Politics of Symbolization Across Central and Eastern Europe

by Elżbieta Hałas (Volume editor) Nicolas Maslowski (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 304 Pages


Politics of symbolization affects the semantics of identities and power relations between various subjects, and encompasses the changing meanings of social spaces, times, historical narratives, as well as modalities of collective memory. The volume focuses on politics of symbolization across Central and Eastern Europe understood as complex spaces of semiosis that are rife with similarities and differences. Politics of symbolization consists of various strategies of referring to past collective experiences from the perspective of projected visions and representations of the future. The European Union and its politics of symbolization is relevant in this respect. The volume facilitates understanding of the problems associated with politics of symbolization in Central and Eastern Europe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: European Space, Semiosis and Politics of Symbolization
  • Spaces of Semiosis and Politics of Symbolization
  • Symbols and Spaces: Sociological Reflections from Inside the Corona Crisis
  • A Political-Semiotic Explanation of Wicked Problems
  • The Constitution as a Symbol
  • Time and Semiosis of History: Symbolic Conflicts over Remembering and Forgetting
  • In the Shadow of the Memory Tree: a Green Remembrance of the Bloody Past
  • Controversies over Symbolism of Reconciliation and Forgiveness
  • Polymorphous Time of Transformation in Poland and Semiosis of History
  • Symbolic Construction of Communities: New Beginnings and New Divides
  • The Crowned Eagle and the Mythical Turul: Populism and the Symbolization of National Identity in Poland and Hungary. History, Politics, Religion
  • Moral Traditionalism and Authoritarianism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: Converging Cultural Value Divides?
  • The Symbols of the Dissent in Central European Politics since 1989
  • The Symbolic Politics of European (Dis)unification
  • A Common Historical Narrative for Europe? Reappraising Communism in European Institutions
  • From Anticommunism to Antiliberalism. Polish Conservative Intellectuals’ Involvement in the Transnational Circulation of Ideas
  • Symbolic Power of the European Union in Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Bourdieusian Approach to Post-Conflict Societies
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables

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Introduction: European Space, Semiosis and Politics of Symbolization

On semiosis, symbolic power and politics

The issue of meaning is unquestionably pivotal for shaping the social world and learning about it. There can also be no doubt that the most fundamental social process is communication, which reveals the social genesis and variability of meanings and their symbolic vehicles. To be communicated, meaning needs an objectifying form of expression: externalization, which is sensorially available to the communicating person. Signs and symbols serve this purpose.

Communication, as shown already by the founders of modern semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles S. Peirce and George H. Mead, is not a simple process determined by a code. It consists of communicative acts and is therefore an active achievement which generates understandable text, the interpretation of signs and symbols by other signs and symbols, or a meaningful conversation of gestures and symbols. The social world is constantly rife with active processes of semiosis: creating, expressing and symbolically objectifying meanings. As symbols created in the social process of interactions become established, they may define the forms of social life, stabilizing the underlying meanings in the form of obvious typifications, normal forms, commonsense knowledge, doxa, or ideology supported by the authority of power and symbols of power. After discovering the symbolic constitution of society (like Émile Durkheim and Alfred Schütz, who both pointed out the existence of symbolism-based structures of socially shared knowledge, or symbolic interactionists, who drew attention to the emergence of a meaningful order of collective actions and their symbolic framework), the next step was to study the problems of symbolic power and the politics of symbolization. One of the scholars who studied these issues was Pierre Bourdieu. He criticized the dominant symbolic orders and analyzed symbolic struggles. However, symbolic power does not lie in symbolism itself, but in the social relations of power that make use of this symbolism. Representatives of national authorities, i.e. those who manage the ←7 | 8→dominant classifications, occupy a privileged position in the space of social relations (Bourdieu 1989: 21, 109).

Because the processes of semiosis are constitutive for the social world, symbolism represents an integral dimension of social relations. The issue of power in relations remains a central issue, hence the importance of politics of symbolization. In other words, it is necessary to study the relationship between power and symbolic actions in society (Edelman 1985, Geertz 1973, Kertzer 1988). Homo politicus is simultaneously homo symbolicus (Cohen 1976).

