Session 13: June 3, 2011

Reflection: Last week’s entries prompted less close attention to the text than perhaps in previous weeks. I attempted to pull together a few thoughts on panorama, eastern philosophies and the work of John Cage. Anne offered a note on her work regarding photography, the everyday, the work of Richard Wentworth and with a link to kairos – which was the topic of the main entry last week, and arguably one of the most significant statements on the Neutral in terms of its place in a wider philosophical terrain. James also reminded us of the difficulty, if not mistaken practice, of pointing to – or ‘reading off’ – the Neutral from distinct works of art.

Perhaps it is fair to suggest we have reached a certain moment of wou-wei in our engagement with the Neutral and with our weekly reading. By this I mean there is a ‘nonaction’ in terms of there being less comments placed here online. Nonetheless, as per the text we can understand this by no means a ‘will-to-die’, but rather a some kind of dodge or disorientation. There is so much to ponder, it becomes difficult to respond immediately in sentences. The Neutral as a notion and as a text baffles us in the most intriguing kind of way. So: In coming to the end of the text I sense only a beginning, or a panorama of the Neutral…

Session of June 3, 2011 (pp. 182-209: Wou-wei (Continued) / The Androgyne / Intensities / To Give Leave / Fright)
The entries for the final lecture delievered by Barthes included a continuation of Wou-wei and also The Androgyne. These are the main focus for this final Reading Group Session. However, the text also includes three Annex materials which may be of interest: Intensities, To Give Leave, and Fright. In addition to these specific entries for this week, a wide range of final responses would also be greatly welcomed. Indeed it would be nice to archive here in this final session as many acknowledgements – however brief – of one’s brush with the text… (as if our collective signing of a farewell card…)



  1. james humphreys

    I found the second of the Annex sections “To Give Leave” to be of particular interest. The subsection “Leave, Drift” refers to “invasion by the world…by means of ‘questions,’ questionnaires, enquiries etc.” and states that “there is a need here for large, serious reflection… devoted to the new relations (of power) between information (knowledge) and decision (judgement).” It has been suggested that TN and other late works of Barthes represent a more inward-looking perspective, but the passage here suggests that B might have had in mind a new mode of doing or thinking politics. In the same section there is reference to “ ‘leftist’ themes towards which I feel both sympathy and doubt”: perhaps this could be interpreted as supporting this view. This leads on to a question: what, if any, are the political implications of the Neutral in 2011? Other questions: what might a “practitioner” of the Neutral actually do on a day-to-day basis? Has anyone in the Reading Group experimented with the Neutral on a personal level in this way?

    It is late so I will defer sending my calling card -this is after all fully in accord with the Neutral (“Delaying the answer: the dilatory…with the hope (often satisfied) that there will no longer be any reason to reply”) 🙂

    • s.manghani

      Yes… I think there is something important to note about the ethical and political dimension of The Neutral. Barthes begins the lecture series with an explicit note on ethics and ends that way too. Yet what is this ethics?

      As you suggest, Barthes’ late work is characterised as more inward looking. We’ve mentioned before Camera Lucida and also his Mourning Diary. However, as you point out, there are numerous remarks on social and political concerns. I find it interesting where the personal and public start to meet. I think it is the fact of both public and private domains that leads Barthes to ‘feel both sympathy and doubt’; and of course his other key lecture series (prior to the Neutral) tackles the question of ‘how to live together’.

      In addition to the lines you refer, I also found the section on ‘Zen’ under the figure of Wou-wei insightful. It opens with the line ‘The to be sitting is linked with an idea of nonprofit‘. He also offers a lovely image: ‘while driving through a “lost” Moroccan village … I saw a child “sitting quietly, doing nothing” on a wall’. Having spent a tedious day at an all day meeting ‘pretending’ to be very productive, and then reading this section in the evening, that moment of the child sitting doing ‘nothing’ leapt off the page. There is something ‘lost’ about just sitting. Just sitting ‘here’ I am actually wired into a global network. I am ‘busy’ typing, thinking and typing all at once. All so purposeful!

