A Spartacist Moment?

Living in France for over a year now, I’ve begun to wonder if there’s a relevant personification that could speak to current public debates. While Marianne still features prominently in tax declarations and residence permit applications, she seems somewhat old-fashioned, suffering from a hieratic decline.

(Fig. 1) Marianne, the face of taxes

Following a lecture by Sabina Loriga, I’ve gained insight into a 19th-century debate among French historians regarding “the national novel [le roman national].” The aim was to construct a narrative of national history that could unite the people around shared values. Given its novelistic framework, the national narrative needed protagonists and antagonists to drive the action forward. This tradition, evident in school textbooks like the “Lavisse,” portrayed French history as an epic tale led by great men and women such as Vercingetorix, Joan of Arc, and Napoleon.

(Fig. 2) E. Lavisse (revised edition, 2014) Histoire de la France

A recent turning point in this debate is the volume edited by Patrick Boucheron in 2017, called France in the World: A new Global History. This collective undertaking aimed to challenge a fixed idea of France’s identity by focusing on its fluid boundaries, constantly influenced by global factors. Unsurprisingly, such viewpoint drew fierce reactions among conservative intellectuals. In particular, it was the opinion of ex-communist historian Stéphane Courtois that intrigued me. He argued that an identitarian version of French history should not be countered by a foreigner-centered narrative, as presented in the book. They are, he claimed, two sides of the same essentialist coin. To downplay the globalist version of French history, he coined the term “metecophilic”, drawing from the Ancient Greek μέτοικος (metic), which signified foreign resident in Athens without political rights.

(Fig. 3) Le Méteque, song by G. Moustaki (1969)

Regardless of the accuracy of the critique, one might ponder whether the metic could emerge as a figure or symbol guiding political agency in Europe. A couple of weeks ago, Camila Vergara delivered an interesting lecture on the “increasing oligarchization of power” that Western political societies currently undergo, with institutions that thwart democratic intervention. To breathe new life into political participation of the people, Vergara proposes to resuscitate a plebeian institution akin to the Tribune of the People during Roman times. This, however, would still leave a large segment of the popular classes alienated – precisely, the metics, as Courtois labels them.

(Fig. 4) R. Fiennes (2011) Coriolanus

In a climate of stagnation regarding democratic participation, immigrants are even more quiescent. Many eligible voters, particularly those in the lower echelons of society, choose not to exercise their rights (see Huddleston 2017, p. 9). Additionally, a considerable portion of Europe’s immigrant population lacks legal status, disenfranchising them from the political process. However, quiescence does not imply complacency. Not least in a context of decrease of purchasing power and increase in corporate profit margins. To keep with the analogy with the Roman Republic, one could wonder if we are not veering more towards a Spartacist moment than a secession of the plebs.

(Fig. 5) S. Kubrick (1960) Spartacus

European political elites are obsessed with showing a firm stance against what they depict as an invasion of refugees and illegal immigrants. In fact, a stricter migration policy is one of the only issues on which Macron, Meloni, Wilders, Scholz, and Sunak find common ground. Migrants, as Achille Mbembe (p. 101) has put it, “have neither proper names nor faces and possess no identity cards. They are merely a kind of hollowed-out entity.” Notwithstanding, this widespread debasement might inadvertently reinforce a sense of collective identity among them.

(Fig. 6) L'Abisso (2019), a theatrical production by Davide Enia on the events that unfold in Lampedusa

What if the driving force behind the narrative in European politics is effectively a personification of the metic, not as the demonized entity often evoked, but as a powerful symbol of political agency? Imagine a 21st century Spartacus embodying the vital situation of countless inhabitants of the old continent who transpire and expire in the liminal zone between citizenship and foreignness. The conditions for a common identity are ripe. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe would call this a “chain of equivalent demands.” It would not be far-fetched for a unifying leader to tap into those shared experiences. Simon Linguet (p. 84), a fascinating polemicist, wrote more than a decade before the French Revolution: “never in the midst of a so apparent prosperity, has Europe been so close to a total subversion, all the more terrible because despair will be the cause.” He concluded with the foresight “of a new Spartacus,” “enlightened by necessity, calling fellow bearers of infortune to true freedom” (p. 103). His words would prove tragically prescient.

