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Armistice Day and the Symbolic Power of Objects

Poppies, used for piece by Michael Brennan on public remembrance Tuesday 11 November 2014

As Armistice Day is marked in the UK and further afield, Dr Michael Brennan, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and an expert in public mourning and remembrance, discusses how the symbolic power of objects can unite, and at times, divide us.   

Today is Armistice day; an event which, this year, has added poignancy because it also marks a centenary since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. News media have inevitably reported the spectacular commemorative display of ceramic poppies - 888,246 in all - by artist Paul Cummings that flow from and surround the Tower of London. Discussions have abounded as to how long the art installation should remain on display, with some people expressing a desire that the poppies remain part of permanent exhibition. 

Elsewhere this year, discussion has also centred on Wigan Athletic footballer, James McClean, and his decision, explained in an open letter to club Chairman Dave Whelan, not to wear a poppy during the weekend fixtures that coincided with this year's commemorative events. McClean's decision relates to the symbolism embodied by the poppy, which, for many republican communities in the north of Ireland, has come to represent 'The Troubles' and the British occupation of Ireland, as they see it, rather than the sacrifice made by the dead and wounded service personnel in major conflicts since the end of the First World War in 1918.

Both of these issues raise interesting questions, not least in terms of the symbolism embodied in particular objects and events deemed 'sacred', but also in terms of the period of time a commemorative event should be publicly marked - as well the extent to which individuals are permitted the 'right' to refuse to participate in events that appear to reflect the prevailing mood of a particular community or nation. 

The ideas of the 19th century French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, are instructive here in two key ways: first, in helping us to understand the power of ritual and symbolism (especially the capacity that sacred objects provide in helping to bind communities together), and second, in highlighting the social forces that exert pressure upon individuals to behave in ways that are consistent with the dominant values and beliefs of the wider social group. Durkheim's argument here is that objects which have no intrinsic meaning - a flag, a rock, a poppy - are invested with sacred qualities by society in ways that allow them to function as potent symbols of the community they represent - the Liver bird being a local case in point. Such symbols work very effectively in smaller, more 'simple' societies in securing what Durkheim calls 'social solidarity' but are much less effective in complex modern (post-) industrial societies like our own, characterised by diversity and heterogeneity, where no single object or institution is capable of securing the affection of all a society's inhabitants. 

The tension caused by a refusal to adopt a particular stance has recent parallels in the public mourning which followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, when sections of the public who refused to participate, and indeed, the Queen, in her initially refusal to mourn the 'right way', were chastened as cold, callous and 'uncaring'. So too, discussions about the length of time a memorial should remain on public display (and how long public mourning should last) have recent parallels in the mourning following the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, the death of Diana, and the spontaneous commemorative shrines that are nowadays quite commonplace as markers of death resulting from road traffic accidents. Anthropologists, and sociologists like Durkheim, are here too instructive in helping us to understand that commemorative ritual works most effectively through the combination of opposites: that a two-minute silence that punctures the routines of a busy working day is more powerful than a gesture or commemorative symbol that loses some of its potency precisely because it becomes mundane, a routine and thereby unnoticed part of our everyday landscape or 'wallpaper'. 

The symbolic power of objects will continue to evolve, adopted and adapted by different communities at different times. The freedom to refuse to participate in collectively organised events or to speak out in defiance of mainstream opinion is of course an important freedom secured by those who fought and gave their lives in the struggle against fascism. Mourning, and the commemorative events that help structure the process of grieving, will also continue to generate conflict and controversy: over how long, and in what 'style' to mourn the dead, as well how best to preserve their memory and represent their deaths. To this extent, like much else in life, death and the grieving practices surrounding it are always and already political, constituted to the core by disputes and disagreements over the symbolic power of objects.

senior lecturer sociology
‌ ‌ Dr Michael Brennan is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Liverpool Hope. 
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