Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Complex Flags

Before Christmas we chatted about the Swiss flag, and how its colors and dimensions are not rigidly defined. Can you imagine that in America?

The American flag is more complexly symbolic than the Swiss flag, but American schoolchildren all learn its meaning early in life. And Betsy Ross is venerated like a Catholic saint (with similarly dubious miracles). Consider also the host of proscriptions around the American flag. Rules for its proper use and care, how high it may be raised, how to dispose of it, etc. are all codified in the official U.S. Flag Code.

Keep in mind that, according to flag etiquette, the American flag must never be stepped upon; not only that, it may not even touch the ground. The flag is reserved for the heavens alone; the sublunar earth disgraces it, even though that ground is part of the nation the flag represents. Could the Flag Code state any more clearly that the flag is the symbol of a nation composed not of people and land but foremost of the symbolic and the sacred?

Ponder also that the latest attempt to pass a constitutional amendment against flag burning failed in the 2006 Senate by one vote. It passed the House by a large margin. Many state and local organizations have requested such an amendment, despite repeated Supreme Court rulings against similar local statutes. The logic for such an amendment makes sense in its way; in a textbook case of metonymy, schoolchildren (and, more sporadically, adults) pledge allegiance to the nation by pledging allegiance to the flag. The flag is the nation; burning it, argue the proponents of the amendment, is tantamount to treason. To those who believe this, burning the flag is a direct assault on the nation--and therefore transcends the guarantees of free speech.

All of these complex rules and regulations, and the strong emotions the American flag engenders, proves one thing beyond all doubt:

It is that rarest of cases where symbolism is so powerful that it fully actualizes in the earthly realm.


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mana

    (not magic points, the Polynesian spiritual concept)

    From the article:

    "to have mana is to have influence and authority, and efficacy – the power to perform in a given situation. This essential quality of mana is not limited to persons – governments, places and inanimate objects can possess mana ... people or objects that possess mana are accorded "respect"; because their possession of mana gives them "authority", "power", and "prestige"."

  2. Huh. That sounds about right. But how does one gain mana? Is it like the terribly dreary concept of political capital?

  3. "It is that ????rarest???? of cases where symbolism is so powerful that it fully actualizes in the earthly realm. "

    Not to quibble too much, but people understand pretty much everything in terms of symbol and metaphor:

    "Religion to medieval man was not so much a theological system as a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual's life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual. The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psychological validity of immediate experience and within which hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been safely contained."
    -William Barrett
    Irrational Man

    Do you think anything has really changed since then?

  4. Oh, I completely agree that symbolism is omnipresent. I think a lot of my posts affirm that very point.

    But the American flag is unusual in that, unlike many (but not all) of the symbols of the Church, it is physical. Rites and dogmas cannot be looked at and touched whenever you like. Orthodox icons are an example of another physically actualized symbol of extra-ordinary power.

    The flag, like an orthodox icon, is as a physical symbol the representation of all the non-physical symbols of what it represents. The rites, dogmas, esotericisms, theologies, liturgies, themselves symbols, are together vested in the overarching physical symbol of the home's icon. Likewise for the flag. Both not only serve as symbols in themselves but also symbolize all the other symbols concerning what the physical symbol symbolizes.

    If you please, physical symbols vested with power in themselves help the people understand the overarching system. They are a reminder of and guide to the larger realm of symbols, which is marginally less accessible.

  5. Have you come around to postmodernism yet?

    If you are so focused on the symbolism all around us, it is only a matter of time before you give up on trying to connect those symbols to anything.

    Soon you'll be following one symbol to another and on and on.. real meaning, physical reality, they will become things of the past

    What's the deal; are you ready to give in?

  6. Oh, I gave into postmodernism a while ago.

    There is something to me in the notion of re-constructing the connections between symbols (connections postmodernism broke). Even if it is all artifice. The System of the World does not have to be 'true'. Self-consistency is truth.

    So of course all this is constructed; these symbols are connected only because I say so.

    But isn't that enough?

  7. Well gosh, you've given up everything you used to stand for!

    Committing yourself to a false but self-chosen path is very existentialist of you. Have your life choices worked out as well as you hoped? How are your attitudes towards contemporary standards of morality?