Pronoun ‘bending’ in English Conversation

Pronoun Switching.

In an article by Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail (Saturday, April 13th, , 2013, p. S1) Christy Clark , the premier of British Columbia, is quoted as saying: “Leadership changes people…One thing is enduring all the criticisms. I think that’s made me more resilient and forced me to dig deep and tether myself to my principles and what I believe in. You can’t endure all the barbs that have been thrown at me without really knowing where you stand and what you believe in and be firm about it.” [my emphasis]

Now, this is not a comment on the content of Clark’s statements. My observation here is not about what Clark says but about how she says it. Furthermore, I’m not contending that Clark is special in any way by the way she makes her statement. The linguistic pattern Clark employs here is pervasive. We call it pronoun switching or pronoun bending. Here’s another example:

“A Reuters article by Michael Perry in Sydney, Australia reported on the high suicide rate among farmers in Australia following years of drought. He quotes a farmer ‘Mick’ who wrote a book about his experiences. In this book he writes: “I just want some cloud and some rain…The stress is just so constant and long and it’s like someone grabbing at me by the throat and slowly choking you a bit more each day.” (Comox Valley Record Daily, Thursday June 9, 2005) [my italics]

Now, why would Clark switch in mid-sentence between using you then me and then going back to you in the rest of the sentence? She could just have easily said: “ I can’t endure all the barbs that have been thrown at me without really knowing where I stand and what I believe in and be firm about it.” So, what’s the difference between these two constructions, hers and mine? Well, for one thing, mine is more consistent. It uses the same level of personal pronoun consistently throughout the sentence. The focus is on I and me. Clark, meanwhile, moves from the first person pronouns I and me to the indefinite (in this case) pronoun, you.

Same goes for the article by Michael Perry. Why would ‘Mick’ not say: “The stress is just so constant and long and it’s like someone grabbing at me by the throat and slowly choking me a bit more each day.” Why switch to you? It doesn’t make any sense to say it chokes ‘you’ in this case. It had nothing to do with me.

There isn’t a lot of scholarship on this topic. I’ve done library and internet searches (as have some of my students) and come up with a number of sources, but only two that address directly the use of what they call the indefinite you. That was a few years ago, but I doubt if things have changed much in the last six years.

Hyman approaches the subject from the perspective of English and what I came to understand as pragmatics (although he doesn’t use the word) while Senger is a psychiatrist. He concludes that the use of the indefinite you is an ‘ego defense mechanism.’ We’ll come back to that in my next post. Hyman argues that the use of the indefinite you is ‘youbiquitous.’ In other words, it’s pervasive in English speakers all over the world. An analysis of interviews on the CBC program ‘Q’ has established this fact at least in this context, but I’ve paid a lot of attention to this phenomenon over the last few years and it’s absolutely pervasive. Now that you know that people use ‘you’ not pointing to one person or a group of people present in a particular place, that is, in the indexical, vocative-deixic sense, but in an indefinite sense meaning people in general, you won’t be able to stop yourself from hearing it everywhere.

[This is the first in a series of posts on this topic. The next one explores the Senger analysis of the use of the indefinite you and will include a paper some students wrote in 2006 on the subject. Later I will post the results of an analysis (by some of my students in 2010 and me) of a number of CBC Q interviews by Jian Gomeshi that highlight the use of the indefinite you.]

How to turn a world lacking in enemies into the most threatening place in the universe – Le Monde diplomatique – English edition

How to turn a world lacking in enemies into the most threatening place in the universe – Le Monde diplomatique – English edition.

Tom Engelhardt has published an interesting analysis of America today and its leadership in this article.  Read this article, it’s well worth it.  However, Engelhardt is missing a crucial dimension in his analysis.  He argues that Americans are lead by people who create ‘enemies’ at every turn, not real ones, but made up ones all over the world, enemies incapable of doing the US much harm at all, if any.  He argues that external enemies can be useful and so they are.  They provide a way of maintaining domestic solidarity and compliance in the face of perceived external ‘enemies.’  Without these ‘enemies’ Americans may have the time and inclination to really think about what the real problems are with their country.  Engelhardt refers to the number of people who die every year in the US by suicide by gun (19,000), homicide (11,000) and automobile crashes (32,000 and rising again) as evidence that Americans have selective outrage when it comes to how people die.  More people die on American highways every year than are killed in all of its ‘wars.’  All of this is fine analysis but it leaves out one important issue. What is the real reason for the need for enemies?  That’s where Ernest Becker comes in.

Some social scientists may dispute the lack of empirical evidence in his work, but I fail to see their point.  No, Becker’s analysis of the role of ‘the enemy’ in his book Escape From Evil was not arrived at following lab experiments.  It was arrived at after careful historical and anthropological analysis of how and why we make war, why we kill and take joy in it, why we are so quick to follow a ‘leader’ who promises us prosperity.  Becker aims to show how our fear of death and yearning for immortality lead us to all kinds of very distasteful behaviour towards our fellow women and men.  According to Becker we perpetrate evil in our attempt to eliminate evil.

