Language note: the possessiveness of the pronoun “our”

The Department of Asian Studies at my university is now circulating a petition which reads, in part:

In response to and strong condemnation of recent expressions of hate directed at Muslim and Jewish communities in Hawaii, we endorse the following statement:

Over the past weeks the Manoa Mosque has been the target of multiple hate messages via social media, email, and voicemail. Individual Muslims have been harassed in public, including children. Also, Temple Emanu-El was targeted with a bomb threat against its Jewish pre-school.

We stand together with our Muslim and Jewish communities and any individuals who are subjected to harassment based on religion, immigration status, national origin, race, gender, LGBTQ+ status or disability. No one should go through this experience alone.

That’s how compassion expresses itself in current academic language: categorically, sorting its intended beneficiaries by administrative identifiers: “religion, immigration status, national origin. . . .” And along with the compassionate categories, as a logically required complement, there are also anti-compassionate categories: for instance, “the US” in a recent contribution from my department titled “The Homes of Zionism: Circuits of White Supremacy between the US and Israel.” There, the Marxist term “the US” functions in the same way as the Republican term “Democrat Party”: as an ugly, unidiomatic locution meant to make its subject sound ugly and alien. But that’s the way my department talks, and the attitude toward Jews represented by conflating Israel with the Klan is what a consensus lexicon sounds like.

Considered that way, as the lingua franca of everybody who matters, it has an important thing in common with the compassion-categories of the petition: it is the vocabulary of a collective mind named “we.” If we were to try thanking that “we” for its compassion for the Jewish community, we might acknowledge the significance of the generous impulse by pointing out that Israel too is a Jewish community — in fact, a Jewish community created expressly to protect against the social consequences of hate. But of course, that time, our gratitude wouldn’t be wanted. It would not only be rejected; it would be misunderstood, uncomprehended, estranged from meaning.

Grammar would have accomplished the alienation. In the instant of its being heard, the possessive pronoun “our” in the petitioners’ phrase “our Jewish community” controls and limits admission to the meaningfulness of the term “Jewish community.” By modifying “Jewish community” to “our Jewish community,” it changes the reference of both “community” and “our” from terms that include to terms that exclude. Modified in that possessive way, the term “our Jewish community” instructs its speakers to think of Jews as theirs to possess — pets, say, who belong where the human community says they belong and nowhere else.


A footnote to the note: William Safire’s The New Language of Politics: A Dictionary of Catchwords, Slogans, and Political Usage (rev. ed., 1972) traces the history of the term “Democrat Party” back to Thomas E. Dewey in the 1940s. During the same era, cartoons in Socialist Camp periodicals like Ogonyok routinely identified villains as American by depicting them wearing the U. S. Army’s “U.S.” lapel badge. The artistic fascination with that un-Cyrillic squiggle lives on in North Korea, even when the artists get it backward:

Weather report: being taken over

“Is football playing?” asks the voice from beyond the tomb in A. E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing?” By 1896, when the question was asked in that grammatical form, it required less a reply than a footnote. Footnote, then: “Is football playing?” is a middle-voice construction called the passival, and by 1896 the passival had been almost completely supplanted by the progressive passive: “Is football being played?” (Liberman). Housman was a crotchety man, the last significant writer in English who refused to use a typewriter, and that line of his lives on in crotchety uprightness. Crying incredulous tears, its ghostly speaker refuses to concede that he speaks a dead language.

By 1941, when Jack Delano exposed film to summer light in Virginia’s plowland, the passival was firmly dead. “House in the area being taken over by the army,” says the caption appended to the film by the Farm Security Administration, and it says its say in the passive progressive. Under changing skies all over the world, bodies, some of them still alive as of 1941, were beginning preparation for military burial.

But for the woman and four girls on the house’s porch, the change hasn’t arrived yet. Their flowers still show signs of being tended, and in one of their upstairs windows a bed with a homemade quilt can be seen. After the change, they and their house, quilt and flowers will be commemorated by a print in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and that document will show no change impending in the sky.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47df-f901-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wBut it was impending. Under certain conditions forecasts can be made seeable, and after all some of them are known all along. The dated caption to this one told us so before we even needed to see its illustration. Latent in the sky, the clouds needed only to be developed under the control of an idea of the symbol. Then and thereafter, they took over and began footnoting the history of being seen.


Mark Liberman, “A peeve for the ages.” Language Log 13 January 2011. In the twenty-first century, the passival survives in idioms like “now playing,” “now showing,” and “What’s cooking?”

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “House in the area being taken over by the army; The family will be moved out in a few days, Caroline County, Va., June, 1941.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Photoshopped.

