National Matters
Materiality, Culture, and Nationalism
Edited by Geneviève Zubrzycki



Matter and Meaning: A Cultural Sociology of Nationalism

Geneviève Zubrzycki

The essays in this volume address the role of materiality in composing national identity through everyday practices. They also consider the role of materials in concretizing states’ control over definitions of the nation, and their ability to foment nationalist sentiments and collective actions. The contributors consider both the impact of materiality from the bottom up and from the top down, and the intersections at the meeting ground of mundane and monumental modes of materiality, so to say. From art objects, clay fragments, broken stones, clothing, food, and urban space, the contributors to National Matters show the importance of matter in making the nation appear real, close, and important to subjects. By giving attention to the agency of things and the capacities they afford or foreclose, the authors also challenge methodological orthodoxies of cultural sociology. These theoretically grounded and empirically rich case studies highlight how the “material turn” in the social sciences pushes our understanding of state- and nation-making processes in several new directions.

Theoretical Cues and Gaps

Matter and Experience

The first gap filled by this volume is related to the notoriously problematic concern with “experience.” The phenomenology of national identity has been grossly overlooked in the literature on nations and nationalism, in part because of the intrinsic difficulty of studying the subjective domain of experience, especially in historical research. The key work remains Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. That text mapped out the impact of perception, experience, and affect in causing the abstract idea of the nation to appear proximate, directly relevant, and salient to individuals.1 Anderson stated in the first pages of his canonical work that it is ultimately feelings of filial love—fraternity—“that makes possible . . . for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly die for such limited imaginings [the nation]” (1991, 7). He returned to the issue of attachment and “self-sacrificing love” by arguing that while the affective bond to the nation is primarily achieved through linguistic means, we must look beyond the meaning of words themselves and consider the experience of simultaneity created through practices such as poetry reading and collective singing. These are key, he proposed, because their unisonance allows the physical realization of the imagined community, which in turn facilitates the emotional attachment to it (141–45).2

In a different but related vein, Michael Billig (1995) demonstrated that myriad daily practices constitute what he termed “banal nationalism.” Banal nationalism is constituted by “ideological habits that enable established nations . . . to be reproduced,” providing the mental “wiring” that can be “switched on” to ignite intense nationalist reactions, or “hot nationalism.”3 Billig was concerned with discursive habits that are constituted by, and constitutive of, a universe in which the existence of the nation is taken for granted, and in which national identity becomes so ingrained that one would be willing to die for one’s nation at the flipping of that switch. While Billig was examining what he calls “established nations”—nation-states whose existence is recognized and unthreatened—the notion of banal nationalism can be usefully extended to “un-,” “less-,” or “dis-established” nations. In Poland, for example, banal nationalism played an important role in rendering the nation a self-evident fact, a fact that nevertheless needed to be inscribed and defended during long periods of statelessness (1795–1918) or occupation (1939–89) (Zubrzycki 2011). Everyday practices involving mundane objects can, however, also be used as a strategy to de- and re-construct national identity on new bases, as I show in my contribution to this volume (Chapter 9). And while Billig showed the importance of banal nationalism as a preexisting condition for hot nationalism, Alexandra Kowalski (Chapter 6) explores the process through which mundane objects and practices are incorporated into the national framework in the first place, providing a crucial missing piece to the overall puzzle.

If the “cultural turn” pressed scholars to consider national identities as partially shared ways of speaking and reading, recent scholarship on visuality and materiality suggest the importance of images, sounds, textures, smells, and even tastes.

Matter and Intertextual Affect

Sometimes referred to as the “iconic” or “pictorial turn,” the attention to the visual has slowly left the confines of art history, cultural studies, and communications to enter the social sciences. In sociology it has made its strongest mark in historical and cultural subfields through the work of Victoria Bonnell (1997) on the power of visual means of Soviet citizens’ political indoctrination, and of Robin Wagner-Pacifici (2005) on iconographic depictions of rituals of military surrender in legitimating transfers of political authority. Vision, like the set of techniques, groups, and institutions associated with it—glossed here as visual culture—is an irreducibly sociological phenomenon. Vision is not simply constituted through the physiology of sight, but is rather a learned and cultivated cultural process, which gains meaning through a social relationship between viewer and fellow viewers as well as among viewer(s) and the object of sight. It is that dialogical relationship—sometimes as social compact, sometimes as exerted control or authority—created by looking that poststructuralist theorists like Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault called le regard, the gaze; qualified in its oppressive mode of political control as le regard panoptique (Foucault 1991).

