Representations And Rituals Of The State Research Paper

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‘The state,’ wrote Michael Walzer (1967, p. 194), ‘is invisible; it must be personified before it can be seen, symbolized before it can be loved, imagined before it can be conceived.’ Like all human institutions, the state is a symbolic construction. It is not something that can be touched, nor does it exist independently of people’s ability to relate individual actions to a complex and abstract set of ideas. In this research paper the ways in which the state is constructed through such symbolic processes and how political actors make use of a variety of symbolic means to exert control over it are examined.

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1. The Role Of Symbolism In Politics

This perspective on the role of symbolic processes in understanding the state is not universally shared. From the time of the Enlightenment, and through to the current day, many scholars and other analysts have identified the real stuff of politics with the play of material forces and the formation of groups by people defending their common interests. In this view, the symbolic dimension of politics—the flags, the ceremonies, the songs and insignias—is of little consequence.

Politics, however, is at its root a symbolic process, for both the creation of political groupings and the hierarchies they spawn depend on symbolic activity. Political reality does not come to us already formed. It must be created out of the symbolic framework that we have previously acquired. The selective perception and radical simplification of potentially relevant stimuli are necessary if we are to make any sense at all out of the infinite number of potential observations that we could theoretically make. The state, like other political institutions, groupings, and roles—political party, ethnic group, president, judge, king—requires symbolic work of this kind. The notion that the world is divisible into a series of mutually exclusive states, corresponding to lines on a map, and that any individual can be assigned to membership in one of them, is part of this symbolic construction of reality (Anderson 1983, Scott 1999).

1.1 Politics As Nonrational Action

Given that people’s views of the state are symbolically constructed and the symbols on which they base their views are manipulated by various political actors, it is misleading to see the state as the product of rational processes. This is all the more true because one of the most salient characteristics of the symbolic process is that it not only fashions certain views of reality, but also invests these perceptions with heavy emotional weight. ‘A fine symbol,’ wrote one Italian analyst, ‘has greater weight than a mediocre fact’ (Camillo Pellizzi, cited in Gentile 1993, p. 84).

1.2 The Nature Of Political Representations

If, as beings who attempt to make sense of the world, we relate to politics not directly, but only through symbolic means, just how does this process work? Anthropologists have long been interested in such questions, although the pioneering work in this field suggested that it was peoples in small-scale, nonliterate societies who were particularly at the mercy of such symbolic activities in their political life. Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, in their 1940 volume, African Political Systems, which created the subfield of political anthropology, pointed to the mystical credentials of the African ruler, who served as the symbol of the people’s unity. ‘Members of an African society,’ they wrote, ‘feel their unity and perceive their common interests in symbols, and it is their attachment to these symbols which more than anything else gives their society cohesion and persistence’ (1940, p. 17).

More recent anthropological investigation of statelevel politics has retained the Durkheimian emphasis on the key role that symbols and rituals play in promoting social order. But it has expanded the paradigm in two ways. First, the Fortes Evans-Pritchard formulation regarding the political role of symbolism has been generalized to apply to all societies, no matter how large or complex. Second, it is now recognized that the symbolic process is just as crucial in bringing about political change as it is in maintaining the political status quo. Clifford Geertz’s work has had a major impact here. ‘At the political center of any complexly organized society,’ he wrote, ‘there is both a governing elite and a set of symbolic forms expressing the fact that it is in truth governing … they justify their existence and/order their actions in terms of a collection of stories, ceremonies, insignia, formalities, and appurtenances that they have either inherited or, in more revolutionary situations, invented’ (1985, p. 15).

The views of Pierre Bourdieu, who has directed attention to the symbolic processes through which potential political leaders create followings, have also been influential. Bourdieu writes of ‘the alchemy of representation … through which the representative creates the group which creates him.’ Hence we have Louis XIV’s magical equation ‘L’etat, c’est moi,’ or what Bourdieu tells us amounts to the same thing: ‘the world is my representation’ (1991, pp. 105–6). Of great importance is determining the conditions under which an individual is in a position to create representations that others are likely to follow, a matter dealt with by Bourdieu in terms of ‘symbolic capital.’ Anthropologist Simon Harrison (1995, p. 255) has picked up on this approach, viewing political conflict as a battle fought through symbolic means over symbolic capital.

‘Competition for power, wealth, prestige, legitimacy or other political resources seems always to be accompanied by conflict over important symbols, by struggles to control or manipulate such symbols in some vital way.’

