Who is I? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “I” is “used by the speaker or writer to refer to himself or herself.” Simple enough, but let’s think this out. The dictionary says that “I” is “used by the speaker or writer,” implying that “I” and “the speaker or writer” are not the same. How can this be? Well, one is a word and the other is a person. That “I” appears in the dictionary proves that “I” is a written or spoken symbol. Okay, so? The problem is that we confuse ourselves with that symbol. I think I am the “I.”
Of course, symbols represent something, so “I” can represent the speaker or writer behind the word, in this case myself. Structuralists say, however, that words do not refer to the thing itself, they refer to a concept. If I say “table,” I am talking about the idea of tableness. Even if I refer to the table I am writing on now, I mean the useful object that may be used for eating and writing, rather than the wooden thing, the physical object itself as might be experienced by an insect who does not know the word “table.” When I say “I” I am referring to a concept of myself.
Is that concept a full concept of self? All writing requires the invention of a speaker. What I wish to say here determines what kind of speaker I will use. (Which is why I wrote in Who is Writing this? “I am not writing this. This blog is writing me.”) The “I” I am typing here is not the same “I” I use when writing a close friend, nor is it the same “I” I use when I go to a doctor. In order to write, I must simplify my personality, history and body.
Even if I reveal my personality as honestly and plainly as possible (and that does not suit my purposes here), it will always be a simplification, otherwise I would have to describe every single facet of myself — something I could never do even if I had the time, because parts of my personality are hidden even from myself. Ego incognito.
In order to use an “I” that does not simplify, I would also need to tell you the entire history of my life. The “I” I just typed here is not the “I” I used as hippy newly arrived in San Francisco, which is not the “I” I used when I was a Mormon boy, which was not “I” I used when I first learned that word. Even if I described every event, every detail, every person and every setting comprehensively (an impossible task that would produce a manuscript from here to the moon, as demonstrated in A Not, Not True Blog of a Short, Simple Morning), you would still need to know the full background of every one of those details and people to grasp their influence on my life, and so on and so on and so on. No speaker is complete that is smaller than the universe itself.
We don’t speak with our whole bodies either. Unless we have gall stones, we don’t speak from our gall bladders. Writers are told to write from the heart, but does that mean the organ itself or the limbic system which produces emotions, really our brains and its chemicals, such as dopamine and noradrenaline? Some writers write with their livers, but who speaks from the appendix, the pancreas or the thymus? “I” does not refer to individual cells, which have an independent as well as a shared life, nor does “I” refer to the bacteria that lives in and on my body (more than all the humans who have ever lived on the planet). Without this bacteria, I would die. I can not live without the bacteria, yet I do not think of this bacteria as “I.”
Stephen King once posed an interesting thought experiment. If we cut off a leg, we will say (probably in not such calm words): “My leg and I.” Cut off the other leg, both arms, keep cutting until you get to the “I.” The “I” has been located in various parts of the body, including the heart, but now we put it in the brain. We can imagine the brain of a mad scientist in a tank, for instance, using the word “I.” So “I” is now in the brain, probably in the part of the brain that makes language, the part of the brain that says “I.” Yet sometimes we say, “I couldn’t get to sleep last night. My brain wouldn’t turn off.” In that case, the part of the brain that uses the word “I” is not the self. Self is elsewhere.
My purpose here is not to hunt down the self, since it shifts around, but to show that “I” is a symbol used to refer to the part of ourselves that is the speaker or writer, in other words, the part of ourselves that makes language. “I” is never our whole self, it expresses only certain aspects of our personality, changing over time and according to circumstances. “I” is a thin sliver of the self.
(To learn more about the artificial “I,” read my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon, or you may read my posts “The Artificial I” and “Where Did ‘I’ Come From?”)
“I, pron. and n.2” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 19 May. 2010.
4 thoughts on “I am the One the Writer of This Sentence is Referring to”
Behind all the changing selves you’ve described, there seems to be a consistent I. One that knows all the others, or perhaps that creates all the others–otherwise there would be no continuity in your life-story. This “I” appears to be beyond (or behind) changing mental states as well as bodily states. Is it true that all of the cells that comprised my childhood body have been replaced? So then, the I that remembers (as opposed to dismembers) that no longer existent body is beyond (or behind) the physical cells of that body.
Likewise, many mental states have come and gone. I have felt and thought many things, some I forget, some I remember–or some the I forgets (or dismembers) and some the I remembers. But always there is the I. Since the active I (not the written subject I about which I talk, or the I talks, but the active one–the talking one) is behind (or beyond) everything that follows it, according to some thinkers perhaps all we can really say of it is that it is. Or referring to itself, “I am that I am.” Or simply, “I AM.”
I agree, Mike, and in my other post about the history of the letter and word I, I spoke about how it was a singular, monolithic symbol. I do think all these selves, including the bacteria, are me.
What you are describing is non-existence. If the “I” you describe is beyond everything, then the “I” you describe here might as well not exist. How do you distinguish this “I” from non-existence?
I is probably that instantaneous representation of what I am. The cells and legs are parts of “me”. “I” think.