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I want to describe Geoffrey Nunberg as a, like, leftist liberal linguist William Safire with a better sense of humor, but Nunberg takes issue with that political modifier. The simplistic ideology that the term implies is no longer (if it ever was) an accurate reflection of the political landscape. And in any case, overuse and misuse of the term by Rush Limbaugh and company has rendered it about as politically meaningful as "toaster oven."

Among the many linguists who write for a lay audience, no one writes with the engaging style and acuity of Nunberg, whose recent work is collected in Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times. Nunberg is a Fresh Air commentator on NPR, a contributor to The New York Times, chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and, oh, a plethora of other credentials that I won't include, lest I make him (and myself, for my enthusiasm) sound like even more of a grammar geek.

But to judge by this collection, Nunberg would be a good addition to anyone's fantasy dinner party. He is something of a polymath, using language as a jumping-off point for inquiries into everything from blogging to Bush ("typo," "thinko" or shrewdly "faux-Bubba"?) to Arab souk bartering. (If there's no word for "compromise" in Arabic, he wonders, "is everybody paying retail?")

His insights into language are remarkably astute, enlightening, and -- here's a new one -- unpretentious. (He gives a smart defense of the utility of "like" used in Valley Girl mode to differentiate between a narrative quote and a performance, or to flavor a phrase with a dash of deconstruction.)

Nunberg has little interest in the games of "gotcha!" grammarians. He prefers to catch and correct people using language to get away with slippery cheats of logic and reason, with the corruption and occlusion of ethical distinctions -- with using language to avoid the burden of an open and honest debate. It's a, like, "noble crusade," you know? -- Thomas Bell

Empire: Nozone IX
Edited by Nicholas Blechman
(Princeton Architectural Press)

Smile for the camera, citizen. You'll have to tilt back your head and look to the sky. You won't see the satellite, but I promise it sees you. We read what you wrote in your private electric note, and I'm here to remind you that criticism is blasphemy when directed toward our holy heroes who bravely risk your children's lives to protect you from the ululating hordes. You wouldn't want to hurt the empire, would you?

Dipped in the olive green of the military machine, Empire drops pixilated four-bit flares into the murk of the rising imperialism perceived by the coalition of artists, designers, photographers and writers whose work is collected in this graphic anti-imperialist (and sometimes vaguely anarchist) manifesto.

Imagine a bipolar Wired that has gone off its meds: photographs, comics, interviews and essays, pencil drawings of Rumsfeld and Rice -- all hovering around the indicators of imperialism like predators on patrol.

Who is our latest stand-in for the holy Romans, Britain, or the Third Reich? Henning Wagenbreth posits a disinterred Napoleon, ruling from a subterranean empire with submarines, missile silos, concentration camps, ray guns and genetically designed saboteurs bred in bottles.

Repurposing Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe, Peter Kuper draws the obvious lies of the oligarchy. This is not, the agents of empire insist, an invasion, pollution, unemployment and all the rest. Creepy needlepoint samplers by Steven Savage depict the WMDs of the world. And Jennifer Daniel draws the six degrees of Kevin Bacon linking the Footloose freedom fighter to Osama bin Laden.

Totalizing technocrats got you down? Don't worry -- just pop some of Wink's "Non-Prescription Strength Placebo (500mg)." If one pill doesn't do the trick, keep taking more until you feel "numb, giddy or oblivious." Then, as Steven Appleby reminds us: "Contentment through Consumption. Colonialism through Commerce." Better buy this book. Feeding the gluttonous economy is patriotic, or so we're told. This self-destructing propaganda won't cure all your ills, but it's a good MRI to help find the wires they've implanted in our skulls. -- Bell


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