Rodney Barker
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Reformations, revolutions, continuity, and counter-reformations

In uncertain times, any aspect of plumage can be a marker of friend or foe. There are four ideal types of responses to uncertainty or instability, though in any single time or place events will be partial or mixed instances of these four: new plumage, the introduction of new forms of identity or the adoption by individuals or groups of different identities; iconoclasm, the attempt to destroy or discredit current practice as one part of the creation of new identities, plucking the old plumage; tradition, the attempt to effect change by presenting new identities as continuous with or re-assertions or developments or fulfilments of old or existing manners and customs, which manners and customs may be real or invented; and conservatism, the assertion or re-assertion of existing customs and ways of life. In each of these aspects of response, the initiative begins with minorities or elites.


Reformations, revolutions, continuity, and counter-reformations

Why revolutions are so sartorially perilous

In Robert Wise's 1962 film Two for the Seesaw, Shirley MacLaine reassures besuited middle-class lawyer Robert Mitchum, arriving at a Greenwich Village flat, ‘Take off your hat, and no one will know you've come to the wrong party.’1 The colour of a pair of socks or the style of a shirt in settled times are matters of social recognition or at the worst mundane snobbery. In unsettled times, they can be matters of physical safety or even survival. When people are most uncertain or insecure in their identities, normally trivial items or actions can become evidence of friend or foe, and justification for alliance or attack. Because the costumes and scenery with which humans construct and cultivate their identities constitute their social existence, different costumes and scenery, different identities, have the capacity to disconcert or antagonise, and to be the soil of conflict, just as readily as they can construct, cultivate, and confirm social existence and security. Even if other people are not treated as auxiliaries to a person's identity, those people's recognition of that identity plays an important role in the confidence with which its many elements are worn by its possessor. Conversely, the very existence of a different identity can seem to challenge the validity of the life constructed by the observer by calling into question its uniqueness, or by valuing a different form of life, and the apparently smallest and least significant of differences can be taken as evidence of an existential challenge. In Tehran in 2007, men and women were accused of attempting a ‘soft revolution’ against the regime, having been arrested for haircuts which were deemed to flout Islamic dress codes.2 For young men in England in the 1950s, simply to wear a Teddy-boy jacket and haircut, or in the 1960s to ride a motorbike in a leather jacket or a moped with a short haircut, could be seen, however calm and law-abiding their behaviour, as announcing a threat to decent and orderly society.3

A heightened sensitivity to the smallest digressions is not the only response to challenges to familiar identities. A despondent conviction that nothing can be done and that attempts either to change things or to resist change will be both futile and onerous can seek security in acquiescence. As the headmaster played by John Cleese in Christopher Morahan's film Clockwise put it, ‘It's not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair. It's the hope.’4 The burden and uncertainty of change or resistance can lead to defensive passivity. But when change is either actively promoted or fiercely resisted, all the dimensions of identity achieve prominence, and every aspect of identity becomes part of the politics of transition and revolution or of the defence of identities which until that point had been tacit, unobtrusive, and mundane. Human plumage, like the quills of the porcupine or the hair of the cat, is flaunted and flared not in moments of calm but in moments of crisis, and personality and identity are most attended to in times of transition. In the controversies within the Christian church in England in 603, the simple failure of Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury to rise to greet the bishops of the Celtic church was enough to indicate to them the invalidity of his entire theological and organisational claims.5 When in 1670 the archbishop of Mexico failed to lower the train of his robe in the presence of the viceroy, the gesture was deemed to threaten and was intended to threaten viceregal authority and that of the Spanish colonial regime.6 In 2012 the reported burning of copies of the Koran by United States troops led to riots and death in Afghanistan.7 During the French Revolution the allegation that royalist troops had trampled on tricolour cockades was a sufficient occasion for protest marches from their republican opponents.8 Protest marches were not the only possible consequence of the choice and treatment of clothing. The wrong cut or the wrong colour could be enough to prove treason or counter-revolution. Every aspect of human clothing, conduct, and culture from the colour of a garment to the shape of a shoe could be seen as both a sign and a component of an allied or an alien loyalty, and be the occasion for solidarity or hostility, fraternity or assault.9 In revolutionary France, a police agent warned of the need to ‘survey carefully all those who seek to distinguish themselves from others; these are not true republicans’.10 Comte Horace de Viel-Castel commented that ‘the crime of lèse-costume, if one can so describe it, was a crime expiated on the scaffold’, while Abbé Grégoire in a report to the Convention complained of the stigmatising of what he termed proper clothing and even ‘cleanliness and decency’ as ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’.11 And just as familiarity and similarity with associates can become a mark of security and solidarity, so the distinction within a group or nation of exceptional status or more intense representativeness can become an indication of hostility or threat. When the call is for ‘les aristocrates à la lanterne!’ the tension which is always there between association and distinction becomes deadly, and it becomes perilous to mark yourself out as a distinguished or exceptional representative of the nation.

In China in the twentieth century, periods of revolution and instability were marked by the stigmatising of supposed enemies identified by their dress. Young red guards attacked in the street people whose dress infringed political etiquette, treating clothing as both a sign and an active pursuit of counter-revolution.12 The meaning of appearance is fluent and flexible, arising not from material qualities but from social narrative and perception. As the narratives changed, dress could be condemned as insufficiently modern, insufficiently Chinese, or revealing a bourgeois and counter-revolutionary deviation.13 But the flexibility of the significance of dress did not diminish the potential violence of its consequences. Whilst it may be possible to get away with no more than condescension or humour by going to a funeral in brown boots, small pieces of fabric can be the bearers of overwhelming significance.14 In the United States in the twenty-first century, the possibility that opponents of the Bush administration's foreign policy might burn the national flag caused such outrage that a law to make flag-burning a specific crime was in June 2006 defeated in the Senate by only one vote.15 It was not the first time the Stars and Stripes had been prominent in the politics of protest and outrage. In Boston in 1976 its use as a weapon against a black lawyer by a white opponent of bussing as means of educational desegregation, caught on camera by Stanley Forman, concentrated and intensified political passions.16 To attack a fellow citizen with a pole was assault; to attack him with a flagpole to which the nation's flag was attached was secular sacrilege.

