Session 1: February 18, 2011

As with Barthes’ opening lecture of the Neutral on February 18, 1978, the first session of the online Neutral Reading Group will allow for some orientation and preliminaries….

SET READING: The Neutral, pp.1-19 (Preliminaries / Benevolence / Weariness)

** Preparation: Most important of all – ensure to get hold of a copy of Barthes’ The Neutral prior to our first session of Friday 18 February, 2011. You may wish to complete the reading prior to the day of the session or during the day. Either way, please aim to post up your thoughts and responses on the actual day of the session (from the afternoon onwards) and over the course of the weekend. I will post an initial entry by midday each Friday to start things off. NB. I will post a fuller entry on this page for the first session on Friday 18 – and a comments box will then be available, allowing ‘discussion’ to begin. This will be the format for each week. If you have any problems or suggestions (whether on the form or content of debate) please do not hesitate to contact.

Things to think about…

pp.1-6 provide bibliographic sources and four key excerpts or epigraphs. These texts are somewhat abstruse as ‘statements’ on the Neutral, yet Barthes clearly considers them significant.

Q: What ideas, thoughts, and associations do these epigraphs bring to mind?

pp.6-8 present the main argument – the Neutral as that which ‘outplays’ or baffles the paradigm. The establishing terms are structuralist, yet also ‘transposed’ into an ethical concern; ‘We are going to grant ourselves the right to treat all conditions…’ (p.7); ‘a manner – a free manner – to be looking for my own style…’ (p.8).

Q: What is the ethical dimension of the Neutral as a category ? And what might we say of the ethicality of the project to write about the Neutral?

pp.8-12 offer an account of processes and exposition.

Q: Given The Neutral is a posthumous and incomplete work we can ask what might it have looked like had Barthes’ continued, and/or ask whether its fragmentary nature is indeed its proper manifestation.

pp.12-14 – The Desire for Neutral, perhaps the most fertile pages for discussion, with a number of ‘interests’ intersecting (see: Yes!).

Q: How are we to understand and take forward the idea, the declaration of ‘a desperate vitality’?

pp.14-19 provide entries on keywords (as is the format of the majority of the remaining text). This case ‘Benevolence’ and ‘Weariness’.

Q: What do these words evoke and how might we begin to consider the unfolding of the argument through a series of keyword analysis?

On a more general level, some key questions that will no doubt persist throughout:

  • What is the Neutral? (if such a question can be posed)
  • Does the Neutral have application? If so, does that extend outside of literary and discourse analysis?
  • Where does Barthes stand in all of this? What is his ‘tone’?
  • Where do you stand vis-a-vis the Neutral? (…and is this a solitary mode, or something that can be shared?)


  1. s.manghani

    I wanted to establish this reading group to challenge my reading of The Neutral. I’m keen for when we move on from the ‘Preliminaries’ as I think I’ve read these pages too many times (disproportionately to the rest of the book). Nonetheless, the opening pages are vital in setting out the terms of approach and interests – so we’ll no doubt circle around the points raised for the duration.

    One of my concerns is that perhaps I reify the idea of the Neutral (enjoying this Barthesian capitalization!). On p.13 there is the lovely aside: ‘People tell me: “You’ll make a book with this course on the Neutral?”‘. Barthes is emphatically against the idea, stating ‘the Neutral is the unmarketable’. There is the obvious irony that we are nevertheless reading the book of his lecture course. What is more, the book (in English translation) has a pleasing design and is eminently marketable. Of course, as we’ll come to find, Barthes is himself typically ambivalent on this matter too. In recounting the little incident in which he spills a newly purchased bottle of Sennelier ink, labeled as the color ‘Neutral’ [cited on the back-cover and prompting the cover image], Barthes is ‘punished and disappointed: punished because Neutral spatters and stains (it’s a type of dull gray-black); disappointed because Neutral is a color like the others, and for sale (therefore, Neutral is not unmarketable): the unclassified is classified’.

    One lurking disappointment is that the Neutral is simply another trope of the unpresentable. On p.13 Barthes cites Bloy (a French, Catholic novelist who asserted spiritual revival through privation): “there is nothing perfectly beautiful except what is invisible and above all unbuyable”. Avoiding reference to austerity, Barthes replaces the word ‘invisible’ with ‘unsustainable’, which sits better with the idea that the Neutral is somehow ‘an ardent, burning activity’ (p.7). In a similar vein, in The Lover’s Discourse, Barthes questions one of the fundaments of rationality; why he asks, ‘is it better to last than to burn?’. A specter of the suspension of meaning persists, but still… I ‘want’ to know (if) the Neutral is something different. A few things point out of this dilemma:

    > Desire is important to the concept of the Neutral – ‘The paradox of the desire for the Neutral, its absolute singularity…’ (p.13). Also, on p.8, in a single sentence paragraph, Barthes drops in the reflection: ‘a manner – a free manner – to be looking for my own style of being present to the struggles of my time’. I’m intrigued by the searching nature (is the Neutral a calling?), and the acknowledgement here of ideological time.

    > The second, implicit reading of the Neutral: ‘It’s this difficult, incredibly strong, and almost unthinkable distance … In the end, its essential form is a protestation … the Neutral is this irreducible No: a No so to speak suspended in front of the hardenings of both faith and certitude and incorruptible by either one’ (p.14). Against the problem of the unpresentable, there are here ideas of affirmation and vitality (I have already posted a few remarks on this topic on the page ‘Yes!’: )

    > The definition of the Neutral ‘remains structural’. Given this is Late Barthes such a statement is important. The Neutral is not an object. It is relational, and/or process. Yet, what is specific about the in-between zone of the Neutral? Is it different, or just another expression of the post-structural?

    > Finally, though not really yet picked up in the opening pages (except with the entry on Benevolence), is the presence of Barthes’ interest in Zen and Taoism (and other non-Western ‘systems’ of knowledge).

    …I look forward to your comments – You may not feel you have had time yet to fully digest the reading, to get into the rhythm of the language and ideas. However, please do feel you can write freely about your immediate response to the text. This week should be able settling in, making an acquaintance with reading and with our being online!

    • Francesca Wilde

      Hello Sunil, and friends yet to be encountered

      my copy of the text arrives tomorrow, so I have been reading from the screen – this is inhibiting, since I like to flick back and forth between paper pages, and talk to the text (appropriate it, draw it) with my pencil. So I’m going to stop at the point I have reached and wait.

      I’ve also navigated away from this page to go back to Scribd. and found my reply gone when I returned. This then, is pasted from a file. All these mediations! So if this appears twice, and is more stilted the second time, mes apologies.

      I have not read this before, so I fear (greatly) my thoughts will be jejune. It is difficult to say anything; I would prefer just to read, and the reading be the witness, the creation, as in Blanchot – avoid the desire and violence of words. Part of me is running for the hills, part of me is exhilirated and delighted at this opportunity to learn.

      So, some very rough notes as a mnemonic for when the book arrives.

      ‘ideas, thoughts and associations’:

      Kristeva, abjection – could there be some consonance here – a third (or preferably uncountable) thing which mediated between/interpenetrated/irrevocably mixed the Neutral and the Abject? She intimates that the only ‘antidote’ (my word) to abjection is the Sublime: that seems to be what Barthes is quoting in the Tolstoy and perhaps the Lao-Tzu: there seems to be some sense of Kristevan abjection in epigraph A: the ‘ethical’ defence of an instrument of torture and the regimes which utilize it. A sickening ambiguity, a refusal of certain human values, an irony?

