then turned into a positive entity, ‘The Irish’.) Likewise, with stereotypes of ‘lazy’ colonised peoples etc - they don’t want to work for you etc. Stereotyping is de-historicising, edits out context/ relations of power and so on.
This is always an important point, but especially so now, as we continue to find ourselves doing battle with people pushing for war by appealing to and relying on some essentialized picture of how a whole people are, or how all adherents to a given religion necessarily believe and will act.

More locally, I note that it is similarly unhelpful when people think they have some special ability to identify more refined stereotypes--their resultant models are no more accurate in predicting what people will do, or how or why they will do it.

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