Symbolic representations of the norms and values ​on which social practices are based are examined as social images, following the French tradition of the Durkheim school. However, it is not the symbols themselves, but acts of symbolization and the pragmatic use of symbolism that are of paramount importance for the constitution of society. Words, in particular, designate real objects, but also signify ideas by expressing their meanings, which are mental images. Thus, symbolism is constitutive both for the orders of cultural knowledge (i.e. visions of the world) and for the orders of social relations and interactions. Pierre Bourdieu characterized this as a complex social symbolic system (Bourdieu 1991: 237).

Social crises, catastrophes and radical social changes expose the symbolic construction of the social order. Furthermore, collective actions directed towards change are not possible without a symbolic framing of their meanings. Of key importance is the issue of social identity and its semantics, usually based on a binary code, i.e. on the definition of that identity and its confirmation by emphasizing differences. Competition for the meaning of social reality, along with symbolic struggles, shows that politics of symbolization are an integral part of the social processes of semiosis.

One of the key issues is the control of historicity (Touraine 1981: 31) through the strategic use of symbolism in the politics of remembering and forgetting various aspects of collective historical experience. European nation-states are historical formations. Their symbolic identities emerged in the course of the historical process, where the modern era brought a plethora of symbolic inventions, such as the construction of traditions, institutionalization of symbols and symbolic practices (flags, hymns, national holidays) by symbolic elites (Hobsbawm, Ranger 1983). Legitimation of the nation-state and the shaping of civic loyalty occur through a game of memory and history, which is always a problematic construct of what is remembered and commemorated.

Politics of symbolization are not under the state’s sole control; at any rate, democracy makes freedom possible also as regards the range of symbols that function in a society and the symbolic representations of its identity. Similarly, ←8 | 9→politics of symbolization do not have to focus primarily on the meaning of the past, as various temporal orientations of these politics (wherein either the present or the future predominates) are possible. However, an orientation towards the past (either recent or distant) makes it possible to give meaning to both the present and the future.

In the communication process, signs and symbols express meanings. Semiosis means creating meanings, as well as using objects and events as signs or symbols that relate to something other than themselves. The interchangeable use of the terms “sign” and “symbol” is possible when symbols are broadly understood as conventional signs, i.e. signs intentionally used to signify or symbolize. At this point, it should be noted that when talking about semiosis, we refer loosely to its concept introduced by Peirce, who considered its various forms to be the subject of semiotics, including instances of unintentional semiosis where something becomes a sign, i.e. stands for something else. Semiosis is a continuous process, a flow or chain of formation of meaning structures, the basis of which is the sign as a relation between the initial sign, its object and the new sign that arises; in other words, between the representamen, the object and the interpretant:

by ‘semiosis’ I mean … an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs. (Peirce 1935: 484 after: Heiskala 2003: 212)

The relationship between a symbol’s meaning and the thing symbolized is arbitrary. Symbols in language (natural language as a symbolic system) are, to quote semioticians of culture from the Tartu-Moscow school, the primary system that models reality, because the meanings expressed by other types of symbolism (i.e. the symbolism of objects, the symbolism of performative actions) can be communicated discursively. It should be noted that ideologies, as symbolic systems, not only provide meaningful ideas that model reality, but also supply patterns or programs of action: i.e. the “of” models and the “for” models (Geertz 1973). Viewed from this angle, the symbolic system of language is a set of images that represent the world. As an instrument (the Platonic Organon) of communication and mutual understanding, it also has other functions. Roman Jakobson expanded their basic triad, i.e. the model presented in the 1930s by Karl Bühler in his Sprachtheorie (representational function, expressive function, appellative/conative function), adding the following functions: metalingual, poetic and phatic (Jakobson 1971: 239–259). When interest in the functioning of language and symbolism is focused on the situation and context of use, a ←9 | 10→broader spectrum of functions comes into play as regards social relations and social order, i.e. the constitutive, conservative and transformative function; all of them result from strategies of using symbolism (Hałas 2008).

Significantly, language as a symbolic system is not autonomous; it does not stand for itself (this is true for all other symbolic systems as well). It develops and changes in the context of social relations and interactions, as well as in the cultural context. Discourse linguistics and discourse analysis (the latter is currently very popular) take this into account. Symbolic power exercised through language, but also through other symbolic systems, has its sources in various forms of social power relations. A politics of symbolization is the active exercise of this power.