(Fig. 7) S. Hazareesingh (2020) The Black Spartacus

Who protects the Republic? The geese as political symbols

(Fig. 1) Eros riding a goose.

Last time I explored the relation between the state and certain symbols embodied in animals, focusing on its negative connotations, with snakes as traditional enemies of the Republic. Today I’ll shift perspectives toward a more positive zoology. The logic is straightforward: if certain animals are linked to a threat to the state, the opposite should be conceivable as well. In other words, there should be animals associated with the protection of the body politic.

This idea struck me during a recent presentation by Luc Foisneau at the International Hobbes Conference in Buenos Aires. His paper treated the issue of collective action in Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy. According to the English thinker, it is important to differentiate between “one action of many men” (the Roman senators voting to kill the Catilinarian conspirators) and “many actions of one multitude” (the repeated thrusting of knives into Julius Caesar’s body by multiple senators). Hobbes aims at discrediting actions undertaken by a contingent mob in contrast to the unified actions of a legitimate collective, such as the Senate.

Luc Foisneau applied the Hobbesian framework to allude to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Whereas we can perceive the actions taking place there during sessions as unified, even if performed by several individuals –such as Congress passing the Inflation Reduction Act– the actions of the rioters lacked this unity because. Their behavior resembled more an instigated swarming rather than an action performed by ‘the people.’

(Fig. 2) Riots in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.

Now, Hobbes’s philosophy proves particularly insightful because it provides an interesting prefiguration of the situation at hand. In the Epistle that opens Leviathan, he draws our attention to the occasion in which the Gauls laid siege to Rome and attempted to storm the Capitol at night. Hobbes recounts it as follows:

I speak not of the men, but (in the Abstract) of the Seat of Power, (like to those simple and impartial creatures in the Roman Capitol, that with their noise defended those within it, not because they were they, but there).

These “impartial creatures” were the geese guarding the temple of Juno, whose cackles alerted the Romans to the stealth invasion. As a result, they were thereafter elevated to the status of protectors of the Republic.

(Fig. 3) Engraving after Henri Motte's painting The Sacred Geese, 1883.

Geese were closely associated with Juno, a goddess herself linked to protection and warning. Livy underscores their sacredness by recalling that they “had been left untouched in spite of the extremely scanty supply of food” (The History of Rome, V.47). As Reinhard Häussler notes, Aristotle had already identified the goose with guardianship abilities in his History of Animals. Interestingly, geese could also be seen as counterparts of serpents following Plutarch’s retelling of the defection of the snake that guarded the Acropolis.

The salience of these creatures gained a new layer of meaning with the popularity of the board game born in Italy at the end of the 16th century: the Game of the Goose. As Adrian Seville claims, in this context, the bird was linked to the good fortune needed in the arduous road to spiritual advancement.

(Fig. 4) The Royal Game of Goose printed by W. Lake, c.1840, photo by Claire Voon.

An exceptional 1878 caricature published in Kladderadatsch, a satirical German journal, portrays a goose embodying the Reichstag, with Otto von Bismarck whimsically stuffing emergency laws [Ausnahmegesetzen] into its mouth. The Chancellor is depicted saying, “eat or die, bird.”

(Fig. 5) Kladderadatsch, No. 39, 25 August 1878, p. 426.

In more recent times, guardianship has adopted new forms. From Ballantine’s whisky cargos to border patrolling during the pandemic, geese continue to perform their role of protectors.

(Fig. 6) Geese guarding Ballantine's warehouses.

Nonetheless, its symbolism tied to the political community seems to have faded from collective memory. When push comes to shove, who defends the republic? Where are the geese? I remember being a kid during the 2001 Argentine crisis and watching on TV the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo demonstrate against the President’s declaration of the state of siege. In a visual register, it’s not difficult to see the geese in action safeguarding Argentine democracy.

(Fig. 7) Alberto Raggio. Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, 2001.

To return to our first example, one might wonder whether what was missing on January 6 was the equivalent of the geese who could serve as protectors. Nancy Pelosi played a crucial role in mobilizing external aid to secure the area. To a certain extent, her impressive organizational ability contributed to save the Republic. Donald Trump notoriously called Pelosi “an animal.” Perhaps, on a symbolic level, he’s not that mistaken.

(Fig. 8) Exhibit from video on the Jan. 6 attack, AP.

