A while ago, my niece posted a photo of a takeaway coffee cup with her name on it on Instagram. Her name was misspelt. Her followers were asked to vote as to whether she should adopt the new spelling. When I spoke to her shortly afterwards, she observed that she has a friend who has a ‘Starbucks name’, that is, the name the friend gives when asked for her name in Starbucks’ franchises. Another of her friends apparently says his name is ‘My drink’, which my niece described as ‘a bit mean’. I used to give my proper name, spelling it out from a vague sense of sympathy with the person requesting the name but, on reflection, just introducing an unwanted teacherly or surveillance dynamic to the interaction. My niece said that she enjoys seeing the misspellings of her name. A friend of mine says that she gives the name of the person asking her—the name, that is, that the employee is required to display as part of their uniform. I just managed to stop myself doing this recently when I was asked for my name: the woman who asked wasn’t wearing a name badge but an apron with the restaurant chain name on it. In a different food chain, my daughter says that customers are required to give orders via an iPad and are automatically given the name of a celebrity. She says she would prefer to be given a number.

I start with this everyday example to foreground what is common knowledge: that naming is socially significant as a mechanism for the identification of persons, and as such is routinely subverted in (sometimes mean, sometimes mundane, sometimes humorous) practices of misrepresentation, anonymization, subterfuge and impersonation. There are many points of interest in this example—the use of first names alone, the asymmetries involved in the use of names by employee and customer, the subsuming of personal names by company or celebrity names, the limited opportunities for expressions of recognition and solidarity and so on. In what follows I want to consider some examples in which persons are constituted in the use of names, pronouns and numbers: the organization Not In Our Name (NION) and the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #MeToo. All three examples, I propose, may be understood as figures of speech, understood to mean a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from everyday language use—spoken or written—in order to produce a rhetorical effect.

As part of a collaborative project on personalization (,Footnote 1 I focus on four inter-related dimensions by which these figures of speech constitute persons. First, I am concerned to show how each figure constitutes a simultaneously singular and plural person. Second, I am interested in the role of participation, making a distinction between ‘participating in’ and ‘being part of’. The questions I want to ask in this regard are: who is included, who is excluded in these simultaneously singular and plural persons when they are constituted by figures of speech? Does anyone belong? A third concern is whether how and how the figures might be understood to constitute proper or improper persons, where ‘proper’ is used to reference property (including in the self), propriety, appropriation and appropriateness. In doing so I draw on understandings of the proper as the ability to circumscribe place (Bourdieu 1980; de Certeau 1980). My exploration will address how place or territory is circumscribed in these examples by linking the making of place or territory to recursive mechanisms of participation. The fourth and final concern is epistemological, that is, the concern is whether and how the persons constituted in the figures of speech I describe can speak the truth. The conclusion brings these concerns together in a proposal that what distinguishes the persons of #JeSuisCharlie and #MeToo is that they are ‘stuck in the middle’ with ‘people like you’.


While I will go on to consider the role of names and numbers in constituting these examples of persons as part of figures of speech, I start by introducing a variety of ways of thinking about pronouns. I begin with Emile Benveniste (1971 [1956]) since he explicitly addresses their role in relation to the category of person, arguing that they enable persons to be established in a specific relation to the act of speaking. Importantly, the referential relationship the personal pronoun creates is described as circular: it refers to something when it is used, and what it refers to is this use itself, that is, the speaker’s self-reference and the referentiality of the message are co-constitutive.Footnote 2 Over and beyond this, Benveniste further proposes that some pronouns, specifically first- and second-person pronouns (‘I’ and ‘you’ in English), are distinguished as the only ‘personal’ pronouns on the grounds that they alone call into existence an unrepeatable object:

“I” designates the one who speaks and at the same time implies an utterance about “I”; in saying “I,” I cannot not be speaking of myself. In the second person, “you” is necessarily designated by “I” and cannot be thought of outside a situation set up by starting with “I”; and at the same time, “I” states something as the predicate of “you.” But in the third person a predicate is really stated, only it is outside “I-you”; this form is thus an exception to the relationship by which “I” and “you” are specified. Consequently, the legitimacy of this form as a “person” is to be questioned. (1971: 197)