      In Zen, one is not sitting facing anything … To be sitting facing nothing: squaring of the circle: in resturants, in trains, in life, there is always someone who comes to sit facing us

      This, however, reminds me of a book I have somewhere, an art book full of only photographs (without captions) taken secretly of people staring into space on the Paris Metro. Each image intentionally captures the image of people we dare not look at whilst we all travel on the subway system (since we always avert our gaze)! This collection of photographs reveals something of the Zen ‘sitting facing nothing’, yet it is through aversion. This is not an affirmative gaze. It captures I think the difficulty to find an answer to your question ‘what might a “practitioner” of the Neutral actually do on a day-to-day basis?’

  2. Instead of trying to summarize everything I got from our reading of the Neutral, I’d just like to say, in response to James’s criticism last week that I agree with him that we should not be looking for visual (or others) examples of the Neutral. In my eyes the Neutral is, like the ‘informe’ defined by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, an operation more than a specific image. I think this week’s section on Minimalism addresses this issue directly, when Barthes engages with Minimal Art. And his definition of a minimalist ethic (as opposed to a minimalist aesthetic) which would ‘contribute to harmonize the interior maximum of intensity … and the minimum exterior (world)’ (my awkward translation, sorry) is very evocative of the Neutral as a whole: it brings together the search for a just-so ‘justesse’ and balance, and the active refusal of our stereotypically passive notions of indifference, blandness, apathy that the Neutral risks being associated with. I don’t think we need a (visual, musical etc) embodiment of this dynamic – we need only to be able to catch glimpses of its operations around us every day. Thanks Sunil for organising this reading group, I hope to hear more from all the Neutrinos in the future.

    • s.manghani

      I agree… the section on minimalism is very clear and instructive about the Neutral as an ‘operation’ or ethic. In conjunction with Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss’ reading of Bataille’s ‘informe’ there is surely a great deal more to explore.

  3. s.manghani

    The reading for this final week are perhaps not as rich as the penultimate week’s readings, but feel satisfying as a gentle close – with no grand conclusion (which would only go against the whole thing!). However, the closing remarks on the androgyne are suggestive of much more. Personally I found the lines about ‘the maternal father, of the father with breasts: of the tender father…’ (p.194) very touching – too personal no doubt to properly respond to here online, but is definitely something I would like to explore further. In all, ‘Exit the Neutral’ feels very much like an opening, evoking the nascent as ever.

    In other news: As already mentioned, the section on minimalism (which I assume was never actually delivered by Barthes) offers a very useful statement on the Neutral as an ethics, not an aesthetics. Aesthetics have their role, as they must, but the Neutral cannot be identified with any particular instance. There are also remarks here on Spinoza (which tie in nicely with John Berger’s new book, Bento’s Sketchbook) as well as Tao and political minimalism (which would stand against what Barthes refers to as ‘political maximalism’!). As an aside, but rather nice, Barthes coins the term ‘hyperdemand’: ‘…when more energy is required to say no than to do the thing requested + hallucination of being targeted’. Surely this most succinctly describes our contemporary culture of spreadsheets, league tables and efficiency, as well as demands of social media (see Jodi Dean’s book Blog Theory).

    Having now brought the text to a ‘close’, and by way of a ‘summary’, I thought I could propose a shortlist of further reading and research. The following, then, is a list (in no order of importance) of authors and topics one might examine in order to deepen a reading of Barthes’ The Neutral and/or open up the topic to other areas.

    – Freud (on Leonardo)
    – Baudelaire
    – John Cage
    – Nietzsche
    – The Everyday
    – Tao & Zen
    – Pyrrho & skepticism
    – Bataille’s informe
    – Blanchot

    Further suggestions very much welcome…

  4. Gavin Wilson

    Farewell, or au revoir, Neutral.
    I have shared time with you, got to know you – a little, for you are enigmatic occasionally – and it seems unimaginable that we won’t meet again at some moment of moderate reflection.
    My thanks to all who have contributed, but especially those that I have read.
    Mostly, I send my gratitude to Sunil for having the energy and generosity to make these sessions possible.
    Thank you,
    Gavin Wilson

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