While guardians protecting republics “in the abstract, as a seat of power” become increasingly vital in the face of mounting menacing attempts, there’s a need to resurrect an emblem that could act as a firewall, deterring such attacks and providing a rallying point for people to unite behind.

(Fig. 9) Meme of a goose chasing a man with a goose down jacket.

The Republic versus the reptiles: from Caesar’s vipers to treadable libertarian rattlesnakes

In a fascinating conference recently given by Anne Simonin, I learned about the intriguing events that occured to the monumental group known as The Triumph of the Republic, located at the Place de la Nation, during the Nazi occupation.


(Fig. 1) Jules Dalou. The Triumph of the Republic, 1899.

In 1941, the Vichy regime executed an aggressive plan to cleanse monuments in an attempt to erase commemorations of republican, revolutionary, and socialist symbolism. Simultaneously, this policy aimed to collect metals to supply the German weapons industry.

Weirdly, concerning the statues of Place de la Nation, the administration decided not to remove the female allegory itself, which bears traits reminiscent to Delacroix’s Liberty leading the People, but, instead, the crocodiles that encircled her. Installed in a menacing attitude and spouting water in the direction of Marianne, these animals symbolized the constant danger posed by the enemies of the Republic. At first glance, the operation intended to eliminate a representation that seemed to underscore the presence of the Nazis in town.

(Fig. 2) Georges Gardet. Sea monsters, 1908.

Before their melting in 1942, photographer Pierre Jahan managed to gain access to the storage area where the statues were being hoarded, capturing some stunning shots of them in a “Twilight of the Gods” style. After the war, Jean Cocteau retrieved these pictures and collected them in a book titled Death and the statues, adding satirical titles and reflections.


(Fig. 3) Pierre Jahan, 1942.

This story got me thinking. What is the genealogy of this opposition between the Republic and reptiles?

One intriguing precedent is Lucan’s Pharsalia. In this narrative of the Roman civil war, the poet desperately recounts how the Republican army led by Cato in Africa was attacked by snakes: “They fight for Caesar [pro Caesar pugnant]! The crested vipers are winning the civil war!” (Book IX, vv. 849-850). In essence, the anti-republicanism of reptiles is to be traced back to the downfall of the Roman Republic.


(Fig. 4) Frontispiece of the 1657 French edition of Pharsalia.

A second configuration of this rivalry can be found in Iacopo da Varazze’s Legenda aurea (1265). The Golden Legend is a compilation of stories about saints. When we get to Saint Martha, we discover that she was known for the tame of the Tarasque, the monstruous “son of Leviathan,” described as “a dragon, half animal, half fish,” “born in Galatia.” This creature had been wreaking havoc in the Provençal fields surrounding the river Rhône in Southeast France. Martha answered the call of the frightened people. By sprinkling holy water on the Tarasque, she paralyzed the monster, causing it to “stand still as a lamb.” She then “tied it with her belt and the people promptly killed it with knives and stones.”

(Fig. 5) Martha and the Tarasque, illumination by Jean Poyer, Hours of Henry VIII, 1500.

The French nation, represented here by Martha, engages in a battle against a formidable reptile. This theme sees a significant development during the French Revolution. Pro-revolutionary engravings become widespread, depicting the emerging political entity as taking on a Herculean task and portraying the multi-serpented Hydra as a symbol of the despotism that must be eradicated.


(Fig. 6) Anonymous engraver. The French nation, assisted by Lafayette, defeats despotism, 1791.

An exception, however, disrupts this enduring conceptual and visual enmity. The ouroboros, a snake that bites its own tail and symbolizes eternal renewal, appears in several official representations. For instance, it is featured in Le Barbier’s painting The Declaration of the Rights of Men (1789). More significantly, the decree of November 23, 1792, which ordered the manufacture of the notorious assignats with a new seal, proposed that it be “surrounded by a serpent in a circle, symbol of eternity.”

A second shift in meaning emerges when we transpose this opposition to the Americas. From Cesare Ripa onwards, the continent was represented as a woman “with a terrible face [volto terribile]” in control of reptilian monsters: “Under one foot of it, there is a human head pierced by an arrow, and on the ground, to one side, a lizard or a monster of disproportionate size” (Iconologia 1603 [1593]).


(Fig. 7) America by Chevalier d'Arpin in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, 1603.

