This week, we will try to pick up the discussion of Alain Badiou’s The Century, and Badiou’s notion of the “passion for the Real.” We will proceed by tying up some loose ends, and then inquire more specifically into the salience of the “passion for the Real” to US history.
We concluded the last essay with Badiou’s engagement with Bertolt Brecht.
Badiou continues this discussion of Brecht in Chapter 5 of The Century, taking up the theme of Brecht’s famous “v-effect” (Verfremdungseffekt).
What is this “v-effect”? While often considered simply as a general program for a non-naturalistic political theater—a vulgar imperative to “alienate” the audience” or “break the fourth wall”––the “v-effect” is more properly described as an ideal to which Brecht would have actors aspire, a maxim for theatrical performance.
The “v-effect” provides, for Brecht, the basis for a properly Marxist theater. It operates by means of performative “distancing.”
Reflecting upon the Chinese theater (I have no idea how well this analysis holds up, or what ethnocentric conceits lie buried within), Brecht celebrates the “artful and artistic act self-alienation” of the Peking Opera actor as against the virtuosic feats of pretending (a science worked up with particular vigor in the Russian theater and then in the famous acting schools of the Cultural Front) in which the Western actor engages.
The result of this “v-effect,” on the Chinese stage, was that the “performer’s self-observation… stopped the spectator from losing himself in the character completely, i.e., to the point of giving up his own identity, and lent a splendid remoteness to the events.” This structured alienation was not a rejection of the audience’s empathy: the audience identified itself with the actor- as-observer, and “accordingly (developed) his attitude of observing or looking on.”
For Badiou, Brecht’s “v-effect” provides further testimony for the centrality of the “passion for the Real.” The “v-effect” does not work by saying to the audience: “here is reality!” or “stop believing their lies!” Rather, it displays, under the controlled conditions of the theatrical performance, the gap between theatrical performance and the Real. We need not affirm every aspect of Brecht’s project to recognize what it is that Badiou most wants us to take away from it: that in the twentieth century, many of the most radical artists thought it imperative to build works around the revelation of the gap between semblance and the Real.
Because semblance is so pivotal a term in The Century, and also because it is a very interesting word, we should pause to look it up in the OED.
Semblance, n.: 1) “The fact of appearing to view, in semblance, apparent visible, to be seen” (Obs. 14th c.); 2a) “The appearance or outward aspect of a person or thing” (14th c.; see Shakespeare, Henry VI, Pt. 2 iii. ii. 162, 1594: “A timely parted ghost, Of ashie semblance”; Matthew Arnold, Ess. Crit. ix. 283, 1865: “It may be the vulgar part of human nature which busies itself with the semblance and doings of living sovereigns”).
The “appearance or outward aspect of a person or thing” has a certain poignancy: it implies the limitations of vision, and the possibility (maybe even the certainty) of a failure of the inside to match up with the outside. Hence, the Matthew Arnold quote, which strikes the reader versed in political theology as particularly interesting. The “semblance” of living sovereigns implies, necessarily, a genuine fleshly inside of sovereignty? What is sovereignty but semblance?
2b) “The form, likeness or image of a person or thing, considered in regard to another that is similar. Chiefly in phrases, as to the semblance of; to have or take the semblance of; in (the) semblance of, in likeness of, so as to resemble; of one’s semblance, resembling him” (14th c.); 3a) “A person’s appearance or demeanor, expressive of his thoughts, feelings, etc., or feigned in order to hide them” (15th c., see Shakespeare As you like It (1623) i. iii. 121 “Weele haue a swashing and a marshall outside, As manie other mannish cowards haue, That doe outface it with their semblances”).
Here we see the link between semblance and the more familiar word “resemblance.” To “have an appearance” is already to function within a network of differences (I imagine that a useful example here would be history of forensic identification of suspects, from police drawings and indentikits to facial recognition software).
It is also to invoke the specter of mimesis (“considered in regard to another that its is similar”) and dissimulation (“or feigned in order to hide them”). Personality as a series of cuts within a network of arbitrary differences, and the fascinations and terrors of mimesis and dissimulation: here we have set the table for much of what would occupy thinkers of the “social” in post-Jacksonian America; the keynote speaker at our dinner should of course be Karen Halttunen, whose classic studies of appearance and dissimulation in the nineteenth century continue to inspire and fascinate.