As symbolic universes that transcend empirically available reality, religious systems hold a special position among symbolic modeling systems, and symbols of holiness, which embody sublime feelings of reverence and fear, occupy a central place within them. The symbols of the sacred and the profane, as Émile Durkheim noted when discussing quasi-religious systems, may represent other things besides the transcendent reality, since they can refer to collective entities, such as the nation, and their metonymic representatives, such as national heroes. Sacralization still remains an important strategy in politics of symbolization despite ongoing secularization processes in contemporary societies, especially European ones.

It can be interesting here to notice the added value of the so called tournant critique – a critical turn, presupposing convergence with French pragmatic sociology, which should lead to the constitution of “pragmatic social history.” The actors, equipped with competencies, are, during processes of regular negotiations and hierarchizations, focusing on the conditions of the social agreements or new conventions (Lepetit 1995). It is about opening up and approaching the pragmatic sociology of Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot (2006). This sociology, which surprisingly failed in the historical contextualization of its model, as evidenced by Boltanski’s and Thévenot work De la justification: les économies de la grandeur, represents an opportunity to find a new way of thinking about the structurizations of the meanings. Actors, their identities, beliefs and strategies are dependent on cultural norms and conventions, which are the result of social interactions. Interpretation is not the result of a purely individual reasoning process; structures of interpretations are part of social reality. On the other hand, even the actors are not determined by the structures as they can variously use their cultural competences.

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This approach has a larger support, generally within a less structuralist perspective than that Boltanski and Thévenot (2006). It is the case of the Jeffrey C. Alexander cultural sociology (2004; Alexander Mast, 2006).

Within this line, Jane Erik Lane and Svante Ersson (2002), relying upon the hypothesis of a relative autonomy of the culture towards institutions and structures, show the cultural and social conditions of emerging politics. It is generally difficult to define conditionalities. It is even more the case, if we limit our reflection to symbols. But it reminds us that strategic-centrist models explaining the political action based on symbols has limits. The actors are only playing with the cards that they have received.

As argued by Dominik Bartmanski and Jeffrey C. Alexander (2012: 3), the actors have specific competencies – the iconic ones. The authors put into relief iconic power and iconic consciousness. They make a direct link with the French pragmatic sociology, taking into consideration the competencies to criticize applied by actors.

In such an approach, like for the existentialists, essence precedes existence for objects. But the autonomy of culture does not imply automatically the autonomy of neither a political culture – like for, Paul Lichterman and Daniel Cefraï (2006) nor of a symbolic politics sphere.

For Alison Brysk

symbolic politics achieve social changes through a two-stage process: first, the projection or performance of narratives opens hearts and changes minds, and then changes in consciousness produce changes in political behavior (Brysk 1995: 574).

What makes persuasive a new story about politics?

Firstly, symbolic politics must speak to the heart: successful symbols must be culturally appropriate, have historical precedent, be reinforced by other symbols, and signal a call for action (Brysk 1995: 576).

And the power of those symbols depends on the cultural, historical, political and social background. Therefore, it becomes necessary to study them within a regional context.

Central and Eastern Europe as a space of semiosis

One of the aims of this book is to promote reflection on the problems posed by politics of symbolization in Central and Eastern Europe. As outlined above, symbolization in a broad sense means assigning meanings to all objects, including ideas, allowing individual and collective actions to be directed in an uncertain and contingent environment. Thus, politics of symbolization entail ←11 | 12→intentional meaning-making and strategically using those meanings. In other words, these politics involve exercising symbolic power in its various forms, ranging from the ability to influence social practices and actions to coercion or symbolic violence. As such, politics of symbolization refer to the symbolization of identity and the establishment of relationships where power is a significant dimension.

Analyzing social processes from the angle of the processes of semiosis taking place within them, i.e. assigning meanings and the use of symbolism, allows us to trace the symbolic construction of communities, the identity of nations and states, as well as the part played by symbolism in the mobilization of social movements, i.e. its significance for the politics of contention, as well as for “polite politics,” which are always based on symbolic power and need symbols of power (Tilly, Wood 2009).

A look from this perspective at the social space of Central and Eastern Europe as a space of semiosis allows us to better understand the mechanisms of symbolization processes that maintain the continuity of socio-cultural formations rooted in this space or initiate changes in those formations. The term “space” is fraught with semantic ambivalence, because on the one hand we are dealing with physical space as something objective and unchanging, and on the other hand with the relative space of changing social relations, including international relations. This ambivalence is visible in the notion of European space, where space can be viewed as a territory and as places, but also as a social space defined by networks of relations, connections and divisions, identities and differences of entities who enter relations of varying complexity and of different duration, on the micro and macro scale. In fact, “territory” in a geographical sense is not unproblematic either, as it is also subject to the processes of semiosis. The unity and multiplicity of the European space, both in the geographical or territorial sense and as a social space within which a symbolic culture forms, poses an intriguing problem for thinkers and researchers. It is also a significant issue for political practices occurring within this space.

