“You and I”: Grammar and Narrative in Kinship

“You and I”: Grammar and Narrative in Kinship

Colorful illustration of children spelling out "YOU" and "I" with their bodies on a geometric background
Artwork by Jauhara Smith (2021).

Last summer, I was walking to the playground with the two-year-old girl I babysit, when she spontaneously stretched her arms out and began to run, flapping them up and down. “Look, Doni!” She called to me, “I’m like a bird!” I had been babysitting the little girl since she was only eleven weeks old. I had been there for nearly every of her “firsts”—her first steps, first words—and now her first simile. As we walked the rest of the way to the park, I thought about the complex system of understanding that must have been in place in order for her to spread her arms and be like a bird. She needed to understand not only what birds were, what they did and what shape they took in flight, but that she herself was a different animal, that she was not-bird. And yet, miraculously, she could, through physical performance, be like a bird. I was witnessing something more foundational than coming into language, or “having words” as many parents crudely put it (my eighteen-month-old has forty words already). The little girl was discovering “the other,” organizing the world around her into the grammar of you/I, bird/not-bird, like/not-like. 

I understood this discovery to be foundational, not only to her abstract ability to communicate, but to how she would narratively construct the idea of the self. Political theorist William Adams writes that “one is a person, or has a self to the degree that one can locate oneself in terms of, or inside of, a certain narrative . . . of one’s history.”1 Following Adams, I realized that the little girl was not only becoming verbal, but was being coded into a political-cultural narrative.2 The two were occurring simultaneously. Adams writes: “The appropriate and necessary response to the question ‘who are you?’ is a narrative; ‘We are the ones who . . .’”3 The little girl asked and answered the same question—birds are the ones who flap their wings, little girls are the ones who walk to the park with Doni. This experience is, of course, not unique to my charge or to children I spend time with. If one were to spend any amount of time in a daycare or preschool classroom, one would see this narrative coding plastered on the walls and in every attempt to bring the child into language—cows go “moo”; cats go “meow”; wheels on the bus go round and round—each of these language tools perform the equal and opposite political function of teaching the child to recognize both symbols of language and the concept of difference. A cow is not a cat and so on. 

I am thinking of this organizing grammatical system in terms similar to those that Lévi-Strauss referred to as the “metastructure of language.”4 In “Language and the Analysis of Social Lawsand “The Family,Lévi-Strauss furthers these observations on language by extending linguistic organizing logics to kinship systems and marriage regulations.5 Just as Adams writes that language and narratives organize humans into individuals and subsequently into social-political culture through “emplotment,” Lévi-Strauss argues that kinship systems, namely “marriage regulations . . .  insuring the circulation of women within the social group” can be understood as forms of language, in which “the women of the group . . .  are circulated . . .  in place of the words of the group.”6,7 In this configuration, women take on the role of signs, symbols and values that communicate and mediate human culture throughout generations and “between lineages, clans, or families.”8 Lévi-Strauss is aware that some might disagree with his reduction of women into signs and symbols. He offers the assurance that “words do not speak, while women do; as producers of signs, women can never be reduced to the status of symbols or tokens.”9 Be that as it may, Lévi-Strauss perhaps forgets the fundamental lesson I observed with the little girl on our way to the park, which is that while words may not speak, they do produce signs—they create the other. By naming women as signs, symbols, values, and gifts, Lévi-Strauss implicitly names them also as not the one who signs, not the maker of symbols, not the decider of values, not the giver of gifts. Recognizing this, one becomes suspicious of the political narrative that emerges from this grammatical logic; Lévi-Strauss asks, who are you? And the women are meant to reply: We are the ones who are given away, who “permit the establishment of a certain type of communication.”10 