For Benveniste, the first and second personal pronouns or person forms are further uniquely characterized by their ‘oneness’: ‘the “I” who states, the “you” to whom “I” addresses himself are unique each time. But “he” can be an infinite number of subjects—or none’ (1971: 199). For Benveniste, the uniqueness inherent in the ‘I’ as a figure of speech means there can be no genuinely plural form of the first person. Instead, he describes ‘we’ as a ‘junction between “I” and the “non-I”’ in which ‘I’ is dominant or transcendent:

This junction [of ‘I’ and ‘non-I’] forms a new totality which is of a very special type whose components are not equivalent: in “we” it is always “I” which predominates since there cannot be “we” except by starting with “I,” and this “I” dominates the “non-I” element by means of its transcendent quality. The presence of “I” is constitutive of “we.” (1971: 202)

On this basis, he distinguishes between what he calls the undifferentiated ‘we’ of Indo-European languages and the two distinct forms present in some Amerindian, Australian and other languages—commonly described as the ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’ forms ‘I + you’ and ‘I + they’.

In a related strand of thinking, Roman Jakobson (1971 [1956]) describes personal pronouns as shifters, that is, as words whose reference shifts in each use. In his analysis of pronouns, Jakobson is especially concerned with the first personal plural (‘we’ in English),Footnote 3 the collective subject of which he also recognizes to be uncertain. To formalize this uncertainty, he develops a distinctive approach that makes use of cybernetics and information theory to emphasize the importance of relations between a message and its underlying code. This enables him to introduce two general distinctions: ‘one between language and that which it narrates, and one between an event and its participants’. ‘Four items’, he says, ‘are to be distinguished, a narrated event, a speech event, a participant of the narrated event, and a participant of the speech event, whether addresser or addressee’ (1971: 133).

In a discussion of pronouns in English literature, John Frow introduces the claim made by some linguists:

that all the selves performed or implied by language are figures of speech, figures of the self which may in turn be embedded in multiple reflexive layerings, not only in the direct and indirect quotation of others or ourselves but in mockery, in “taking off” another person, in acting, in the citation of adages or scraps of unattributed speech, in innuendo, and in all the “keyings” by which we shift from one register to another; from one figuring of the self to another. (Frow 2016: 164-5)

However, he stresses that while deictic markers such as pronouns involve the establishment of a reference point in both speech and writing, they are like and unlike in that ‘both work with a temporal reference point, but in writing it is not necessarily equivalent to the time of enunciation’ (Frow 2016: 168).

Frow is specially interested in ‘free indirect discourse’, which he describes as combining personal and impersonal narrative modes. He draws on literary examples to develop this analysis, using them to argue both that Benveniste is mistaken in proposing that only the first and second person can point to subjectivity, and to show that the use of pronouns may involve shifts in the speaker/addressee relationship. In describing these shifts he draws on Brian McHale’s notion of integrational reading and the ‘vertical’ or ‘mimetic context’, what McHale calls the text’s ‘reconstructed level’:

Among the things readers know how to do with texts is to reconstruct, taking their cue from the actual sentences of the text, entities not actually given by those sentences “in so many words.” Such entities include characters’ psychologies, relationships among characters, fictional worlds, and even attitudes (e.g., irony), themes, and “ideas” in the largest sense—as well as … voices and speaking positions. (McHale 1983: 34 in Frow 2016: 172)

But Frow further adds that such shifts may also include shifts in the speaker-addressee pair (i.e., the speaker/addressee pair may change as well as the relationship between any individual speaker/addressee pair). In the movement of these shifts, he suggests, it is possible to identify the shifting perspective of a ‘narrating instance’, and it is this (both impersonal and personal) perspective that constitutes free indirect discourse. Concluding with Agamben, he suggests that entry into discourse

takes place in the endless occupation of the deictic shifters which at once situate me and render me discontinuous with myself, or rather constitute my self as a site of shifting reference. That passage through the empty places of the pronouns and the persons of the verb is something like a journey through nonbeing, a constitution of the subject in the experience of absence. The pronoun system, like the characters who occupy it, guarantees identity and the dispersal of identity in the same articulation. (Frow 2016: 180)

These approaches to pronouns are introduced here to show the complexity of the ways in which their use may constitute persons. In the analysis of figures of speech that follows it will be supplemented by a consideration of numbers as well as names.

