World Report

International conference Signs of Identity – Exploring the Borders

By Stephan Kornmesser

The international conference, Signs of Identity – Exploring the Borders was held at the Leibniz University of Hanover on June 7-9, 2007. The conference was organised by the interdisciplinary research team Identity as a sign-based process[1] and was sponsored by the Volkswagen Stiftung. The symposium allowed interdisciplinary access to the controversial concept of identity by an international forum for scholars of various disciplines. The plurality and flexibility as well as the unity of identity should be explored from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, neurobiology, linguistics and image science. Thereby the construction of identity in communicative (sign based) processes, which encompass interactive as well as narrative forms of communication, was focused on.

On Thursday, June 7, the conference opened with welcoming remarks from the president of the Leibniz University of Hanover, Erich Barke, and the vice president, Gabriele Diewald, who introduced the subject matter of the symposium and the topics of the respective speakers.

Jürgen Straub (Chemnitz) gave the first lecture of the day. He spoke about “Totality, identity, fragmentation. Three different modes of constructing 'inner borders' of personal identity”. The structure and the internal borders of the self are tied to the terms consistency, coherence and continuity. A special need for explanation exists for the concepts of coherence and continuity, because identity is supposed to be an open and changeable entity. Straub proposed to grasp the borders of identity by the triadic distinction of totality, identity and fragmentation, whereby identity is to be explained as a continuum between the both extremes of closed borders (totality) and disolving borders (fragmentation).

In their paper “Can animals say 'I'? Philosophical investigations concerning the relation of self-consciousness and language with regard to the cognition of animals” Sarah Tietz (Berlin) and Markus Wild (Berlin) dicussed the question of whether identity is dependent on language-possession. By arguing that identity requires self-consciousness and that certain kinds of self-consciousness can also be assigned to animals, they confirm their thesis that language is not a necessary condition for attributing identity to animals. Refering to empirical evidence that some animals can distinguish themselves from their environment and therefore are self-conscious, Tietz and Wild postulated identity not to be a language based entity.

“The sharing of experience and perspective by infants” was the topic and the title of the talk by Henrike Moll who claimed that the feasibility of changing perspectives is developed by experiences of joint attention and cooperative activities in ontogenesis. She proved that children between 12 to 24 months of age understand much earlier which objects someone knows as opposed to what visual perspective someone takes in. This result can be explained by experiences of joint attention that the child and the adult had with the objects in question before. These scenes of joint attention distingiush human beings from animals and show that an 'I' can only exist in relation to a 'you'.

Roland Posner (Berlin) designed in his talk “Personal identity as a result of self-presentation” a sign based structure of identity using a logic of believing and intending. The self is construed as an iterating complex of levels of reflection, built up of wishes and assumptions that others and I attribute to myself. In a further step, Posner assigned the self-construction to computers and discussed which conditions have to be satisfied to ascribe a self to a computer.

In the evening of the first day the conference was carried on in the Leibnizhaus of Hanover, where Hinderk M. Emrich (Hanover), Kai Vogeley (Cologne) and Jan Schlimme (Hanover) spoke to a public audience about “The ego and its borders”. Hinderk M. Emrich explored the ambivalence of coherence and multiplicity in personal identity. He sketched traditional philosophical conceptions of the ego from Kant to Fichte and discussed the modern and postmodern views of identity. With reference to traumatized persons, he showed the complete disintegration of coherent identity.

A neurobiological perspective on the issue of identity-conceptions was presented in the talk of Kai Vogeley, “Self-consciousness, social cognition and the default mode of the brain”. The observation of mirror neurons that are activated when I perfom a certain action or my opponent performs the same action, are an important discovery for social neuroscience. This means understanding myself and understanding my opponent base upon the same neurological functions. A further insight into neurobiology provided by Kai Vogeley revealed that with functional magnetic resonance imaging, those areas of the brain can be localized which are activated at self-referring and social interactions. Astonishingly, these areas are also active when no specific cognitive task is given (default mode of the brain). This finding can be interpreted as a biological disposition of the human brain for self-referring and social accomplishments.

The second day, June 8, was opened by Marijana Kresic (Hanover) who spoke about “The language of identity”. Facing the problem of postmodern deconstruction of identity, Marijana Kresic developed a model of language by refering to Coseriu's and Bühler's theories of language. This model describes the plurality and contemporaneous unity of personal identity by applying different varieties of speech within a system of language and by using additional foreign laguages. Hence, identity can be stated as being constructed by dialogical and narrative forms of communication.