An even more powerful component of identity in times of conflict, uncertainty, and transition is the one which is the most unavoidably public and social: language. Whilst it is possible to talk to no one but oneself, language – unlike clothing, architecture, or eating – normally requires more than one person, one to speak and one to listen and understand, and the listener needs to be present or able to hear before the speaker begins. For language to do its job of confirming association, there has to be comprehension between the speaker and at least one other person. This privileges language as a dimension of shared identity, making it uniquely dependent on recognition by others. The identity function of language may also be quite the opposite where the language of the elite is privileged, where the mass of people do not understand it and thereby have their inferiority or cultural subordination cultivated and sustained. Failure to understand in this instance is as important as ability to understand in the other. In each case, others beyond the speaker, who can be assumed to hear either directly or indirectly, are necessary.

Because language has a special place as a component of identity, its denial can be the occasion for the most resolute and violent political action. The uprising within Pakistan which resulted in the creation of the new state of Bangladesh was fuelled by the attempt of the government in the west to establish Urdu as the national language, and the resistance of those in the east whose identity was vitally sustained by their use of Bengali. One of the celebratory days of Bengali assertion was the ‘Language Day’, commemorating 21 February 1952 when four students were shot in Dhaka during a protest over the promotion of Urdu.17

How a person speaks is frequently even more vital to their security in unsettled times than how they dress. The origin of the term ‘shibboleth’ illustrates the potential importance of vocabulary and pronunciation. The Book of Judges recounts that in fighting between the tribes of Gilead and Ephraim, fleeing Ephraimites tried to pass themselves off as members of the tribe of Gilead, so were asked to pronounce ‘shibboleth’. Those who could only manage ‘sibboleth’ were killed as enemies posing as friends.18 A similar turnpike for murder or survival occurred in England during the peasant uprising of 1381, when those who said ‘case and brode’ instead of ‘bread and cheese’ were allegedly killed as foreign Flemings.19 In the Dominican Republic in 1937, the pronunciation of names was equally fatal in the so-called ‘parsley massacres’, when President Trujillo's policy of clearing the frontier areas of Haitians by both expulsion and killing was pursued by his troops with requests aimed to detect whether or not a Spanish ‘r’ was used in the words perejil (parsley) or tijera (scissors).20 Saying serviette rather than napkin was never so perilous.

The distinction between private and public is particularly fluid and uncertain in revolutions

Identity is cultivated both by association with others and by distinction from others. It is thus impossible to separate a threat to a collective identity from one to the identity of an individual, or to exclude individual identities from the assertion of new or altered collective ones. ‘Honour’, ‘repute’, or ‘reputation’ is far more than a matter of personal vanity, and continually expands to enrol others in the identity of the individual, or recruit the individual to the identity of the collective. When new identities are being attempted or old ones attacked, one aspect of the fluidity involved is uncertainty as to the boundaries between public and private, or even of the meaningfulness of the two terms. When transformation is hoped for or feared, every aspect of identity becomes potentially contested, and the apparently smallest component of personal identity can be taken as a litmus test proclaiming the identity of the whole person or group. This leakage of meanings was a cause of continual uncertainty during the revolution in France, and the distinction between personal insult and political challenge dissolved as every aspect of individual life could constitute membership of a greater political grouping.21 The choice of playing cards or the design of a plate could reveal loyalty or treason.22

The unsocial individual who acts without any reference to the values or conventions of the society which he or she inhabits is in peaceful and confident times treated with a range of reactions from suspicion to satire. A whole school of humour depends on just that judgment. But what is a matter for no more than tolerance or derision in stable times can be responded to with a passionate perception of deviance or danger in times of uncertainty or transition. Whilst alternative identities, however unobtrusively or privately they are displayed, provide threats to moral or religious reformers who seek to recruit all members of their society as auxiliaries to their own identities, they are even more threatening to the most ambitious of all cultivators of auxiliaries – governments and those who seek governmental power for religious or cultural strategies. The more ambitious the attempted transformation, the more intrusive the policing of every aspect of behaviour, whether in a public space or in the seclusion, but no longer the privacy, of the household. Books read, songs sung, jokes told, can all be treated as symptoms of dangerous opposition. It is precisely because a Bolshevik after 1917 believed so passionately that the world is secular and material, and because that belief was part of who he or she was, that religion was suppressed and oppressed in the new Soviet Union. It might have seemed a more practical and altogether easier route, if simple power were all there was to it, for the new regime to recruit Orthodox Christianity to its retinue of support, or simply ignore it. But that would have been inconceivable. A Marxist materialist could not take seriously the claims of religion any more than an Orthodox Christian could treat the doctrines of Bolshevism as much more than a cover for materialism and the greed for goods and power. To allow an alternative set of assumptions about the nature of the world and its human inhabitants, assumptions which were visibly and audibly nurtured in the religious worship of Orthodox Christians, would have been to admit that communism and dialectical materialism were no more than possible options amongst many ways of living. At the other end of the twentieth century, the rulers of communist China harassed and suppressed the Falun Gong movement not because it actively opposed the communist identity, but because it ignored it. It is not only ambitious socialites for whom there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. For ambitious states, being ignored is one of the most humiliating forms of opposition, and one of the most damaging threats to the confidence with which they cultivate their identities.

