U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“False or misleading in any particular”: The Passion for the Real and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

Why not continue with Badiou and the idea of the “passion for the Real?” The best test of the salience of Badiou’s theoretical project to US history is, no doubt, simply trying to put it to work.

Our text today is the Pure Food and Drug Act, 1906.[1]

I don’t know very much more about this piece of legislation than the standard knowledge one picks up in seminars and preparing for comps. Here, I will try to look at ignorance as a virtue, although a proper presentation of this material would certainly require going back and doing the heavy lifting of contextualizing the legislative history. I will draw on William Cronon’s classic text, Nature’s Metropolis, for the necessary background information.[2]

The section of Nature’s Metropolis that deals with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 begins with a discussion of the late 19th century “disassembly line”: the great Midwestern industrial processing plant’s attempt to reap value from every last molecule of the animal’s body.

“If the packers could devise ways of using meat-packing refuse for productive purposes,” Cronon writes, “it would cease to be waste at all. The refuse would pollute the river less, and––better still––turn a tidy profit for its owner.”

Cronon quotes meat industry magnate Philip Armour: “There was a time…when many parts of cattle were wasted, and the health of the city injured by the refuse. Now, by adopting the best known methods, nothing is wasted, and buttons, fertilizer, glue, and other things are made cheaper and better for the world in general, out of material that was before a waste and a menace.”

The meat-packing concerns installed new chemical research laboratories as adjuncts to their processing plants, and by the 1880s and 1890s, “older by-products like lard and tallow were joined by more exotic items like oleomargarine, bouillon, brushes, combs, gut strings, stearin, pepsin, and even canned pork and beans.”

The rise of the by-products industry, Cronon observes, changed the rate and character of pollution entering the Chicago River from the packing plants.:

Rather more sinister was the packers’ increasing ability to sell products which customers would never have purchased, let alone eaten, in their original form. By shrewdly manipulating bone and offal and even spoiled meat in myriad ways, Chicago companies could convert them not just into salable commodities but into substances which had all the appearance of human food. It seems unlikely that anyone objected to the idea that waste hair be turned into brushes, dried blood into fertilizer, bones into buttons, cartilage into glue. But people were more suspicious about the packers’ sometime practice of marketing mixed, altered, or adulterated products as pure food… Although vegetable shortening and oleomargarine were ‘unnatural’ products, they would gain steady ground in the American market and diet… But other manufactured foods seemed less benign even to people who ate oleo without a second thought.


What Cronon describes here, in the broadest sense, is a series of irruptions of the new. If there is value, for historians, to be wrenched out of Badiou’s brief for the “passion for the Real,” it likely lies in the possibilities that the “passion for the Real” opens up for studying these irruptions. We remain convinced that in relation to the question of the new, Badiou’s model of the Real (and the passions that circulate around it), intelligently deployed, can tell us things about history that we could not otherwise learn.

To begin on non-controversial territory: we know that the relationship between truth and representation changed dramatically between the years 1870-1920. We often think of this set of epistemological shifts as unfolding in the heaven of ideas, but, as Nature’s Metropolis reminds us, dramatic changes in the nature of the material world—in the world of animals and objects––drove many of the new intellectual syntheses.

If we were forced to try to characterize the physics of the arrival of the new in the years after the Civil War, we might describe it as a kind of universal warping. In the scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, and psychoanalytic revolutions of these years, both space and time were made to bend and stretch, guided by a certain twisting motion of the invisible hand (or, to use a term that Badiou likes, a certain inclination towards torsion). The “warp speed” and “time warps” of science fiction are results of this general intellectual tendency, as are the warped spaces created by Frank Gehry and Richard Serra, the warped tonalities of serialism and the warped temporalities of electronic music, as is the warped and warping body of the century’s most profound dance form, the boogaloo.

Anthony Vidler writes in his powerful book Warped Space:

Fear, anxiety, estrangement, and their psychological counterparts, anxiety neuroses and phobias, have been intimately linked to the aesthetics of space throughout the modern period. Romanticism, with its delight in the terrifying sublime, saw fear and horror lurking in landscapes, domestic scenes, and city streets. Modernism, while displacing many such spatial fears to the domain of psychoanalysis, was nevertheless equally subject to fears newly identified as endemic to the metropolis, forming its notions of abstraction under the sign of neurasthenia and agoraphobia and calculating its modes of representation according to the psychological disturbances of an alienated subject. Space, in these various iterations, has been increasingly defined as a product of subjective projection and introjection, as opposed to a stable container of objects and bodies. From the beginning of the century, the apparently fixed laws of perspective have been transformed, transgressed, and ignored in the search to represent the space of modern identity. Thus the body in pieces, physiognomy distorted by inner pain, architectural space as claustrophobic, urban space as agoraphobic, all warpings of the normal to express the pathological became the leitmotivs of avant-garde art. The vocabularies of displacement and fracture, torquing and twisting, pressure and release, void and block, informe and hyperform that they developed are still active today, deployed in work that seeks to reveal, if not critique, the conditions of a less than settled everyday life…[3]

In my view, what Badiou’s “passion for the Real” helps us account for is the very reordering of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real under the conditions of the “constant warping of the normal.”