“Signs of the past - narrative identity and the autobiographical view” was the topic of the talk of Jens Brockmeier (Winnipeg). In comparison to the multiplicity of perspectives in fine arts, Jens Brockmeier focused on the perspective instead of the object of autobiographical narrations. Narrative identity is not constituted solely where the self is the topic of a narration, but furthermore in the autobiographical view of the world. This thesis was exemplarily illustrated with W. G. Sebald's novel “Austerlitz”. By means of the montage of photos within the text of the novel Jens Brockmeier elucidated the application of pictorial signs for the narrative construction of the protagonist's autobiographical perspective. By using textual and pictorial examples from the novel, Jens Brockmeier discussed how, in Austerlitz' search for autobiographical vestiges, the signs of the past became signs of Austerlitz' autobiographical present.

Charles Forceville (Amsterdam) investigated “The source-path-goal schema in the autobiographical journey documentary”. He analysed three autobiographical journey documentaries with regard to the concepts 'journey', 'quest' and 'story' that correspond to the pattern of the source-path-goal schema (Johnson 1993). Transcending the exclusively language-oriented studies of metaphor by Johnson and Lakoff, Charles Forceville examined, on the basis of this conceptual inventory, the filmic, pictorial, musical and commenting sign uses of self narration in the given journey documentaries. In these self-narrations, features of a journey and a quest always occur that form a closed story.

Velimir Piškorec spoke about “Reconstructing narrative identity by means of speech-biographies of Croatian working-migrants in Germany”. On the basis of two case studies, Velimir Piškorec discussed the identity-constituting conflicts of Croatian migrants in Germany and of re-migrants from Germany with German culture and learning German. By twenty interviews of working-migrants, having focused on the speech-biographical content, it could be shown that learning German appears to be a long and traumatic process that is reflected in the reconstruction of narrative identity.

The topic of Eva-Maria Thüne's (Bologna) talk was “Speech report of the many-voiced self”. She developed the concept of a many-voiced speaker by qualitative analyses of spoken language. Eva-Maria Thüne showed that partial identities could be rediscovered in spoken language by vocal features like intonations and rhythms or by specific formulations. She proposed that the self communicates in these instances of spoken language with it's own former subidentities which thus are reconstructed and therefore integrated into the current identity.

Zrinjka Glovacki-Bernardi (Zagreb) spoke about “Forms of address, salutations and identity in day-to-day communication”. She investigated the construcion of identity in social communication processes that are dependent on the usage and the change of usage respectively of forms of adresses and salutations in German and Croatian. Zrinjka Glovacki-Bernardi discussed both the diachronical cultural change of identity due to forbidding and prescribing specific salutations and the assignment of social roles and positions by the use of particular forms of addresses.

In their talk “Multilingualism and the brain: a study with German-Turkish children” Tanja Rinker (Ulm) and Saadet Arda (Ulm) explored how language is represented in the brain, in particular with regard to the difference of monolingualism and multilingualism. On the basis of EEG-measurements it could be proved that the representation of foreign phonemes differ significantly in the brains of children with normal language development and dysfunctional language development respectively. The prospective research findings shall detect the specific conditions of language development of German-Turkish children and shall provide methods for diagnosing dysfunctions of language development.

The last day of the Symposium, Saturday, June 9, was opened by Sandro Nannini (Siena) who spoke about naturalising intentionality in his talk “A naturalistic approach to perception and action”. Intentionality is argued to be a necessary condition for conceptualising the self, since there can only be a self if there exists reference to the external world. Sandro Nannini's Representation and Action Theory (RAT) states that human beings construct a mental representation of the world to act in it. He showed, how mental states can be reduced to brain processes in two steps: first, the mental states are reduced to functional states which can, in a second step, be implemented in brain processes. Following this, Sandro Nannini discussed and refuted alleged objections to RAT.

“Montane faces – montane stories. Visual self-construction between representation and narration in Switzerland” was the topic of Matthias Vogel (Basel), who made the case that in Switzerland cultural identity is primarily generated by visual signs. Therefore it is more constant and less dynamic than cultural identity which is constructed exclusively by linguistic signs. The images of Swiss montane farmers impart coherence and unity for the collective identity and represent a contrast to the growth of divergent parallel societies caused by urbanisation and differing language groups.

The symposium covered the topic Identity as a sign based process from an interdisciplinary perspective on the whole. The multiplicity of approaches simultaneouly displayed the subject matter's relevance and the variety of distinct identity conceptions. Indeed, the necessity for identity to be a sign based process was assumed almost without exception, but the question of how signs and sign systems respectively may be assembled and how the phenomenon of identity should be reconstructed, lacks an appropriate answer and a consistent approach.


[1] In alphabetic order: Hans Bickes, Elfriede Billmann-Mahecha, Gabriele Diewald, Alexander Kochinka, Carlos Kölbl, Stephan Kornmesser, Marijana Kresic, Klaus Rehkämper (Oldenburg) and Lambert Wiesing (Jena).