So, reading Engelhardt should be followed by a reading of Escape From Evil which will help to put his work into a more fundamental context.

RBC outsourcing controversy a new low-point for Temporary Foreign Workers Program | Daily Brew – Yahoo! News Canada

RBC outsourcing controversy a new low-point for Temporary Foreign Workers Program | Daily Brew – Yahoo! News Canada.

Well, we need to expect this kind of thing and more.  This is just another incidence of the global push to devalue labour everywhere it’s possible.  But ‘Canadian’ corporations have been ‘offshore outsourcing’ jobs for years and setting up factories or contracting out production in export processing zones all over the ‘3rd’ World.  RBC brass, when asked about why they were doing this, the answer was ‘efficiency.’  Of course, how can we argue with that?  But efficiency always means the elimination of workers and jobs or the devaluation of labour-power by whatever means possible.  RBC brass were shocked that the interests of the nation would have anything to do with their business.

Businesses have been contracting out for a long time and that tactic is proceeding apace everywhere.  BC Hydro has contracted out a large part of its maintenance functions to other businesses, non-union ones with low wages and not a lot of job security.  And they aren’t the only ones, by any stretch.  Offshore outsourcing is just another step in the complete control of labour by capital.

The globalization of commodity production and service provision must, by definition,  include labour-power, itself being a commodity.  Let’s make no mistake about it, what you sell when you go to work is time, life and self-determination.  The more money (wages) you get for it, the less ‘the company’ can extract from the productive process surplus-value and profit.  Wages and profits are the shock points of the ‘class war.’  They are in direct conflict.  When a company announces laying off thousands of workers in the name of efficiency, shareholders applaud and, of course, the government can celebrate a rise in productivity.  But people are put out of work.  And out-of-work people don’t buy things.  Have fun cutting your own throats, corporate world!  What we are witnessing now is just part of the process of corporate concentration of power and the demise of whatever little democracy we had in the process.

The RBC brouhaha is compounded by nationalism and the expectation that our national government is out to protect our national interests.  I hope you don’t still believe that lie. I know it’s hard not to.  It’s OUR country after all.  Well, yes it is, strictly speaking, but if you read my last post you’ll come to realize that countries (not all and not always) by and large are instruments of private capital accumulation.  The Harper government will do everything it can to support capital against labour but it must face the still strong belief among Canadians that Canada means something and is important.  We’re like a big family.  Maybe, but the forces of capital are now stronger than the ideology of nationalism.  We’ll see who wins this struggle.

It’s about time I publish a new post!

Not much action on this blog lately! Truth of the matter is that I got very ill early in March and stayed that way for most of the month. Nasty flu. Then I confess that I’ve had outrage overload for a bit and find myself uninspired to write. So, what I’ve decided to do is leave current affairs alone for a while. I’ve got over 50 posts on current affairs and I want to give that interest of mine a break. [We’ll see how long that lasts!] Instead, in this blog, I want to address some issues around evolution, particularly the notion of evolution as it applies to social institutions. As Harold Innis (1894-1952), the economic historian and political economist who spent most of his career at the University of Toronto after getting a PhD from the University of Chicago, was quick to point out, following many others including Thorstein Veblen, that empires come and go. There is no example to the contrary. Every empire in the history of our species on this planet is either deceased or moribund. Go back as far as you like. Empires don’t last forever, So the question is not whether or not an empire – say, the U.S.-centered finance corporate empire – will survive, the question is how will it die? How did the Roman Empire wane and die, for instance? Or the British Empire? Are there patterns in these events or processes? Indeed there are. Imperial overreach is a concept used to try to explain why empires fail. There are different versions of it ( as these two reviews of Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 make clear. But for me, it’s fairly straightforward, say in the case of Rome. Here’s how it works.

An empire is born in the ruins of previous failed and exhausted quasi-states. Said empire begins to grow slowly by conquest. In that it faces sometimes strong external opposition but also domestic strain because the more military conquest is the favoured instrument of international relations, a ‘thinning’ of the young males in the population is inevitable. As well, there is the stress of volatile consumer markets caused by military conquest. But wait! The empire grows stronger. Conquest brings wealth and new recruits. Military success fuels more military activity and the armies get spread farther away from home. In order to maintain conquered lands, military leaders from the Empire’s armies become governors and bureaucrats of far-flung provinces. There aren’t enough Romans to keep this machine in play so one strategy is to free trusted slaves or not enslave some of the opponents of the Empire, the really nasty ones (warlords, really) in what we now know as France, Germany, and Britain, negotiating with them instead entry into the Empire’s sphere of trading activity while allowing them to maintain land holdings of their own. Once this practice becomes commonplace, there is an internal threat to the Empire and that is the erosion of slavery, the real economic base of the Roman Empire. Rome grew too widespread geographically to control all of its subject peoples from Rome. Communications strategies just can’t keep up with the logistical and military demands of maintaining an empire like Rome, keeping enemies at bay and conquering new territories. That’s imperial overreach. The American Empire won’t fail for the same reasons because essentially there is no ‘American’ Empire.

