January 19, 2006


Alphabet City 10: Suspect. Edited by John Knechtel. MIT Press. $15.95.

     Boil down the thinking of an interdisciplinary think tank on a single subject, put the boiled-down material between the covers of a thick (350-page) but small-format (a bit more than six-by-six inches) hardcover book, and you have Alphabet City 10.  Alphabet City – founded in 1991 by John Knechtel, editor of the book – says it is committed to “advancing knowledge and public debate on fundamental concepts” in a nonpartisan way.  What that means in Suspect is a series of written, drawn and photographed essays on the dual meanings of the word: suspect, the noun, meaning someone thought to have done something…and suspect, the verb, meaning to think that someone else has done something or that something has happened.

     Anthologies tend to be mixed bags, and this one is more mixed than most.  There are almost two dozen contributors, from A (Stephen Andrews) to Z (Slavoj Žižek).  The book’s opening offers some of its most startling images: eyes, from the human to the Masonic one on the dollar bill to an eyelike red machine glow.  Eyes also figure in an intriguing black-and-white photo essay by Patricia Rozema, which seems like a film noir displayed frame by frame until the text becomes needlessly self-important: “Hmmm. There’s not much force in moral suasion absent the mechanisms of enforcement.”  Intriguing too is “The Sequel” by Joey Dubuc, in which the reader becomes a digital drawing located in a nonexistent city in which Dubuc presents binary possibilities involving sneakers, an ATM, an arcade and more.  The book also offers photos: of airliners being blown up, of detainees in Iraq, of Webcam views disrupted by various occurrences, and more.

     Among the essays are ones on advice that philosopher Immanuel Kant might give the United Nations, on the case of Madrid bombing suspect Brandon Mayfield (who was eventually cleared), and on security surveillance technologies used in three cities (Amsterdam, Beijing and London).  There is a study of the 1970 Italian Film Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, an attempt to determine what it means to be a suspect by enlisting the aid of Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe, and a graphic novel about an artist arrested because his petri-dish art was considered possibly dangerous under anti-terrorism statutes.

     These disparate approaches to disparate views of the subject of “suspect” come to no conclusion and never quite avoid the impression that they are often being clever for the sake of cleverness rather than informative, argumentative, convincing or even discursive.  Style is as important here as substance, with the result that the book is handsome to hold and look at, the individual items are often intriguing, but the reader is likely to come away feeling at least as much entertained as enlightened.

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