Friday, November 26, 2010

the person pronoun and space

If I stand in front of my desk and lean on it with both hands, only my hands are stressed and the whole of my body trails behind them like the tail of a comet. It is not that I am unaware of the whereabouts of my shoulders or back, but these are simply swallowed up on the position of my hands; and my whole posture can be read so to speak in the pressure they exert on the table. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge)

I wonder whether this depiction of the body could have been different, if Merleau-Ponty were a dancer, or a contact improviser. I've just gotten a copy of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception

The word ‘here’ applied to my body does not refer to a determinate position in relation to other positions or to external co-ordinates, but in laying down of the first co-ordinates, the anchoring of the active body in an object, the situation of the body in face of its tasks. (Ibid)

Perhaps the person pronouns in Japanese language demonstrates this Merleau-Ponty’s observation that, as John Russon puts it, we always find ourselves as a “here,” which means that space occupied by the body and self-consciousness of the body are inseparable. The Japanese person pronouns mostly imply position either physically or socially or psychologically. Though I do not know the exact etymology of those words, I can tell they do not simply indicate a person. For example, the second person pronoun anata connotes "there," and the other one omae "in front of me"--so omae is more confrontational therefore rude. The third person pronoun for a male kare connotes "away from us," or "the man who is not with us." When gossiping, kare or kanojo (the third person pronoun for a female) often refers to "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" respectively. The formal first person pronoun watashi, or watakushi connotes private. One who utters watashi is fully aware that one is facing a public and expressing it. If you use the person pronouns properly, you can show you know your place. They use the person pronouns sparsely, so sentences they utter (even when writing) often lack the grammatical subject, and it actually does not matter. And also they often use kochi and sochi (colloquial "here" and "there") instead of I and you.

Genki dayo. Sochi wa?
Kochi mo genki dayo.”

“How are you?”
“Fine. And you?”
“I’m fine, too.”

When they utter "I," it often means “not the other, but me.” I almost dare say this language does not have the person pronouns in Western sense. In terms of the formula which represents self-identity, A=A, or “I am I,” "I" in Japanese language may be the last I of “I am I.” They do not initiate I in the first place.

But, I am not so interested in whether the Japanese person pronouns shows how different from Western self-consciousness Japanese one is. And certainly I do not apply the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language determines perception) here. That's why I said "almost." You can actually say “I am I” in Japanese: “Watashi wa watashi desu.” Or, Popeye’s “I yam what I yam” can be translated as “Ore wa ore da” (ore is one of the informal first pronouns, which emphasizes masculinity). The Japanese person pronouns do not exclude the function of the European person pronouns.

We say, "It's me," "This is me," "Is that you?" especially on the phone. I say I find myself as a "here" when I'm not so sure you recognize that the person talking to you is me. "Here" and "there" generate space between us. But this space is not only separating us, but also connecting us. It is like a line. "Here" and "there" are two ends of a line. If the line doesn't exist, the ends also don't.

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