Call for papers
“What’s in a flag?
Perspectives on political unveiling”
Laurent Le Gall, professor of contemporary history at the University of Brest (CRBC)
Philippe Lagadec, research engineer at the Centre for Breton and Celtic Research (University of Brest)
What is a flag? The question is obviously banal. Let's say that its banality is mainly due to the social incorporation of a symbol into cultural codes, to the point that from the sports arenas where it floats to the political meetings where it is sometimes proudly displayed, the flag is one of those objects that could not be more familiar. The appearance is, if not deceptive, at least reductive. From fleeting memories of the vexed pages of the dictionary we looked at as children to those of a demonstration on which the flags of trade union organisations were flying, from holding a sports banner to encourage one's team in a stadium to planting a regional flag in the garden of one's second home, there is a whole range of practices which are embedded in collective histories and individual trajectories. Questioning the meaning of these practices is at the root of this project, which aims to shed light, within an implicit or explicitly political framework, on the work of vexillary loyalty, forms of symbolic liquidation (when the flag is no longer reduced to a piece of cloth), identification operations, the legalization of the flag, and the unexpected uses that enrich its content (non-exhaustive list).
The vexillary literature is obviously plethoric. At the beginning of October 2021, the word 'flag' on the Cairn platform refers to almost 12,000 occurrences. Vexillology always attracts specialists from all over the world who make the most of the emotional charge of flags. However, it is obvious that, although the historical dimension and the symbolic part are well documented, few works have focused exclusively on what the flag covers in terms of socially situated meanings. In many respects, the book that Maurice Dommanget devoted to the genesis and then to the assertions of the red flag on the political scene of the 19th and 20th centuries remains a hapax, since it gives pride of place to the "micro-events" that have constantly punctuated its inclusion in the universe of representations and prosaic practices of politics. However, it did not flourish. It is indeed an undeveloped continent, even though social science researchers have contributed to its exploration. Some twenty years ago, Michel Pastoureau observed: “The flag frightens the researcher” [1989: 119]; “Unlike other national emblems or other state symbols, the flag still awaits its historians. [...] And yet the flag, with its numerous facets, constitutes a rich object of study. As both an emblematic image and a symbolic object, it is subject to restrictive encoding rules and specific rituals that lie at the heart of the Nation or of the State” [2010: 167 and 168]. This observation is irrefutable. It would be interesting, to say the least, to examine how such an eclipse refers to disciplinary conjunctures, to ideologically tinted evasions (interest in flags at best masks disguised patriotism, at worst nationalism, which is fortunately discredited in the field of social sciences), and to the difficulty of taking any standard out of its symbolic lexicon with a view to making it the receptacle and vector of more or less institutionalised norms, practices, social skills, knowledge and know-how, values and sensations.
What is a vexillary emblem? On the face of it, the question is very simple. Like voting, flags can be described as follows: “an obviousness and an enigma” [Offerlé, 1993]. They are flown on public buildings according to protocols framed by a legal literature of which we do not know the extent, except when “events” “make headlines” (see for example French decree no. 2010-835 of 21st July 2010 on the criminalisation of insulting the flag). They are displayed and waved during sports competitions [Bromberger, 1995], which guarantee them a television presence that is inversely proportional to their existence in certain public spaces. They are periodically publicised in the media on the occasion of political. In short, flags represent what resembles us (or not), belongs to us (or not), brings us together (or not), ‘obliges’ us (or not). We could enumerate an unending list of situations and reasons that make a flag much more than a simple flag. The transfer of sacredness (from processional banners to the standards of ‘civic religion’, so to speak), precipitated by social issues (for example, the marches where trade unions proudly display their colour(s) and logo) and national issues, or again unconscious imitation at a cultural level (‘le tricolore’ in France / ‘il tricolore’ in Italy) all tend to influence certain studies, at the risk of reducing the flag to its merely functional aspect, that of a conventional rallying sign not devoid of a history of conflict [in the French case, Richard, 2012 and 2017].