Four responses and strategies in circumstances of transition

The greatest attention is paid to the costumes, culture, and scenery of public life when change is being attempted, accommodated, or resisted. A settled and uncontested identity does not need robust expression; a hoped-for one does, and like a resisted or resented one is the occasion for attempts both at creation and assertion and at undermining and destruction. In times of actual or attempted transition and change of identities, four principal strategies can be detected: the introduction of new forms of identity or the adoption by individuals or groups of different identities – new plumage; the attempt to destroy or discredit current practice as one part of the creation of new identities – plucking the old plumage; the attempt to effect change by presenting new identities as continuous with or reassertions or developments or fulfilments of old or existing manners and customs, which manners and customs may be real or invented, reclassifying or redefining, arguing that the old was always pointing in the newly desired direction – grafting the new onto the old; and the assertion or reassertion of existing customs and ways of life – defending. These four ideal types, creation, destruction, grafting, and defending, provide the span within which the most robust assertions of public identity occur. The mingling of these ideal types will in the actual world be a means of cultivating change, or adapting to change by domesticating it, or of resisting change or subverting or avoiding it.


When an attempt is made to create a new world either by rulers or by revolt against rulers, every aspect of human identity finds a place on the revolutionary agenda. Whilst attempted transformation from above differs in many ways from insurrection from below, each seeks to create new identities, and may do so across the whole range of human culture. There are both destructive and creative dimensions to such campaigns. In their extreme form, they involve the attempt to completely replace one way of life with another by replacing one set and kind of people with another. This, though gradually and selectively, was what England attempted in Ireland after 1652, following Cromwell's seizing control of the country at the conclusion of a dozen years of rebellion and unrest. The Down Survey of land, its ownership, use, and inhabitants which William Petty organised in Ireland after 1652 was to be the basis of a transformation by selective resettlement of human life in the island. Each year, 10,000 Irish women of marriageable age were to be exchanged with the same number from England. The latter would raise families of English culture or household economy – food, clothing, manner of life – the former would be widely distributed and absorbed in English culture.23 But the attempted Anglicisation of Ireland was one instance only of a history of ambitions to transform identity, ranging from compulsory changes in religion, or dress, or language, through expulsion and colonisation, to mass killing. Attempts to destroy peoples, both by the killing or expulsion of their members, or by destroying their government, their language, or their cultural practices, occur throughout human history. English ambitions in Ireland had many precedents, and the killing of Danes in Britain in 1002 or the expulsion of Jews in 1290 exemplified a recurring desire for familiarity, uniformity, and the elimination of difference.24

The revolutionary regime in France changed not only the divisions of the calendar and the names which described them, but the titles of professions and the names of tasks. Lawyers who had been procureurs and avocats under the monarchy were rebranded as hommes de loi under the new order.25 The French Revolution was not unique in this respect. Twentieth-century communist revolutions in Russia and China, which claimed to have introduced socialist equality, entitled all their members as comrade, though hierarchy continued to flourish as the egalitarian title became an adjective in front of ‘general’, ‘chairman’, or ‘leader’. Nor were revolutions original in their use of language, clothing, or the other attributes of visible and audible identity. In 1892 the imperial government of China argued that political and administrative reform required not only the adoption of Western ways of conducting public business but the adoption of Western dress, a policy which was subsequently spelled out in detail with distinctive etiquette for morning and evening wear.26

Just as people and jobs can be given a new identity with a new name, so can places. Colonists arriving in unfamiliar lands will seek the reconstruction of their homeland by old names, or rituals of home architecture, cooking, or festivals: New Amsterdam, New Hampshire, New York. Threat or attack strengthens this reconstruction, and transforms the smallest details into icons of identity. In the colonial conflict with the indigenous people of New England at the end of the seventeenth century,

English possessions were, in a sense, what was at stake in the war, for these – the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, and the things they owned – were a good part of what differentiated the English from the Indians. These were not simply material differences, they were cultural, for every English frock coat was stitched with threads of civility, each thatched roof rested on a foundation of property rights, and every cupboard housed a universe of ideas.27

The ambitions of rulers have again and again been to transform their populations, to change, as Peter the Great sought to change in Russia, their people from ‘beasts into human beings’.28 When Kemal Atatürk began the construction of modern Turkey, the creation of a new nation involved a comprehensive revision of identity, and clothing and headgear were not excluded from the agenda; the wearing of the fez was forbidden by law. New regimes could be introduced and sustained by new identities, religious as well as secular. The emperor Constantine constructed his unique identity by the adoption of a new religion, and in consequence the Christian church became the official religious body of the Roman Empire.

New worlds can be built from the human inside with the clothing, language, and habits of new identity, and from the outside with new towns and cities, new secular and religious public buildings. New building is a manner of stating a new, revised, or ascendant identity. Pippin, father of Charlemagne, inaugurated a massive programme of cathedral and church building, the import of saintly remains and relics, and new or elaborated ceremonies and anointings. It was a use of ecclesiastical scenery and liturgy which was to be frequently repeated, and discussing the later church building of eleventh-century Europe, Diarmaid MacCulloch commented that ‘each new church was a reform in stone.’29

Utopia has always been well inhabited by architects, and the plans for improved or transformed humanity have again and again been drafted in street plans and elevated homes and public buildings, and allocations and distributions of space which embodied and embedded social hierarchies and distinctions. As Thomas Markus has argued:

A characteristic feature of utopian town and building plans is the high degree of zoning, classification and functional definition. Each person, group and activity has its specifically defined and fixed location. These locations represent the classification system of the society and its activities which the designer assumes in his or her universal scheme. The most evident expressions of this drive to perfect order can be seen in organisations or institutions where there is the largest gap between controllers and the controlled. Institutions for the physically or mentally sick, for the criminal, and for the young, hospitals, asylums, prisons, workhouses and schools display all the features of elaborate classification.30

When the industrialist Titus Salt wanted his Yorkshire mill to be not just the centre of a thriving economy, but of a wholesome and reformed populace, he built the modestly entitled Saltaire on the River Aire with orderly clear streets, and buildings for the promotion of learning, religion, and health. Political leaders ambitious for the character of their new nations, or the new character of their nations, have constructed new capital cities and frequently done so in new places: Washington in the new nation of the United States, Canberra in Australia, Ankara in Turkey, Brasilia in Brazil, St Petersburg in tzarist Russia, Astana in Kazakhstan, or Naypyidaw in Burma/Myanmar.31 Just as those who seek a new or an improved society can build grand cities for improved humanity, so those who want only to remedy the flaws which mar existing humanity look to the arrangement of urban spaces to design out crime.32

Existing and new components of identity can be used both by and against elites

The subordination of others as auxiliaries or extras in the drama of one's own identity has as its obverse the cultivation and assertion of identity as resistance to domination or oppression, and the efforts by all manner of religious and political movements, sects, and parties to create new worlds by means of language, dress, music, and every aspect of human behaviour and creativity in place of societies whose character or controllers they repudiate or wish to transcend.