The whole project of acquiring language begins to feel incredibly sinister—I want to scoop the little girl up in my arms, to extricate her from her newfound grammar. I want to speak gibberish, to confuse her, to stunt the process that I understand has begun. I want to keep this perfect little baby from understanding herself grammatically as a mediating symbol—a dash or a semicolon in the metastructure of culture. In “The Traffic in Women,” Gayle Rubin critiques Lévi-Strauss concept of “the exchange of women” on this very basis. She writes that this gift/exchange system leaves women in the fungible position of “being a conduit to a relationship rather than a partner to it . . . such that women are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation.”11 Rubin, however, is uninterested in devising a kinship structure in which women transcend the status of symbols and dashes and the like. Instead, she sees kinship systems themselves as the sites of “production” of the unequal status of women within marriage regulations and other organizing rules in society. She writes: “Kinship systems . . . are made up of, and reproduce, concrete forms of socially organized sexuality . . . [they] are observable and empirical forms of sex/gender systems.”12 Rubin questions not only what “kinship systems do to women (emphasis mine) but also that the systems themselves are the site where gendered “women” are produced out of female human beings.13 Rather than address the forms of gender oppression as they appear, Rubin argues that a feminist revolution should aim “for the elimination of the social system which creates sex and gender,” namely, organized kinship systems.14 Rubin expands on this revolutionary aim, stating that the sexual liberation of all people rests on our capacity to “dream of the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles.”15 It feels liberating, utopian even, to imagine a revolution along Rubin’s lines, where the question Who are you? does not have to be answered by a predetermined set of practices or organized by an obligatory we.

And yet, it feels impossible, or at least politically imprudent, to follow Rubin’s logic and advocate for the elimination of organized kinship structures whether that be marriage, notions of the family, indigenous concepts of making kin, or others.16 This sense of political imprudence is derived from Judith Butler’s Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual? and from my own experience as a full-spectrum doula for Black mothers and families at the very margins of society. This experience, which has brought me into intimate contact with the public-housing, prison-industrial, and medical-industrial complexes, has left me with the “double-edged” understanding that while organized kinship structures may produce and reproduce obligatory sex/gender systems within the social metastructure, they are also politically leverageable spaces of alternating refuge and fungibility for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in our society. In Butler’s words, “it is crucial that we, politically, lay claim to intelligibility and recognizability; and it is crucial, politically, that we maintain a critical and transformative relation to the norms that govern what will and what will not count as an intelligible and recognizable alliance and kinship.”17 Put another way, there are more political choices to be made around organized systems of kinship than Rubin’s argument seems to allow for. As Butler describes, one can advocate for the protection of Black mothers, or non-heterosexual families, or others, not because one necessarily believes in the reproduction or reinforcement of the nuclear family structure, but because such groups face legitimate political needs that can be politically leveraged or appealed to based on their kinship group status.18 And, Butler adds, such advocacy must necessarily “maintain a double edge . . . to keep the tension alive between maintaining a critical perspective and making a politically legible claim.”19

Another flaw in Rubin’s call for a radical reimagining of kinship systems is its rhetorical reliance on “nature” and the assumed existence of a “natural” human sexual life beneath the supposedly unnatural kinship systems that overlay it and constrict it.”20Rubin writes that kinship systems themselves are “an imposition of social ends upon a part of the natural world.”21 She criticizes the social construction of sex/gender roles, not just on the basis of inequality and oppression, but also on the basis that “from the standpoint of nature, men and women are closer to each other than either is to anything else––for instance, mountains, kangaroos’, or coconut palms.”22 I personally think that the most compelling version of this argument comes from the Radiolab episode “Gonads in which a science journalist explains that two human beings of any race or sex are more genetically homogenous than any two household flies.23 And, yet, as evocative as the thought is, it leaves very little in the way of a “politically legible” demand upon the predominating social organizing system across the globe, which is kinship.24 Rubin goes on to qualify that “human sexual life will always be subject to . . . human intervention . . . it will never be completely natural.”25 Yet she reasserts her belief in a pre-socialized, uncontaminated form of human sexual life, stating that “cultural evolution provides us with the opportunity to . . . liberate human sexual life from the archaic relationships that deform it” (emphasis mine).26 I bring up Rubin’s rhetorical use of the “natural” for two reasons. Firstly, appeals to a “natural” world un-imposed upon by “social ends” are considerably powerful, especially in the context of sex, gender and family politics. It would be all too easy to squeeze Rubin’s rhetoric in among claims that hormonal transitioning for non-cisgendered people is “socially imposed.” In fact, it is hard to argue that certain methods of birth control and reproductive technologies are not, in fact an “imposition of social ends upon a part of the natural world,” to the great benefit of many women and birthing people. Such appeals to “the natural world” arise from a desire to be associated with that which is seen as good, whole, renewable, and clean. This is in contrast of course with the “artificial” or “constructed” world, which is seen as corrupted, dirty, evil, and wasteful. As Amia Srinivassan writes, “if all desire must be immune from political critique then so must the desires that exclude and marginalize trans women . . . A feminism that totally abjures the political critique of desire is a feminism with little to say about the injustices of exclusion and misrecognition suffered by the women who arguably need feminism the most.”27 As our technologies allow us to step further away from what anyone would consider “natural,” it becomes increasingly necessary to “interrogate the formation of our desires,” especially those that expose contradictions or “take us by surprise.”28 

