The Situational Self

A business meeting between two men and a womanThere was an interesting story on the radio the other day — looking at language (the so-called function or filler words (e.g., pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, etc.) in distinction from content words, i.e., the vs. school) as a way to understand identity.

Well into the story we hear the following:

PennebakerAnd he concludes:

The reason we use What’s interesting here, at least from the point of view of Culture on the Edge, is that it makes evident that identity is a fluid function of changeable social situations (e.g. the very next example in the story is from a situation in which the researcher himself is in [or should we say adopts? — that’s the key!] the inferior social position) — not that language reveals a hidden thing (“reflects who we are,” as the researcher puts it, in rather traditional terms), but, instead, that language is both evidence of and also constitutive of a particular social situation in which two actors co-define one another as being who they are at that specific moment and in relation to a specific other. And these actors do so, we could argue, by means of language itself, along with a host of other cues (e.g., body posture, use of formal titles, who sit/stands, who touches whom, salutations used, who asks and who answers questions, etc.), making evident that wherever we find identity we also find a complex interpellative situation rather than just passive expressions of prior realities.

So, as thought provoking as the story is, the research (dare I humbly say, I think), could be pressed considerably, well away from the idealist model that presumes language merely to be representing some prior quality (whether it is thought to reside in the genes or, the soul [a term used frequently by this researcher and his reviewers — e.g., language as “keys to the soul” — in online interviews and stories about his research]); for then we’d likely trouble that too neat distinction between content and filler words, inasmuch as language can be understood as not simply comprised of substantial content (the so-called “guts of communication“) that is secondarily connected with other content (like two people meeting with a handshake that “expresses” who they already were) but, as was found with identity and social relationships in this research, the content can be understood to become meaningful only by means of the relationships established by the overall structure of the interaction (e.g., that particular handshake actually constitutes each for the other (thus why we worry so much about missing the chance to secure a good initial grip, for fear of who we just became in the eyes of the other!) or, to stick with language, “school” doesn’t imply all that much until we learn that it is someplace that involves agents and choice, i.e., “Do you want to go to school today?” or “You must go to school today!”– that is, until the auxiliary verbs do their work).

So what I would find more provocative is moving in the direction of the co-constitutive nature of meanings and identities (“operational acts of identification,” as Bayart phrased it), always in discrete, historic (that is, contingent) situations and through a variety of forms of signification — one of which involves pronouns.

Listen to the full story here:


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