U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Book of Daniel and the Passion for the Real

Bouncing off a theme from Kurt Newman in his recent post about Bob Dylan and the Old and New Left, I’ve been thinking about two pieces of writing lately, E.L. Doctorow’s stunning novel The Book of Daniel (1971), and Alain Badiou’s idea of “the passion for the real” in his short work The Century (2007).


The Book of Daniel is a fictional account of the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the fallout from it, especially its effect on their children. Doctorow names the condemned couple Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. Their children are Susan and Daniel. The novel is fractured, jumping around between periods in time, from before the Isaacson’s arrest on conspiracy to commit treason, to the trial and its immediate aftermath, to years later in 1967 when the New Left and the counterculture had reached national notoriety. Daniel and Susan, because of the infamy of their parents, encounter New and Old Left in ways that collapse the two into certain common tendencies of the radical imagination. After moving around from relatives and then to an orphanage, the children are eventually adopted by a liberal couple named the Lewins. Susan and Daniel have taken adoptive parents’ names and live in anonymity, haunted by their birth parents’ infamous death at the hands of the American state.

Daniel, the character from whose perspective the novel primarily appears, also happens to be a graduate student studying history at Columbia. He is writing an idiosyncratic history of his family and the Old Left. One of the novel’s conceits is that the text, “The Book of Daniel” is his doctoral dissertation. (It’s as if Daniel were writing in the genre of the New Journalism or something.) The reader gets certain glimmers of formal historical writing, but mostly as flashes of insight amid attempts to explain what befell his parents and more immediately, his sister Susan. The formal historical analysis interrupts the narrative here and there, appearing as fragments.

Both children have been damaged by their parents’ death, but each take different paths. Susan, who was the younger of the two, and whose memories are far more fragmentary than those of her brother, is a full-throated supporter of the Isaacsons, believing them innocent. With a trust established by the Old Left supporters of her parents, she tries to start an organization dedicated to revolutionary causes in their names. Daniel, who remembers much more about his parents, is less sanguine about Susan’s cause, and the two split ways over it. A central crisis in the novel comes when Susan tries get support for her idea from a countercultural figure named Artie Sternlicht (a kind of Abbie Hoffman/Jerry Rubin type) and he rejects her out of hand. She then drowns in despair. The New Left has no need for the Old and the martyrdom of her parents. She attempts suicide, and dies slowly in a mental institution, refusing to live. As she lingers, Daniel attempts to understand his birthright and the conditions that led Susan to choose death.

With Badiou’s help, the novel might also be read as a story of show trials and their meaning. In the form of a question: why were the Isaacsons put to death, and more importantly, why, at that particular moment, was their death an example of what Badiou calls the twentieth century’s “passion for the real?” This passion for the real is the basic subjectivity of the twentieth century, the way the century thought itself. It involves a “non-dialectical” interplay between rupture in the form of novelty and the need for definitive endings, between will and necessity. Certain forms of artistic representation or certain conceptual moves in “pure” mathematics and the sciences evidence it, so do ideologies in the twentieth century. Badiou describes ideology as:

a discursive figure whereby the representation of social relations is effectuated, an imaginary montage that nevertheless re-presents a real. In this sense there is indeed something almost theatrical about ideology. Ideology stages figures of representation that mask the primordial violence of social relations (exploitation, oppression, anti-egalitarian cynicism)…ideology organizes a consciousness separated from the real that it nevertheless expresses…The very concept of ideology is the crystallization of the “scientific” certainty whereby representations and discourses must be read as masks of the real that they both denote and conceal…representation is a symptom (to be read or deciphered) of a real that it subjectively localizes in the guise of misrecognition. The power of ideology is nothing other than this power of the real inasmuch as the latter is conveyed by this misrecognition (48-9).

Theater and the theatrical is very important here, because ideology works like theater. Consider any kind of ideological analysis of “the system” or the like. There is some “primordial violence” in social relations that capitalism masks. To unmask is to stage the masks, to represent its workings as say, “false consciousness”—its semblances. For Badiou, this same tendency happens in avant garde art—it “wants to exhibit its own process…visibly idealize its own materiality” (50). The avant garde theater’s concern with mise en scene is critical here because the setting, everything around the story conveyed, emphatically stages semblances. What appears on its face to be a play of masks or contrivances, by bringing the technique to the fore, only exposes further the passion for the real.

