Abstract

This paper aims to explore the question of the cult of the national flag from a few selected angles. I focus in particular on the magical dimension of the national flag. My argument is that the central position of the flag in nationalism has much do to with a magical mode of thinking. However, this type of thinking cannot simply be regarded as the legacy of so-called primitive or pre-industrial societies. On the contrary, I will argue that national flags are modern phenomena. The magic of the flag causes some people to behave as if the flag constituted an integral part of the nation. Damage of the flag is feared as desacralization, which may have direct consequences for the nation and threatens its existence. The magic of the flag is based on the confusion of two ontological domains: symbolic-metaphorical and metonymical-causal.
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Krzysztof Jaskulowski, ‘The Magic of the National Flag’, Ethnic and Racial Studies,
2015, p. 1 17. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1078482
The paper aims to explore the question of the cult of the national flag from a few selected
angles. I focus in particular on the magical dimension of the national flag. My argument is
that the central position of the flag in nationalism has much do to with a magical mode of
thinking. However, this type of thinking cannot simply be regarded as the legacy of so-called
primitive or preindustrial societies. On the contrary, I will argue that national flags are
modern phenomena. The magic of the flag causes some people to behave as if the flag
constituted an integral part of the nation. Damage of the flag is feared as desacralization,
which may have direct consequences for the nation and threatens its existence. The magic of
the flag is based on the confusion of two ontological domains: symbolic-metaphorical and
metonymical-causal.
Keywords: national flag, magic of national flag, metonymy, metaphor, nationalism, magical
thinking
Introduction
Flags are one of the most widespread national artefacts. This trivial observation would not be
worth mentioning were it not for the fact that there are generally few systematic analyses of
these ubiquitous national paraphernalia. Existing studies tend to focus on the history of
different national flags, devoting less attention to questions of their symbolic significance and
the mechanisms of the mythologization or sacralization of flags. As Thomas H. Eriksen
rightly notes (2007, xiii): ‘It struck us that there did not seem to be much comparative
discussion of flags. In fact, there did not seem to be much research or analytical commentary
on flags at all’.Although there is a vast literature on political and national symbolism, it does
not focus solely on the national flag as such (e.g., Cohen 1969; Firth 1973; Geertz 1980;
Ortner 1973; Smith 2009; Turner 1967).
One notable exception is the book entitled Flag, Nation and Symbolism in Europe and
America edited by Eriksen and Richard Jenkins (2007). It concentrates on analysing various
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meanings attributed to different national flags understood in terms of Victor Turner’s (1967)
dominant symbol, i.e., central, omnipresent and ambiguous. However, much less is said about
other cultural mechanisms that may explain the emotional appeal and power of flags in the
world of nations. This book is more descriptive and empirical than theoretical and systematic.
In saying this, I do not claim that the question of the cultural significance of national flags,
i.e., the emotions, ideas and values associated with the national flags, has not been analysed in
the social sciences. My point rather is that we still do not havea systematic and
comprehensive analysis of national flags.
Drawing on cultural anthropology and cognitive linguistics, I would like to go beyond
a mere analysis of flags’symbolic meaning. My aim is to explore the question ofthe
‘mysterious’ power of the flag from a few different angles. I focus particularly on the
magicaldimension of the national flag. Moreover, I argue that the central position of the flag
has much do to with a magical mode of thinking. This type of thinking cannot simply be
regarded as the legacy of so-called primitive societies. On the contrary, I claim that in some
circumstances, national flags are attributed magical power by modern societies. My aim is to
contribute to the theoretical understanding of the roleof the national flag, which may be useful
in comparative research on this widespread national artefact. My article is mostly theoretical
and analytical; due to restricted space, its empirical scope must be limited. (My examples
come primarily from the USA, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Poland.) I do not pretend to
introduce any universal, comprehensive and cohesive theoretical construction; rather, I intend
to suggest some possible directions for theanalysis of flags, which has to be verified by
further analysis in various cultural contexts.
The invention of the national flag
Flags have a long history and an even longer prehistory. Objects that resemble flags
were in use across the world in ancient times. In Europe, flags became widespread during the
Crusades under the influence of Arab military banners. The development of the latter was
stimulated by Islam iconoclasm: Because of the prohibition of figuration, Arabs had to rely on
abstract patterns (Elgenius 2007, 1; Smith 1975). In the Christian world, the first flags were
called cross flags because they carried an image of the cross. In addition to Arab influences,
the usage of cross flags was reinforced by the powerful legend of Constantine’s dream of
carrying the cross into battle on his military standards. It seems that the cross-cantered flag
practice set medieval states on a special track in linking the sacrifice of the crucifixion to the
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redeeming deaths of ordinarycitizen-soldiers in modern times. This would confirm the theory
of Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle (1996, 1999), which I discuss in more detail later on.
However, such a broad historical generalization would require a wide comparative analysis,
which goes beyond the scope of the article.Thus, in medieval Europe, flags were religious and
found in a military context. For the first time, flags were flown outside the context of religion
and warfare in early modern Europe during the age of sailing, when trading companies started
to use banners to identify themselves at seas. Thus, the flag became associated with asecular
group of people, which helped pave the way for their modern usage as national artefacts.
Moreover, in the early modern period, flag design, particularly in the maritime context,
underwent the process of standardization, which also contributed to establishing a base for
modern national flags (Elgenius 2007, 2021).
