Have you ever heard of vexillology ? Sometimes it appears as the final category on Jeopardy; it is also the focus of a mythical podcast by Dr. Sheldon Cooper, one of the main characters on the popular television series The Big Bang Theory. Just in case the term is new to you, vexillology is the scholarly study of flags. What is more important, the time is ripe for those interested in applied semiotics to start collaborating with vexillologists, contributing to our accumulating knowledge about how and what these signifiers signify, how flags both reflect and affect cultural beliefs and behaviors.
Flags have functioned as significant identity markers for millennia, in varying ways and to differing degrees, for many societies around the world. In the European tradition, what organized study of flags that existed was primarily considered as a subset of heraldry well into the twentieth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, those involved in this emerging discipline of scholarly flag studies were not dedicated to focusing on a prescriptive ordering of appropriate design, which is the traditional goal of heraldry, but rather on opening up the study of flags to much broader and more probing levels of analysis.
In large part, this was due to the pioneering work of Whitney Smith, an American academic who coined the term Vexillology in 1957. In 1961, along with his colleague Gerald Grahl, he established the first journal devoted to the study of flags, The Flag Bulletin, and in 1965 helped organize the first International Congress of Vexillology, which was held in Muiderberg, the Netherlands. Since then, the development of vexillology has been steady. Today the website for FIAV, Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques (International Federation of Vexillological Associations), lists fifty-two distinct organizations currently working in this scholarly field scattered all around the world [See: www.fiav.org], and the published compendium of lavishly illustrated essays based on the thirty-six lectures given at the 24th International Congress of Vexillology held in the suburbs of Washington DC in 2011 ran to two volumes and more than one thousand pages [Scot M. Guenter, Ed. The Washington Flag Congress 2011: Proceedings of the 24th International Congress of Vexillology, 2 vols. Trenton, NJ: North American Vexillological Association, 2012].
From its beginnings, vexillology was heavily involved in creating more complete taxonomies and histories of flags as symbols, and these continue to be important contribution areas, but Smith has always advocated for both deeper critical thinking concerning flag usage and the greater exploration of it as well. In his 1968 essay, “Fundamental Theses of Vexillology” he argued for analytical review of categories and processes of symbolism related to flags, recognized the purpose of vexillology was to “understand more accurately and more completely the nature of human society,” and called for greater collaboration to achieve this by drawing on insights from across the social sciences [Whitney Smith, “Fundamental Theses of Vexillology” in Introduction to Vexillology, Whitney Smith, Ed (Winchester, MA: Flag Research Center, 2000): 28. This handbook of reprinted seminal essays was specifically designed for use in a Humanities Senior Seminar that I directed on the topic of Vexillology at San José State University in the spring of 2000.].
While having strong ties to work in history, scholarly flag studies stands to gain from interdisciplinary contributions by integrating and building on research done by those in political science, anthropology, history, sociology, and psychology. In the current academic climate of the early 21st century, applied semiotics could be very valuable in aiding vexillology to move into these fields but also beyond them, building bridges together to respond to exciting new work being done in Communication Studies, Visual Arts Iconography, and the various strands and formations of Culture Studies.
By 1987, I was urging vexillologists to consider more work coupling a semiotic approach to evaluating flag communications with Gramscian understandings of hegemony and counterhegemony (as appropriated and modeled by scholars such as Raymond Williams and T. J. Jackson Lears) to better assess struggles for semiotic control of such a powerful symbol as a national flag, and I gave an example of how this might be done in an essay focusing on the American divide between the “Hippies” and the “Hardhats” in the late 1960s [Scot Guenter, “The Hippies and the Hardhats: The Struggle for Semiotic Control of the Flag of the United States in the 1960s” Flag Bulletin 28 (1989): 131-141]. The next year, Søren Askegaard, drawing on the writings of Roland Barthes, offered a visual model to help distinguish between the concrete and the mythic messages of flags, also encouraging vexillologists to develop closer ties to semiotics [Søren Askegaard, “The National Flag and the Myth of the Nation,” Introduction to Vexillology, 31-38].
In the last quarter century, the rise in flag scholarship doing cultural analysis in the field of vexillology has been continuing to grow, as documented by review of the papers presented at international flag congresses at the beginning of that period, in the middle of that period, and most recently [For specific data on this, see my “Introduction” to Washington Flag Congress 2011, 5]. Some of this work has powerful connections to applied semiotics or to the deconstruction of multilayered symbols [For an excellent example in the former category, see Jos Poels, “The Orange Pennant: The Dutch Response to a Flag Dilemma,” Washington Flag Congress 2011, 882-898; for the latter, Kenneth Hartvigsen, “Picturing Flag Violence in Civil War Sheet Music: The Case of the ‘Down with the Traitor’s Serpent Flag’,” Washington Flag Congress 2011, 407-424.]