From that vantage point, Badiou asks a disarmingly direct and even obvious question about the Moscow show trials under Stalin in 1936 and 1938. If the trials are understood along the general pattern of Stalin’s purges, then why was the public show necessary? Why not kill the main figures like so many countless others who had been put to death and then consigned to bureaucratic oblivion? He writes:

After all, in these trials it is purely and simply a matter of killing people, of liquidating a significant part of the communist establishment. We are in the realm of pure, real violence. The Bolshevik Old Guard, as it was called by Trotsky (its supposed linchpin and himself the victim of assassination) must be annihilated.

Why then stage trials in which pre-designated and most often resigned victims will be forced to recount utterly far-fetched things? Who would ever believe that throughout their whole lives people like Zinoviev and Bukharin were Japanese spies, Hitler’s puppets, hirelings of the counter-revolution and so forth? What is the point of this gigantic sham? Of course, rational hypotheses can be formulated about the need, in Stalin’s eyes, to eliminate all these people. But it is far more difficult to establish the necessity of the trials, especially since a large number of high-ranking officials, particularly among the military, were eliminated in the basements of the secret service without the slightest public performance. For these trials are pure theatrical fictions. The accused themselves, who had been carefully prepared, by torture if necessary, had to conform to a role whose performance had been rehearsed and pretty much scripted in the punitive corridors of the regime. In this regard it is very instructive to read the transcript of Bukharin’s trial, in which a significant slip momentarily unsettled the entire mise en scene, as though the real of semblance had come to perturb its functioning (52).

Badiou’s interpretation here gets him to a central question: “What is the function of semblance in the passion for the real, this passion that places politics beyond Good and Evil?” (52)

It follows that “the passion for the real is also, of necessity, suspicion” (52). This is so because at bottom, the real, “conceived in its contingent absoluteness” can never be real enough not to suspected of being merely semblance. So why stage show trials that on their face don’t seem necessary? They are necessary because the real must be pursued at all costs:

All the subjective categories of revolutionary, or absolute politics—“conviction.” “loyalty,” “virtue,” “class position,” “obeying the Party,” “revolutionary zeal,” and so on—are tainted by the suspicion that the supposedly real point of the category is actually nothing but semblance. Therefore, the correlation between a category and its referent must always be publically purged, purified. This means purging the subjects among those who lay claim to the category in question, that is, purging the revolutionary personnel itself. Furthermore, this must be carried out in accordance with a ritual that teaches everyone a lesson about the uncertainties of the real. Purging is one of the great slogans of the century. Stalin said it loud and clear: “A party becomes stronger by purging itself.” (53)

As part of his Columbia thesis, Daniel Lewin echoes some of these conclusions:

Bukharin provided the most interesting defense of the Purge Trial of 1938. He pleaded guilty and went out of his way on several occasions to affirm his responsibility for the sum total of crimes committed by the defendant block of “rightists and Trotskyites,” of which he was considered a leader. He vehemently agreed that he was guilty of conspiracy, treason, and counterrevolution. And having agreed, he took exception during the trial to every specific charge brought against him. Under duress to testify on cue, he nevertheless contrived to indicate with the peculiar kind of overtone characteristic of Soviet voices under Stalin, that he and Russia as well were being victimized. And what good did it do him except that he became a hero in a novel and an image of sorrowful nobility to Sovietologists (53).

Unlike Badiou, Daniel entertains rational explanations for the trials, dutifully citing other historians to the effect that Stalin needed to purge the party to complete a transition to revolutionary nationalism, to either prepare Russia for its pact with Hitler, or prepare it for war with the Nazis. The last explanation makes little sense to Daniel seeing how Stalin eliminated high-ranking military officials too.