However, the national flag sensu stricto, the flag that indicates a sovereign nation, is a
relatively modern phenomenon. It was invented only during the American and French
revolutions (Elgenius 2007; Smith 1975; Testi 2010).The latter revolution in particular
attached great importance to the creation of a new symbolic universe legitimize the novel
political and social order. Thus the French revolution was full of symbolic conflicts that
played an important role in it, sometimes they even acted as the driving force responsible for
the revolution’s dynamic (Hunt 1984). For an example, let us recall one of the most decisive
events of the French revolution: the women’s march on Versailles (Lefebvre 1962; Schama
1989). On 5 October 1789, the crowd besieged the royal palace and compelled the King Louis
XVI, his family and most of the French Assembly to move from Versailles to Paris, where
they found themselves under increasing pressure from the Parisian common people. This
event changed the balance of power in revolutionary France, bringing to an end the
independence of the king and nobility and empowering the Third Estate. Notably, the people’s
anger was caused not only by the scarcity of food in Paris, by the fear of a pacte de famine
and by the reluctance of the king to accept the new political arrangements but also by a
symbolic factor. On 1 October1789, there was abanquet inthe royal château in Versailles that
gathered officers, the king and the royal family. The event was widely reported in the
revolutionary press, which spread rumours that during the banquet,drunken officers in the
presence of the king stomped on the tricolour cockade and professed their loyalty to the white
cockade of the House of Bourbon. The colours blue and redthe Parisian coat of arms
complemented by a royal white had been the popular symbol of the new revolutionary order
since the storming of the Bastille. It is not surprising, therefore, that the lack of respect for the
three colours was treated as a manifestation of resistance to the revolution and an expression
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of the aristocratic contempt for the people of lower status, hence the idea of bringing the king
from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. It was believed that in Paris, the king would
be free from the influence of the plotting and aloof elitism of the aristocracy. Furthermore,the
disrespect for the tricolour was described by the revolutionary press in terms of
desacralization: Its damage caused anger and fearas if it could threatens the existence of the
nascent nation (Schama 1989, 459).
It is worth underlining that the novelty of the French and American flag lay primarily
in the fact that for the first time in history, a banner had become associated with representing
the sovereignty of the nation, not kings or ruling families. As Arnaldo Testi convincingly
notes:
In fact, until the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, flags did not represent
peoples or nations but rather sovereigns and ruling families, whose coat of arms would
be at the center of the flags, which would be associated with armies and fleets, fluttering
on forts and ships (Testi 2010, 24).
According to revolutionist ideologies, it was not the king who constituted the subject of
sovereignty but the nation, defined at least declaratively as a community of equal and free
citizens or, to use Benedict Anderson’s (1991, 7) words,conceived as a deep, horizontal
comradeship. The flag acquired an inclusive and egalitarian meaning, open to all citizens, not
just for the chosen and privileged groups that used it only in specific circumstances. The
French national flag was officially approved on15 February 1794, and it became the model
pirated by other national movements and states (Testi 2010; Elgenius 2007, 2225; Anderson
1991).
Flag as metonymy
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) present a convincing argumentthat complex
and abstract concepts such as the notion of the nation,which, as Anderson (1991)
persuasively argues, should be understood as imagined community can be comprehended
only in terms of metaphors. Metaphors cannot be seen simply as artistic embellishments
typical of poetry and fine literature. Far from being something unusual and extraordinary, they
are rooted in our everyday life; they organize our perceptions and are an integral component
of our cognitive processes. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 4) state,‘most of our ordinary
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conceptual system is metaphorical in nature’.The essence of a metaphor is understanding one
conceptual domain (target domain) in terms of another domain (source domain). Concept A is
understood in terms of concept B: There are systematic conceptual correspondences between
a source and a target, which are often referred to as mapping. On the whole, the source
domain is often more specific and concrete than the target domain because the function of the
former is to make abstract concepts more understandable for people. Thus, for example,the
conceptual domain of the nation (an abstract community of strangers) is often depicted in
terms of the family domain, which is more understandableand closer to everyday
experiences(Kövecses 2002). Nationalist ideologies across the world claim that a nation is one
great family, that fellow citizens are brothers and sisters, that all members of the nation have
common ancestry, that nations have parents and live at home
A flag is not metaphor in the sense described above. Referring to cognitive linguistics,
one can say that the flag constitutes a metonymy of the nation. According to Lakoff and
Johnson, metonymy allows for mental access to a specific conceptual domain. The metaphor
involves asystematic understanding of one concept in terms of another different concept,
which is achieved by mapping the structure of one concept onto another. Thus metaphor links
two different conceptual domains. In contrast, metonymy refers to just one conceptual domain
but cuts across distinct ontological realms (such as concepts, word forms, and referents).
Metonymy does not involve systematic mapping. Its basic function is to direct our attention
from one realm to another. Metaphors provide a relatively large amount of information on the
target domain, whereas metonymy usually does not have such an effect (Kövecses2002;
Kövecses and Radden 1998). Metonymy is not used primarily to understand a given concept;
rather, its main role is to provide mental access to one realm (e.g., concept) through another
(e.g., thing). Metonymy thus directs our attention to a target entity (for example,American
government) through a vehicle entity (for example,Washington DC),which are
conventionally regarded as directly related to each other in some way. Metonymy is usually
even more concrete and tangible than metaphors because its function is to provide access to
abstract entities, and as Lakoff and Johnson explain (1980, 40), it usually involves direct
physical or causal associations’(e.g., part for the whole, effect for cause).