There is no reason here to review the constitution of a symbolic apparatus and its mobilisations: a society can be lived in, as Max Weber noted, provided it is based on a coherent symbolic universe. Cornelius Castoriadis in turn noted: "How and why does the institutional structure, as soon as it is posited, become a factor to which the actual life of society is subordinated and, as it were, enslaved? To answer that it is in the nature of symbolism to become autonomous would be worse than an innocent tautology. It would be tantamount to saying that it is in the nature of the subject to alienate itself in the symbols it employs, thus abolishing all discourse, all dialogue, all truth, by positing that everything we say is carried by the automatic fatality of symbolic chains" [1999: 210]. It should be remembered, however, that in seeking to naturalise its own cultural arbitrariness, any political order functions in part on a semiotic register, the evocative power of which presupposes, on the part of its main prescribers, the activation of an attachment to known signs endowed with affectivity. The significance of Arundhati Virmani’s work on the Indian flag, moreover, lies in its explanation of how the actors of the independence movement strove to disseminate a “politics of sentiment” in the country by counting on the balance between a flag and the formation of an emotional community . Whether it is described as a ‘fiction’ or an illusio, whether, as in the French case, it prefers the path of a national narrative, the republican order, like all truth regimes, has in turn never ceased to stage itself and to produce an authorised discourse [Ansart, 1977]. Based on Les Lieux de mémoire, the first volume of which, La République, began with a contribution on “The Three Colours” [Girardet, 1984], the flag holds a prominent place in the French collective memory.
There is no shortage of classical reflections on flags – more so than analyses. Classic reflections on the flag have not been lacking [Raymond Firth in his symbolic anthropology, 1973; Karen A. Cerulo on the relationship between flags and anthems, 1995]. Cerulo on the relationship between flags and anthems, 1995]. “That an emblem can represent a useful rallying point for any kind of group does not need to be demonstrated. By expressing social unity in material form, it makes everyone more aware of this unity, and it is for this reason that the use of emblematic symbols soon became widespread once the idea was born. But moreover, this idea sprang spontaneously from the conditions of coexistence. The emblem is not only a convenient process to clarify the feeling that society has of itself: it also serves to generate this feeling; it is itself a constituent element thereof.” Indeed, no-one has better examined and understood the function of the emblem in society than Emile Durkheim in his analyses of the totemic system [2007: 343-344]. The kind of symbolic saturation that seized hold of France in May 1968 led Roland Barthes to write in Le Bruissement de la langue: “In the end, a sort of almost unanimous adherence to the same symbolic discourse seems to have marked both the actors and opponents of the dispute: almost all of them played the same symbolic game. [...] The paradigm of the three flags (red/black/Tricolour), with its relevant associations of terms (red and black versus Tricolour, red and Tricolour versus black), was ‘spoken’ (flags hoisted, brandished, taken down, referred to, etc.) by almost everyone: a nice agreement, if not on the symbols, at least on the symbolic system itself (which, as such, should be the final target of a Western revolution)” [1993: 192]. Randall Collins, who, following the attacks of 11th September 2001, spent a year counting flags in various places throughout the United States, is credited with placing the emblem within a specific “temporal dynamic” of which it is fundamentally a player [Collins, 2004]. There are thus “vexillary conjunctures” of more or less strong significance (the Liberation in France, for example) that confer much more than we imagine. This includes emotions, forms of solidarity (or, ultimately, calls for solidarity), the effective visibility of which (flying a flag is no small thing) deserves to be questioned, and identity (re)assurances (during a political crisis dominated by “de-sectorisation” and a structural uncertainty that wrenches actors from their usual habits and blurs their certainties [Dobry, 1987], a flag can become less the everyday element of a setting than a quiet proclamation of an order that remains, a beacon that (re)unites or disunites).
These reflections constitute, among other things, one of the foundations of our project, the title of which is, we hope, sufficiently explicit. We will focus exclusively on the interest in flags as an expression, be that minor or major, of political unveiling, an expression that refers to the idea that flags represent a latent but ready-to-use resource (circumstantial use during a demonstration, for example, or definitive use by placing a regional flag in one’s garden). It is by no means a question of repudiating any approach through the symbolic, but rather of envisaging it within a social space at the heart of its objectification. By political unveiling, we mean strong gestures as well as less openly proclamatory and more informal practices that, because they are inscribed in a universe thought to be more or less political, ‘colour’ them, ‘embellish’ them, affirm or confirm them in this way. The range of this political unveiling, as well as the stakes involved in the notion of unveiling and its expressions, cannot be considered as peripheral to this project. On the contrary, they are at the very heart of the questioning if we are to admit that the use of the veil (velum) and the flag (vexillum) is based on all sorts of justifications, and that the notion of unveiling obviously refers to broader anthropological developments.