The second reason I bring up these appeals to the natural world is for their narrative and structural implications. To state that human sexual life is “deformed by . . . archaic relationships” from which it can be “liberated” is to imply that there exists an objective, or at least non-narratively shaped, version of “human sexual life” beneath the mask of sex/gender-producing kinship systems. I want to return here to William Adams, who writes that “narrative form is not an arbitrary convention placed on top of a more fundamental experience of the world . . . there is nothing ‘beneath’ the narrative formation of experience . . .it is a ‘first order’ entity.”29 Thus, if we recognize kinship systems as “forms of language” which both produce and organize political identities, including, as Rubin argues, sex/gender identities, then the structural coding in which these systems are held is not simply in overt dynamics of power, but in the organizing grammar of language itself. The radical argument to make here is that to “eliminate the social system which creates sex and gender” in its entirety, one would have to eliminate the unconscious metastructure of grammar that organizes our world according to difference—one would have to imagine and structure an organizational system in which a two-year-old learns how to “fly” without becoming not-bird. But perhaps this, too, is an extreme. The more concrete and hopefully less totalizing argument I want to make is that any radical or revolutionary narrative that rests, fundamentally, on the existence of something “real” just beyond or beneath the socially imposed reality, operates in the political and narrative tradition of the white, European, patriarchal, settler-colonial state it claims to refute. 

Indigenous scholar Kim Tallbear makes this point in her essay “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” in which she shows that even radical demands for the expansion of the state—to include people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations—serve to redeem and regenerate the settler-colonial state along with the conditions of native elimination.30 Tallbear writes, “it is not only white people in power who work to eliminate or erase Indigenous peoples. Dreaming, even in inclusive and multicultural tones, of developing an ideal settler state implicitly supports the elimination of Indigenous people from this place.”31 I understand Tallbear’s point to be that even our most emancipatory dreams borrow and thus reinscribe the narrative and structural power of the settler-colonial state, white supremacy, and the patriarchy. And so, as inspired as I am by the “radical hope” and generative imaginations of those who insist that we are on the threshold of another world, I am deeply aware that this nation, too, was at once the threshold to a new world and the threatened hearth of indigenous lands. As a doula, I attend and witness the “dirty . . . mirthful” act of birth and am reminded that the existential nature of human life is to feel perpetually on the threshold.32 We “crown” in birth, bloom in pubescence, transition into adulthood and then ultimately out of this life. But I firmly believe that the carrot is on a stick. That we are, perpetually, “in the here and now,” working within the same grammar, the same “trap” as Butler puts it.33 By operating from the understanding that we are “inescapably” in this trap, I hope that our emancipatory projects, rather than seeking to eliminate an inevitable grammar, can attend to what Tallbear calls “our relations and obligations in the here and now.”34

Naturally, it is the work of two poets—“practically the only ones who know that words were also once values”—that manage to work through this paradox of grammar, kinship, and narrativity without falling victim to either “political paralysis” or totalizing arguments.35,36 By foregrounding and manipulating the grammatical you/I in their explorations of race and gender respectively, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts offer glimpses of what it means to “be . . . in relation” to one another, to messily negotiate one’s desires, responsibilities, and relationships. Ultimately, both texts grapple with the improbable “I” in the face of the world, and soberly recognize that there is no way out, no letting go, or getting past. Neither text rests on the supposedly generative project of (re)thinking or (re)imagining. Rather, they offer close, methodical readings of the very banal events that organize and constitute our lives—the careless words of an acquaintance at lunch, the pool of milk on the baby’s tongue, “look Doni, I’m like a bird.”