Figures of Speech

Not In Our Name (NION) was the name of a US organization founded in 2002 to protest the US government's response to the events of 11 September 2001. Its Statement of Conscience called on the people of the US ‘to resist the policies and overall political direction that have emerged since September 11, 2001, and which pose grave dangers to the people of the world’. The organization was disbanded in 2008. A version of the organization’s name—‘Not in my name’—was adopted as a slogan as part of public demonstrations in cities across the UK to protest the involvement of the UK government in the war against Iraq in 2003.

In this example,Footnote 4 the capacity for the (possessive) personal pronoun ‘our’ to act as a shifter is muted by its containment as part of the name of a collectively constituted organization (that has a Conscience). And the propriety of this collective name is itself secured through the ways in which individual membership is accomplished by signature, since signatures are a way to indicate a unique individual whose persistent existence—continuous across time and space, independent of context—is legally recognized (Frow 2002). The figure of speech that is composed in this example of the use of a pronoun is thus a properly circumscribed collective entity comprised of many unique ‘I’s, ones or proper individuals. The existence and identity of the collective entity and the singular individuals who comprise the entity are understood to be independent of each other and to be context-independent, only temporarily sutured by a signature and a (capitalized) name. Nevertheless, while its capacity to be a shifter is restricted, attention to the use of the pronoun ‘our’ in the name Not In Our Name encourages us to see that the circular logic of identification of persons as individuals that is involved here relies upon a short-circuiting. It is the political and legal authority of the state—including the maintenance of an apparatus of naming, including registers of birth, marriage and death, as well as laws of forgery and impersonation—that allows signatures to be used as legitimate identifiers of both individuals and organizations. In short, it is the state apparatus that gives legitimacy and political efficacy to the address made by this simultaneously singular and plural figure of speech to government.Footnote 5

However, when the words ‘Not in our name’ or ‘Not in my name’ are not used as names but are statements of conscience appearing on a placard carried by someone at a demonstration, the specific person or persons to which ‘my’ or ‘our’ refers shifts. While relying on the symbolic convention that the person holding a placard intends or motivates the meaning of the statement on the placard, the figure who speaks is not given a unique, fixed identity and is not accorded a prior or future existence. That is, when ‘Not in my name’ is inscribed as a statement on a placard that moves from one individual to another, and no name is given, the personal pronoun references a transient individual-among-other-individuals, a not-quite-proper person. The individuals if or when they carry the placard are individuated, but they are identified not in their uniqueness but in equivalence or sameness (although they may of course be identified as unique individuals in practices of surveillance, including automated facial recognition, a technique in which a part of the body is constituted as an involuntary signature by the state or some other surveillant entity).

As the placard moves from person to person, as there is a figuring of one self to another, my ‘Not in my name’ has the same standing as your ‘Not in my name’. In short, the meaning of the words on the placard is not tied to the identification of ‘you’ or ‘me’ as unique (context-independent) individuals but to ‘our’ indication—a pointing out—as an individual member of a (context-specific) ‘we’, of one-among-other-ones. While it is possible to work out that one of the intended addressees is the government (in part, perhaps, because of some other aspects of the context of use, such as the route of the march which the placard holders follow), we can also infer that the individual indicated is also addressing other individuals, who by their co-presence, can point to and be pointed out to each other. Making a ‘we’ that is an ‘I + you’ is one of the ways in which the solidarity of this figure of speech is given substance even if it loses form, as when it becomes a crowd in which the ‘+ you’ might become a ‘+ they’.

The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie emerged on Twitter in 2015, following an attack by gunmen at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Two days after the event, the hashtag had been used over five million times on Twitter, making it one of the most popular topics in the platform’s history. It was soon joined by #NousSommesTousCharlie. Most uses of these French-language hashtags were not from French accounts. Immediately following their appearance, another appeared—#JeNeSuisPasCharlie, although in much smaller numbers (just over 74,000 in the first few days). Other hashtags included #JesuisAhmed (‘I am Ahmed’, in reference to Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was shot outside the Charlie Hebdo offices by the same gunmen who killed members of the magazine’s staff). Later that year, Willem, one of the cartoonists employed at the magazine declared, ‘We vomit on those who suddenly declared that they were our friends’ (

