Session 12: May 27, 2011

Supplement: It was quite fitting (and indeed touching) that my mother yesterday handed me a newspaper article on Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which she had saved from the Guardian Review (26.03.11). I shouldn’t necessarily be surprised such an article can still appear in the press – its main point is that this ‘odd volume’, in the 30 years since its publication, has attained canonical status; ‘probably the most widely read and influential book on the subject’. I thought I’d mention it here since the book has been mentioned at various times in our discussions, particularly in the early weeks. But, also I liked a particular quote from the art critic Martin Herbert: ‘I don’t go looking for “ideas about photography” in that book; I read it for a certain kind of vulnerability.’

I wondered how such a response might relate to The Neutral as a book. Perhaps we needn’t go looking for some kind of ‘theory’ of the Neutral, but instead a certain kind of response to the world (…but what might the correct adjective be in this case?). In line with this thought, I might also mention I went to see John Berger speak at the London Southbank last night, following the publication of his new book Bento’s Sketchbook. Taking inspiration from the fact that the philosopher Benedict or Bento de Spinoza liked to draw and also carried with him a sketchbook (but which was never found after his death), Berger produces his own set of drawings and ruminations: ‘The result is … an exploration of the practice of drawing and a meditation on how art guides our gaze to the world … to the pitilessness of the new world order and the forms of resistance to it’. In one of the readings he gave from the book, Berger referred to the adjective ‘inconsequential’:

To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential. (Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, pp.79-80)

This problem it would seem to me poses many possibilities… both in its own terms, but also in consideration of Barthes’ Neutral. I shall leave it open to further thought…

Reflection: Last week’s reading mainly covered the topic of Arrogance, which led us again into thinking about forms of engagement, dialogue and argumentation. Also it worked upon the theme of perennial interest to Barthes: Writing. …and writing as a practice, rather than something static. I have belated added a few comments to Anna’s observations last week, in which I use some of the lines from the text to offer an account of John Berger’s practice of writing. In addition James added further explanation on the topic of the Neutral and deconstruction. In noting how deconstruction has been ’employed in quite political ways by feminists, Marxists and others to promote the minor term of a binary’, he suggests the Neutral might ‘resemble this latter (perhaps illegitimate) form of deconstruction in that both, ostensibly, stand outside the binary but, de facto, promote a “very particular position”’. This week’s reading perhaps helps develop this point, and aid a certain de-coupling of resemblance – particularly in Barthes discussion of skepticism and wou-wei or inaction. In connection here, we can perhaps now return to one of the key concerns raised in Barthes’ preliminaries of the Neutral as ethical injunction. This is something Anna wished to highlight last week, suggesting an ’emphasis on diversity and singularity – perhaps in sympathy with Levinas (whom Barthes quoted via Blanchot in last week’s class…’.

Session of May 27, 2011 (Pages 166-181: Supplement VIII / Panorama (Continued) / Kairos / Wou-wei)

This week’s reading marks the penultimate session of the Reading Group! Again, the recurring interests of skepticism and Eastern philosophies are very evident. Building on ‘The Concept’ entry from last week, in which Barthes offers a very neat consideration of the Neutral vis-a-vis philosophy (showing it to be outside of, but not in opposition), we consider this week the concept of kairos, which Barthes develops specifically in terms of skepticism. There is much emphasis upon ‘time’: ‘the neutral stage of kairos is what prevents systematization from reaching the contingent, what prevents the becoming system, the becoming arrogant of worldliness -> one could say: the Neutral listens to contingency, it doesn’t submit to it’ (p.172). Barthes leads the discussion out to eastern philosophies again with a comment on the Zen notion of satori, and then in the final figure of the lecture on the Taoist notion of wou-wei, or the nonaction. Preceding these figures, Barthes also offers a continuation of the figure Panorama, which was initiated last week, though we didn’t really refer to it in our comments. Whilst the panoramic view is concerned with the spatial, much of this entry again brings out interests of the temporal: ‘…image of the palimpsest: interesting, because it’s an image of complexity but not of depth’ (p.167). Perhaps this image is also fitting for this week’s reading in itself, which strikes me as very complex, yet bound upon a level-field. We are now close to the end of the course and it does feel in this week (and last week to some extent too) we are required to hold together a number of difficult ideas – the insistence of the Neutral as ethical and aesthetic injunction; and as a response to the discourses of knowledge and enquiry. It is surely difficult to do justice to the material in the electronic environment we have here, but then equally I wonder how the minds of all those sitting in on Barthes’ actual delivery of the lectures must have spun! …I look forward to all and any of your thoughts Today…