Spiraling into control

The military postcard from World War I is completely covered with preprinted words. In nine of the languages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – German, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Slovenian, Croatian and Romanian – the words warn a sender not to blemish the mosaic of themselves by adding even one word more.

The mosaic’s surface is perfect in the grammatical sense of the perfect tenses, which get their name from the Latin word perfectus, meaning “completed.” If we could see through the surface into a space not yet perfected, we might be tempted to top it up with words expressing completion in a future – for instance, “By the time you read these words, I may still be alive.” But a sentence like that would be nonsense. In the aftermath of the card’s preprinted now-and-forever Ich bin gesund, it would be like Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”: grammatical but meaningless. It would depend for its significance on the logically incoherent idea of a history with a future.

Therefore a military censor put a stop to the nonsense. In advance of whatever future is rationally conceivable, he ordered the postcard’s printer to fill in every unfilled space more than one character wide. His chosen blackout medium, too, was not mere amorphous ink, the raw material of writing, but a pair of already finished dingbats. The dingbats are spirals: one turning to the left in its line of text, the other to the right. They belong to all of the card’s nine alphabets but to none of its nine languages. All they do is execute self-canceling semicircles, clockwise and then counterclockwise. Pure wordless form, they communicate their one-letter Archimedean meaning only to themselves. But as they execute their pivot left and right, tessera by tessera, they assemble themselves into a sequence, deploy across the card’s surface, and join into a mosaic entanglement. To write past or around or through that, a soldier would have to cut through as if it were barbed wire and his only cutting tool were a scraper for clearing space on a palimpsest.

Mobilized line by line and made into a text which says nothing and enforces the saying of nothing, the meaningless little letters have spiraled into control of the card.

Source: Translation of the central and peripheral blocks: “I am in good health and doing fine” and “No other communication may be made on this card.”


The image in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection at (click to enlarge) is gray.

Explaining to us what we’re supposed to be seeing, an appended afterthought of a noun phrase is crabbed and black.


But to add a verb is to add color.

And then light shines through a cloth-clad wing, a wave takes the light in and mates it with black, and a clause comes into being and teaches us to soar with M. Van den Born. Soaring, we enter a seabird’s bodily understanding of the word “above.”


Photography, the dangling modifier, and ESL

 “As a Deleuzian nomadic feminist, my photographic work explores a dynamic disequilibrium. My photographs play with inter-relating imbrications—concurrent, multiple, contradictory tendencies. My pedagogical and art-based research explores the possibilities of radical citizenship by actively cultivating vulnerability through corporeal inquiries. Irreducibly allusive corpo-visual language unfolds as embodied rhizomatic vulnerabilities. My project is intricately rooted in the potential of a rhizomatic uncanny—‘reducible neither to the One nor the multiple’ (Mille Plateaux 22). I ground my theoretical investigations within narratives of personal experience [1]—sexual becomings and analog photography. As a strategy to elucidate my theoretical queries, I refer both to my philosophical underpinnings and the international public reception of my photographs—which frequently has led to censorship. In doing so, I practice an embodied theory that advocates a politics, philosophy, and pedagogical commitment rooted in everyday behavior and interaction. A commitment to this heterogeneous embodied thinking has the potential to rupture cultural assumptions. It explores the cross-fertilization of Deleuze’s enfoldments as disarticulated membranes. This awareness awakens the possibility of fully inhabiting our bodies—bodies that pulse with the multiplicity of the ‘I’—as inherently interdisciplinary. Revitalization of both individual and social bodies produces enfoldments of psyche-somatic consciousness. No hierarchies survive these monstrous, heterogeneous, multiple entwinings of body intelligence and wisdom. The body becomes a condition for participatory democracy—a lived erotic politics.”

Cara Judea Alhadeff, “Practicing the Abject: Deleuze and the Analog Uncanny.” Rhizomes 23 (2012).

When sorrows come, they come not single spies

On October 10 I posted a note about The New York Times. On October 12, David Brooks, by far the deepest thinker of them all on the Times’s editorial page, opined for the ages:

[Republican vice presidential candidate Paul] Ryan was nurtured by the conservative policy apparatus, and he had a tendency Thursday night to talk about policy even when he was asked about character. I would not say he defined a personality as firmly as he might of . . .

Here’s a suggestion about your venture into the demotic, Mr. Brooks. One reason the conservative intellectual Rush Limbaugh enjoys a reputation even loftier than yours is that in addition to holding forth about politics, he holds forth about sports. So how about biting the Onion and applying for a position with GOOMF?,28930/