U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Further Notes on the “Passion for the Real”

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.


[1] Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 36-37, 76.

[2] Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, Dalkey Archive Press, xiii.

[3] http://conjunctural.blogspot.com/2006/04/proletariat-wasnt-born-in-white-vest.html Translation by Alberto Toscano.

23 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Had a couple of stray follow-up thoughts (hope I will be forgiven my tendency to auto-comment):

    1) The broad point that Badiou is trying to make with The Century, I think, is the seemingly simple one that the twentieth century (in 1999-2000) had decisively ended.

    One way to think about that is to contrast the simple grammatical sense of “the twentieth century ended” with the complexities of the subjunctive mood–the tense in which 20th century radical politics often articulated itself (for example, “when the revolutionary project is complete, the twentieth century will have been the prelude to a better future”).

    The gravamen, here, is that the potential for the corrective “will have been”–the reparative or conciliatory potential of retroaction–is canceled out once one announces that the 20th century is over.

    There may be new projects, mass movements, commitments etc., but they won’t be those of the 20th century, except as reenactment, nostalgia, melancholy.

    2) In the short passage from Gertrude Stein, and the reflection on the 19th/20th century split, I hope that it is clear that I regard Stein herself, and the invention of Steinian poetics (a poetics striving towards a pure art of formal difference and repetition), as one of the key American innovations that brought about the end of the 19th century and the advent of the 20th.

  2. This was a fantastic post, Kurt. Thanks so much for writing it–and I think it’s actually a fascinating post in light of the Roundtable we’re having for Tim’s book. After all, the idea of Great Books links in tremendously with trying to create new individuals–or at least individuals armed with some wide accessory of knowledge.

    As for the meat of your post, I can’t help but think about what I’ve taught to my students last week about Reconstruction: namely, that it was the birth of modern America. The arguments about race, gender, and even class (we can’t forget that some of the worst labor unrest in American history was in the 1870s) in that era seem somewhat familiar to anyone reading history today. I even had a young African American student come up to me after class last week and talk about Ferguson, stirred as he was by learning about the Reconstruction era.

    Making new men (and, I think you could add in some way, making new women) was indeed a theme of the 20th century. I’m intrigued by how you’ll tie this to American history, as I’m already considering many possibilities about your next post. To go back to Reconstruction one more time: I noted during an Atlantic World Reading Group discussion last week here at USC that more could be done about Reconstruction in an international context. My colleagues agreed, and said it would make a wonderful dissertation (trust me, if I weren’t already down my dissertating path already, I’d have done this in a heartbeat!). As it is, I’m already thinking about writing on Reconstruction for future blog posts and, hopefully down the road, as my second book project. This post that you’ve written has further spurred me to consider the Reconstruction era in terms of a time period of rupture, change, hope, and disappointment in American historical terms.

  3. Thanks so much for these comments, Robert. I think this is the key question that Badiou’s work opens up for US history–how does 1877 (rather than, strictly speaking, 1865) function as a border separating the two centuries? I am particularly interested in the way that “the Real” works in all of this. The prelude decades–between 1880 and 1900–that see the passage from Field’s dissent in the Slaughterhouse Cases to Santa Clara, and from the withdrawal of federal forces to Plessy–witness this extraordinary effort to come to terms with the immaterial (that is, non-Real) character of corporate property and value in intangibles (like goodwill, reputation, future earnings, etc.) and also what Cedric Robinson calls the “forgery of memory and meaning”–the vast enterprise of creating a false history of slavery and a bogus anthropology of African American culture and life. So there is all this “non-Real” stuff swirling around, and then there are these manifestations of the “passion for the Real” within African American thought–from Ida B. Wells to “Souls of Black Folk.” I’m convinced, with Badiou, that this is a theme that we need to explore in order to understand this history, but I am still working out how to arrange and organize all of it. So thanks so much for this.

    I feel like I need to call in some reinforcements here! Maybe Khalil or Michael Kramer will take pity upon my theory-addled brain and bring some of their clarifying force to the discussion.

    • Haha, here I intervene then! I don’t have issues with the theory per se, but how it corresponds with the process of historicization and periodization. I haven’t read this particular book by Badiou (and sadly I won’t anytime soon), but I wonder how is his proposal necessarily specific to the twentieth century? I am sure many historians would argue the contrary, that, as Robert’s incisive comment already signals, it can be traced back to multiple historical flows and contexts, especially in the nineteenth century. This echoes Agamben’s use of the Holocaust camp as exemplary case of the state of exception, when, like others have pointed out, the institution of slavery encapsulates horribly what Agamben is trying to define.

