THE SEMIOTICS OF CONFUSION
association Apsolutno


 

The idea for this piece of writing arose from the visual research association APSOLUTNO conducted from 1995 to 1998, focusing on the national symbols in official use in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during that time. APSOLUTNO documented flags, border-markers, coats-of-arms and other national and state symbols, banknotes, passports and other official documents issued by the authorities, as well as various public individual responses to these. The aim of this action of documenting was to record a phenomenon in our immediate surroundings by collecting absolutely real facts here and now. It is important to note that the absolutely real facts are arbitrary to a certain extent, determined by the time and place where they were collected (on various irregular occasions from 1995 to 1998, in Novi Sad and Belgrade, Yugoslavia). They nevertheless illustrate the variety of semiotic activities, both official and individual, which in an interesting way reflect (sometimes follow, sometimes anticipate) events in the social and political sphere.

The reason why this text has no conclusion is very simple: at the time of writing, the state of affairs in this area was still in flux. The confusion continues to multiply.

I

Since 1991 five new states have emerged on the territory of ex-Yugoslavia, and it is very likely that this process has still not been completed. On the semiotic level, this process of disintegration and formation has been followed and in some cases preceded by feverish symbol-engineering: old national and state symbols have been discarded, ancient ones revived or recycled and completely new ones designed. New authorities attached enormous significance to the introduction of new symbols, as through these it was possible to create a new sense of national identity, national pride and a new political and ideological framework for future orientation. In other words, the change on the symbolic level was seen as an important vehicle of political change, as communication via symbols was a language that people understood and to which they responded.

The urgency and importance of the introduction of new national symbols are easy to illustrate if the dates when laws regulating the use of national symbols were passed are compared with the dates when the new states were officially established. In Croatia, for example, the constitution of the Socialist Republic of Croatia was amended in July 1990, when the word socialist was dropped from the name of the country, the red star removed from the country's national flag and the socialist coat-of-arms replaced by Croatia's historical coat-of-arms. The law on the Coat-of-Arms, the Flag, and the National Anthem of the Republic of Croatia was adopted in Parliament on 21 December 1990. A day later, on 22 December, Croatia passed a new constitution, which allowed for secession from the former Yugoslav Federation.

The process was similar in Slovenia, which declared itself a sovereign state on 25 June 1991 and, at the same time, introduced a new flag and coat-of-arms. On that day the new flag was hoisted officially for the first time in front of the Slovenian Parliament, and beside it, the old flag with the red star was lowered, in a symbolic gesture of replacement.

However, this process of changing national and state symbols was not always clear and straightforward. In some cases it meandered, touching upon various issues and sometimes coming across unexpected reactions internally or externally. Problems in the semiotic area only reflected either external pressures (as in Macedonia), or the unresolved issues within the state itself (Bosnia), or they indicated a basic lack of a clear idea about the future direction (FRY). We shall briefly give an overview of some of the related issues, focusing on the flag as one of the central national and state symbols, and excluding for the moment the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

As already mentioned, in Slovenia and Croatia, the national flags used in those countries while they were part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (tricolors with the red star) continued to be used after the removal of the red star. However, in Macedonia and Bosnia completely new flags had to be designed. In Macedonia, a new flag was adopted at the point of independence in August 1992. The design was selected from more than a hundred proposals which entered an open competition. The flag immediately came under attack from Greece, which maintained that the Vergina Sun, the central symbol on the flag, belonged to Greek cultural heritage. Greece also protested against the use of the word Macedonia as the official name of the new state. The dispute was resolved in 1995 by a UN agreement, according to which Macedonia was recognized as "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and was required to design a new flag within 30 days. The present flag of Macedonia, proposed by a group of Members of Parliament, was finally adopted in 1995, three years after independence. Nevertheless, the name of the country remains temporary.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the current flag was adopted in February 1998 by UN High Representative Carlos Westendorp. Prior to this, there had been a long process of designing and selecting an appropriate flag. The first flag, adopted in 1992, before the war in Bosnia broke out, bore a fleur-de-lis as the central symbol, a symbol associated with the Muslim tradition in Bosnia, and was therefore to be replaced following the Dayton Peace Accord and the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a tripartite state (1995). After several years and numerous proposals, the Bosnian Parliament still could not reach agreement on a solution that would be acceptable to all three national entities. Finally, in 1998, UN High Representative Westendorp appointed an expert commission which designed three proposals. After the Parliament failed once again to adopt any of these, the High Representative selected a flag for Bosnia and Herzegovina himself. The flag bears the colors of the European Union, without any national symbols, since, as explained by Duncan Bullivant, Office of the High Representative (at the press conference at which the new flag was presented): "This flag is a flag of the future. It represents unity not division; it is the flag that belongs in Europe". The inability of the Parliament to find common ground and the imposition of the solution by external authorities only emphasized the fragility of Dayton Bosnia and questioned the possibilities of its existence.