      The Tolstoy and the Lao-Tzu for me associate with the Romantic sublime, or of GM Hopkins’ ‘inscape’:

      There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.

      til when,


      • s.manghani

        Francesca, I like these associations – I’ve struggled with those ‘epigraphs’ (as Barthes terms them) from Tolstoy etc. Your comments offer fertile thoughts, which help me want to look over those passages again.

        Hope your copy of the book arrives soon… looking forward to your further ‘penciled’ comments…

      • s.manghani

        Your mention of the abject has, since I read it, proved simply to be abject for me. I don’t know how to place it. On the one hand, my instinct is to say that this can’t be right, that the abject is traumatic in a way that the Neutral is pitched as something seemingly serene (?). But, then, equally, I wonder – is this a very good example of questioning the need of yet another critical term. What work does the Neutral really do? There is something alive, yet not with the abject, it is neither/nor… it is in-between… so why not mix this with the Neutral? And of course, Kristeva had a huge impact on Barthes’ thinking and shift towards his post-structural approach to writing.

        Some years ago I gave a paper on the Neutral, which included references to Bataille (and the formless). It was interesting at the close the Q&A focused very much on a psychoanalytic account, which I hadn’t presented, but somehow revealed itself… I have always intend to follow this up, but alas to-date I have not had the opportunity. Somehow, I sense it returning again!

  2. s.manghani

    Two very brief remarks on Benevolence:

    (1) Top of p.15, there are a series of phrases:

    ‘I accept not to be blocked’
    ‘I don’t refuse, without necessarily wanting to’
    ‘not absence … but possible wavering’

    The Neutral begins to show itself as some kind of double negative, or litotes (a form of understatement).

    (2) The argument of the ‘dry’ and the ‘damp’ is surely apt applied to the contemporary dilemmas of ethical marketing, corporate social responsibility and, here in the UK, the ‘Big Society’. We are constantly juggling a similar ‘double postulate’, in which we trust (or want to trust) expressions of goodwill, but we don’t necessarily like a ‘transcendent’ goodness – just as, for example, we don’t necessarily want to accept (or perhaps there just isn’t the social mechanism to face up to) the ‘indifference’ of global warming. If the reports are to be accepted global warming foretells a ‘total’ disaster that ‘treats the “good” and the “bad” evenly’.

    The entry on Weariness is perhaps more intriguing still. I’ve had various thoughts, which I have decided to write up as a separate blog entry – partly because I’ve wanted to experiment with considering how we might visualize the Neutral (in this case as weariness):

  3. Hello, Sunil and Francesca!

    First I want to say how exciting it is to be talking about Barthes with people; I don’t know if it’s just that I’m not going to the right places, but I get the feeling Barthes doesn’t have the same canonical status as, say, Derrida and Deleuze and Lacan, and that he’s not being read as much as… well, certainly not as much as I would like him to be. So this is an amazing opportunity for me, and I’m enjoying your comments and questions so far.

    I’ve written up a separate blog post with some of my first impressions and thoughts. I think so far I am seeing the Neutral as a way to ‘float’ in language – that is a way to be in language without succumbing to its coercive, conflictual, arrogant, terrorist aspects, to its structure(?) of difference and domination. This is something that of course Barthes writes about all the time, eg in his beautiful lecture ‘on’ Proust, ‘Longtemps je me suis couche de bonne heure’, and in The Pleasure of the Text – what he calls here a way to ‘parry mastery’. But I was also excited by the line Sunil picks up on, because it seems that this ‘floating’ in language, this refusal to take up a ‘position’ (pp.18-19), is not an abdication or a refusal to engage: the Neutral is ‘a style of being present to the struggles of our time’ (8).

    Sunil, I’m interested that you translate the Neutral’s ‘No’ into a ‘Yes’ so quickly; can you talk more about why that is? I mean, I see how the Neutral’s no cannot be a no-as-opposed-to-yes, because the neutral is not in opposition, but why I actually really like that Barthes gives the Neutral a ‘no’ to speak and not a yes (partly because of the way that Joyce, and following him Derrida, use ‘yes’ as a feminine mode, which is glorified as affirmation but to me speaks more of or as an inability to refuse, which is perhaps not what’s at stake here – certainly not all of what’s at stake).

    Francesa, I really like this characterization of the de Maistre epigraph:

    the ‘ethical’ defence of an instrument of torture and the regimes which utilize it.

    The first epigraph seemed to me to be performing or demonstrating a link between torture, violence, language, and ‘truth’ (‘this terrible means to obtain the truth’): the rack is the instrument by which a regime violently forces its subjects to speak its truth. It’s the link between language and bodily/political violence – and I think Barthes’ reflections on conflict and violence require there to be such a link, between the apparently apolitical realm of the difference between phonemes, and the realm of political conflict.

    Then the Tolstoy and Rousseau quotes are about escaping from the plane of violence into a place of pure presentness, quietness and peace, outside selfhood, memory, and difference.

    So the first epigraph, for me, is the mode of language which Barthes is always resisting – he characterizes language rooted in conflict and opposition as ‘terrorist’ and ‘arrogant’, several times here and elsewhere – and (b) and (c) give us an image of being outside/beyond conflict and opposition – but in both cases in the context of violence, war, injury. It’s not that we can just leave them behind. Then (d), the Lao-tzu quote, tempers the beauty and the pleasant affect of (b) and (c) by talking about how sad and beaten the sage is, and how being outside conflict can be experienced as a deficiency, an ignorance, a lack.

    I think the only other thing I want to add at this stage – though there’s so much to say, about so many things, here! – is how much I love Barthes’ way of working, teaching, presenting a course here. I love the strange rigour of sticking to his vacation-home library (p.9); I love how he thinks through how that library is constituted, and constitutes a portrait of him; I love the distinction he draws (p.12) between ‘dispassionate apparatus of intellectual nature’ and ‘the truth of the course: the desire that is its origin and that it stages’. I think there’s an amazing, to-be-imitated honesty and rigour in his insistence on the course as being a stage for his own desire, rather than giving it a disciplinary or intellectual alibi.

    Oh – no, just one more thing: in your introductory post, Sunil, you draw attention to this line on p.7:

    ‘We are going to grant ourselves the right to treat all conditions…’

    which recalls, to me, the bit in Barthes’ essay on ‘Brecht and Discourse’ where he talks about ‘an erotic technique’ of reading ‘as if one had the simple right, the immoral right to submit the bourgeois text to a critique itself formed by the reading techniques of a certain bourgeois past’. That strategy of ‘granting oneself the right to read’ in ways which are not legitimated by disciplines and institutions seems to me to be imperative, and central to Barthes’ ethical-erotic mode of reading.

    • s.manghani

      Ika – I really enjoyed reading your comments and also you blog post – it seems clear to me looking over the various contributions so far, an un-bounding Text is coming to life, which is fantastic, but equally it is hard to know where to start.

      I think there is something about Barthes not being seen to be rigorous in the way of Derrida et al. I heard Cixous speak about Derrida a few years back and she described the intellectual tension he had with Lacan and how we had to ‘put him right’ on a specific issue. She said, and I can only paraphrase, ‘…and he was right. Derrida is a philosopher and it was a technical matter that need to be set right’. She then added, “I’m a writer, not a philosopher, so I don’t need to concern myself with these matters in the same way’. I think we hold affection towards the writing of people like Cixous and Barthes – it is different to the work of a philosopher, but no less thought-provoking and productive – they can take risks where a philosopher is less able to. But equally my account here sounds too polarised. I like your description, on your blog, ‘Derrida’s writing … gives me the same kind of pleasure as Barthes’: a physical pleasure, which comes from a particular kind of relaxation of the mind’.

