Karen Pinkus - Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising Under Fascism
Univ of Minnesota Pr (June 1995) | ISBN:081662562X | English | Pages: 286 | PDF | 15.7 Mb
Karen Pinkus's Bodily Regimes is one of the most interesting products of the recent resurgence of interest in the cultural practices of the fascist period, doubtlessly occasioned by, among other things, the rearrangement of the Italian political landscape in the present decade and the forceful return to the limelight, in Italy as in other European countries, of more or less openly neofascist groups and formations. Pinkus is in fact well aware of the political implications of her study, which she foregrounds in the very opening of her work, and the book comes as a useful reminder that fascism wasn't quite Croce's "intellectual and moral disease," a deviation from the course of history, but a historically key moment in the formation of an Italian national identity-such as it may be-whose inheritance is still very much with us. Furthermore, her attempt to read "something like a political unconscious of images"-the Jamesonian nod underscoring the present cogency of her work-provides a useful blueprint for future ideological studies of the iconology of advertising.
Pinkus's analysis focuses on how the advertising industry under fascism moved in two directions, not necessarily always compatible with one another: on the one hand, the creation of a mass market in a country which, for all the "modernolatry" of the Futurists, was only beginning to confront the problems of modern industrial production, distribution, and consumption; on the other, the fascistization of the state and of the individual by means of strategies aiming at refashioning every daily activity into a performance of the regime. Pinkus puts her thesis most succinctly in the third chapter: "the modernization of mass media [and, it seems to me, of mass industry in general] in Italy is inextricably bound up with its very fascistization. The general aim of 'publicity' cannot be separated from two significant, larger goals of fascism: to create a classless consumer who would inevitably identify his or her needs with the national economy ... and to create a rationalized (working-class) producer" (82-83). Her investigation is carried out by paying particular attention to the vicissitudes of the body in the advertising of the period. After a theoretical introductory chapter which considers both the place of the body in advertising and the specific discourse of the body (especially the body of the Duce) under fascism, Pinkus analyzes a number of recurrent topoi of advertising in the ventennio, from the black body to the "homunculus" to the armored body to the body vanishing under the pressure of the very technology which had produced it.
The first chapter is particularly useful as an introduction to the ideology of early twentieth-century advertising. Pinkus discusses the strategies elaborated by the Italian advertising industry (often in an antagonistic yet fruitful relationship with more advanced foreign methods) to circumvent the perceived resistance of the consumer. Advertising refashions itself into a "humanism" by shifting the focus toward the individual consumer and away from "big business," in a move which dovetails with Fascism's own self-understanding as a return to precapitalist modes of social interaction. The consumer is constructed as a free subject interpellated by the product with which he or she establishes an almost personal relationship (in this sense, brand names became a very powerful tool). It is for this reason that the human figure, in a series of permutations, becomes so central to advertising-and yet, it is a human figure which grows more and more abstracted, like the mannequin of De Chirico's and Carra's metaphysical paintings, more and more an empty signifier upon which to hang, quite literally, the desires of the consumer.
The second chapter, "Selling the Black Body," considers the uses of the racial other to legitimize an imperial enterprise (in this case, the conquest of the African "empire") and to construct an otherwise not particularly strong sense of national identity. While after Said the argument is a well-known one, Pinkus ably grounds it in the historical context of postunification Italy and traces a history of the emergence of the category of blackness in Italian culture.
The third chapter tries to answer the question "what does a fascist look like?" (86). Here the author discusses the recurrent theme of mastery over the body (especially bodily functions), of energy and vitality, of discipline, by means of which advertising participates in the project of construction of docile subjects of the fascist state. As Pinkus demonstrates, all aspects of daily life, from food to office work to leisure time, could be battlefields in the struggle for the definition of appropriate codes of behavior for the fascist subject. There is however in this chapter a drive toward completeness, toward an exhaustive account of every aspect of daily life under fascism which in the end somewhat loses sight of the central argument. It also forces the author to a certain degree of sleight-of-hand in order to find suitable illustrations to support her point.
The advertisements discussed in the fourth chapter trace the tension between the formation of bodies secure in their gendered identity and the representations of bodies which reject their gendered identity to become "armored" selves, "beings whose sexual identity is protected from all sexual desire" (153). In spite of their importance to the regime as ways to regulate the physical fitness of its subjects and to regimentalize them in paramilitary fashion, sport and leisure time (especially the public baths) are also activities that invite close bodily proximity and uncontrollable sexual stimulation. In the ads considered by Pinkus we witness both a severe restriction of sexuality and a form of "adaptation to the overdetermination of gender difference" (193) which can also function as an unconscious strategy of defense.
The disappearance of the body constitutes the topic of the final chapter. Under the assault of real or imagined rays (from X-rays to the science-fiction-like death-rays attributed to Marconi), of technology which replaces the "authentic" (for instance, natural fabrics) with the technological (the artificial, but autarchic, rayon), of addictive products such as nicotine, the body seems to disappear as a final form of resistance to both fascist and market control: "just when the regime achieves an apotheosis of control (in the production of rayon) the body vanishes" (237).
While this is certainly one of the best studies of the everyday life of fascism and is quite impressive in both its documentation and its historical and theoretical (especially psychoanalytic) erudition, it is not without flaws. One is of a technical nature: a number of illustrations are poorly reproduced, and it is sometimes difficult to discern details that are crucial to Pinkus's discussion. At other points it seems that the book might have benefited from more thorough editorial attention. The slogan "... e nel risparmio e il benessere" in an advertisement for the Cassa di Risparmio di Treviso, in which a young balilla teaches a black boy from the colonies the virtues of saving, picks up a possessive adjective in the body of the text and becomes "E nel risparmio e il mio benessere" (70; ill. 17). This latter is not just a matter of a minor misreading since it seems to me to have broader implications for the interpretation of the text. It is precisely the lack of an individualized "I," I would suggest, that is interesting insofar as it shows the humanist ideology of advertisement at work: all subjects of the fascist state are putatively equal (once, of course, they have been taught what's what by the masters) as long as they conform to the practices which are beneficial to the state. These are, however, admittedly minor problems which can be hopefully rectified in future editions of this work which will remain a primary punto di riferimento in our understanding of the imbrications of fascism and capitalism.
Luca Somigli, University of Toronto, Italica, vol. 75, no. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 135–137
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