Noël Pruneau appears to capture the ambiguity that snakes adopt regarding America. In his portrayal of General Washington (1790), it is unclear whether the viper poses a threat to or guards the Phrygian cap, the symbol of Republican Liberty.


(Fig. 8) Noel Pruneau, George Washington, 1780.

To be sure, this realm of representation had already been disrupted by Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 design of the fragmented rattling snake, warning “join or die,” which was published in The Pennsylvania Gazette in response to the perceived threat of a coordinated intervention between the French and indigenous communities.

(Fig. 9) Benjamin Franklin, Join or Die, 1756.

The American serpent seems ultimately to represent the Republic rather than competing with it. Nonetheless, the current use of the “untreadable” rattlesnake of the Gadsden Flag as a banner for libertarian groups explicitly reclaims the old opposition.

(Fig. 10) The Gadsden Flag

Perhaps, the statist side also needs to revive the power of ancient republican symbols to contrast with this movement. Promising examples have already emerged as memes, like the one with an autophagous libertarian snake and a Peronist gaucho that says, “I tread wherever I want.”

(Figs. 11 and 12) Memes found in Know your Meme and in Gon Sánchez Rey's Twitter account


Proust’s Paradoxical Personification: an Uncharitable Charity

In the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust introduces a rather enigmatic character: a pregnant kitchen-maid who served in the family house in Combray.

The kitchen-maid was an abstract personality, a permanent institution to which an invariable set of attributes assured a sort of fixity and continuity and identity throughout the long series of transitory human shapes in which that personality was incarnate; for we never found the same girl there two years running. In the year in which we ate such quantities of asparagus, the kitchen-maid whose duty was to peel them, was a poor sickly creature, with an advanced pregnancy when we arrived at Combray for Easter.

Proust’s portrayal of the kitchen-maid is dominated by a general air of disdainful detachment. The narrator renders her as an allegorical figure rather than as an individual, lending her an abstract quality. This sense of abstraction is reinforced by the absence of her name; she is simply referred to as la fille de cuisine or, as we later discover, “Charity.” The constant rotation of personnel accentuates the prominence of the role itself, overshadowing the individual who temporarily fills it.

Furthermore, the mention of the asparagus suggests an additional distance between the family and the kitchen-maid. During that period, asparagi experienced a surge in popularity as a coveted commodity, a phenomenon into which Proust delves extensively and one that Édouard Manet has carefully evoked. Afterwards, it comes to light that the task of peeling asparagi was imposed to her by Françoise, the main cook, because they caused her assistant fits of asthma. This devious plan ultimately succeeds in forcing her out of service.

(Fig. 1) Édouard Manet. The Asparagus, 1880.

Crucially, the dehumanization through allegory is further underscored by the way Charles Swann alludes to her.

When he [Swann] inquired after the kitchen-maid he would say: ‘Well, how goes it with Giotto’s Charity?’ And indeed the poor girl, whose pregnancy had swelled and stoutened every part of her, even to her face, and the vertical, squared outlines of her cheeks, did distinctly suggest those virgins, so strong and mannish as to seem matrons rather, in whom the Virtues are personified in the Arena Chapel.

(Fig. 2) Giotto. Carità, 1306.

Her likeness to Giotto’s personification of Charity in the Scrovegni Chapel eradicates any hint of her individual identity. By virtue of her pregnancy, she aligns with the allegorical character that foreshadows her existence. This is suggested by Proust as follows:

the figure of this girl had been enlarged by the additional symbol which she carried in her body, without appearing to understand what it meant, without any rendering in her facial expression of all its beauty and spiritual significance, but carried as if it were an ordinary and rather heavy burden.

At any rate, what bears more significance is the disruption caused by both embodiments, Giotto’s and the kitchen-maid’s, in terms of the concept they are supposed to represent. According to Proust, the problem is that they yield a “Charity devoid of charity.”

[T]he powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label ‘Caritas’… incarnates that virtue… [But] it seems impossible that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter’s invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to someone who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above.

Despite its disparaging tone, Proust’s description carries weight. In effect, Giotto’s rendering of Charity takes on an uncharitable aspect. Her emblematic heart is indeed reducible to a kitchen utensil, and her demeanor, unbecoming for a virtue. This contradiction has been labelled by Paul de Man as a “semantic dissonance,” which erases “the substitutive power engendered by resemblance.”

