Visual Symbolism, Collective Memory, and Social Protest: A Study of the 2009 London G20 Protest

By Liao, Tim F. | Social Alternatives, Fourth Quarter 2010 | Go to article overview

Visual Symbolism, Collective Memory, and Social Protest: A Study of the 2009 London G20 Protest


Liao, Tim F., Social Alternatives


Symbolism has long been established as a means for achieving social mobilisation. The protesters at the London G20 protest on April 1, 2009 employed a wide range of symbolism to kindle people's collective memory. This article studies visual protest symbolism through photographs taken at the protest and discusses six types of visual protest symbolism - costumes, effigies, flags, organisation banners, and slogans - that rely on people's collective memory to mobilise. The article treats the six types of protest symbols as cultural objects and evaluates them in relation to the dimensions of institutional retention, retrievability, rhetorical power, and resonance.

Introduction

In the past two decades, summit protests, known sometimes as anti-globalisation protests, have been increasingly frequent occurrences at summit meetings such as the WTO, the G7/8, and the G20. While the activists at a particular protest may have a diverse set of concerns, they are all 'driven by a call for global solidarity and global justice,' and 'related to the question of democracy in a globalising world' (Rucht, 2006, p.194). The London G20 protest on April 1, 2009 was such a protest. It was also the first major protest after the global economic meltdown beginning in the fall of 2008. In the months leading up to the G20, ordinary people's lives had been affected by the global economic crisis in many countries of the world.

A protest is part of a social movement. Symbolism is a powerful vehicle for social mobilisation because it can bind together people in a social movement behind a common cause by helping participants self-define themselves. In this article, I report and analyse six types of visual symbolism used in the 2009 London G20 protest - costumes, emblems, effigies, flags, organisation banners, and slogans. If we view collective memory as the content of a cultural object, as defined by Schudson (1989), then there exist four major channels through which a cultural symbol becomes effective: it must have institutional retention, retrievability, rhetorical power, and resonance. To anticipate the conclusion, the visual examples referred to in this article demonstrated that many symbols at the London G20 protest were efficacious to varying degrees in relation to these dimensions.

Symbolic Power and Collective Memory

Often the power of symbolism may not be readily recognised by those being influenced by it. Bourdieu (1991) proposed that because symbolic power is an invisible power, inculcated through habit and routine, it is an 'almost magical power... by virtue of the specific effect of mobilization' (1991, p.171). Symbols represent collective memory. The founding father of the study of collective memory, Halbwachs (1992), believed that the past was primarily known through symbolism and ritualism. Such symbolism comes in many forms, including the form of a person, for instance, Abraham Lincoln as a symbol of racial equality (Schwartz, 1992).

A cultural symbol is a cultural object. The efficacy of a cultural object varies from impotency to omnipotency for a given place and time. According to Schudson (1989), there are five dimensions in the potency for a cultural object - retrievability, rhetorical force, resonance, institutional retention, and resolution. A cultural symbol is retrievable if one viewing it recognises it and knows what it is; culture must be able to reach a person if it is to influence the person. If a symbol is seen by people, what makes such seeing memorable and powerful? A symbol that engages the viewer's attention is said to have more rhetorical power than one that cannot. A cultural symbol must have resonance to have efficacy. For example, the political use of symbolism by rulers cannot be successful unless the symbolism connects to underlying native traditions. A cultural symbol has potency when it has institutional retention. The institutionalised symbols have social relational basis in which meaning is enacted, as compared with a fad: a fad has no such social relational backing and thus lacks institutional retention. …

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