      The line you take from Lucan’s De Bello Ciuili [On the Civil War], which you consider in your book Now and Rome, seems to fit very well into Barthes’ Intertext:

      uix tanti fuerat ciuilia bella mouere
      ut neuter

      You can imagine how he would equally want to explore the ideas you’re raising about the choice between sides/meanings. And I sense a double-negative (as I suggest of the Benevolence entry) at play in the line, ‘It would scarcely have been worth waging civil war, even if it meant that neither of the two sides won’. This perhaps leads me back to my remarks about the ‘No!’ being a ‘Yes…’ which you asked me to expand on. I’m wondering if you’re right, perhaps I have made the move from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ too quickly.

      To elaborate, my thinking relates back to an article I wrote for Parallax journal. Gary Peters, who hopefully will be contributing here too, edited a special issue on ‘Yes!’ (Parallax, Vol 16, Issue 3, August 2010). It inspired me to write something more experimental. The article, ‘Yes… but when? – An Open Letter’, is written in dialogue form, but of two unattributed voices and it reads in a circular fashion, beginning and ending with the same quote (which happens, no surprise, to be a quote from Cixous). In part the article is an ‘imaginary’ love letter, about whether or not two forces can hold/collide. But it is also a piece about Text and our place within it. I do quote a portion from Joyce (‘…would I yes to say yes…’) as you might expect given your mention of Joyce in this respect. It is difficult to give a proper account of my article (in fact I’m not sure there is one), but I do bring in the quote from The Neutral about the protestation of ‘No!’ and make my claim that it is a ‘yes’. Perhaps I have allowed myself to get carried away with this idea (‘…I would yes to say yes…’!) and it has become fixed in my thinking. I appreciate the nudge to question this (a question echoed by Anna Dezeuze too). My main opening point in the article is affirmation, saying yes, is far harder than saying no. So, I write:

      ‘”No” can be asserted (a terminus of one’s own). “Yes” must be met halfway. “Yes I will…” extends out to another; in the interstice always a matter of time, when (one hopes) that “yes” is tested and affirmed. A “yes” is never just a “yes”, but a when, where, how, with/for whom. Like listening (with listening) it must take place in time … “Yes” is a doing word, and so, like all verbs, doesn’t exist in print.’

      I go on in the article to relate this (and by association the Neutral) to ideas of natality – which does lead to a potential feminine mode, which (whilst I adopt within a certain ‘poetic licence’) I’d want to resist as that seems to collapse the in-betweenness of the Neutral. It is interesting you mention the feminine mode as being ‘glorified as affirmation’ (which arguably I fall into the trap of), yet potentially ‘speaks more of or as an inability to refuse‘ – this is an intriguing comment (and maybe actually it is very much at stake here too). Perhaps this will grow as an idea as we go further into the text.

      There is more I’d like to say about the epigraphs, which you offer some nice observations on. But, since a number of contributors have picked up on these, I think I’ll offer a pause for others to step in (also I want to go back to the text to take in some of the thoughts raised)…

  4. Sorry, I forget that my wordpress id doesn’t have my name in it! I’m Ika Willis.

  5. Julie Raby

    This project is so exciting. I have just read the first few pages and here are my instant thoughts on them.

    I think as a student I might have groaned at the idea of a lecture series rather than a seminar series because I like to join in the debates. Maybe Barthes meant something different from what we describe as a lecture series, but I appreciate the opportunity to engage in a dialogue on this forum, as well as read The Neutral for the first time

    My response to the Tolstoy extract was to immediately think of King Lear. It made me think of Edgar leading the blind Gloucester to the cliffs at Dover. This particular line linked the passage to King Lear for me:

    ‘How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last!’ (p.5)

    Gloucester is in so much despair that, Edgar wants him to believe he has survived death in order to ‘see’ again.

    What I found was that the repetition of ‘nothing’ at the end of the Tolstoy passage links to King Lear and how powerful ‘nothing’ becomes in the play. The key example is Cordelia’s response to Lear in 1.1. Of course Beckett took this idea and played on ‘nothing’ in Waiting for Godot. ‘Nothing’, in King Lear, Waiting for Godot and the Tolstory passage isn’t ‘impressions of grayness, of “neutrality”, of indifference’, but a very powerful force. I felt in its repetition, ‘nothing’ becomes ‘an ardent burning activity’.

    • s.manghani

      Julie – as with some of the other contributions, your remarks make me want to spend more time with the epigraphs!

      I certainly don’t possess your fine reading of Shakespeare, but it was striking to see you apply the Neutral to one of his plays. It is easy, I think (though perhaps this is my ignorance), to consider Shakespeare’s drama to be based upon hierarchies and conflict etc – yet what an intriguing thing that ‘nothing’ becomes powerful (though there is a hierarchical word!) in King Lear. Perhaps you can elaborate more on the example of Cordelia’s response to Lear in 1.1? And too on its take up in Beckett, which is more obvious, but the lineage you are noting here is perhaps useful as a way of plotting something about the Neutral.

    • Lloyd Spencer


      What about this passage in Barthes?

      Let’s leave you to meditate on the drama Shakespeare spins out of the repetition of Cordelia’s “nothing” and into Beckett’s obsessions. We can’t — I won’t — follow you into those complexities.

      Barthes uses the passage from Tolstoy as an example or model because it’s structure is so simple. There is a struggle (a battle). André goes from being involved and caught up in the action to suddenly being detached. The battle which had utterly consumed his attention recedes into something less than a distraction from the intensity with which he observes a passing cloud.

      It is a simple structure. Many Zen kōan or stories display a similar structure.

      • Ika

        Just to say that this ‘we’ does not include me: I can follow you into Lear, Julie, and thank you for it, since the reference clarified the idea of ‘nothing’ as an ‘ardent, burning activity’ for me.

        ‘Reading disperses, disseminates: with the logic of reading mingles a logic of the symbol. This latter logic is not deductive but associative: it associates with the material text other ideas, other images, other significations. “The text, only the text,” we are told, but “only the text” does not exist.’ (Barthes, ‘Writing Reading’.)

        So: we could stick to this passage, to the text, only the text, but then we would not be reading, and this would not be a reading group.

  6. s.manghani

    [N.B. I am posting the following on behalf of Anna Dezeuze, as she was having problems uploading her comments. If anyone else is experiencing problems please do let me know]

    dear fellow readers,
    i just wanted to say i’m not going to respond to your comments or the stimulating questions raised by sunil, but selfishly use this first session to write my preliminaries and introduce myself… I hope you don’t mind. i’m an art historian and got interested in the neutral in the context of my research into the relation between art and the everyday (since the 1960s) – i found michael sheringham’s discussion of barthes’s neutral in his book on theories of everyday life (OUP 2006) very stimulating, in particular his mention of the possible influence of barthes’ course on michel de certeau. i’m very interested in barthes’s desire to develop a vocabulary to analyse the elusive everyday, its ‘nuances’ as he calls them, and was excited to see john cage and taoism listed in barthes’s bibliography as these are clear points of intersection with the artists i’m working on. my main worry with barthes -as with cage – is the risk of aloofness, so like Ika i’d be keen to hear more from sunil about this relation between yes and no, which i would phrase for my purposes as the fine line between yes (to nuances) and no (to transfiguration – see cage’s text about rauschenberg’s white paintings which is a list of ‘nos’ – to expression, to composition, etc).
    looking forward to getting to know you all a little during this reading group!

    • s.manghani

      Anna – It is by no means selfish of you to write your own preliminaries. Quite the opposite!

      I need to follow up on the reference you give to Sherrigham’s book (and add it to the Intertext I have on this blog) – this is extremely useful. I am also interested in John Cage and Rauschenburg as you’re suggesting. I’m not familiar with the specific text you mention. I intend to write on neutrality and the visual, so I definitely want to follow this thought of yours.