  4. Khalil–thanks for this.

    From your comments, I take away a few tasks:

    1) really grappling with the historical/periodizing work that Badiou does in The Century. I think it’s true that what he most wants to do in this book is say–“the 20th century is over, we are now in a new moment.” For a participant in the Left, that means–the project of Marxist mass political movements that begins with the First International is over, too. I think Badiou is less careful about arguing that the 19th century was different than the 20th than he is at arguing that the 21st is different than the 20th.

    But here I will throw out some possibilities in service of Badiou’s argument. The place of God/theology, it seems, cannot be ignored. The epistemological event announced by Nietzsche really does constitute a break. We still had, for better or worse, a very Christian 20th century––but it was a Christian century after the death of God. What would you say about that?

    Similarly, the massive changes in political economy, technology, and patterns of life–such as Hobsbawm’s world-historical event of the disappearance of the peasantry–might be seen as rendering a “passion for the Real” (however familiar such a passion might be from earlier moments) as uniquely pertinent.

    2) Really thinking about Agamben and history–I think it is possible to say that the techniques of the Lager were developed much earlier, and that the logic of homo sacer can be found throughout history (certainly in Southern slavery), and still to say that the adoption of its biopolitical paradigm of power by ostensibly *liberal* and democratic political projects is a historically unique (and uniquely disturbing) development of the last century.

    I suppose what I am saying is that forms of power and control are often found, throughout history, in different variations–the question, historically, concerns their conjugation with ideas and ruses of legitimation and ideological narrativization, etc.

    In any event, thanks again for the always astute comments and prods to further thought, Khalil!

    • Gotcha. Regarding the weight of Nietzsche, I would argue that at least in regards to the death of God, linked to the Passion for the Real as articulated here, intellectual figures identified with European Romanticism and perhaps the more radical forms of the Enlightenment were positing such constructs. How would Badiou’s theories on the Real look like if one explored them in, say, the French Revolution or the Haitian Revolution? In terms of the transformations of media and technology, I see more a passion for virtuality than the Real itself. Indeed, a step back from the horrors of the Real.

      Btw, I think it’s good to converse with Badiou and other philosophers like Rancière when they are trying to apply their theoretical apparatuses to history–often they can be very reductive, but also in their wizardry they may open communicating vessels to other histories that the conventional historian might not apprehend. Kind of like you, Kurt!

      • By the way, by my last comment I meant to say exclusively that your work here communicates intellectually rich, alternate ways of thinking history through. Even if I may sometimes not agree with your posts, in pushing the envelope of historical analysis you also push our preconceptions about intellectual history. Keep up the good work!

  5. I’m going to perhaps be impertinent. Here goes:

    Isn’t Badiou’s *The Century* just(!—there’s my impertinence) a rewording and reworking of an old theme from cultural histories, especially those that focus on the advent of “modernity” in America—namely, ‘authenticity’. Isn’t the ‘passion for the real’ a broadening, across the human experience, of the search authentic experience, structures, and human interactions? – TL

    • Excellent question! The answer, I think, is yes and no.

      Yes, of course, this is part of it–a theory of the 20th century that did not account for these central dynamics of modernity and modernism (concern with the genuine article vs. the fake, the original vs. the copy, the true vs. opinion, etc) would be a strange and not very useful kind of historical theory.

      No–in the sense that “the Real,” as Badiou uses it, is not primarily concerned with “provenance” or “authenticity” as against “artificiality.”

      Let me try to unpack this by proposing a few generalizations:

      1) the old cultural history took the perspective, (or sympathized with it), of an older white American elite who saw small town order, hierarchy, and “reality” dissolve in the fizzing cauldron of urban anonymity, African American and immigrant vernaculars, new technologies of mass reproduction and communication, and a popular culture that was often (in its eyes) vulgar, derivative, and “false.”

      What members of this elite yearned for was a return to an older order. In a way, this *is* a sort of (reactionary) “passion for the Real.”

      Characteristically, it is an impossible yearning–they certainly did not really want to return to the old ways (particularly if it meant giving up all of the new ways of making money).

