U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Preliminary Notes on the “Passion for the Real”

“I have always found the definition proposed by Lacan himself to be magnificent: the aim of the cure is to “raise impotence to the impossible.” The impossible is the Real in the Lacanian sense, namely, what never lets itself be symbolized.”––Alain Badiou [1]

We have nominated Victoria Woodhull as the first cultural worker precisely because she was the first to intuitively grasp the inner workings of the new economy of attention, distraction, and titillation. Woodhull sensed that the play of “+” and “-,” in and of itself, was a machinery of attraction (Freud would later come to reflect on the same phenomenon in 1920’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). She tested the hypothesis that a well-made circuit of concealment and revelation might provide the key to a revolution in attitudes and bring about substantial gender equality. As importantly, such a circuit might prove itself to possess almost magical powers of making money.

The best analysis of the birth of this new epistemological attitude is found in Alain Badiou’s The Century (written in 1999 and 2000, published in France as Le Siècle in 2005, and in a wonderfully readable translation by Alberto Toscano in English in 2007).[2] And the key to understanding its ramifications and vicissitudes is the central notion that Badiou proposes in that text: the “passion for the Real.”

Badiou, writing an obituary for the twentieth century (in his estimation, roughly the period from 1880-1989) in 1999, insists that the twentieth century was not the “Century of Ideologies.” Contra the famous narratives from Daniel Bell to Francis Fukuyama, Badiou maintains that the major subjective trait of the twentieth century was not the utopian dream of mastery of nature or the artificial vision of millennial harmony, but rather an all-pervasive “passion for the Real”: that is, zeal or ardor for “what is immediately practicable, here and now.”[3]

In political terms, this means that the twentieth century was “the century of the act, of the effective, of the absolute present, and not the century of portent, of the future.”

The twentieth century’s “passion for Real” derived in large part from its favored reading of the meaning of the nineteenth century: that the post-Napoleonic era was also the age of the “vain and sublime attempt,” and the time of an “unhappy Romanticism.”

In response to these melancholy deadlocks, the twentieth century declared: “no more failures, the time of victories has come!” The “passion for the Real,” then had something to do with the century’s “victorious subjectivity,” and with the century’s paradoxical indifference to defeat. The century’s faith in victory requires no evidence to verify its correctness, because this faith is not empirical but constitutive. This, for Badiou, accounts for the resonance of the “passion for the Real” with the faith in the event of revolution. Each major revolution sought the final defeat of all prior historical defeats.

The Century is laid out in 13 chapters, perhaps an appropriately unlucky number for so unlucky a stretch of time. In the course of these chapters, Badiou meditates upon poetry (particularly certain works of Osip Mandelstam and Paul Celan), avant-garde art and literature (the main figure here is Bertolt Brecht), politics and war, psychoanalysis, and philosophy.

Next week, I would like to concentrate on the middle chapter of The Century, from Chapter Five (“The passion for the Real and the montage of semblance”), through to Chapter Eight (“Anabasis), which encompasses also his discussion of Maoism (“One divides into two”) and Freud (“Sex in crisis”). This will give us the best introduction to the theme, to which we hope to return in later installments.

First, however, it will be useful to explain what exactly the Real is, or at very least what we mean by it.

The Real (+2)

Here, in line with Badiou, we will present the Real (and the “passions” that circulate around in it) as a Lacanian notion.[4] In Lacanian theory, the Real is Trinitarian: it is always to be thought in relation to two other terms (the Imaginary and the Symbolic). To understand one, it is necessary to situate it in relation to the others. The Christian parallels are inherent in Lacan’s thought. Just as one cannot define the Holy Spirit without also attending to God and Jesus Christ, so one cannot define the Real without speaking of the Imaginary and Symbolic.

“What is this three-card trick we are all prey to,” Jacques Lacan asks in 1955, “this strange juggler’s game between the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real?”[5]

It would be a relatively easy question to answer if we knew who dealt the cards. However —if the “three-card monte” analogy is to hold––I (ordinary human subject) do not occupy the position of “dealer,” nor of “shill,” but, rather, of “mark.” Who is running the game? I can’t really know (my best bet, probably, is to conclude that the game runs itself, and that my implication in it is completely accidental and arbitrary).

The imperative, then, is to come to an understanding of the three orders that Lacan described himself as “forever harping on”: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real.

For a clear description of these three registers, we turn to the writing of the American philosopher and authority on matters Lacanian, Adrian Johnston.[6]

As Johnston observes, the theory of the three registers forms the “skeletal framework for the various concepts and phases of most of Lacan’s intellectual itinerary.” Loosely speaking, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real can be thought of as Lacan’s way of naming the three fundamental dimensions of psychical subjectivity.