The establishment of new national symbols in the countries formed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia reflected the political processes in these countries. Periods of confusion in politics were mirrored by periods of semiotic confusion; likewise, political solutions that were initially considered final were succeeded by final decisions about the design of national symbols.

II

If we look at the national symbols of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, or Serbia-Montenegro, (since the domestic official title has not received widespread recognition), the first point to note is that the authorities have been extremely hesitant in replacing the national symbols of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Unlike the other states in the Balkans, FRY did not regard it as important to invest much effort or resources into creating a new semiotic reality for its citizens.

The new constitution, which marked the beginning of the 'third' Yugoslavia, was adopted in April 1992. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia clearly demonstrated an aspiration to represent a continuation as the sole successor to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At the same time, changes were to be introduced in the political, ideological and national domain, supposedly responding to the general public's dissatisfaction with the old system. This tension between the intention to be regarded as a continuation of the old and, at the same time, as the bearer of the new is also visible on the semiotic level.

Although the red star was removed from the national flag, it remained in use much longer, even up to today, on most official documents, as well as on public buildings. For example, the red star on the City Hall in Belgrade was removed only in 1997, when the opposition parties came to power after the local elections. Similarly, passports of the former Yugoslavia were still in official use in 1999, together with the new ones, which were introduced as late as 1997. ID cards still bear the former Yugoslavia's coat-of-arms, with the red star and six torches representing the six republics of the former federation, although the new coat-of-arms was introduced in 1994. The national anthem of the former Yugoslavia is still used as the national anthem of today's Yugoslavia, to which certain parts of the society are strongly opposed (for instance, on several occasions at international sport events, Yugoslav team supporters have boycotted the Yugoslav anthem). As for national holidays, although new ones have been introduced, the holidays of the former Yugoslavia are still officially celebrated, including the Day of the Republic, the day when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed (29 November 1943).

At first glance, it would appear that there have been two opposing directions during the last ten years in FRY as far as the national symbols are concerned: one towards change; the other towards maintaining the existing symbolic structure of the SFRY. However, if we look closer into the symbols that have been changed, it is not difficult to notice that the change referred mostly to the removal of the red star. This gesture was in accordance with the general atmosphere in the whole of Eastern Europe, a gesture which could not provoke public dissent. It was an expected change, and therefore neutral, insignificant, a change on the surface without any real consequences - in the same way as the ruling Communist Party changed its name to the Socialist Party, while its protagonists have remained the same. Nevertheless, in terms of changes which would indicate a possible future direction, or which would give a new identity to the nation, little has been done. The reasons certainly lie in the lack of a clear political vision, or more precisely in the lack of any vision whatsoever. Or is it a ploy to deliberately create a state of confusion in the minds of the people? What does the political establishment communicate to the nation through these symbols? Does it convey the message that FRY is a new country or a continuation of the SFRY? And consequently, are people living in that country now a different nation?

