Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Contradiction and the Role of the 'Floating Signifier': Identity and the 'New Woman' in Italian Cartoons during Fascism

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Contradiction and the Role of the 'Floating Signifier': Identity and the 'New Woman' in Italian Cartoons during Fascism

Article excerpt


This paper addresses the issue of political cartooning during Italian fascism, with specific reference to the role of women, as it is symbolised in the cartoons (i.e. the woman-mother/care-taker/fascist/worker). The latter will be revealed through a careful study of the contradictions generated by fascism and the representation of this 'New Woman' in political satire. The caricatures I will examine belong strictly to the Left discourse. They received high circulation figures and characterised Italy's popular culture during the 1920's. Whilst fascism did not provide any space for women to join the high ranks of the PNF (Partito Nazionale Fascista), the Left similarly did not provide any emancipatory discourse equal to a feminist one. Hence, at this stage women are engaged to different role-positions, which do not differentiate in party politics, but are more deeply embedded in the social spectrum of the society. In order to explain this contradiction, I will employ Ernesto Laclau's concept of the 'floating signifier' for my analysis. I will begin with a presentation of discourse theory with specific reference to the 'floating signifier'. Following that, I will present a historical background and then turn to a series of examples.

Keywords: Political cartooning, Italian politics, Feminism, Popular Culture, Discourse theory.

What does Laclau mean by 'floating signifier'?

Ernesto Laclau in his last book, on Populism (2005), suggests that the 'emergence of the "the people" depends on three variables: equivalential relations hegemonically represented through empty signifiers; displacement of the internal frontiers through the production of floating signifiers; and a constitutive heterogeneity which makes impossible dialectical retrievals' (Laclau, 2005: 151). For the purpose of this article, I will simply focus on the second aspect, 'the displacement of internal frontiers through the production of floating signifiers', and will suggest that the 'New Woman' in Italian fascism constitutes a floating signifier.

In order to understand the concept of floating signifier, we need to discuss the role of heterogeneity and homogeneity, the role of displacement and the internal frontiers.

The role of heterogeneity and homogeneity is discussed in Laclau's work following Fanon's concept of lumpenproletariat, which constitutes itself as a pure exteriority to the existing status quo and takes place as a 'radical political equivalence', since the lumpen does not have any particular interest and is not organised together under an established social category. Laclau discusses this concept a step further and suggests that the lumpen are not fully external and that is due to the fact that the antagonistic frontier is not fixed and irremovable but constantly negotiated and reproduced. Therefore, he suggests that the 'opposition A-B will never fully become A- not A. The 'B-ness' of the B will be ultimately not dialectizable. There is a real of the 'people' which resists symbolic integration' (Laclau, 2005: 149). In a way, nothing is purely heterogeneous or purely homogeneous and nothing is purely outside or purely inside. The frontier between interiority and exteriority is not fixed and this escape of signification is significant for the construction of identity.

If we are to understand the un-fixity of the frontier and its constant redetermination, we need to consider Gramsci's 'war of position', as it constitutes the logic of displacement of political frontiers. What does Gramsci mean by 'war of position' and why is it significant for us here? Gramsci borrows this term from military terminology meaning that the military attack does not take the form of a frontal direct attack but is a systematic re-determination of the frontier between the enemy and yourself. This means that we do not face a complete destruction of the scenery in one moment but we see the dividing line between the two camps to be constantly displaced and changing direction. …

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