Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Presenting the Third Person
Emile Benveniste claimed that “‘Person’ belongs only to I/you and is lacking in il” because the third person is never fully present (“The Nature of Pronouns,” in Problems in General Linguistics , trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (U of Miama P, 1971), 217). As though through an extension of Benveniste’s logic, direct address per se has been taken as a prototype of desirable and ethical utterance, to the detraction of alternatives to address, especially third person locutions. While “I” and “you” “refer to themselves” in a self-actualizing manner in the moment of discourse, according to Benveniste, third person pronouns are “never . . . reflective of the instance of discourse,” but rather “predicate . . . someone or something outside the instance” (222, 221). For Benveniste, the “third person”—to which he always refers in quotation marks, to qualify it as the so-called “third person”— “in fact represents the unmarked member of the correlation of person. . . .the ‘third person’ is indeed literally a ‘non-person’” (221).
Benveniste compares the inherently figurative notion of “person” to the Greek term for inflected verb forms, “πρóσωπα [prosopa], the personae, the ‘figurations’” (Steven Ungar, “Forwarding Addresses: Discourse as Strategy in Barthes and Derrida,” in Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 15 (1982), 7, quoting Benveniste 195). Benveniste explains that the demotion of the third person is to be understood linguistically only, and not figuratively or allegorically as making claims about the way human beings do or should speak to each other. But Benveniste’s warning seems impossible for even him to follow. The linguistic limitations of the third person pronoun contribute to the moral elevation of the entire mode of first person/second person address over that of third person statement, and Problems in General Linguistics participates in this moralization. It’s at the very moment that Benveniste underlines the distinction between literal linguistic and figurative shadings that his own language becomes most violent figuratively, as though the disclaimer gave the figurative dimension freer rein. Benveniste writes: “the ‘third person’ must not. . . be imagined as a person suited to depersonalization,” and the reader expects him to warn of the dangers of seduction by grammar or trope. He doesn’t. Instead, he goes on to explain that the reason that the third person should not be imagined as depersonalized is that only a person can be depersonalized, while in the third person “there is no apheresis of the person; it is exactly the non-person” (200). The unwitting implication is that if it’s wrong to imagine the third person as a depersonalized person, that’s only because it should be imagined instead as something even less.
We might be able to set aside the figuration Benveniste both brackets and performs, as he suggests, were it not for the fact that Benveniste’s entire project interprets the empty and hence infinitely receptive formalism of “I”/“you” address through Kantian values that Benveniste brings to linguistics in the first place, and that also shape most liberal and some contemporary leftist political theory. “I” and “you” are privileged forms in Benveniste’s system for reasons that resemble the reasons that emptiness is put forward as a feature of ethical categories by Lacan, Badiou, Laclau, and Zizek, in their different ways—by Laclau, for example, when he writes that “if ethical experience is the experience of the unconditioned in a fully conditioned universe, it has to be necessarily empty and devoid of all normative content” (“Ethics, Normativity, and the Heternomy of the Law,” in Law, Justice, and Power: Between Reason and Will, ed. Sinkwan Cheng (Stanford UP, 2004), 179; for Laclau, the emptiness of ethical abstraction “has nothing to do with any formalism” in the Kantian sense because Kant’s formalism is still normative). It’s not too much to say that the contemporary affinity between formalist ethics and the ethics of address depends on the coincidence between linguistic and figurative person that Benveniste both suspends and exploits in Problems in General Linguistics. As only the first person/second person dyad, unencumbered by any prior referent, is universally capacious in the instance of present discourse, the first and second person pronouns and address as such seem to correspond to the realm of ethics, and the third person pronoun and third person locution, with their untidy references to something outside the utterance, perhaps to the realm of politics.
From the perspective of the moralized first person, atrophy and hypertrophy of the third person pronoun form two sides of the same pathology: the proliferation of the third person is like no pronoun at all. Underuse of person in general and of the first person in particular supposedly evade agency and relation, as in the “passive” and pronoun-poor speech of autistic children. Complementarily, since third person pronouns depend on prior referents, overuse of the third person creates the same obfuscation—as happens in the language of Alzheimer’s patients, who don’t remember what the antecedent is so use pronouns a lot, hoping to hit on a passable connection. Pragmatic linguists David Cram and Paul Hedley compare third
person pronouns to “GOTO” commands in computer code, which are, like third person pronouns, brute linkages to former references rather than conditional commands. When they proliferate, both pronouns and “GOTO” commands, they suggest, create what programmers call “spaghetti”—unmaintainable and convulute code. As illustration, they quote the following passage from the King James Bible:
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? and he said, Jacob. (Genesis 32:24-28; quoted in Cram and Hedley, “Pronouns and Procedural Meaning: The Relevance of Spaghetti Code and Paranoid Delusion,” Oxford University Working Papers in Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics 10 (2005), 187-210; as Cram and Hedley note, programmers “generally try to avoid GOTO statements at all costs,” and they are now virtually extinct.)
When the angel finally comes out with, “What is thy name?,” he’s only voicing what’s on everybody’s mind. The specificity of a third person pronoun that refers back to a name is vulnerable to limitless substitutability; the third person may become “an infinite number of subjects—or none” (Benveniste, 309).