Turning to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906: from the opening text, we are clearly dealing here with a new legal iteration of the “passion for the Real”:

“ An Act For preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes.”

The language of the Act alerts us immediately to the tensions between the Symbolic and the Real. What is “adulteration” or “misbranding” other than a way of specifying the dangers of semblance and symbolic representation?

At the same time, as we shall see, while “adulteration” and “misbranding” is prohibited, the presupposed “pure” state of food and drugs is only hazily filled in. To rephrase the initial situation in the terms of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real, respectively. The words “misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors” only make sense if there is an underlying fantasy of what food and medicine should be (in the register of the Imaginary); if there are proper names for different kinds of food and medicine, and a network of meanings in which these names carry out certain functions (in the register of the Symbolic); and if there is an unrepresentable material core––alimentation, digestion, nutrition, on the one hand, and healing, the relief of pain, curing, on the other (in the register of the Real).

I would suggest that the phrase “Pure food and drug” here functions as a stand-in for the Real. As is always the case with the Real, it is impossible and inaccessible. It is also intimately tied to the psychic force of enjoyment. What is more intangibly alluring than “pure” food and drugs? What is more patently deadly and terrifying? (We hear often of overdoses that result from the ingestion of drugs that are “too pure”).

Why the “Pure Food and Drug Act” strikes us as an emblem of a uniquely twentieth century “passion for the Real” is the surrounding text in the passage above. The references to “manufacture, sale, and transportation” and the “regulation of traffic” tell us that we are in the world of corporate capitalism. In the case of US history, we know that such terms (in a piece of federal legislation) must involve interstate commerce.

We can fill in that such commerce involves the newly consolidated railway corporations, and the epochal changes visited upon the fabric of reality by the new technologies of transportation and communications—from the standardization of time to the mass diffusion of news to the reconfiguration of economic value to the rise of a national working class politics.

The history of capitalism is capacious enough to accommodate arguments ranging from the insistence that the earliest Babylonian markets were “capitalist” to the refusal of all but the most advanced integrations of labor markets into the circuits of industry as properly deserving the descriptor made famous by Marx and Engels—wherever it is we land in these debates, we can agree that something new was happening in the political economy of late-nineteenth century America.

There simply was no equivalent in history to the integration of transportation networks and speculative capital, nor to the legal forms of “corporate personhood” and the Delaware trust, nor to the ubiquity of proletarian labor, nor to the universalization of relations of credit and debt and the business cycle. European observers regarded the United States as a vanguard in all these respects, and continental intellectuals used “American” as a slur when they wished to index a society manically driven by the values of corporate capitalism.

These claims need to be asserted and re-asserted, because they cut against several professional imperatives: first, that one should avoid arguments that might strike the reader as “American Exceptionalist,” and second, that one should always resist seeing anything as new, and argue instead that it is old. These imperatives, however well-founded as cautions, become ridiculous when translated as maxims. Because it is plainly the case that, in some respects and not others, every nation will be “exceptional” in certain ways. There is nothing jingoistic of theological about the claim that the United States was a particularly innovative laboratory of capitalism in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Similarly, there is nothing metaphysical about claiming that on the later part of the twentieth century, the United States retained its status as global economic hegemony, while other countries––Japan and then China, for example––took the lead in pioneering new forms of value creation.

Relatedly, the scholarly norm that anything thought to be new be contextualized as old represents a danger to historical clarity. Some things are new. New things happen. Or, sometimes, old things are so re-shaped and remolded that they become new. It should be noted that there is a political charge to this insistence: if one writes from the Left, as I do, it is important to have a theory of change that accommodates the possibility of novel developments. (A conservative writer would probably also want to be able to identify certain phenomena as new, in order to condemn them on precisely these terms).