We utilize a concept that questions the dichotomous division into Western Europe and Eastern Europe, hence the notion of Central and Eastern Europe: the region that once separated the empires of tsars and sultans from those of the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns (Delanty 1995: 48). This space is not uniform either. It encompasses the countries of Central Europe: Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, as well as the southeastern region: the Balkans. Even the singling out of these different Europes lies in the sphere of semiosis. It is a symbolic construct whose meaning is subject to various interpretations.

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As a project, the European Union has enlivened discussions and continues to generate disputes regarding the concept of European unity, as well as new ideologies of the East (Zarycki 2014). Like the borders of European countries throughout history, the European space as a territory has also undergone changes. The border changes and divisions within Europe, both geographical and historical (Halecki 1950), took a particularly dramatic turn after World War II, as a result of which Western Europe became separated from the Soviet Eastern Bloc by the Berlin Wall. This division, lasting almost half a century, meant that even after its abolition and the accession to the European Union of many post-communist countries that regained their sovereignty, the historical effects of this division are still being reproduced in the European social space. The incessant conflicts between “nationalisers” and “Europeanisers” (Hedetoft 1998: 1–19) can be regarded as, in a sense, internalization of this division among the nation-states which have become members of the European Union or aspire to membership. European history, which is also the history of European nations (Halecki 1950), is the source of a divided memory of trauma as a history of perpetrators and victims. There are attempts to address this through a symbolic politics that strives for reconciliation. At the same time, the universal symbolism of the Holocaust serves as a constant reminder that the issue of guilt remains timeless, in a metaphysical sense as well (Jaspers 2000), and requires transcending the boundaries of politicalness as such. The social space of the former Soviet bloc also sees constant symbolic conflicts related to demands for settling accounts with the communist regime.

Politics of symbolization extend to the social meaning of space, time and history, and thus encompass various modalities of collective memory. The processes of semiosis and politics of symbolization take place in the present, the perception of which may be more or less extensive, i.e. in “the specious present”. This present is determined by boundary determinants of the imaginable past and the projected future, situated closer or farther in relation to the current activities and events. Everything that has been removed beyond these boundaries is no longer, or not yet, relevant.

Thus understood, politics of symbolization not only give meaning to constitutive elements of the social world, categorizing and classifying them (including entities involved in social interactions and relations), but also give them temporal meanings in the process of making history. Namely, politics of symbolization also include various strategies of referring to collective experiences in the past in view of images and representations of the future. The prospective-retrospective orientation of politics of symbolization from the present point of ←13 | 14→view makes control over social and collective memory extremely important in the process of making history (Hałas 2017).

The book proposes reflection on the processes of semiosis and politics of symbolization located in the space of Central and Eastern Europe, which is highly complex as a result of symbolically diverse cultural geography and differing historical experiences. Past historical experiences in Central and Eastern Europe include global catastrophes (two world wars, the Holocaust, the rule of totalitarian systems: fascism and communism) as well as regional ones with global consequences, such as social movements, especially the phenomenon of the Solidarity movement in Poland (Kubik 1994), post-communist transformations, a symbolic example of which is the fall of the Berlin Wall, military conflicts and humanitarian crises in the Balkans. The European migration crisis (2015/ 2016) and the Covid-19 pandemic seem to mark a new era with its global challenges, into which Central and Eastern Europe is also entering. As a result of these historical events and accelerated processes of change, in a relatively short period of time, many radical reconfigurations and symbolic rearticulations of identities and relationships have occurred and are still occurring on many levels: local, national or state, in international and transnational relations.

Although the issue of different interpretations of various events and processes that occurred in the past and are taking place today in Central and Eastern Europe is undoubtedly important from the perspective of history and political science, the perspective proposed here assumes a more abstract view of Central and Eastern Europe as a diverse space of semiosis and politics of symbolization. The book represents an attempt to search for more general patterns as regards politics of symbolization: different ways of using symbolism that can ignite conflicts as well as resolve them – and assume both reproduced and innovative forms (the latter ones in the form of symbolic innovations).