When people who have lived under coercive rule demonstrate against it, they are cultivating a different identity as active citizens, democrats, members of an oppressed nation, religion, or ethnic group. What happens is similar to the transformation of identity in war as described by Hegel. Whatever conception or perception of external circumstances there may be, there is also, and of equal importance, a conception of identity which is formed and shaped in relation to those circumstances, and in particular in relation to the conception of others who constitute the social, human, dimension of those circumstances. People who see themselves as both part of and an expression or instance of a national insurgency are not the same people as they were when they saw themselves as isolated, albeit in no sense unique, underlings in a tightly controlling autocracy. ‘Aux armes, citoyens’ is not only a call to citizens, it is a call which creates citizens. Language as the creation and cultivation of identity was dramatically depicted in Arnold Wesker's 1958 play Roots, where in beginning to talk as a radical, a person becomes a radical.33 Whilst subjects can become citizens through speaking out, nationalists can oppose alien rule or the remnants of alien rule by renaming their land and its cities. Bombay becomes Mumbai, Madras becomes Chennai, and Calcutta reverts to its earlier, indigenous pre-anglicised title of Kolkata.

Attempts to create a different public order will frequently be pursued through movements which themselves cultivate new public identities for their members, followers, or supporters. Music is but one of the ways in which new identities can be cultivated, or existing ones enhanced or strengthened.34 For many English Protestants in the reign of Edward VI, music in church was initially regarded with suspicion because of an association with the Catholic mass, for what a people will not do can be as important a part of their identity as what they will.35 In nineteenth-century Britain, Chartists paraded in their thousands with music, banners, and song. Processions, rallies, concerts, and feasts were a collective and identity-sustaining activity, acting for political movements as marching music acted for military formations; playing musical instruments was widespread, and singing involved everyone.36 The cultivation of new identities in movements seeking new political and social orders could display many of the same features as religion, with a sense of transformational goals and values and resources beyond the limitations of an inadequate or flawed present, providing the faithful with a sense of transcendent collective personality which gave individuals a perception of both belonging and meaning. For members of the Communist Party in the first half of the twentieth century, the collective mission of creating a new social and political order, and the separation from society as it existed which pursuing that goal provided, gave a sense of identity in a common purpose analogous to that which a believer gained from a church or religious crusade.37 On the right of the political spectrum, fascist movements both presented themselves as the true expression of their nation's culture and destiny, distinction within association, and created extensive and elaborate rituals, regalia, and activities as components of a new, distinctive, and radically separate identity. So on the one hand the British Union of Fascists could attempt to incorporate the rituals of Armistice Day into its own public image by holding fascist commemorations complete with wreaths, dipped colours, and bugle calls, or the rituals of familiar Christianity with ‘fascist baptism’, whilst on the other hand uniforms, invocation of new dawns, and denunciation of existing society laid claim to a new and radical identity.38

The careful use of clothing can be a way of asserting particular identity against a homogenising imperial state or a dominant group or class, as readily as it can be the instrument of a state, class, or group which wishes to recruit more effectively the loyalties of those whom it treats as subordinates. Identity is attributed to appearance, not inherent in it, and clothing shares in this flexibility. In 1960s Britain a characteristic outer garment of the radical young, much seen on demonstrations by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was the duffle coat. The same garment, in the recent past, had been the characteristic outdoor wear of military figures in films celebrating Britain's heroic moments in the Second World War.

A similar fluidity in the significance of clothing occurs in religious identity. In medieval and Catholic Europe, simple dress was part of the identity of monks, friars, and nuns, and if there was colour, it was often black or brown. The Protestant reaction in and after the European Reformation distanced itself from what it saw as the excesses of the Catholic church by adopting its own version of the very visual signs of Catholic monasticism: simple clothes, absence of colour, preference for black. Similarly, in eighteenth-century Britain, the equality of all the faithful was promoted by religious leaders through an advocacy of simple clothing for all, a sartorial politics common to Quakers and Methodists.39 The materials of identity have ever been flexible, deriving meaning from the contexts in which they are employed.


Change can be attempted by destruction as well as by creation, and one tactic amongst many is the obliteration of aspects of identity which are depicted as hostile, antisocial, treacherous, or alien. There is a metaphor for an important element in the understanding of identity in the stories of witchcraft's harming real people through dolls which represent them, and the idea that somehow the ‘real’ person is contained in a manufactured object. In at least one fictional account of witchcraft, the physical survival of a person depends on, is indeed embedded in, a series of manufactured objects. The seven horcruxes in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of books contain the physical life of the opponent, and their destruction destroys him. But this is not only fantasy. The conduct of individual and national self-assertion, where it involves the destruction of the social existence of an enemy, involves precisely this destruction of the material embodiments of the enemy's life. This is the stuff of fairy stories, but it reflects something far more real about human identity.

The Nazis, in destroying the physical structure of Jewish culture in Poland, planned to remove selected artefacts to museums, thus simultaneously preserving a record but, by so doing, denying the real continuing existence of those whom they sought to destroy by assigning the remaining fragmentary components of the material and artistic dimension of identity to an exhibition of the past.