4a) An appearance or outward seeming of (something which is not actually there or of which the reality is different from its appearance). (Shakespeare Henry V, ii. ii. 114, 1623: “With patches, colours, and with formes being fetcht From glist’ring semblances of piety”; Milton Paradise Lost i. 529, 1667: “With high words, that bore Semblance of worth not substance.); 4b) “An apparition or vision (of a person, etc.).” (15th c.); 4c) “With negative (or equivalent): Even the appearance, the bare appearance.” (Macaulay Hallam’s Constit. Hist. in Crit. Ess. I. 128, 1843: “When the former wished to put his own brother to death, without even the semblance of a trial”; 4d) in semblance, in seeming, in appearance (only); (J. Bryce Holy Rom. Empire iii. 29, 1864: “So was his government Roman in semblance rather than in fact”; 4e) In generalized sense and quasi-personification (T. Carlyle Chartism v. 44, 1839: “It is the heyday of Imposture; of Semblance recognizing itself, and getting itself recognized, for Substance”; T. Carlyle On Heroes vi. 382, 1841: “The return of mankind to Reality and Fact, now that they were perishing of Semblance and Sham”).
In this set of definitions, we see the moralizing force of a culture deeply worries about the consequences of identity-in-difference, mimesis, and dissimulation. It is no surprise to discover here that the conservative moralist Thomas Carlyle, the ideological adversary who would nevertheless inspire Karl Marx and John Ruskin, provides the later quotations (“It is the heyday of Imposture; of Semblance recognizing itself, and getting itself recognized, for Substance”) and (“The return of mankind to Reality and Fact, now that they were perishing of Semblance and Sham”).
“Semblance” here is also seen in its juridical robes—what is the “mere semblance” of justice in a mock trial? As Badiou asks, elsewhere, why did the sociopathic rulers of the twentieth century not just “disappear” and murder all of their adversaries? If such actions were properly explained (and any explanation would have been received as “proper”), the faithful would go along with the claim that such actions were “necessary.” I will leave the question open, and tack on the supplementary question of whether the fact that “semblance” is the key word here tells us something more about the “obscene underbelly” of the representational order.
5) A person or thing that resembles another; a likeness, image, or copy of. (Shakespeare Lucrece sig. I2v, 1594 “No more then waxe shall be accounted euill, Wherein is stampt the semblance of a Deuill”; J. Ruskin Mod. Painters II. 82, 1846: “The fact of our deriving constant pleasure from whatever is a type or semblance of divine attributes”; 6) The fact or quality of being like something; likeness, resemblance. (16th c.); 7) Likelihood, probability. Obs. (16th c.); 8) Phr. to make semblance: to make an appearance or pretense. Const. of (something, doing something); also with clause introduced by that, as if, as though; also with inf. (16th c.)
In these final definitions, we see the extraordinary degree to which “semblance” gains its full meaning from languages of power. To resemble is to have a power of manifesting in the world in a certain way.
The historical articulation of semblance as “probability” speaks to the overlap of the latter term with “what the powerful believed to be true or likely.” As Ian Hacking explains, “probability” was, until quite recently, separated from the predictive functions of the sciences and the proofs generated by experimentation with flipped coins.
In fact, those experiments had problems too, for reasons not unrelated to the politics of semblance. The “work of resembling” that early modern currency was meant to perform was not purely iconic. A coin was not a mere token. As we all recall, specie was issued at a certain weight. If an enterprising subject was to scrape and clip a sovereign coin, he or she might well be able to melt down the shavings and sell the metal. (Such infra-political get-rich-quick schemes gave rise to the modernization of torture, under the auspices of Sir Isaac Newton, who hated the coin clippers with a fiery passion). In a neat allegory, then, coin-toss experiments could not be conducted in a systematic way, because no one could be entirely sure that the flipped coin was not a clipped coin.
Returing to Badiou. “Distancing” Badiou writes, “conceived as the way that semblance works out its proper distance from the Real––can be taken as an axiom of the century’s art, and of ‘avant-garde’ art especially.”
“More profoundly,” Badiou writes, the “v-effect” “dismantles the intimate and necessary links joining the Real to semblance, links resulting from the fact that semblance is the true situating principle of the Real, that which localizes and renders visible the brutal effects of the Real’s contingency.”
“The twentieth century,” Badious insists, “was obsessed with the “relationship between real violence and semblance, face and mask, nudity and disguise.”
The history of Marxism (the movement to which Brecht’s theater pledged fealty) provides endless examples. “Ideology” became the central theme of political and cultural analysis within the traditions of historical and dialectical materialism: “a notion designating the dissimulating power of false consciousness with regard to a de-centred Real that is neither grasped nor localized.”