From the cognitivist point of view, we can say that the flag (vehicle entity) directs our
attention to the abstract and imagined community of a nation (target entity) and that the flag
stands for a nation. (Thus, the cognitivist definition of metonymy overlaps with the
anthropological notion of symbols.)Thus, for example, the Star-Spangled Banner provides
mental access to an abstract (metaphorical) notion of the American nation because both these
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entities belong to the same conceptual domain. Although Michael Billig (1995), in his seminal
book, focuses on the discursive ‘flagging’ of a nation, he also devotes some space to material
flags, particularly in the USA. His analysis seems to note that the flag and the nation form a
coherent whole in common citizens’ experiences of social reality as they co-occur repeatedly.
The flag accompanies all important national ceremonies, events,and institutions and is present
in daily life. Moreover, the flag is concrete, visible and easy to comprehend. In the USA, the
importance of the flag is stressed starting in primary schools; every school day begins with a
recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge is recited by pupils who often do not fully
understand the meaning of the spoken oath, but they easily grasp the role of the flag (Billig
1995, 5152). As Billig(1995, 41) writes, flags ‘are banal reminders of nationhood’. To put it
in cognitive terms: The everyday presence of the flag provides access to the abstract notion of
a nation and helps to establish a metonymical link between the flag and a nation; the former is
regarded as related to the latter.Thus, for patriots, the flag constitutes a metonymy of the
nation similarly to the way a dove is perceived by Christians as a metonymy of the Holy Spirit
in Christianity (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 41).
It must be, however, underlined thatlinks between a dove and the Holy Spirit and
between a flag and a nation are conventional;in the terminology of Lakoff and Johnson (1980,
41), they are symbolic metonymies. Nevertheless, metonymy allows people to speak of ‘one
thing by means of its relation to some-thing else’, which affects their way of thinking and
acting. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 39) explain, ‘when a waitress says <The ham sandwich
wants his check>, she is not interested in the person as a person hut only as a customer, which
is why the use of such a sentence is dehumanizing’. Similarly, as we will see, conceiving the
nation bymeans of the flag affects how people act: They often treat the flag is if it were
integral part of the nation. However, Lakoff and Johnson do not explain thismagical power of
the flag’ in more detail. To explain this, we will turn to Edmund Leach’s theory of magic.
Lakoff and Johnson, nonetheless, warn that the distinction between
metaphor/metonymy is not clear cut. They argue that metonymy, to some extent,resemblesa
metaphor because it also provides some understanding or has symbolic meaning. The
difference is that unlike a metaphor, metonymy focuses our attention more on a specific
meaning. For example, if we describe man metonymically as ‘a brain’ (as in the phrase the
best brains work there’), we direct attention to intelligence (and not to weight or height)
because brain is associated with a high IQ (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 36). The same applies
to the flag. Thus, the American flag indicates the unity of the nation, ‘united we stand’; fifty
stars represent the states, which comprise one American nation. However, the American flag
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is more than that; it also stands for the sacred. The red colour refers to blood and supreme
sacrifice, and the blue may refer to the idea of heaven and bring to mind associations with the
concept of America as a chosen nation under special divine care (Testi 2010).
Flag as sacred
National flags are frequently treated as sacred and surrounded by a cult; they are
treated with respect, reverence and fear. Flags are a principal element of different national
rituals that make up a type of civil religion,asenvisaged in the 18th century by Jean-Jacques
Rousseau. In some countries,the flag even has its own festival as in the USA (14 June) or
Poland (2 May).There are special rules for the display and care of the flag. For example, in
the USA there is the Flag Code, which establishes many rules under U.S. federal law,
although disobeying these rules is not penalized. In paragraph 7 of the Flag Code,we read:No
other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of
the United States of America(Cornell University Law School). In many states across the
world (inter alia Argentina, Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Turkey, India),various acts
that intentionally destroy or mutilate a flag in public are defined by law as ‘insults and are
criminalized. For example, in Poland, if someone insults the national flag, he may be
imprisoned up to one year (National Security Bureau). It is interesting that the rules for
displaying the Polish flag are the concern of the National Security Bureau, which is an
advisory body that provides support to the Polish president in matters related to national
security and defence. It suggests that the security of the state seems to depend in some way on
the proper way of displaying the flag, as if the misuse of the flag could endanger the nation
which is a very suggestive example of the ‘magical power’ of the flag. Even in the USA,
where the scope of freedom of speech is wide, the destruction of the flag is regarded by a
large part of public as desacralization and should be penalized. There is a vocal anti-
desecration movement that aims to introducean amendment to the American Constitution
forbidding insulting the American flag. According to adherents of this movement, respect for
the flag should set the limit for freedom of expression (Goldstein 2000). The American use of
the word ‘desecration’ is suggestive of the sense of the sacred status of the flag and reflects
fear of its being insulted and damaged.
The cult of the flag also involves the creation ofmythological narratives focused on the
flag, which again is symptomatic of the special status of national flags. Thus, the beginnings
of the flags are projected into the distant past, even if there is no continuity between the
modern and the medieval meaning of the flag. The origins of flags in nationalist mythology
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reach back to antiquity, or, to use Mircea Eliade’s terms, in illo tempore ([1949] 1959). For
example, it is believed in Denmark that the Danish flag is the oldest in the world. According
to the Danish national mythology, the flag fell from the sky on 15 June 1219 at a crucial
moment during the Battle of Lyndanisse. The popular myth says that the Danes were losing
the battle when the Danish king Valdemar II captured the falling flag before it touched the
ground. (Notably, in present-day Denmark,there is a rule that says that the flag must never
touch the ground.) The flag gave the Danes new vigour, and they defeated the Estonian army.
