Session 11: May 20, 2011

Supplement: I managed to catch up with listening to some recent episodes of BBC Radio 4’s excellent In Our Time programme. One episode was about the the neutrino, which is an elementary particle that travels close to the speed of light, has almost zero mass and is electrically neutral. It would be wrong to make too obvious a connection with Barthes’ Neutral just because of the basic facts of this particle, but… listening to the programme I was amazed how scientifically we have continued to pursue knowledge, even when our own ‘calculations’ appear to place us at the very limits of our knowledge. The neutrino is barely detectable and yet at any given second about 65 billion neutrinos (emanating from the sun) pass through every square centimetre of our planet. They interact only with ‘weak’ sub-atomic force, which means they pass through great distances of matter without being affected by it. Just as we can see through a thick piece of glass, the neutrino can ‘see’ or travel through a whole light-year of lead without likelihood of being knocked off course. Mathematics has enabled us to conceive of things which at first appear beyond our understanding. Yet we go on to make real findings; and indeed locating the neutrino has enabled significant new ways of understanding the universe and its make-up. It is a stretch, but I wonder if equally, something like Barthes’ conception of the Neutral, which at first appears to have no language with which we might handle it, can eventually enter into our understanding… (For an excellent discussion of neutrinos listen to BBC Radio 4′s In Our Time…)

On a separate note: I read a little earlier today a tweet by Mimei, in which he noted: ‘Sometimes frustrating to read Barthes’ lecture notes in the fragmentary form. I have to learn how to skip here and there in the text’. I couldn’t agree more and it is interesting to think about this comment in the context of the very fragmentary mode of Twitter. What would Barthes have made of it? Would he have embraced it?

Reflection: Last week was a fairly quiet week. I’m not altogether surprised. In terms of the academic year in many places now things are winding down (though generally that means lots of marking to do too!). Also, we are now into the final weeks of this Reading Group. Like any course of study it takes its toll as much as it can be rewarding. Nonetheless, some useful observations. I tried to offer a little more thought on James’ important query as to whether of not we simply equate the Neutral with différance. The Neutral does seem to be more affirmative than deconstruction. Such a view led us to some of Barthes specific observations on place and space and I suppose the whole idea of retreat as a determined action.  James also opened up some thoughts on the Neutral as political strategy, which sadly I don’t feel I necessarily responded to, even though I see this as a very crucial question. He remarked on the interesting idea of the Socratic form as ‘a sort of Neutral response to the discourse of the legal authorities’. Perhaps we can take this further.

Session of May 20, 2011 (Pages 152-165: Arrogance / Panorama)

This week’s reading covers the topics of Arrogance and Panorama. Interesting mix! Although to note, Panorama is a short entry this week and continues next week, so perhaps this topic can build more fully next week. The majority of the reading covers Arrogance, or more precisely ‘under what difficult conditions a discourse manages not to be arrogant’. Barthes breaks the figure down into some interesting specifics: anorexia; western frenzy’; obviousness, interpretation; the (philosophical) Concept; memory/forgetting; unity-tolerance; and writing.

The elementary form would be the demand: it may happen that I feel no hunger for the world, but the world will force me to love it, to eat it, to enter into intercourse with it (p.153)

…of course this very blog and its ‘Leave a reply’ comments box does seem to play straight into this ‘elementary form’… but assuming you don’t feel put upon, it’ll be great to hear your thoughts…


  1. s.manghani

    Having suggested that we might end up discussing Panorama next week, with its continuation in the text then, I must say (to sneak a peek at a few thoughts) I find the entry evocative and indeed beautiful in its descriptions and potential. The opening contrast between panorama and panopticon is great – something nice to give to students perhaps to help temper the overbearing theory of the panopticon, which arguably has been too easy to impart as a reading of our lives. And the description of a dream occurring in the fleeting moments before waking is delightful and brilliantly conjures up a complex, but eloquent ‘transposition or exchange between space and time’ (p.164).

    However, to return thoughts to the main figure this week, Arrogance, a few quick points:

    1. It is rather intriguing to read the entry on anorexia. I’m sure we have quite a different relationship to this word today and perhaps this makes the section more difficult to read. It can come across a little arrogantly! I’m not particularly convinced that anorexia relates to the Neutral as such, but I do find the image of the demand from society for us to eat more, have more, be more, quite powerful and no less relevant today. (One thing that did come to mind, however, as I read this section was another phrase, which again I’m sure has a different resonance today: passive aggressive. How would Barthes’ respond to the idea of the Neutral being passive aggressive?)