      ‘Aloofness’ is an interesting choice of word. I think it is the sort of word that get associated with Barthes, but I’m not so sure why you sense a risk of it in this particular text. I rather think there is a risk of ennui – that Barthes’ himself is that ‘flat tire that deflates’ – not least because he remains in a period of mourning at this point.

      I have tried to elaborate more on my remarks about the yes/no of Neutral – see my reply to Ika’s comment above.

  7. Keith McDonald


    Keith here, a colleague and friend of Sunil’s and a some others in the group, pleased to meet (?) the rest of you.

    This is in part a response to the reading and the comments which have followed. What interests me is the romance of the pages I have read so far and the pronounced nobility in the idea of another way outside of secure/robust paradigms. Like others who have responded, one of my first impulses was to relate the ideas as I see them to artwork I know well. What sprung to mind for me was Derek Jarman’s film Blue, made near the end of his life in which the narrator addresses his audience:

    “Your heredity, education, vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world…I’ve walked behind the sky, for what are you seeking? The blue of space, to be an astronaut of the void, leave the comfortable house that imprisons you, remember, to be going and to have are not eternal.”

    I think this is beautiful as is the text under discussion but…is its beauty also the thing which confines it to the realm of the romantic/idealistic/tragic?

    • s.manghani

      Keith – it is lovely to ‘see’ you here!

      I can completely see the connection you make with Derek Jarman’s Blue. I have that film in my mind for a more extended piece of writing about the Neutral and the visual. It is an amazing film I think, and very beautiful and eloquent as you suggest. And equally, I agree there is potential collapse into the romantic, idealistic and tragic. It is similar, for example, to the books by Sebald and the films of Patrick Keiller. And this is what brings me back to the concern I have, as I noted in my initial comments above that perhaps I reify the idea of the Neutral. Or more so, that it is simply a reified term.

  8. Joana Cunha Leal

    Hi Sunil, hi all,

    I’m going to write (in my “not as good as it should be” English) a very brief note on my reading of these pages. I was struck by Rosseau’s experience of “suspension” accounted for in the epigraph and the way it resonates in the paradoxical account of the desire for the Neutral.
    I’ve also read Sunil’s blog post on the relation of the Neutral and that anonymous small figure in Gaugin’s painting. Barthe’s approach to the Neutral seems to me closely related with Manet’s painting (indifference is the concept that Foucault brings in), but the Neutral begins to feel more adequate. As an art historian I’m interested to explore how this vitality of the Neutral can impregnate art as a general “quality”.

    • s.manghani

      Joana – I agree there is a strong link with Manet. In addition to Foucault, there is of course Bataille’s reading of Manet which is so central to Krauss and Bois’ brilliant project on Formless. I see a lot of important connections, especially in trying to consider the visual arts. But perhaps when you talk about the Neutral feeling more adequate, is it because these readings of Manet engender something more combative? Bataille’s formless is informed with a surrealist language of things squashed or spat on, the universe from the perspective of a spider! And Foucault refers to ‘systems of incompatibility’ and ‘impossibility’. I think each of these thinkers can be brought together around similar concerns, but each offers a different epistemology I think, which is fascinating.

      • Joana Cunha Leal

        Yes Sunil, I was thinking about all these references… I dare say that the Neutral seems more adequate because of the strength of this “possible wavering of desire outside the will-to-possess”. Is it more combative to take a stance in the “game” or to nullify it?

      • Joana Cunha Leal

        Yes Sunil, I was just thinking of all these references. I did think that the Neutral is perhaps more adequate because I start wondering about if it is more combative to say No in the “game” or to nullify it… Formless, either in pure Bataille’s version or Krauss and Bois’ revision, as well as Foucault indifference just seem to say NO… Barthes’ desire for the Neutral on the otherwise is trying to baffle the game (as he clearly states). Isn’t his “wavering of desire outside of will-to-posses” more powerful and able to cope with Manet’s painting?

        • Joana Cunha Leal

          on the other hand

          • s.manghani

            …yes, no, maybe!

            I wondering, hoping… your instincts can be tested with closer analysis we deal with more of the keywords, such as weariness, which make up the bulk of the book. It’ll be great if – as we progress – you want to offer some close readings of a Manet or other visual art examples. It’ll be nice to test these ideas.

  9. Jane Simon

    Dear fellow reading group members,

    This is my first reading of The Neutral and the first time in too long that I’m reading purely for pleasure and interest rather than reading for teaching or an already formulated project. Nineteen pages in I’ve been finding pockets of reading time over breakfast cups of tea and the book seems to be finding its home on the kitchen table.

    Perhaps this is too much information! But then again, one of the things that I’ve always admired about Barthes is his refusal of the impersonal and his inclusion of his daily life. His vacation library and mourning – “for there is no truth that is not tied to the moment” (13) – is inseparable from his work/his lectures/his writing, and he seems to find little point in pretending otherwise.

    It is a nice coincidence that the timing of this reading group intersects with my teaching of a new unit on photography, in which students begin next week with an excerpt from Camera Lucida. So my reading of The Neutral accompanies my rereading of Camera Lucida.

    I too, am intrigued by the section on weariness, but also to the sections on description and nuance on pg11. There seems to be a link between wanting to “live according to nuance” (11) and the weariness with having to tie oneself down to a position (19). And I’m drawn to Barthes insistence that description is an ‘unthreading’ (11), a critical activity in and of itself?

    Finally, the image that I was left with of the neutral from the first 19 pages, was the image of shutting one’s eyes or looking away in order to see a photograph properly, that Barthes invokes in Camera Lucida. This seems like a space where the neutral might be glimpsed?

    Jane Simon

    • s.manghani

      Jane – it is interesting that a number of us are making reference to Barthes and the everyday – Anna’s reference to this is particularly useful. It is simlly fantastic to hear that Barthes has made it to your kitchen table – such an evocative comment. I’m so glad you did share that.

      In addition to Empire of Signs, Camera Lucida has got to be one of my favourite books – and is of many I know. I am very keen to read James Elkins’ book which is due to be published very soon, specifucally writing back critically to Camera Lucida (he has even taken a lot of care to consider the flow of the text and images to echo aspects of Barthes’ original). p. 36- where Barthes writes of Sander’s Notary is apt I feel to the idea of a zero degree photograoh.

      It is nice you recall the suggestion of unthreading nuances. I’d forgotten that line. Perhaps this intersects with the concern Keith raises about a fall into the romantic etc.

      Also, I am intrigued by this image of shutting one’s eyes or looking away. Perhaps you can say more? By coincidence, and another reference to James Elkins, I was looking through his book How To Use Your Eyes. He writes about looking at ‘nothing’, and describes an experiment you can do by placing half a ping-pong ball on your eye. It has the effect of removing any reference point for the eye! The effect of which, he suggests, is very pronounced and uncomfortable.