As a Black person reading Citizen, one feels that Rankine’s use of the “you” is literal—she is addressing you, the racially fraught interactions she recounts have happened to you in so many ways, in so many words. In a different restaurant, in another city, yes, but the same thing. If one is white, I suppose one reads the “you” differently, as Rankine’s transposition of herself onto the reader, or as Rankine creating distance between herself and the event, so that a white observer might see what is taking place. I believe Rankine is doing both, racially coding the you/I, but is also exploring a larger aspect of what I’ve been referring to as the grammatical metastructure. Which is that the construction of you/I is foundational to language and to the very act of making race and legislating and enacting racism. In his work on settler colonialism and native elimination, anthropologist Patrick Wolfe writes that “race cannot be taken as given. It is made in the targeting.”37 To create the slave, the slave driver had only to create the you—to answer the question of “who you are”—you are the people who belong to others. Not-free, not-bird. Thus, the word you came to carry with it the full weight and history of racialization, enslavement, segregation, police brutality, and microaggressions. By insisting upon this relationship between you and I, Rankine calls this larger, grammatical relationship into view:

“To be left, not alone, the only wish—

to call you out, to call out you.

Who shouted, you? You 

shouted you, you the murmur in the air, you sometimes sounding like you,

you sometimes saying you,

go nowhere, be no one but you first”38

Through this repeated insistence on the you, Rankine wears the pronoun down to something raw, allowing space for a vulnerable analysis of citizenship and of the racialized trap we inevitably find ourselves in. Rankine also asks what the I could possibly hold for us in a world organized by designation of the you. She places the “I” in the spaces where individualism, self-determination, and citizenship should be, and lets us watch as it is displaced and confounded by the you. She writes: “I is supposed to hold what is not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it. / This makes the first person a symbol for something. / The pronoun barely holding the person together.”39 This brings to mind Lévi-Strauss and the concept of making persons into symbols and values. Here, I understand Rankine to be using the you/I binary to ask if grammar itself has organized citizenship in a manner that leaves us—in Rubin’s terms—as “conduits” rather than “partners to” an exchange of power. 

Rankine follows another motif throughout the text, which is her repeated insistence that there is no way out. She writes that “‘yes and’ attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes.”40 Later she repeats the idea a number of times—“nowhere is where you will get from here”; “you can’t put the past behind you. its buried in you”; “the past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow”; “the destination is illusory; “the outside comes in”; “I they he she we you turn/only to discover/the encounter/to be alien to this place.”41 I understand this insistence upon boundaries and historical repetition to be in the same vein as Butler’s assertion that “the very formation of persons, presupposes gender in a certain way . . . this is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.”42 By outlining the inevitability of the “immanent you,” Rankine is able to thoroughly, heart-wrenchingly pry open these painful vignettes to a degree of fullness. By “foreclosing” on all possible exits, Rankine denies the reader (particularly the white reader) the option of escape or redemption in the face of pain, discomfort, and awareness of the you. But the result is neither “apolitical” nor paralytic—it exists instead along Butler’s “double edge” by acknowledging the absolute inescapability of our situation while simultaneously making a politically legible demand for reparation, justice, and change. As Rankine writes in her closing words—“it wasn’t a match . . . It was a lesson.”43

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts achieves a similar balancing act along the double edge of you/I. Where Rankine uses the you/I dyad to explore the construction of race and afterlife of racial violence, Nelson engages it to explore foundational questions around sex and gender identity, maternity, and desire. The Argonauts details Nelson’s journey into motherhood alongside her partner’s hormonal transition from a female body to a male-passing one. Both experiences force Nelson to “take cover in grammatical cul-de-sacs, relax into an orgy of specificity . . . tolerate an insistence beyond the two, precisely at the moment of attempting to represent partnership.”44 For Nelson, pregnancy, partnership, and non-binary gender identity all throw the grammatical structure of you/I into question. These experiences threaten to transcend the otherwise overarching metastructure of “the two” by offering what Nelson calls “the simple outline of a becoming.”45 And yet, the binary grammar is never fully transcended or eliminated. 