So what is this fragment doing there? Doctorow and with him Daniel Lewin (Isaacson) know well enough that his parent’s trial was not like the Stalinist purges, yet the reader now has to imagine the analogy or consider the underlying logic that connects them. In a similar way, Badiou’s questions about the Moscow Trials do conceptual work that further distills the subjectivity of the century. He doesn’t mean to make a sui generis case about totalitarianism and its horrors. He means for the idea to run deeper than that.

So Badiou asks why the Moscow show trial was needed when murder was obviously the ultimate aim. A central feature of the twentieth century, in his view, is the unreconciled “non-dialectical” relation between total novelty and the definitive end. This is the source of its horrors. A definitive ending to war meant better war that would end all wars. The creation of a “new man” meant the destruction of the old, treating human beings as mere material to be discarded. Stalin certainly meant to destroy the old and bring on the new, but the passion for the real meant that the show had to go on too.

In the Isaacsons’ case, Daniel asks not only why their trial was necessary, but why their deaths were necessary. The Isaacsons were allowed to mount a defense, but it was futile and the outcome was never really in doubt, yet at bottom the American state of the Cold War was certainly not the Soviet state of the 1930s. The U.S. government didn’t systematically and on the order of thousands simply disappear human beings. It ruined lives, but it didn’t efface them from the historical record, or force people to obey a prearranged script in public. Is Doctorow’s staging of the Isaacson’s trial another example of Badiou’s passion for the real? The book was published in 1971, so Doctorow wrote it during the active years of the New Left. For that reason alone it should fall within the parameters of Badiou’s century.

Later in the novel there’s a brief shift in voice where Paul Isaacson speaks rather than Daniel. In keeping with the conceit, actually Daniel ventriloquizes his dead father to recreate the past—it’s unclear. Paul/Daniel thinks, “When the ruling class inflicts death upon those they fear they discover that death itself can live. It is a paradox. Ma Ludlow is alive. Joe Hill is alive. Crispus Attucks is alive. Even Leo Frank, why do I think of Frank swinging from a tree in Georgia, but all right, Frank. The two Italians speak and stir and smile and raise their fists in the mind of history. I am their comrade, they talk to me, Sacco makes his statement to me” (183-4).

This voice of ideology (Paul/Daniel) continues to consider how trials work, their function:

Law, in whatever name, protects privilege. I speak of the law of any state that has not achieved socialism. The sole authority of the law is in its capacity to enforce itself. That capacity expresses itself in Trial. There could be no law without trial. Trial is the point of the law. And punishment is the point of the trial—you can’t try someone unless you assume the power to punish him. All the corruption and hypocritical self-service of the law is brought to the point of the point in the verdict of the court. It is a sharp point, an unbelievably sharp point. But there is fascination for the race in the agony of the condemned. That is a law, a real law, that rulers can never overcome—it is fixed and immutable as a law of physics.

            Therefore the radical wastes his opportunity if he seriously considers the issues of his trial. If he is found guilty it is the ruling power’s decision that he cannot be tolerated. If he is found innocent it is the ruling power’s decision that he need not be feared. The radical must not argue his innocence, for the trial is not of his making; he must argue his ideas (184).

The voice of the ideologue here shows pretty clearly the passion for the real in the American Old Left, representing the montage of semblances at the center of the law, its “corruption” and “hypocritical self service.” Paul/Daniel reveals its masks in order to purify it at “the point of the point.” The agony of the condemned further purifies on the order of pure science, as “fixed and immutable as a law of physics.”

But if we follow Badiou’s argument, the American state should also have had a passion for the real when it put the Isaacsons on trial. This is why Doctorow has Daniel repeat in fragmentary form, the historical reading of Bukharin’s 1938 Trial. Daniel means to establish some equivalence between the two at a deeper conceptual level. He comes to believe that his parents never really had a chance at trial. They were prosecuted under conspiracy to commit espionage, so only evidence of a conspiracy was needed rather hard documentary evidence. While his parents could not be tried for treason since the United States was not officially at war with the Soviet Union, his mother Rochelle for one, recognizes that the state intends to put them to death. She makes a list of the prosecution’s uses of forms of the word treason for her lawyer: “traitors traitorous treacherous treasonous betrayal treachery…” and Daniel interprets it: “Implications of treason are fed like cubes of sugar to the twelve-headed animal which is Justice” (201).

