All names are fictions, including the one that is closest to myself, that intimate name of names, my name for myself. For even the precious word “I” – which rises like a monolith above my head, promising singularity and unity – is an invented word, not a natural concept.
“I” is not a person. “I” is a letter. “I” is a word. Letters and words carry with them traces of their history, tracks that lead back in time, in the shapes of the letters and the derivations of the words. Our letter comes from the Egyptian pictogram of an arm, representing the long-”A” sound, later incorporated into the proto-Semitic language because their word for arm started with that sound (as ours does). Perhaps we can read a connection here between self and action. A derivation of the letter can be found in most Semitic alphabets. The letter Yud – Yodh, Yod, Ye or Jodh – is the tenth letter in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Persian and Arabic. In Hebrew, two Yud in a row represent Adonai, a name of God. Mystical significance is attached to this divine name because it is formed from the smallest letter.
The Phoenicians wrote the symbol diagonally, as a backward drunken F. The Greeks righted the symbol and turned it into a solid, stable Doric column, the sign we recognize today. The Romans used the symbol for the numeral 1 as well (information gleaned from Wikipedia). The orthographic connection between “1” and “I” gives the pronoun “I” the ancient, mystical meaning of 1, an individual who cannot be divided into smaller parts.
In English, the symbol is used as the first person singular pronoun. As for who that is, nobody can agree. I told Omar, “I am the first person. You are the second.” Omar shook his head and said, “No, I am the first person. You are the second.” “No,” I answered, rather peevishly, “I have always been the first person. You are, by definition, the second person. And everyone else is the third, at best.” Such an argument is impossible to resolve; suffice it to say that everyone is wrong about who “I” refers to except me.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, “I” is “used by the speaker or writer to refer to himself or herself.” Admirable prose, worthy of a world-famous dictionary, but let’s puzzle this out. The dictionary says that “I” is “used by the speaker or writer.” Since “I” is something that can be used by a speaker or writer, “I” and “the speaker or writer” must be distinct. How can this be? Well, one is a person and the other is a word, as shown by the fact that it appears in the dictionary. Ok, so? The sticky point is that we confuse ourselves with that word. I think I am the “I,” but as French poet Arthur Rimbaud said, “I is other.”
The Random House Dictionary defines the “I” as “someone possessing and aware of possessing a distinct and personal individuality.” This definition opens vaguely with “someone,” a word I never use for myself. The assertion “possessing and aware of possessing a distinct and personal individuality” is highly questionable. Normally, the word “I” is thrown out without much meta-awareness. Also, the concept of a “distinct and personal individuality” is doubtful, as we have seen, since names and labels imply cultural heritage, family, race, gender roles, professions and so on. In that case, what is a “distinct and personal individuality”? If we accept the Random House definition, “I” is no one.
Of course, symbols represent something, so “I” can represent the speaker or writer behind the word, right? But a writer, as we have seen, is never the whole human. “I” is not my amoeba self nor my fish self nor my amphibian self (if you believe, loosely, that a fetus’s development recapitulates evolution). “I” is not the baby without words that once I was. I cannot remember or even imagine that time without language. “I” is not a toddler, a dreamy child, a righteous teenager, a rebellious hippie, a boyfriend, or any other selves. Who do I mean when I use “I” in these pages? The “I” typing here is a wise and witty scholar. Since “I” is a fiction, I can create the character I want. Similarly, Don Quixote’s new name expressed what he wanted to be, rather than who he was. By pretending to be a witty scholar, I may actually become one. Just as nobody is born a teacher or a doctor, nobody is born a scholar. You must pretend first. The lie prepares the way for the truth.
Nor is “I” my whole self at this particular time. “I” is not the one with a crick in his neck who scratched a zit on his arm. Such things won’t be mentioned. He is not the one eating slices of salami, drinking wine and occasionally looking out the window. “I” does not represent the side of me that is getting irritable over these revisions or doubts himself. Ironically, “I” has become all these things, of course, but not until I wrote them; therefore, my narrative self remains less than the whole.
