Lyric and the ‘We-Mode’

Mattia Gallotti and Chris D. Frith, ‘Social Cognition in the We-Mode’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (2013), 160-5.

When we think together, do we think differently? This paper considers the possibility that ‘interacting agents’ can enter an ‘irreducibly collective’ mode of thinking (the ‘we-mode’) that ‘expands each individual’s potential for social understanding and action’. The goal of their essay is to find a ‘scientifically plausible model’ for a ‘meeting of minds’.
      They evaluate experiments that suggest ‘the we-mode might work as an implicit and automatic mechanism of mentalizing’. They offer the prospect of pinning down, in future research, how joint action ‘modulates the space of mental activity’, using resources that ‘remain latent until individuals become engaged in particular interactive contexts’.
      The aspiration is to be more specific than social science has been thus far about collective mental activity. Something like Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power might be a brilliant account of experiences and effects, but it does not offer what cognitive science seeks out: an account of unique, distinguishable, identifiable processes that emerge in strictly controlled behavioural or neuroscientific


Literature is full of collective experience, from the intimate scale (couples, siblings) to the vast (crowds, nations). It seems a small step to think that its many depictions of we-in-action might be able to tell us something. Crowd scenes in plays, for example, give us both a ‘they-acting-as-we’ and a ‘we[audience] drawn into we[onstage crowd plus audience]’ to think about. This still seems like Crowds and Power, though. It might be less easy to make the same move that Gallotti and Frith are trying to make, towards a nuanced appreciation of the we-space and its resources.

I think an interesting place to explore the particulars of the we-mode in literature is in lyric poetry. It is a good place to think about how the word ‘we’ speaks to and for the we-mode. Lyric, and love-poetry in particular, is a testing-ground for pronouns. The ‘I’ has to hold together in emotional crisis. ‘You’ are addressed, something to be reached, resisted, or won over.
      I must admit than whenever I think about ‘you’ in lyric, I think of this song:

It starts with a long ‘you’, and has some long ‘I’s too. But no ‘we’, not even in the funny bit about Madonna.
      Lyric’s links with song suggests a way in which a poetic we-mode might arise. The experience of singing along, or of reading a ‘we’ that suggests singing along, might create ways of feeling and understanding what ‘we’ makes happen.


Instead of focusing on one of those moments, I want to start somewhere that’s rather anxious about the we-mode: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. This sequence of poems has a very tightly-wound ‘I’ and it isn’t dominated by mutual experience. Its very first line, though (‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’, Sonnet 1 Line 1) uses the pronoun and actually challenges us immediately. Is the claim self-evident? Do we wish to procreate with the most beautiful partners necessarily?
      Sonnet 123 is one of many that tries to deny the power of time. Change is overstated – there’s nothing new under the sun – perhaps love will last forever. The argument about time is complicated – more satisfying for its defiance than for its intellectual coherence. The pronoun ‘we’ plays a part in the second quatrain (lines 5-8). (I suggest you place your mouse over the highlighted pronouns in order, to see what I am trying to get at. Don’t miss the ‘I’ in the last line.)

      No! Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
      Thy pyramids built up with newer might
      To are nothing novel, nothing strange;
      They are but dressings of a former sight.
      Our dates are brief, and therefore admire
      What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
      And rather make them born to desire
      Than think that we before have heard them told.
      Thy registers and thee I both defy,
      Not wond’ring at the present, nor the past,
      For thy records, and what we see, doth lie,
      Made more or less by thy continual haste.
            This I do vow and this shall ever be:
             will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

We have got rather a long way from Gallotti and Frith, but I think Shakespeare’s poem proposes some differences between how ‘I’ think and how ‘we’ think. The ‘we’ of the poem seem engaged and responsive, where the ‘I’ is separatist, persistent.
      It may be risky to generalise too far from such particular circumstances. It may be difficult to see how this idea of a we-mode could be tested further or verified. Nevertheless, it seems an encouraging start: lyric poetry’s network of pronouns could tackle many facets of the question in the course of representing vivid lifelike experiences (and that’s the thing that literature can do better than a laboratory).

The ‘Fourth Citizen’ says this in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, 3.2. One form of literary we-think is a crowd scene in a play. We (the audience) watch they (the onstage crowd) transformed by collective feeling.
Oxford English Dictionary ‘lyric’, A1, adj., ‘Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung; pertaining to or characteristic of song. Now used as the name for short poems (whether or not intended to be sung), usually divided into stanzas or strophes, and directly expressing the poet’s own thoughts and sentiments.’
This poem doesn’t set out to praise a we-mode. Instead, it prefers the scepticism of the ‘I’ – the speaker of the poem who can see through time.
In the second quatrain the speaker offers a slightly disparaging version of ‘we’. Initially it seems that ‘we’ are a gullible alternative to ‘I’, fooled by old things that seem new.
As the second quatrain continues, though, this is not just gullibility. It’s a resourceful, presentist way of seeing the world. It might be deluded, but the ‘we’, who find the world ‘born to our desire’ (created so that we can enjoy them), reach a lively position…
… whereas the tenacity of I, set against time’s clichéd scythe, seems trapped.
E-mail me on rtrl100[AT]

1 thought on “Lyric and the ‘We-Mode’

  1. Prof. Paul Alan Barker

    Hi –
    I wanted to invte you to a unique event – a two-day symposium devoted to performing the lyric, as I thought it might interest you:

    What is distinctive about the lyric performance?
    SongArt Symposium, 26 & 27 June, 2015
    Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

    A celebration and exploration of lyric through performance and debate, involving singers, poets, composers, instrumentalists, directors and academics. The research questions include, but are not limited to, embodiment, liveness, relationships between words and music, relationships between the dramatic and the lyric, and the application of lyric beyond song.

    With a Keynote Address by opera and musical director Jo Davies, which itself will be a practice as research demonstration and performance, the two days will comprise performances across many genres and styles of music which seek to address the central question from different perspectives through practice as research.

    Details about SongArt may be found on
    This Symposium will lead to a major international SongArt conference planned for 2016

    Contributions are invited that involve a performance or performance elements and linked discussion. We are interested in all approaches to the questions above. Please contact one of the organisers (see email addresses above) if you would like to discuss


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