  10. Ian FONG

    Barthes says, ‘…[T]he Neutral as that which outplays … the paradigm, or rather I call Neutral everything that baffles the paradigm. (6; my italics) He continues: ‘… [T]he paradigm is the wellspring of meaning; where there is meaning, there is paradigm, and where there is paradigm (opposition), there is meaning → elliptically put: meaning rests on conflict (the choice of one term against another), and all conflict is generative of meaning: to choose one and refuse the other is always a sacrifice made to meaning, to produce meaning, to offer it to be consumed.’ (7) This reminds me what Barthes says, as quoted by the translator in the Preface: ‘But language – the performance of a language system – is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech.’ (xvii) How far can we say that the paradigm is fascist in nature? If there is the absence of paradigm (centre), such conflicts can be seen as a Derridean sense of play in ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’ essay. I like Barthes’ idea of ‘describing’: ‘… [T]he matter is neither of explaining nor of defining but only of describing (in a nonexhaustive manner): To describe = to “unthread” a word … To describe, to unthread what? The nuances.’ (11) To unthread the differences in a nonexhaustive manner. Again, Derrida’s conception of differance comes to my mind. This is a kind of ‘dancing with words.’ ‘For one cannot subtract dancing in every form from a noble education – to be able to dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words: need I still add that one must be able to do it with the pen too – that one must learn to write?’ (Nietzsche, Twilight of Idols) The desire for the Neutral, to me, lies in literature which is, again, in the Derridean sense, ‘an institution which overthrows itself’. It is important to play with possibilities of description, or as Ackbar Abbas says in his essay, ‘Cosmopolitan De-scription: Shanghai and Hong Kong’, de-scription. He says, ‘On the one hand, when Wittgenstein writes that “we must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place,” description can be understood as a kind of de-scription. This means that it is concerned not with knitting together explanations that make smooth connections between disparate series; rather, it welcomes friction – that is, disjuncture – and the mobile, fugitive, fragmentary detail. Wittgenstein writes: “We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” On the other hand, Wittgenstein also insists that what concerns description is “of course, not empirical problems”: “And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them.”’ Friction = conflict? ‘Not trying to define a word’ (6) because conflicts cannot never be resolved.

    Language is fascist. It is in the neurotic fear of the other who/which pollutes the purity/homogeneity of the language system. In fact, A and non-A can co-exist at the same time. There should be something that the signs cannot get hold of. Meaning exists in the gap of signs (fragments). Such gap lies the absolute other, but repressed by the language system. It makes me think of the relationship between the Neutral and the absolute other; and I am not sure if the desire for Neutral is the call of the absolute other which will force us to say, ‘Yes’, and only Yes: the ethical commitment which is yet to be made. What can be affirmed is affirming. It is impossible to say ‘I’, and force you and I to form a number in Levinas’ sense. There are only fragments, infinite fragments, but not totality.

    • s.manghani

      Ian – enjoyed reading your comments. It is good you reference Derrida’s ‘Structure, Sign, Play’ essay. It is a real touchstone in accounts of (post-)structuralism. I think it would be useful to return to it as a means to then challenge (deconstruct) the Neutral. Perhaps you might like to expand on this? It is significant perhaps that at their meeting at the Baltimore conference in 1966 Barthes was not well recieved. I think this relates back to Ika’s observation that Barthes is often not considered in the same way as Derrida and Deleuze etc.

      However, you go on to say about Barthes’ interest in ‘describing’, which you also develop usefully with the reference to ‘de-scription’. You seem to bridge these ideas, but I’m wondering if actually between them you are highlighting a tension. You lead out to note the equation friction = conflict, which obviously the Neutral is trying to outplay or get beyond. Yet, the ‘unthreading’ Barthes speaks of does seem to relate to this idea of de-scription, so perhaps reveals an underlying structuring of the Neutral. The Neutral is arguably, then, just as divisive as any other language or discourse.

      I need some more time to digest your thoughts. I sense a useful line of critique which will be interesting to develop. And no doubt this can be pushed further with the ethical committment you mention in closing. We haven’t really yet developed thoughts in response to Barthes’ evocation of ethics. I’m hoping we can pick this up more as we go further.

  11. Paul Frosh

    Good morning everyone (GMT+2), Paul Frosh here. Huge thanks to Sunil for making this exciting project possible, and also for introducing me to this wonderful book. I must admit that I’m a little wary (weary?), since given some of the other texts and works that have already been mentioned my ‘to read’ and ‘must see’ lists are getting longer by the second, and the format of public writing that this online reading group entails means that I am faced with a choice: admit ignorance, pretend and play the game (or even up the ante), or be silent (Barthes made me think of this at the end of the chapter: the difficulty of position, the pressure to find one’s place in relation to the conversation of others). It’s especially hard in this first session when we are all getting to know one another: first impressions, not just of The Neutral.

    So here are a few initial responses:

    Love: I love the book (so far), first of all its material design: at last a book that encourages marginalia. Reading and writing, and there is a wonderful sense of continual shifting across Barthes’ oral delivery, the textual rendering of his notes (and the temporal oscillations involved in this), and my own pencilled scribblings in response to these in the margins of the book. Another kind of love too: Barthes’ ‘voice’, the amicable return of the author as a a ‘discontinuous chant of amiabilities’ (Sade/Fourier/Loyola), and the pressure to imitate him as I write ➞ his notational marks, (and his love of parentheses).

    Possession: Even though I’m reading this for fun (but work is fun, and fun is work), it’s almost impossible not to try appropriate it: my research is (obsessively) about mass media and forms of inattention and routinized indifference (usually denigrated in critical writing: I hope to problematize this denigration), and so ‘The Neutral’ becomes handily reified, mineable for ideas and citations that I can extract (Sunil’s right that Barthes encourages this with capitalization, as he does with ‘The Photograph’ in Camera Lucida: a displacement of the de-capitalized Author?). On the other hand this is how the text inevitably speaks to me at first, the initial convergence of horizons, and so perhaps reification is a not a repugnant end-point but a necessary phase or perpetual dimension of a dynamic process.

    Nuance, twinklings, floating: The Neutral is that which baffles the paradigm, is the ‘shedding’ of meaning (but is also the ground of meaning, of its plenitude, in the sense that it is the infinite range from which selections are made). This suggested to me that the neutral is not the negation of meaning but the constant hovering on the frontier of its production: the appearance to thought and experience of all the potentialities of meaning simultaneously (the becoming of signification), something that can be glimpsed or overheard contingently and tangentially (hence the problem of a lecture series, let alone a book on the subject) but not entirely grasped, that requires an oscillation between the already-produced positions of speech/conversation and a floating above them. It reminded me of the importance for Barthes of words like twinkle, prattle, rustle – the ‘noise’ of the system (Foucault’s archive?) that is both the non-semiotic register of its generative potentiality and a sign within the system itself of that which can’t be systematized (reification again). I thought of this in relation to the idea of phatic communion: speech – in the case of very young children, babble: in the case of broadcasting, the transmission signal – that is more than ‘mere’ noise but less than substantive content: the performance of discourse’s perpetual emergence from noise into connectivity (rather than into ‘fascist’ sense). And, at the risk of reducing this again to my own horizons, that’s where I think it has an ethical dimension too.

    Questions: lots and lots of these (e.g. the passion for the Neutral: passion as in ‘intense emotion’ or ‘suffering’ or both? But I think I’ve written enough for now.

    • s.manghani

      Paul – great to have your initial thoughts. It is true this mode of ‘public writing’ is an experience of its own. Looking at the site stats there has been a huge amount of traffic on these pages over the last 24 hours, but it takes time for engagement to translate into actual words upon the screen. I really like the way you have navigated the choices it presents to you. (Hopefully we won’t all be silent next week, since one of the entries we’ll be reading is on ‘silence’!)

      I do like your line ‘the amicable return of the author as a “discontinuous chant of amiabilities”‘ – does that also describe our collection of comments on this page too? And on matters of matetial design, I’m jealous of the fact a couple of you have actually been able to include the arrow sign (as it appears in Barthes’ text) in your posts. I will have to cut and paste to satisfy my wants!