Whether as a politics of control or as technique for forming community, the visual delineates the borders of imagined or desired communities. It provides a shared repertoire of images and objects that shape memory and identity (Morgan 1999, 8). Because images and objects act as concrete substitutes for, and embodiments of, abstract ideas, they are powerful agents of socialization, marketing, and propaganda (Barthes 2009; Bonnell 1997; Cushing and Tomkins 2007; Hall, Stimson, and Becker 2006). Deciphering the various components of what French historian Maurice Agulhon (1981) has called “pictorial discourses” set forth by institutions and social actors allows us to analyze the stories people tell about themselves. But precisely because visual symbols, complex pictorial discourses, and material things can be used as means of socialization or tools of propaganda in the hands of elites—what Chandra Mukerji (2012) calls “political pedagogy”—they can also become the objects of struggle between groups promoting different ideologies, identities, or political agendas. Such “iconoclash” (Latour 2002) in turn sometimes leads to iconoclasm, the discrediting and displacing of rivals through the destruction of their symbols (Morgan 2005). Tracking the making and unmaking of visual and material cultures affords insight into conflicts about, and changes in, political visions of the nation (Zubrzycki 2011, 2013a).

Analyzing images in relation to their various uses and contests about their meanings and deployments is likewise productive because such images hold a special capacity to mediate imaginary, linguistic, intellectual, and material domains (Nora 1997; Mitchell 1986, 1998; Rogoff 1998; Freedberg 1991). As W.J.T. Mitchell (1998) pointed out, attention to the visual in fact pushes us to attend to all the senses, since objects are perceived through multiple senses. The sight of a painting of Monet’s water lilies, for example, cues tactile, olfactory, and possibly aural sensations. Studying images, pictorial discourses, and visual culture more broadly is thus necessarily an “intertextual” enterprise in which “images, sounds, and spatial delineations are read onto and through one another” (Rogoff 1998, 24).

The study of visual culture and visuality is therefore closely related to that of materiality, another interdisciplinary field that has expanded rapidly over the last decade, above all in anthropology and science and technology studies (e.g., Appadurai 1986; Keane 2003, 2006; Woodward 2007; Miller 2005, 1–50; Tilley et al. 2006; Auslander 2009; Fehérváry 2009, 2013).4 Materiality studies is concerned with understanding objects, the ways individuals and groups interact with them, and the ways individuals and groups are constituted in and through the things they use. Such an approach sees the material world not only as an embodiment of values and ideational systems (e.g., Durkheim 1995, 2010), or a physical snapshot of social relationships (as a Marxist materialist approach would), but as lending shape and meaning, affordances and constraints, to social relationships. From this perspective, things even exert a form of agency as extensions of personhood that impinge on, and call forth responses from, social actors (Gell 1998). Works in materiality studies seek to transcend the dualism between subjects and objects to show how social relations are built in and through the consumption of material culture (rather than merely in its production, pace Marx). While these concerns have been taken up primarily by scholars in neighboring social sciences like history and anthropology, within sociology proper works by Mukerji (1994, 1997, 2012), Latour (2007a), Alexander (2008a, b, 2012), McDonnell (2010, 2016), Zubrzycki (2011, 2013a, 2016b), and Domínguez Rubio (2014; Forthcoming) have all demonstrated the value of this approach.

Within this body of scholarship, Chandra Mukerji’s interventions deserve special notice. Mukerji has developed a sophisticated model of political pedagogy that takes into account the role of material culture in creating and shaping a shared consciousness and collective identity. She employs the model to explain, for example, why the gardens of Versailles—precisely because they were not discursive but rather “materially exemplary”—did not generate opposition to the political project they embodied, but instead shaped subjects’ political allegiances through their experience of that specific material and social environment (2012, 5). In this volume (Chapter 1), Mukerji extends this argument to show how the extensive, classically inspired art world created by the Louvre’s artisans made new political imaginaries and the grand political aspirations of the nobility at Versailles possible. In turn, those imaginaries and aspirations presaged and hailed the building of a strong state that could fulfill them.