    2. I enjoyed the entry on ‘western frenzy’. Barthes writes: ‘I don’t know why, a mere “impression”, it seems to me that the “ordinary” world, the way “everyone” speaks, is sinking into a minor form of arrogance, of linguistic self-confidence: the lack of timidity: it seems to me that there is a recession of timidity: radio, improvised roundtables, conversations…’. My initial thoughts, obvious perhaps, was of celebrity culture and reality TV. Certainly no timidity there! But also, I feel this ‘recession of timidity’ is now at a massive pace due to the expansion of mobile and social media. Today, I participated in a ‘Live Webchat’ organised by the Guardian Higher Education. It went on for hours and consisted of ‘like-minded’ people all typing in their thoughts to a comments box not unlike the one I’m writing these words in – but equally, being live, everyone had to keep refreshing their browser to ‘listen’ to the debate. Whilst writing you’d find all sorts of things were said besides and so a highly disjointed ‘conversation’ unfurled. Everyone seemed very happy with this and felt it was all very ‘productive’! …I dropped in a few critical remarks such as I’m suggesting here, but these were easily bypassed. On one occasion someone proudly said they agreed with me, yet their point was in complete contrast to mine! …I tried to point this out, but all was lost to merry goings on. This isn’t an example of arrogance in the obvious sense – everyone was so polite for a start, but on a more formal level, as Barthes considers, this appeared to me yet another playing out of our arrogant ‘frenzy’.

    3. ‘In radical terms: no solution to arrogance other than the suspension of interpretation, of meaning’ (p.155). What does Barthes mean here?

    4. I think the entry on ‘The Concept’ is one of the most significant in the book. In just over a page, Barthes offers such a succinct statement on the relationship of the Neutral to philosophy – as being outside of, but not in opposition. He ends on the very fertile line: ‘one must say no to the concept, not make use of it. But, then, how to speak, all of us, intellectuals? By metaphors. To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write’ …the Annual Conference of The Society for European Philosophy & The Forum for European Philosophy is due to be held at York St John University later this year (see DETAILS). I am going to talk with the organiser, Gary Peters, to see if there might be scope to hold a session on this specific entry. I think it warrants more extended discussion. Any thoughts very welcome… and I may well post up a separate entry shortly.

    …there are another three entries, on memory/forgetting, unity-tolerance, and writing. I will hold off from comments for now so as to keep this entry getting any longer! …I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts.

  2. james humphreys

    Would Barthes have been a user of Twitter? Perhaps. Certainly many of the entries in his Mourning Diary, which I have just started reading, are of tweet or near-tweet length (June 7th: “Maman: like Cezanne (the late watercolours). Cezanne blue.”) The Mourning Diary was written more or less contemporaneously with the course on the Neutral and it might be interesting to consider to what extent the entries in the diary are informed by the idea of the Neutral. [By the way, we do not have Barthes on Twitter, but we do have BHL who has much of interest to say].

    On the question of the resemblance between the Neutral and deconstruction, I think you are right to say that the Neutral seems to be more affirmative. “Classical” (European) deconstruction seeks to show that the binary oppositions on which a text is based are not sustained; however, some deconstruction in the US (the sort that is often criticised for being “politically correct“) often goes beyond this to positively promote the minor term of the binary. Perhaps the Neutral most resembles this rather “impure” form of deconstruction.

    I will post something on the latest section of the Neutral shortly. In the meanwhile, I would just note that the issue of the political arises again when Barthes refers directly to the arrogance of political discourse (along with other forms of discourse) but states that he does not intend to go into a typology. Did he see discussion of the discourses of the political, advertising etc. as a future project? We know that Barthes was deeply depressed following the death of his mother at this time; could it be that he simply wanted to write about more personal matters at this time.

    • s.manghani

      James, thanks for these points, lots to ponder.

      I thought too when reading his Mourning Diary how the entries compare with the short entry forms of texting and twitter etc. I can imagine a ‘performance’ of the diaries played out on twitter, on corresponding days. And whilst twitter may have gone against his reified notion of writing, to have participated himself, I’m pretty sure he would have been interested. It displays many aspects of the Text and of the haiku which fascinated him so. [I’m not familiar with BHL on twitter can you elaborate? I gather you are using twitter too?]

      It is true the diary was written contemporaneously with The Neutral – I referred to it in earlier weeks here. I think it does make sense to look between the two texts. Definitely the period of mourning seems to relate to a loss of interest in the political and turn to the personal. Something Barthes’ doesn’t seem to ‘recover’ from. The text Incidents and of course Camera Lucida attest to this. I find I keep returning to the line about ‘desperate vitality’ that Barthes notes in the opening of The Neutral and which is specific to the section in which he opens up about being in a period of mourning. It does all hold together. It seems to lead to a certain way of writing, but the question remains, is this a ‘productive’ period (opening up a necessary mode to access concepts such as the Neutral), or does it actually undermine the project. Perhaps both.