It was a “show trial” to be sure, but the Isaacsons made a miscalculation. Had they done what the chief witness for the prosecution had done—a character name Selig Mindish (the David Greenglass stand-in)—and named more names to continue the cycle, then they might have emerged alive and the purge could have continued. The need for suspicion in the passion for the real had to be satisfied.

But how, following Badiou, was this trial a ritual designed to train people in the uncertainty of the real? In an attempt to get at the moral tenor of the Old Left, its symbols and icons, Doctorow has Daniel repeat an old refrain amidst a depiction of a party rally in the 1930s, “COMMUNISM IS THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICANISM!” (194) The Isaacson’s trial was meant to show the uncertainty of this slogan, to purge that particular “category from its referent” to use Badiou’s language. The communists had to be purged to purify Americanism, but Americanism was always radically uncertain. The American case was fascinating because the state widened suspicion to liquidate the Old Left. It inverts Badiou’s reading of the Soviet case somewhat, where the Stalinist state murdered “counterrevolutionary” elements while the show trials’ fictions satisfied the passion for the real’s appetite for suspicion about the real.

The refusal of the Isaacsons to name a wider conspiracy in effect made them master criminals in the eyes of the state and in the gaze of a historical moment that demanded scapegoats. They fit the bill for any number of reasons. They were Jewish Communists first and foremost. That they were also relatively obscure, poor Jewish Communists only accomplished the aims of the state, to make clear that the enemy lived among all the rest, thus feeding the suspicion and with it the passion for the real.

Paul and Rochelle refused the show and so they had to die. They chose death and martyrdom and became historically significant. Had either turned on the other or had one decided to shoulder the blame entirely, then at least one parent might have survived to raise the children. Daniel is haunted by this idea that both parents, by refusing to betray their principles, orphaned their children. He’s also angry at the state that executed them. This is the conceptual space of the novel, between the distance created by historical infamy and heroism and the intimacy of a family destroyed by the state and by the radical imagination. Daniel’s sister Susan’s choice to die is a revolutionary act meant to underscore the obsolescence of her parent’s martyrdom. Having written them all off not unlike Stalin’s erasure of so many from the record, she dies in obscurity.

I’ll finish with something from a nonfiction essay Doctorow wrote a few years after The Book of Daniel.

  “Consider those occasions–criminal trials in courts of law–when society arranges with all its investigative apparatus to apprehend factual reality. Using the tested rules of evidence and the accrued wisdom of our system of laws we determine the guilt or innocence of defendants and come to judgment. Yet the most important trials in our history, those which reverberate in our lives and have the most meaning for our future, are those in which the judgment is called into question: Scopes, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs. Facts are buried, exhumed, deposed, contradicted, recanted. There is a decision by the jury and, when the historical and prejudicial context of the decision is examined, a subsequent judgment by history. And the trial shimmers forever with just that perplexing ambiguity characteristic of a true novel…”[1]

Doctorow suggests that our passion for the real reveals itself in fictions, whether in show trials or novels. At the very least, it’s an interesting way to read the American century.

[1] Doctorow, E.L. ‘False Documents’. Essays and Conversations. Ed. Richard Trenner, New York: Ontario Review, 1983. 23.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Peter–this is such an amazing essay. So much to chew on. I love the way you highlight Badiou’s reflections on the show trials and the theatrical–theatre/masks is a major theme for Nietzsche, and Nietzsche is one of the inaugural thinkers of the Passion for the Real.

    I do want to underline the juridical roots of the very idea of the Real. Real comes from *res*–the legal thing, the thing that comes into being through Roman law.

    The *res* cannot be too small––the law does not deal with trifles––and nor can it be too big. (Otherwise, every trial would be an indictment of society–this is one of the key problems that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. addresses in The Common Law; and pragmatism, of course, is the ism of the pragma, the object or thing or Das Ding).

    So “real” goes with “thing” and “real” and “thing” go with law. This was a major theme in the work of Jacques Lacan in the late 1960s, which constitutes an important source of inspiration for Badiou.