1.3 The Political Power Of Ritual

Ritual provides one of the most powerful mechanisms through which symbolism enters the political realm. Here we adopt a broader view of ritual than the traditional equation of rites with religion. In this broader view, ritual is seen as consisting of culturally standardized, repetitive activity, which is primarily symbolic in character, yet ritual need not have any direct reference to the supernatural realm. Durkheim contributed to this perspective by linking ritual to the division of the world into two categories: the sacred and the profane. Ritual, he argued, consists of ‘the rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in the presence of these sacred objects’ (1912 [1947], p. 41). The fashioning of rituals surrounding the state is in good part a matter of the creation and maintenance of sacred objects and the separation of these objects from the profane world.

Rich in symbolism, ritual derives its potency in part from its ability to arouse the emotions and the sensations through physiological stimulation. Rituals are filled with motions, gestures, colors, noises, songs, and odors. Through rituals emotions are joined to certain cognitions; that is, to certain views of the world.

Following Durkheim, scholars previously emphasized the conservative role of political ritual. Rites surrounding royalty took on a paradigmatic status. The rituals of rulers, the rites of court, and the ritualized means by which rulers interacted with their subjects—as in royal processions—were seen as means by which traditional authority was bolstered. More recently, however, a different perspective has emerged, in which ritual is viewed as a potent form of political action that serves not only power holders but also those seeking to overthrow the political status quo. In societies where the legitimacy of power is contested, we find the political battle fought, in part, through ritual. Rites (a) help develop political organization, not least through linking individuals to larger, abstract political entities (whether states or revolutionary organizations aimed at overthrowing them); (b) legitimize political power holders, would-be power holders, and political institutions; (c) create a sense of solidarity, even in the absence of consensus; and (d) foster certain views of political reality (Kertzer 1988).

The forms taken by political rituals are diverse. Individuals are linked to larger political entities through a variety of ceremonial means, from rites of membership in political parties, to rites of swearing allegiance as a new citizen (dubbed, tellingly, ‘naturalization’), to participation in mass demonstrations. Leaders are legitimated through rites of inauguration, and the performance of an assortment of rituals that associate them with powerful symbols. Thus, when the president of the United States makes a public appearance, he enters to the stirring tune of ‘Hail to the Chief’; all present rise, and he steps behind a podium decorated with the presidential seal, with the American flag waving from a pole at his side. Likewise, stripping a leader of his power outside regular rhythms of replacement necessitates rites of degradation, as in the case of impeachment proceedings. The death of a political leader requires special ritualization, affording a crucial opportunity for defining political reality and political values, as in the case of state funerals (Verdery 1999). These funerals have their own peculiar grammar, with the presence or absence of other political leaders sending powerful messages that can affect interstate relations.

2. Representing The State

Social scientists have long debated the nature of the state. Anthropologists have paid most attention to it as a stage in sociopolitical evolution, while political scientists debate whether there is anything necessarily Western about the modern state. For our purposes we view the state as consisting of ‘the institutions of government and its individual representatives which together possess legitimate means of coercion and ability to tax and plan fiscal policy on a national level.’ The state is charged with providing for its population’s defense, security, and welfare (Biersteker 1987, pp. 50–70).

Having considered the nature and importance of symbolism to the political process, and the role of ritual in politics, we now turn specifically to how states are represented through symbolism, and the role played by ritual in the state.

2.1 Organizing The State

Given that people can only perceive the state through its symbolism, how do symbols do their work? The French historian, Maurice Agulhon (1985), addressing this question, distinguishes four categories of symbols through which modern states are represented. The state, first of all, must have a flag. Second, it is personified, either by a current or past head of state (e.g., a king or a dictator), or, as in the case of the French republican state, by an allegorical figure (Marianne). Third, each state has a variety of other kinds of symbolic representations of a nonanthropomorphic type: these include coats of arms, official seals, and the like. Finally, every regime, writes Agulhon, has its own Pantheon of historical notables, and typically places statues of such heroic figures (or, as the case in the Soviet Union, their embalmed bodies) in public squares.

Historians point to the French and American Revolutions as creative cauldrons for inventing new modes of representation of the modern state, with innovations ranging from the national flag to the national anthem. Historians have also shown that many of these forms of representation, while conveying an image of great antiquity, are in fact relatively recent. They are used by state elites both to solidify their own position internally and in international competition to bolster the state’s position in the battle for influence (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983).