      They did not want to get too close to the “Real” of an American Eden. But they were motivated, “turned on” even, by the jouissance, the anxious enjoyment tinged with horror, of nostalgic melancholy (particularly the way it allowed access to narratives of degeneration, apocalypse, cheap racist sentimentality, etc).

      So–structurally, Badiou’s theory works, but the “authentic” vs. “fake” crusaders were a rearguard and tragic, if loyal opposition to American modernity.

      2) The “timely” participants in the culture and politics that formed around the “passion for the Real” were those engaged in the project of “making new humans”–above all, those who took seriously the Internationale’s call to action: “we have been nought; let us try to be all” (a more faithful translation of the original poem). Note the process character of this call–we have been, let us endeavor to become… Note also the zero sum character of its understanding of social and political antagonism. “Zero-sum-ness” is a huge part of the “passion for the Real.”

      This coalition included a wide variety of Progressives, trade unionists, feminist, leftists, intellectuals, physicians, lawyers, anti-racist activists, and artists; as well as no small number of industrialists, economists, politicians, and scientists.

      They do not all appear as 100% “good guys” to us, in retrospect, but that isn’t the point–the point is that they scrapped the old idea of fixed sources of authenticity and truth and engaged in new projects that are best described as passionate investments in the “Real.”

      3) The older cultural history is very tidy and neat; it lacks, for all intents and purposes, an appreciation of paradox and contradiction.

      It also lacks–and this is its fatal flaw–a real sense of antagonism as a historical force. Here, “the Real” advertises itself as particularly useful–because “the Real” means “the antagonism or split that cannot be properly registered in language or imagery.”

      To give one example I just came across while taking notes on Michael Schudson’s *Discovering the News*: newspapers in the 1830s and 1840s were very reluctant to print birth announcements, of any sort, because such announcements were thought to scandalously approach talking about sex.

      Here, I do not think the issue was fantasy (you start thinking about babies, and then invariably about how babies are made…) but “the Real” of sexual difference–just the simple fact that men and women exist as incommensurable others, a difference that goes back, in the last instance, to unrepresentable “Real” of biological difference (one reproductive organ is different than the other). In any event, this example shows just how circumscribed and artificial was the epistemological universe of these old elites, and how pathetic and hypocritical in many respects was their attitude towards historical change.

      Here, I think we see a terror vis-a-vis “the Real” (incidentally, the very terror that likely induced the symptoms in the sensitive young people that came to Freud for help, and led him to articulate the principles that we here invoke, via the intermediation of Jacques Lacan), that is an earlier, 19th century mentality or episteme, very different from the “passion for the Real.”

      4) The older theory cannot really address the continuities between Progressive investment in documentary technique and disclosure, the Marxist faith in unmasking, and the constitutive work of left cultural workers (all of which were to come together in the moment that Michael Denning calls the “cultural front”). It runs the risk of mis-characterizing what was radical about such work as conservative, and falsely labeling what was old-fashioned about such work as radical.

      By looking at the history of the “long Popular Front” through the lens of the “passion for the Real,” we can attend to its central paradox–what was apparently most “real” (the surface appearance of proletarian everyday life, in all its mundane and aesthetically negligible materiality) was in fact most “un-real” (a riot of grotesque monstrosities, wonders, passions, and desires); and vice-versa.

      What was most “real,” for Marxists (human nature as “species being”) was to be proven by looking at what was most “un-real” (alienated industrial labor). Reification meant that the world of mediated appearances was a hall of illusions; but somehow its “real” lining could be exposed by means of new techniques–photography, statistics, investigative journalism, field recording.

      Politics, everyone agreed, was a lie–the realm of “unreal” faction and graft, disconnected from the general will–but the means to a “real” politics lay in the representative function of the mass Party. Etc, etc.

      5) To conclude–what “the Real” really introduces, as against the old cultural history, is the dimension of time.

      The “passion for the Real” names a dynamic that unfolds in time. “Making a new human” is not a question of snapping one’s fingers. It is a collective effort that operates via a logic of becoming and retroaction–“become who you are,” as Nietzsche’s maxim, and a thousand New Age bumper stickers have it (Badiou quotes this line at a crucial point in the text).