In the National Gallery in Copenhagen,one can enjoy a picture painted in 1809 by Christian
August Lorentzen that depicts the falling flag (Jenkins 2007, 117118).
The cult of the flag is associated primarily with a military context. For example, in the
USA, the cult originated during the second war with England in 1812-1814. During the war,
Francis Scott Key wrote a poem dedicated to the flag entitled Spangled Banner,which was
recognized by Congress in 1931 as the anthem of the United States. In the second decade of
the 19th century, another popular patriotic poem entitled ‘The American Flag was written by
Joseph Rodman Drake,a poem that also suggests mythological or even ‘mystical’ origins of
the flag. The poem tells the story of the flag, which was handed down straight from heaven to
the new chosen people,the Americans:
When Freedom, from her mountain height,
Unfurled her standard the air,
She tore the azure robe of night,
And set the stars of glory there;
She mingled with its gorgeous dyes
The milky baldric of the skies,
And striped its pure, celestial white
With streakings of the morning light;
Then, from his mansion in the sun,
She called her eagle bearer down,
And gave into his mighty hand,
The symbol of her chosen land (Drake [1819] 1836, 8990).
Perhaps it is the symbolism of the poemthat stands behind the tradition of taking the
American flag into outer space.(The most famous example is Neil Armstrong’s planting of the
flag on the moon on 20 July 1969.) However, the cult of the flag took on a mass character
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during the Civil War in 1861-1865. There was a revivalof the idea of the celestial nature of
the flag, as evidenced by the popular lithograph from 1861 titled Our Heaven Born Banner,
which referred to Drake’s aforementioned poem. It is worth mentioning that during the Civil
War,the meaning of the flag changed significantly. Robert Bonner (2002) argues that in the
early years of the USA, the flag was associated with the idea of freedom, whereas during the
Civil War, it acquired new connotations, mostly connected with the unity of the American
nation and readiness to sacrifice life on behalf of the nation. Although it is hard to accept his
analysis of the meaning of the flag in the early years of the USA because it is too idealistic
(Bonner does not take into account exclusive nativist connotations of the flag linked with the
idea of WASP), it must be agreed that the American flag during the Civil War was sanctified
by the bloodshed and started to signifysupreme sacrifice. The theme of sacrifice began to
appear in the speeches of politicians, poetry and popular songs. One of the main motives of
popular culture was the soldier saving the flag, as if the survival of the nation depended on the
fate of the flag. Moreover, the death of soldiers who died for the flag was described in
religious language as a condition of the redemption and endurance of the nation. Flags that
survived the battles, often torn and riddled, were carefully stored and treated with reverent
honour as religious relics are. After the Civil War, the veterans were the main driving force
behind the development of flag worship. They helped to popularize various nationalist rituals
in American society in the late 19th century, particularly the aforementioned Pledge of
Allegiance (Bonner 2002; Guenter1990).
The idea of sacrifice, which is of central importance in the worship of the American
flag, prompted two religious studies scholars,Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, to define
the American culture rather narrowly in terms of religion, the aim of which is to organize
‘killing energy’ by committing its adherents to giving their life for the nation and its flag
(Marvin and Ingle 1996, 1999,1). Thus, they argue that American culture, like any other
culture, is religious in nature. The American nationalist religion focuses on a sacred totem in
the form of the flag, which is surrounded by different rituals. It is worth mentioning that much
earlier, in 1920, Marcel Mauss ([1920] 1996, 85), referring apparently to Emile Durkheim,
wrote in a similar vein but in more general terms when he compared the worship of the flag to
totemism. Marvin and Ingle follow this path and argue that the function of the American flag
religion is to securethe endurance and cohesion of the American nation. In other words,a
nation’s survival requires devoted adherents who are willing to sacrifice their life on behalf of
the group. In general, the essence of all religions is the ability to decide on the life and death
of its believers. According to their one-sided theory, religion is about the designation of
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sacred things that are worth dying for and on behalf of which one can kill other people.
Traditionally, Christianity played such a function in Western civilization. However, as Marvin
and Ingle argue, as a consequence of the Enlightenment,the significance of Christianity
decreased, and its role as the sole depositaryof legitimate violence was taken over by the
nation-state. In their view, both Christianity and nation-state require disciplined adherents:
believers and citizen-soldiers. In their view, the national flag acquired in the modern period a
status similar to the crucifix in the Middle Ages. The flag indicates the willingness to die for
your own country, as the cross carried by Jesus signifies his willingness to die for humanity.
In the cases ofboth Christianity and nationalism,death is a sign of new life. The crucified
Christ rises from the dead, and the soldiers are resurrected in ‘the raised flag’ (Marvin and
Ingle 1996, 770). Marvin and Ingle rather simplistically argue that the condition of the
duration of the nation is basedon periodic ritual sacrifices called wars. These bloody sacrifices
are necessary because they sustain the nation. According to them, wars usually make internal
divisions disappear as a nation unites in the face of a common enemy. A nation unites in pain
and sorrow and mournsthe fallen in battle. The main function of the war, argue Marvin and
Ingle, is the internal pacification of a nation because ‘killing energy’ is directed outward
toward an external enemy. Thus, the nation is not, as Anderson claims,an imagined
community but rather a community of blood.
The magic of the national flag
It is hard to do justice to the complex theory of Marvin and Ingle in a brief description.
Nonetheless, their theory seems to be biased and unclear. For instance, they evidently
misinterpret the role of Christianity; this religion was used not only to justify killing but also
to promote pacifism. Furthermore, they do not take into account the distinction between
offensive and defensive wars. Moreover, as they distance themselves from American
nationalism, they paradoxically fall prey to nationalist thinking; they seem to exaggerate
American exceptionalism as they treat the American flag culture as an exceptional case.
