Practices of Selfhood
Practices of Selfhood
Selves in Language
Rein Raud The relation of selfhood to language is indeed crucial. I'd say there are actually even two separate ranges of topics here, which we could preliminarily distinguish as 'internal' and 'external', even though the individual may not always be conscious of that difference. The 'internal' repertoire of linguistic tools that we use to make sense of the world, both in silence and in communicating with others, should not be mixed up with how the ways we speak make us 'externally' appear to those we speak to. Of course they are sides of the same coin, yet I think the processes of self-conceptualization and self-presentation, both intentional and spontaneous, still appear as relatively independent from each other and are affected by multitudes of other factors. So I guess it is reasonable to tackle them one by one.
You are most certainly right about the limits of language. I'm not even quite certain whether it is at all plausible to speak about completely overlapping semantic fields shared by different people and/or in different situations. As cognitive anthropologists and some linguists have suggested, we do not really operate with concepts, but with 'schemas' or 'frames', that is, constructions that allow every user of the corresponding word to fill in some blanks or to highlight some nuances in her/his mind. Words like 'house', 'dog' or 'grandpa' evoke quite different images for each person who uses them. Moreover, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson have argued rather persuasively (1998) that when two people talk to each other, each only understands maybe 70 per cent of what the other one says. Not surprisingly, however, this is quite enough for successful communication - because we have learned to live with it. Similarly, Yuri Lotman, one of the founders of cultural semiotics, has shown that 'the functionality of a highly complex sign system does not at all presuppose full comprehension, but a state of tension between comprehension and non-comprehension' (1992: 99). Lotman is more concerned with artistic use of language, but the same principle applies anywhere. However, this is not necessarily only a negative thing. The ambivalence that you have so aptly diagnosed can also be seen as the site where our selves come into being, at every moment when they come into contact with their world and have to make a choice about how they understand it. Overcoming ambivalence - for our own, 'internal' purposes, that is - can be seen as a form of self-realization, an activity that makes the world we inhabit more fully our own, even though we can never overcome this ambivalence completely. Nor should we. The ambivalence of the world is a challenge that keeps us alive. Of course, not all of what keeps us alive is always pleasant, desirable or even easy to come to terms with, but nonetheless the alternative - to be without it - would bring about the loss of who we are .
So if there is a strict meaning to be found anywhere at all, perhaps we should look for it among the kind of words that refer to impersonal concepts, definable ideas we do not directly experience, for example scientific formulae or legal terms. But the latter, at least, are intensely debated at every step precisely because any particular, real conflict of interests requires their application to the personal experiences of human beings who interpret them in their different selfish ways. But this just happens to be the way we look at everything. Thus, in a sense, each of us lives in a narrative of predominantly our own writing.
Now this seems to imply a tiny contradiction. On the one hand, we exist in part through overcoming the ambivalence of the world - reaching out for it, as it were; on the other hand, however, we are bound to integrate everything we touch in a web of our own making - the 'web of meanings' of Weber and Vygotsky. We are observing da