      I am intrigued with your suggestion that the Neutral might resemble the minor term of the binary, that it is an ‘impure’ form of deconstruction. Barthes’ explicit reference to the Neutral as being of a structural concern (in the Preliminaries) between the binaries would seem at odds with your suggestion, yet equally I can see what you are getting at. Much of the playing out of the Neutral can seem to privilege that which gets marginalised. I’d be keen to hear further thoughts on this, from yourself or others…

  3. james humphreys

    BHL refers to philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (he refers to himself as BHL on Twitter).
    I fear that I explained myself badly in my earlier post .What I was trying to suggest was that whilst classical Derridean deconstruction seeks to establish a new relationship between the two terms of a binary (perhaps it is shown that the reason for privileging x over y also applies to y, or the reason for y’s subordination applies to x), certain practitioners of deconstruction go beyond this. Particularly in the US, deconstruction has often been employed in quite political ways by feminists, Marxists and others to promote the minor term of a binary over and above the privileged term (consider the oppositions male/female, majority/minority and examples should spring to mind). The Neutral seems to resemble this latter (perhaps illegitimate) form of deconstruction in that both, ostensibly, stand outside the binary but, de facto, promote a “very particular position” as you put it. Of course, a point of difference is that the Neutral is not overtly political.

  4. Hello neutrinos,
    I’m afraid I’ll be acting like the participants in the live webchat you described, Sunil, by arrogantly ignoring your discussion with James and ploughing ahead with my own unsorted array of concerns…
    I thought the section on arrogance confirmed some of our past discussions about the neutral’s ‘suspension of interpretation, of meaning’. The relations with Greek scepticism, and to Taoism, in this context, are useful complements to past classes. The passing reference to the Annales school was also interesting (see the affinities between the Annales school and the theories of everyday life of Lefebvre and Certeau).
    The definition of a movement of writing as a practice (vs static discourse) was a useful addition, I felt.
    I also liked the emphasis on diversity and singularity – perhaps in sympathy with Levinas (whom Barthes quoted via Blanchot in last week’s class)? – maybe we need to think further about the ethical implications of the neutral.

    • s.manghani

      Not so much an arrogance as Neutral baffling, or side-stepping of the previous discussion… i.e. perfect!

      You have an eagle-eye for the text. I am really glad you draw attention to the reference to the Annales school. I seemed to have passed over it, yet it is definitely worth a mention. It raises a number of methodological questions and keeps us within the domain of the everyday. You also note the usefulness of the references to Greek sceptism and Taoism – these are developed substantially in next week’s reading. So hopefully we can build on the ideas.

      I looked again at the entry on writing as a practice, and as a counter to arrogance. And I do so now having spent an evening listening to John Berger speak about this new book, Bento’s Sketchbook. Barthes makes the point that Writing is not without arrogance, but that it can counter it by looking at it head on: ‘to take on the arrogance of language as a specific lure’ (p.162). Berger is certainly a writer in this sense. There are various episodes in his new book which offer very sensitive observations of people and things. It appears language is being pushed to its outer limits to ensure the most precise attention is given. There is one episode, for example, which describes a museum guide in delicate, but precise terms – about her voice, her clothes, her gestures. At the end, the woman leaves the museum visitors and enters the staff offices. Later she then reappears to go home. Berger tells us of a Marks & Spencer’s carrier bag she is holding. Again, the observation is wonderful. Yet, suddenly he ponders what might be in the bag and the narrative shifts towards – again in very precise detail – what he imagines is in the bag. There are many other such moments in the book, revealing a writer’s technique which oscillates from observation to imagination.

      Barthes makes the case that whilst there are provocative and vociferous writings, ‘there aren’t arrogant ones’. Instead he suggests Writing is ‘assertive, excessive theater of a mad hypothesis’ (p.162). This would seem a wonderful description of Berger’s writing; ‘The writer, a Draufgänger {daredevil}, someone carried away, a breakneck, but not arrogant’ (p.162). In speaking the other night, Berger made the case for the storyteller needing to impress us which might seem to some to lean towards arrogance, except again the ‘outcome’, as Berger wanted to explain, is that if the storyteller impresses us, we (the listener) take on their attention… for ourselves. We take on the responsibility of looking too. When someone in the audience asked what gives him hope, he stuttered, he laughed wryly, then urged we must ‘continue to look fiercely … with indignation’. And he said it in all fierceness!

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