This is a major plank of Badiou’s political philosophy, and it constitutes one of that project’s main attractions. The working-through of the meanings of the twentieth century’s “passion for the Real” in The Century hinges, in the final analysis, on the identification of a variety of genuinely innovative practices and forms of life. It is these novelties and innovations––hammered out on the anvil of the “passion for the Real”––that Badiou wishes us to contemplate. What I am arguing, I suppose, is that historians might rethink the instinct to always contextualize rupture (and thereby reclaim narratives of continuity), and devote energy instead into the project of theorizing the different ways in which the event of the new announces and seeks to legitimate itself.

Returning to our text, and skipping around a little: Section 2 introduces new dimensions of spatiality and questions of territory––inscribing the distinction “domestic”/“foreign” into the split “pure”/“adulterated”:

“That the introduction into any State or Territory or the District of Columbia from any other State or Territory or the District of Columbia, or from any foreign country, or shipment to any foreign country of any article of food or drugs which is adulterated or misbranded, within the meaning of this Act, is hereby prohibited.”

As Nayan Shah and Erika Rappaport have argued, this overlay has been historically an important source of racial capitalist ideology.[4] Whether in the case of the exclusion of East Asian workers from the ranks of cigar rollers in the early twentieth century (a campaign vigorously supported by white unions, and propagandized via paranoid fantasies of foreign hands polluting and corrupting the tobacco they handled, perhaps with devious intentions) or jockeying for position by tea companies (which enlisted an equally nasty set of fantasies vis-à-vis the workers of the Indian sub-continent): the regulation of those commodities that involved the mixture, by hand, of processed ingredients, seemed always to introduce a structuring logic of xenophobia.

This, too, can be seen as a new dimension of capitalist reality—a difference introduced by commodity culture. What the “passion for the Real” allows us to see is that the totalizing critiques of reification and the fetishism of the commodity end up concealing what matters most at the level of granular historical detail.

The main work of coping with capitalism in the early twentieth century was not organized around the mystification and demystification of the commodity qua object. Rather it was articulated to a series of procedures that circled around the inaccessible Real, mediated through the complex and contradictory procedures of disavowal, negation, foreclosure, and over-identification.

It was the force of the “passion for the Real” that brought the “Pure Food and Drug Act” to the Congress floor and it was likewise this force that led to its passage. I think it entirely plausible that it was also this “passion for the Real” that led Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle, and that impelled TR to mythically call Sinclair up to demand to know if his breakfast sausages were garbage.

At the same time, and crucially, it was the very limits of this “passion for the Real” that explains why something like the 1906 Act was symbolically efficacious without really stopping the flow of dubiously constituted commodities, symbolized for eternity in the effigies of oleomargarine and tinned meat. Here it must be reemphasized: a political culture organized around a “passion for the Real” is not a suicide cult desperately seeking contact with some sublime truth. It is, most of the time, exactly the opposite: a way of managing the anxieties and uncertainties of subjective experience by establishing a firm and consistent relation to the unknowable material core of psychic life and human community.

Section 3 builds on the spatial/political work of Section 2, and move us into the domain of the organization of knowledge––the familiar Foucauldian pivot.

“That the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Secretary of Commerce and Labor shall make uniform rules and regulations for carrying out the provisions of this Act, including the collection and examination of specimens of foods and drugs manufactured or offered for sale… or which shall be offered for sale in unbroken packages in any State other than that in which they shall have been respectively manufactured or produced, or which shall be received from any foreign country, or intended for shipment to any foreign country, or which may he submitted for examination by the chief health, food, or drug officer of any State, Territory, or the District of Columbia…”

Several passages stand out as interesting in relation to the “passion for the Real.”

First, the Act intends to marshal the powers of the state (at the time, more or less non-existent) to collect and examine specimens of food and drugs. It seems to me that we see in this language the constitutive reflex of the modern state in relation to the specter of impurity: study, classification, testing. As many students of state formation and the production of political knowledge argue (and against some of the more vulgar articulations of Foucauldian analysis), neither the state nor capital is autonomously driven to create these technologies of examination.

The state’s basic setting is “stupidity,” and it is ordinarily just as happy not to know as to know. Capital’s fundamental orientation is towards finding corners and developing know-how (thus, as Cronon observes, the establishment of research laboratories within meat-packing complexes)—it is not temperamentally “stupid” but it is by nature myopic and its relationship to knowledge is instrumental and impatient. Capital is always comfortable with the default position of caveat emptor.

Something external is needed to push the state and capital to create these technologies of testing, examination, comparison, and evaluation. One is tempted to identify the “passion for the Real” as exactly such a force.