However, the cult of the flag seems to be a more widespread phenomenon, as shown by
Eriksen and Jenkins or Billig.
What is more important and not explained by Marvin and Ingle is the mechanism
responsible for the following key phenomenon: Why, in the eyes of many people, does the
flag function as the substitute of the nation? In other words, why is the flag perceived as if it
were the nation itself? For example, why soldiers ready are to die to save the flag? Put
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differently, referring to nationalism studies literature, one can describe Marvin and Ingle’
position as primordialist (Smith 1998); they seem to believe in some instinctual tie to the
nation and the national flag and some primitive drive to kill some instinctive ‘killing
energy’ that is assumed rather than explained. They do not explicate the origins and causes of
this mysterious energy and do not take into account the cultural and historical changeability of
the nature of wars, conflicts and violence.
Let us turn to Durkheim, who wrote interestingly about the phenomenonthat he called
the transference of sentiments and cast some light on the question above asked regarding
why the flag is sometimes perceived as if it were the nation itself. In his book The Elementary
Forms of Religious Life,he explains:
This transference of sentiments comes simply from the fact that the idea of a thing and
the idea of its symbol are closely united in our minds; the result is that the emotions
provoked by the one extend contagiously to the other (…) The soldier who dies for his
flag, dies for his country; but as a matter of fact, in his own consciousness, it is the flag
that has the first place. It sometimes happens that this even directly determines action.
Whether one isolated standard remains in the hands of the enemy or not does not
determine the fate of the country, yet the soldier allows himself to be killed to regain it.
He loses sight of the fact that the flag is only a sign, and that it has no value in itself, but
only brings to mind the reality that it represents; it is treated as if it were this reality
itself (Durkheim [1912] 1964,220).
I find this observation extremely interesting. However, Durkheim does not provide a more
detailed analysis of the phenomenon he noticed. It requires some interpretation in light of
contemporary cultural anthropology. In particular, the culturalist theory of magic can shed
some insight on the phenomenon of ‘the transference of sentiments’. Let us look at a
‘prototype example’ of a magic act provided by Leach (1976, 31), inspired by Sir James
Frazer: ‘A sorcerer gains possession of specimen of hair from the head of his intended victim
X. The sorcerer destroys the hair to the accomplishment of spells and ritual. He predicts that,
a consequence, the victim X will suffer injury’. The example of the sorcerer is similar to
Durkheim’s soldier, who treats the flag as the nation itself. The soldier is ready to defend the
flag;he or she is willing to cast away his/her life to keep the flag safe from damage or
profanation (for example from touching the ground) as if damage to the flag could cause harm
to the nation. Attitudes toward the national flag held by many people, such as the eagerness to
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defend it at all costs, the fear of its profanation, the fearful respect for it, seem to follow the
logic ofa magical mode of thought known to characterizeso-called primitive societies. Frazer
([1890] 2009), in his classical book The Golden Bough,argued that belief in magic was just a
symptom of the mental inferiority of archaic societies. Magic for him was a type of distorted
science based on erroneous beliefs about cause and effect. Having analysed the modes of
thought on which magic is based, Fraser distinguished two major principles of magical logic:
The first principle he called the ‘Law of Similarity’,and the second he termed the ‘Law of
Contact or Contagion’. The law of similarity is based on the belief that ‘like produces like, or
that an effect resembles its cause’; the law of contact or contagion relies on the assumption
that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a
distance after the physical contact has been severed (Frazer [1890] 2009, 36). Frazer’s
interpretation was rejected by contemporary anthropology because he assumedan evolutionary
progress from magic and religion to science and implied the existence of sometype of specific
primitive logic based on faulty reasoning. In light of contemporary anthropology,so-called
primitive societies cannot be regarded as childish human species unable to reason without
errors in opposition to modern societies.
According to the Leach, there are more similarities than differences between
‘primitive societies’ and ‘modern societies’.‘Human beings, argues Leach,on the Australian
continent some 40,000 years ago were rational men like ourselves, for their ancestors had
needed to design sea-borne rafts and to exercise forethought’ (Leach 1977, 167). Thus,
‘primitive societies’ are as rational as ‘modern’ ones, or to put it another way,‘modern’
societies are as magical as ‘primitive’ ones. Drawing on Roman Jakobson, Leach observes
that Frazer’s distinction between homoeopathic and contagious magic is essentially the same
as that between metaphoric and metonymic associations (Leach1976, 29; Jakobson and Halle
1956). He argues that these two types of associations constitute the two crucialdomains of
operating with language (Leach 1977, 167). Thus, the common feature of ‘primitive’ and
‘modern’ societies lies in operating the same linguistic structure. Magic cannot be regarded as
something confined to ‘primitive’ societies but, according to Leach, seems to be rooted in the
day-to-day practices of modern societies. In our everyday life, we constantly switch from a
metaphoric mode to a metonymical mode and back, which is the basis of magical thinking. In
short, metaphoric (symbolic) relations are treated as if there were metonymical (physical,
causal) relations. To put it differently, symbolic actions are regarded as technical actions
capable of changing the state of the world from a distance. Before explaining this more fully,
let us give one more example from the modern world. Leach writes:
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In many parts of contemporary Latin America, Africa and Asia the normal method of
changing the political regime is by military coup (...) The form of such coups is quite
standardised: it consists of a military assault on the Presidential Palace. In many cases it
is later reported that the President himself was absent at the time. Newspaper and radio
proclamations (spells) by the usurping military play a large part in the procedure. The
main difference between this kind of operation and that of my prototype sorcerer is that
the intended victim’s hair is replaced by the intended victim’s Presidential Palace
(Leach 1976, 3132).