The chronology chosen is necessarily arbitrary. The choice of the 1880s as our starting point is based on the observation that the triad of capitalism, the state-national model and imperialism, the latter strongly colonial, imposes a framework with which we are still wrestling today. Indeed, flags represent one of the purest emanations of this framework, if for no other reason than they are based on ideological marking (the red flag of the former USSR with its internationalist vocation) and topographical marking (the flags born after decolonisation), and that they thrive on mass production. The world space is therefore the framework chosen, and variations in scale are intrinsically welcome [Ory, 2006 and 2020].
The issue will not only focus on national emblems. The flags of trade unions, identity movements, supporters’ flags or those used in apparently folkloric settings also have their place in the contributions to this meeting, provided their use is formally or informally part of a political arena. The analysis of the gestures and practices of the actors will be of particular interest to us: from manufacture to use, who carries flags? When are they carried? With what other standards or symbols can they be compared in certain situations? How does an organisation choose its flag and impose it?
There are three main areas of focus.
Focus area 1 – Flags, institutionalisation and nationalisation
The Maqam Echahid (Martyrs’ Memorial) in Algiers, inaugurated in 1982, is the emblematic monument commemorating the Algerian war for independence. The first room presents an official version of the anthem-flag duo, where the “legend” (a flag supposedly made by the demonstrators of 8th May 1945, when it was actually designed by Messali Hadj, a figure hated by the National Liberation Front, and his wife who was French) contends with a nationalist pedagogy. Because they are supposed to contribute to the symbolic monopoly of institutions and groups, because there are some who expect them to be purveyors of equally symbolic returns, because they are a marker of a regime of political truth (do they not ultimately impose a truth, in this case political, that is uncontested?), flags are figuratively but firmly planted at the crossroads of dynamics and mechanisms aimed at their institutionalisation and even their nationalisation.
Vexillary history is full of vanquished standards, victorious symbols and dormant flags (the “Salle des Emblèmes” in the Château de Vincennes and its collection of flags of disbanded regiments), to such an extent that a history exploring the mechanisms, investments and expectations associated with capitalizing on a flag is worth undertaking. The “suffrage flag” of the American suffragettes that proliferated in the iconography of the United States in the years 1848-1920 was not raised against the Star-Spangled Banner. Rather, it underlined, on the part of its protagonists, how much the feminist struggle only made sense within the same political community. The vexillary updating of a mythified past between folklorisation and identity marketing (see the Padania flag made by the Lega Nord in the 1990s [Avanza, 2003]), the registers of complementarity and opposition, the use, exploitation and misappropriation of ‘semiophores’ [Pomian, 1987] undeniably contribute to the stylisation of any emblem. One thing is certain: every flag is called upon to express itself in terms of the "other's flag" and we will not forget here how much the Dixie Flag (the Confederate flag), which burst into the Capitol taken over by Trumpists on 6 January 2021, is one of the banners of this "cultural war" opposing radically opposed visions of America's past-present-future. But there is more. Law and regulation contribute to a number of vexatious policies that are enacted according to protocols whose implicit meanings and implications we are often unaware of. From the making of an official emblem to its placement on buildings or the role it is given in certain arenas, how do legislators operate whose work of codification conforms practices, excludes others, orients gestures and, more importantly, the meaning of these gestures? How do institutional information agencies (the school, the army) intervene in the establishment of a vexillary culture? The Pledge of Allegiance, which has brought together all American schoolchildren around the flag since the 1880s, remains a national self-celebration whose routine does not detract from its sacredness because, unlike most commemorations that focus the value of the flag on a particular moment, its recurrence does not confine "its" sacredness to a particular day.
