A flag can be defined as an insignia made of a rectangular piece of cloth, usually taffeta or silk, fastened to a stick called a flagpole. Likewise, a flag is an intentional combination of colours and shapes in a fixed and ordered pattern governed by design rules based on Heraldic principles. The distribution of colours, disposition of stripes, ornaments and other messages indicate the nature of the entity to which the flag belongs, being a political or social communication media between its users. In that way, the flag is a vehicle of non verbal communication.
Modernity requests nations to have emblems to identify and differentiate one from each other and to articulate and integrate all its inhabitants. This demand calls for flags to be such an emblem, because of its simplicity, its capacity to speak for everyone and for allowing the immediate recognition of its users. But beyond that, flags also became emblems of the meaning people placed on them, such as love, hatred, veneration and passion. As a consequence of that, flags became an object of reverence, reaching the status of being an emblem which people fought and died for and an object to be conquested as if it were endowed with greater value.
Thus as Durkheim pointed out, “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…the soldier 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, 1975a: 183).
The flag functions as a sign, a sign from where to organize and visualize totemic forms of belonging to the part of a reference group. That means that the flag, through the mere combination of its colours and shapes, can achieve the immediate identification of a person or something’s origin with its sole presence, like the instantaneous recognition of friends and enemies in the total confusion of a battle, when nations are disputing something.
But a flag is something more. For Hoffman, “flags are like bits cut from clouds, nearer and more varied in colour, tethered and given permanent shape. In their movement they are truly striking. Nations use them to mark the air above them as their own, as though the wind could be partitioned” (Hoffman, 1996: 5).
Likewise, the flag is also a totem of each clan. As Durkheim highlights “it is its flag. It is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from other clans, the visible mark of its personality, the sign which is borne by everything that is in some way a part of the clan” (Durkheim, 1975b: 124-125).
Apart from that, it is important to consider the practical and economical aspects of this communicational resource, which can express many things from just a piece of coloured cloth and carried by anyone anywhere. Besides, it can be located in the most relevant areas of the State. For example, it can be in the presidential sash, in the house of government or it can be flying in the most relegated places of any country. Hence, it can be held by the high bourgeoisie, the state representant, an anonymous mass or by each individual of the nation. It can wave alone or be waved by millions. It can reach great heights or be pinned close to a heart. Hence, the simplicity for both its production and distribution has caused the flag to be socially accepted as the most efficient emblem, generating thus its omnipresence.
In this sense, flags become expressive mechanisms that characterize a national group. Then, a flag is above all a symbol, a material expression of other things. Among them, the most important of these things is that the flag symbolizes and is seen as the nation in itself. Accordingly, when a new nation is born, its flag starts to embody complex ideas, feelings, attributes and experiences from the society it represents. In that manner, a flag can then suggest symbolic characteristics of the group of reference. In that way, and as result of its signal, symbolic and practical value, the flag achieves the role of being the emblem per excellence belonging to a clan and to a nation.
A single flag can condense many meanings, allowing people to project on it what they consider relevant about their relationship with the nation. This act of signifying condensation of the nation into the figure of the flag, can be observed quite openly as a metaphor (Lacan, 1988 :247 and Lacan, 1997: 61). This metaphor condenses not only people’s feelings and personal experiences about their nation, such as the incorporation of national sentiments into the citizen´s symbolic structure.
Etymologically, the word “flag” is derived from the old Saxon word “flakken” which means “to fly or to float in the air” (Perrin, 1922: 18). The Spanish term bandera derives from the Germanic voice band (or banda) and the Latin bandum or bandus (Wedgwood and Atkinson, 1872: 44), being the word linked to the sense of “partiality” or a group of people that follows a political party. Likewise, the very same sense of the word can be thought to derive from the words “band” or “bandit” original from the European feudalism to refer to those who used to invade and rob under their own flag (Curtis, 1839: 456).
©Sebastian Guerrini, 2009