Following Leach (1976, 31), one can say that the usurper (sorcerer, flag defender or
destroyer) ‘makes a triple error’. Thus, in Leach’s terminology, the usurper first mistakes a
metaphorical symbol for a metonymical sign (this is absent the Palace, which stands forthe
President, with the Palace occupied by the actual president, cut hair with hair growing on the
head; the flag is conventionally associated with the nation with the flag regarded as a part of
the nation). The usurper (sorcerer, flag defender or destroyer) ‘then goes on’, explains Leach
(1976, 31),‘to treat the imputed sing as if it were a natural index, and finally interpret the
supposed natural index a signal capable of triggering off automatic consequence at a
distance. In other words, the usurper (sorcerer, flag defender or destroyer) assumes that if he
or she captures the Presidential Palace, he or she will gain power. (The sorcerer assumes that
destroying the hair will harm another person; the flag defender assumes that if the flag is
damaged, then the nation will perish.) Let us briefly note that the semiotic terminology of
Leach differs from that used by Lakoff and Johnson. In Leach’s terminology, the flag
constitutes a metaphoric symbol of the nation because it stands for the nation by arbitrary
convention. However, as we remember, Lakoff and Johnson also underlined the arbitrary
character of associations between a flag and a nation. In a magical act, the flag is reduced to
its metonymical function: The flag stands for the nation as a part of the whole; then, this
metaphorical sign is treated as a natural index (which Leach includes in his definition of
metonymy); that is, the flag is regarded as physically associated with the nation (as, for
example, smokeis an index of fire), and theflag is understood as signal,which implies
automatic and causal relations between the flag and the nation. As a consequence, it is
believed that damage to the flag causes damage to the nation. This transformation of the
metaphorical-symbolic relationship into a metonymical-causal relationship is the basis of
magical action.
14
In modern Western societies, we can easily find many other examples of magical
thinking based on the confusion of the symbolic with causal relations or, in other words,
instances of faith in the ability to influence the course of events by an action of a symbolic
nature. Cultural analysis seems to offer an explanation as to why people, as observed by
Durkheim,behave as if the flag constituted an integral part of the nation. Damage caused to
the flag is treated as desecration, which has direct consequences for the nation and threatens
its existence. From the point of view of Leach’s theory, there is a confusion of two
ontological domains: symbolic-metaphorical and metonymical-causal. The flag is not only a
specific part of everyday reality that allows access to the abstract notion of the nation, but in
the national imagination, the flag is physically related to the nation. In the eyes of patriots, the
flag does not only stand for a nation by arbitrary associations; for them,the flag is part of a
nation or even the nation itself. As General Norman Schwarzkopf said in defending the idea
of desacralization law: The American flag, far from being a mere symbol or a piece of cloth,
is an embodiment of our hopes, freedoms and unity. The flag is our national identity (The
Citizens Flag Alliance 2008,38).
To sum up, Leach’s theory of magic helps us understand why for patriots,the flag not
only conventionally stands for a nation; in some circumstances,it is part of a nation or even
the nation itself. His theory, however, does not explain everything. It can serve only as a
starting point for further analysis. Leach’s theory suggests that magic is automatic,
unreflective, and based onhabitual associations, but nationalist rituals are very often deliberate
and instrumental. More importantly, however, Leach’s theoryis too general and universal; it
does not explain why people mistake the symbolic domain for the causal domain insome
circumstances but not in others. Usually, people do not mistake causal relations with the
symbolic domain even in relation to the flag. Let us elaborate this in more detail.
The official and unofficial flag
Neil Jarman (2007),in his article ‘Pride and Possession, Display and Destruction’
describesa puzzling approach to the flag hung in Ulster by the Protestants during the marching
season (the spring-summer period characterized by a number of celebrated anniversaries).
Flags are hung to demonstrate the unityand identity of Unionists,recall the constant presence
of the Protestant population and confirm their claims to a specific territory. However, notably,
at the end of the festive season, flags are allowed to deteriorate in the wind and rain. Why is
it that people who are prepared to risk confrontation to assert their right to fly the flag’,
15
Jarman (2007, 90) asks, ‘appear to be quite happy to allow its slow decay and destruction? In
his opinion, the case of Northern Ireland shows that the sanctity of the flag is limited
temporally and spatially; i.e., the flag is treated as sacred only ina selected period and time,
particularly when the flag is posted in such a way as to ‘annoy, humiliate and antagonize the
Other’ (Jarman 2007, 94). In his opinion, the Ulster Protestant culture is based on the activity
the flag becomes meaningful only in the context of some action. The expectation that the
banner should be treated with dignity is based on the assumption that the flag has some
inherent valuethat resides in its physical objectivity. According to Jarman, this assumption is
foreign to Protestants of Ulster, in contrast to Americans who fetishize their flag.