Focus area 2 – Politicisation vs. “institution of rest”
This is one of the most obvious aspects for anyone interested in flags. Their political charge can be – indeed, must be – such that their politicisation cannot be in doubt. The matter needs to be further qualified. Let us take the example of the French flag. By referring to a Tricolour “gaining back its colours” (Le Monde, 19th November 2015), which thus supposed that it had lost them to an extent, certain media simply reflected (and replicated) what the process of ‘stato-nationalisation’ incubating in the republican crucible has made of the flag: an object whose valence must be positive, especially in times of crisis. By extension, the same principle guides much work in the field of social sciences. This involves measuring the level of commitment or the lack thereof, and then commuting it into an indicator of consent or fervour (national, republican, etc.), the gradients of which can be observed: the operation has the attraction of already known operations used so often to establish the persistence or obsolescence of rituals and, by extension, the variations of a republican culture with a monopolistic tendency – notably through attendance at funerals or civic festivals [Ben Amos, 2013; Dalisson, 2003; Lalouette, 2010]. While the flag-decked streets of the first decades of the Third Republic, immortalized by numerous artists, seemed to embody a republican acclamation of sovereignty, what do we know about the dispositions and intentions of the individuals who flew the 1,479 flags in Rue d’Aboukir in Paris on 30th June 1878? The answer is nothing. More than thirty years ago, Bertrand Badie pointed out how much the concept of “civic culture” suffered from a dual ambiguity: the absolutisation of the figure of the citizen enjoined to be a full-time citizen as a stylistic device, and the interactions enabling individuals to recognise themselves and each other within a system of meanings only rarely and with difficulty taken into account . Nicolas Mariot rejects the internalist interpretations of “collective effervescence”, which too often confuse its appearances with the investments made in it by the actors present – and in so doing maintain the illusion of it as a seismograph of a state (civic, republican, national) of the public. His work points out with great acuity what is at the heart of symbolic exchanges, namely all sorts of dispositional adjustments from which it emerges that beliefs in the action taken oscillate between conforming to the expected role and more oblique, distanced, even indifferent points of view [2008, 2010 and 2012]. A resolutely comprehensive approach invites us to consider flags preferentially in their ordinary state, even in situations deemed extraordinary, in order to reconstruct how they are, are not, or almost not, an emblem inspiring commitment (and where this is the case, who commits to what?). This approach also invites us not to reduce flags to their exclusively emblematic dimension, but rather to link them with other forms of mobilisation and with other political devices (demonstrations, voting, insurrections, etc.), in which they place themselves and which operate as possible reverberations, thereby affecting the meanings attributed to them by the actors involved. A flag is rarely something in and of itself; it is constantly placed in relation to something else within a semiotic system made up of uncertain correspondences.
The call to revisit a ‘sacred’ history of the ‘flag effect’ (“flagging”, in the words of Michael Billig, the inventor of the phrase “banal nationalism” [1995; Martigny, 2010], refers to the almost unconscious impregnation of flags in social representations and imaginaries) cannot, however, be reduced to a counter-history that would be every bit as excessive. Indeed, we will wager that the angle of nationalism, in its “banal” or indifferent dimension, is an appropriate key to a more refined understanding of the behaviours and practices related to flags. As a link between citizens and the State in a mode henceforth so routine and embedded that it becomes obscure to most members of a political community, the flag remains a resource that can be used by the State to mobilise on behalf of the nation or to justify discourses advocating unity around the emblem – and what it is supposed to encompass. At the other end of the spectrum, “indifference to nationalism”, as Tara Zahra pointed out, offers an account of the complexity of a process (broadly from nationalist to national and then to nationalism, and vice versa) whose seemingly totalitarian dimension too often overshadows what is at its core: the ways in which the least involved actors (i.e., the masses) cope with a process in which they are supposed to participate . The notion of indifference therefore invites us to return to the classic questions of awareness around nationalism, of consent to the setting in order of a virtual community whose exclusivist project feeds on its capacity to oblige and/or generate adherence. If flags, given the meaning commonly attributed to them, invite us to paradoxically question the potentially tenuous links with a national order understood as a reference order and, therefore, gradients of indifferentism, they also incite us to look at the entrepreneurs of nationalist identity. By identity entrepreneur, in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon work on “claim makers” [John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald, 1977], we mean the entrepreneur who strives to establish, in a more or less coherent, more or less formal way, the contours of a group of people, and works on the coherence and representation of this sense of belonging (symbolic as well as political). This definition, hastily and superficially made, suggests analysing the entrepreneur within an identity market driven by congruent and/or dissimilar interests, all of which contribute to its enlargement and the perpetuation of the illusio on which it was founded. It invites us, through what is played out around a flag, to take account of the inertia of the national(ist) schema in a world where globalisation generates only very unsuccessful attempts to develop an international(ist) emblem – who knows the flag of the United Nations?
