Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Whole Analysis: Geoffrey Nunberg's "Ascent Of the A-Word"

(NOTE: Not safe for work due to choice language.)

"Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master." --A Christmas Story

Language has always fascinated me in its forms, slang, double-entendres, and ability to be cut up, mixed, and worked with as a medium. If you visit this blog even semi-consistently, you've likely noticed my penchant for witty and (more often than not) lame puns for the titles; this piece is no exception. It's my way of inserting some amusement and goofiness into what are otherwise serious critiques and analyses. Growing up, I'm sure that most people were familiar with these argument regarding profanity: "it's not creative," "it's an easy way to complain about something," and the like, with the underlying message being that bad words, in addition to being distasteful, are weak substitutes for linguistic play. There's an element of truth to those ideas, but it's a sort of cop-out: it's a way to critique someone's intelligence instead of deploying the usual argument of "you shouldn't use those words." But in reality, dirty words themselves have an amazingly diverse history, both linguistically and sociologically. Many of them can be traced throughout centuries and have compelling origins. Recently, analyses of "dirty words" have resulted in some very well-regarded books, including but not limited to: On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt; The F-Word by Jesse Shiedlower; and Cunt by Inga Muscio. All of these titles have been on my to-read list for quite some time, but recently I was drawn to the recently published Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years by Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at UC-Berkeley.

Despite the book's cover, I read the book because it promised to be a look at the ramifications of the meanings behind "asshole" from a linguistic and cultural lens, not a scathing, tired look at celebrity and political figures on whom the designation has been applied (although Nunberg does write about some public figures). It also looks at the "quality" of what he coins "assholism:" the personification and actions that lead to one being branded that way.

"The notion of the asshole is a much better place to start. There's a lot to be learned just from tracking the history and use of the word itself. Unlike civility, asshole operates underneath the radar of reflection. We might deliberate over whether some colleague or relative is better described as an asshole, a prick, or a piece of work, but that's a debate about personalities, not semantics. In fact, people often talk about the word as if it didn't actually have much of a descriptive meaning--even dictionaries are content to define it with vague phrases like 'an irritating or contemptible person.' In truth, asshole is a lot more specific than that, but in any case isn't a word we acquire from dictionaries or explicit instruction....Ask people what an asshole is and you're more likely to get a list of names like the one this book opened with than a semantic analysis (Nunberg 15)."

Nunberg performs an eye-opening look at how the word is generally used. It's almost never applied to a woman, and seems to fit much better within specific scenarios, rather than as an all-encompassing slur against annoying people. It ties into a sense of entitlement and the understanding that an asshole doesn't know that he (or sometimes she) is acting in a such a manner. For example:

"Yet there's a fair consensus about what kinds of behavior qualify someone for the asshole label, and they're only a fraction of the things you could do to make yourself 'foolish or contemptible,' as the OED defines the word. You can be an asshole for abruptly cutting into a line of cars waiting in the left-turn lane, but probably not for failing to signal a turn or texting when you drive. You can be an asshole for cheating on your wife or girlfriend, but not for cheating on you expense reports or a final exam. You can be an asshole for taking credit for a colleague's work, but probably not for plagiarizing from someone else's book. A CEO may count as an asshole if he yells at his assistants or makes sexual advances to women employees, but not if he simply gets his board to pay him a bloated compensation package. And even if you believe that George W. Bush lied about WMDs in Iraq, that by itself wouldn't make him an asshole, though he might have earned the label for his press-conference smirks (Nunberg 28)."