In the use of the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, the use of a name alongside the pronoun ‘Je’ does not restrict its capacity to act as a shifter. While Charlie is capitalized as a proper name, it is not functioning properly.Footnote 6 The ‘Charlie’ of ‘I am Charlie’, we may infer, if we are aware of the events of the attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo, is a shortening of the magazine name, the first part of which is said to refer to both the cartoon character Charlie Brown and Charles de Gaulle, a former French President, with the second part, Hebdo, short for hebdomadaire—‘weekly’. However, as the hashtag was used again and again, as the number of speech events aggregated, as one self was figured to another, it was also possible to infer that the ‘I’ in this figure of speech was not an employee of the magazine. Indeed, as the number of hashtags associated with this phrase grew in size, as it appeared many, many times a day not just once a week, it became clear that the fact that the hashtag user who said, ‘I am Charlie’ was not a member of Charlie Hebdo, was the point.

However, although I earlier gave numbers that attest to the widespread use of the hashtag, there was uncertainty as to how the collective nature of the subject of this figure of speech was to be understood. While Robert Payne argues that ‘the contagious complexity of the slogan cannot be captured by quantitative measurement of tweet volume and frequency’, he also suggests that the hashtag was a ‘mass demonstration of individualised solidarity’ (2018: 279):

the individual Charlie is the collective, united in defence against attack upon any one of its members and the values that each embodies. … the performative function of mass repetition of the speech act ‘Je suis Charlie’ serves to inaugurate a new subject who seeks recognition within a restricted field of norms. The paradox of this subject is that its singularity emerges only through multiple acts of individuality, none of which is fully autonomous. No single Charlie originates the subject position from which all claim to speak. (2018: 281)

In contrast, Inka Salovaara-Moring (2015) argues that ‘Je suis Charlie functions as a non- or post-human agent that tells a story on the behalf of we, the assemblage. Using Charlie as “we” does not only define the action and experience, but the narration itself’. However, this assemblage is also understood to approximate a subject: she says,

In the digital media ecosystem, the implied ‘agent’ is almost irreplaceable. The narrative structure including ‘we’ (‘black people’, ‘freedom fighters’, ‘Muslims’) provides a narrative with an ideological trajectory. The connection between time, space, narrative and history becomes clear as the group achieves a reflexive self-awareness as a ‘subject’ that is analogous of the individual. (2015)

The suggestion here is that this figure of speech is not composed as a collective entity of unique, independent ones or even of one-among-other-ones, but as a more-and-less-than-one.

As such, it is perhaps not surprising that as the figure of speech came into existence, the impropriety of the speech act elicited a critical response from others. Payne observes that

one user is irritated by and cynical about the Charlie movement: ‘comment ça m’énerve ceux qui mettent “je suis Charlie” et qui n’ont jamais entendu parler du journal Charlie hebdo, tt ça pr follow le mouv’ (‘It really annoys me how people post “Je suis Charlie” and have never heard of the paper Charlie Hebdo, all just to follow the movement’). … Another user labels the opportunists more bluntly: ‘Et y’a les moutons qui te mettent “je suis Charlie” partout’ (‘And here are the sheep posting “Je suis Charlie” everywhere’), followed by a ‘suspicious face’ emoticon. (2018: 284–5)

He concludes with the suggestion that for some users, ‘Charlie supporters lack sincerity, individuality and knowledge of context’ (2018: 284). The contexts most commonly invoked as lacking—by participants and analysts—were those of nation and race.

Camille Robcis (2015) notes that some ‘commentators seem particularly upset by the British and American insinuation that the content of Charlie Hebdo might indeed be read as racist and, consequently, that one may condemn the murders without embracing the identificatory universalism that [French Prime Minister] Valls and others have called for’ (Robcis 2015). Some users, she notes, interpreted the use by other users of #JeNeSuisPasCharlie as the ‘hypocrisy and shared misunderstanding of what were sometimes called Anglo-Saxons’. In another commentary, Alana Lentin (2018) describes the event of Charlie Hebdo as an example of a ‘white context’ requiring ‘black analytics’.Footnote 7 Her argument is that the appeal for the need to understand the ‘French context relied on a “white analytics” that opposes the centrality of race as an interpretive framework that a “black analytics” foregrounds’.Footnote 8 In making this argument, she unpicks the politics of ‘the urge to contextualise’ (2018: 52):

the proposition that providing French context could overcome what were portrayed as misreadings of the reasons for and backdrop to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo did not complexify these rationales. Rather, because the context provided did not engage with an epistemology of black analytics, it could not ultimately dispel the tendency to present a Janus-faced picture of French society—those who identified with a personified “Charlie” (republican, secular, white) and those who did not (communitarian, religious/fundamentalist, racialized). (2018: 49–50)

