The Individual and the Stereotype: From Lavater to the War on Terror

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The Individual and the Stereotype: From Lavater to the War on Terror

This paper examines the technologies of surveillance and biometrics and the resultant slippage
between the individual, the type and the stereotype. The stereotype emerges from between the general
and the individual as a coherent, simplified, easily readable idea.
There have been many attempts to find a particular characteristic that is unique to an individual that
enables absolute identification. Alphonse Bertillon sought it in a combination of body measurements.
Later this was superseded with fingerprints which are now in doubt. There also has been a search for
clues on the surface of the body to classify type, giving rise to a belief in a separate species; the born
criminal. With the lack of certainty of the uniqueness of the individual identifiers despite the increased
surveillance, blurring continues to occur between the individual and the stereotype.

The Individual and the Stereotype: From Lavater to the War on Terror

Since the late 1960s artists have sought to unravel the complexities of the gaze and to demonstrate that
there is no simple, or even necessary connection, between seeing and knowing, or the observer and the
observed. Scientific claims to objectivity have been contested in numerous ways - from historical
investigations into the construction of photographic truth that reveal the underlying power structures
and social practices - to efforts to redeploy the techniques of surveillance in quite different directions.
Artists such as Bruce Nauman, Sophie Calle, Nancy Burson, and Julie Gough, have engaged with such
discourses on individual identity and the functioning of modern surveillance systems and have sought
to disorder such scientific certainties along with the monolithic power structures that have grown up
around them.

This paper explores nineteenth century criminology and current surveillance and biometrics, examining
stereotypes of criminality that were formed over two centuries and are still in use. If nineteenth century
criminology set the stage, and the twentieth century elaborated the theory of criminal deviance, many
of these ideas were successfully integrated into the core of biometrics.

Much of the early material focuses on the face or facial expression but it also takes in systems of body
measurement that were popular well into the twentieth century. I shall look at the work of Lavater,
Gall, Lombroso, Bertillon and Havelock Ellis before examining current biometrics.

The physiognomist Lavater, responding to the momentous cultural shifts of the Enlightenment,
attempted to codify facial features and expression into a system that could be universally applied.1
Barbara Stafford's study of Lavater situates his work as a form of Enlightenment 'body criticism' - a
type of 'corporeal connoisseurship' that 'diagnosed unseen spiritual qualities by scrutinizing visible
traits.'2 To Stafford, Lavater invented a uniquely modern bodily lexicon, that sought to create continuity
between the interior of the body and its exterior.


Lavater aimed to rationalise, categorise and master a whole range of visual phenomena during a period
of chaotic cultural shifts and deep anxiety about the truthfulness of the visual world. The rise of
physiognomy was intimately tied to a revolution in communication of the late eighteenth century that
cast doubt on the idea of visual truth.3 In his Essays on Physiognomy, Lavater argued that facial
expression provided the most direct access to character and he extended the anatomical logic of the
face to the whole body, which he divided into a tripartite structure composed of animal, moral and
intellectual life.4

Lavater drew on Camper's attempt to establish the modern geometry of ideal beauty, his 'facial index',
where the upright face of Greek statues represented the ideal, with the subject's facial angle situating