The Central and Eastern European space of semiosis, or rather spaces of semiosis, are full of similarities and differences, continuities and discontinuities of meaning structures and symbolic forms relating to identity, mutual relations, symbolic boundaries, places of memory and the meaning of time, especially those constitutive for nation-states. This diverse space overlaps with the space of the European Union, within which various ideas of Europe compete. The European Union’s politics of symbolization is occasionally at odds with the symbolic politics of national states, particularly those of Central European states that have regained their sovereignty.

The similarities and differences between the created and utilized symbolism and its functions serve here as grounds for reflection. The book also ←14 | 15→makes it possible to survey different approaches to studying the processes of semiosis as pragmatic meaning-making in the context of changing social life. Numerous studies of symbolism and symbolization practices are based on various theoretical and methodological perspectives, although the semiotic traditions started by Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles S. Peirce and George H. Mead are clearly visible. However, the differences resulting from the local specificity of the processes of semiosis taking place in different parts of a culturally, socially and politically diverse Europe obviously prove significant. Reflection on the patterns of creating and using symbolism, on different politics of symbolization at different times, along with meta-reflection on the various ways of understanding and interpreting these patterns, should contribute to a better understanding of the inherently relational symbolic constitution of the social world. Examining the problems of politics of symbolization in Central and Eastern Europe, necessarily with a closer focus on some of the manifestations of those politics, should bring us closer to this goal.

Explorations in politics of symbolization

The book’s twelve chapters are divided into four interrelated topics. In the first part, “Spaces of Semiosis and Politics of Symbolization,” the fundamental issues of social space, communication and politics of symbolization are discussed by scientists who conduct research based on their own theoretical concepts, which fit into the broadly understood semiotic approach. In other words, the main focus is on processes of communication. Hubert Knoblauch proposes his own theory of communicative construction of reality, Peeter Selg develops political semiotics on the basis of the theory of communication, whereas Paul Blokker analyzes the instrumental and symbolic dimensions of constitutionalism.

In the opening text, Hubert Knoblauch addresses the extremely important problem of groundbreaking changes in the constitution of social space associated with the rapid expansion of virtual space and the shrinking space of the natural order of face-to-face interactions. This spatial reconfiguration is being thrown into especially stark relief by the “corona crisis” and the consequent restrictions regarding movement in space, both locally and globally: from everyday life to international travel. The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic is being analyzed from the perspective of the applied politics of symbolization under conditions of risk and asymmetric relations between state authorities and expert knowledge.

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Peeter Selg tackles a broad category of new problems termed “wicked problems” and analyzes them, using the example of the unprecedented European migration crisis and employing conceptual tools of political semiotics.

Paul Blokker reveals the symbolic dimension of polities, showing the constitution as a symbolic-integrative framework for society. He analyzes constitutions as meta-symbols that are objects of competing interpretations in political conflicts, as exemplified by the Polish case.

The second part of the book, “Time and Semiosis of History: Symbolic Conflicts Over Remembering and Forgetting,” also consists of three chapters. In this section, attention shifts to the politics of memory as politics of symbolization. Here, strategies of meaning-making include time and the past in the present.

Luba Jurgenson focuses on the use of the anthropologically rich symbolism of the tree in commemorative practices in various countries. She critically analyzes the ambiguities and contradictory features of practices commemorating fighters, victims, witnesses and the righteous, wherein tension is present between the universal and particular, i.e. national, meanings of the symbol used.

Joanna Nowicki, in turn, characterizes the problems arising from politics of symbolization in Poland after the fall of communism in relation to the difficult past of World War II and memory in international relations. On the one hand, there exists a politics of memory focused on reconciliation and forgiveness; on the other hand, a new emerging vision described as historical politics is provoking controversy and disputes regarding the master narrative of the history of World War II.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Collective Memory European Unification National Identities Spaces of Semiosis Symbolic Communities Symbolic Conflicts
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 304 pp., 18 fig. b/w, 11 tables.

Biographical notes

Elżbieta Hałas (Volume editor) Nicolas Maslowski (Volume editor)

Elżbieta Hałas is Full Professor of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. Her research interests are interpretative social theory, and cultural and relational sociology. Nicolas Maslowski, Ph.D., is director of the CCFEF at the University of Warsaw, specializing in collective memory and historical sociology.


Title: Politics of Symbolization Across Central and Eastern Europe