Talking Behind the Back

Person A and Person B are working side by side in an office. “Apparently”, remarks A, “I’m the office Simon Cowell”. B, busy and slightly distracted, is nonetheless intrigued by the remark, feeling that it does obscurely sum something up about A’s personality. A repeats the remark, slightly pettishly this time, only for B to remember why the remark seems familiar. Over drinks with Person C several weeks before, B had said exactly that about A! B cannot remember the context, but knows that the joke wouldn’t have been meant altogether unkindly. However, at some point in the interim C has told A, and A is now baiting B into confessing to making what is now being perceived as an outright insult.

In this familiar moment of social awkwardness, we find an everyday example of what the philosopher Alenka Zupančič has referred to as “the introduction of the Ego/I into what is called objective reality”, whereby suddenly, “the ego exists”. We are used to thinking of our inner thoughts and feelings as the irrefutable anchor of our being. What are we to do then, when we come up against evidence our Ego/I is somehow “out there”, an object making a material impact on the world in ways that we can’t anticipate. Person B cannot really remember what she meant by the remark, but A and C certainly remember what they think B meant. As such, how can B make any special claim for her version of events, when A and C’s version of B is as – or rather even more – vividly recalled? B’s being cannot be altogether her own for as long as a version of her is “out there”, her shadowy double, wandering around meddling with things in the representations and reflections of others.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night offers a useful comparison for this situation. When Sebastian arrives in Illyria after surviving a shipwreck, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew mistake him for his sister Viola, who at this stage is dressed as a man and looks just like her brother. When challenged, Sebastian beats the two knights up. Viola is in the position of Person B. She might well know herself that she didn’t beat up the two knights, but on the plane of objective reality at least, it happened! Similarly, B must come to terms with the fact that whatever we ourselves “really meant”, our ego exists. It is out there in the world, and must be incorporated into any assessment of our being.


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