What often complicates the project of getting a handle on Lacan is the fact that, over time, each of the three registers––as well as the description of their interrelation––undergoes multiple revisions and shifts.

To properly situate Lacan’s theory of registers, it is useful to consider them one by one, in order of chronological importance. The clichéd picture of Lacan’s development, (which we will follow here, for better or worse) sees Lacan as moving from a focus on the Imaginary (as in the writing on the “mirror stage”) to a concentration on the Symbolic (in the structuralist 1950s and 1960s) to a final bewitchment by the Real (with the late Seminars of the 1970s).

The Imaginary, Johnston observes, is the register “with the closest link to what people experience as non-psychoanalytic quotidian reality.” Since, for Lacan, all of conventional reality is mediated through fantasy (our own fantasies, and the fantasies of others, provide the warp and woof of everyday experience), fantasy and the Imaginary turn out to have quite a lot to do with one another.

As Slavoj Žižek writes:

So, what is fantasy? Fantasy does not simply realize a desire in a hallucinatory way; rather it constitutes our desire, provides its co-ordinates – it literally teaches us how to desire. To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me.[7]

While the term “Imaginary” connotes “fictional, simulated, virtual, etc.,” this is not meant to establish a dualism or opposition (for example, fake vs. authentic), nor to posit a “bad” Imaginary which should be replaced––in the psychoanalytic clinic, say, or by some rigorous process of de-reification––with a “good” something else.

As with the other basic elements of the psychic apparatus, the Imaginary is permanent and invariant: “an intrinsic, unavoidable dimension of the existences of speaking psychical subjects; just as an analysis cannot (and should not try to) rid the analysand of his/her unconscious, so too is it neither possible nor desirable to liquidate the illusions of this register.” Relatedly, the “fictional abstractions of the Imaginary” are not mere fancies: they are “integral to and have very concrete effects upon actual, factual human realities.”

Moving from the Imaginary to The Symbolic: we should stress the extent to which the latter reflects Lacan’s longstanding interest in linguistics and structuralism, which was to become particularly dominant in his thought of the 1950s and 1960s. Lacan drew deeply upon his friend Claude Lévi-Strauss’s application of linguistics to customs, institutions, laws, mores, norms, practices, rituals, rules, traditions of cultures and societies.

Like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan of the 1950s and 1960s places great emphasis upon the notion of “symbolic order.” Here we encounter the Lacan who would so powerfully influence Althusser, the portraitist of a world of “inter-subjective and trans-subjective contexts into which individual human beings are thrown at birth,” a structure or “pre-existing order” that prepares places for us in advance and shapes the vicissitudes of our ensuing lives.

Another example from the work of Slavoj Žižek helps to establish the way in which Lacan’s theorization of the Symbolic––in a co-dependent relation with the Imaginary, and separated from the Real by means of a passionately maintained distance––proves useful in the task of ideological analysis:

Let us recall the scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in which a waiter in a high-class restaurant recommends the daily specials to his customers (“Today, our tournedos is really special!”), yet what they get is a dazzling color photo of the meal they’ve ordered on a stand above the plate, and on the plate itself a loathsome excremental, pastelike lump. This split between the food’s image and the real of its formless excremental remainder perfectly exemplifies the disintegration of reality into an interface image, ghostlike and insubstantial, and the raw stuff of the remainder of the Real––our obsession with which is the price we have to pay for the suspension of the paternal Prohibition/Law that sustains and guarantees our access to reality. And, of course, Lacan’s point is that, if one exploits to the limit the potentials opened up by our existence as parletres (“beings of language”), one sooner or later finds oneself in this horrifying in-between state, the threatening possibility of which looms over each of us.[8]

In his most Symbolic-oriented phase of the late 1950s, Lacan suggested that we modify Saussure’s schema by moving linguistics’ “signifier/signified” pair through each of the three registers.

Using Žižek’s example from Brazil, we can probably agree that we would want to begin our analysis of the scene in the Symbolic register: with the “signifier” (“tournedos”) and the “signified” (the “dazzling color photo of the meal” that sits above the disgusting food-substance).

This is the basic dilemma of the neurotic: we know the name for the dish we want (not always true of the psychotic), and we want a “normal” dish (not always true of the pervert). But when the dish comes to the table, nicely presented and semiotically accurate, we remain dissatisfied (or worried that we are not enjoying the tournedos correctly, tasting it as satisfyingly as others, and perhaps harboring doubts that it is actually connected to something secret, disgusting, shameful).