      The temporality of the “passion for the Real” is tied up with the circular loop of the drive, rather than the linear movement of desire–one circles endlessly around the “Real.” To spend more than a second face to face with the “Real” would be, for most of us, to go crazy or die from shock (we see this illustrated in many horror movies–and I haven’t seen it since I was a child, but I think there is a famous allegorization of this in the first Indiana Jones movie).

      Here the connection with Christian ritual, it seems to me, is profound. The Christian calendar, as I understand it, is organized around the annual confrontation with Christ’s death–but it could not be re-organized so that every day was a Mel GIbson movie. Is this correct? There are popular songs with children asking why every day is not Christmas, but none asking why every day is not a reenactment of Christ’s suffering on the cross. (Or, we might think here of the excellent episode of Louis CK’s show “Louie,” wherein a mysterious doctor comes to discipline an unruly Sunday School class with a graphic description, in modern medical terms, of the agonies of crucifixion. This is clearly a one-time thing, and at that, a quite unusual event for any Sunday School to host. It could not, structurally, be the basis of the weekly curriculum, I don’t think, without so traumatizing students that they would all become militant atheists ).

      Turning back to America: as David Noble argues, all of the older elites who sought to exert aesthetic authority (the elites, that is, from whom the older cultural historians took their cues) by contrasting “false” to “authentic” were American exceptionalists, who believed that the “Real” of Americanness was connected to its emancipation from the vulgar time of Europe.

      Unlike the latter, with its class struggles and revolutions, its cycles of degeneration and corruption, the US possessed a sublime grace, totally frozen in time.

      The challenge of immigrants, the poor, African Americans, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians, mass culture, etc. was the pollution of this pristine “Americanness,” and even worse, the forcing of a timeless “Americanness” into the temporality of the Old World–a truly apocalyptic event, from a certain perspective.

      Space, in the US, for Noble, was then assigned all sorts of tasks that fell, in Europe, to time. So, it turns out, Turner still matters–the end of the spatial fix within the bounds of the continental US introduced a new temporal dimension to elite anxieties about the “Real.” This, I think, is the final reason why the “passion for the Real” is different from, and superior to, the older cultural history–it can properly historicize the turning point, in the 1890s, wherein “the Real” as antagonism–as in Kant’s anecdote, referenced last week: “oh marvelous harmony, what my brother wants, I want also!”

      Proceeding from such a conception, we can see that the various organicist visions of social harmony (prevalent throughout the twentieth century) were in fact false resolutions, at the level of Imaginary and Symbolic, of a true antagonism–an antagonism at the level of two brothers desiring the same thing, which only one can possess. As a Marxist, I think the name of that antagonism is “class struggle.”

      But I’m old-fashioned!

      (Thanks Tim for this wonderful prompt, and apologies for running so long and rambly)

  6. Absolutely riveting comment above, Kurt. Thank you for this extended discussion.

    I wanted to quibble with one (very minor) point. In mentioning the medical-agonies-of-crucifixtion, you write, “This is clearly a one-time thing, and at that, a quite unusual event for any Sunday School to host. It could not, structurally, be the basis of the weekly curriculum, I don’t think, without so traumatizing students that they would all become militant atheists.”

    I think you’re right about the weekly children’s Sunday school curriculum. (Of course, in liturgical churches, crucifixion is at the structural center of the service every week via the celebration of Eucharist.) But, believe it or not, the medical-horrors-of-the-crucifixion sermon is an old chestnut. It’s a standard of youth camps, weekend retreats, revivals — not to mention Easter (or Easter Week) services. So it’s quite possible that a kid could hear that gruesome sermon maybe three or four times in a given year, and all but certain that one would hear this sermon several times over the course of one’s growing up in some evangelical/fundamentalist cultures.

  7. Final note for Tim–I had 2 follow-up thoughts.

    1) If you have a minute, would you suggest some of the texts that might be relevant as voicing the more familiar interpretation of authenticity/inauthenticity, etc? I am thinking of things like Miles Orvell’s The Real Thing and William Stott, as well as many of the original American Studies canonical texts–but are you thinking of other authors, in particular? This would be a big help for me, also, just in terms of arranging my diss argument and remembering who needs to be addressed.

    2) Most important for Badiou (and, I suppose, most important for me) is the question of: what is new in a given moment, and what are the enabling conditions of this innovation?