    I wonder, too, if Andrew Ross’s essay on the Rosenbergs in No Respect might be interesting to read against the analysis you provide here?; and if Jameson on Doctorow wouldn’t be another fascinating interlocutor.

    In any event–wow, amazing writing, generative, provocative, inspiring.

    • Thanks for those kind comments Kurt. I also appreciate the etymological reminders there, the “real” and the “thing.” The idea of “a thing” (Is that even “a thing”) that I stumbled around with in an earlier post does make sense here for Badiou, right? In the way that he sees the twentieth century passion for the real and the creation of the “new man” departing for the number, or the creation of new beings by means of numbers–internet algorithms or the calculations of the market. In this sense “a thing” becomes “a thing” when it meets the criteria of sufficient number governed by algorithms designed to choose for the subject what she might like, etc.

  2. Peter–
    Two things briefly. Is there room in your analysis, via Badiou, whose work I don’t know, for several kinds of “real” at work in a political trial, which we always assume is also a “show trial? There is one sort of real–the actual process of staging the trial, how it is executed, as it were–that suggests lying, distorting, ideologizing by the state(whether Soviet or US). But there is another real that is also at issue–what is the truth of the charges? Did the Rosenberg’s “do” it? If they did(or at least Julius Rosenberg did), does that change the analysis? We know that Bakunin and others were made to answer to absurd charges, as you and Badiou grant. But the charges against the Rosenberg’s were not of that order, were they?
    Second, there is another kind of twentieth century political trial with considerable ideological (and moral) import–the Nuremberg Trials, the Eichmann Trial, the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial–followed more recently by the International Criminal Court in re the Balkans War of the mid-1990s. There was considerable controversy about the validity of the first two at least(victor’s justice and Israeli jurisdiction for starters respectively), yet the passion for the real, in the form of the truth about the Final Solution, was at issue and was in part satisfied. Indeed, questions have since been raised about the pro-European bias in the selection of cases to be heard in the International Criminal Court. Similarly, truth(s) or aspects of it were arrived at in the trials of specific individuals.
    Finally, I guess I want to make the pedestrian point that the ideological production of a trial, its staging, the “how,” has no exclusive, all-determining role in determining the “what”, i.e. its verdict. Maybe you and Badiou aren’t claiming that, but it can close to sounding like it at times.

    • Hi Richard and Kurt,

      Thanks for these questions Richard. I’ve not read as much Badiou as Kurt has, but his reading of the “passion for the real” here makes sense with what I’ve gathered by reading The Century. So this interruption in the thread was really helpful to me. (Thanks Kurt.) It’s not, strictly speaking “the truth” rather, to paraphrase Badiou, the subjectivity of the century, how it thinks itself. In that metaphysical sense, it appears in the gap between the real and the symbolic, the real and semblance, etc. This is why theatre is important. Someone like Brecht (who Badiou concentrates on) by exploring mise en scene exposes that gap between real/symbolic because technique comes to the fore.

      Stepping aside a second, let me think your last question through a little. Every court has “staged” elements, a set of ordered symbols, but I don’t mean to suggest that those symbols always and everywhere determine the outcome. Yet, I don’t think the law as it appears in the form of the court (its structure of symbols, the “how”) can necessarily get at precisely “what” happened. In the court, witness and prosecution stage competing narratives. Jury or judge then decide which narrative is more compelling and believable given the preponderance of evidence yes, but that evidence is contingent upon certain rules about what’s admissible and what isn’t and how the two sides shape their narratives. Then they arrive at the “truth.” So there’s an interplay and slippage there between the symbolic order of the court and the past it means to reconstruct. One of the more interesting features of Book of Daniel for me anyway was how Daniel has a theory about “what” happened (he concocts an idea of “the other couple–the “actual” culprits) while his adoptive father Robert Lewin has a theory about “how” it should have been argued by the defense given the constraints of the trial.