There was nothing new in such identity warfare conducted by the destruction of culture. The Reformation in Europe was conducted in part through image breaking, the destruction of objects. Nor was such politics confined to specifically religious zealots. During the revolutionary conflicts of eighteenth-century France, a resurgence of the cult in Toulouse of Notre-Dame-la-Noire, the Black Madonna, was countered by secular opponents burning the revered statue.40 Iconoclasm is not restricted to societies thought of as religious, nor is it foreign to societies thought of as secular. Flags and the images of leaders and presidents can accumulate reverence similar to that accorded to sacred images, and can correspondingly be vulnerable to equally extreme hostility. The toppling and smashing of Saddam Hussein's statue after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was treated by the press and television as a transformative act, evidence of a new political culture and an end to the old regime. The destruction two years earlier by the Taleban regime in Afghanistan of the 1500-year-old statues of the Buddha in the Bamiyan valley and of a Palmyra temple by Isis in Syria in 2015 were accorded similar status by the image breakers, acts which both symbolised and constituted the Islamic orthodoxy of the country and the removal of anything which contributed to an alternative and hence hostile human life. Statues and monuments have always been vulnerable to the ambitions of those who want to establish or consolidate new orders, though not always by means of destruction. The government of Germany had plans in 1940 for Nelson's Column, after a successful invasion, to be transported triumphantly to Berlin.41 Statues are destroyed, or captured, not only as symbols but as constituent parts of cultures which are alien to their destroyers.

Detainees at the United States’ prison camp at Guantanamo Bay allege that when interrogators were attempting to extract information, they defaced copies of the Koran in a prisoner's presence.42 This was not conventional torture, though physical coercion and torture were used as well. But it was threat to the identity of the prisoner. Children who chant ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ describe an indifference to the potential threat to identity that is bold rather than realistic. Insults and taunts may be shrugged off, but threats to an existing identity, to the very essence of what makes people who they are, can be as fearsome as threats to their physical security and survival. Guantanamo's Koran occupied the same family as Orlando's housekeeper's wedding ring. Similarly, books are burnt not just to prevent their being read, but symbolically to destroy the culture which they express. Archives, libraries, and museums, as well as churches and mosques, will be targets for the destruction or scattering of identity. A charge made against the actions of Israel in its military conflict with Palestinians in Nablus, and after the establishment of the state of Israel, was that records of identity had deliberately been destroyed in order to obliterate historical evidence of the identity of the Palestinian nation.43

The revival of real, imagined, or repackaged pasts is not only a presentation of positive narratives, but also of the remembrance of defining hostilities and an attempt to pursue, or repursue, old enemies. Among the features of a revived Scottish nationalism at the end of the twentieth century was a renewed interest in the highland clearances which had depopulated large parts of northern and western Scotland to the profit of the aristocracy. One focus of this political retargeting was a memorial to:

one of the traditional villains of this tragedy, the first Duke of Sutherland. In 1994, an unsuccessful campaign was waged to remove the statue of the Duke from the place it has occupied on a 100-ft pillar on Ben Bhraggie, near Golspie. Comparisons were made with the removal of statues in the former Soviet Empire, but opinions were divided, and there were those who wished to retain the statue precisely because it served ‘to remind the people of the iniquities that took place and of the continuing absurdity of how land is held and who has power over it’.44

Those seeking to create an identity frequently put a great deal of effort into destroying the physical context of other identities. From Carthage to Armenia, from Palestine to Tibet, the conquerors destroyed the physical constructions and contexts of those whose present, future, and past they sought to remove and deny. The more evident the material expression of a conquered or colonised group, class, religion, or culture, the more likely the physical destruction of that expression by the conqueror.45 Heinrich Himmler commented on the destruction of Warsaw, begun with the initial invasion in 1939 and accelerated with the 1944 rising, that ‘Warsaw, the capital city, the brain, the intelligence of this Polish nation, will have been obliterated.’46 During the civil wars in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, churches and mosques were destroyed, not as military targets but as cultural ones, as constituents of the identity of opponents.47

The dimensions of identity during conflict and transition extend to the entire constructed human environment. But the more substantial the artefacts, the more difficult is swift change or new construction. Cockades and shirts can be changed – statues, monuments, and buildings are rather less malleable; destruction is easier and swifter as an assertion of dominance by conquerors, colonists, or new regimes. Just as buildings can convey messages, so can their demolition and the depiction of their destruction be a means of destroying one identity and asserting another. Robert Bevan's account of the demolition of buildings in sectarian and national conflicts is appropriately named The Destruction of Memory. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, destroyed in a terrorist attack in 2001, served both for attackers and attacked as an expression and a constituent part of US economic, and global economic, power and prestige.48 In Paris in 1871, the communards demolished the Vendôme column with the statue of Napoleon on top of it, an action far more readily possible than the construction of an alternative polity and society.49 The human effort devoted to such destruction is inexplicable in narrowly utilitarian terms. But as part of the bitter conflicts of identity it provides a destructive product at a price the destroyers of identity are happy to pay.

The most powerful elements of an identity reside in the physical presence of the person, and after the artefacts have been destroyed, the destruction of the body is the final counter-assertion. The execution of kings and presidents has an identity-denying or identity-destroying function far outweighing any merely utilitarian military or political strategy. The killing of symbolic opponents, whether witches or opposition journalists, serves to dramatise a victory of one identity over another, just as it dramatises heroic defiance and murderous oppression. But whilst the symbolic killing of leaders may be part of a limited destruction of human life in the search to establish new identities, the killing can be far more extensive, seeking change not by altering the identity of a people, but by obliterating it.

Grafting and excavation

New identities can be formed either by recycling old ones, or by presenting innovation as continuity with overlooked precedents or by the discovery or rediscovery of traditional customs and practices. The presentation of continuity is a strategy which can serve several purposes. It may be a means of lubricating the mechanisms of change, or a partly cosmetic exercise by the agents or initiators of change.

