Tagged: intersubjectivity

“I’m Also a We”: Collective First Person and Cloud Subjects


collective first

[Collective First Person by Nicki Werner, 2014]

“It strikes me as a barely explored pronoun, full of possibilities.” –Steven Milhauser


I’m pretty obsessed with the politics of pronouns in fiction writing owing to many of my characters’ genderqueer and/or non-binary identifications—and my own! Prior to coming to a(n) nb/gq identity, I often adopted third-person limited for more autofictional stories to enable critical distance—a distance that started to seem like disidentification. I was using “she” like a slap.

So I moved away from third limited to embrace first person, which avoids binary gender pronouns for the most part (Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body being the classic example of a gender-ambiguous, potentially genderqueer narrator). Right now I’m experimenting with no-pronoun third-person—i.e., repeating the protagonist’s name in place of using pronouns—as well as they/them third person, second person, and—I’m coming to it—

Collective first. Our topic at hand. Aka first person plural. Aka “we.” While it’s been on the rise in US fiction, it remains underused and underexplored.

Like “you” (see Erica Hunt’s terrific essay on second person in Citizen), the pronoun “we” is “flexible and ambiguous” (Maxey 2), its boundaries shifting and porous: at any given moment, it is unclear how many “I”s a “we” might include. This presents opportunities for authors to negotiate the individual in relation to the social, to draw lines (or refuse to) around various groups or social categories, to dramatize belonging and exclusion.


Probably the most well-known example of collective first is Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), in which a singular narrator’s use of “we” reflects the dystopian society’s erasure of individuality (via the lost “I”). “We” here functions as an institutional weapon of forced conformity and suppression of self, and when “I” arrives, it’s loaded with utopic possibility.


First plural can also be used to make the opposite, and, we think, better, argument. For example, Andrea Lawlor’s chapbook Position Papers envisions a compelling anti-capitalist world in which “we will eschew individual possessive first person.” The proposal is somewhat tongue in cheek, as Lawlor uses possessive singular on the very next page—“In my country…”—but persuasive nonetheless. Throughout, collective first invites the reader into a proposed collectivity that is intentional and accounts for difference. Indeed, it operates much like philosopher Kay Mathiesen’s theory of collective consciousness: “collective subjectivity,” she writes, “requires plurality (i.e. that there be multiple conscious subjects), awareness (i.e. that there is genuine intentionality), and collectivity (i.e. that the collective subject forms a social group)” (236).

To adopt a collective perspective, Matheisen says, is to “understand and predict what another person is thinking” through simulation of thought (that is, empathy) and “to model within ourselves the beliefs, values, etc. of the collective” (247). Given that arguments around who belongs and doesn’t have been / continue to be used as weapons of discrimination and criminalization, to invoke collective first in this way has tremendous political potential.


More commonly, we’ve seen it used less politically, to represent small town subjectivities: e.g., William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1930) and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993). As Ruth Maxey has noted, both narratives adopt a masculine retrospective collective voice—a “we” that, while remaining flexible and ambiguous, invites only some readers into it. In a variation on the small town point of view, Christopher Grimes adopts a bureaucratic “we” in The Pornographers (2012)—one that is constructed deliberately (and satirically) to exclude women (and, arguably, people of color, queer and trans people, and other marginalized identities). Since the novel is structured as one impossibly long sentence, the effect is a babble of collective anxiety, the “we” trying desperately to hold onto itself and its authority.


More recent examples of collective first tend to highlight difference and singularity within the group, as TaraShea Nesbit has observed (cw: in this article, a racist slur is used in a cited book title). In Justin Torres’s We the Animals, for example, the retrospective narrator increasingly shifts from first plural to singular to chronicle his fraught individuation from his family, as he confronts his undeniable (queer) difference. In the final multi-part chapter, the narrator is abruptly expelled from the group; the narrative’s shift from first plural to a distant third to a dissociated second to finally a reluctant, terrified first singular illustrates how violent the process of individuation can be (especially when forced).

Then there’s the narrator of Aimee Bender’s “Debbieland,” who actually refuses to individuate. Having come of age as part of a gang of girl bullies, the narrator has retained her collective identity into adulthood; the reader doesn’t realize until halfway through that her “we” is actually an “I.” Her continued use of collective first implies stunted growth, a resistance to maturation that isn’t cute—it’s a potential social threat, protecting her from accepting responsibility for her actions. As in We the Animals, collective first is strongly associated with adolescence, supporting the notion that adulthood means individuation; an adult “we” is suspect.


Some recent scifi narratives, meanwhile, are not afraid of “us”! Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series and the Wachowski sisters’ Netflix series Sense8 both adopt a new form of collective first involving multiple characters linked across bodies.


In Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the narrator is an AI entity designed to exist across many bodies, as the brain of a ship and its ancillaries (AI drone troops who have been installed in colonized human bodies). A number of different passages show the narrator experiencing multiple scenes simultaneously, from the point of view of different ancillaries, a simultaneity that’s initially quite dizzying for us readers to take on.

Is this a variation of collective first? The narrator rarely adopts “we” as a perspecive. Maybe she’s a multiple “I” as opposed to a “we.” But isn’t that what “we” is? We don’t know! This point of view seems related to but not quite collective first. The best description might be cloud subjectivity, as proposed by Joshua Rothman.

One of the most interesting dimensions of Leckie’s cloud subject is that its bodies matter very much. The bodies the narrator finds herself occupying are not blank slates: one of them likes to sing. Owing to corporeal history/memory, individuality is not entirely erased; this is one way in which the colonized haunt the novel. Also, the cloud fractures at numerous points in the narrative, requiring the ancillaries to act as disunified individuals. To me this is one of the most striking aspects of Leckie’s collective subject(s): it insists upon a whole, cohesive self that contains multiple, differentiated selves. Cohesion and plurality are not contradictory.


Sense8’s cloud subject operates similarly, though so far the show emphasizes plurality over cohesion: the first season spends a lot of time revealing how the links between the eight sensates work. We learn with them that they can feel each other’s feelings; take control over one another’s bodies; but it’s selective—they are not experiencing all eight sets of realities all the time. The show celebrates interdependence and co-subjectivity: its various conflicts are resolved through each individual’s skills and what they can contribute to the group (not unlike the set-up of Orphan Black, RPGs, or cooperative tabletop games like Pandemic).

We remember the rise of network narratives in the early 2000s (Crash, Traffic, Syriana, Babel, The Wire). Narratives like Ancillary Justice and Sense8 combine what Caroline Levine has identified as the affordances of network narratives with those of collective first point of view. And whereas some other constructions of multiple subjectivity tap into cultural anxieties around the fear/threat of sameness across subjects, these narratives are excited about the possibilities of collective consciousness.

Collective consciousness, Sense8 argues powerfully, is anchored in empathy. The eight sensates provide emotional support for one another; they learn from each other; they help one another make difficult decisions: Nomi, for example, who is trans, steps in to help Lito confront his fear of coming out publicly as gay. Capheus helps Riley work through her fears that something terrible will happen. (Something does! but that’s unrelated.) Yet there are limitations to what they can know and understand (and I hope in subsequent seasons, these fissures and gaps will get more attention).


Like Ancillary Justice, the show attends to differences across bodies. The writers have fun with gender difference, for instance: Lito experiences Sun’s PMS; Will takes on Riley’s pregnancy (both tropes of genderswap fanfic, incidentally). When Capheus is called “bitch” repeatedly by his antagonists, Sun (whose life has been deeply impacted by sexism) steps in to react. These moments of intersubjective exchange seem importantly trans and feminist in nature. Moreover, through them, empathy is proposed as rooted in the body, driven not by emotional intelligence but corporeal experience. The sensates do not need to simulate the thoughts and feelings of others: they are feeling them in their bodies.

I hope the next season will explore more of the negative aspects of trans-subjectivity: What about when a sensate resists, wants to refuse, the exhausting prospect of feeling with/as someone else? While the show’s celebration of empathy-based collectivity is provocative and politically valent, it’s important to remember that this empathy is forced.


David Levithan’s YA novel Every Day offers a counterexample, presenting co-subjectivity as undesirable and often challenging. The novel adopts the point of view of a floating subjectivity who wakes up each morning in a different body. Deeply affected by each host’s body—its capacities and limitations, its corporeal history—the narrator negotiates a complex new co-subjectivity…every day. This is often difficult, as some bodies are easier to live in, and feel with, than others. At one point the narrator finds themself in the body of someone struggling with severe depression; the book presents their suicidality not as an emotional/mental state but a powerful bodily urge that the narrator must fight: “I have to convince myself that this isn’t a pointless life, even though the body is telling me it is” (63). Like Sense8, the novel privileges corporeal reality—but gives serious consideration to the negative dimensions of intersubjectivity.

These speculative narratives invite us to feel with characters negotiating involuntary intersubjectivity and collective consciousness; to have our own trans-subjective exchanges—voluntarily. The dirty truth is I’m often a reluctant empathizer, and would not want to be “we” all, or much, of the time. But I’m a great reader; this is my contribution to the group. It’s possible my community doesn’t need an essay on collective first and multiple subjectivity—I can’t read your minds—but I wanted to write it. So I did.