Focus area 3 – Planting, showing, displaying: an anthropology of vexillary gestures and sensitivities
A classic article by Henri Lévy-Bruhl distinguishes between an ancient formalism based on affectivity and a modern formalism with a purely utilitarian aim. The former, essentially religious, speaks more to the heart than to the mind and is the prerogative of primitive societies, while the latter, referred to as a “security” formalism, characterizes modern societies in search of functional instruments. The comparison is somewhat simplistic where flags are concerned, as indeed conceded by Lévy-Bruhl: “Certain symbols, certain emblems remain surrounded by a sentiment very close to religious sentiment, or at the very least are likely to arouse devotion that can go as far as the sacrifice of one’s own life. We can think, for example, of flags” [1953: 58, note 2].
Can we talk of vexillary sensitivity in the same way as Norbert Elias identified a national habitus ? The question deserves to be asked. It refers to questionings that have as much to do with “emotional contexts” as with visual acclamatio, the reverse angle to a merely electoral liberal democracy [Ihl, 2015], but also with semioclastic attitudes [Fureix, 2019] that insist on the dissidence and resistance to a political order that are sometimes displayed during a war of signs. “Flying signifier”, to quote Claude Lévi-Strauss, “reserve of the symbolic” [Reichler, 1992], an element with a “triple sensitive, emotional and apotropaic character” [Ory, 2020: 280], all emblems exist only through the use made of them and their visibility in the public arena (and around its edges).
The practical meaning of practical things: there is an obscure continent here that it would be all the more interesting to document as it would avoid any aestheticization of the vexillary scene. As a pictorialized, photographed object, the embodiment of a flutter that metaphorically calls for an uprising [Didi-Huberman, 2016], the flag, needless to say, is first and foremost one of those "arts of doing" that "bring into play a 'popular' ratio, a way of thinking that is invested in a way of acting, an art of combining that is indissociable from an art of using" [De Certeau, 1980, p. 15]. Philippe Artières has also opened the way. His work on the banner opens with this observation: since its modern appearance at the beginning of the 20th century, "the object has endured and the technicality it requires has not changed much. [...] Whether it is worn or fixed to a support (railings, a balustrade, a façade), it is almost identical. And it is this semblance of immutability that this book explores" [2013: 18] so that, as the pages turn, we understand a little more how the durability of an eminently political object rests on a layering of practices that constantly authenticate its power of evocation/invocation. What does it mean to make a flag, to fly a flag, to see a flag, to look at a flag? What meaning(s) do these actions generate and according to what process(es)? Does “monstration”, understood as a re-presentation that is no longer valid for its capacity for substitution but rather for its intensity [Marin, 1993: 18], apply to this type of emblem in the same way as it could be applied to processional banners? These are all questions that will certainly be broached and even explained using the paradigms employed in visual studies [Boidy, 2017]. It is suggested to focus here on vexillary materiality and the gestures that accompany it. Buying a flag, reusing the old flag lying around the attic and that was occasionally flown on one’s grandparents’ house, making a flag from scratch, finding the best place on the balcony to display it, and so on, are not trivial details. They quietly express commitments just as they can openly manifest a routine. They invite questions about the “gender of the flag” (women sewing the flag, men flying it: are these stereotypes or not?). They sometimes underline the influence of the power of images. More than a mere element of a set, flags that are filmed can also be something else: a provision of an iconographic repertoire that inevitably contributes to unconscious imitation. The emblematic image of the New York firefighters raising the Stars and Stripes on the rubble of the towers of the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001 is a reminder of how a gesture can be updated when compared with another iconic image that has become a national legend: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal on 23rdFebruary 1945 [Chéroux, 2009].