Individuals experience historical narratives and national myths through their visual depictions and material embodiments, as well as in the built environment like architecture, monuments, and the landscape. This renders otherwise distant and abstract discourses close and concrete to them. It is through that “national sensorium” (Zubrzycki 2011) that social actors viscerally experience national narratives and myths. This in turn generates sentiments of national belonging and resonant emotional attachments to what is otherwise merely a distant imagined community. The more developed the sensorium, the more powerful it becomes. The multiplicity of sites, media, and sensory experiences is compounded to facilitate the convergence between multiple sensory sites of the nation, and multiple modes of their sensory perception. We know that nations have their soundtracks, sights, and tastes (Cerulo 1995; Biddle and Knights 2007; DeSoucey 2010; Hirsh 2013; Ichijo and Ranta 2015), to name only those three sensorial sites, but these can reinforce each other through multiple and densely layered synesthetic exchanges.5 This is important because of the ways in which the national sensorium can link emotions harvested from various contexts. The point is that people learn to associate specific places, occasions, images, texts, and music. Scholars of nationalism must pay attention to the multiplicity of sensory “sites” in order to understand how they may overlap to durably nationalize subjects.

Matter and Meaning

In his theory of “iconic consciousness,” Jeffrey Alexander (2008b) analyzed the intersection between aesthetics and materiality, a process by which an aesthetically shaped materiality comes to signify a social value. He defines icons as symbolic condensations that anchor social meanings in a particular material form. Meaning is thus made visible and tangible; it can be seen, felt, touched—in other words “experienced.” As the signifier is made into a material thing, the content becomes form.6 Maurice Agulhon was concerned by a similar process, namely that through which imagery (the visual representation, or form, such as the French revolutionary figure of “Marianne”) comes to stand for the image (the concept which the imagery evokes, or the ideological content, here the French Republic). Both these interventions echo in certain respects the anthropologist Victor Turner’s attention to the capacity of a given symbol—such as the milk tree for the Ndembu—to yoke ideological and affective forces together so that the material icon holds a charged meaning for members of a society (Turner 1967, 54).

What is key for our purpose is that these icons are not empty things; rather, they are “meaning” embodied. While this is partly consistent with Wendy Griswold’s definition of “cultural objects,” which are “shared significance embodied in form i.e. . . . an expression of meanings that is tangible or can be put into words” (1987, 4–5), here meaning is necessarily material, not merely discursive.7 Meaning is transmitted through sensual contact with the material object—the icon—which gathers and then imparts its power (e.g., Bartmański and Alexander 2012).

Within this interdisciplinary material turn, one aspect that needs further exploration is how the aesthetic and material form of an icon can in turn alter its “inner” content, its meaning. On this issue the works of Tia DeNora (2000) and the anthropologist Webb Keane (2003, 2006) provide useful leads. Inspired by the work of psychologist J. J. Gibsons, DeNora expands the concept of “affordance” to the sociological study of culture. The idea is that material objects have certain properties that can accommodate some uses more easily than others; they “afford” actors the possibility of interacting in certain ways with the object. The weight, size, and form of an artifact, for example, “affords” actors the possibility of carrying it, rolling it, or breaking it (or not). In a related but different vein, Keane’s theory of “bundling” proposes that an object’s very materiality, that is, the specific aspects of its form—its weight, color, the materials of its composition, relative malleability, permeability, mobility, and so on—endow the object with a life of its own and allow it to potentially acquire different significations than the abstract ones social actors initially “filled” it with. Material things, he argues, “always combine an indefinite number of physical properties and qualities, whose particular juxtapositions may be mere happenstance. In any given practical or interpretative context, only some of those properties are relevant and come into play. But other properties persist, available for promotion as circumstances change” (2006, 200). Every new deployment of an object, image, or word places it at risk, so to speak, of spinning out of one orbit or meaning into another. As William H. Sewell put it, “A given symbol—mother, red, polyester, liberty, wage labor, or dirt—is likely to show up not only in many different locations in a particular institutional domain (motherhood in millions of families) but in a variety of different institutional domains as well (welfare mothers as a potent political symbol, the mother tongue in linguistic quarrels, the Mother of God in the Catholic Church” (1999, 49). Any given flesh-and-blood “mother” is always only precariously signified; and this is equally true of any word, image, person, or thing. Controlling and stabilizing a given meaning requires cultural work.

