Deep structure by Colin MacCabe

The word “reality” is bandied about by everyone from Immanuel Kant to Marianne Faithfull. In trying to pin it down, Colin MacCabe finds fractious definitions for a slippery word

Colin MacCabeIllustration by Kim Laughton

In the 1980s we developed a new sense for the word “reality”. Just listen to Marianne Faithfull’s 1979 single, “Broken English”: “It’s not my reality.” Faithfull is claiming that that which is most objectivised – reality – is directly related to a subjective point of view – “my”. The possessive adjective may be substituted for a wide variety of references – African-American, female, senior. Although this sense is new, the flash between subjective and objective is built into the very structure of the word reality. It is derived ultimately from one of the most central categories of the semantic universe of the Roman Empire – res– thing. That universe crumbled before the onslaught of the German tribes, but many of those tribes learned Latin and when they began to emerge as nation-states at the beginning of the Middle Ages they had conjured an adjective – “real” – out of the Latin res, where real was a legal category that distinguished property from persons.

The dictionaries tell us that it was this literal sense that was soon borrowed from the law faculty by philosophers in the arts faculty, where real refers to that which underlies the surface of things. However, dictionary entries are ambiguous and, as so often, one may doubt whether the literal meaning actually predates the metaphorical. There are two crucial philosophical debates where real plays a crucial role. First Thomas Aquinas’ argument for transubstantiation, which asserts that the real body of Christ is present in the Sacrament. This would prove one of the key distinctions between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. Real was also a key term in the debates that oppose nominalists to universalists. For the universalist, real denoted the most fundamental of being – the Platonic ideas that play beneath the evanescent surface of things and are the ultimate constituents of reality.colin maccabe 2Illustration by Kim Laughton

To this idea of reality as what lies below the apparent surface of things is added in the late 16th and early 17th centuries the opposition between real and imaginary, such as Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (“That some such apparitions were not Imaginary, but Real”) and Milton in Paradise Lost (“Whereat I wak’d, and found / Before mine Eyes all real, as the dream / Had lively shadowd”).

Reality is thus both what lies beneath appearances and a dialectic between appearances and imagination. The derivation from res, thing, ensures that a key emphasis is on the element of experience that exceeds the subject, well captured in Philip K. Dick’s 1972 remark, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This is important because it is clearly post the advent of hallucinogenic drugs that did so much in the 1960s to question conventional Western accounts of reality. For the OED, the primary sense of reality is, “The quality or state of being real”, which is then glossed as, “Real existence; what is real rather than imagined or desired; the aggregate of real things or that which underlies or is the truth of appearances or phenomena”. This definition neatly captures both the range of the noun in “the aggregate of real things” and the two ways in which this aggregate can be falsely apprehended. It is the intervention of subjectivity that misleads, but in the first it is the production of imaginary elements that provokes error; in the second, it is the misreading of the surface of things.

In the period of Romanticism these uses were mobilised in new and shifting debates around realism, a term introduced from the German Realismus, largely in relation to Kantian philosophy and focusing on the field of politics, and French réalisme, which was above all an aesthetic category used to describe a variety of artistic practices, but particularly new forms of the novel. These 19th-century uses of realism can be cast into two different political attitudes. On the one hand there is the conservative notion of realpolitik, in which realism is admitting the intractable nature of social reality and the necessity to temper idealist views of the world. On the other hand, there is a realism that insists on an accurate portrayal of social reality as a prelude to a transformation of that reality through political action.

Perhaps the most important figure in this tradition is the French film critic and theorist André Bazin. In the immediate aftermath of the war and working in the room next door to Chris Marker at Travail et Culture, an adult-education organisation, Bazin argued for cinema as the realistic medium. However, this realism was not a question of the film simply recording reality, but of film producing new elements of reality – Welles’ depth of field or Rossellini’s use of non-actors – which then become elements in an argument for a better world. Bazin’s view of realism chimed with the great work of criticism, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, published in 1945 by Erich Auerbach. Both Bazin and Auerbach see modernism not in opposition to realism but as the deepening of realism’s commitment to reality. This view was buried by the Cold War, above all by György Lukács’ The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1962), which opposed realism to modernism, now understood as simply the expression of the bourgeois class’s disintegration. A complementary view was advanced by the art critic Clement Greenberg when he argued that modernism focused on the means of representation and questions of realism were simply beside the aesthetic point. These two views have ensured that realism has had a very thin time of it academically for the past half century, although one can notice that in formulations like magical realism, dirty realism and hyperrealism, it continues to be very active in describing new forms of writing.

Not, however, in the academy, where Paris in the 1960s saw a debate about what it is to represent reality and to what extent the methods of representation are part of the reality to be represented. These arguments in literary theory led to a comprehensive rejection of the methods of realism. From this perspective the only real is the Real of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the unrepresentable condition of a reality that is classified as irredeemably imaginary. These arguments were particularly important in academic circles in France in the late 1960s and 1970s, and they dominated the academy for nearly 50 years. However, in recent years realism and reality have managed to make it back into academic debate, and this very issue of Tank shows that questions of reality and its representations are once again vital issues.

However, these aesthetic debates are a mere sideshow to the new sense that we identified in Faithfull’s lyrics, one with the strangest of histories. The 20th century saw the development of a variety of philosophies of language – Wittgenstein, Derrida and others – in which it was impossible to make any appeal to a reality independently of language. These complicated philosophical claims were often transformed in the identity politics of the 1980s into simple assertions that to speak a different language (here interpreted very loosely) was to inhabit a different reality. It is at this point that it makes sense for Faithfull to say, “It’s not my reality”, where point of view is held to determine what is. This extremely idealist view of reality as determined by interest and power found its most frightening development in the George W. Bush administration’s determination to make its own reality. In 2004, Karl Rove, Bush’s spin doctor, gave a famous interview in which he mocked the journalist interviewing him as part of “what we call the reality-based community”, which Rove defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” He continued, “That’s not the way the world really works any more. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors […] and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The dominant traditions in both analytic and continental philosophy of the late 20th century emphasised the extent to which reality was always part of a complicated set of linguistic and non-linguistic practices. It may be that the reduction of those sophisticated positions to Rovean pure assertions of power is one reason why, in the past decade, powerful movements in both analytic and continental philosophy have wanted to stress not only the existence of reality but its independence from our forms of thought and language. While the two traditions summon up very different versions of reality, the analytic appealing to the most banal common-sense view of reality, and the continental to a surrealist world in which reality could always and immediately be completely different, both are concerned to stress the independence of reality and thought.

If we return to the OED’s primary definition, we can reflect that reality has built into it a set of paradoxes that make it an inevitable focus of debate. Reality is opposed to the imaginary but the imaginary is constantly becoming part of reality, a process made all the more evident by the audiovisual technologies that have so dominated since the First World War. Reality is always both the real surface of things and what is revealed when we have corrected our defective perception. There is thus built into the word, and along two axes, a perpetual dialectic. The importance of realism as a keyword from the early part of the 19th century depends upon this dialectic. The aesthetic project of realism, linked to a politics of amelioration, depicted reality in order to change it. The political project of realism, linked to a politics of conservatism, insisted on the underlying constraints that limit the possibilities of action.

Reality is a key word because its most fundamental etymological history allows it to function both as a final judgment – “that’s reality” – and the beginning of a conversation – “well, it depends how you define reality”. And it is a semantic flash written deep into the structure of this complex word. §


Left, Torbjørn Rødland, Peel no. 1, 2013-2014; right, Torbjørn Rødland, Black Beetle, 2011. Courtesy the artist and STANDARD (OSLO)

  • Colin Maccabe