Last week, I tried to sketch out some of the main features of Jacques Lacan’s theory of registers (the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real). I promised to return with a discussion of Alain Badiou’s book The Century, and its argument that the twentieth century is best understood as a series of projects organized around an underlying “Passion for the Real.”
I will try to make good on this promise in this essay. In the first section, I will present Badiou’s argument (focusing on chapters 3-6 of The Century), and in the second (which I will try to prepare for next week), I will explore a few ways that I think Badiou’s argument might be useful for students of US history.
The Century poses for itself the question: what did the men and women of the twentieth century think, over and above merely developing the thought of their predecessors? “In other words,” Badiou asks, “what are the century’s uninherited thoughts? What was thought in the century that was previously unthought––or even unthinkable?”
As I understand Badiou’s argument (I may be imposing my own prejudices here), the “twentieth century” spans, roughly, the period 1880-1989. This periodization reveals a certain lopsided pattern of revolution and reaction.
“The twentieth century kicks off in an exceptional fashion,” Badiou writes. “In every field of thought these years represent a period of exceptional invention, marked by a polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance or the century of Pericles.”
We can all easily call to mind the names and movements that distinguish 1880-1917 as a “prodigious period of excitement and rupture.” But after the end of World War I, something entropic and nasty seems to take over, the return of the imperialist repressed, about which Aimé Césaire was the great poetic chronicler: “And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.” Liberalism’s talk of the “rights of man” is revealed to be “narrow and fragmentary, incomplete and biased and, all things considered, sordidly racist”:
And now I ask: what else has bourgeois Europe done? It has undermined civilizations, destroyed countries, ruined nationalities, extirpated ‘the root of diversity.’ No more dikes, no more bulwarks. The hour of the barbarian is at hand. The modern barbarian. The American hour. Violence, excess, waste, mercantilism, bluff, conformism, stupidity, vulgarity, disorder.
In 1920, Freud published Beyond The Pleasure Principle, proposing the “death drive,” a conatus that seeks only the pleasures of repetition unto death. Many of the most articulate observers of the twentieth century’s developments could not avoid the conclusion that “death drive” provided the sign under which the last century of the millennium would unfold:“something resembling a long tragedy, whose tone is established by the war of 1914-18: the tragedy of the unfeeling manipulation of human material.”
What, then, is the relation (or non-relation) that ties together the twentieth century with the “luminous, creative, and civilized inception that the first years of the century seem to represent?” Badiou’s answer is the “passion for the Real.”
This “passion for the Real” drew its strength from the century’s central preoccupation: “the idea of changing man, of creating a new man.” There is both a tremendous creative charge and an extraordinary capacity for violence inscribed within this imperative: “creating a new humanity always comes down to demanding that the old one be destroyed.”
Perhaps most visible in the various ideologies of “development” and “productivity” shared by capitalism, communism, and fascism alike, the belief that the exigencies of the century demanded a new human––a human treated as mere material––also permeated the arts, science, and the new forms of knowledge created vis-à-vis sexuality. The project of the new human, Badiou writes, “is a project of rupture and foundation that sustains––within the domain of history and the state––the same subjective tonality as the scientific, artistic and sexual ruptures of the beginning of the century.”
Whatever we think of the consequences of this project, I think it can be confidently asserted that this was not the ideology of the nineteenth century, nor is it the ideology of today. “Today,” Badiou notes, “no one gets involved any more with the political creation of a new man.”
Even the most radical political endeavors do not want to “change what is deepest in man.” (Or, what amounts to the same thing, to reverse all that has degraded human nature in the name of restoring an original human majesty). In the twentieth century, on the contrary, to refuse this mandate was to find oneself profoundly out of sync with the currents of innovation and the destiny of politics.
Lurking in the background of all of this activity we find a series of Christian metanarratives: “the new world is born under the sign of the torment and death of the innocent. The new alliance of God and men, as incarnated in the Son, begins with the crucifixion.” “Passion,” of course, refers us back to such moments, and the “passion for the Real” is unquestionably a Christian theme. “If I could just touch the hem of his garment,” as both Sam Cooke and Gram Parsons sang, “then I know, I’ll be made whole.”
In 1905, Gertrude Stein observed that the United States had “created the twentieth century… by the methods of the civil war and the commercial conceptions that followed it.”
It is this split, between nineteenth and twentieth century (represented in the American context by the conclusion of the Civil War, the abandonment of Reconstruction, and the Santa Clara decision) that assumed a constitutive role in the making of the new century.
The men and women of the twentieth century reflected endlessly on the difference between their century and the one that had preceded it: “The nineteenth century announced, dreamed, and promised; the twentieth century declared it would make man, here and now.”