It seems to me, however, that the difference between Northern Ireland and the USA is
not as great as Jarman claims. Moreover, I think that the contextual character of the cult of the
flag is rather widespread. It is likely that flags everywhere are treated as sacred and magical in
some circumstances but not in others. Particularly important seem to be the contexts ofan
official state, a military and, as Billig (1995) rightly notes, sporting. Regarding the United
States, as I wrote before,there is a Flag Code under federal law that establishes rules for
displaying the flag. However, failure to comply with the Flag Code is not criminalized, and in
everyday life, most Americans do not seem to follow its rules. Thus, as Billig reminds us, the
American flag is displayed in a variety of surprising places that are not always conductive to
the sacredness of the flag. This can perhaps be partially explainedby the fact that in the case
of the United States,outside the formal context,it is often not the flag itself that is displayed
but its iconic representations, such as a fragment, a characteristic pattern of stripes and stars,
or simply colours. However, the flag, not its iconic representation, is sometimes printed on
something designed for temporary use and discarded (e.g., hot dog bags, disposable towels,
paper napkins, boxes). Similarly, since the 1960s, the Union Jack in the UK has become a
trendy ‘design icon’ used widely in popular culture(Groom 2007). Flags in everyday life are
also common in Nordic countries, such as Denmark, where the flag has little to do with the
great national narratives of nation and national identity. The everyday flag symbolizes family
or just happiness and joy (Jenkins 2007). These examples of banal flags apparently seem to
contradict the arguments on magical power of flags. However, I would rather argue that the
omnipresence of the flags is a condition of their magical power because, as Billig convinces,
their pervasiveness habituates the category of the nation. In other words, this habituation
establishes the links between the flag and the nation. (The flag and the nation form a coherent
whole in common citizens’ experience of social reality as they co-occur repeatedly.)
However, the omnipresence of the flag is not a sufficient condition of the magic’ appeal of
16
the flag. The routine flag transforms itself into the ‘magical’ flag only in some situations. It
must be stressed that the flag worship is contextual:Only in some circumstances is the
flagperceived as sacred and magical. It seems to me that patriots are particularly prone to
falling prey to the flag’s magic in officialstate, military and sport contexts, particularly in
situationsof conflict with an allegedly threatening Other. This hypothesis, however, requires
further studies.
Conclusions
Although national flags are one of the most widespread national symbols, there are
relatively few systematic studies of their cultural significance. In my article, I attempted to
analyze the significance of the flag. I focusedparticularly on the magical dimension of the
national flag. The national flag presents a paradox: Although national flags are a modern
invention, they are attributedmagical power by modern societies. In other words, following
Tom Nairn (1981, 1997), one can say that this is another example of the Janus-faced nature of
nationalism, which is simultaneously seemingly modern and apparently archaic. However, it
is more complicated than that; magic cannot be regarded as an archaic residuum. The magic
of the flag causes some people, as Durkheim observed, to behave as if the flag constituted an
integral part of the nation. Damage to the flagis often described as ‘desacralization’, and there
is a fear that it may have direct consequences for the nation and threaten its existence. Thus,
the flag is not only a specific part of everyday reality that allows access to the abstract notion
of the nation, but in national imagery, the flag in some circumstances is treated as physically
and casually related to the nation. Damage to the flag may cause damage to the nation. From
the point of view of Leach’s theory of magic,there is a confusion of two ontological domains:
symbolic-metaphorical and metonymical-causal. Leach’s theory of magic helps us understand
why, for patriots,the flag in some circumstancesis an integral part of the nation.His
argumentation, however, is too general and universal; it does not explain why people conflate
two various ontological domains, symbolic and causal,in some circumstances but not in
others. This question requires, however, further analysis.
17
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KRZYSZTOF JASKULOWSKI is associate professor in Wroclaw Campus of University of
Social Sciences and Humanities
ADDRESS: Wroclaw Campus, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ostrowskiego
30b, 53 238 Wroclaw, Poland. Email: krzysztofja@interia.pl
... As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue, metaphors cannot be seen simply as artistic embellishments typical of poetry; they organise our perceptions and help us understand abstract concepts. In the context of the Polish nation and state, the more specific source domain of home helps us comprehend the target domain of the state (Jaskulowski, 2016). Following this home metaphor logic, the interviewees personalised the nation by comparing it to the host. ...
... This patriotism was connected with traditionally understood gender roles: men talked about armed struggle while women talked about service in auxiliary formations, e.g., as nurses. Militarist patriotism was often accompanied by symbolic patriotism focused on symbolic and ritualistic actions, i.e., actions aimed at manifesting national unity, identity and marking national boundaries such as displaying the national flag during holidays or wearing so-called patriotic clothing (Jaskulowski, 2016). This symbolic patriotism was often associated with little or no civic involvement, confined to participation in general elections. ...
Chapter
This chapter presents the theoretical and methodological framework of the book focusing on the concept of nationalism and nation. It draws on the constructivist theory of nationalism. It assumes that a nation is not a cohesive and real group with clear boundaries, but a set of signifying practices and discourses. It argues that a nation is a social construction, the meaning of which is an object of symbolic struggle. The meaning of a nation is stabilised by hegemonic discourses. Hegemonic discourses, however, are not only reproduced but also negotiated and challenged in everyday life. The chapter also discusses the research methodology. It also introduces the context of the research, focusing on the basic social conditions of the localities where the interviews were conducted.
... As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue, metaphors cannot be seen simply as artistic embellishments typical of poetry; they organise our perceptions and help us understand abstract concepts. In the context of the Polish nation and state, the more specific source domain of home helps us comprehend the target domain of the state (Jaskulowski, 2016). Following this home metaphor logic, the interviewees personalised the nation by comparing it to the host. ...
... This patriotism was connected with traditionally understood gender roles: men talked about armed struggle while women talked about service in auxiliary formations, e.g., as nurses. Militarist patriotism was often accompanied by symbolic patriotism focused on symbolic and ritualistic actions, i.e., actions aimed at manifesting national unity, identity and marking national boundaries such as displaying the national flag during holidays or wearing so-called patriotic clothing (Jaskulowski, 2016). This symbolic patriotism was often associated with little or no civic involvement, confined to participation in general elections. ...