    So, for example, we can agree, probably, that the Brecht poem above could not have been written before the 20th century (though one can find similar sentiments in English Revolution Era texts); the same is true of Schoenberg or Webern’s compositions (though there is quasi-atonality in some baroque music and plenty of dissonance in the folk music of the world); the same is true of, say, Freud’s *Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.* The same is also true of the Muddy Waters’ “I’m Your Hoochie-Coochie Man” or Thomas Pynchon’s *Gravity’s Rainbow.* And so on.

    The burden of a theory like the “passion for the Real”-as-20th-century-orientation would be to explain why these texts are possible in their moments and unthinkable in preceding ones.

    • Sure. I realized yesterday after writing my first comment above that I should’ve included specific text questions, so your inquiry was expected.

      I was thinking of Henry May’s *End of American Innocence*, Jackson Lears *No Place of Grace*, and Ann Douglas’s *Terrible Honesty* (though my memory of the specifics are the last are more hazy). I don’t have all three of those texts in front of me, but I think they all address the drive for realism (in literature and other cultural products) as a drive for authenticity.

      And I’m with you on Badiou’s burden. I think, to be most “useful” as a theoretical tool, it should enable us to explain what the drive for authenticity/reality substantially enabled—how it created a moment or series of moments (not necessarily ended). – TL

  8. I was wondering about the periodization of Badiou’s 20th century: 1880-1989. Choosing 1989 as an endpoint supposes to me a Western-centric view of the 20th century, ending with the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I’m wondering how regional and national histories shape theoretical discussions like Badiou’s. I don’t doubt his quest for authenticity/passion for the Real ideal is portable across histories and geographies. But is it a flexible concept whereby if you define the century as 1911-1989 (as the Chinese might) or 1899-2001 (as an American might) the passion remains the same? At center, I’m wondering if the relationship of influence between history and theory is a two way street here or if Badiou’s philosophy is interpretive?

    • Excellent point. I do think that 1989 represents an end of the metaphor of “3 worlds” (looping back to the rise of international socialism and the “scramble for Africa” of the 1870s/80s) and the rise of capitalist triumphalism (looping back to the advent of the corporation and maturation of the market in stocks and bonds in London and Wall St, also in the 1870s/80s)–processes that are global in character. But I also think that you are right, and that a thinker like Bruno Latour might have serious questions about the way “modern” is used by Badiou.

      What might be of particular interest to you in view of your research work is that Badiou is a Maoist, and writes about China quite a lot in The Century. In fact, Badiou probably thinks the 20th century ends in the late 1970s, with the rise of Deng Xiaoping and the decisive recognition of the failure of the Cultural Revolution.

  9. It’s taken me a while to begin to read through this interesting post, which I’m doing now, but I want to pause to comment on this passage:

    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.”

    I’m currently reading (am about three-fourths of the way through) David A. Bell’s 2007 book The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Without mentioning Badiou, Bell makes basically Badiou’s argument above, but he makes it about the period c.1789 to 1815. The argument is that that was the period when war became “total” and when Schmitt’s notion of “an absolute last war of humanity” (a phrase Bell quotes in his introduction) was present in the work of certain philosophes and Revolutionary orators who thought, either implicitly or explicitly, about one final apocalyptic conflict that would usher in perpetual peace; this style of thinking in turn influenced, e.g., the extreme brutality with which the French put down insurrections, both at home (the Vendee) and abroad (e.g. Spain, Italy) and the new style of war that Napoleon introduced, one that dispensed entirely with the aristocratic restraints of 18th-century warfare.

    While I have certain reservations about Bell’s argument (at the same time acknowledging that his knowledge of the period and command of the sources is very impressive), it does seem to me that Badiou is perhaps treating the twentieth century as more special, or more of a departure, in these respects than it actually was. (Perhaps Khalil, in his comment above, was thinking along similar lines when he mentioned the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution.)

  10. p.s. Looking at the comments more carefully, I see that you’ve sort of responded already to this point about the 20th cent’s uniqueness or lack thereof, in your response to Khalil’s first comment. (Btw, M. Mazower has a long review essay on violence in the 20th cent. that might be of interest, though probably off on a tangent to what you’re doing.)

    • Louis, thanks for these fascinating and useful comments. (For my own writing purposes, it actually helps to have a long rather than short history of the “passion for the Real,” so I have opportunistic reasons for liking your intervention, and Khalil’s).