The other detail of this section that strikes me as allegorically rich is the reference to “unbroken packages.” Drawing inspiration from the way some “speculative realist” philosophers have drawn on Heidegger’s notion of “tool-being” in order to produce new theories of ontology—looking to Heidegger’s description of the tendency not notice that one lives in a world of tools until a tool breaks, at which point the integrity of the universe of things seems to come into question, in an instant––we might look at the “broken package” as the corollary of the “broken tool.”[5]

As I think about it, it strikes me as odd how little attention I have paid to my tacit acceptance that an “unbroken package” functions as a guarantee (I suppose that kids who grow up buying in bulk from health food stores have exactly the opposite orientation). In any event, at the level of psychic economy, the diffusion of “unbroken packaging” in twentieth century capitalism seems not unrelated to the operation of the “passion for the Real.”

Jumping ahead to Section 6. Here, the text seeks to define “drug” and “food”—which, as we observed above, we might have expected to find at the Act’s beginning. This impression of deferral, or delay, or resistance to precision solidifies as we read the definitions:

“That the term ‘drug,’ as used in this Act, shall include all Terms defined medicines and preparations recognized in the United States Pharmacopoeia or National Formulary for internal or external use, and any substance or mixture of substances intended to be used for the cure, mitigation, or prevention of disease of either man or other animals. The term ‘food,’ as used herein, shall include all articles used for food, drink, confectionery, or condiment by man or other animals, whether simple, mixed, or compound.”

That these are largely tautological definitions is not surprising (this is legislative language, after all). But the expansiveness—even extending the meaning of “drug” and “food” to bridge the human/animal divide––strikes me as symptomatic.

Similarly, Section 7’s definition of “adulteration” deftly avoids a confrontation with the Real, making a beeline for the Symbolic (“If, when a drug is sold under or by a name recognized in the United States Pharmacopoeia or National Formulary, it differs from the standard of strength, quality, or purity, as determined by the test laid down in the United States Pharmacopoeia or National Formulary official at the time, of investigation”). As in Aristotle’s Politics, the Medieval “quarrel of the universals,” or Hobbes’s Leviathan, the question of the identity or non-identity of the proper name with the thing named provokes anxiety and demands resolution.

There is something particularly scholastic, for example, about this section:

“If the package containing it or its label shall bear any statement, design, or device regarding the ingredients or the substances contained therein, which’ statement, design, or device shall be false or misleading in any particular.”

The use of the terms “strength, quality, or purity” is certainly also of interest in this passage—three of a potentially much larger set of comparison words upon which the law would increasingly come to rely in the many different conflicts concerning similitude, mimesis, and copying, to which twentieth century capitalism gave rise.

For drugs, the Act specifies not just perfect compliance (or compliance to within an acceptable deviation) in a one-to-one comparison between an ideal sample and a given specimen. There is also a vertical level of purity or “realness”: a drug could be found illicit if its “strength or purity fall below the professed standard or quality under which it is sold.”

For “confectionary,” the Act is intriguingly specific, naming the identification of the following ingredients in a specimen as grounds for legal action by the state: “terra alba, barytes, talc, chrome yellow, or other mineral substance or poisonous color or flavor, or other ingredient deleterious or detrimental to health, or any vinous, malt or spirituous liquor or compound or narcotic drug.”

In the case of food: “First, If any substance has been mixed and packed with it so as to reduce or lower or injuriously affect its quality or strength; Second, If any substance has been substituted wholly or in part for the article; Third, If any valuable constituent of the article has been wholly or in part abstracted; Fourth; If it be mixed, colored, powdered, coated, or stained in a manner whereby damage or inferiority is concealed; Fifth; If it contain any added poisonous or other added deleterious ingredient which may render such article injurious to health…”

The Act continues to specify that any food that “consists in whole or in part of a filthy, decomposed, or putrid animal or vegetable substance, or any portion of an animal unfit for food, whether manufactured or not, or if it is the product of a diseased animal, or one that has died otherwise than by slaughter” is also to be considered “adulterated.”

This extends also to a drug that is an “imitation of or offered for sale under the name of another article,” in order to disguise the following contents: “any alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, alpha or beta eucaine, chloroform, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide, or any derivative or preparation of any such substances contained therein.”

In the case of food, intellectual property law––trademark and trade secret doctrine––becomes relevant: the law prohibits “imitation” or offer for sale “under the distinctive name of another article.” Nothing in this Act was to be construed as “requiring or compelling proprietors or manufacturers of proprietary foods which contain no unwholesome added ingredient to disclose their trade formulas, except in so far as the provisions of this Act may require to secure freedom from adulteration or misbranding.”