      In any case, and this may seem mealy-mouthed or just sleight of hand, but I stuck to using “Isaacsons” in this piece and not the Rosenbergs, because I wanted to make a point about Doctorow’s exploration of the gap between the symbolic and the real. I didn’t do a good job of that. If we take the novel’s central conceit, that the Book of Daniel is Daniel’s book, then Daniel both remembers events and concocts fictions to cope with the death of his parents. (He reconstructs features of Paul and Rochelle’s life and trial he couldn’t possibly have known about first hand; he even speaks in Paul’s voice). But, and this is the critical move, this is within a larger fictional universe concocted by Doctorow. It’s a fiction of Daniel’s fictions–competing narratives–that somehow beyond that portrays or resembles the historical case of the Rosenbergs. It’s that technique I think, that begins to get at the “passion for the real” by calling the reader’s attention to technique in the gap between symbolic and real.

      Of course, Doctorow wrote the book before we knew the entirety of the evidence against Julius Rosenberg, which only came to light some twenty-five years later. But it doesn’t matter all that much because Doctorow is interested in the death of Paul and Rochelle and how the characters in the novel cope with it. It’s interesting isn’t it? Now we know that the Julius Rosenberg was involved in espionage, but the evidence wasn’t all there at the time, only presumably the evidence of a conspiracy. (So it existed in a kind of suspension for years.) In any case, as far as the sentence of death goes, you could argue that criteria of “treason” were deployed against the Rosenbergs despite their not being tried for treason, which is the point Doctorow explores. If they had named names, would they have been executed? Greenglass wasn’t executed, right? That’s the critical feature of the novel as Susan, disastrously and with no mean bit of pathos, reenacts her parents’ deaths.

  3. Going to do a thing I hate, which is intrude on a thread, but I fear I may forget this thought, so I beg forgiveness.

    It is important to stress that The Real is not the same thing as “the truth,” exactly; it is a metaphysical notion, meaning something like the authentic register of experience that cannot be translated into language or symbols. All three major monotheistic traditions have theological versions of the Real/Symbolic split, as do most of the major authors in the Western philosophical tradition–with Plato, Aristotle, and Kant probably constituting the big three.

    The Real of the law––as both Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt argued, in a variety of texts influential on Arendt, interestingly––is violence and blind vengeance.
    The law forms, in fact, as a sublation of that violence/vengeance–and this opens up a gap between law and the event of the crime. Law, then, is driven not by a Passion for the Real but (I would argue) a Passion for Harmony–a healing of the social fabric torn apart by the crime. With the exception of our own post-DNA mania for forensic investigation, most of the history of the law has not been driven by the urge to know all about the criminal and the victim–but, rather, by the urge to now just enough to heal the wound to the state.

    The Passion for the Real (which is not an internalized ethic, but rather an autonomous social force, maybe akin to the way “patriotism” is said to engulf a nation during wartime) encourages efforts to cope with the gap between the Real of the crime and the Symbolic work of the Law. The trials related to the Shoah, I think, can be productively analyzed according to this rubric.

    Hope this is useful and not irritating.

  4. Thanks to both Kurt and Peter for their responses. I liked the intervention and it helped me clarify, I think, some of my thinking. Let me try to distill what I carry away from your pieces.
    Peter emphasizes that the “passion for the Real” appears in the “gap” between the “symbolic and real.” Would it be right to say that the Real motivates or explains(not the same I know) the symbolic? But what causes it to reveal itself or does it ever? Is it a kind of “thing in itself”? If it isn’t an intention, but some sort of non-personal metaphysical thing, how do you(Kurt) decide that the Real of the Law is “violence and blind vengeance”, while the Law is (also) dedicated “Passion for Harmony”, which IS, I assume, a matter of institutional intentions, i.e. legal traditions. All I can say is that there is a lot being pirated in here without explanation–why “violence and vengeance” or “Harmony”? Why only one Real or Passion? Do we ever see them apart from their re-description through the Symbolic or the Theatrical?
    I get the idea that “The Real” is not “the truth” for both of you. But suppose there are a number of conflicting “Reals” according to the legal system being judged? Is that a possibility or is it ruled out by some metaphysical assumption? How might this work in an actual legal tradition and an actual case? What if some of the people involved on both sides of the Eichmann Trial, plus outsiders who were/are trying to understand what was going on, WERE motivated by a desire to get at the truth? Are they naifs and fools? How would one go about confirming or denying that as a possibility? What are at issue–empirical confirmations or metaphysical assumptions? I suppose your answer would be that the narrative the various participants construct reveals what they mean by the truth. In this case, Israel’s narrative assumes Eichmann’s major role; Arendt’s narrative of Eichmann’s assumes culpable involvement though not as a major player; and the defense notion was that Eichmann was only a cog. But does that make the bottom line a cynical one–we can’t really judge between these three positions which are all committed to some notion of the truth but only in terms of self-interested narratives which arise in the gap between the Real and the Symbolic and in which truth is subordinated? Does the notion of Truth in a trial remain necessarily(or only contingently) a function of, dependent on, the Real (or the Law)? Kafka’s “K” was there first. But he also delivered a pretty scathing judgement on the Real: ” A melancholy conclusion: the order of things is based on a lie.”
    I’d better stop before I dig myself some more holes I can’t climb out of.

