Eugenics- It’s too broad and prickly a subject to tackle in any meaningful way in the short strokes of a blog post frankly. Debatable issues, movements, historical consequences, ethical quandaries, scientific disciplines, philosophical attitudes all stem from or tangle with it like branches of a gnarled millennia old tree. One thing I can say for certain is that as with all Ideologies seeking to convert themselves into some dispassionate, quantifiable (and hence reputable) Science, Eugenics relied heavily on statistics. It follows that, as with all such endeavors, one of the chief concerns was how best to present said statistics in an affecting way. The Eugenics movement, being focussed as it was on issues of race, class, breeding, and illness (all sources of viscerally opinionated reaction in the annals of human discourse) was able to produce some doozies.
Looking back on the visual legacy of the American Eugenics movement is quite fascinating. Aside from the historical photographs (always of interest) you are faced with a seemingly endless array of statistical data, a prospect which you’d intuit to be a rather dry affair. In looking, however, you find yourself alternately offended, amused, repulsed, empathic, and generally engaged. When was the last time a powerpoint pie chart made you uncomfortable or the bar graph in the margins of a trade magazine pissed you off?
The lingering power in much of the Eugenics material can be attributed to the fact it was aimed at a “general” audience. A large swath of it was created in an effort to sway the general populace toward its position. In as much there is often a strange marriage of dispassionate math with the visual language of tabloid journalism. The result being a surprising kind of statistical provocation that feels more akin to propaganda than science.
The diagrams and brochures and flash cards, meanwhile, which were not necessarily designed for public consumption, having been drawn up in a time well before our current notions of political correctness, seem to jump off the page in their bluntness, challenging our accepted decorum. In other cases the notions of heredity being explored, in this age prior to advances in genetic research, often juxtapose traits and classifications which illicit involuntary guffaws.
In few cases are the materials simply bland.
At bottom I’d say this is because the materials are always focussed on the one subject we, none of us, can ignore, which we all have opinions and ideas about- ourselves. Our favorite subject, and by extension our second favorite subject as well, how others are different from ourselves.
In any case having come across the mother load of visual material that is The Eugenics Archive I thought I’d draw your attention to just a few representative items in their collection for your offense, amusement, repulsion and engagement-
At this point, so many years later, these items fascinate not particularly because of the data they convey but because of their method of conveyance- surely a failing from a statistical standpoint, but not from an ideological one. Which it could be argued was really the whole aim of the enterprise anyway. They sure push all the age old buttons don’t they? The same ones which our politicians and ideologues, not coincidentally, are still pushing.
Taken on the whole, with the parade of references to insanity, albinism, neurosis, sex crimes, feeblemindedness, gigantism, larceny, “pauperism,” schizophrenia, “idiocy,” achondroplasia, promiscuity, murder, epilepsy, hypertrichosis, and “natural ventriloqual power,” immersion for any period of time in these materials makes you feel as though you were wandering through an Hieronymus Bosch painting. ‘Course, I always thought Bosch had an almost preternatural talent for capturing the reality of humanity in his fantasy, so perhaps that’s as it should be.
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