The variety of these lay and academic analyses speaks to the complexity of the co-constitutive inter-relationship of a speaker’s self-reference and the referentiality of the message. As previously mentioned, Willem, who was a contributor to the magazine, explicitly rejected the identification with ‘Charlie’ made by others. We can see this response as an assertion by Willem, in the shadow of his experience of an attack on his life and that of his colleagues, of the impropriety of anyone else asserting an existential link. Or, if we follow Jakobson, we can see his response as a denial of the right of others to participate in the narrated event through participation in the speech event. In contrast, those who responded by using #JeNeSuisPasCharlie opposed the sentiment of those speakers who said #JeSuisCharlie but accepted their right to participate in the narrative event by exercising their own ability to do so. In other words, one aspect of what is contested in this figure of speech is whether you can participate in an event without being a part of it, whether and how speech events and narrative events are articulated together and what kind of subjective or other agency, authority or credibility this layered articulation—or contextual integration—might afford.

Combining Jakobson with Lentin’s analysis of the politics of contexting raises the issue of whether and how participating in and being part of come to be associated with belonging, place and territory. She writes,

The suggestion that all speech is free belies the facts that speech uttered and heard is deeply unequal and that the different actors within it have varying degrees of freedom. An Australian example indicates this: Uthman Badar, the President of the Muslim group Hizb-ut Tahrir, was asked to address the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, an event with the tagline, “a series of talks that bring contentious ideas to the fore and challenge mainstream thought and opinion.” However, Badar’s presentation at the event … was canceled due to outrage over the topic of “honor killings,” the subject the organizers asked him to address. As Randa Abdel-Fattah notes, as a Muslim, Badar was not allowed to have a “dangerous idea,” because to do so would imply “that he is a Muslim of Australia, not a Muslim in Australia”. (2018: 54-55)

Both the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie circulate in an algorithmic infrastructure in which context awareness is difficult to say the least: across the platforms of digital media there is considerable potential for multiple possible confusions, tangles and confrontations in the circular self-(p)referencing and platform-induced dynamism of trending. Indeed, the event of #JeSuisCharlie can be seen as an instance of what Elena Esposito (2004) calls ‘second-order blindness’ and what Gregory Bateson (1972) calls schizmogenesis: the continual reproduction, confirmation and intensification of difference.Footnote 9

Bateson developed the term schizmogenesis in an analysis of double-binds or double-takes, which he describes as examples of transcontextualism, a genus of syndromes or cognitive tangles associated with the ‘more than circular’ that arise when individuals learn—or fail to learn—how to deal with uncertainty in relation to context. At the heart of this genus, says Bateson, is the human capacity to deal with the ‘weaving of contexts and of messages which propose context—but which, like all messages, whatsoever, have “meaning” only by virtue of [the] context’ in which they are received (1972: 275-6). Contexts may set the stage for a ‘certain class of response’, but learning what changes and what stays the same across contexts is challenging, and ‘breaches in the weave of contextual structure’ are common. Certainly, in the case of figures of speech that emerge in social media, the layering that McHale identifies as part of a contextual or integrational reading seems likely to lead to multiple breaches in context, perhaps even making ground-truthing or providing a (common) ground for readings impossible to establish (Day and Lury 2017).

The MeToo Movement is a movement against sexual harassment and assault. Tarana Burke, a US social activist and community organizer, began using the phrase ‘Me Too’ to refer to sexual harassment in 2006. The hashtag #MeToo spread online in October 2017 following sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag was first tweeted by the US actor Alyssa Milano around noon on 15 October 2017 and had been used more than 200,000 times by the end of the day and tweeted more than 500,000 times by the next day. On Facebook, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours. The platform reported that 45% of users in the US had a friend who had posted using the term.