Off to one side, then, would be the scene’s signification in the Imaginary—where the “signifier” (“tournedos”) would go along with the “signified” (all of the phantasmatic evocations produced by the anticipation of eating, the deep associations of nourishment and feeding in the experience of childhood, dreams of what it might mean to others that one is eating in a fancy restaurant, etc.). And off to the other side would lurk the scene’s signification in the Real–– where the “signifier” (“tournedos”) would go along with the “signified” (the disgusting material on the plate, the material materiality in all its excess, towards which we seek to maintain a distance if we cannot blot it out completely).

As this example from Brazil demonstrates, the Real eludes our grasp—Johnston emphasizes that “the register of the Real is tricky to encapsulate and evades being pinned down through succinct definitions”:

To be more precise, as that which is foreign to Imaginary-Symbolic reality—this reality is the realm containing conscious apprehension, communicable significance, and the like—the Real is intrinsically elusive, resisting by nature capture in the comprehensibly meaningful formulations of concatenations of Imaginary-Symbolic signs. It is, as Lacan stresses again and again, an “impossibility” vis-à-vis reality.

The earliest appearances of the Real in Lacan refers to material beings an sich: to “physical existents handled as roughly equivalent to Kant’s things-in-themselves.” Like Kant’s noumenon, the Real “would be whatever is beyond, behind, or beneath phenomenal appearances accessible to the direct experiences of first-person awareness.”

In the 1950s, Lacan also speaks of the Real as “absolute fullness, a pure plenum devoid of the negativities of absences, antagonisms, gaps, lacks, splits, etc.” The gods, Lacan writes, belong to the realm of the Real—in this gloss, the Real overlaps considerably with the phenomenon that Freud described as organized religion’s “oceanic feeling.” If the Real names a kind of impossible fullness, then the Symbolic can be seen as introducing the constitutive lacks that structure ordinary neurotic experience: it is only via the powers of language that material being in itself be said to be “missing” things: “since, on its own, this dimension of being always is simply whatever it is in its dumb, idiotic presence as never more and never less than sheer, indifferent plenitude.”

Johnston observes that the early Kantian rendering of the Real begins to shift in the late 1950s, towards a more Hegelian interpretation, in which the Real is seen as involving “convergences of opposites as a register of volatile oscillations and unstable reversals between excesses and lacks, surpluses and deficits, flooding presences and draining absences.”

In 1959-60’s Seminar VII (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis), Lacan proposes the figure of the mother as “the key analytic referent justifying this rendition of the Real (a figure he relates to another figure, that of “the Lady” in the courtly love tradition)”:

In the beginning of the psychical-libidinal subject’s ontogentic life history, the maternal caretaker is, at one and the same time, both overwhelmingly, stiflingly present or near and, in her strange, impenetrable alterity, also frustratingly, uncontrollably absent or inaccessible; there is either too much or too little of her, never the right balanced amount. With the passage of time and the temporal transformations of the libidinal economy, the mother, as this archaic Real Other, becomes the forever unattainable “Sovereign Good,” the fixed vanishing point, of all desiring (what Lacan calls, in dialogue with the history of philosophy as well as Freud, “das Ding” [la Chose, the Thing]).

From Seminar VII on, the Real assumes two major functions: it “becomes both a transcendence troubling and thwarting Imaginary-Symbolic reality and its language from without as well as an immanence perturbing and subverting reality/language from within” while also coming to be associated with “libidinal negativities… material meaninglessness both linguistic and non-linguistic, contingent traumatic events, unbearable bodily intensities, anxiety, and death.”

To further explore the significance of the Real, we move to our final example from the work of Slavoj Žižek.[9]

In The Plague of Fantasies, Žižek provides a Lacanian diagram similar to the one below:

Best Triangle

The three angles of the triangle stand for Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. “J” in the middle indexes Lacan’s core notion of jouissance (note that the opening to jouissance is situated at the joint of Symbolic and Real), translated by  Žižek as “the abyss of traumatic/excessive enjoyment which threatens to swallow us up, and towards which the subject desperately endeavors to maintain a proper distance.”

This is an intimidating graph, particularly for historians. Its bark, however, is worse than its bite. This graph tells us, first of all, that the subject’s movement from one dimension or register to another (signified by the directional arrows) is always a strategy in relation to jouissance.[10]

The arrows both constitute a border and indicate an order. The graph then, should, also be read as declaring that the passage from Imaginary to Real always goes via the Symbolic; the passage from Symbolic to Imaginary always goes via the Real; and the passage from Real to Symbolic always goes via the Imaginary. This transit produces certain objects—symbolized by the small “a,” Lacan’s objet petit a, the “little piece of the Real,” Linus’s blanket or Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.