There were, of course, roads not taken. It was not entirely fated that “ideology” would become Marxism’s organizing principle. Properly speaking, the “critique of ideology” was initiated by Kant, not Marx. The particular twist that Marx put on ideology critique derived from his earlier critique of religion, and this articulation was largely ignored by subsequent generations of Marxists. As Kojin Karatani observes, Marx moved on from a critique of ideology/religion in his early years to the quite different project of a “critique of political economy.” The latter project was far more epistemologically complex and dialectical than the later Marxisms would allow.
Instead, by the turn of the twentieth century, “Marxism” was to be defined by the interventions of Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, and the Webbs (and soon Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci, Stalin and Mao). In their thought was mixed various strands of bourgeois sociology, republican populism, Protestant moralism, English dissenting spirituality, repurposed Hegelianisms, and a radicalized version of the political philosophy of Machiavelli. Marx was often visible only on the distant horizon.
Ideology came to mean “the crystallization of the ‘scientific’ certainty whereby representations and discourses must be read as masks of a Real that they both denote and conceal.”
Ideology was the realm of “montage,” an endless “imaginary montage that nevertheless re-presents a Real.”
Since we have the dictionary out, let’s look up “montage,” too:
Montage, n. and adj. (1914 in this sense; 1604 in an isolated attestation in sense ‘action of ascending’, 1765 in sense of ‘operation of assembling the parts of a mechanism to make it work’): a) Film and Television. The process or technique of selecting, editing, and piecing together separate sections of film to form a continuous whole; a sequence or picture resulting from such a process. (I. Montagu tr. V. I. Pudovkin, On Film Technique, 179, 1929: “It is important to gain a clear conception of the activities embraced here by the word editing. The word used by Pudovkin, the German and French word, is montage. Its only possible English equivalent is editing”; Observer, 5 Oct. 20/4, 1930: “Montage, or constructive cutting…is simply the method of building up a film from broken and isolated strips of celluloid”); b) “The act or process of producing a composite picture by combining several different pictures or pictorial elements so that they blend with or into one another; a picture so produced. See also photomontage n. 1958 (Observer,18 May 16/5, 1958: “They see, upon the pink and gold jacket [of a book], a montage of representative faces of the period.”); 2) “In extended use: a mixture, blend, or medley of various elements; a pastiche, miscellany; (also) the process of making such a mixture.”
For Badiou, if “semblance” is the content of twentieth century Marxist projects, then “montage” is the corresponding form. The Brechtian “v-effect” consolidates this point by presenting a “montage of semblance.” It thus provides a rich illustration of the twentieth-century Marxist conception of ideology: as a montage, it illustrates the way in which consciousness derives from the Real; as a montage of semblance it exposes the limits of conventional perception.
Brecht’s theater, Badiou points out, is didactic: one can only understand the twentieth century Left’s “passion for the Real” if one first comes to terms with its iron clad faith in didacticism.
The “v-effect” provides a didactic exposition of the fact that “the violence of the Real is only effective in the gap between the real effect and its dominant representation.”
The circuit of twentieth century Marxist thought is thus scratched onto the circuitboard in the following way: “representation is a symptom (to be read or deciphered) of a Real that it subjectively localizes in the guise of misrecognition.”
The word “symptom”obviously indicates, Badiou insists, “that the century’s Marxism and its psychoanalysis have something in common.” And, as we have noted, Badiou frequently quotes Lacan’s Seminar RSI: “It was Marx who invented the symptom.” What does this mean?
Let’s call to mind the Lacanian graph of Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real that we looked at the other week:
This is a topological model, like a torus or möbius strip: the triangle exists in two dimensions, on a flat plane, while the middle of the triangle opens up into the three-dimensional space of jouissance. From any point on the triangle, then, the inside appears only as a highly distorted blot; and the same is true looking out at the triangle from the inside of jouissance. The name for this situation is anamorphosis.
As Slavoj Žižek explains: “A part of the picture which, looked at from straight in front, appears as a meaningless blotch takes on the contours of a known object when we shift our position and look at the picture from an angle.”
The most famous example of anamorphosis in the history of art is likely Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1553)––the image at the top of this post. In The Ambassadors, an apparent stain on the surface of the canvas reveals itself as a skull when viewed from the correct angle. (This painting appeared on the cover of one of Lacan’s published seminars, and pops up frequently in Lacanian discussion) In any event, the point here is that symptoms appear (when they appear) anamorphotically: this is as true in Marx’s work as it is in Freud’s.