What I aim to emphasize is that through his reasoning, Proust raises doubts about one of the main features of personification: its association with a core attribute and a distinctive agency. As Angus Fletcher and Andrew Escobedo have argued, personifications possess a simplistic structure: they transparently express what they embody. The personification of Peace, for instance, looks and acts peacefully, while Sin looks and acts sinfully, and Anger, angrily. However, Proust unfolds an uncharitable Charity, whose “symbol… is represented with such realism” that it defeats its purpose.

(Fig. 3) Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Allegory of Peace, 1339.

So, what is the point of an uncharitable Charity? Proust’s argument paradoxically suggests that when attempting to convey an abstract concept through a tangible representation, the conventional tools we typically employ, such as established attributes or gestures (like Justice’s scales or blindness), prove insufficient. This is precisely how Françoise, the perverse cook, interprets the world. She approaches the situation conceptually: upon discovering her employee’s symptoms in a book, she weeps. Yet she persists in her practice of assigning the asparagi task when they are face to face. By contrast

…the special beauty of these… symbols… is [that they] were depicted, not as symbols (for the thought symbolised was nowhere expressed), but as real things, actually felt or materially handled. This added something more precise and more literal to their meaning, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson they imparted. And even in the case of the poor kitchen-maid, was not our attention incessantly drawn to her belly by the load which filled it; and in the same way, again, are not the thoughts of men and women in the agony of death often turned towards the practical, painful, obscure, internal, intestinal aspect, towards that side of death which is, as it happens, the side that death actually presents to them and forces them to feel, a side which far more closely resembles a crushing burden, a difficulty in breathing, a destroying thirst, than the abstract idea to which we are accustomed to give the name of Death?

Proust speaks of an “arresting strangeness” in these personifications. The perplexity caused by them affords us the opportunity to apprehend the concept at hand. There is nothing charitable about the kitchen-maid, confined to a minor role that disgusts her. Yet, her expanding belly becomes a source of wonder. The weight (or “basket,” as Proust put it) she carries, combined with the malaise caused by the asparagi, eventually crystallizes into an incidental, non-conventional, charity: the generous, even painful, contribution of her body to the bearing and birth of a child. Charity made flesh.

A contemporary of Proust, the German art historian Aby Warburg, developed a similar idea concerning works of art, claiming that “the arrival of an alien root achieves an intensification of the original meaning.” He was obsessed by a similarly enigmatic painting: Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “female servant carrying a basket of fruit,” who “rushes by in quite conscious imitation of the Victory of a Roman triumphal arch.” In his notes to the Panel 46 of his Mnemosyne Atlas, Warburg scribbleddeliver it fast!“. Through this “nymph,” one almost sees a runner on the final line with the controlled urge of throwing everything away. Girls with baskets are arguably conspicuous conductors of meaning.


(Fig. 4) Domenico Ghirlandaio. Detail from The Birth of St John the Baptist, 1490.

In sum, allegory and the emotions it encapsulates can only be communicated by an undiscerning, disruptive, gesture, one that makes room for its reception. When we gaze upon a blindfolded and scales-holding statue, we recognize Justice, but we do not engage emotionally with this abstraction. Conversely, when we encounter a girl clutching a basket, we start wondering. As Proust reflects, the “lack (or seeming lack) of participation of the soul of a being in the virtue that acts through it,” is what truly defines personification.

(Fig. 5) Peggy Olson in Mad Men S07E14. A girl with a basket.

How does the state speak to us? (Part 2)

Last time, I discussed how the device of personification allows us to attribute speech and actions to an abstraction such as the state. Today, I’ll delve into an example I’m fond of: how the Argentine state found its voice through personification during the first Peronism era (1945-1955).

(Fig. 1) Social aid campaign, Fundación Eva Perón: "to the last corner of the country." 1947.

The emergence of the Peronist welfare state marked a significant shift in Argentina’s political landscape, requiring a distinct face and voice to represent it. As Beatriz Sarlo (2007, 32) argued, it was Eva Peron’s body that assumed the crucial role of simbolyzing the “creole welfare state,” with a literal donation of “shreds of her life” to the new Peronist state. Her body, to keep with Sarlo’s formulation, “capture[d] the Peronist Idea.”

