A war symbol emerges out of a symbolic war
Fascism is nothing if not a branding opportunity. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is barely four weeks old, but already it has obtained its own unifying symbol: the “Z” painted on tanks and broadcast across various channels of propaganda. We might call it the Instagram Swastika. See me in a bikini on a “Z”-marked tank rolling down the road to Kyiv! See this selfie by the “Z” splashed on a shelled-out apartment building! That pregnant woman lying motionless on the ground—see if she’s dead and paint a “Z” on her forehead! Maybe this one will go viral?
But this branding campaign is not mere commercialism in the mode of state propaganda. It is licensed by the general human response to symbols, which is deeper and more involuted than the impulse to sell a product—or a war.
It’s instructive to consider the postbellum life of the swastika. There is, of course, a white nationalist subculture that really loves Nazi and Confederate memorabilia, but for most Americans and Europeans, the swastika has been burned into the mind as a symbol of profound evil, the black figure on a field of red, out of Hitler’s rise in the 1930s and the horror that followed. This emotional valence is not universal. One of the incongruous sights one encounters as an American or European when walking around India is all the swastikas. They are painted on trucks, rickshaws, buildings, artwork. These swastikas have nothing to do with Nazism. First of all, they are oriented “squarely,” not rotated at a 45˚ angle to resemble a diamond shape. But more importantly, the swastika is an ancient, often religiously potent, symbol found throughout the world, a mandala sometimes indicating the sun or some other cosmological process aligned around intersecting axes. Even the word, “swastika,” has a Sanskrit derivation. In India, many believe that they encourage good luck.
The swastika has remained popular and is viewed positively in India because European and American fixations about racial conflict never penetrated all that deeply into the culture. Even after their participation in World War II, the swastika never became intrinsically identified with Nazis. This distance in sensibilities is wider than might be expected, especially if one only pays attention to the upper class, English-speaking elite; for example, Mein Kampf is a popular book one often sees sold on the street and used for instruction among business students, and yet antisemitism is not an outstanding feature of daily life. Some in India might see Hitler as an example of strength in leadership, but possess no greater affinity for him and his ideology than they might for Abraham Lincoln or Steve Jobs.
This is not to say that the Subcontinent is without social conflicts and inequities (nothing could be further from reality!), but these conflicts are old or localized—by religion, by caste, by the prehistoric divide between the Indo-European North and the Dravidian South, and, of course, by money. The swastika as a symbol, then, is adaptable to the cultural context of its employment, which is different in India than in America and Europe, and it takes on a different feeling and a different function according to other elements of each culture and each history; the swastika still resonates in dissimilar contexts, nevertheless, because its single form can touch some dark potential in each.
We see that symbols contain multitudes, and yet they have no inherent value. Whatever outward content they possess—the swastika, for instance, is a geometrical form that indicates the circular motion of a radial structure—must be highly abstract. The significance of a symbol qua symbol includes this abstraction of form, but ultimately encompasses all of its qualities as a representation.
First, we can only judge a symbol to portend good or ill when it is connected to an ideology; the symbol colors a constellation of ideas for the values that animate social interest in them. Whether an eclipse of the sun is threatening or auspicious or “means” anything at all depends on a culture having certain ideas about the sun in the cosmos, and then consciously valuing or devaluing the light that the sun brings—to grow crops, to provide warmth, to illuminate the world—in its regular appearance.
Second, symbols only have character, becoming memorable and culturally effective, when bound with other symbols through stories, images, songs, etc., into some mythic complex. In this they reveal not the literal thing they represent (a geometrical pattern, a solar eclipse, etc.), but a gesture within the unconscious that resonates through the representation in its form. The gesture is mysterious. By itself, an eclipse of the sun is merely the moon passing before the sun, briefly dimming its light—and nothing more. This event has to be juxtaposed with a pantheon, or a history, or other celestial bodies in a cosmology before its unconscious content is stable and can be processed cognitively.
We produce symbols because they are expressive and because they give shape to human subjectivity, but we can also look to symbols to help interpret complex phenomena. The physical world is not simple. Societies are not simple, and neither are people. At any time, these systems present a morass of contradictory impulses, claims, ideas, behaviors, identities, events, and memories. Identifying and analyzing symbols can help us observe and establish congruence among the parts in order to give us a perspective on the confusing whole.
No official explanation has been published yet by the Russian government for the “Z,” but it may be derived from a number of possible references. According to Masha Gessen at The New Yorker:
“Z” could be read as the first letter of the Russian word “za” (“for”), so “Z” could mean “for victory,” “for peace,” “for truth,” and “for the children of Donbass.” “Z” could also be the first letter in the Russian “zakanchivaem”—“we end,” and so could stand for “We end wars.” It could also be the “Z” in “de-Nazification” (though this would require using the English word) and “demilitarizatsiya,” or demilitarization. (The war is framed in Russia in terms of forcing peace upon Ukraine.)
The name of Ukraine’s president, Zelensky, starts with a “Z.” “Z” could be the whistle of missiles as they buzz through the air. It is the letter used in cartoons to represent sleep, and death is the final sleep. “Z” is the end of the alphabet, and this war, which could escalate into an apocalyptic nuclear conflict, has the feeling of end of the world.
Interestingly, the letter “Z” is not part of the Cyrillic alphabet, so the symbol has a foreign quality in its context, like how in English we might talk about the Greek letter omega. The letter’s visual form would seem to indicate an angled crossing between two parallel lines. This could imply a comparison of changes in an object’s position over time or some kind of asymmetric connection between parallel tracks.