Like Rankine, Nelson insists on the use of the you/I, especially in her meditations on pregnancy, maternity, and D. W. Winnicott’s child psychology. She quotes Winnicott: “If the baby could speak to the mother . . .  here is what it might say: I find you; You survive what I do to you as I come to recognize you as not-me; I use you; I forget you; But you remember me; I keep forgetting you; I lose you; I am sad.”46 Whether or not Winnicott’s assertions are objectively “real,” or true, that they enforce the grammar of you/I so strongly, and that this grammar makes Nelson “feel real,” is evidence that this structural grammar cannot be so easily eliminated. As she says, quoting Wittgenstein: “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.”47 But rather than attempt to transcend the grammar in some other way, Nelson positions the tension as “falling forever, going to pieces” as being a “matter reduced to an extreme thinness.”48 In doing so, Nelson avoids what Butler calls “savoring the status of unthinkability . . . as the most critical . . . the most valuable.”49 She instead cultivates an “openness” in which one can desire to transcend the binary you/I, while recognizing the ways in which that very binary makes one “feel real.”50 

In “Caretaking Relations, not American Dreaming,” Kim Tallbear asks: “How do we relate in this place without that inherently eliminatory dreaming?”51 Through this exploration of grammar and narrativity in kinship systems, particularly through the lens of Levi-Strauss’s concept of a “grammatical metastructure,” I hope to have asked a similar question. Through my analysis of the “double-edged” use of the you/I in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I’ve endeavored to show that, by foreclosing on the possibility of elimination, one can achieve a thorough and honest representation of life within our particular grammar. And that such an honest and full representation of “the here and now,” makes it possible to think creatively and adaptively about how we might live well among one another in a world “with no turn offs.”52

  1. William Adams, “Political Poetics: Narrative Imagination and the Art of Politics,” (unpublished manuscript, Stanford University, 1984), 8.
  2. Adams, “Political Poetics,” 8.
  3. Adams, “Political Poetics,” 11.
  4. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws,” American Anthropologist 53, no. 2 (June 1951), 61.
  5. Lévi-Strauss, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws,” 61.
  6. Adams, “Political Poetics,” 5.
  7. Lévi-Strauss, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws,” 60; 61.
  8. Lévi-Strauss, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws,” 61.
  9. Lévi-Strauss, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws,” 61.
  10. Lévi-Strauss, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws,” 61.
  11. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” Deviations (Duke University Press, 2012), 174.
  12. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 168.
  13. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 168.
  14. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 204.
  15. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 204.
  16. Kim Tallbear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” Kalfou 6, no. 1 (2019).
  17. Judith Butler, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?,” Left Legalism/Left Critique (Duke University Press, 2002), 117.
  18. Butler, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?,” 108.
  19. Butler, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?,” 108.
  20. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 179.
  21. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 179.
  22. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 179.
  23. “Gonads,” Radiolab, aired June 15, 2018, on NPR.
  24. Butler, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?
  25. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 199.
  26. Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” 199.
  27. Amia Srinivasan, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex? ,” London Review of Books, November 6, 2019.
  28. Srinivasan, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?
  29. Carr (1986) qtd in Adams, “Political Poetics,” 8.
  30. Tallbear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” 23.
  31. Tallbear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” 23.
  32. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Melville House UK, 2016).
  33. Liz Kotz and Judith Butler, “The Body You Want,” Artforum, November 1992.
  34. Tallbear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” 25.
  35. Lévi-Strauss, “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws,” 62.
  36. Judith Butler “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?,” 107.
  37. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006), 388.
  38. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin UK, 2015), 27.
  39. Rankine, Citizen, 64.
  40. Rankine, Citizen, 12.
  41. Rankine, Citizen, 41; 58; 63; 64; 123; 124.
  42. Kotz and Butler, “The Body You Want,”
  43. Rankine, Citizen, 141.
  44. Nelson, The Argonauts, 12.
  45. Nelson, The Argonauts, 12.
  46. D. W. Winnicott qtd in Nelson, The Argonauts, 23.
  47. Ludwig Wittgenstein qtd in The Argonauts, 9.
  48. Nelson, The Argonauts, 9.
  49. Butler, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?
  50. Nelson, The Argonauts, 128.
  51. Tallbear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,25.
  52. Rankine, Citizen, 41.
Back to Top