Now, the transformation of Evita into the personification of a redeemed Argentina was a multifaceted process. Drawing a comparison with the different avatars of the French Marianne might be useful in this respect. Eva’s identification with the Argentine state started with the first portrait of the presidential couple in 1946, where she appears seated like a classical personification. Consider, for instance, Nanine Vallain’s Liberty (1793), which simultaneously represents the French Republic. Her static attitude portrays guardianship of the principles and values of the nation.


(Fig. 2) Eva with Juan Perón in their first presidential portrait. 1946.

(Fig. 3) Nanine Vallain. Liberty. 1793.

Later representations of Eva, such as those by Pinélides Fusco, the official photographer of the Casa Rosada (Government House) in 1948, and the famous “Eva combs her hair“, by Gisèle Freund in 1950, depict her with tousled hair.

Mi abuelo, el fotógrafo de Perón

(Fig. 4) Pinélides Fusco. Eva. 1948.
Evita Peron fait sa toilette, Buenos Aires - Centre Pompidou

(Fig. 5) Gisèle Freund. Eva combing her hair. 1950.

Both bear an obvious resemblance to the “sower” Marianne who symbolized the birth of a new French nation at the end of 19th century.

(Fig. 6) Sower coin of 1970. Designed by Oscar Roty in 1887.

(Fig. 7) La toilette. Medal designed by Oscar Roty in 1879.

Furthermore, in depictions of Eva done by the revolutionary peronist faction Montoneros in the 1970s there is an air of Eugène Delacroix’s celebrated painting Liberty guiding the people.

Evita Montonera

(Fig. 8) "Evita Montonera," magazine of the Peronist guerrilla organization Montoneros. 1976.
La Liberté guidant le peuple — Wikipédia

(Fig. 9) Eugène Delacroix. Liberty Guiding the People. 1830.

In 1952, the Argentine Congress declared Eva Perón the “spiritual leader of the nation,” effectively sanctioning her figure as the personification of the state. During her speech at the National Assembly, the representative Delia Parodi argued for the erection of a monument in Eva’s honor. Venturing a comparison with the Statue of Liberty, Parodi claimed: “it will not be necessary to embody the figure of a woman wielding a torch, because her luminous heart will suffice to irradiate her light of justice to humanity.”* Much like the classical personification of Charity, Eva’s main attribute was her heart. Face of a caring and nurturing state, Eva cannot help but offer her heart to the people.


(Fig. 10) Andrea del Sarto. Carità. 1518.
 Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), La République, 1848. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60...  | Download Scientific Diagram

(Fig. 11) Honoré Daumier. La République. 1848.

Apart from these pictorial references, I think that Eva’s embodiment of the Argentine state was also made possible by her voice. Her political character was inherently tied to her voice, given her background as a radio actress and broadcaster. In fact, it could be argued that Eva’s political career began when she was elected chair of the broadcasting workers’ union (ARA) in 1944.

Her voice, reproduced before and after her death, would be perceived by a large number of citizens as an exhortation coming from the nation itself. Perhaps the best display of this vocal prowess occurred during the August 1951 Open Cabildo, when she engaged in a public dialogue with millions and proclaimed to be invested with the “spiritual power of the shirtless [descamisados]” (Navarro 1994, 229). Eva was the state made flesh, a state that could listen and respond. In this sense, she trascended the status of a political leader. As Marina Warner said of Joan of Arc, allegorical “modes of thought tugged on her individual person so powerfully that she could not withstand it.” Eva was seen as a living personification.

Following her passing on July 26, 1952, her voice remained a potent force. The link between the people and their embodiment was preserved through her calling. In the framework of the Peronist Loyalty Day on October 17, 1953, for example, the government projected the recorded voice of her May 1 speech (Soria 2004). Additionally, posthumous representations of Eva often portray her with a microphone, emphasizing her “alocutionary gesture” (Vázquez 2017, 52). Eva not only speaks to the people; she is their spokesperson, she allows them to articulate their discourse.