It may be helpful here to refer to a classic text on the paradoxes of movement between two (“Flatland”) and three (“Spaceland”) dimensions, Edwin Abbott’s Flatland.
Place a penny on the middle of one of your tables in Space; and leaning over it, look down upon it. It will appear a circle. But now, drawing back to the edge of the table, gradually lower your eye (thus bringing yourself more and more into the condition of the inhabitants of Flatland), and you will find the penny becoming more and more oval to your view; and at last when you have placed your eye exactly on the edge of the table (so that you are, as it were, actually a Flatlander) the penny will then have ceased to appear oval at all, and will have become, so far as you can see, a straight line. The same thing would happen if you were to treat in the same way a Triangle, or Square, or any other figure cut out of pasteboard. As soon as you look at it with your eye on the edge on the table, you will find that it ceases to appear to you a figure, and that it becomes in appearance a straight line… When I was in Spaceland I heard that your sailors have very similar experiences while they traverse your seas and discern some distant island or coast lying on the horizon. The far-off land may have bays, forelands, angles in and out to any number and extent; yet at a distance you see none of these (unless indeed your sun shines bright upon them revealing the projections and retirements by means of light and shade), nothing but a grey unbroken line upon the water.
What this excerpt from Flatland illustrates, I hope, is that the business of the “passion for the Real” cannot simply be conceived as a simply binary (authentic/fake, truth/lie). That the sailor sees a line in the distance, rather than islands and inlets, is not a question of duping that calls for a debunking. It is something much more profound.
Furthermore, the great minds of the twentieth century like Bertolt Brecht acknowledged that such a view was inadequate, even if their impulse to didacticism might seem to have implied otherwise. For Brecht, as we have seen, the resolution of this dilemma lay in a will to expose the gap separating semblance from the Real. The burden of this work lay in coming to terms with the symptom as anamorphotic blot.
If those who assumed a position of aesthetic authority were to properly weaponize the “passion for the Real,” they would have to find ways of presenting such a conception to the people. But they were often only dimly aware that this was the task for which they had signed up, and that they lacked the tools to perform the necessary work. From this dilemma derived much of the pathos of twentieth century political art, and also much of its embarrassing paternalism and literalism.
Seen from a different angle, we might say that those best able to highlight the gap between semblance and Real for political purposes were not didacticists like Pete Seeger or Michael Moore, but surrealists like Little Richard, Sun Ra, Kathy Acker, and Missy Elliott.
We will continue with this discussion in the coming weeks, but in the concluding section I would like to bring in some materials, assembled more or less at random, from the dossiers of US history, in order to begin to think about the “passion for the Real” as an analytic category.
I will choose as my text a book that I have not read before: Roger H. Bernhardt and Ann Burkhart’s Real Property in a Nutshell.
I have chosen a few lines, more or less randomly. Let’s see where they lead us.
I will try to approach the text as innocently as possible, proceeding from the simple premise that property relations stand at the center of capitalism, and that if contemporary capitalist property law has a category called “real property” (a category important enough that lazy law students are moved to purchase quickie study guides), that should be of interest to us qua students of the history of the capitalism who are also fascinated by Badiou’s notion of the “passion for the Real.”
What do Bernhardt and Burkhart tell us? First: “Real property (realty) consists of land and objects that are permanently affixed to land, such as trees and buildings.” This tells us a number of things. “Real,” for the purposes of property law, assimilates land and objects that are permanently affixed to land. One anticipates that “permanence” and “fixity” will come to be central terms, to be defined further as “legal fictions.” After all, nothing is really permanent, and no fixation is forever.
Furthermore, we know that we must be in the world of the State, with more general laws about land and property, and that behind this “realness” stands the violence that the State monopolizes. This category (“real property”) exists, in other words, because someone will show up to inflict harm if anyone should decide on their own that the law is null and void.
“Real property generally is immovable, whereas personal property (personalty) consists of movable objects.”
Immovability, like permanence, seems to me to be a quite relative term, but we understand the meaning here. What is more provocative is the dualism here established: the Real versus the personal. All of a sudden, we are in the realm of “personhood.” And this “personhood” seems to be defined by objects and possessions––objects that, in their movability, can circulate in a certain way that “Real” property cannot.