The prevailing empire in the world today is not based in any country or nation state and it’s not geopolitical. It’s financial. As Thorstein Veblen was keen to point out, states are creatures of higher order institutions like private property and class power. Capital rules. In our times (for the last 700 years or so) merchant capital slowly gained in power at the beginning of the feudal period and held on to power pretty well into the early 19th century in Europe. It was replaced as the dominant form of capital by industrial capital which itself slowly gave way to finance capital in the second half of the 20th century. This is an evolutionary process. Marx sees the driver of this as the process by which capital replaces labour in production. Of course this is too simple a presentation of a very complex process, but essentially, that’s it. Of course all capital is a product of human labour, but capital has had a smaller and waning use for labour in the productive process as automation, Fordism and technology become prevalent. The price of labour-power varies in different parts of the world and for different occupations, but there is a long-term tendency for the value of labour to fall everywhere.

My point is that countries are not in charge, nor are politicians. Capital is and has been for some time. For centuries it’s been in a struggle with labour, the only reason capital exists, to gain a larger part of the value produced by human labour. For centuries now, capitalists have tried and largely succeeded in reducing the value of labour with the help of the state. In the US now we have the spectacle of corporate business leaders and politicians openly sharing the same bed, seemingly without any guilt or shame whatsoever. And we have the pathetic spectacle of vast numbers of people completely ignorant of how they are being manipulated by the state and its communications corporations blithely going about their lives in the belief that the American (and in my case, Canadian) government acts on their behalf. Flags fly everywhere. Patriotism is a powerful force. However, it’s not powerful enough to counter the despair and angst that will drive many marginalized and disempowered people from turning on each other and others in a desperate search for meaning in their lives in the absence of a good, well-paying job and a sense of social security.

The end of the finance capitalist empire will come only when it has reached and dominated every nook and cranny on the planet and when it has exhausted itself in trying to eliminate labour. Finance capital is well on its way to dominating the entire planet. Countries are still based on land and borders and are thus restricted in their activities. Corporations have few restrictions now and want even fewer in the future. Countries and their citizens don’t stand a chance against finance capital because they operate within an old paradigm. That paradigm is based on the false assumption that countries have economies, trade with one another and are the basic global unit of analysis. Yes, countries can still go to war with one another, but the more finance capital and production infiltrate every corner of the planet it makes less and less sense to bomb the hell out of your own factories in the target countries because chances are that where you’ve located them to take advantage of low wage costs. Global war is a thing of the past as global production drives us and our labour-power into a global market. That doesn’t mean that threats of war and local military operations aren’t useful to reduce domestic dissent by targeting a foreign enemy. We’ve experienced over the last hundred years or so the consolidation of states into larger and larger units. The European Union is an example of this type of consolidation but so are the plethora of free trade agreements that are part of the geopolitical map these days. And why this expansion? To help in the free flow of capital and labour. Globalization is foremost a process of freeing up capital to move as it sees fit unencumbered by elected parliaments and other political institutions. It’s also about the control of labour by the free movement of production. If a ‘Canadian’ forestry company moves one of its sawmills to the Philippines to take advantage of cheap labour there, it’s effectively controlling labour in Canada.

After decades of study and observation of geopolitics and capitalist production I can’t help but conclude that the future will be fraught with uncertainty as governments give up power to finance capitalists and we are left with no democratic way of deciding anything about our lives. Politicians have sold us out for a pittance and now we’re increasingly at the mercy of the big banks and business corporations that are psychopathic by their very nature, unrestricted in their expressed need to pollute the planet at will, dominate our lives with pharmaceuticals aimed a lot less at making us healthy than to making corporate profits, and privatizing all public lands and services. Profits rule. Who gives a shit if they serve to help us or kills us.
Marx predicted that the end of the capitalist mode of production will come when labour has been largely replaced by capital in human production. Machines don’t buy commodities so by eliminating workers and replacing them with machines, the capitalist class is eliminating itself. What’s the fate of countries like the US and Canada? Well, before it gets better it will get much worse. There is bound to be class war in the US and all over the world, it’s just a matter of time. Throw enough people out of work and out of their homes, make cities impossible to live in and see what happens. We haven’t suffered enough yet to push us into precipitating a revolution, but we’re headed in that direction. What can stop the momentum?