“Z” may be astroturfed as part of this military campaign and have sprung wholly from the septic mind of Vladimir Putin, or perhaps its sudden appearance has been more organic—but this is not really important. The symbol will be remembered in connection with the butchery wrought upon Ukraine and whatever consequences follow. “Z” could refer to a number of things. What does it actually stand for? Certainly, the invading Russian army. And, with its use in propaganda, it stands for the Putin regime. We will probably find that as time passes, like the swastika, it becomes more than a mere emblem for this isolated historical event. The Putin government is a mafia state, and the most powerful and most active regime of this type in the world; its conception of itself and of its relation to its citizens is a whole worldview—one that is revanchist, that is corrupt, that in its representations seeks not to understand anything about the world, but produces a constant stream of lies to elicit feelings of submission and sensory deprivation, that discovers only tackiness to cover over the grim wastes it makes of its landscapes.
Other places in the world with a similar outlook—North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Myanmar, possibly China—may find themselves rendered under the “Z,” by choice or by characterization. Apologists for these regimes may be marked by a “Z.” So may reactionaries in democratic countries, like the truckers who have recently been “protesting” Covid-19 safety measures in Ottawa and Washington DC or the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol; these people don’t care much about Eurasian geopolitical strife, and they sometimes indulge in hyperbolic rhetoric about “freedom,” but they have the same general resentments and yearnings for authoritarian control. And those who carry water for the reactionary ethos by ignoring its revanchist virulence so that they can publicly excoriate errant efforts at social change: they give power to the “Z” by refusing to challenge it.
In fact, if the “Z” becomes, over time, a true symbol and not a mere trope, its identity will express an outlook on the world and a kind of social order, not this specific regime or this specific war. And this outlook and this order will be something not just signified by the symbol in a literal fashion, but it will indicate a tenebrous movement in the unconscious. In following the progression from the “Z” painted on tanks and trucks to the “Z” as a symbol of a deep collective sensibility, we had to abstract, and, by abstracting, any interpretations of the symbol in its form become esoteric. Our interpretations of the “Z” may derive from its visual form. The oblique crossing of parallel tracks might indicate an adventitious break in the course of events, with a discrete before and after: this war is entirely such a break in events.
But we also might sketch an image of the “Z” as an archetypal person who incarnates the symbol, the Z-Man. He might be gruff in army fatigues or smarmy in tighty-whities and tailored suit-coat. The Z-Man fashions himself a peremptory object, impenetrable, strong, aristocratic, but, when not posing for photos, in his quiet moments, he is afraid and he is brittle and he is bitter. Habits have formed from a young age to speak half-truths, mistruths, untruths, second-hand truths, hysterical truths, anything with the ring of truthiness. You are whatever he is, and he is whatever he fantasizes himself to be. He would abnegate the future. He has broad shoulders and a weak chin.
If we blink a little, and shiver, and interrupt our thoughts with some heebie-jeebies, we might see that the culture war, which would seem to be absorbed largely in American preoccupations, is not a fundamentally different conflict than the war in Ukraine. It is a civilizational fight about the future of the global, industrialized society in which we happen to find ourselves at this moment in history. The two sides are not East and West, or North and South, or Russia and China versus the U.S. and Europe. The war is not pitted between the Islamicists and Christians. Its main axis is not religious traditionalists against secular atheists. There will be no final supremacy of the political left or the political right, of liberals or conservatives. We are not actually witnessing the belligerent posturing of the duchies of Wokistan and MAGAstan. In fact, it’s irrelevant who is fighting: the subject of this conflict is our collective relationship to modernity as a spiritual state, which, in turn, is a predicate of how industrialization has radically altered the tempo and order of human life. These factions are just branding opportunities. Whether or not he understands his impulses, the Z-Man wants something else, to destroy modernity; and whether or not he realizes it, the destruction of modernity will not be a mere cleansing of its supposed decadence, but a collapse of the economic and technological infrastructure that feeds billions and seeks to improve standards of living.
Now is the time to stand against his savage intent. Bombs and bullets are flying all over Ukraine, and the governments of democratic countries must do what they can to support Ukrainian resistance. Yet this is not all that matters: we need to discover meaning in this very bloody military exchange.
Fortunately for us, there is meaning to be found, and meaning that is wise and brave. We have values to defend, the ones that American school children have been fed from a young age, of democracy, of self-determination, of courage, of love, of the vital creativity of the individual. For the millions who are not facing gunfire or ordnance, we can talk to each other and write about these values, but the ultimate struggle lies in how each individual makes sense of the world within himself or herself, through symbols that resonate with these values.
The symbol, again, is more than what it denotes literally, and our interpretations, being abstract, fit the individual, not according to that person’s self-conscious identification or according someone else’s characterization, but to the extent that what the symbol embodies in its form has consumed the soul. There will be no final victory to be had by either “side” of this symbolic war, because the symbol merely expresses what already moves within us, secretly.
The end of the righteous struggle with the Z-Man is just the opportunity to stop fighting over all the old baggage of pre-industrial civilization so that individuals are free—and motivated—to adapt in the face of the challenges of this new century, and to discover new symbols. Only in this way might our appetite for meaning, always appearing to us in grand narratives, at last, be satisfied.
For the same reason, nobody will win in Ukraine. Thousands, even millions will die, and a thousand years of history will be rendered to rubble. This is what the “Z” portends. The best outcome is for the war to end with Putin dead and his supporters cowed, and then the world’s democracies come together to rebuild the country, more certain of our shared values. Let us pray we are given the chance.