In this example, as with #JeSuisCharlie, the relation between the singular and the plural, the one and the many, is continually being remade by the platforms in which the figure of speech moves. Also as in the case of #JeSuisCharlie, this example demonstrates that disbelief, doubt and speculation are the unavoidable outcomes of the serial calibration of signal and noise, in(ter)ference and (un)certainty across contexts. However, as well as triggering other tangential or derivative claims (#NotMeToo, #HimToo, #NotAllMen, #YesAllWomen, #BelieveWomen, #BelieveAllWomen),Footnote 10 some of the speakers in the movement are engaged in a series of trials—legal and otherwise, in which the relation of personal pronouns to individuals who can be and sometimes are named is being put to the test. In these contexts, the question becomes, is ‘I’ the subject of ‘Me(Too)’? And if so, is the ‘I’ of ‘Me(Too)’ telling the truth?

Here I want to suggest that it’s not necessarily helpful to say that this figure of speech participates in an era of post-truth. Or to say that truth is now ‘after the fact’. According to Benveniste, personal pronouns—as self-referential signs—cannot be used incorrectly; as they do not state anything, ‘they are not subject to the conditions of truth and escape denial’ (1971: 220).Footnote 11 However, this is not Jakobson’s view as becomes apparent in his discussion of the third person plural, ‘we’, which he describes as both a shifter and a non-shifter. For Jakobson, ‘we’ is a non-shifter insofar as, in many languages,Footnote 12 it conveys at least some information as to category of person, specifically information as to category of person (gender) and category of number (more than one) (Kursell 2010).

As is well known, the information conveyed as to gender varies significantly across languages. In current uses of the English language, however, the category of person—gender—is being supplemented by a category of number through the advocacy of the use of the third person plural—‘they’—to indicate a (single) person of fluid, non-binary or trans-gender. There is a lot to be said about this but here I focus on the use of ‘they’ as a category of number to suggest that the kind of number called into existence is a distributive number,Footnote 13 a statistical number supported by, but not exclusive to, the calculation of digital data.

In ordinary English language use, a distributive number is a word that answers ‘how many times each?’ or ‘how many at a time?’, while the distributive property law in mathematics concerns the ordering or sequencing of arithmetical operations. Adrian Mackenzie (2016) draws on both these understandings when he suggests that distributive numbers should be the name for those numbers that emerge from the sequencing of the arithmetical operations of conjoining (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing) of probability distributions in complex statistical techniques such as Markov Chain Monte Carlo simulation (MCMC). He develops his analysis by suggesting that while MCMC is designed to individualize entities, the aim is to describe relations between individual entities or events that are neither identical to nor independent of each other. MCMC does this, he says, by individuating an entity by calculating how more or less similar the entity is to many others in probabilistic terms, specifically by identifying an individual entity or event as a joint probability distribution within different intersecting populations. The probability of any individual entity is thus understood as always distributed—added to, subtracted from, multiplied and divided—in relation to many populations in many times (in ordered sequence)Footnote 14 in time. Mackenzie writes,

In post-demographic understandings of data, individuals appear not simply as members of a population (although they certainly do that), but themselves as a kind of joint probability distribution at the conjunction of many different numbering practices. If individuals were once collected, grouped, ranked, and trained in populations characterised by disparate attributes (life expectancies, socio-economic variables, educational development, and so on), today we might say that they are distributed across populations of different kinds that intersect through them. Individuals become more like populations or crowds. (2016: 116)

It is as an example of a personal pronoun that is also a distributive number, I suggest, that the #MeToo has the capacity to refute Benveniste’s claim that ‘I cannot not be speaking of myself’ as a ‘one’. That is, #MeToo is a platform-enabled participatory intersection of populations, in which as Mackenzie notes, ‘the lines between objective and subjective, or aleatory and epistemic probability, begin to shift not towards some total computer simulation of reality but towards a refolding of probability through world and experience’ (2016: 126). ‘Me’ is conjoined with ‘Too’ in a way that makes visible the short-circuiting that is made invisible in the use of signature and the popular social media phrase ‘You do you’, which both short-circuit recognition of the mutual constitution of self and speech.