Given today's media, political, and entertainment culture, it's almost impossible to imagine this book without concrete examples, but I found the political sections, while relevant, to be tiresome, but through no fault of the author. Personally, I'm still tired of the constant political ads that dominated the internet and television for the last few months, so Nunberg's political analysis felt like something I've already read and experienced multiple times. The general, non-specific sections appealed to me more. I can imagine other writers getting the idea for a book of this nature and finding themselves stuck in a pattern of rehashing or constantly referring to the same ideas. But first and foremost, Nunberg is a linguist, and since language can sometimes be overlooked in cultural sketches, he has a variety of angles to play. I quietly groaned when he introduced Tucker Max's "writings," but instead of going for the obvious critiques, he takes Max's form of assholism and explores it for what it truly is. The passage below is wonderful in its deconstruction and humorous conclusion:

"This posture clearly has some appeal for the sorts of young yobbos who walk around wearing 'I'm an asshole, deal with it' T-shirts. But asshole isn't about to be rehabilitated as a positive term, no more than bitch is, outside of some feminist circles. In fact it really isn't meant as an effort at reclamation so much as a show of bad-boy naughtiness. There's a certain delusion in the assumption that there's some virtue in coming clean about one's assholism. The fact is there's no such thing as an 'honest asshole'; it's in the nature of being an asshole that you're obtuse about your entitlements and about the way others see you. If you're consciously and deliberately offending or manipulating someone, you necessarily belong to another breed. So when you hear someone proudly declaring himself an asshole, it's a fair conclusion that he's not an asshole at all, he's just a dick (Nunberg 132)."

Toward the end of the book, even as the political examples mount (and Nunberg deserves a tip of the cap for pointing out examples of assholism on the left and the right), the overall theme becomes one of civility, or lack thereof. For all of its paradoxical variety and uniqueness, assholism boils down to how humans interact with each other. Civility has strains of social class relations, an idea given a good number of pages, but turns into a simple notion of respect. If you're an asshole, you simply don't think about others (alas, this isn't narcissism--assholism is its own singular entity). What people normally view as an asshole behavior is sometimes a very different piece negativity.

"The items in that list hardly exhaust the forms of political assholism--and they certainly don't represent all forms of incivility that are abroad these days--but they underscore assholism's destructive efforts on public discourse, the license it gives to dishonesty and self-delusion. The problem isn't with the moral logic of assholism itself, but with the way it has bubbled up into the public sphere. In the course of our daily rounds, we're frequently reminded how useful it is to have the sentence 'What an asshole!' available to us, whether or not we utter it aloud. I suppose someone could argue that the existence of the word itself creates a vicious circle of rudeness, and that faced with an asshole's provocations, we'd be better people if we could resist the temptation to respond in kind (Nunberg 210-211)."

What I found myself enjoying in The Ascent of the A-Word was Nunberg's seriousness. There are humorous asides and examples sprinkled throughout, but overall, it's an academic exploration of a word that transcends all people and classes. With some of the books out there on profanity, I sometimes get a vibe that some of them might be a wink at the reader, a sort of juvenile thrill at examining bad language. But Nunberg's goal isn't to induce thought-provoking giggles; we live in a time when assholism invades virtually every relationship, opinion piece, and look at cultural studies. Remarkably, this is one of TWO books on the subject to appear this year (In October, Aaron James published Assholes: A Theory). My review of this work might seem very basic, but it's the sort of book that some will avoid altogether or lump into the still-growing pile of thinly-veiled political works. The examples I've chosen show the variety of paths Nunberg has chosen, and it's a carefully researched look into a wide range of studies. Most importantly, it continually reminds the reader that referring to someone as an asshole is sometimes self-reflective; the words we use to disparage might sometimes cover up personality traits that we assume we don't have within ourselves.

Work Cited:
Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Ascent Of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years. Copyright 2012 by Geoffrey Nunberg.


gary whitford said...

Sometimes no other word can say it like these forbidden syllables. I love Nunberg, and I'm looking forward to reading this book. Thanks for the review and your perspective. The truly profane words in our language, the unacceptable speech, have nothing to do with body functions or blasphemy - it's when we degrade others. Check out my column:

Jamie Yates said...


Thanks for your f**king kind words, and for sharing your equally f**king well-written column.

But in all seriousness, I agree with you: I work in bookselling, and there are so many scenarios when a well-timed expletive alleviates stress, but for as liberal as I am with my "off-color" words, I do feel that random profanity can be tiresome. I hope you check out Geoffrey's book soon--it's so fascinating from its myriad of angles. And thank you again for commenting!