The use of a variety of symbols and rites to link the masses of people to the state took on new importance with the rise of nationalism and democratic politics. When the state’s legitimacy was vested in the leader by virtue of supernatural sanction (as in the case of divine right), the main requirement was for representations coming from above to reinforce the view that the rulers ruled by such higher authority. But when states came to rely on the notion that they existed at the behest of their citizenries, with no intermediate social body mediating between citizens and the state, the multifarious ways in which individuals identified with the state became much more important.

The heavy use made of such participatory representations of the state by twentieth-century European dictators, and especially by Hitler and Mussolini, led analysts to pay special attention to the importance of symbolism to the Nazi and Italian fascist regimes. George Mosse (1976, p. 39) has written of the ways in which in Nazi Germany the ‘myths and symbols of nationalism, its rites, monuments, and festivals,’ transformed an inchoate mass of people into a cohesive mass movement of citizens who saw themselves as in some sense acting as one. Mosse portrayed this process in religious terms, as ‘the shaping of the crowd into a congregation.’ Others have examined Mussolini’s similar attempts to craft a system of symbols and rites to alter Italians’ relationship with the state. Yet, in fact, such systems of representation and ritual are common to all modern states.

The importance of ritual in establishing the link between citizens and the state means that there are few more effective means of showing opposition to a regime than through contestation of the rites that bind the citizen to it. Postunification Italy offers a typical example. In the decades following the September 20, 1870 conquest of Rome, which brought with it the final construction of the Italian state, patriotic rites were organized each year to commemorate that sacred date. These annual celebrations, however, served only to inflame the passions of Catholic loyalists, who, following papal instructions, refused to recognize the new state’s legitimacy. The result was that every September 20 Catholics organized counter-rites to challenge the state-organized rites, and thereby challenged the legitimacy of the new state itself (Gentile 1996).

2.2 Legitimating The State

If states come to be known through the ways they are symbolized, any threat to the symbols with which they are identified threatens the legitimacy of the state itself. Harrison (1995, p. 258) refers to symbolic conflict between states of this sort as ‘proprietary’ contests, involving competition over the state’s distinguishing symbols. The bitter dispute that erupted in the early 1990s between Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia over the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ is a case in point.

Harrison distinguishes a variety of means through which the political representation of the group is in a process of continuous contestation and flux. This perspective applies well to the representation of states, again seen both in terms of internal competition and the competition that is waged among them. In the ‘expansionary’ contest, for example, one competitor attempts to displace another’s symbols of identity with its own. This is found whenever revolutionary movements take power. In the case of the Russian revolution, as in revolutions everywhere, these battles were waged in part through the symbolism of space (e.g., St. Petersburg became Leningrad).

Although leaders of new states or new regimes try to replace their predecessors’ symbols with their own, they rarely attempt to displace all such symbols. The reason is that, in the eyes of the population, the new regime’s legitimacy is almost always tied to its identification with pre-existing symbols of state legitimacy. Hence, the Bolshevik leaders kept the Kremlin as the symbolic center of the state. Alternatively, older symbols of political legitimacy of the state are reintroduced, as in Mussolini’s attempts to link his regime to ancient Rome through the symbolic elaboration of romanita.

Where older symbolic forms are judged unsuitable, new regimes are as likely to transform them for their own ends as they are to abandon them, for the continuing popular influence of the rites has its uses. Hence, the Nazi regime retained most of the old state holidays—from May Day to Mother’s Day—but largely altered their symbolism and ritual in order to promulgate the new state ideology (Taylor 1981). In the post-World War II period, as the Polish Communist government attempted to win popular support, leaders similarly attempted to borrow legitimacy from older symbols, while changing their meaning. Accordingly, the new state authorities chose not to replace the crowned White Eagle, which had served as a national symbol of Poland for centuries. Rather, they simply removed the eagle’s crown, thought to be too blatant a symbol of the old aristocracy. Instructively, on various occasions on which workers protested against the state, they displayed an image of the white eagle recrowned (Kubik 1994, pp. 50–1).