If we reflect more deeply upon this, the distinction becomes more macabre. We know that certain persons are not, for the state, persons: prisoners, for example, or those whose paperwork is not perfect. Mike Brown of Ferguson, MO seems not to have been fully a person to Darren Wilson, and Trayvon Martin seems not to have been fully a person to George Zimmerman. At least in my understanding: because a person is someone whom another person may not kill, without automatically setting in motion a legal process seeking to process the harm done to the community.
And if I have misrepresented these violent men, Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman, I do not exaggerate at all in regard to their thousands of fans, or in regard to the journalists who think that discovery of a marijuana cigarette smoked or gang sign thrown renders a person a non-person under the meaning of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Women, we recall, were not persons until recently. We live in a culture that seeks to punish women for even the slightest gesture in the direction of asserting full and unrestrained personhood.
Corporations are persons—this is an old notion, we have been living with it for over a century, though the Citizens United (2009) decision has brought out may of the nastiest implications of this legal fiction.
For many pro-life activists, fetuses are persons.
For many ecologists, feminists, and animal rights philosophers, persons are not persons: the distinction between animal and human, which lies at the heart of Western conceptions of “personhood” represents an act of violence, hubris, or narcissism. Even liberals and conservatives know, however, that treating animals well is an important part of being a person: otherwise, we would not understand why the “Humane Society” is named as it is.
“Personal property,” Bernhardt and Burkhart continue, “can be tangible, such as a book or car, or intangible, such as an idea or the good will of a business.”
If we know a little bit of history, we know that this idea of “property in intangibles,” while very modern-sounding, actually has very deep roots in the common law. We also know that the apparent incommensurability of the different classes of objects that Bernhardt and Ann Burkhart have so far introduced has tended to generate deep conflicts. Does this not help us understand what Fredric Jameson means when he describes “class struggle” as the Real?
The closed world of “real property” does not require an epistemological orientation much more sophisticated than that which guided the compilation of the Domesday Book. In contrast, personal property—these loose and difficult-to-track objects, sometimes invisible and imaginary, immersed in the matrix of semblance––requires a more developed ontology and a more flexible notation.
An important category of “personalty” is “chattels.” In the context of US history, then, to invoke “personal property” introduces the terror and shame of slavery. The category of property from which “personhood” largely derives was itself the container in which millions of humans were situated, by law, as persons without any of the rights of personhood, objects to be used as the expression of another’s will.
Bernhardt and Burkhart do not get into any of this. But surely it hovers in the white space of the text?
“Property law,” however, “largely consists of issues relating to real property, rather than to personal property.”
The text continues.
The three most commonly studied topics concerning possession are: (1) “possession of unowned and owned personal property,” (2) “gifts,” and (3) “adverse possession.”
Here, we would want to pause to note just how remarkable a sentence this is. We are introduced to the topic of “possession”––which is, semantically, so much a richer term than “ownership,” implying, as it does, spiritual capture––and asked to prepare to think about three very strange categories of the relation between self and object.
How can property be “unowned”? Isn’t property only property by virtue of being owned? Isn’t “unowned property” simply a synonym for that old-fashioned term “Nature”?
The “gift”––as we know from a century of anthropological speculation and the later works of Rene Girard and Jacques Derrida––is also a very complicated sort of object. To come into being, the “gift” must travel through a minimal network of debt and obligation, and at the same time, as an object that cannot be sold, the “gift” stands as one margin (the “hoard” is the other) of capitalism, always threatening to undermine the system of exchange for profit. The “gift” also concerns the state in many ways: for the purposes of taxation, of course, but also in all manner of bizarre limit cases. For example, as Susanne Lundin has documented, the complexities of organ donation require new juridical technologies of suspicion, designed to make sure that the “gift” of a kidney is not, surreptitiously, the sale of a kidney.
And the final category–“adverse possession”––guides us to the navel of property law’s Real (and hence to the black box that sits at the center of capitalism’s operating system): to Roman law’s res nullius and ferae naturae, to mine and thine, to name and title, to the private and the common. Do we not need to think about what lies below this navel and what resides within this black box–this Real to which we passionately orient ourselves–to understand what is most fundamental about the history of capitalism?
Brecht, Bertolt, and John Willett. Brecht on Theatre; The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.
Karatani, Kojin. Transcritique on Kant and Marx. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003.
Abbott, Edwin Abbott, and Ian Stewart. The Annotated Flatland A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
 Roger H. Bernhardt and Ann Burkhart’s Real Property in a Nutshell, 6th (West Nutshell). Thomson West Law. Kindle Edition.
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