Today I came across a tirade against someone's use of the word 'we' in a piece of academic critical media theory writing. The upshot: to use 'we' is to suggest proud egoistic self-mastery as well as hypocritical participation in the social order. Now, I didn't read the essay being criticized. I'm taking up the attack on 'we,' then, not as a discussion of specific criticism but because the attack is a commonplace among left theorists. I've been seeing it rather frequently in graduate student papers, a critique wielded with intense sincerity, as if the person who used the term were singularly responsible for the invasion of Iraq or the genocide against Native Americans (a horrible term itself, but I'll save discussion of it for later). Attacking 'we' is a cheap shot that substitutes for engaging someone's argument. It's one of those pc monkey-tricks along the lines of "you erase difference in a logic of the same" and "what do you mean by 'women' given that there are differences between and among women?"
"We" can be annoying when the author is referring to herself in the first-person plural, like the Queen. "We think that set theory radically subverts biopolitics." But, although annoying, this assertion of 'we' is neither more nor less an indication of self-mastery than the assertion of an "I." Both designate the speaking position of the author. In English, they are grammatically pretty useful, enabling the avoidance of unwieldy passive voice constructions. They also render the author accountable for a position. For example, the issue isn't whether torture may be considered a lawful interrogation technique; the issue is whether the Bush administration viewed it and authorized it as a lawful interrogation technique. And,insofar as we speak in first person constructions, "I'll have cheese, please," aware that we split subjects, subjects who err, subjects who are spoken through, subjects who are uncertain and in flux, no pronoun, plural or otherwise, can install an already impossible mastery. This is the challenge of responsibility: taking it even when mastery is impossible.
Some of us write with 'we' as a way of including ourselves in the group being criticized: "as bloggers we waste way too much time." This kind of writing is sometimes difficult in feminist classrooms where women students are pulled between referring to women as 'they' or as 'we'. The inclusive 'we' can also be useful in attempts to interpellate a collective, to call into being a 'we' where there might not have been one before. Politicians also use this version of 'we'. For critical theorists, this 'we' strikes me as crucial: no one is outside ideology.
One of the trickiest "we's" comes in when the author is trying to speak of and to a discipline or movement, for example, where 'we' refers to political theorists in general or the left in general. So the writer might say something like "political theorists have ignored the emotions; we need to take emotions into account." And the critical response is--whom do you have in mind? Can't be Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, or Hume, for a start. This is the easiest use of 'we' to avoid, primarily because it isn't necessary for the point.
Ultimately, what bugs me the most about critiques of 'we' is the way that they mobilize a suspicion toward collectivity and privilege individualism. To this extent, they are little machines or engines of neoliberalism, neoliberal-bots that drive writers and thinkers to dismantle any collective sense or feeling of solidarity in advance, to suspect such sentiments rather than be responsible to them. Most of us who write in contemporary left political and media theory have been reading and writing about difference for a long time now. It's time that we redirect the suspicions leveled toward collectivity toward suppositions of individuality and autonomy.