J.L.Lemke On-line Office


Identity and semiotic practice

 Let us narrow our focus again now, toward language and the concept of identity. As an organism develops (and this is not an endogenously driven or automated development, but an epigenetic system-environment dynamic, in many ways contingent and variable) in an ecosocial community, among the emergent organizational patterns in its interactions with others (enabled by physiological emergences at lower scales, constrained by cultural interaction conventions at higher scales) is its coming-to-use-language. But not just language; indeed, in early stages it seems clear that there are proto-semiotics which are precursors to what we later analytically distinguish as language, gesture, mime, and all the forms of motor-based communication (for more discussion, see Lemke in press-a). Speaking is a specialization within vocal gesturing, integrated in behavior with other fine and gross motor communicative behavior patterns. Language is a formal sign system that arises for most (but not all) of us within the context of speaking-within-vocalizing-within-action. What linguistics calls ‘language’ is not, taken in isolation, an appropriate unit of analysis for developmental research; such units need to be defined more functionally, out of the flow and patternings of communicative-interactive-motor behavior. Only the temporary prestige of linguistics as an academic discipline has distracted research from this obvious principle (which is of course observed in practice, if not always made explicit in theory, by many researchers). You cannot, neither materially nor physiologically nor culturally, make meaning only with the formal linguistic sign system; other modes of meaning-making are always functionally coupled with language use in real activity.

 Language in use is always language-within-activity: socially and culturally meaningful observable material behavior – equally social in its meanings whether interactional or solo in its production. Language is always ‘addressed’ and ‘dialogical’; it always constructs an orientational stance towards real or potential interlocutors, and towards the contents of what is said. You cannot speak without offering or requesting information or action, without implicitly or explicitly evaluating the likelihood, usuality, desirability, appropriateness, or importance of what you or others say, without taking up a position within the system of possible social viewpoints on any topic, without providing indexical information by which you are viewed by others as occupying a position in the system of social statuses. Speaking is not possible without the constitution and construal of what we believe, what we value, and where we find ourselves in the systems of social classification. 

What else is an identity but the performance, verbally and nonverbally, of a possible constellation of attitudes, beliefs, and values that has a recognizable coherence by the criteria of some community? Of course identity is complex; we define it on many timescales of behavioral coherence. There are the identities we assume in each particular activity type in which we engage: the identity we perform in the conference room, in the playroom, and in the bedroom. There are also the identities we maintain, or construct for ourselves and ask others to uphold for us, across settings: our gender identities, our social class identities, our age-group identities. Coherence of identity is not the same as constancy or consistency of identity, as the coherence of text is not the same as endless repetition of the same semantic options in every sentence, nor even the maintenance of consistent logical structures of rhetorical development. We must learn what counts as coherence in our community, and how coherence is construed by members: moment to moment, setting to setting, year by year.

 Developmental trajectories on longer timescales may be envisioned as ‘envelopes’ of the shorter timescale trajectories. Lifelong development is a vague trending summation, usually retrospective, over many specific kinds of changes in our patterns of behavior, each of which accumulated from many specific incidents or periods of engagement in some activity. Seen from the short-term scale, this moment’s performance may or may not ever again recur; some culturally significant aspects of it may be enacted again, soon or much later; there may be other kinds of continuity constructed among these events or none. What ties together the learning of minutes to make the learning of day? or of a lifetime? The most basic answer is the physiological continuity (such as it is) of the body itself, and along with it, of the many signifying artifacts and animate others that mediate and afford our performances and our constructions of long-timescale continuities and trends (our skimpy diaries and full closets, our libraries and gardens, friends and children, pets and scars). It takes a village to become a village.


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