This emphasis on the struggle over representations also allows us to examine how political symbols and rituals are employed by combatants for power within states as a means of establishing their own legitimacy and carving out a particular political identity for themselves. A number of observers, in this connection, have cited the example of the Orange Order’s annual parade on July 12, when men wear black bowler hats and/orange collars, and march for hours holding aloft banners commemorating battles that three centuries earlier helped establish Protestant rule in Ireland. These rites have some parallels in Independence Day celebrations in the United States, but here the political context makes all the difference. In the United States, the legitimacy of the state is largely undisputed, and the July 4th rites are ceremonies that foster solidarity and reinforce the legitimacy of the state. In Northern Ireland, by contrast, the state’s authority remains contested, and such rites as those of the Orangemen provide emotionally powerful means of organizing the combatants.

2.3 Establishing New Regimes

As the cases of the French and Russian revolutions show, new regimes require symbolic elaboration, and they must deal with the lingering power of the symbols of legitimacy of the old regimes that remain behind. Struggles over symbols and rites play no small part in the battle to establish such regimes and in the attempts of competitors to delegitimize them. Hence the tricolor flag appeared in France in 1789 immediately following the taking of the Bastille, then was replaced by the royal white flag on Napoleon’s fall in 1814, before the July Revolution of 1830 again resulted in the banishment of the white flag and the triumph of the tricolor. Agulhon, in reviewing the history of these developments, argues that battles of this sort, fought through and over symbolism, were central to the course of political events. ‘The obscure militants,’ he writes, ‘who, on July 28, 1830, went to raise the tricolor on the towers of the Notre-Dame and over the Hotel-de-Ville while the outcome of the struggle was as yet uncertain, contributed to throwing the people into battle with a redoubled ardor’ (1985, p. 190).

Rituals of allegiance offer particularly effective means of identifying those whose loyalty to the new regime is weak, and at the same time furnishing ammunition for the regime’s claim that it enjoys widespread popular support. Because state authorities can require their performance, such rites force individuals who oppose the regime either to be publicly identifiable (and hence risk reprisal) or to undermine their own self-esteem and their sense of being opposed to the rulers. Such was the case of the arm-stretched ‘Heil Hitler’ salute required in daily social encounters during the Third Reich. Similarly, in 1931, concerned about rooting out subversive university professors, and at the same time eager to offer evidence of its claim that it enjoyed overwhelming support from all segments of the population, the Italian fascist regime required that all faculty members swear allegiance to it. Only 12 (of over 1200) professors in the entire country refused to take part in the rite. Their symbolic act of resistance did not go unpunished; they were stripped of their posts (Goetz 2000).

New states formed out of former colonies continue to face dramatic problems of representation and legitimation. In sub-Saharan Africa, where many new states emerged in the 1960s, the difficulties were compounded by the fact that their boundaries were those that the colonial powers had drawn. How could such divisions of land be represented as ‘natural’ bases for political organization, much less objects of popular adulation? What role would continuity have in such transitions, and if the symbols of the colonial past had to be rejected, what would take their place?

Swaziland provides an intriguing example (Kuper 1978, pp. 301–4). Following decades of British colonial rule, Swaziland gained its independence in 1968, using the figure of the Swazi king as the centerpiece of the new order. The ceremonies marking independence took on great importance to the political elite, who saw them as a means both of defining the new state and building public allegiance to it.

Independence was marked by a great public ceremony, held in an open stadium, packed with thousands of enthusiastic citizens. The king made his entry in a huge new black Cadillac limousine, but as he stepped out people saw that he was wearing traditional regal garb, with high-plumed headgear. After the king took his seat, the British ambassador arrived, as the band played ‘God Save the Queen.’ From there the ceremonies followed Western form until, suddenly, thousands of swaying Swazi warriors began singing a traditional war song, and the king and prime minister left their seats to join them. As the song reached its crescendo, and the king along with the thousands of warriors raised his shield over his head, the crowd roared its approval. The king and prime minister returned to their seats, later getting in their stretch Cadillacs to take them to a diplomatic reception.

The Swazi case illustrates the power of symbols and rites not only to define a new political reality through the combination of symbols derived from various sources, but also their power to foster popular legitimation and a sense of identification between citizens and the new state.

2.4 The Uses Of History

A common feature of representations of the state is that they contain an image of history. It is through symbolic expressions, including rituals, that leaders link the state today to its earlier incarnations, and likewise link both themselves and their enemies to particular predecessors, viewed in certain ways.

New leaders do all they can to identify themselves with popular predecessors. American presidents need not rely solely on verbal reminders, citing Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt in their speeches. By performing certain state rites performed by these predecessors—as most notably in the Inauguration ceremonies—they effectively make this connection.