      I find your description of the Neutral, as ‘the constant hovering on the frontier of it’s production’, very helpful – I guess the productive, but embryonic sense that you seem to suggest fits with my thoughts of the Neutral being more akin to ‘yes’ than ‘no’ (see my reply to Ika above). You introduce/cite lots of lovely descriptive words… Interesting all seemingly sound related. It makes me wonder if onomatopoeia has some bearing on the Neutral. And here I then think of Benjamin’s article on the mimetic faculty. (…you are right too, the list of things to read and see grows and grows. Is the Neutral only something we can play out with one tentative connection to another? Maybe! maybe that ‘is’ the Neutral).

      I’m intrigued to hear more from you as we go along with respect to how the Neutral might converge, challenge, and/or orient your own research. Indeed, this is something I’m keen to hear fromn everyone as we progress as it helps identify the potential for the true critical import (or export!) of the Neutral.

  12. Paul Frosh

    Thanks Sunil. Thinking about your exchange with Ika and the idea of holding two forces that collide, for me what I have read so far of The Neutral resonates with notions of ‘both….and’ thinking, and in particular with ideas of thirdness and, as I have mentioned, the phatic. But I think I’m appropriating too much from just one chapter and want to give this time to sink in and resonate some more (Ika described this process beautifully in her blog), while reading more of the book and more of others’ comments, before sharing in detail how this converges and challenges my own research. Although that is definitely something I will hope to do.

    • s.manghani

      Paul – I quite understand and I indeed meant similarly, as we go through the weeks, some aspects of your own research might come through more gradually. You’re right, there is a need to digest things and to spend more time with the text (and its unfurling…).

      ‘Both… and’ thinking is a nice phrase – is Barthes having his cake and eating it?! …also of course the Third is a term Barthes uses, most obviously in his article on the Eisenstein stills. We can no doubt put some of that together over the coming weeks.

      • Lloyd Spencer

        Definitely appropriating too much…

        Whether or not he succeeds, I think Barthes is attempting to postulate or suggest something other than “both… and..” thinking. It would be very disappointing if all his nuanced thinking / writing could be assimilated to ground (or ideas) already covered.

        I have enjoyed what I read so far (one chapter) because I feel indulgent towards the attempt to define something new and distinctive… despite the a various associations (the pedgree) provided by Barthes.

        I am not at all sure how closely related the punctum and the Neutral are but I regard them as equally novel and distinctive notions.

  13. Jessica Metzler

    Dear Reading Group,

    Thanks for putting this together, Sunil! I’m a little late to the party here, just now having the time to post. I’m still working my way through everyone else’s posts, but I wanted to go ahead and briefly introduce myself and offer a couple thoughts. I’m currently finishing my dissertation, which uses Barthes’s conception of the Neutral (both in The Neutral lectures and throughout his corpus starting with Writing Degree Zero, which is a kind of ur-text for these lectures) to stage a reading of the relationship between “weak” or Neutral affects (anxiety, weariness, etc.) and narrative temporality in mid-20th c. American novels. In this week’s section Barthes describes how the Neutral, for him, embodies a kind of ethical stance in the way it performs the work of interrupting oppressive paradigmatic power structures by rejecting (re)productive narratives of progress and discovery (7). Since he addresses the denaturalization of heteronormative and gender binaries (in later lectures), I further link the concept of the Neutral to contemporary queer theory that reads queer sexuality as having the potential to disrupt an ideology of heteronormative “reproductive futurism” (in Lee Edelman’s work) and the pervasiveness of cultural narratives based on the concept. In a nutshell, I’m interested in the application of Barthes’s reading of Neutral affects as capable of accomplishing ethical and political goals, while seeming, paradoxically, much more ineffectual than strong affects (anger vs. irritation, for example) to contemporary theories of queerness and temporality.

    In this week’s lecture, one concept that I’ve found really interesting in my own work is the idea that the Neutral has a temporality attached to it. It is temporary and “unsustainable” (13). The Neutral is the work of a moment—a temporary state of being that exists in the time between the destabilization of dominant paradigm (doxa) and its reabsorption into another dominant paradigm (mythology, etc.). I’m interested in the question of how we can study temporary, shifting figures. Is weariness, for example, always a figure of the Neutral? I tend to read it in that way, but I can imagine cases in which it would not serve the same structural function that Barthes ascribes to the Neutral.

    One other observation I have about this section is maybe more of a confession. The section on “The Wirelike Sharpness of Mourning” on pg. 13-14 about the death of his mother is always heartbreaking for me to read. I can’t help but read The Neutral through Camera Lucida in some ways (though the lectures precede its publication, it is a more accessible work given the obvious constraints of simply having lecture notes).

    Finally, I wanted to mention that audio of these lectures is available for listening/download free at: I haven’t made my way through all of them yet, as my French ear could be better, but listening to the lectures while following along with the text is a rewarding experience, I’ve found. It’s also easier to tell when he’s making a joke (everyone laughs in the background) and he gives off the cuff examples that aren’t in the notes. So, worth checking out, if you’re interested.

    Looking forward to reading all the posts!

    • s.manghani

      Jessica – thanks for these great comments, and they are certainly not too late (indeed given everyone’s workloads and differing time zones, it is inevitable that our dialogue will be pieced together rather than seamlessly flow!)

      I’m really glad you mention Writing Degree Zero. I agree it is a definite ur-text to The Neutral, which Barthes mentions himself. It is fascinating to think he seemingly began and ended with a similar line of interest, if a very different mode of writing. I think it will be very useful to consider more about the relationship between these two books as we progress. Your insights will be very valuable. Indeed it is clear you have spent a good period of time with The Neutral, and making a close reading. Obviously you have done so in line with your own specific area(s) of research, but it seems evident your reading of the book can cross-over with other areas of interest.

      I am very taken by your suggestion of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ Neutrals. This seems to open things up nicely. It’ll be good to delineate this some more as we go further into the text. Also, I think you’re absolutely right to note the importance of temporality. In writing my blog post, Neutral Remains, I perhaps over-stated the case of the weary figure as a site of weariness/the Neutral. I think it might have been useful to emphasis more it being a sighting particular to my viewing of the painting at the Tate – so it is stemming as much from my action of seeing the Neutral, as it is something ‘in’ the painting. It would seem to make every bit of sense that the Neutral is not always to be found (I suppose this fits very well with Barthes remarks on the Punctum in Camera Lucida, which is not always to be found in the photograph). Surely then your idea of the Neutral as being temporary and about temporality is a good starting point. I too am drawn to Barthes’ use of the word ‘unsustainable’ – it suggests the temporary/temporality you remark upon and also, for me, it is suggestive of a link to more contemporary debates about the environment (I presented a paper a few years ago about how our attempts at sustainability are in many respects unsustainable etc.)

      Thanks for the link to the audio files – I have added it to the Intertext page. Also, I agree, there is a strong relationship between The Neutral and Camera Lucida due to his mourning for his mother, which is certainly very touching. I too find the passage you refer to powerful. We all offer these preliminaries on the courses we teach etc., which tend to be very dry – yet here Barthes offers this incredible ‘confession’ of his continued state of mourning, which seems to me to dramatically alter the purpose and framing of the lecture course (no doubt you have seen a new volume of Barthes’ writing is available, Mourning Diary). I think it is the reason why I became so interested in his ‘second’ account of the Neutral, as a protestation etc.

  14. Mimei Ito

    Hi all. I am glad to join this reading group. Thanks Sunil for your effort to organize it. As I read closey Barthes’ text, I hope to learn how to ‘float’ in langauge, because I tend to put too much emphasis on developing systematic/vigorous arguments in my writing. To me, Barthes is a master of free-floating in wiriting.
    (Plus, I have not been a passionate reader of Barthes before.)

    For the first session, I just want to post some delightful associations that I have in mind when reading this part of text.