The presentation of continuity in order to facilitate change is an ancient strategy. Ever since Pope Gregory the Great, the Christian church has known how to introduce new religion on old foundations. Gregory had advised Augustine, whom he had sent to establish Rome's jurisdiction in England through the archiepiscopate of Canterbury, to graft his teaching and his worship onto the existing beliefs and practices of his potential flock, building new churches on old pre-Christian sacred sites, not in order to obliterate those sites but to secure continuity with existing religious loyalties. The Christian church when it began proselytising in South America, followed the same practice.50 Both clergy and laity in Reformation and post-Reformation Europe employed similar devices of continuity with sacred sites in nature, although the cultivation of continuity between new Protestantism and old Catholic popular pieties was as much an unrationalised search for the securities of old habit in ameliorating engagement with new doctrines as a deliberate justificatory tactic.51 It was not without ancient precedents. The historical books of the Old Testament record discovery after discovery of old and neglected tablets in the temple whenever a secular or a religious leader wanted to reform religious observance. The church in Europe throughout the Middle Ages employed similar devices, manufacturing ancient doctrinal and devotional identities as sanction for new ecclesiastical practices with a series of forged papal, royal, and imperial decrees. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was no more than one of the more unpleasant additions to an ancient practice, paralleled in the narratives of cultural nationalism by the alleged ancient poems of Ossian, fabricated in eighteenth-century Scotland by their supposed discoverer, James MacPherson.52

Nationalist assertion in places where the nation is not the state and the government is culturally different from the culture which nationalists seek to create is frequently composed in part of a distinctiveness in dress, and an attempt to spread, develop, recover, or rediscover distinct nationalist forms of clothing. In Hungary in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was an attention to early or original Magyar forms of appearance and decoration, and the incorporation of designs and motifs from a supposed Magyar origin into the fabric, literally, of everyday life.53 Iconic images from folk art became embedded in a national identity cultivated in costumes, in architecture, and even in confectionary.54

As well as nationalist assertion within an existing state, political assertion which does not challenge the national identity can involve contests over the scenery of public life. In Britain during the nineteenth century there was what has been referred to as ‘statue mania’,55 and whilst the first surge of creation and placing was of establishment figures, dissident identities also laid claim to their own environment with the installation of statues to radical leaders. After the death in 1855 of the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, statues were erected in a number of British towns, in what Paul Pickering has described as ‘part and parcel of the Chartists’ assertion of their rights as citizens’.56

Nor has the identity significance of food ever been neglected. Creative eating can be used as a means of sustaining, restoring, or introducing particular social arrangements. Sir Benjamin Heywood described the Christmas dinner held in Manchester in 1835 as designed to promote social solidarity across classes:

for the purpose of receiving and preserving, with the hearty old holiday customs of our forefathers, the social and joyous feelings with which they were accompanied; that our kindly and benevolent sympathies might be awakened, and that with us, as with our forefathers on these occasions, there might be hospitality in the hall, and charity in the heart.57

Defence: assertion, reassertion, and discovery in times of stress and uncertainty

Celebrants of settled order have frequently been aware that changes in the visible and external character of men and women can be corrosive of existing ranks, conventions, and culture. At the end of the sixteenth century in England, Philip Stubbes complained that:

it is very hard to knowe, who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is a gentleman, who is not: for you will have those, which are neither of the nobylitie gentilitie nor yeomanry, no, nor yet anie Magistrat or Officer in the common welth, go daylie in silkes, velvets, satens, damasks, taffeties and such like, notwithstanding that they be both base by byrthe, meane by estate, & servyle by calling.58

In the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe deplored the poor dressing, or trying to dress, above their station.59 Even more disconcerting than simple boundary challenging by those lower down the social and political hierarchy is novelty, variety, and unpredictability. A Chinese journalist in 1912 complained that ‘Chinese are wearing foreign clothes, while foreigners wear Chinese clothes; men are adorned like women and women like men; prostitutes imitate girl students, and girl students look like prostitutes.’60 For just as cultivated character is expressive of one order of social life, it can be also a challenge, a defiance, or an abandoning of that order. The minutiae of tangible, visible, and audible character are never so carefully marked as when they appear challenged or in flux. In twentieth-century Bhutan, one way of attempting to preserve what was seen as a distinctive way of life was to insist, both by social pressure and by public law, on a distinctive Bhutanese form of dress.

The defence of language, and a corresponding hostility to what are seen as foreign influences on or imports into spoken and written identity, becomes more energetic and more conservative when identity is believed to be threatened. A contributor to Le Monde warned readers in 1979 ‘Beware! If the French language recedes all we who speak it are threatened in our identity and being.’61

At times of social or national stress or uncertainty, the construction of the public stage can be used to reassure by asserting or reasserting public identities. The commemoration of the dead is also a sanctification of the living, and the memorials to those killed in war can be statements about what is hoped for as well as about what has been lost. The Slav architect Dušan Jurkovič designed thirty-seven cemeteries for the dead of the First World War. Describing one of them, Anthony Alofsin writes that ‘a square with a polygon forming a truncated arrow, is outlined by a perimeter fence made of a pair of massive logs laid flat over rough rubble. On top of the logs sits [sic] cross members and a double-layered roof characteristic of Slovak folk architecture. Jurkovič applied the same roof treatment to the entry gate.’62

The mixture of innovation and tradition as the form in which new or adjusted identities are crafted can be pursued by the most seemingly traditional of regimes. The presentation of continuity can also be a way not of facilitating change but of surviving it. In Japan following military defeat, American occupation, and the imposition by the occupying power of constitutional change, the imperial family, whilst not being able formally to resist the alterations to its legal status, nonetheless acted in order on the one hand to maintain the regard and respect in which it was held, and on the other to find new and additional ways of nourishing that regard. The emperor began making public visits and tours, and the media began to present aspects of the life of the imperial family which expressed their ordinariness as well as their imperial status. Kenneth Ruoff comments that ‘Traditionally the monarchy had been described as being “above the clouds.” In the post-war era, the palace worked hard to bring it, if not to ground level, then at least to an altitude where it could be seen from the ground.’63

