Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play

August 28, 2008

This is the book that puts the "pun", not to mention the "punk", in "punctuation". Jennifer DeVere Brody focuses on punctuation as performance, highlighting its role in novels, poetry, art, dance and racial and gender politics. She plays with full stops, semicolons and apostrophes all the while, including a chapter in the form of a dialogue during which one character talks largely in smileys. The result is a book of spirited cultural criticism, not a monograph on linguistics.

There is much food for thought here. Brody's discussion of the links between gayness and quotation marks struck me as important, as did her insights into the typography and structure of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a key text of modern US African-American literature. This brings me neatly to the chapter that resonated most strongly for me, called "Hyphen-nation".

In a large, well-known country across the Atlantic, it is common for people to describe themselves as "African-Americans" or "Asian-Americans". Brody explores in some detail the questions that these terms raise, for the Right as well as the Left. Pat Buchanan, who stood for US President in 2000 for the far-Right Reform Party, looks forward to a day "when there are no 'hyphenated Americans', when all are proud to be called, simply, Americans". At the other end of the spectrum, Brody shows us a lively debate, among people who work actively against racism, about whether the hyphenated names have served their purpose.

These are real and important issues, and they are highly topical in other countries too, such as a certain little island on this side of the Atlantic. The language is different here, partly because we don't use "British" as a noun, and "Briton" is used only for the remote past: we talk of "ancient Britons", but instead of "Asian Britons" we use "British Asians": in fact, mostly we use longer expressions such as "the Chinese community in Britain".

In my naive and old-fashioned opinion, though, the issues here are quite simple. When people migrate, it is an opportunity for the migrants and the host community to broaden and enrich their cultural and linguistic lives. The new whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course, in reality this often doesn't happen, and instead we find that migrants feel at home nowhere, with inter-ethnic tension rearing its ugly head. This is because of racism and other prejudices that are evil and sick - but not complicated, and surely destined to die out as humanity matures.

Meanwhile, hyphenated people of mixed heritage should see themselves as free to fill both sides of the hyphen as much as they wish: if someone claims to be 80 per cent Somali and 100 per cent British, that's fine with me: cultural and linguistic enrichment can, of course, accumulate indefinitely. The musician Daniel Barenboim is a mixture of Argentinian, Israeli, European and American, and he can add up the percentages to make hundreds if he likes (as long as he goes on playing Beethoven). If this sounds complicated and quirky, that is as it should be: monoculture is so-o-o boring.

This is an unusual book, and much of it is intensely annoying: in particular, the exclusive focus on America, and the heavy writing style - the text is full of "quintessential binaries", whatever they are. I'm sorry that the author didn't say more about that ubiquitous contemporary creature, the slash (aka oblique/virgule/stroke). Ultimately the book does not fully convince, although it's better value than Lynne Truss and her punctuation police any day.

Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play

By Jennifer DeVere Brody. Duke University Press. 240pp, £45.00 and £11.99. ISBN 9780822342182 and 42359. Published 15 June 2008

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