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If I am you, then we is possessed

Written By: daveski on October 11, 2010 4 Comments

“I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you.”

So starts this campaign ad for Christine O’Donnell, the Republican party nominee for the special Senate election in Delaware, released about a week ago:

And considering the lunacy of the opening and closing lines (especially), I assumed that the good folks over at the Language Log or elsewhere would have already dug into the linguistic machinery behind what Alex Balk calls a case of “identity politics“, or, “the most ontological race in the nation” (thanks to the Huffington Post for pointing that line out).

For sure, there are already plenty of parodies floating around: this winner from the Destructor Bros. is featured on the same Huffpost page, and has been shared by a few sharp-eyed friends on Facebook; just a few days ago, Kristen Wiig upped the ante with this skit on Saturday Night Live; searching around for a few seconds on YouTube, I found the joke devolving in other directions too. I’ll be interested to see if anyone else has any other (un)favorites.

An obvious direction for these parodies to take, a la SNL, is to ridicule O’Donnell for using her first breath to deny that she’s a witch, and, like the Destructor Bros., to marshal her awkward “I’m you” formulation as evidence of the general idiocy of the position she’s trying to take. That seems pretty understandable considering the contentious nature of her whole campaign, not to mention the media and public’s penchant for digging up unsavory aspects of candidates’ personal histories. And, sure, this one is a gold mine.

But considering our penchant here on FIT for thinking about language and identity, and considering my own infatuation/love/hate relationship with person deixis and those pesky pronouns I, you, we and the like, I just couldn’t leave this “I’m you” alone, as it stands on its own. Alone.

Seriously, this was the first time I’d heard a politician claiming to be me. And you. And everyone else who might happen across that campaign ad. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a friend on the phone or family member at home, or a teacher in the classroom, or a pastor in church, or a policeman or lover or psychiatrist or politician or anyone else claim to be the person they were speaking to. To do so would be to give up the legitimacy they had to say what they had to say, to be their own person. And don’t we need to be able to see each other, hear each other, speak to each other from different positions, in order to have an identity at all? And, if so, wouldn’t that make this O’Donnell ad, ironically, a stellar example of non-identity politics?

There seems to be a basic law of language and personhood being flouted here. In English, at least, physical resemblance between two people can be asserted by saying “She looks just like you”, advice given with the words “If I were you…”, understanding conveyed with the metaphorical “I get you.” And you can probably (I suppose) think of numerous other cases in which we use language to express and enact the many ways in which I and you can approximate each other, hold each other’s hand, punch each other’s face, wear each other’s clothes even. But we can never be each other.

What compelled me to write this post, though, was the particular irony (and horror!) of the collapse of I and you in the context of the particular vocation that O’Donnell is aspiring to. She wants to be senator, to be elected by the voters in the state of Delaware to do something for people that the shapes and sounds of a language do for its meanings: to represent them.

Representation, the standing-in of one thing for something(s) else, is so fundamental to both politics and language that it’s almost impossible to fathom what either might be without it. Political representation, as I see it here and now, is a statement of the responsibility of an individual to the interests of a group of others, and a process through which dialog, argument and agreements create the possibility for community. And linguistic representation, the use of words whose forms are to some degree arbitrarily paired with their meanings, is what makes it possible for people to mean slightly different things with the ‘same’ words, and to say the same words a little differently–not to mention the fact that linguistic representation makes translation across languages possible, but never perfect. Bottom line is, we have to talk about it.

If “I” am “you” in a political sense, then, really, there is no need to vote, because the decision has already been made. There is no responsibility, because there is no need to respond. I’m already in your head, you’re in mine, and she’s in ours. Or something like that. The (dare I say “witch-like”?) trans-migration of spirits will have taken care of everything, making communication, voting, and other annoyances more of an afterthought than a necessary part of any political process.

I’m left with more questions than answers at the end of this post, especially about the nature of communication in the networked world that O’Donnell seems to be speaking to, from, and within.<– And these very prepositions (why did I feel like I had to use three of them right here?), pronouns like “I” and “you”, and other words that help us to mark out different positions do seem to me to be faltering, unsure of their place in the larger discursive worlds we inhabit today.

And if you are wondering who the “we” in that last sentence is, well… so am I.

Thanks to Usree, Youki, Chantelle, Bryce, Diana and Viola for all the provocative comments and links on that *other* social network. Here’s another screen capture, just for you, Bryce.



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4 Responses to “If I am you, then we is possessed”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 11 October 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Great post, ‘ski. So…I guess it’s odd to have someone CLAIM to be you, but it isn’t unusual for people to assert they’re *like* you…I’m thinking of people like Joe Biden (taking the train), Sarah Palin (a hockey mom), etc.

  2. Youki on: 11 October 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Has she learned nothing from Nixon’s “I am not a crook!” statement? Frame theory 101: negating a frame activates that frame. Now, not only do I think she is a witch (when I never would have cared otherwise), but I also am creeped out by her I-am-going-to-brainwash-you-into-voting-for-me tactics. I have nothing against witches unless they’re trying to get me to join the cult.

  3. Aaminah on: 12 October 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Since she already has claimed to be a witch when she was a teen, shouldn’t she say “I am no longer a witch” rather than “I am not a witch”? She says “I am nothing you’ve” heard” and assumes she knows what you have heard because she is you. Assuming that her “I is evolving into ‘you’ which, is an improvement , why can’t I have changed to a better me rather than you?

  4. Dave on: 12 October 2010 at 11:27 pm

    @Usree–hah, yes, there must be something else going on with the references that are made to what have become cultural icons of some kind or other: people who live on Wall Street vs. Main Street, Joe the Plumber, etc., the ubiquitous “soccer mom”. Are they really like us, we like them?
    @Youki–yeah, no kidding. She seems to really like starting off videos by saying what she’s not: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHTylGjl7I4
    At least in this one, though, she doesn’t invoke the supernatural…
    @Aaminah–that’s just what I was going to say! Of course, she, being me, has already said it! Which means…wait, what does it mean???

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