  1. Hi all,
    It is precisely because the section on the kairos has been the most productive for my research that I will not say much about it. The paper on ‘Photography as a way of living’ that I gave last summer at the conference on ‘Agency and Automatism: Photography as Art since the 1960s’ at Tate Modern concluded with a section on the kairos, as a means to tease out the relations between agency and (biopolitical) automatism in photography and in everyday life in general, and between Foucault, Certeau and Barthes in particular. I’ve reworked the paper into a yet unpublished article (‘Photography, Ways of Living, and Richard Wentworth’s “Making Do, Getting By”’). (For those who are interested, images from Wentworth’s series can be found for example at and include works 1 to 6 in the british council collection at
    I’m not sure whether i’d call Wentworth’s series ‘neutral’ by the way, but i found the intersections with the kairos very striking. Our group reading of the neutral as a whole has confirmed my original intuitions (of the relations between Barthes and Certeau, and between the kairos and the punctum). I have yet to digest all the other new ideas that we’ve been exploring!

    • s.manghani

      Anna, thanks for the links. I can see why these photographs have interested you, not least for there commentary on the everyday. I too am not sure I’d consider them ‘neutral’ – and that intrigues me since there are definite interconnections, yet still the images seem too ‘loaded’, if that makes any sense. Fascinating. Is it possible to read your paper? I would really like to follow up on your thoughts here and to read your thoughts on kairos.

    • james humphreys

      I do not think that one can simply “read off” the Neutral from an image or a musical composition as perhaps you imply here. Identifying the Neutral would seem to be more a matter of divining the aesthetic purpose of the image-maker or composer. When B finds the Neutral exemplified in certain works of Cage, he does so because he is aware that Cage’s aesthetic purpose was formed in the light of ideas of Eastern philosophy, chance operations determined by the I Ching etc.. To suppose that an image or piece of music could itself “outplay a paradigm” would seem to involve the committing of a category error.

      • s.manghani

        James – I didn’t think in what I’d written I had said ‘one can simply “read off” the Neutral from an image or a musical composition’. I feel perhaps I entered into a certain ‘performance’ of the music (both the music itself and my own thoughts) that led me to wonder/wander further on the Neutral. However, I do feel the Neutral as a certain frame of reference does lend itself to an account of Cage’s work. Also, I am struck by your final line: ‘To suppose that an image or piece of music could itself “outplay a paradigm” would seem to involve the committing of a category error.’ Why is that? Strangely, I find the ‘logic’ of this line to impose a certain category of the Neutral. I wouldn’t want to suggest an image or piece of music will ‘outplay a paradigm’ in of itself… but just as Barthes looks to Writing as a means to approach the Neutral, I think images and music have their role to play too.

        • james humphreys

          Sunil:the reply was intended to be to Anna who seemed to lean in the direction I suggested with her remarks on Wentworth. I agree that your own comments were more circumspect. When I used the term “category error” I meant that an image or musical composition are not statements or propositions which would seem to be required for the “outplaying” of a paradigm. So yes, there is the imposition of a category of the Neutral on my part; however, it is very difficult to see what “outplaying a paradigm” could mean if it is not to be understood in this propositional way. Even if one situates the Neutral within a deconstructionist framework as I have suggested one might be able to do, this problem would still seem to arise.