Whether individual or collective, more or less linked to initiatives or even to public policies of flag flying, vexillary mobilisations thus compose an axiological grammar with regard to the values with which they are endowed. The dual prism of materiality (what resonance is expected from a digitised flag displayed on social media or on a number plate?) and of gesture suggests, to our mind, the need to increasingly place flags within a symbolic economy where the different facets of history, in what they generate of social conformism, are combined with new experiences. The “vexillary trauma” of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, as presented in Zola’s La Débâcle (1892), conferred on the Tricolour the functions of relic. At the École de l’Air military school, the presentation of the flag to the recruits, in an almost unchanging ceremony, marks their enlistment – as a reminder of their duty. At Skelmanthorpe in Yorkshire, the radicals of a flag-loving Chartist movement buried a flag made in 1819 to protect it. The subject of an object biography [Bonnot, 2014], this flag was later exhumed and flown in various radical demonstrations until at least 1884 [Roberts, 2020]. Whether it is the standard bearer (or the ‘standard woman’: Jessye Norman singing La Marseillaise on 14th July 1989 for the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution), and the sense the bearer attributes to the flag, which we possibly incorrectly posit to be sacred, whether the activist who displays it at demonstrations or the ordinary person who uses it on occasion, it is clear that the flag remains a popular, everyday and all too often silent object. This call for papers has sketched out some of its features in the hope of now attracting as many contributions.
The project "What is a flag? "More broadly, the ambition is to propose a reflection on the notion of political unveiling and to make it a sufficiently relevant instrument to read, in a fresh way, the questions of stato-nationalisation, everyday nationalism or ordinary citizenship within an international framework and a resolutely comparative perspective (let us recall here that sociological pragmatism has very quickly considered the operations of unveiling as decisive elements in the emergence, the rise to power, the quest for legitimacy of the most diverse causes). What is it about the flag that makes it a flag (a sometimes one-way mirror of political aspirations and social conformations) that reveals secrets? In what way, because it remains an available and cheap resource, effective in its presentation and representation, does it contribute to specifying things (feelings, registers of loyalty or defection, etc.) which, without their having been made public, restore what allows, among other things, a political community to exist: individuals' capacities for attachment to what makes power power, an arbitrariness/arbitration which, because it needs perpetual confirmation [Boltanski, 2009: 135 ff.], presupposes that individuals can invest it in all sorts of ways and, consequently, play with what power is based on, a game around the unveiling of its interpretative latitude.
Proposals for contributions (title and abstract of 4,000 to 6,000 characters, including bibliographic references, in French or English) are expected by 31 January 2022. They should mention the main lines of demonstration as well as the materials (surveys and/or archives) mobilised and should be accompanied by a bio-bibliographical note of the author.
They should be sent to the coordinators of the dossier, Laurent Le Gall (email@example.com) and Philippe Lagadec (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The selection of proposals will be sent to the authors in February 2022. The final texts (35,000 to 70,000 characters max., including spaces and bibliography) should be sent before 31 May 2022.
The publication of this issue of Ethnologie française is planned for spring 2023.
The formatting of selected articles will be based on the note to authors of the journal: http://ethnologie-francaise.fr/proposer-un-varia/
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Lagadec Philippe, Le Gall Laurent, Simon Jean-François et Thomas Mannaig, 2019, « Passage à l’acte : arborer un drapeau tricolore après les attentats du 13-Novembre (Brest, 27 novembre 2015) », Ethnologie française, 49, 1 : 45-62.
Lalouette Jacqueline, 2010, Jours de fête. Jours fériés et fêtes légales dans la France contemporaine, Paris, Tallandier.
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Mariot Nicolas, 2008, « Qu’est-ce qu’un “enthousiasme civique” ? Sur l’historiographie des fêtes politiques en France après 1789 », Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 63, 1 : 113-139.
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Marin Louis, 1993, Des pouvoirs de l’image. Gloses, Seuil.
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