Alfredo Eidelsztein provides some extremely useful guideposts for reading such graphs.[11] Eidelsztein insists that in Lacanian clinical psychoanalysis, the interventions of the psychoanalyst and the direction of the treatment are governed by the structure of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary. Lacan’s model, Eidelsztein insists, constitutes a solution to some of the problems presented by Freud’s topography of the psyche––a solution that takes the form of a topology (the branch of mathematics that deals with the transformation of space in processes like stretching and bending).

Eidelsztein proposes five features of a topological conception of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real that will be helpful to keep in mind;

1) In topology, shape is not taken into account: “That is why it is metaphorically called the geometry of the rubber sheet: because although a surface can be stretched, folded and squeezed, its shape would change but not its structure.”The psychoanalytic implication is that shape of a structure is not determinant in some automatic fashion. Put another way, psychic structures are not Procrustean beds—what matters is the way they stretch and bend. Thus, there is no extreme case of a subject who cannot undergo psychoanalysis (although clinicians report that certain psychotics and extreme narcissists are very difficult to treat).

2) In topology, “no measurable function of distance or size is considered.” Duration and distance, in psychoanalysis, are not measurable with clocks and rulers. In mourning, for example, single instants seem to last forever. In transference, one might preserve intact the claustrophobia of one’s childhood home, having moved thousands of miles away from one’s parents.

3) Topology opens up a new relation between “exterior” and “interior.” As with duration and distance, psychoanalysis requires a conception of “inside” and “outside” that “runs counter to our intuitive (common sense) perception.

4) Topology inverts the usual conception of the world of objects. Topology works with two-dimensional objects and surfaces. Here we encounter one of the key features of the Real: it has to do with the “flattening” and “un-flattening” of objects (the famous drawings of M.C. Escher might be the best example of the strange effects of topological “flattening” and “un-flattening”). “This is not a theoretical confusion,” Eidelsztein writes: “it is the subject’s confusion: we permanently want to make the two-dimensional object a three-dimensional.”

5) Topology deals with invariants: structural properties. We know that the characteristic experience of modernity is the melting into air of all that is solid. At the same time, we sense that there is some structure at work in the universe. This cannot be conceived as some grid or wedding cake; it must be more subtle, and more paradoxical. Hence the appeal of topology, which deals not with spatial arrangement so much as questions of connectedness, continuity, and boundary.

With these topological principles in mind, we can return to the graph above, and consider what it means for us all to be navigating its angles.

One important dimension of this picture of reality has to do with antagonism and rivalry. Joan Copjec writes: “Kant had, in the Critique of Practical Reason, quoted a satirical poem in which two halves of a couple each wish for the ruin of the other. The sentiment and phrasing of this poem recalls Francis I’s account of his battle against the Emperor Charles V: “Oh marvelous harmony; what I want, he wants, too. What my brother Charles wants (Milan), I want, too.”

Here we see an intimate relation between Lacan’s Real and some of the core premises of Marxist theory. If Francis wants to possess Milan (in its material actuality as blood and soil), then his sharing of this desire with his brother Charles results not in “marvelous harmony” but, necessarily, in war. At the level of the Symbolic and the Imaginary, however, the shared desire of Francis and Charles really does register as “marvelous harmony.” It is only at the level of the Real that this desire translates as a contradiction that must give way to vicious antagonism and violence. One can map onto this model much of what Marx means by “class struggle.”

But it is also worth noting that this example speaks to one of Marx’s other conceptual innovations: the idea of the “commodity.” What’s curious about the world of commodity capitalism is that Francis and Charles can want the same thing, and fulfill this desire without killing one another, by simply going to the store and buying it. For conservative anti-capitalists, this resolution of antagonisms leads to the sad situation wherein we all get more of what we want, but we lose connection to the immediacy, the jouissance of the truly aristocratic act of possession. For critics of the commodity like Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and William Morris, the cost of the new culture of consumption is manifest in the withdrawal of beauty from the object, with the mass-produced multiple a mere shadow of the handmade original. Twentieth century Marxist cultural criticism has substantially overlapped with these two critiques. The point I wish to make here is simply that the graph of the three registers is extremely relevant to the sorting out of such questions.

To conclude by way of summary: let’s try to work our way around the triangle, returning to Brazil and the question of food and jouissance.

It seems to me clear that food and jouissance are intimately related. Ample evidence for this can be found, among other places, in the behavior of so-called “foodies” and in the world of eating disorders.[12]

Let us imagine ourselves as ordinary neurotics, doing our best in today’s food-obsessed culture. Perhaps we seek to manage culinary jouissance via the Symbolic (reading recipes or Michael Pollan books, watching “Top Chef” or “Chopped”). We find ourselves inexorably drawn towards the Real (in this case, perhaps, cooking or eating food, or to more and more direct access to food’s essential foodness).