  2. s.manghani


    There have been numerous references in passing to John Cage, both in the text and in our various remarks in previous sessions. This week we have a short entry specifically on Cage. By happenstance I also went to see a performance of Cage’s Indeterminacy this week. Sitting in the auditorium – without thinking overtly about the connections – I was struck with two main elements (which I’m slowly putting into focus as I write now):

    (1) a landscape of sounds that equates to Barthes comments on panorama;

    (2) the ‘play’ of eastern philosophies (in Cage’s case Zen)

    If you’re not familiar, Indeterminacy is a performance of spoken word and piano improvisation (in its very broadest sense, including the use of a range of idiosyncratic 'instruments'). Cage penned 90 stories or vignettes of varying lengths, but each written out on a single index card  with annotations on how to perform them in one minute each exactly. The cards are shuffled in a random order and read out one after the other, simultaneous to the piano improvisation – but with neither performer taking notice of the other. In the original 1959 recording Cage read the stories whilst David Tudor improvised piano in a separate room. 

    (1) Panoramic Sound: against the panopticon or apical – a 'plunging, asmodian view' – Barthes writes of the panoramic:

    panorama: opens onto a world without interior: says that the world is nothing but surfaces, volumes, planes, and not depth. (p.163)

    This would seem to describe Cage’s aesthetic very well. With Indeterminacy, for example, you may begin by trying to listen intently to the stories (and find the 'music' frustrating), but you start to become accustomed to the 'interferences'. It doesn't matter if you miss the beginning or the end of the story. Another one rolls along anyway, and besides, the stories perhaps make even more sense if you miss out on 'vital' details. Fundamentally they tell tales of the indeterminate. However the panoramic is also fitting for a more particular point about the work as performance. I have a CD of the original 1959 studio recording (noted above). I've enjoyed listening to it, but it was only really being present at a performance that I really felt I appreciated its signifance, and properly experienced what the title of the piece is getting at. There is a potential discrepancy here, as I'm inclined to say the CD is too filtered through the production process. It gives the piece as a single plane, whereas in the auditorium I was able to sense the sound relationships in a more physical way. However I would still say the live performance was without depth. The room allows for a panorama of sound, and crucially I know I have no control over the flow of sounds, as one does with a CD recording. 

    It is easy perhaps to characterise the sound improvisations as random, but this would be a mistake. The performers have a determinate approach, even a 'score' of sorts, but crucially they are not interacting deliberately with the spoken word. In this respect, I rather like the line Barthes offers at the close of the entry on 'Ubiquiplace': 'Sitio: becomes something like a joker-place that works as the “right place” at no matter what point of the panorama’ (p.169).

    (2) Under the heading ‘Figures of the West’ is a note on the relation between Cage and Zen, with a particular mention of Suzuki (who Cage cites frequently in Indeterminacy and who was in New York around the time Cage was working). Barthes cites Cage on being open to all as not to be active and possessive, in accordance with zen: 'I can want something but only if … nothing I decide seems to concern others' (p.178). Cage gives the example of the inconsequential choice of ordering one meat dish over another. Yet Barthes reminds how even a simple choice 'could very well induce me to interpret him, judge him'. He ends by suggesting the potential for a 'cheap, not very sturdy Wou-wei‘ (p.178). This criticism would seem to apply well to Barthes (and Cage’s) use of pithy zen sayings or stories. These stories make a ‘play’ of debunking the hierarchies of knowledge, which can be very liberating, but equally they can be judged a bit too smart for their own good! As I listened to Indeterminacy I enjoyed these types of stories, and began to get into the  rhythm since they build (quickly over one minute) to reach a peak, then only deliver a witty counterpoint which decays like radiation into the silent interval between stories. It was too easy. But then there were the occasions when I missed what was said, the story thwarted, yet strangely brought more 'sturdily' into being…

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