    De Maistre’s fragment may be seen as an argument on the modern technique to obtain the truth:How can the truth be possible under the technically prefect logic of “either/or” decision? Barthes seems to problematize the very way this question is asked. This remainds me Claude Debessy’s opera “Pelleas and Mellisande”, in which Melisande’s husband, Golaud, demands Melisande to tell the truth about whether she has an affair with Golaud’s brother, Pelleas. The way Debussy renders music for the word “la verite” consists of just four fragile notes without harmony. It seems a very impressive way to state that the truth is not something you”obtain”; as soon as you get hold of it, it would break apart in your hands. I am very happy to find Barthes takes up this drama as an example on page 112.

    Another assocition with music is Barthes’ mentioning his “repeated efforts to use and justify an aleatory exposition”. It reminds me John Cage and other modern composers who have been exploring a way to disrupt the regime of total control of musical narrative. One strategy of this is a chance operation, in which music consists of fragments and the player decides the order of playing these fragments on the stage based on coin-tossing or dice-throwing, for example. This association might be further touched upon in later chapters; I am looking forward to it.

    • s.manghani

      Mimei – it is lovely to have your words and your connections here to music are great, both because (1) you offer such succinct, yet fertile comment by referring to music and (2) because music was such a passion for Barthes, and as a ‘system’ he never wished go invade, so it would seem pertinent to follow up some of the ideas that way.

      I find your reference Debussy very illuminating vis-a-vis the Maistre fragment. The idea that ‘four fragile notes’ will be broken by harmony is very poetic. I think there are some echoes here with Jessica’s comments on the temporary and temporality. But also, the single note and harmony immediately evokes ideas about One And Others, about the (im)possibility of community for the neutral. I am glad you have noted a follow-up on your reference on p.112 – plenty to develop.

      Your reference John Cage (which is not the first here, so again some interesting connections developing) is finely related to the line you quote from Barthes – on ‘aleatory exposition’. There is a note on method in The Lover’s Discourse about seeking a random arrangement and it is echoed in The Neutral, which obviously says something about power/knowledge but I think also, and thinking about your comments, reveals something about the Neutral as performance.

  15. Paul Frosh

    Sorry, just read some of the more recent posts, and couldn’t help responding – something which involves me discussing the book’s convergence with my own research earlier than I thought I would! I’m really taken with Jessica’s idea of the neutral as connected to ‘weak’ affects: I thought about this when reading the opening section and it particularly chimed with my work on the inattentive and routinized contexts of of mass media reception (browsing and page flicking, television channel zapping, commercial photography as a background environment: the aggregation of random fragments) and the way these cumulative weak affects produce weak forms of connectivity to multiple others (e.g. the strength of weak ties in Granovetter’s sociology of networks; Goffman’s civil inattention) that nevertheless are central to moral and ethical relations. But much as I laboured to make this work, the neutral wouldn’t lend itself entirely to this appropriation: it is also passionate and violent (‘as a desire, it means violence’, p.13). The relationship to Camera Lucida also problematizes the relevance of weak affects: the punctum is many things, but I’ve never thought of it as weak (it ‘fills the sight by force’): if anything it is the studium (also mentioned in this chapter) that is weak, as it is concerned with the ‘docility’ of the image (Camera Lucida is a text I love and with which I am always quarreling). How can the neutral be a figure for passionate desire (albeit not the will-to-possess) and weak affects at the same time?

    • s.manghani

      It is interesting Camera Lucida has come up a number of times. I think there is a useful link between the Punctum and Neutral in Barthes – which as you say is not about weak affect. I think we need to follow jup on these questions. I happened go see some of August Sander’s photographs yesterday as part of an exhibition at Tate Modern called Photographic Typoologies. I looked at them with a specific interest in Barthes’ comments in Camera Lucida. I’ll aim to write something on what I ‘saw’, as I did see a link with the entry on benevolence.

  16. Sudipto Sanyal

    Hi all,

    Preliminaries, then. I’m writing my doctoral dissertation on intoxication, crime fiction and narrative movement, and am attempting to engage with the Bartheisan idea of the rustle of language and find suitable articulation/terminology to display/describe (never define or explain!) intoxications as rustles of the language of crime fiction. In this context, Barthes’s notes on Benjamin’s “Hashish in Marseilles” and Baudelaire’s comments, and his linking hashish with benevolence, are interesting. Are drug enforcement agencies paying heed? 🙂

    With respect to weariness, the point about it not being coded societally is intriguing. This seems to open up a delightful interface with Foucault – why do we recognize ‘depression’ nosologically but not ‘weariness’? Is weariness not socially assimilated as easily as depression? Is it more difficult to define boundaries for weariness? When does weariness weary itself out? Hmmm…

    As for the Neutral, it “baffles the paradigm.” I think this is important to keep in mind in the larger political and media-dominated discourses at present, at least here in the United States – for instance, the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert- organized Rally to Restore Santity/March to Keep Fear Alive that was held on the 30th of October, 2010, in Washington DC, and was attended by over a quarter of a million people, fits very much into some sort of Neutral-related intensity in its attempt to outplay the paradigm (most commentators, for instance, didn’t know what to make of something that both was and was not a protest rally) – perhaps the Neutral’s right to silere, as Barthes makes clear later on.

    Anyway, those are just some first impressions. I look forward to getting to know you (getting to feel free and easy!) all as this progresses.


    • s.manghani

      It is interesting to read about your research area and how Barthes of all people offers a way into your subject. Your mentioning of the Rally/March is very interesting – bringing something very contemporary and ‘real’ to our thoughts of the book. It makes me think about just what is ‘it’ that prompts the change in behaviour that lead to people being on the streets. Presumably many of the individuals interviewed recently on the streets in Egypt and elsewhere, suddenly willing to give up so much of themselves to an undefined, emergent cause, were only weeks previously living fairly routine lives. Is there something ‘neutral’ about that change. It seems counter-intuitive, but it is thought-provoking…

    • Susanne Gannon

      Hi Sudipto, re the differences in social coding of weariness and depression – I wonder if it is the existence or not of a “supposedly relevant pharmacopeia” (p. 16), thus the generation of a pathological storyline and an associated (esp. pharmaceutical) treatment regime (eg. Depression listed in the 1968 edn of the US “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)” … Could weariness or lassitude appear in the DSM? (Eventually, no doubt as they multiply exponentially). What pharmacology then to ‘cure’ weariness (speed? cocaine?), or just a good night’s sleep and more green vegetables? … [maybe off course here but Barthes mention of pharmacopeia quite interesting]. Best, Susanne

  17. Hello All and apologies for saying so little (which I’m just about to do) so late…it’s been a long weekend!

    The two versions of the Course title are interesting: from ‘The Neutral’ to ‘The Desire for Neutral’, which is judged to be ‘better’. The loss of the definite article is certainly better as it pluralises neutrality, but this advantage is undone by universalising desire instead. Thus re-establishing a community (or the academic illusion of one).

    Barthes speaks of ‘my neutral’ and Keith is quite right to make explicit what is implicit in most of the responses, the taking ownership of neutrality by finding a place for it within the world we know. Paradoxically, this facilitates conversation while, at the same time, shattering neutrality into an infinity of positing egos (hence, no doubt, the inclusion of Fichte in the reading list). Such irreducible difference, if confronted, would certainly ‘outplay’ one dominant paradigm (dialogics), but this is the very paradigm that underpins this forum which is why, in my view, the real consequences of neutrality are unlikely to be faced.