Deception is another defensive identity response, of or near the last resort, to challenges to existing practice. If the challenge is overwhelming, if resistance to it by asserting existing identities appears futile, then acceptance of new practices whilst covertly continuing old ones is sometimes resorted to. Jacobites in England might raise their glasses to toast the king whilst holding them over vessels containing water, so that the toast was, though only to those who knew the secret, ‘The King, over the water’. In Spain after the Catholic monarchy began its imposition of religious uniformity in the fourteenth century, there were Jewish and Muslim communities who adopted Catholic worship for the public gaze, whilst at the same time continuing covertly their own religious practices. The extent of this covert and overt religious observance by conversos, Marranos, and Moriscos may not have been as great as the Inquisition supposed, but it clearly occurred.64

Identity, like fashion, is both disseminated and monopolised by minorities

Revolutions are carried through by minorities either from above or from outside or below, and are attempts to construct the character of public life in a way which sustains the cultivated identities of the revolutionaries. The constraints within which identity is cultivated, if they were the only elements in that cultivation, would prevent any change to an existing order. Alternative or altered identities will sometimes seem unrealistic or utopian, but they are advanced and replace, in various degrees, those of their opponents, which is why Michael Rosen argues that there is a necessary recognition of the role of the visionary, the passionate, or even the deluded in making possible mass participation in circumstances where despair seemed ubiquitous.65 The plumage and scenery of change or resistance are constructed and cultivated, not spontaneously generated; even spontaneous combustion needs a detonator. This view of change was prefaced by Pareto in his image of circulating elites and by Lenin in his image of the vanguard party. The essence of all such arguments, which is most clearly expressed by Rosen, is that choice is possible even if it is made against apparent obstacles and restraints, and in defiance of what might seem rational. This does not set aside the force of circumstance and convention, but insists that it is one element only, even if it is commonly the most powerful. But it also insists that whilst identities may be shaped by the circumstances in which groups and persons exist, those circumstances are themselves the results of human action.

In mobilised societies, one aspect of the identity of any elite is likely to be its claim to be representative of the wider population. In transition the initiative may be taken by a few, but its success can depend on at least its acceptance by the many. Just as an excessive distance between the identity through association of a population and the distinction which elites cultivate within the context of that association can lead to a range of stresses from indifference to insurrection, so a successful replacement of one order by another involves the cultivation of an alternative which can be both distinctive in its leadership and recognisable and desirable amongst its associates and potential associates.

In all cultivations of identity, whether sustaining or challenging existing orders, none of the evidence for a particular identity is inherent, and any artefact or human production can be given radically different interpretations and significance. The examples of Trobriand cricket and Aztec Christianity illustrate the dependence of artefacts and all the creative activities of humanity on humanly derived significance. This dependence is not limited to inanimate objects, but extends to human action itself. Language may embed meanings and values, but its status can shift and mutate according to the aspirations of those who use it. In pre-revolutionary France, French was the language of the elite, and marked them off from the many who lived through their own languages and dialects. With the revolution, conversely, French became the language of enlightenment, rationality, and radical progress, and was actively promoted, just as Basque, Breton, and other minority languages and dialects were actively discouraged. In the twentieth century, Breton suffered after the Second World War by being associated with the Vichy regime, whilst by the century's end it had moved from right to left to become associated with radical decentralised democracy and popular choice against centralised conservatism.66

There is a tension between the effectiveness of habitual identity and the lure of novelty. Transformations of public identity of a whole nation or society are neither easy nor straightforward, and there is a substantial capacity of old identities and characteristics embedded in habit to survive the most vigorous and sustained efforts at change, and to re-emerge, like streams in limestone reappearing miles further on from their last visible surface presence. Trobriand cricket is a neat example of the resistance of existing identities to innovation, and their ability to absorb and recharacterise it. The conquistadores from Spain who thought that they were importing Christian monotheism into the culture of their Aztec subjects failed to notice that the European deity was simply being added to the existing indigenous ones, a divine fraternity which was to survive into the twenty-first century.67 This is at the same time an illustration of why it is perilous to dismiss actions which people treat as important as frivolous, whimsical, or unimportant. Anything from the pronunciation of a single word to the way in which a shirt is closed at the neck can, especially in times of uncertainty or transition, be a matter of solid significance for those involved and therefore of essential significance for those who wish to understand what is going on. However triumphant the establishment of new worlds and new identities may seem, there is a ubiquitous recessive persistence of old ones. Catholicism in Ireland and Orthodoxy in Russia each survived the efforts of determined governments to replace them in the identity of their nations. Government can transform, and cuis regio, eius religio [whose realm, his religion] worked across Europe in the years of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but English rule in Ireland bypassed or dispossessed the indigenous ruling class without replacing it with a settled and unalienated alternative. If tradition is simply persecuted or undermined, there is no control over the identities which will replace it or which will respond to the persecution. And if the leaders of change seek to identify themselves as leaders of a nation, or faith, or culture whilst at the same time, by the claim of leadership, distancing themselves from ordinary humanity, they both illustrate the ambivalence of identity cultivation and its constant tension between association and separation, and render potentially insecure their own control of it. The complexity of change and resistance makes universal patterns or predictions fragile, and whilst it is never the case that anything and everything is possible, nor is it the case that everything is determined and predictable.