In the model I’ve been describing, the role the third person figure is offered is that of pharmakon, subaltern, victim, or foil (by “the third person figure,” I mean the allegorized third person pronoun), and the role of third person locution is even less clear. Lyotard’s Differend is the high point of the attempt to understand systematically the exclusion of the third person figure— “the third party”—from systems of representation. Approaches to the exclusion of the third person figure from address tend to ask how to bring the third party into address and hence convert it into the second person figure or include it in the first person plural figure. Thus Derrida asks in his late lecture “How to Live Together,” “Is there any living together otherwise than among first persons?”—for to be “together” is already to be a “we.” Jean-Luc Nancy analyzes “Being” into “being-with,” and concludes,
Being as being-with might no longer be able to say itself in the third person, as in “it is” or “there is.” Because there would no longer be a point of view that is exterior to being-together from which it could be announced that “there is” Being and a being-with of beings . . . . Rather, it would be necessary to think the third-person singular in the first person. As such, then, it becomes the first-person plural. Being could not speak of itself except in this unique manner: “we are.” (Being Singular Plural , trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne [Stanford UP, 2000], 33)
Nancy imagines what Being would say if it could talk and how we should talk about Being, not how we should talk to each other. Yet to want to imagine Being speaking at all is already to celebrate address, and to ask how our locutions should reflect the condition of Being as being-with: “What would happen to philosophy,” Nancy asks, “if speaking about Being in other ways than saying ‘we,’ ‘you,’ and ‘I’ became excluded?” (27). But this has already happened—maybe even always already happened: according to Benveniste, the non-presentability of the third person is a “truism” by 1958. Despite Benveniste’s warning not to moralize linguistic structures, the third person figure is almost unpresentable. It’s difficult to articulate alternatives to address, or, to put it negatively, to find language that acknowledges the liabilities of address.
Benveniste claims that when we consider that pronomial relations may be carried by verb forms, we must conclude that no language forgoes personal pronouns. In “Subjectivity in Language” he writes that “a language without the expression of person cannot be imagined” (225). From this perspective, East Asian languages look like lexicons of bad faith. Japanese and Korean are commonly described as not having pronouns; instead, they use proper names, noun phrases, and hierarchized titles, and in practice speakers usually drop these and make no reference to person at all. (Let me emphasize here that I don’t know these languages, and don’t know any more about the whole subject than what I’ve looked up for this occasion.) The Japanese word that corresponds to “I,” “watashi,” means “this person”—“I” is in the third person, so to speak. Casual and formal occasions and the profession, age, and gender of the speaker and the addressee inflect “this person” variously: a policeman on the job, for example, is “this officer.” If the context is clear—and often even if it is not—it’s not obligatory to use any reference, and verb forms don’t pick up the slack. In an example I came across during my internet education on this topic, the question “This cake is tasty. Who made it?” and answer, “I don’t know. Do you like it?” translate literally as follows: Question: “This cake tasty. Who made?” Answer: “Negative form of ‘know.’ [Think of “know” with a bar through it.] Liked?” While in English we might drop the pronoun and ask, “Like it?,” the tense chosen by the translation, “Liked,” conveys the fact that here the verb tense does not reveal whether the questioner is wondering whether “you” liked it, or someone else. Vietnamese “pronouns” are kinship terms, figuratively extended; the phrase “older sister” names parallel unrelated women older than oneself, “mother’s brother,” men about as old as one’s mother, and so on. One can also refer to oneself and to people in their presence by given names, using the name where in English one would use “I” or “you”; a common word for “I,” reminiscent of “this person” in Japanese, is “servant.” In Mandarin, “I” is again often omitted and is impolite for use at all in some hierarchized situations.
The grammatical practices of East Asian languages carry troubling implications if one believes that the formal universality of first and second person pronouns presents, or resembles significantly, a fundamental model for citizenship. Formal universality is eroded when the phrase “this person” develops variants such as “this police officer,” “this bureaucrat,” and so on, and language seems to emanate, not from and to quasi-transcendental subjects, nor from individuals, but from previously specified social functions. Psychiatric literature and discursive psychology note that schizophrenic and autistic patients have difficulty with pronouns. FBI statement analysis experts opine that “truthful people give statements using the pronoun ‘I’ . . . . Any deviation from this norm deserves close scrutiny, for it could be an indication that the person is not totally committed to the facts in the statement” (Susan H. Adams, “Statement Analysis: What Do Suspects' Words Really Reveal?” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1996). What then does the FBI make of the Japanese population? Cognitive philosopher Rom Harré observes that “the social minefield of Japanese life is so complex that actual pronoun use in everyday speech is becoming increasingly restricted” (Rom Harre, “Pathological Autobiographies,” in Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology 4 , 103).
The implication is that Japanese grammar eliminates the personal pronoun to dodge the anxiety of having to characterize a finely specified and hierarchized social relation whose interpretation may always be contested. To Benveniste, this only proves the point that expression of person is fundamental: “these usages only serve to underline the value of the avoided forms; it is the implicit existence of these pronouns that gives social and cultural value to the substitutes imposed by class relationships” (226). As soon as one makes this claim, however, one would also have to allow that the formal solutions of the “voluntarily vague” “I” and “indefinite” “we” (Benveniste, 203) may be defenses against the fundamental social and class relationships which alone give first person pronouns their appeal. From Benveniste’s perspective, Japanese could save itself a lot of trouble if it went out and got itself a one-size-fits-all “I,” perhaps what he calls a “prudently generalized” “I” such as “the je sommes of northern French” (203). But Benveniste’s association from the anxiety of Japanese aversion to pronouns to the prudence of the universal pronoun acknowledges the limitations of address itself, something that we may understandably want to resist in address—an aversion that isn’t merely anomalous. Instead of assuming that there is something fully ethical (for better or worse) about address, and something merely evasive about speech that isn’t primarily address—for instance, speech that seeks to be “about” rather than “to”—we might consider the possibility that this speech provides a critique of relation. Examples of literal aversion to the pronoun and person suggest that the limitations of the third person pronoun mirror the limitations of address. Without this dialectic between address and something that resists it, address itself is merely normative.
Image: Entanglement Hazards, Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center
[Acknowledgment: Thank you to Bernie Richter.]