    Regards, Richard

    • Richard: a lot to chew on here, and I am not sure I am up to the task, but here goes.

      All of this Real/Symbolic stuff is hopelessly confusing without attending to temporality.

      The Real lies outside of linear time––as in the Freudian primal scene. It happens at some point in the life of the child, but it repeats itself on a loop, and cannot be integrated into a progressive narrative unless transposed from the register of the Real to that of the Symbolic.

      The Symbolic works in historical time. So, in my Badiouan reading of Law and Shoah, the Real would be the crime perpetrated on the victims. This crime is, strictly speaking, unrepresentable. The more we zero in on the suffering of the victims, detailing its horrors, the further away we get from the reality of the Real (this is familiar to me as a veteran of Jewish summer camps of the 1980s, wherein Holocaust education took a nasty, immersive turn; and my adolescent counselors’ commitment to recreating the Holocaust experience for their campers illuminated another important reason why chasing the Real of the crime never works: because there is an undeniable jouissance or erotic charge attached to atrocity and violence, a source of great shame for us humans).

      So the point is, I think, that there is always a gap between Real and Symbolic; we are commanded to seek justice, and that leads, in certain legal scenarios, to attempts at sealing the gap: and in the 20th century, that took the form of a juridical Passion for the Real.

      What might be helpful, here, is to introduce a further theme, important to Badiou, related to temporality: the theme of subjunctive politics.

      The 20th century Passion for the Real operated on the logic of the “will have been…”

      The Moscow show trials were crazy, but the participants seemed to believe that in the dialectical last instance, all of the insanity will have been justified as necessary movement towards the final goal of universal communism. I haven’t thought enough about the comparison with the post-WWII trials, but perhaps there we would find a subjunctive politics of a different character, as we tend to find fascism and Stalinism sharing certain core features but with extremely varied internal dynamics.

      Re: the motivations of participants in historically important trials: I think that, here, we need to learn from Science and Technology Studies and from the Latourian critique of legal studies. Which is to say that, anthropologically speaking, we do not need to affirm the self-conception of actors in order to respect their activities. We do not need to believe in the gods of a group we are studying in order to produce knowledge about that group; nor do we have to choose between total skepticism and total scientism. We can juggle our own normative commitments and our desire to attend to structure as a motivating force.

      The ideologically pure search for truth is the ideological god of modern jurists; at the same time, the law is a set of highly codified rituals and procedures that is geared towards restoration of a previous state of affairs, not the exposure of reality (here, I am merely offering a gloss on what every law textbook says, not trying to make some postmodern point; and we might observe that legal technologies that once seemed to promise more exposure of truth––the Brandeis brief, say––now strike us as overly optimistic about the power of fact-collection).

      All of which adds up to an affirmation of Badiou’s point: the circumstances of the 20th century favored different iterations of the Passion for the Real precisely because the Real always seemed to be receding from view; and like the Passion for the Christ, the Passion for the Real works by constantly being frustrated. As I wrote some time ago, here–the desire of the pilgrim (“If I could just touch the hem of his garment, I know I would be made whole”), as a Passion for the Real/Christ can never be fulfilled: nothing would be more traumatic than actually reaching the Real, touching the hem, jumping over the fence to the grass that is greener.

      I hope this thicket of who knows what helps or at very least propels this conversation?

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