"I" is a camera

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Commenting on the recent flurry of commentary about the political first person singular, D.G. Myers has some thoughts on "Self-reference and narcissicism":

Person reflects genre. Despite the fact that he is an eighteenth-century author like Sterne and Chesterfield, Franklin uses the first person more often because he is writing an autobiography, a literary kind that, except when it is an exercise in voluble self-concealment, like The Education of Henry Adams, depends helplessly upon the first person. Similarly, to accuse David Copperfield of “ego-involvement”—he uses some form of the first person 6.3% of the time—does not seem quite right. David is as much a “camera” as Christopher in The Berlin Stories; he is at least as interested in the people in his life as in himself.

Myers quotes David Cooperfield's first encounter with Uriah Heep, and notes

David refers to himself eleven times in this passage—exactly five percent of the words are first-person forms—while referring to Heep just seven times (ten, if the references to Heep’s eyes almost as impersonal objects are included). Yet his entire attention is on Heep, not himself. The narrative strategy is to register Heep’s effect, because that is how—at least for Dickens—a man is to be judged.

There's another possibility as well. One of Jamie Pennebaker's generalizations about the social-psychology literature on pronoun usage is that in conversation, "Usually, the higher status speaker will use fewer 'I' words." This is not, I suppose, because the lower-status speaker is registering the other's effect out loud.  But perhaps in such situations, the higher-status person can afford to focus on the content of the discussion, while someone in a socially inferior role needs to worry more about the  relationship and how they should or can fit into it. And this might be true even even of their interior conversation with themselves, as in the Dickens passage that Myers analyzes.

To learn more about these questions requires counting how pronouns are used, not just how many of which are where.  For a classic non-pronominal example  where looking at function leads to a different conclusion from simply looking at form, see "Gender and tags", 5/9/2004.

Myers continues:

Unless first-person genres and their self-referential purposes are taken into account, complaints like Fish’s and Noonan’s about “self-reverence” and the “imperial possession” are empty moralizing.

Hear, hear.


  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    "Despite the fact that he is an eighteenth-century author like Sterne and Chesterfield, Franklin uses the first person more often because he is writing an autobiography"

    Eh? What is Tristram Shandy if not a fictional autobiography? Indeed, its putative author is arguably the most self-absorbed narrator of all time. Now, you could argue that it doesn't use first person pronouns as much because the narrator isn't even born for much of the book.

  2. Ken Brown said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    " autobiography, a literary kind that […] depends helplessly upon the first person."

    Well, much of the best-known of all ancient autobiographies, St Augustine's "Confessions", is in the second person, addressed to God.

    Third-person autobiography can be very narciccistic! Using the the third person about yourself is a common rhetorical device for self-aggrandisement. I suppose "de Bello Gallico" isn't really an autobiography but its famously third-person, and all about the author. Caesar did this and Caesar did that, usually just in time and to maximum effect. I think Xenophon's "Anabasis" is as well, though perhaps not quite so self-promotingly.

    Much more recently the at-least-partly-fictional "Ringolevio" by the at-least-partly-fictional Emmet Grogan is IIRC third-person autobiography and also political propaganda as well as a big attempt at an ego-boost for the author.

  3. Bill Walderman said,

    July 20, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    "Tristram Shandy . . . is arguably the most self-absorbed narrator of all time."

    Actually, there's very little about Tristram himself–it's all about the constellation of personalities who surround him from the moment of his conception–his father and mother, Obadiah, Trim, Uncle Toby and the widow Wadham.

    The prize for most self-absorbed narrator of all time surely goes to the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu.

  4. Linklog: A Pynchonesque encounter, Frank McCourt remembered, and more said,

    March 12, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    […] • Why frequent use of "I" is not necessarily a measure of egotism, with example from David Copperfield. (Via.) […]

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