In the relationships between states, the importance of representing history in certain ways, and establishing legitimacy for the present through symbolic links of a certain kind to the past, is likewise crucial. This was evident, for example, in the difficulties the German government experienced in the decades following World War II in dealing with the historical memory of the war. These came to a head in a series of state rituals held in the mid-1980s. In 1984, leaders of the former Allied nations held a commemorative rite on the anniversary of the Normandy landing. This was similar to many such rites that served to keep the memory of the war alive, and the leaders who participated in it no doubt derived some political benefit themselves. But German leaders, representing the enemy nation, were not invited.

Angered at having the memory of the war represented in this way, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited US President Ronald Reagan to come to Germany to celebrate with him a commemorative ceremony in honor of the war dead, to be held at the Bitburg military cemetery. By having the American president stand with him there, the German leader hoped to refashion the history of the war. Indeed, the American President cooperated in this effort, referring to the dead German soldiers as ‘victims’ of the Nazis, ‘just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.’ Yet, history is not infinitely malleable; the symbolism of World War II in the United States could not be so rapidly and radically altered, and as a result Reagan came under sharp attack. Attempting to make partial symbolic amends, the President added a visit to a concentration camp to his itinerary that day, yet this then opened him up to the charge that he was thereby symbolically equating the concentration camp victims with their Nazi persecutors. Despite such criticisms, however, the Bitburg rites had their effect. Opinion polls following the ceremony showed a considerable rise in the proportion of Americans who saw the German soldiers as victims of Hitler rather than as responsible for Nazi atrocities (Kertzer 1988, pp. 92–5).

2.5 The Future Of Representations And Rituals Of The State

As long as there continue to be states, they will continue to require cultural means of representation, and in this, ritual in its various forms will play an important role. However, as states face competition for sovereignty and for influence both from within and from without, the role and importance of such representations are likely to change, and some of their forms may alter as well. Insofar, for example, as one role of the rituals we have discussed here is linking the individual to the state, any change in the importance of the state as a basis for personal identity will be reflected in changes in participation in and popular perception of the rituals themselves.

These competing claims for people’s allegiance, in turn, will require their own forms of representation, including ritual. Regionalist, ethnic, religious, and other movements opposing the state’s power presuppose both the delegitimation of the state—a battle fought in good part through efforts at altering existing representations and rituals of the state—and the creation of an alternative identity. In Italy, for example, the Northern League has devoted tremendous attention to the creation of symbols of representation and rituals that link individuals to a previously nonexistent territory—Padania—and to the League itself (Destro 1997). At the same time, ritualized display of the symbols of the Italian state—such as the Italian flag—is studiously avoided. In addition to such threats from below (in the Balkans, south Asia, Africa, and other areas), states also face threats from above. For decades theorists have been predicting the demise of the state and the emergence of larger, supranational entities. Many of these (e.g., the Arab League) have foundered on the unwillingness of national elites to cede authority. The most notable current effort, the European Union, demonstrates the link between weak popular allegiance and an underdeveloped system of representation and ritualization (although also suggesting that causation goes both ways). French anthropologist Marc Abeles (1996, pp. 125–32) refers to ‘le deficit symbolique’ of the EU, writing that the supranational organization sorely lacks both the symbols and the rituals that could furnish it with some power of popular attraction. Without such symbols and rites, it is unable to mobilize popular passions. The reasons for this deficit are many, but include the inability and indeed unwillingness of national elites to agree on a clear representation of what the EU stands for. Indicative is the fact that while the EU has its own anthem (a version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’), people cannot sing it, for it has no words. The EU’s rites—such as the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the European Parliament in 1992— have been so devoid of emotionally resonant ritual elements that they do little but reinforce the EU’s image as a creature of Euro-bureaucrats. Future research must take aim at these potential competitors to the state from below and from above, and examine the ways in which these competitors employ representations in general and ritual in particular to delegitimize the state. In all such studies, it is crucial that people’s reactions to these efforts be examined carefully. It is one thing for state elites or would-be revolutionaries to employ symbolic means to try to win the allegiance of those whose ‘representatives’ they would like to be. It is quite another for the ‘represented’ to respond to these symbolic efforts in the ways the elites would like. What is needed is a mix of methods—from participant observation to the analysis of texts—and an examination of a range of social settings, from large periodic national demonstrations to quotidian interactions in rural communities. Political scientists and sociologists need to pay more attention to the symbolic dimension, while anthropologists need to take aim more directly at state-level forces.


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