In conclusion, Eva Perón’s face and distinctive voice became the resonant and unifying force that gave the Argentine state its touching and compassionate persona during the first Peronist era. It is evident that Eva’s figure is identified with a part of the Argentine political spectrum, i.e., the Peronist party. However, akin to the French Marianne, which transitioned from an anti-monarchist symbol to the official seal of the French State, one can argue that her image is evolving into the personification of the Argentine state. This is exemplified by the very beautiful seal chosen to illustrate the 100 peso bill. After all, as historian Tulio Halperín Donghi has asserted, Argentina today remains a society constituted on the basis of the first Peronism, albeit in a condition of “agony.” Yet, as the old Peronist state lays dying, its symbols continue to delineate a national identity.

Cómo reconocer la autenticidad de los billetes de $100 de Evita - Infobae

(Fig. 13) 100 peso bill minted in 2012.

*I’m grateful to Santiago Régolo for helping me navigate the Journal of Sessions of the Chamber of Deputies.

How does the state speak to us?

Hi, everyone! In this blog I’ll be documenting the progress of my Marie Curie project. My main objective is to create a comprehensive catalog of images and texts that support the claims I make regarding personifications of the state.

(Fig. 1) Oswaldo Guayasamín. Hands of protest. 1968.

I work with a model of analysis that contemplates four essential characteristics of personifications.

1. Every personification is a figurative abstraction.
2. It possesses specific attributes.
3. It resembles a character in a narrative, having a will, a voice and the ability to act.
4. It is designed to impact the audience in a certain way.

Today, I’ll focus on the question of how the state is able to speak, specifically through the attribution of voice or words.

The world of possibilities opened by the figure of personification is huge, as noted by Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician from the 1st century CE. He claimed that personifications allow us to give voice to gods, the deceased, a people, or even a city. In the realm of politics, this holds particular significance. By conceptualizing or configuring states as persons, we grant them the power of speech. This notion is evident in official propaganda, which often employs images and texts to shape a speaking state. Take, for instance, James Flagg’s iconic poster, featuring Uncle Sam as the personification of the United States and his famous address “I Want You for the US Army.”

(Fig. 2) I want you for U.S. Army : nearest recruiting station / James Montgomery Flagg. 1917. Library of Congress.

The state is talking directly to you, pointing its finger right out of the picture, and daring you to put your life on the line. Can you resist the call? It’s hard not to feel tempted to respond like Caravaggio’s Matthew, asking, “Am I the chosen one?” Or, in a more confident tone, channel your inner De Niro in Taxi Driver: “Are you talking to me?”.

(Fig. 3) Caravaggio. The Calling of Saint Matthew. 1600.

These features, “the stern glance, the stabbing finger, the perspective as though seen from below, must have usually elicited a feeling of awe, of hierarchical distance, of submission,” as argued by Carlo Ginzburg.  A similar phenomenon occurs with Pasquino, a speaking statue (statua parlante) nestled in the heart of Rome. Since the sixteenth century it has been voicing “his” concerns to the Roman citizenry through pieces of papers that people post next to it. It’s like a living billboard for political polemics. The German art historian Horst Bredekamp has described the phenomenon as follows: “the practice of attaching slips of paper to the sculpture… has made of it a veritable advertising pillar for political polemic… It was, moreover, at precisely the point when the Pasquino settled into its role as a critic of society that it began to speak in the first person singular. In order to protect the satires attached to it, the figure came to be regarded as a statua parlante, for whose statements nobody could be held responsible” (74-75).

(Fig. 4) The statue of Pasquino near the Palazzo Braschi.

What is intriguing about these artworks is their ability to apostrophize the viewer. They gaze at us, conveying a message in a language Dante termed “visibile parlare” or visible speech. In other words, their pictorial language is so expressive that we instinctively attribute words to them. This characteristic is also shared by contemporary memes, whose impact relies on the eloquence of gestures woven into the images. Look, for example, at this meme, widely popular in Spanish-speaking Twitter interactions, which vividly expresses a cry for help.

(Fig. 5) Meme crying for help

The text accompanying it meme reads “help me, man”. Interestingly, the effectiveness of the message hinges on the character’s posture, resembling Atlas, burdened by the weight of the world and in distress. As Dante aptly put it in the same Canto of Purgatorio, these figures appeared to be weeping and “to say, ‘I can no more!'”.

(Fig. 6) Atlas on a building in Collins Street, Melbourne, Australia.

Now, circling back to our main theme, just as the images mentioned above, the state can find its voice through the attribution of words or by being personified in an eloquent form. Stay tuned for more insights in the upcoming posts.

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