Where should a semiotician interested in learning more about vexillology begin? For many years the seminal publication in the field had always been The Flag Bulletin (which, by the way, carried the subtitle The International Journal of Vexillology). Unfortunately, after half a century, that periodical ceased publication in October 2011. One might try accessing it for valuable earlier flag scholarship first documented there through a university library or interlibrary loan.
Thanks to the encouragement and guidance of Smith, in the last forty years several strong vexillological associations have developed around the world; for purposes of expediency let me concentrate on English-speaking organizations and publications here. The Flag Institute was established in the U.K. in 1971 by the eminent vexillologist William Crampton. It hosts an impressive flag research library, boasts the largest membership of any vexillological association in the world, and offers a quarterly publication entitled The Flagmaster. For more information and details, please browse its website.
The Flag Society of Australia was formed in 1983, and since 1984 has published a lively and colorful quarterly of vexillology (with an Australian emphasis but certainly inclusive of flag studies worldwide) entitled Crux Australis. That group’s website includes an index of all articles published in their journal. Also, for those interested in planning ahead, the 26th International Congress of Vexillology will be held in Sydney, Australia, in September 2015.
The Southern African Vexillological Association (SAVA) was formed in 1990 and hosted an International Congress of Vexillology in Capetown in 1997. Since their nation selected a new flag in 1994, along with their triannual newsletters and annual scholarly publication on flag research, they have also become the go-to group for teaching proper protocol and flag etiquette with the new banner, and they maintain close ties with the Bureau of Heraldry. For more on this organization, go to savaflags.org.za
I encourage all interested semioticians to check out the website for the North American Vexillological Association, a bi-national group serving both Canada and the United States since 1967. Its website can be found at www.nava.org. NAVA began publishing Raven: A Journal of Vexillology in 1994, and much of this scholarship is made freely available to interested academics through the largesse of NAVA at their open access NAVA Digital Library Site, located at www.nava.org/documents/library/index.php. For complete access to all current publications (in the last two years), one needs to join the organization; nevertheless there is a lot of free material there to consider—and they even offer a small research grant annually that is worth checking out if you are thinking of doing some interdisciplinary work integrating semiotics and some aspect of vexillology. Also, NAVA has just committed to a new vexillological publication, in addition to the annual Raven, to be called Flag Research Quarterly. Both Dr. Kenneth W. Reynolds from the Department of National Defense in Ottawa, who is the editor of Raven, and Kenneth Hartvigsen, Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution and Graduate Fellow at Boston University, who is the editor of Flag Research Quarterly, responded favorably to my suggestion that we invite interested semioticians wanting to cross over and do connecting work in vexillology to consider submissions to their publications.
So think about developing a project applying semiotic principles or approaches to better understand different instances of ongoing flag interactions or specific flag events in varying social, cultural, and historical contexts. The possibilities for meaningful collaborations between the two fields are promising. In 2012, Steven A. Knowlton from the University of Memphis published “Applying Sebeok’s Typology of Flags” in Volume 19 of Raven. He followed this up by winning the William Driver Award for the best paper presented at the annual NAVA meeting in October 2012—which was held in Columbus, Ohio that year—for his “Pragmatic Unity and Visual Synecdoche in Tennessee Flag Culture”; an essay based on this talk will appear in the coming 2013 volume of Raven. In this essay, Knowlton lays out a model for applying the semiotic categories of syntactics and pragmatics within vexillology, and he makes a case for integrating cognitive linguistics and semiotics terminology more fully into vexillology. Certainly, this is evidence that semiotics has something to offer vexillology. And in response to Professor Paul Bouissac’s editorial “Semiotics and Society” in SemiotiX XN-8 (2012), I would humbly suggest that vexillology has something to offer semiotics. Getting at the processes, roles, and functions of nationalism and patriotism in past or present societies by uncovering and revealing deeper understanding of the range of influences and representations flags can provide as symbols—this is something worth looking into! Please contemplate joining us in this pursuit.
Many years ago, as president of the North American Vexillological Association, I developed a catch phrase, an exhortation to urge vexillologists on: “keep studying those flags!” To close in this appeal to you, I would modify that and make it a gentle but welcoming offer: “consider studying those flags!”