Session 10: May 13, 2011

Reflection: Last week’s reading covered the three topics of Rites, Conflict, and Oscillation. There was also a short supplementary entry on Kafka (which added to thoughts about the practice of writing). We questioned some specifics of the text, such as Barthes use of the term ‘letter’ (which I felt perhaps was a reference to Poe’s ‘purloined letter’) and what he meant by time in the closing section, in relation to oscillation. However, I was most struck by James’ short comment in which he raised the spectre of the similarities between the Neutral and Derrida’s différance. Thus he writes:

The Neutral is said to “baffle” the (Saussurean) paradigm; différance, with its movement of differing/deferral, is neither a word nor a concept and, like the Neutral, resists a full and complete meaning. Might the Neutral be seen as a subset of différance? Or perhaps the Neutral is a reformulated or updated différance?

Is the Neutral (merely) a synonym of différance? Yes, maybe… not least since deconstruction is everywhere, as we ‘know’: il n’y a pas de hors-texte. But, then again: No. The Neutral is a (very particular) position one can take. As we find with this week’s reading it is a place (or rather a space). It is an action, a preference, an ‘establishment’: ‘cats looking for a place to sleep: meticulously, it is a question of a few centimeters’ (p.146).

Session of May 13, 2011 (Pages 136-151: Supplement VII / Retreat)

Barthes begins the lecture of May 13 with a short supplement, which in the main is a playful analysis of an anonymous and pithy letter he receives. There is a touch of the Sherlock Holmes in his delivery: ‘written with a green ballpoint pen and mailed from the Montparnasse train station on April 30 (the day after the session on Answer): this lone sentence: “…and <sic> well, if that’s how it is why don’t you retire and ‘stop bugging us’ {nous “foutre la paix”} you too?”. He responds by devoting the week’s lecture to the figure of Retreat. He begins with three examples, or perspectives, drawing on accounts from Rousseau, Swedenborg, and Proust. He then turns attention to a more formal consideration in which ideas about place and space come to the fore. Finally, he makes connections between retreat/retirement and his underlying interest in vitality and ‘new life’ (vita nuova).


  1. james humphreys

    There seems to be further clarification of the idea of the Neutral near the beginning of this section. Thus B says-referring to the anonymous Montparnasse letter that he received suggesting that he “retire”-the Neutral does not “necessarily mean cancelling (taking the beating without flinching) but rather displacing, displacing oneself.” He then goes on to say that commentary, criticism and writing might be the way to answer ”him who wants me not to answer” (is this what he means by displacing oneself?). For me, an intriguing question which arises from the “beating” comment here is: to what extent can the Neutral be an effective political strategy? B sees the Neutral as a way of resisting the Doxa, but can it be an effective response to certain discourses which bear down upon or “beat” the individual or class?

    On the matter of “whiteness” in music: I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Socrate and found that there was a short section “ the whiteness”. Apparently, Satie prepared himself for the composition of Socrate by eating only white foods. Interestingly, he wrote it at a time when he was at risk of a prison sentence for writing a libellous postcard:“he wants Socrate to be transparent, lucid and unimpassioned-not so suprising as counter-reaction to the turmoil that came over him for writing an offensive postcard.” So Socrate was a sort of Neutral response to the discourse of the legal authorities.

    • s.manghani

      James – you pick out a key line.

      …the Neutral doesn’t necessarily mean canceling (taking the beating without flinching) but rather displacing, displacing oneself. (Subsiding is not out of the question, as long as I speak the language of subsiding to myself

      The Neutral as the domain of the aesthete would seem to remove itself from the political (and even to be a ‘subsiding to [oneself]’). In the footnote related to this passage, the translators note one of Barthes’ preparatory cards: ‘I would like a (provisional) absence, not a refusal: it’s that, the Neutral’ (p.241, n.8). Displacement or absence appear to read as disengagement, and/or a turn to a higher, reified plane. However, considered another way, the line ‘not a refusal’ suggests a refusal to make a refusal. If you stand against something you are still acknowledge it as a position. The point of the beside-the-point answer, of displacing oneself, is not to have immediate impact, but potentially to alter entirely the very grounds of interaction. This suggests a political reading of the Neutral and goes back, I think, to Barthes’ opening definition:

      My definition of the Neutral remains structural. By which I mean that … the Neutral doesn’t refer to “impressions” of greyness, or “neutrality,” of indifference. The Neutral … can refer to intense, strong, unprecedented states. “To outplay the paradigm” is an ardent, burning activity.

  2. Thanks sunil for your tireless responses to barthes and to our comments. Your attempt to help me understand the temporary nature of last weeks’ ‘oscillation’ was very helpful, and ties in with this weeks’ theme, I think. I was taken by your use of the expression “just-so” (in relation to the French idea of justesse) which I think is very well illustrated by the image of the cat trying to find the perfect spot (= another kind of perfect pitch). The neutral, I agree, may be this search for the ‘just-so’, with all the fastidiousness that it implies (again, the butler in The Remains of the Day comes to mind). I still need to think about how the ‘just-so’ idea fits in with some ideas in this week’s section – of spaces between things being as important as the things themselves, and of monotony in itself creating a space of retreat, which both seem to bring us back to the more familiar avant-garde discourses of Cagean and serial music.

    • s.manghani

      I look forward to any further thoughts you have. As you say the links with avant-garde discourses are one potential thread.

      Picking up in the phrase ‘just-so’, in fact just on the ‘so’, I immediately think of Barthes interest in the haiku form and a line he uses in both Empire of Signs and Camera Lucida (there is a relationship he draws between both haiku and photograph). What we witness in the haiku, Barthes suggests, is everything, yet nothing (Mu); indeed only ‘pure and sole designation. It’s that, it’s thus, says the haiku, it’s so. Or better still: so!’

      This ‘so’ seems to resonant well with the reading this week, and given the previous thoughts regarding the everyday, it is perhaps worth keeping in mind – contrary to any reification of the haiku – that this form of poetry, tied with zen, is not associated with grand and profound statements, but purely with the fluidity of the everyday.

      I looked back at something I have written about Barthes’ interest in the haiku in relation to the visual, with relates also to space. I thought it useful to quote from the text, particularly as I try to make a distinction away from différence, which hopefully adds to the comment raised on this matter:

      In part, Barthes’ Empire of Signs can be thought a deconstructive fiction, for it is a kind of antidote, or ‘supplement’ to the myth of Japan that it constructs. Yet, equally, scattered throughout the text are ‘bits and pieces’ which refuse to be deconstructed. A symptom of which is that there is no complexity to be found, there is not the kind of elaboration, or elongation (as in duration, or différence) that might usually be associated with deconstruction. Instead, withdrawing from ‘analysis,’ Barthes rather takes the haiku as his emblem, noting for us that ‘the brevity of the haiku is not formal; the haiku is not a rich thought reduced to a brief form, but a brief event which immediately finds its proper form.’ Thus, quite apart from all the ‘talk’ (or ‘talking over’) of a deconstruction as a means to achieving dialogue with the subaltern, in Empire of Signs, Barthes attempts to give us situations of writing as ‘spaces’ (or, even pauses) in which another voice might be heard. Situations, then, in which ‘we’ are photographed, not the other way round (…or, as if we are spotted wandering the wrong-way up a one-way street!). And so, we encounter another writing entirely – a visual writing perhaps, or at least a writing with images (and not about them). (- from ‘Lost in Translation, Or Nothing to See But Everything’ in Visual Cultures, ed. by James Elkins, 2010, pp.27-42).

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