      As a great ignoramus on matters military-historical, I wonder, though–if one was to take up Badiou’s position for a debate or mock trial or something–is there evidence that could be deployed? Again, I don’t know much about this, but is there a subjective difference in the way soldiers experienced battle in the 20th century (I am thinking, of course, of Walter Benjamin on shock, and the war poets and the great war films, etc) and the way “total war” played out in earlier moments? Is there a difference between a conscripted or coerced volunteer citizen army, fighting under the aegis of a Volksgemeinschaft, and earlier wars, with (as I understand) a greater representation of professional soldiers and a conception of battle, not much changed since the time of Pericles? (I am putting this in stupidly exaggerated form to evoke a correction, if that’s okay :)) Or, from another side, is not Tolstoy’s depiction of battle and soldiering in War and Peace (a novel almost of the 20th century, if my periodization is accepted) quite different from earlier depictions of war, and is that meaningful?

      Finally–I appreciate the note on Schmitt and the David A. Bell book. I will definitely try to get my hands on a copy of the latter!

  11. Kurt,
    Thanks; very interesting questions. Difficult to answer in a short space, and I’m probably not the ideal person to answer, but I’ll take a stab at it (since John Keegan, e.g., is not on this thread [small joke, explained below]).

    (1) Is there a subjective difference in the way soldiers experienced battle in the 20th century … and the way “total war” played out in earlier moments?
    This will sound like a cop-out answer, but I would say there are some differences as well as some continuities. There is likely not, for instance, an *exact* equivalent of First World War ‘shell shock’ in earlier conflicts. (Though soldiers certainly could be and were psychically traumatized by cannon shot, cavalry and infantry charges, wounds, etc. The future Sup. Ct. justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, to take one specific example, was almost certainly affected in this way by his experience of being wounded twice in the Civil War.) On the other hand, there are commonalities across time, because ground battles, almost no matter what century they’re in, are noisy, terrifying affairs. And there are other continuities: Napoleon’s soldiers retreating from Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s soldiers retreating from the USSR after Stalingrad had common experiences of severe privation, starvation, and disease in the Russian winter (dysentery on Napoleon’s retreat turned “the Moscow road into the largest, foulest open latrine in human history” [Bell, p.258]). There’s a fair amount of work by now on soldiers’ subjective experiences in different wars; John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976), which deals with Agincourt (1415), Waterloo, and the Somme is usually cited as one of the groundbreaking books on it. There’s also a lot of soldiers’ direct testimony (diaries, letters, memoirs) from the time when mass literacy in certain countries becomes a fact; late 18th cent. onward, if not earlier.

    2) Is there a difference between a conscripted or coerced volunteer citizen army, fighting under the aegis of a Volksgemeinschaft, and earlier wars, with (as I understand) a greater representation of professional soldiers and a conception of battle, not much changed since the time of Pericles?
    Well, strategy did change, at least to some extent, over time. (I’m not a military historian and I won’t try to elaborate on that point here. Michael Howard’s War in European History, though several decades old now, is a still a good, very concise overview, though limited to Europe obvs.) On conscription: the French Revolution and specifically the levée en masse (August 1793), which was basically an order for general conscription, is usually taken to mark the beginning of mass citizen armies, though there remained a substantial contingent of professional soldiers, in some cases holdovers from the Old Regime (and some of the citizen-soldiers, whether conscripted or volunteers, eventually became ‘professionalized’). So mass citizen armies predate the 20th century, though the line between citizen and professional (or career) soldier sometimes gets blurry.

    3) On the question of Tolstoy versus earlier literary depictions of battle: I’m going to have to defer this for now, and possibly come back to it later. (In the meantime, maybe someone else will want to jump in and comment on it.)

  12. Perhaps providing a bridge between this discussion and the next section, a quote from William James’s great nemesis Hugo Münsterberg, taken from the latter’s 1916 text on cinema–

    “It is claimed that the producers in America disliked… topical pictures because the accidental character of the events makes the production irregular and interferes too much with the steady preparation of the photoplays. Only when the war broke out, the great wave of excitement swept away this apathy. The pictures from the trenches, the marches of the troops, the life of the prisoners, the movement of the leaders, the busy life behind the front, and the action of the big guns absorbed the popular interest in every corner of the world. While the picturesque old-time war reporter has almost disappeared, the moving picture man has inherited all his courage, patience, sensationalism, and spirit of adventure…”

    (quoted in Kittler, 1999 [1986], 128).

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