The Power of Visual Symbols

October 21, 2010

“it looks like i’ll be studying political science in italy for the next two years. masters program. university of bologna.”

It all began with this one Facebook post. Many comments ensued… “This seems like it is pretty much out of left field! Political Science??? Italy???” “what?! thats sooo random.”

Yes, indeed,  it might have seemed random to some. But to those whom I exhausted with my tireless rants about the state of the world whilst inebriated at art school; my colleagues and teachers to whom I’d explain the conceptual inspiration behind my design work; my professor Andrew Savchenko who saw potential in me and helped formulate my understanding of history, social theory, and political economy (and who introduced me to writers that articulated on paper what I had in my head and heart, for which I am truly grateful); and to my family who is, quite frankly, always surprised at what I do–and therefore not phased by anything anymore…. to all these people, my choice to study political science–and in Europe at that–was understandable. But some questions still remained. And I’m afraid that they might remain for some time.

However. Here’s one I’ve been working on: textile artist, political scientist. What could they possibly have in common?

For me personally, it’s simple: it comes down to the understanding of patterns.

On the surface– one is visual, the other belongs to the realm of the abstract and theoretical. But I argue that it’s not–and cannot be–so black-and-white. If you ask me, one is not exclusive of the other… ever.

The first thing you generally notice in a textile is its visual characteristics: its color, the design of the pattern, its luster (or lack thereof), etc. The materiality of the fabric–its hand, texture (achieved through conscious decisions in weave/knit structure, the fiber content and scale of yarns, various finishing processes, etc.) is secondary, but by no means less important. Of course, at times, looking at a fabric helps in ascertaining its fiber content and subsequently, inferring its hand (slick, shiny cotton sateen vs. nubby hand-knit wool), but generally, you never know for sure unless you take it between your fingers and touch it. So, it’s safe to say that understanding the materiality of a fabric is dependent on the act of physically touching it: a purely sensory event, which warrants a sensory reaction.

The approach to the study of history and the science of politics relies heavily on the written and spoken word. Both sensory: one visual, one auditory. But the power of visual images and symbolism cannot be overlooked here, either. It is visual culture that allows us to understand how societies process political, social, and economic events, as well as how society, itself, shapes these events. The Bolshevik Communists realized early on the power of visual culture, creating the Proletkult institution in 1917 just days before the October Revolution to bring art ‘under the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ This organization laid the foundations for Socialist Realism, which would dominate Soviet art and shape Soviet culture for the next sixty years.

Visual symbols wield a lot of power, particularly in this day and age. And the use of these symbols must be carefully considered, as they hold particular and universal associations (they are not mutually exclusive in this case) and at times have heavy ideological baggage attached to them. Take the hammer and sickle, for instance.

My bet is that while scrolling down this page–even before you got to this paragraph–your eyes were arrested by the above image. Maybe you even stopped reading, took a moment to fixate on it, possibly even read a few lines beneath it to see what I had to say. Furthermore, you probably had either one or a combination of the following reactions: 1) surprise; 2) repulsion; 3) delight; 4) indifference; 5) pride; the list can go on forever. The fact is, symbols like the hammer and sickle evoke strong emotions–be they positive, or negative. They are drenched in memory and experience for some; they take on abstract ideological meaning for others. As someone once said to me, “it’s all about personal perception” with icons and symbols. And while I agree with this–to an extent–the fact is, that when faced with the above symbol, the universal association is with the Soviet Union. Communism. Lenin. Stalin. Political repression. Gulags. Famines. Mass murders. One tends to forget the idealistic socialist ideals around which it was designed. As Bijal P. Trivedi wrote in his article, Why Symbols Become Targets for National Geographic Today on September 13, 2001 just 2 days after the attack on the World Trade Center, “while symbols can be damaged and destroyed [or in the hammer and sickle case, become more obsolete]… the attitudes for which they stand cannot.”

Historically, the overlapping hammer and sickle represented the unity of the industrial proletariat and the peasants. It was conceived during the Bolshevik Revolution, officially adopted by the Soviet Union in 1922, and finalized in the 1924 Soviet Constitution. It began being used by other Soviet republics in 1924. With the fall of Communism and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet bloc, the symbol was removed from official use, although some oblasts continued (and still continue) to feature the hammer and sickle in their flags.