This passage from Symbolic to Real is what is at stake in the cliché that “one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too.” As one approaches the Real, however it all gets to be too much. Among other things, except for its manifestation as a prepared meal in a restaurant, food actually is the disgusting lump served on the plate in Brazil.

One retreats to the Imaginary (warm memories or romantic reveries concerning food). Because food, in our culture, is tied up with bodies and how others see us, perhaps the arrow between Real and Imaginary is reflected in the phrase “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Skinny, it turns out, feels quite boring. So one is drawn to the Symbolic, to the concretization of desire, to the evidence that language and literature provides that desire is social. And so the circuit continues…

Next week, we will try to bring some of this to bear on Badiou’s “passion for the Real.”


[1] Alain Badiou, Jacques Lacan, Past and Present: A Dialogue. Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition. 2014.

[2]Alain Badiou and Alberto Toscano. The Century. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.

[3] Badiou, The Century, 58.

[4] We will consider the broader intellectual history of the notion of “the Real” in a separate essay.

[5] Jacques Lacan, Seminar III: The Psychoses.

[6] Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/lacan/>.

[7] Slavoj Žižek, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept. Melville House.

[8] http://www.lacan.com/zizek-badiou.htm

[9]Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), and Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000). In recent years, it should be pointed out, Žižek’s theorization of “the Real” has become increasingly inaccessible. Even Žižek’s friend Alain Badiou has offered a critique along these lines: “My debate with Slavoj Žižek concerns the Real. Following Lacan, he has proposed a concept of it, which is so ephemeral, so brutally punctual, that it is impossible to uphold its consequences. The effects of this kind of frenzied upsurge, in which the real rules over the comedy of our symptoms, are ultimately indiscernible from those of skepticism.” Badiou, Logics of Worlds, 563. It should also be noted that this softer, “liberal democratic” early Žižek is sometimes rejected in favor of a harder “communist” later Žižek. In contrast to such readings, I think the early Žižek is both more useful and more radical.

[10] The paradigmatic demonstration that subjectivity always involves a “strategy in relation to jouissance” can be found in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, a key reference point for Lacan. Sade, apparently, obeyed no internal censor, and his stories are full of characters explicitly in search of jouissance. This gives rise to the question: why don’t Sade’s characters just treat the edges of a triangle as the borders of a swimming pool, and jump into jouissance? Why do they come up with so many ruses, rules, systems, and narratives? The answer is twofold: first, as Adrian Johnston points out in relation to the adage “the grass is always greener on the other side,” this “greener-ness” is only available to us from the “other side,” and if we were somehow magically transported to that “other side,” access to the impossibly greener green would, in fact, horrify and disgust us (so it is, always, with jouissance); second, the establishment of a relationship to jouissance is itself at the center of the project of ethics—it requires effort and commitment to navigate this triangle with some subjective autonomy (and it is easier, in many ways, to let oneself get caught up in someone else’s jouissance, as in authoritarian forms of politics, or to lose almost completely one’s relation to jouissance outside of one’s symptoms, which is what happens in depression). The resonance of Kant with Sade here becomes obvious. If we were simply commanded to traverse the triangle by some external or internal force, there would be no “ethics”—we would be automata. But there is no “other triangle” to navigate: the paradox is that we have to freely choose to come up with some relation to jouissance within these structural limits.

[11] Alfredo Eidelsztein: The Graph of Desire: Using the Work of Jacques Lacan, Translated with notes by Florencia F.C. Shanahan (London: Karnac, 2009).

[12] Eating disorders are, for some psychoanalysts, considered to be “un-triggered psychoses” or “diseases of capitalism.” Massimo Recalcati writes: “In particular the clinic of the so-called ‘new forms’ of the symptom (toxicomania, drug addiction, anorexia, bulimia, depression) makes evident the incidence of closed psychoses, un-triggered, compensated, where these new organizations of jouissance, especially anorexia-bulimia and toxicomania, appear as the psychosis’ subjective modalities of closure and compensation.” See Massimo Recalcati, “The Empty Subject: Un-Triggered Psychoses in The New Forms Of The Symptom.” http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=393.

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  1. Since, for Lacan, all of conventional reality is mediated through fantasy (our own fantasies, and the fantasies of others, provide the warp and woof of everyday experience)

    This premise facilitated my comprehension of the subsequent typology and example. Thanks for the post.

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