As a figure of speech, #MeToo is simultaneously a person that is one and many, not as the addition of either unique independent ones or of equivalent ones but as a conjoint person or condividual (a dividing with) (Deseriis 2015). As such, it is an instance of free, indirect discourse, the (im)personal perspective of a constative (probabilistic) and performative (participatory) practice of conjoining. It involves a pronominalism that involves a constantly shifting de- and re-aggregation of participation such that the ‘we’ that is ‘MeToo’ is simultaneously inside and outside both the relations ‘I + you’ and ‘I + they’.Footnote 15 Indeed, it is perhaps because such figures of speech comprise wholes that are vague in the sense that they are simultaneously inclusively exclusive and exclusively inclusive (Agamben 1998; Verran 2007; Guyer 2014) that #MeToo provokes the emergence of competing ‘totals’ or ‘wholes’, including not only #NotMeToo, and #HimToo but also #NotAllMen, #YesAllWomen, #BelieveWomen, #BelieveAllWomen. This is also perhaps what makes the figure of speech that is #BlackLivesMatter a total or whole that is simultaneously ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller’, both ‘more’ and ‘less’ than #AllLivesMatter.

Stuck in the Middle

To conclude, I want to suggest that the analyses of these examples as figures of speech illustrate some of the limits and the possibilities of a non-representational politics: the challenges such a politics pose for understandings of persons, and the kinds of relations that can exist between the singular and the plural, the one and the many, the proper and the improper as well as raising questions about whether and how truth may be established. Can the performative ‘I’ of ‘I promise’ (to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth) be rendered equivalent to the self-(p)referencing ‘I’ of ‘I like this’ or the ‘I’ that is more and less likely to be ‘you’ at this (and that) time? What kinds of causal relation between past acts and present responsibility—if any—can be established for these conjoint figures of speech? In what ways, if at all, can relations between ‘#MeToo’ and ‘you’ be rendered equivalent to the relations that Benveniste identifies as existing in ‘we’ between the personal pronouns ‘I + you’, or even ‘I + they’? In what sense can or should such claims be described as free speech?

In a discussion of improper names (2015), Marco Deseriis introduces Slavoj Zizek’s claim that the guarantee of ‘the identity of an object in all counterfactual situations—through a change of all its descriptive features—is the retroactive effect of naming itself. It is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of the object’ (Zizek 1989: 94-95 in Deseriis 2015: 24). However, he also cites Ernesto Laclau who says ‘the reverse movement also operates: [empty signifiers] can never fully control which demands they embody or represent’ (Laclau 2005: 108 in Deseriis 2015: 25). Deseriis’ own position—or wager as he puts it—is that ‘rather than expressing heterogeneity or homogeneity, difference or totality, the improper is a mode of mediation between these two poles. This mediation is evident not only in the passage from the one to the many (and vice versa) … but also in the relation between signifying and a-signifying practices within the assemblage’ (Deseriis 2015: 25).

Walter Benjamin proposes that a ‘pure middle’ is one whose middleness is not defined with respect to determinable end-points, but is, rather, an infinite and infinitely divisible space. Of this space, the critic Peter Fenves writes:

Nothing can withstand this space intact: infinite divisibility is the ‘law’ of this space, which, however, cannot be posited as a law, since this division is never governed by an identifiable rule. The ‘law’ of this space, the rule by which its infinite divisibility is articulated, must likewise be infinitely co-divisible: in German, mitteilbar, which is to say, ‘communicable’. (Fenves 2001: 255)

Clearly, the pure middle is an abstraction, but the implication of the introduction of abstraction into social life by way of media-specific operations of communicability is precisely what has been considered here. What has emerged across the analysis of these examples is the importance of considering media-specificity for the ways in which a speaker’s self-reference and the referentiality of language are co-constitutive. In the last two cases, for example, the elements are data-points, and the connections, couplings or conjoints are the hashtags, Footnote 16 likes, shares, retweets and so on, which are brought into multiple and dynamic relations with each other in the distributive operations of platforms of all kinds. If we consider these couplings as the introduction of abstraction of a media-specific kind into social life, we can see we are not simply witnessing a proliferation of (im)proper persons, but are ‘stuck in the middle’ with ‘People (more and less, sometimes and sometimes not) Like You’, participating in and/or being part of a totality that is a vague whole (Guyer 2014). Both #JeSuisCharlie and #MeToo are figures of speech that cannot be summed up by the addition of either individual ‘I’s, unitary 1s or ‘ayes’, but rather constitute more or less proper persons, existing simultaneously inside and outside ‘I + you’ and ‘I + they’, for whom the circumscription of ground, place or territory cannot be finally determined.