    Barthes ‘s over-hasty introduction of an ethics of choice (in spite of his dabbling in quasi-Nietzschean language) already shows signs of aping the barely-hidden morality of another hegemonic concept: objectivity. Shame, because, for me, neutrality is perhaps the most powerful challenge (from within the arts) to the valorisation of science, knowledge and explanantion.

    Obviously, as can already be seen, the confusion of neutrality and benevolence (and the ethics of pity that Nietzsche found so appalling) will guarantee the success of this forum (which is great by the way, and Sunil is soooo benevolent) but I will be interested to see (and I don’t know ‘cos I’ve never read The Neutral) if ‘my’ neutral emerges as a topic of discussion. I doubt if the conversation will be very prolonged if it does!! So, yes, I too am looking forward to the ‘silence’ section.

    Just to be clear: big hugs to Sunil for getting this going, I just hope it really does ‘outplay’ some paradigms. (Whatever that means).

  18. s.manghani

    It would be good to drop all definite articles. I am constantly frustrated by my own sentences here, having to write ‘the Neutral’. I feel simply ‘Neutral’ is preferable, but the strictures of community, hemmed in as I am by my upbringing, sociality, and language, I have to watch each time as I fail.

    Overall, I sense a delicate protestation in your comments. For all the asides and hugs, I can see how troubled you are by this ‘community’ of endeavour! I don’t think The Neutral – as a lecture course, a book or event – outplays the paradigms, nor does it attempt to. Similarly I don’t think this reading group outplays anything. As such, I would agree it is not possible here to face the ‘real consequences of neutrality’. But I think we can come together to acknowledge these consequences and I appreciate the luxury of that opportunity. Also, faced as we are (certainly in the UK) with a constant undermining of the nuanced, sensitive thinking we associate with the arts, I also feel there is an important protestation to be made in the very action of a reading group such as this. But maybe I am over-stating the case!

    I find your comment on objectivity interesting. I can see your point. There is something about Barthes’ tone that seems to make sense with your observation, it goes back to his structuralist writings (which he is clearly still operating with when wanting to get back to discourse). There is something in the layout of the book/lectures that is like an anatomy of the Neutral. But… I don’t buy this idea of objectivity. I think Barthes is constantly ironic as a ‘theorist’. His diary notes bring this out well, but just based on his texts, certainly the late writings, there seems to me to be an ongoing attempt to challenge the ‘vaporisation of science, knowledge, and explanation’. His inaugural lecture is very good on this I think. Although, perhaps where you would differ, is the way Barthes sees Literature being the ‘grand’ archive of all knowledges.

    Finally, I want to hear more about ‘your’ neutral. One thing that has emerged so far is a literary appreciation of Barthes. The Neutral seems to work on this level, but from the perspective of your philosophical discipline I know there are problems. It will be really good to identify those problems, and specifically critique them. Barthes ranges over a wide set of interests and subject areas. This seems a real strength in his work, yet obviously it is the weakness too. Inevitably there are loose referenes, whether to Nietsche or Taoism etc. I like the experiments that can emerge, but it is preferable to challenge them too. I’m not sure if you mean by the ‘confusion of neutrality and benevolence’ that that is a confuson Barthes makes, or just ‘us’ here. If the former, I’d want to say ‘No!’ – there is something far edgy than benevolence going on. The terms Barthes analyses are not words he wishes to align himself with. They are tools to help illuminate what keeps getting overlooked. If the latter, I guess it is early days and rather than look for ‘your’ neutral, how about offering it as a topic of discussion? It doesn’t necessarily matter if the conversation is prolonged or not – as Barthes says, ‘why is it better to last than to burn’?

  19. R.

    1. On the last 30th of January I broke with S. I had met her four years before, and by the time of our separation, we had lived together for more than three years. It was my decision, but I think I loved her, and I had no doubt, my feelings were well reciprocated. We did not have major problems, in fact, many friends and acquaintances thought of us as the ideal couple. No one seemed to understand my reasons for taking that decision, sometimes not even me. Lately, however, I have been inclined to think that I was looking for the Neutral as a state of living: I had a desire for the Neutral.

    2. It was a sunny Saturday morning and I was at home on my own.
    a) It was then when I first heard (Home/Zizek Love!) that Slav talking about love. Following a strange interpretation of The Quantum Theory, he argued that in a (Neutral) universe where things exist by mistake, love could only be described as cosmic imbalance, for picking out something (the loved one) and holding to it, would necessarily imply a deliberate (unnatural) negation of the universal void. Love, he claimed, was Evil.
    b) I liked his conception of a void, randomly real universe: I could have not found a better analogy to what I understand as the Neutral. Unlike him, however, I do not think we can limit the possibilities of love as he does in his definition. Even worse is falling in such basic (good/evil) dichotomical categorization (p.7).

    3. The Neutral is elusive; one cannot put it in words. That is also the case of Love. a) When Monsieur B. brings to our attention the multiplicity of existing disciplinary depictions of the Neutral (p.1,7-8), he is both interested in the particularities of each one, as he is in their similarities. Beyond that, however, he is looking for his own definition, and in doing so, he sacrifices methodological rigour for the pleasure of his free reading (p.9)
    b) If we were to truly understand the notion of the Neutral according to M. B., we should then focus on the pleasure of our own reading. In that way, the actual text becomes a simple reference, an excuse. In my case, the notion of the Neutral will be explored in terms of its relationships with Love.

    • Lloyd Spencer

      Great idea … beautifully simple sounding idea…your suggestion: “to focus on the pleasure of our own reading”

      But your personal note — to the effect that The Neutral might serve as your excuse, for not loving, or not loving enough — is also interesting.

  20. Lloyd Spencer

    About the Reading Group

    Far, FAR too many words in the responses so far.

    11, 286 words (including peoples names, so over 11k any way you add it up)

    Much of this writing has only a loose connection with any reading at all, let alone a reading of The Neutral.

    What is lacking is a paradigm for this activity. A way of suggesting what is good to post and what is less good, or positively unhelpful. Perhaps separate pages where people can write about their other activities, record their current (and only loosely related) research, assert the breadth of their previous reading or the poverty and chaos of their current circumstances.

    Barthes is an incomparable reader. Any posts I write in the future will try to relate as closely as possible to the text and to reading it, opening it, opening myself to it, … to him…

    Sunil’s intiative? Really welcome. And I would sign up to any initiative by Sunil, whom I find always likeable and stimulating. He may not welcome my way of commenting. Certainly some will find me far too brusque.

    About this me and my reading

    I am at the beginning. (I had great pleasure reading the first chapter … slowly.)
    If I felt I understood, “possessed” an understanding, I would dread having it unpicked, unpuzzled by others.

    I will confine myself to commentary on the text itself. I will not ask other people to engage with my other experiences of deep reading (Adam Phillips, Walter Benjamin). Nor do I want to engage with the difficulties experienced by others with other texts, other writers).

    I am sad that Barthes is dead, I am amazed by how alive reading me makes me feel.

    Occasionally I may record the experience or circumstances of my reading.

    Lloyd Spencer
    Leeds, UK

  21. R.

    I would be rather un-neutral, holding to a paradigm here…

  22. C.

    I happened to come across the German translation of ´Le derniers jours de Roland B.´ by H. Algalarrondo. He follows Barthes own idea of separating the works and the person of Marcel Proust for a seminar and thus wrote about the person Roland. Algalarrondo elaborates on the many problematic issues of Roland´s love life parallel to his work. Following the issue on love mentioned by R. above, I see the neutral just here, in between a person´s love life and his/her work. I see ´the neutral as a state of living´ as a limitation and worth challenging. I believe, love is ideally to be lived without intellectual preconceptions and explanations as well as deep personal hang ups, aiming for a ´lived love´ instead of a ´lived neutral´.

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