Finally, the Act stipulates, food might be rejected as impure if it fails to correspond to its packaging label’s stated weights and measures. It might also be rejected, in the case of articles “labeled, branded, or tagged so as to plainly indicate that they are compounds, imitations, or blends, and the word ‘compound,’ ‘imitation,’ or ‘blend,’ as the case may be, plainly stated on the package in which it is offered for sale” if the “mixture of substances” is not simply the mixture of ‘harmless coloring or flavoring ingredients used for the purpose of coloring and flavoring only…”


The point we would want to end on is the insistence that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 is not an exceptional text in its language (or even its conditions of emergence: plenty of laws are passed as responses to popular enthusiasms): it was, in its time, an ordinary object with a certain weight and force within a network of other ordinary objects with their own distinctive weights and forces, and it was within these kinds of structure that history is largely played out. The Pure Food and Drug Act was a symptom of developments that were, genuinely, new; and these new developments were tied to the exceptional character of turn-of-the-century American capitalism.

Beyond that, we cannot say much more without further study. But we do feel that this exercise has demonstrated the utility of the idea of the twentieth century as guided by a unique “passion for the Real.” A more pastoral “passion for the Real” would have insisted, in the Act of 1906, that all packing plants be shut down and that the word “food” be reserved for farm-to-table offerings. Alternately, a more futuristic “passion for the Real” would have spoken the language of calories and manpower, seeking a supersession of old-fashioned romances of “food” in the name of new forms of power gel and energy pellets, engineered to maximally squeeze productivity out of the nation’s workers. Endless variations could be imagined. What we need to probe, as historians, is the question of why this particular “passion for the Real” took hold in a given time and place.

Much of the language we have engaged with above would have been incomprehensible to any American subject in 1820. We still live in the world of the processes described in Nature’s Metropolis, but that is changing, too. It would not be surprising if, within a few decades, the language of the Pure Food and Drug Act is as incomprehensible to our students as it would have been to John Quincy Adams. To think though the conjunctural question of “why this epistemic formation in 1906?,” the theoretical framework of the “passion for the Real” seems to me uniquely generative.


[1] Pure Food and Drug Act, 1906. FIFTY-NINTH CONGRESS. SESS. I. Cu . 3915. 1906, (768-772).

[2] Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

[3] Vidler, Anthony. Warped Space Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000 (emphasis added).

[4] Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001; http://web.uvic.ca/~navsa/Special%20Calls/Rappoport.html

[5] Harman, Graham. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphyics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court, 2002.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt, this was a great read.

    Here are some threads I’m trying to pull together into a thought…

    It seems to me that the symbolic function of unopened packaging — standing for a pure, uncompromised product — might foreground a particular valence in the word “unadulterated.”

    You have the “passion for the Real” swirling about in this legislation that addresses an anxiety about bodies — about animal bodies, about what goes into the human body, about whole bodies or compromised bodies. There’s an anxiety about having something impure passed off as pure, and about making sure the goods match the label, etc. And this is happening at that historic moment of torsion that brings something new in the way of gender: the “New Woman.”

    Am I onto something in thinking there might be here some anxiety about the New Woman interact with or lurking behind the passion for the Real, at least as you’ve identified it in this text? Or did I just out myself as having a particularly prurient cast of mind, because I have combined notions of “adulteration” and “unopened packaging” as somehow relevant to the idea of a virga intacta?

    I suppose both can be true at once.

  2. I think this is a terrifically useful insight. Yes, for sure, the gendered dimension of the “unbroken package” as a loaded social symbol is crucial. It’s a very profound connection, because the word “real” comes to us from “res”–Roman property law’s word for “thing.” And as we know from Shakespeare, the father’s guarantee of the maidenhead of the daughter often symbolizes (often for comic purposes) the impossible disjuncture between appearance and reality. Here, we see, too, the way that the unconscious does not know negations: “woman” stands for both the realest “Real” and the falsest false (this is why misogynists are often so enraged by makeup, etc).

    Lacan identifies the Real with everything, over the course of his long career. But he often returns to 2 provocative formulations: 1) the Real is sexual difference (which he follows up with the infamous remark that “the woman does not exist,” a remark that, as Elizabeth Grosz and Joan Copjec have amply demonstrated is not necessarily sexist, and may in fact be usefully feminist); 2) the Real has a lot to do with Law (I read this as something like Derrida’s contention–in conversation with Kafka and Walter Benjamin–that Law always rests on “mystical” foundations about which we cannot know very much.

    So–your comment is absolutely right, and serves as a wonderful bridge to a return to the case of Victoria Woodhull, whose life and work in the 1870s illuminated the connection of the Real to sexual difference and the Law, against the compromise formation of Victorian morality, as the magical formula overseeing the rise of modern popular culture.

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