“This,” Badiou writes, “is what I propose to call the passion for the Real”:
I’m convinced it provides the key to understanding the century. There is a conviction, laden with pathos, that we are being summoned to the Real of a beginning. The Real, as all key players of the century recognize, is the source of both horror and enthusiasm, simultaneously lethal and creative. What is certain is that it is––as Nietzsche splendidly put it––‘Beyond Good and Evil.’ Any conviction about the real advent of a new man is characterized by a steadfast indifference to its cost; this indifference legitimates the most violent means. If what is at stake is the new man, the man of the past may very well turn out to be nothing but disposable material.
From this premise, Badiou contemplates a series of variations. The “passion for the Real” meant that the twentieth was, from one perspective, a century of war. The century “unfolded under the paradigm of war”: a claim that can be easily substantiated by turning to the works of Antonio Gramsci, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Junger, The Rolling Stones, or Tom Brokaw.
Total war’s “murderous extremism” cannot be entirely separated from the very twentieth century obsession of “obtaining something definitive”—something final to put an end to the form, once and for all. For Badiou, the desire to “obtain something definitive” is itself a function of the “passion for the Real.”
In modern art, we apprehend this in the various projects of bringing “the relative universe of representation to ruin.” The old must be destroyed in order for the new to be born. We are driven to participate in this process because of the tremendous access it provides to jouissance. By destroying the false, the mediated, the copy, the dopplegänger, the mere commodity, the generic experience, the virtual, we will (by a process of subtraction of negation) approach the Real. Such a ruse or strategy allows for a passionate attachment or inclination towards the Real without risking too traumatic an encounter with its horrific Realness.
Taken from another angle, the “passion for the Real” can be seen as an organizing principle in both radical aesthetics and Left politics by looking closely at the figure of Bertold Brecht.
Badiou focuses in particular upon the following poem from 1934 (“The Proletariat Wasn’t Born in a White Vest”):
Briefly: when culture, in the midst of its collapse, will be coated with stains, almost a constellation of stains, a veritable deposit of garbage;
when the ideologues will have become too abject to attack property relations, but also too abject to defend them, and the masters they championed, but were not able to serve, will banish them;
when words and concepts, no longer bearing almost any relation to the things, acts and relations they designate, will allow one either to change the latter without changing the former, or to change words while leaving things, acts and relations intact;
when one will need to be prepared to kill in order to get away with one’s life;
when intellectual activity will be so restricted that the very process of exploitation will suffer;
when great figures will no longer be given the time needed to repent;
when treason will have stopped being useful, abjection profitable, or stupidity advisable;
when even the unquenchable blood-thirst of the clergy will no longer suffice and they will have to be cast out;
when there will be nothing left to unmask, because oppression will advance without the mask of democracy, war without the mask of pacifism, and exploitation without the mask of the voluntary consent of the exploited;
when the bloodiest censorship of all thinking will reign supreme, but redundant, all thought having already disappeared;
oh, on that day the proletariat will be able to take charge of a culture reduced to the same state in which it found production: in ruins.
Badiou calls attention to five essential points (which may serve as five theses regarding the politics of aesthetics or the aesthetics of politics and the “passion for the Real”):
(a) “The new can only come about as the seizure of ruin.” What Brecht here emphasizes is not that destruction creates the new, but rather that destruction is the precondition of the new.
(b) The adversary of the new is not really represented as a force, so much as a neutral abjection or plasma. As Gramsci famously wrote “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
(c) “A very important point for the artist,” Badiou writes, “is that one of the symptoms of decomposition is the ruin of language.” The art and politics of the century tended to imagine the plane of communication as poisonously corrupted and overcoded—the work that was required, then, was a work that would operate on both the Symbolic and the Real. This tendency, Badiou argues, has also fallen into abeyance. Today, intellectuals speak euphemistically and equivocally: under “the dominion of a language which is at once facile and corrupt, the language of journalism.”
(d) “What Brecht ultimately says,” Badiou continues, “is that the end is only attained when we’re faced with the alternative: kill or be killed.” In the twentieth century, the “passion for the Real” has something to do with the figure of “murder” and the “murderer.” History is re-written as a series of murders: and “once again, we encounter the stigmata of the passion for the Real.”
The passage into a new regime—a regime that comes after the age of the “passion for the Real”––is signified, for Badiou, by the replacement of the twentieth century “murderer” by the contemporary figure of the “serial killer”: the monster who “universally doles out a death stripped of any symbolization, a death which in this respect fails to be tragic.”
(e) “The question of the mask.” Brecht here names the key rhetorical figure of twentieth century Marxism: the mask to be removed, the lie to be exposed and corrected, the falsehood to be swapped out with the truth.
Within a theoretical matrix organized around such priorities, the central question was then to become, inevitably: what is the relationship between the “passion for the Real” and the necessity (is it a necessity?) of semblance? We will pick things up in the next essay with this question.
 Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 36-37, 76.
 Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, Dalkey Archive Press, xiii.
 http://conjunctural.blogspot.com/2006/04/proletariat-wasnt-born-in-white-vest.html Translation by Alberto Toscano.
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