National myths are written and rewritten through visual and material culture.
On April 10, 2010, the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, along with his wife and a VIP delegation, were killed in a plane crash in Smoleńsk, Russia. The President and dignitaries were on their way to commemorate the Katyń forest massacre of 1940, which claimed the lives of over 20,000 Polish officers who were executed by the Soviet NKVD. In the days and weeks following the tragic crash, mourners paid tribute to President Kaczyński on a monument erected in remembrance of “Katyń.” A political sticker with the President’s photo was glued to the bronze plaque, powerfully juxtaposing the plane crash in Smoleńsk and the Katyń massacre; mourners and political supporters also adorned the monument with a Polish flag, candles, as well red and white flowers (both fresh and plastic).
The official monument prominently showcases the name, “Katyń,” inscribed in metal sticks evoking makeshift wooden grave markings, the “t” featured as a cross. The inscription reads, “in memory of Polish army officers, murdered by Soviet totalitarian communism on the empire of evil’s territory after September 17 1939.” Here, two tragic events were folded into a single martyriological narrative using religious and national iconography as well as official and non-official material mnemonic devices. With the confluence of past and present and the invocation of history and faith, this act of public mourning was also a spontaneous reaffirmation of enduring national scripts and myths.
This act of public mourning was also a spontaneous reaffirmation of enduring national scripts and myths.
The Katyń monument and the tribute to President Kaczyński shows how historical narratives and national myths are woven into national narratives visually and materially. We learn and experience these narratives through our built environment, monuments, and the landscape, as well as embodied practices and performances. Polish national identity, for instance, is primarily articulated around myths of martyrdom and Poland’s intrinsic Catholicity. That mythology is communicated to, and experienced by individuals through a variety of practices—from wearing religio-patriotic jewelry or “patriotic” clothing, to carrying a cross at a political demonstration, to brandishing a flag, draping oneself in a Jesus cape, or moving through a landscape dotted by places of martyrdom. This exhibit of cultural identity—its scripts and material forms—expands beyond Poland itself, and has been adopted by many members of the Polish diaspora—the Katyń monument, erected in 1998, was funded by the Polish community of Chicago. In each of these instances, social actors sensorially experience national narratives and myths, rendering the abstract idea of the nation concrete.
This repertoire of materials and performances, I call the national sensorium. It is through the national sensorium that social actors viscerally experience national narratives and myths, generating sentiments of national belonging and resonant emotional attachments to what is otherwise a distant, imagined community. We know that nations have their soundtracks, sights, tastes, and even smells, but taken cumulatively, these visual and sensual cues reinforce each other through multiple and densely layered synesthetic exchanges, weaving a dense tapestry of “national feelings.” The national sensorium can then link emotions harvested from various contexts and relate them to the national idea. The more developed the sensorium, the more powerful it becomes. The creation and maintenance of a national sensorium is thus a critical skill honed equally by national(ist) actors and by those who seek to alter or subvert a given national identity. Understanding the sensorium of national societies is crucial to the sociology of nationalism.
As they become real and close—embodied—these myths often acquire political traction and mobilize groups, but they can also be subverted through iconoclastic acts or the construction of alternative sensoria. The Catholic and martyriological version of Polishness, for instance, has been increasingly contested since the fall of communism. The critique is articulated in various spheres of public life: in political discourse, constitutional debates, historical narratives, and artistic production. The current “Jewish turn” in Poland is part of that project of national redefinition. This turn is characterized not only by the revival of Jewish communities but also by the initiatives of Polish memory activists as well as many ordinary Poles to remember, commemorate, and even to resurrect Jewish culture in Poland. By inscribing the Polish landscape with material markers of what was and is no longer—remnants of a former Jewish street, Jewish funerary stones used on a retaining wall, the site of the former Great Synagogue in Warsaw—a sense of void is created and Jewish absence can be felt by contemporary Poles.
The destruction of the Polish Jewish world and the void left in the aftermath of the Holocaust can be filled by visiting institutions like museums, which recreate the vanished Jewish world of pre-Holocaust Poland through material and phenomenological modes of storytelling; or by performing Jewish dances, learning Yiddish or Hebrew, or cooking and consuming Jewish foods.
All these practices, these acts of salvage remembrance and performance, ultimately constitute, I argue, attempts by Polish social actors to expand and reshape the symbolic boundaries of the nation beyond the narrow confines of ethnonational Polishness and Catholicism. Here material void and traces, as well as embodied practices and performances, converge to create a Jewish sensorium that challenges the dominant (and extensive) Polish-Catholic one by complementing it, thereby providing the potential to expand notions of national identity.