Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Hello, My name's Paolo and I... or On Being

I like the verb 'to be', to take an ontological turn. I am, you are, we are and so on and so forth. In Italian the verb is 'essere' and as is quite usually the case the Italian gives you and indication of etymology; the word 'essence' stems from the Ancient Greek 'esse' which brings us rather neatly back to the verb relating to our being. Ontology itself stems from 'ontos' which is the present participle of 'einai' which also originates from 'esse': to be. The verb is the one with which we define ourselves; it is the beginning of how we encapsulate ourselves to the world, it is a verb with so much promise but what comes next?

Let me place you in a hypothetical yet common place scenario, you are meeting someone for the first time and know nothing about them, they are non-descript so all you will learn from them and they of you will be discerned from you following conversation; how do you start. My guess is that it will be along the lines of 'Hello, my name's Bob and I'm a taxidermist'. Well perhaps not that exact phrase, you might even tailor it to fit your own circumstances by using your own name and job but that's the point I'm getting at: why do we define ourselves by what we do? So little of who I am is wrapped up in my job but my employment is one of the first things I will tell someone on an initial meeting.

Marx argued that factors of our economic condition acted to alienate us from our real needs associated with our humanity. Work acts to objectify us; if we work for our own ends or for sustenance we can get affirmation from our actions but working as a cog in a machine we are reduced to a utilitarian calculation, a resource to fill a task. Our relationship with our work runs along the same lines, we work as little or as much as is required that we purchase all the things we think we cannot live without which is the other side of alienation. Capitalism requires growth, growth requires consumption and consumption requires the idea of necessity -- every person selling a product wants you to think that you cannot live without it. But what do we really need to survive? Do you know? I'd say you probably don't because we have been alienated from our real needs to the extent that we do not know what we want from what we need.

I am not advocating economic reform, I'm more pragmatic, I want linguistic change starting with how we use the verb to be. Just try it for a week: Hello, my name's Paolo and I like the verb 'to be', or how about 'Hello, my name is Bob and I like cheese, but not as much as people think I like it, conversational asides are a hazardous thing to toss around without care', or perhaps you have a more relevant idea.


Anonymous said...

Hm..."esse" is Latin..;) couldn't help but correcting that (Greek infinitive is einai). But you probaly meant Latin anyway as you started with Italian. Ah, my name is Janet and I love "Egmont" :)

Paolo said...

I'm sorry you're right, I did mean Latin.

Language is so important in terms of the way that it structures our thought and thus the way we view the world. I'm sure that if people are more conscientious about how they define themselves they can make really positive improvements in life.

This is the logic that comes from reading semiotics.


Heather said...

Another thoughtful and fascinating blog post from Paolo. :)

See my goal entitled "Remember who I am". It's fascinating how people choose to define themselves.

Paolo said...


I had a look at that goal last night and it does make for interesting reading. It all came back to me today when I was talking to someone for the first time and described myself in somewhat cryptic terms...I think I confused her but I'd rather be considered confusing than as a cog.