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The Deictic Dilemma

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 14, 2009 4 Comments

Ah, the fluidité of deictics! The we’s, the you’s, how oft we reference them, even when the you’s leak into the we’s, and the we’s fail to envelop us…How provocative the notion that we delineate spaces and build walls around people through these crisp syllables, how we identify and alienate, make our own and make the Other.

Who am I? Who are you? Am I in you? Are you in me? Are you and I?


I have lived an itinerant life over the last nine years-a couple of years in Canada, a couple in Indonesia, and the last few years in California…and the we’s the I’s the you’s have started bleeding into each other.

There’s no doubt in my mind where home is-every time my plane touches down in New Delhi, India, my eyes happily mist over with certainty that I am home. But there are referential spaces back home when I am a you, part of the American they.

Recently, for example, an uncle asked, “You all must be so happy with Obama’s election, yeah?” The you all was not merely a reference to residents, i.e., those who live in America. There was a cultural, social, political alignment and allegiance that this you referenced, one I found difficult to respond to. Technically, I am not a US citizen, nor a permanent resident: I study at Berkeley as an international student. But there is an America that moors my everyday life, an America I soak up, absorb internally, and this destabilizes deictics that used to be clearly outlined, and were so easily articulated before….

In general, I only use we when referring to Americans in conversations with exchange students visiting the US for a short time. And nowadays I feel I am being presumptuous in using we when speaking to Indians, since I spend only a month out of the year back home. And it feels rude to say you to Americans, having lived in America so many years, and it’s impossible to say you, when referring to Indians, to my fellow countrymen.

And, before I can answer my uncle, I think of what I said to a friend through streams of tears upon Obama’s election on November 4, 2008: “We won. We won. We did it.” Who was the we there?

After a brief pause, I tell my uncle, “I think a lot of people across the world are happy. Aren’t we all?”

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4 Responses to “The Deictic Dilemma”

  1. Youki on: 14 January 2009 at 10:44 am

    it occurs to me that blog – short for web-log, can be constructed as we-blog.

    We blog on the web log.

    that’s fun to say.

    apparently google tells me that this exact phrase doesn’t exist on the googlable internet. I’m highly skeptical.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 14 January 2009 at 11:02 am

    i found someone mentioning that (how “weblog” can be made into “we blog”) in an article on academic blogging…i’ll see if i can find it.

    google is crazy!

  3. daveski on: 15 January 2009 at 9:59 am

    I sream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream…

    This is a poignant post, and it’s funny how this strikes home. Also one of the first topics that pushed me to write on FIT, the post “You speak our language well” about how the circle inscribed by “we” shifts around all the time in Korean….

    But it happens like you say in every language, and strikes home in the family as much as outside. Recently I’ve been wondering who the “they” is when we (?) say in English, “They’re gonna raise taxes on us again before too long”. Funny how it’s we who vote for or against tax hikes though!

  4. hhuse on: 24 January 2009 at 1:39 pm

    I’ve struggled w/ the whole notion of “we” for several years now, ever since my dissertation chair challenged my many uses of the pronoun throughout my disseration. You’d think I’d be more aware of my word choices as a rhetoric scholar.

    Does “we” necessarily imply a “they” (all those who don’t fit into whomever “we” are)? So then “we” is inclusive and exclusive at the same time.

    What do yes “we” can, the motto of the Obama campaign, and now yes “we” will of the Obama presidency really mean? Whom does it mean it for? That is, who’s “we”? (As opposed to President GW Bush’s “YOU’re either with US or against US…who’s you? who’s us?) And what are the consequences for being in the “we” or “they” or “you” identity?

    “We” can even be quite a dangerous if not deadly notion.

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