1 Robert Wise, Two for the Seesaw [film] (Beverley Hills: United Artists, 1962).
2 Robert Tait, ‘Iranian police give barbers the chop to enforce Islamic dress code’, Guardian, 25 August 2007, p. 28.
3 Paul Rock and Stanley Cohen, ‘The Teddy Boy’, in Vernon Bogdanor and Robert Skidelsky (eds), The Age of Affluence 1951–64 (London: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 288–320.
4 Christopher Morahan, Clockwise [film], screenplay by Michael Frayn (London: Studio Canal, 1986).
5 Bede, A History of the English Church, pp. 99–101.
6 Alejandro Cañeque, The King's Living Image: The Culture and Politics of Viceregal Power in Colonial Mexico (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 122.
7 Agence France-Presse, ‘Obama forced to apologise to Karzai for Koran burnings in Afghanistan’, The Australian, 24 February 2012, (accessed 25 January 2015).
8 Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class, p. 58.
9 Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class, p. 53.
10 Wrigley, The Politics of Appearance, pp. 85–6.
11 Quoted in Wrigley, The Politics of Appearance, pp. 1, 81.
12 Finnane, Changing Clothes, pp. 228, 230, 239–40.
13 Finnane, Changing Clothes, p. 257.
14 R. P. Weston and Bert Lee, ‘Brahn Boots’, All Poetry, [originally published 1940] (accessed 21 February 2017).
15 Charles Babington, ‘Senate rejects flag desecration amendment’, Washington Post, 28 June 2006, (accessed 21 February 2017).
16 Louis Masur, The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).
17 Alyssa Ayres, Speaking Like a State: Language and Nationalism in Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 45.
18 The Bible, Authorized King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Judges 12:5–6.
19 Scales, ‘Bread, Cheese and Genocide’, 284.
20 Richard Lee Turits, ‘A World Destroyed, A Nation Imposed: The 1937 Haitian Massacre in the Dominican Republic’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 82:3 (2002), 616.
21 Charles Walton, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Lynn Hunt, ‘A Touchy Lot’, London Review of Books, 32:5 (2010), 9–12.
22 Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class, p. 53.
23 Ted McCormick, William Petty and the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
24 Scales, ‘Bread, Cheese and Genocide’, 300.
25 Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class, p. 20.
26 Finnane, Changing Clothes, pp. 69–73.
27 Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 79.
28 B. H. Sumner, Survey of Russian History (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 88.
29 MacCulloch, Christianity, p. 365.
30 Thomas A. Markus, Visions of Perfection: Architecture and Utopian Thought (Glasgow: Third Eye Centre, 1985), pp. 15–16.
31 Rowan Moore, ‘The space station of the steppes’, Observer, New Review, 8 August 2010, (accessed 21 February 2017).
32 Davis, ‘Designing Out Crime’.
33 Arnold Wesker, Roots (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1959).
34 Marcello Sorce Keller, ‘Why Is Music So Ideological, and Why Do Totalitarian States Take It So Seriously? A Personal View from History and the Social Sciences’, Journal of Musicological Research, 26:2 (2007), 91–122.
35 Jonathan Willis, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2010).
36 Bowan and Pickering, ‘Songs for the Millions’, 44–63.
37 Linehan, ‘Communist Activism’; Thomas Linehan, Communism in Britain, 1920–39: From the Cradle to the Grave (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).
38 Craig Morgan, ‘Crisis, Patriotism and the Growth of Fascism: The British Union of Fascists in the Midlands, 1932–34’, Socialist History, 41 (2012), 63; Thomas Linehan, ‘Space Matters: Spatialising British Fascism’, Socialist History, 41 (2012), 11.
39 John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
40 Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class, p. 66.
41 Mace, Trafalgar Square, p. 17.
42 Dan Eggen and Josh White, ‘Inmates alleged Koran abuse’, Washington Post, 26 May 2005, (accessed 9 August 2010).
43 Gale Courey Toensing, ‘First destroy the archives’, Counter Punch, 31 July 2006, (accessed 5 June 2011); Noga Kadman, Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015).
44 Pickering and Tyrell, ‘The Public Memorial’, p. 16.
45 Bevan, The Destruction of Memory, p. 28; Toensing, ‘First Destroy the Archives’.
46 Quoted in Bevan, The Destruction of Memory, p. 97.
47 Bevan, The Destruction of Memory, pp. 42–3.
48 Sudjic, The Edifice Complex, pp. 12–13.
49 Maurice Agulhon, ‘Politics, Images, and Symbols in Post-Revolutionary France’, in Sean Wilentz (ed.), Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual and Politics since the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985).
50 Bede, A History of the English Church, pp. 86–7; MacCulloch, Christianity, p. 698.
51 Alexandra Walsham, Reformation of the Landscape.
52 Margaret Drabble (ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 604–5.
53 Alofsin, When Buildings Speak, pp. 129–30.
54 Alofsin, When Buildings Speak, p. 130.
55 Pickering and Tyrell, Contested Sites.
56 Paul A. Pickering, ‘The Chartist Rites of Passage: Commemorating Feargus O’Connor’, in Pickering and Tyrell, Contested Sites, p. 103.
57 Quoted in Hunt, Building Jerusalem, p. 98.
58 Quoted in Jones and Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing, p. 5.
59 Styles, The Dress of the People.
60 Quoted in Finnane, Changing Clothes, p. 99.
61 Quoted in Maryon McDonald, ‘We Are Not French’: Language, Culture and Identity in Brittany (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 6.
62 Alofsin, When Buildings Speak, p. 164.
63 Ruoff, The People's Emperor, pp. 204–5.
64 MacCulloch, Christianity; Yirmiyahu Yovel, The Other Within. The Marranos: Split Identity and Emerging Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
65 Michael Rosen, On Voluntary Servitude: False Consciousness and the Theory of Ideology (Cambridge: Polity, 1996), pp. 262, 272.
66 McDonald, ‘We Are Not French’.
67 Jenni Hyde, ‘Culture Shock: The Arrival of the Conquistadores in Aztec Mexico’, The Historian, 104 (winter 2009), 6–12.
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