- Between We and MeFilmed Interviews and the Politics of Personal Pronouns
This essay is meant to sensitize YOU, my reader, to a weird slippage in the English language that pivots around the second-person pronoun. We hear its variations in everyday speech when we are speaking with each other about our experiences. Moving between plural and singular, across number and person, this pronoun's oscillations of reference and meaning enlarge the space from which one speaks, standing in for "I" and "one" and calling others to attention ("Hey YOU").
We often use the pronoun "you" when we are moving between talking about oneself and ourselves—or "I" and "we." In these instances, "you" enables a speaker to understand oneself as part of a "we," to slip between speaking about a particular experience and a generalized or collective experience (e.g., "you get angry when you see injustice"). This is the "you" I sometimes use when I would like to think that I am part of a "we" that is coming into being and want my listeners to identify with me. I also use this "you" when I want to [End Page 319] urge others to join a nascent "we" (e.g., "you have to fight discrimination") or when I want to use my own experience as an example of something bigger than me. I use this "you" when there isn't yet a "we" present or when I don't want to presume that such a "we" exists (e.g., "when you don't want to assume anything"). This "you" really means "one" but can also mean "many." It exists somewhere in the murky space between "me" and "you"—or rather, between "I" and "we." Without gender or number, it references both self and other, speaker and listener.
There are three grammatical and linguistic terms for this particularly shifty second-person pronoun: the indefinite "you," the generic "you," and the impersonal "you." Something rarely read but often heard and spoken, this common deictic passes by us as colloquial, informal, and unremarkable. In everyday speech, we sometimes end our sentences with "you know" in an attempt to request assurance and assert commonality. But there is also another more political way of understanding this pronoun, one that documentary interviews from 1970s feminist and gay liberation films have made perceptible to me.
As a category of speech, the polyvalence of the generic "you" is grounded in its connection to the discursive character of voice. In the context of a filmed interview, the dialogical aspect of this pronoun expands because an interview is never simply dyadic; it is always grounded in the triad of interviewer, interviewee, and a real or imagined audience. As a result, whether it refers to a singular or a plural, whether it is a sign of informality or of distancing, the indefinite "you" gives form to a structure of feeling that resists impersonal generalization even as it makes a space in language for the voicing of thoughts and experiences without specific, immediate, or concrete referents. The deployment of the generic "you" in a filmed interview marks the possibility to refuse being singular, reducing oneself to "one." It can invite auditors to imagine a shared difference. In this way, the generic "you" is both denotative and a mode of address—a vehicle for the interpellation of the audience and an invitation for abstraction. This "you" can function inclusively and productively, not just phantasmatically; it is much roomier than "one," offering a broader platform for articulation. It can be the indicator of "a sense of unease that accompanies" talking about "oneself," in some ways softening the risks associated with speaking in front of a camera.1 But the indefinite or generic "you" can also become transversal, taking on a different significance when it is uttered within the context of movement building and recorded for the purpose of publication. Situated amid a framework of active politicization, the filmed interview becomes a form through which [End Page 320] the transversal "you" can extend an interviewee's mode of address past a distancing from "oneself" toward the possibility of collectivity.
Félix Guattari introduced the term "transversal" to characterize a...