III

This research was prompted by a specific form of semiotic response to this situation that became widespread in mid-1990s: interventions on licence plates, which provided the occasion for semiotic actions and visual activism by citizens who felt the need to express their views through different types of modifications. These gestures, which range from anger to humor, from the creative to the stereotypical, illustrate the pragmatic force of symbols, i.e., the power of symbols to trigger actual, concrete, physical responses. Through these responses, it is perhaps possible to gain an insight into some answers to the questions above, namely, how people interpret and respond to the semiotic reality imposed by the establishment.

License plates on vehicles in the former Yugoslavia contained three elements: a letter code for the town where the vehicle was registered, the red star, and the registration number. New license plates differ from the old ones only in that the red star is replaced by theYugoslav flag (blue-white-red tricolor). Although the new plates were introduced in 1998, the old ones continued to be used, and since the new plates were still a novelty at the time when this material was being collected, no cases of intervention on them were recorded. The most common type of intervention on the old plates was the denial of the red star. Frequently, the red star was erased, destroyed or covered with adhesive tape. [images 1,2,3]

Or, if the red star remained, the juxtaposition of different stickers on the car revealed the person's view on what the orientation of the country should be. It is important to note that the only official sticker for FRY is YU. The interventionist use of the sticker SER, plus the colors of the Serbian flag (red-blue-white) suggests that the owner would like to live in a country whose name would be Serbia, rather than Yugoslavia. In another example we documented, a local patriot within the old boundaries used the sticker V, which stands for Vojvodina, the northern province of Serbia, in combination with the sticker YU. A third case combining stickers for YU and EU suggests either wishful thinking or a humorous response to the general situation in the country - Yugoslavia as a member of the European Union. [images 4,5,6]

The reactions that offered alternatives to the red star did not represent a great variation of ideas. One intervention substituted a Serbian tricolour in the place of the red star, while another is even more explicit in this direction, featuring both the flag of Serbia and the Serbian historical coat-of-arms. What is particularly interesting in this example is that the car was not registered in Serbia, but in Montenegro, whose capital, Podgorica, was previously called Titograd (TG). Finally, we present a response which is neither nationally nor territorially based, in which the red star is simply replaced by a red heart. [images 7,8,9]

It would be simplistic to say that these responses are based on interpretations of the meaning of the red star. The meaning of a symbol is not a precisely defined category; its boundaries are fuzzy and in constant flux, depending upon the context and the paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations of the symbol with other symbols and the interpreter her/himself. It would be more precise to say that these reactions are based on the interpretation of the meaning of the fact that the red star was still the official mark on license plates in FRY in the late 1990s.

The red star was a dominant symbol in Eastern Europe for fifty years; it not only represented a vehicle of expression of the dominant ideology, but also marked both the official and the dissident culture of the whole period. That period ended in Eastern Europe with the events which commenced with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and FRY was no exception to the general feeling that a change had occurred: the mere fact that these individuals felt they could desecrate the red star, once a sacred symbol, meant that there was a general implicit consensus in the society that the era of the red star was over. This is why these semiotic actions do not represent a serious violation of the order nor an act of rebellion, and for the same reason, they were not treated as instances of punishable offense, though in fact, that is what they would have been under 'regular' circumstances.

Rather, these semiotic gestures can be regarded as a specific form of communication in which symbols have a central place, in a society where forms of political dialogue have ceased to function or have become distorted. They represent a public act, directed not to a specific recipient, but to anyone who happens to see them. They express a disagreement with the social identity that belonged to the former period but is still maintained, and a dissatisfaction with the fact that a new identity is still non-existent. Some of these gestures are personal statements of a particular national or territorial identity and, though na´ve and politically inarticulate, they indicate a need and a search for a new sense of direction.

The crisis of identity and the lack of a sense of direction, which have persisted for nearly a decade in FRY, have caused semiotic and various other confusions. When this text was written, new flags were being designed in the Balkans. It remains to be seen what absolutely real facts will emerge with their changing meanings.

Yugoslavia, 1999

Original version published in Media Revolution, ed. Stephen Kovats (Frankfurt: Edition Bauhaus, Band 6/Campus Verlag).

 

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