I do not speak with my whole body either. I do not write from my pancreas or gallbladder, although I occasionally write from the liver. Romantics say we should write from the heart, but that organ has little to do with emotion, which is controlled by the limbic system of nerves and networks in the brain. I do not speak for my one hundred trillion cells, who do not even know I exist (which is fair enough since I rarely think about them and only in the most general terms). Nor do I consider as part of myself the cells’ mysterious mitochondria, which have their own DNA, or the bacteria in my stomach, who are separate beings, although we depend on each other for life. Humans don’t like to think about the networks of arteries and nerves and the winding passages of our digestive tract. We prefer to see ourselves as bloodless demigods or organless cartoon characters. The reason we get so upset when we see blood and guts (especially our own) is that it reminds us that we are meat. And meat can perish.
In “The Ego Tunnel” (2011), philosopher Thomas Metzinger explains that we carry around a model of ourselves in our heads, a picture of ourselves as whole beings. Self, however, is not a thing, but a changing process, a process that “creates the very robust experience of being someone.” Rather than an unchanging being, our self model is “highly context sensitive and flexible.” He describes the famous Rubber Hand Illusion, an experiment in which a person places their hand on the table behind a screen, while a rubber hand is placed before them in sight. (You can try this at home with a stuffed plastic glove.)
An experimenter then strokes both real and rubber hands simultaneously with a feather or a paint brush. In about sixty to ninety seconds, participants will start to associate the rubber hand as part of themselves, a proposition you can test by bringing out a hammer and striking the rubber hand. The quick reaction will show that self model can be manipulated and altered. “Whatever is in this self model,” Metzinger argues, “. . . is experienced as your own, as part of yourself: my thought, my feeling, my body sensation.” We sometimes think of this image as a soul, but philosopher Baruch Spinoza said, “The soul is the idea that the body develops of itself” (Metzinger). The soul is the narrative our bodies have created of ourselves.
I once read an interesting thought experiment. If you cut off one of your legs, you would say, “My leg and I.” (Granted, you would not do so calmly.) Cut off an arm, and it is “My arm and I.” Keep cutting until you get to the “I.” The “I” has been located in various parts of the body throughout history, including the heart, but we now locate the “I” in the brain. We can imagine a pickled brain in a wired tank of yellowish water, who possesses consciousness and calls himself “I.”
Let’s take the experiment further. Destroy sections of the brain until the “I” is silenced. Language arises through the cooperation of several portions of the brain, especially the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas and the parietal cortex, but it does not take a brain surgeon to know, “I” is the part of the brain that says “I.” “I” is the language maker. When language fails, the word is lost. When the word is gone, then so is the “I.”
In order to use an “I” that does not simplify, I would have to describe every role, every aspect of my personality, every event of my life, every part of my body, every element of every cell – an impossible task that would produce a manuscript from here to Pluto – and you would still not know me. For the massive volume would not be myself, but a long list of symbols. No symbolic representation can ever be a real person. “I” is not a human, but a sign that refers to a fragment of someone at a particular time, playing a particular role.
From the vantage point of this slim fiction, I experience the universe. I cannot step outside of language because “I” is language. You think Don Quixote is crazy because he does not know reality from fiction, yet all of us are playing roles suggested by our names, labels, and pronouns, living out fictions that precede and partly define us. You and I are words pretending to be people.
(To read more about the artificial I, read my posts “Where Did ‘I’ Come from?” and “I am the One the Writer of This Sentence is Referring To.”)
Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.
“I.” Random House Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Random House, Inc., 1993. Print.
“I, pron. and n.2”. OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. 21 April 2011. Web. 20 January 2011.
Metzinger, Thomas. “The Ego Tunnel.” TedxRheinMain. Youtube.com. 2 February 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
Wikipedia contributors. “I.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 May. 2010. Web. 20 May. 2010.
Wikipedia contributors. “I (pronoun).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 May. 2010.