The emphasis in this line of argument is on the semiotic potential of an object, as its manifold material properties can become socially significant at different moments. Nevertheless an object’s potential semiotic range is never unlimited. This key point of the constraints of materiality cuts against the grain of certain sociological doxa. For example, while Durkheim understood the totem, idol, or icon as sacred and powerful because of its capacity to embody and materialize collective representations, he neglected any investigation into the materials that give shape to these abstract collective ideals, dismissing them as “nothing but a block of stone or a piece of wood, things which in themselves have no value.”8

Robin Wagner-Pacifici (2010), by contrast, insists that “it is only by gaining access to the operations and logics of the inner workings of cultural objects that any cultural sociology can begin to track the meanings and resonance of these objects in the social contexts in which they appear,” arguing further that “such knowledge of aesthetic objects actually provides insight into the ways that these objects model social reality in their own turn” (109; emphasis mine). Wagner-Pacifici refers primarily to art objects, but we can extend the argument to symbols and icons deployed in social action. This might be named “aesthetic revolt,” the dual process whereby social actors contest and rework iconic symbols in the public sphere; those symbols acquiring, through those material manipulations, significations that push forward the articulation of new identities and provide momentum for institutional reforms (Zubrzycki 2013a). Material symbols and icons participate in the creation of the social, acting as catalysts for what Piotr Sztompka (1993) called moments of “social becoming.”


1. George Mosse’s work (1975) was also significant in showing the links between bodily practices, visions of the nation, and construction of the state, but has had a more limited impact on the field than Anderson’s Imagined Communities. On the literature on emotions and affect in nationalism studies, see Berezin (1994) and Suny (2006, 2009).

2. Here Anderson builds on and expands from Émile Durkheim’s (1912) notion of “collective effervescence” through which individuals come to physically experience “society,” reifying the abstract idea in the process.

3. Recent studies have pushed forward the idea of everyday nationalism by shifting the focus to practices of “ordinary people,” which are not necessarily ideological but can nonetheless be significant (Edensor 2002; Brubaker et al 2006; Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008).

4. For a useful introduction to the key terms, theoretical approaches, and debates in studies of materiality and material culture, see Miller (2005, 1–50) and Woodward (2007). For key statements by specialists in the field on a variety of topical areas, see Tilley et al. (2006). On visuality, material culture, and religion more specifically, see McDannell (1995), Morgan (2005), and Promey (2014).

5. Synesthesia is the “transposition of sensory images or sensory attributes from one modality to another” (Marks 1978, 8) which “express . . . a relationship between features of experience that properly belong to different senses” (1). All sensory cues do not work the same way, however. In the hierarchy of senses, certain faculties of feeling the nation exert greater “ideological” force than others—in the sense of those perceptions becoming objects of conscious contemplation and the focus of debates as to their meaning. Heidegger, for example, noted how one is barely conscious of the street that “slides itself . . . along the soles of one’s feet” (1962, 142). Even though the street against one’s feet is much nearer empirically, and exerts more direct physical force than what the pedestrian looks at twenty paces hence, it is often the seen object that is affixed in thought. While some sensations may remain below everyday awareness, they may still serve as an important part of the national sensorium in the sense of generating habitual repertoires of action, and helping to create that which “goes without saying.” These layered senses render the nation present, and endow it with emotional force.

6. Mabel Berezin, in her study of fascist theater in Italy (1994), has persuasively demonstrated that meaning could also be found in the mere artistic form, regardless of its actual narrative content.

7. Materiality studies scholars would reject that distinction, as a text is printed onto a page, bound into a book that one carries, opens, shelves or rips or burns; even oral tradition is embodied and material, as it is spoken, sung, or performed by bodies in specific material contexts.

8. Durkheim writes that “collective ideals can only be manifested and become aware of themselves by being concretely realized in material objects that can be seen by all, understood by all, and represented to all minds.” Society therefore projects ideals of its own creation onto an object—a totem, an idol, an icon—thereby becoming conscious of those very ideals made materially explicit (2010, 49–50; my emphasis).