Colloque : Qu'est-ce qu'un drapeau ? Symposium: What is a flag?
What is a flag? Socio-history of political unveiling
(world, from the 1880s to the present day)
[Université de Bretagne Occidentale-CRBC, Brest (France), 18 and 19 November 2021]
Submission Procedure and Guidelines
Foreword. Stories of flags abound. Just as so much has been written on the subjects of voting and electoral democracy, giving rise to classical analyses defended by some and rejected by others, flags are also a common subject on the social sciences agenda. On 8th January 2021 on the Cairn platform, the keyword “flag” in French generated some 11,367 hits, although rare were the works exclusively dedicated to this subject. Symbolic grammar, an element of both formation and conformation in the “identity kit” contributing, among other things, to the processes of nationalisation and/or localisation of populations, the identity marker of the tifosi in football stadiums... so many images that spring to mind or are glaringly obvious, and so many variations of a seemingly commonplace object.
Published in Le Travailleur socialiste de l’Yonne on 20th July 1901, the article that Gustave Hervé devoted to the anniversary of the Battle of Wagram caused quite a stir, earning its author widespread notoriety for his recommendation to “plant the regiment’s flag” on the barracks’ manure heap. In July 2010 at the High Commission of the Republic in New Caledonia in Nouméa, French Prime Minister François Fillon presided over a ceremony considered highly symbolic by those in attendance: the raising of the two flags (Kanak and French). In early January 2019, in the midst of the yellow vests movement, Marine Le Pen, President of the Rassemblement National political party, posted on social media the image of a European flag with the colours reversed (blue stars on a yellow background), accompanied by the words “The Europe of the peoples now has its standard”. In post-apartheid South African society, while the old flag displayed the colours of the United Provinces and the early Boer republics, and celebrated the white city, the new flag (1994) combines the colours of the former black movements (including the ANC) with those of the old flag under the guise of a new people to be invented. Some photographs are today iconic. On 2nd May 1945, Yevgeny Khaldei immortalized one of the symbolic falls of the Third Reich: a Red Army soldier supported by a comrade installing the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag. A painting on the theme of the American flag (Flag, 1954) earned Jasper Johns early fame in the interregnum of Action Painting and Pop Art. Decking the city of Paris with flags for the beatification of Joan of Arc in 1909 offered the monarchist and Catholic right-wing circles an opportunity to stand behind the banner of the people to reaffirm their opposition to the separation of church and state...
The origins of this symposium. Before 27th November 2015, nothing had predisposed some of us to begin an investigation in the streets of Brest. Like many French people, we learned that day that the President of the Republic had indicated through government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll that the French public could also participate in the national tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks of 13th November in Paris by displaying “a blue, white and red flag” on their homes. On that Friday, if we had not met with fellow researchers, we would never have come up with the idea for this symposium and everything that has led up to it. While we cannot disregard our emotions in our desire to document an exceptional situation through an undertaking conceived according to an “emergency ethnography”, we insist from the outset that it first emerged from a questioning that we had summarily formulated at the very beginning of the investigation: in what way, within a context of ‘moral shock’, could putting out flags represent the sign of a republican culture whose expressiveness manifested itself through the mobilisation, necessarily multiple, of a distinctive and easily identifiable sign? The three of us thus walked through the streets of Brest at the end of the morning and again in the afternoon, training our eyes to spot the Tricolour flags, which we photographed. We also noted the addresses of their owners, and subsequently conducted 44 interviews over the following six weeks (between 7th December 2015 and 15th January 2016). From the analysis of these interviews and the reflections that numerous authors have made on the symbolic exchanges that structure a society forged from all kinds of micro-actions, we drew some conclusions – notably on the “civic sentinels” – that contributed to the article published in Ethnologie française [Lagadec et al., 2019].
Flags: not as fully understood as they would seem? While vexillology has its followers, chief among whom are amateurs of militaria, it nevertheless remains a little explored subject. 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 (in the case in point, France is neither the United States nor Greece). They are periodically publicised in the media on the occasion of political crises (see Tahrir Square in Cairo in the context of the Arab revolutions). The French flag, for example, is an obligatory variant of the ‘civic festival’ that, from revolutionary to republican, contributed to anchoring it in the France of the terroirs at the price of an acclimatisation of a larger symbolic apparatus... 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]. Antoine Prost thus stressed that the flags of the local sections of veterans of World War I were more like brotherhood banners than national flags [Prost, 1977].
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. 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. “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 future symposium, 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 symposium 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 Emblêmes” 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 monument to the Brancion Resistance caught in a vice between the Tricolour and the red flag when it was inaugurated on 2nd July 1950), the use, exploitation and misappropriation of ‘semiophores’ [Pomian, 1987] undeniably contribute to the stylisation of any emblem. But there is more. Laws and regulations contribute to a number of vexillary policies that are framed according to protocols, the implicit nature and implications of which we are often unaware of. From the manufacture of an official flag to its being flown on buildings or the role assigned to it in certain arenas, what is the place of legislators, whose work of codifying the compliance of practices leads to the excluding of others, guides gestures and, moreover, the meaning behind those gestures?
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).
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. French Tricolours form the backdrop for some of the scenes in Antonin Peretjatko’s The Rendez-Vous of Déjà-Vu (2013). Flags are also an integral part of the scenography of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). 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 23rd February 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.
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To submit your proposed paper, please send your abstract to firstname.lastname@example.org by 30 April 2021. Abstracts must be a maximum of 3,000 to 5,000 characters (excluding the bibliography) and accompanied by a provisional title and short bibliography.
Submitted papers will be examined by members of the Scientific and Organising Committee within the following four weeks. The programme will be established by 1 June 2021.
Selected authors are required to send a full paper draft to the meeting organisers by 15 October 2021 so that it can be made available to the chairpersons before its presentation at the colloquium.
We welcome contributions from various fields such as history, political science, anthropology, sociology, and literary studies.
The working language will be French and papers can be presented in French and English.
The colloquium will take place in Brest, France, on 18 and 19 November 2021 at the University of Western Brittany’s (UBO) Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and is being organised with the support of the Breton and Celtic Research Centre (CRBC) of the UBO (Brest).
The proceedings will be published.
Marc Abélès, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris)
Nicolas Adell, University of Toulouse-Le Mirail
Christian Bromberger, Aix-Marseille University
Hervé Drévillon, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University and Service historique de la Défense
Stéphane Gerson, New York University (United States of America)
Camille Hamidi, Lumière Lyon-2 University
Michel Offerlé, École normale supérieure (Paris)
Michael Skey, Loughborough University (United Kingdom)
Arundhati Virmani, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Marseille)
Sébastien Carney, Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique (CRBC), Université de Bretagne Occidentale (UBO)
Christophe Granger, CIAMS, University of Paris-Saclay
Philippe Lagadec, CRBC, UBO
Alain Le Bloas, CRBC, UBO
Laurent Le Gall, CRBC, UBO
Marion Rabier, SAGE, University of Strasbourg
Jeanne Teboul, DynamE, University of Strasbourg
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