First person plural: Roman Jakobson's grammatical fictions

Studies in East European Thought 62 (2):217 - 236 (2010)
Roman Jakobson, who had left Russia in 1920 and in 1941 took refuge in the USA from the Nazis, was one of the main figures in post war linguistics and structuralism. Two aspects of his work are examined in this article. Firstly, Jakobson purifies his linguistic theory of pragmatic references. Secondly, he develops his own diplomatic mission of mediating between East and West. In this article, I argue that these two aspects did not develop independently from one another. Instead I claim that his theory is designed to slip through the Iron Curtain, while at the same time providing the means to analyse ways of acting politically by using language. This argument is unfolded in two steps, each consisting of two parts. First, I compare the theory of pronominal expressions as developed by Emil Benveniste to Jakobson’s theory of shifters. While Benveniste focuses on the relation of language and its subject using language, Jakobson introduces a model of communication to allow maximal formalisation of language. According to this even the category of person can be freed from its reference to a subject which would be understood as having a place in space and time. Then, Jakobson’s theory of shifters is studied in relation to his analyses of poetry. For this, two examples are chosen: Jakobson’s text on two poems by Russian poet Alexandr Blok, and his text on a poem by Bertold Brecht. In both texts, the theory of shifters—and the alleged purification from pragmatic aspects of language use ensuing from this theory—is challenged by the simple fact that they focus on the pronoun of the first person plural. According to Jakobson, the category of number does not belong to the shifters. Rather, number quantifies participants of the related event. The pronoun ‘we’ is at the same time a shifter and a non-shifter, as it refers to the speech event and the related event. Thus the pronoun ‘we’ opens up the possibility to include or exclude the participants of a communicative situation, and thereby enables the speaker to act socially or even politically by using language. The article concludes by coming back to the historical situation in which Jakobson developed his analyses of poetry. Analysing poetry seems to have been a passe-partout for him, a seemingly harmless subject that allowed him to get a foot in the door of remote and secluded lecture halls.
Keywords Roman Jakobson  Post-WWII linguistics  Shifters  Pronouns  Bertold Brecht  Alexandr Blok  Formalism  Structuralism  Analysis of poetry
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