Chapter
This chapter focuses on interviewees whose attitudes towards refugees were ambivalent (the ambivalents). It demonstrates that on the one hand the ambivalents were afraid of refugees and reproduced the dominant hegemonic Islamophobic discourse, succumbing to moral panic and fear. On the other hand, driven by empathy and humanitarian reasoning, they considered welcoming refugees. Consequently, this chapter discusses the ways in which interviewees negotiated contradictory discourses, coping with both fear and empathy. It reveals how some ambivalents were hesitant of answering unambiguously. It also demonstrates that other ambivalents formulated various reservations and conditions under which refugees could be admitted to Poland.
... As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue, metaphors cannot be seen simply as artistic embellishments typical of poetry; they organise our perceptions and help us understand abstract concepts. In the context of the Polish nation and state, the more specific source domain of home helps us comprehend the target domain of the state (Jaskulowski, 2016). Following this home metaphor logic, the interviewees personalised the nation by comparing it to the host. ...
... This patriotism was connected with traditionally understood gender roles: men talked about armed struggle while women talked about service in auxiliary formations, e.g., as nurses. Militarist patriotism was often accompanied by symbolic patriotism focused on symbolic and ritualistic actions, i.e., actions aimed at manifesting national unity, identity and marking national boundaries such as displaying the national flag during holidays or wearing so-called patriotic clothing (Jaskulowski, 2016). This symbolic patriotism was often associated with little or no civic involvement, confined to participation in general elections. ...
Chapter
The introduction sets the aims of the book. It discusses the current state of research, focusing in particular on the nascent study of Islamophobia in Poland. The introduction also considers the rationale for the book and its methodology and summarises its added value. It also discusses the structure of the book and explains the aims of individual chapters. It also introduces the main line of argumentation of particular chapters and discusses the major conclusions.
... As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue, metaphors cannot be seen simply as artistic embellishments typical of poetry; they organise our perceptions and help us understand abstract concepts. In the context of the Polish nation and state, the more specific source domain of home helps us comprehend the target domain of the state (Jaskulowski, 2016). Following this home metaphor logic, the interviewees personalised the nation by comparing it to the host. ...
... This patriotism was connected with traditionally understood gender roles: men talked about armed struggle while women talked about service in auxiliary formations, e.g., as nurses. Militarist patriotism was often accompanied by symbolic patriotism focused on symbolic and ritualistic actions, i.e., actions aimed at manifesting national unity, identity and marking national boundaries such as displaying the national flag during holidays or wearing so-called patriotic clothing (Jaskulowski, 2016). This symbolic patriotism was often associated with little or no civic involvement, confined to participation in general elections. ...
Chapter
This chapter focuses on those interviewees who contested the hegemonic discourse and were unequivocally in favour of receiving refugees (the welcomers). It distinguishes and analyses three types of argument in favour of receiving refugees. First, the chapter discusses the discourse of open borders, which has diminished or denied the importance of nation-states and national borders. Second, it explores the humanitarian discourse stressing assistance for those fleeing war. Third, it analyses the multicultural discourse that values intercultural contact and cultural diversity. The chapter also discusses the inconsistencies of these arguments, such as an unrealistic approach to open borders, inadequacy of humanitarian assistance and representations of refugees as passive victims.
... Flags are important national symbols that provide a tangible representation of the shared national and political identity [96,121,218,233]. They are a common element in political communication [221] and they significantly impact political cognitions and feelings of political affiliation [40,43,97,130]. ...
Thesis
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... Particularmente, el desarrollo de nuevas naciones durante el siglo XIX, como EEUU, ha ido vinculado a un empleo consistente por parte de las diferentes administraciones, generando un fuerte sentimiento identitario entre la población y la bandera (Eriksen & Jenkins, 2007). Se trataría de un fenómeno de culto a la bandera que, según Jaskulowski (2016), se inicia a principios del siglo XIX con fines militares, y se difunde entre la población ante la secuencia de eventos bélicos. ...
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The now-classic Metaphors We Live By changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind. Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are "metaphors we live by"--metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. In this updated edition of Lakoff and Johnson's influential book, the authors supply an afterword surveying how their theory of metaphor has developed within the cognitive sciences to become central to the contemporary understanding of how we think and how we express our thoughts in language.
Article
Anthony D. Smith is Emeritus Professor of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics, and is considered one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of nationalism studies. Anthony Smith has developed an approach to the study of nations and nationalism called ethno-symbolism, which is concerned with the nature of ethnic groups and nations, and the need to consider their symbolic dimensions. This text provides a concise statement of an ethno-symbolic approach to the study of nations and nationalism and at the same time, embodies a general statement of Anthony Smith's contribution to this approach and its application to the central issues of nations and nationalism. The text: Sets out the theoretical background of the emergence of ethno-symbolism in a sustained and systematic argument. Explains its analysis of the formation of nations, their persistence and change and the role of nationalism. Demonstrates that an ethno-symbolic approach provides an important supplement and corrective to past and present intellectual orthodoxies in the field and addresses the main theoretical criticisms levelled at an ethno-symbolic approach. Drawing together and developing earlier brief resumes of Anthony Smith's approach, this book represents a summary of the theoretical aspects of his work in the field since l986. It will be useful to students and to all those who are interested in the issues raised by a study of ethnicity, nations and nationalism.