March 21, 2015


Who's Number One? :Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person. (Damion Searls, 3/17/15, Paris Review)

[E]ven now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ's birth or God's divine purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: "Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take ... Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.") The grammatical dogma he means, though--and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against--is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat.

We all learn languages according to these lists. What can possibly be meaningful about them? ... In the Alexandrine ordering, every person is subjected to the same drill. All persons seem to speak the same way. This is where the fatal error arises. Much of our confusion about social relations and much of our ignorance of language can be derived directly from this one mistake. Stringing together amo, amas, amat, amamus, etc., gives rise to the impression that all these "judgments" can and should be treated as though they had the same interpersonal meaning. The effect, on anyone who learns such a sequence, is the opinion that every indicative sentence is spoken with the same degree of "passion." My claim is that amat and amo and amas are worlds apart, from a social perspective, and thus must not be taught as parallel. The Alexandrine list is not serious. [...]

Empirically, the Greek list gets it wrong: "first person" does not in fact come first. A child's self develops as a result of being spoken to, by a parent or other loving caregiver. Someone has to say "you" in the right way for a non-mad "I" to exist at all. (See Peter Sloterdijk, Neither Sun Nor Death, p. 30, which is where I first heard of Rosenstock-Huessy.) Developmentally, psychologically, neurocognitively, "I" is last-person. You're a good boy. There's the bottle. I'm hungry.

All our experience teaches precisely the opposite of this Greek doctrine of the primacy of the individual "I"! The child gradually defines itself as an independent being out of the thousand cares and impressions and influences that envelop it, flow around it, press in on it. The first thing it discovers is that it is not the world, not mother or father, not God, but something else. The first thing that befalls every child, every person, is that he or she is spoken to: smiled at, asked something, given something, rocked, comforted, punished, fed. The child is first a You for a powerful external being, above all its parents ... Hearing that we exist for others and mean something for others, that they want something from us, thus precedes any statement that we are ourselves, or statement of what we ourselves are. Getting commands and being judged from the outside are what give us self-awareness.

This is the realization that so struck me. First person isn't first. There's no list at all, except the ones we make up. What would the world look like if I could see outside this framework? If what came first was a bond strong enough to give you the authority to make claims about someone else's experience--you love, you're hungry, you look pretty today, you're being rude--and then came sharing a view on the world, and only then self-report? The Cartesian idea, "I think therefore I am," and all the mind/body/self/other splits that arise, might never have come up if Descartes hadn't been indoctrinated with the idea that "I" comes first. 

Posted by at March 21, 2015 7:48 AM

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