Today, the hammer and sickle is illegal in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. In Poland, possessing, producing or distributing communist symbols may result in a two-year prison sentence. Apart from Communist (and some Socialist parties) the world over and the Russian oblasts already mentioned, the Russian airline, Aeroflot (which has recently been in the news as Russia is preparing a wide-ranging privatization program in a bid to reduce its budget deficit) continues to use the hammer and sickle in its logo:

Some background: Aeroflot was founded in 1932 as the official Soviet national airline and was at the time, the largest airline in the world. It was the pride and joy of Soviet civil aviation. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Aeroflot was divided into hundreds of regional airlines, including national airlines of newly independent states, like Lithuania and Uzbekistan. During an attempt to reshape the company’s image in 2003, replacing the hammer and sickle in the logo was met with resistance, since it had been such a recognizable symbol of the company for almost 70 years. In the end, it stayed.

However, this is an interesting case study. The decision to retain the airline’s logo–hammer and sickle and all–was made in 2003. Is it possible then, to infer from this instance that the adaptation of such loaded symbols (like a hammer and sickle) to other uses, like an airline logo for example, is possible, but requires distancing them from their original context? (In this hypothetical case, the addition of wings and getting rid of the red ground, for example– granted this was all in the original logo of 1932.) Is an attempt to disassociate these symbols from their negative historical connotation, and instead, to draw on certain positive attributes surrounding the symbol itself, necessary? (In this case, it would be nationalist pride.) These decisions, however, would prove that a negative connotation existed in the first place. And so it can be said that by adapting these loaded symbols to new contexts, you run the risk of stirring up the potent emotions associated with them, despite trying to distance the symbol from its original context.

In brief: it is my belief that one simply cannot underestimate the universal associations with a symbol like the hammer and sickle, nor attempt to separate the Socialist ideology behind it from the disastrous results which occurred after the implementation of Socialist policies; it is simply foolish. And like with Communism itself, while ideological sincerity might be the motivating force, the harsh realities–in this case, say, a two-year prison sentence or a stab in the stomach from a nationalist–might just not be worth it. Not even to fit in with the hip, retro-kitsch crowds that seem fascinated with Communist iconography.

Just one example of how visual symbols can play a big role in the study of history and political science.

So, I just finished my first week of classes… and so far, so good. The program seems promising. There are three compulsory components for the first year: (1) courses in Statistics; Research Problems and Methods; and State Building, Nationalism, and Development in Eastern Europe; (2) compulsory open lectures which we must attend and then report on; and (3) language courses in either Russian, Slovak, Bulgarian, or Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian.

Monday, I attended one of the elective courses being offered this semester: Community Participation and Social Trust in Eastern  Europe. Seems interesting– sociology-based. Main topics include social capital and social trust, globalization, and democratization of post-socialist countries. The professor (Antonio Maturo) is Italian. He actually spent some time at Brown University as a research fellow and has been to Greenpoint, so we have some common stomping grounds. I’m still not sure if I’ll stay in his class, since it doesn’t fit into my program of study, but an option might be to just follow it and then abstain from taking the final exam. I’ve only attended two classes so far, so we shall see.

I also went to my first class of Russian on Monday. I was thrilled to find out that the program is offering an introductory-level Russian course, since initially, only Russian advanced was listed. The course is being taught two days a week by two professors, working in concert. One is Italian (Berardi), the other is Russian (Buglakova). It was only a short introductory meeting, but this coming Monday, we start with the Russian alphabet(!) Exciting!

Professor Bianchini–director of MIREES–is teaching two courses this semester: Post-Socialist Transition and EU Enlargement Eastwards (elective) as well as State Building, Nationalism, and Development in Eastern Europe (compulsory). The former will mainly explore both the supranational as well as the regional dimensions of recent EU enlargement (mainly the enlargements of 2004). The latter, which is a compulsory course, will begin with the 19th century and the Narodniks and follow through to Gorbachev, focusing on the social/political dimension of development in Eastern Europe.

Lastly, we had our first compulsory class of Statistics with Professor Luciano Picci. So far, it was just an introduction of basic terminology. I’m excited about this class. The professor speaks English very well and is really organized and to-the-point. I mean, he is an economist, after all.

All in all, the first week was low-key: course presentations, introductions of basic concepts, a few readings.

By the end of October, we are required to choose a study plan from one of three curricula: Economics; Politics and International Relations; and History, Media, and Cultural Studies. One course from both remaining curricula is compulsory. The program is a Master’s in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe, afterall.

I’ve chosen the Politics and International Relations curriculum, and preliminarily would like to focus on “Political Transition, the EU, and Security.”  Courses in this study plan include National Political Movements in East-Central Europe; Regional Policies in East Central EuropeSecurity Building in Central and Eastern Europe: NATO, Russia and the EU; and The US, USSR and the «New Europe». We shall see, however. I still need to consult. But I’m ready to get going!

This week was also the welcome week for ERASMUS and international students. There were some planned events and we all got to mingle. It was nice to get out and away from student loan issues… let’s just say that international institutions and American loan companies don’t mix.