Session 2: February 25, 2011

Supplement: A good number of members posted up comments to Session 1, last week. There was also a high volume of ‘traffic’ and activity on the site which would seem to suggest many more were also engaging, if not writing comments. I also received two photographs instead of actual comments! Both photographs are of an individual enjoying reading The Neutral. The first I received was of someone seated in a comfortable armchair. The light from the window overpowers somewhat, creating a slight blur, which makes the image seem to ‘float’. The second photograph is a little more tongue-in-cheek, sent to me from Australia by someone who joined the group only this week. It is a lovely image of the person smiling, reading the book, with Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. There are undoubted difficulties in initiating and then holding together a ‘discussion’ online about a book on such a subtle topic amongst a group of people with different backgrounds, time zones and motivations. I don’t want to judge the process, nor do I think it will necessarily work at all times. However, what I take from last week – the comments, the use of the website, and the photographs – is the fact that a group of us have chosen to read the book, together, over a set period of time. Given the current state of the art and humanities, I find that significant in itself.


Reflection: Last week, being the first week, I felt there was a need for us to settle in, which included some introductions of ourselves and perhaps some speculations upon the text. The image below is a ‘wordle’ visualisation of all our comments. You can click on the image to see a larger version of it. It is not particularly revealing, but (1) the frequency of words (shown accordingly by size) would seem to suggest we were all attuned to the text; and (2) there seems to be something nice about this jumble of words, capturing a playful, pleasurable sense of reading; which was both mentioned and displayed in our comments.









It strikes me that the dominant reading of The Neutral has been along literary lines. There were a couple of comments which were more direct in their philosophical concerns, but generally there was much more about words, texts and affects. I’m not necessarily surprised, and I think there is scope to consider the book in both a literary and philosophical sense – and also to challenge the text more critically. Nonetheless, it was nice to consider the spilling out of an ever more expansive ‘intertext’, since we all have our own set of influences, references and places we’re interested to get to.


Session of February 25, 2011 (Pages 20-31: Weariness (Continued) / Silence / Tact)

This week’s reading continues with ‘Weariness’, followed by entries on ‘Silence’, and ‘Tact’. As we settle in, perhaps we can find we pay closer attention to the text and generate more dialogue between us. It might be useful, for example, to build threads of discussion based on the three entries of his week’s reading, i.e. weariness, silence and tact. However, given the range of time zones I appreciate this not always easy. Also, it is quite reasonable to want to open up on completely different lines of enquiry. That is the nature of asynchronous exchange. One late comment to Session 1 suggested there were too many words! That is certainly true having arrived to the conversation at a later stage. However, I think I am probably mostly to blame for overly long entries. Perhaps I’ll play a slightly ‘quieter’ role this week. I don’t want to impose ideas, though we might also wish to decide amongst us – for the weeks to come – on specific lines of enquiry to help focus our reading.  If you have any suggestions about a particular framing for a session then please do not hesitate to say. If we imagine all of us in a room at the same time week on week, we might begin to imagine how the room would be directed…


[…and just because one of our topics this week is ‘silence’ don’t take that as a directive!]




  1. s.manghani

    Weariness (Continued)

    Maybe a little weariness is a good thing (creative even, as Barthes suggests), but too much is wearisome. Looking between the close of Session 1 and the continuation of ‘Weariness’ in Session 2, there is this double play of of weariness as ‘creation’ and debilitation. So, in Blanchot’s words, weariness can be ‘a state that is not possessive, that absorbs without putting into question’; it is as Barthes puts it, ‘the price one has to pay in order not to be arrogant’. This could be rather indulgent, but Barthes’ argument is that there is something creative resulting ‘from the moment … when one agrees to submit to its orders […] new things are born out of lassitude’. What stands to confound the process is weariness (the wearisome) as ‘the demand for a position. The present-day world is full of it … and it’s why it is so wearisome’. It is pertinent to note, for us as a group of ‘strangers’, Barthes does seem to find conversation amongst strangers revealing both of a sense of power and exclusion, yet also as a ‘linguistic spectacle’, a site which one can attempt to take a hold of: ‘I am able to take control of my exclusion by looking at the picture’ (p.18). This reminds me of how Barthes writes of being in the cinema – both watching the film and watching/sensing his body and the surrounding bodies of the darkened auditorium. This is a critical position, but one nonetheless fully ensconced in the activity or situation under consideration.

    In the closing section of Session 1, Barthes writes: ‘…at what moment, under what circumstances, am I “a tire that deflates,” with on top of it the feeling that, if this is the case, I will deflate indefinitely?’ This shifts deflation as passive (as teleological; a flat tire), to deflating as active (and indefinite). Where I sense this activity takes place – where control over exclusion is regained – is in what Barthes describes as ‘artistic self-distancing’ (p.18). Does this relate to the Pyrrhonian ataraxia (as ‘freedom from worry’)? Do we create ‘something’ (unnamed) by affording that freedom? It feels like a step forward is made (an assertion), but one into the unknown. Last week, R.’s comment (of coming to terms with, yet equally living with, a separation) suggests to me something of this creative weariness. A state of living perhaps, as both R. and C. suggests (desire), and out of which ‘something’ seems to arise. A living ‘with’ that we might associate with that which does not impede… that ‘does not constitute an empirical time … a sort of bodily time’ (p.20) – a fascinating suggestion, though not necessarily without its contradictions…

  2. James Elkins

    Hi everyone, hi Sunil,

    I’m joining late, and I don’t know how much I’ll be able to post, but I wanted to signal an interest of mine, which might not be anyone else’s interest.

    I’m not so engaged, at the moment, with Barthes’s text itself, although I have recently emerged somewhat battered from a long engagement with “Camera Lucida.” What interests me at the moment is two questions of reception:

    1. Why did Rosalind Krauss decide to work on “The Neutral”? What theoretical work did she hope it would do? In what discourse did she hope to intervene?

    2. Why would a person in the art world read “The Neutral” now? Among the many answers — I’m imagining as many answers as people who are participating — my own would have something to do with one of two things: either the connection to affect theory, for which “the neutral” is a kind of antidote; or the connection to theories of the everyday, from de Certeau to Bourriaud.

    I saw Anna Dezeuze somewhere in the comments on the last session, and so maybe I’m repeating material, and so I won’t continue at the moment. Just to say there are possibilities of connecting the neutral to the everyday, especially in the Blanchot quotation that opens this week’s reading, but they would all involve misreadings of Barthes: and I wonder in whose name we’d be making those misreadings.

    • s.manghani

      I’m extremely grateful for the questions you raise here – in a very succinct way you bring into focus really key ideas (and the tensions at stake).

      It difficult to say why Rosalind Krauss chose to work on the translation. For me, difficult mainly because I’m not familiar enough with her work, but also because I’m not aware of how the Neutral has entered into her own writing, rather than simply the translation and its accompanying notes (though this may just have escaped me due to my lack of reading!). However, I suspect part of the reason for her decision relates to your second question and specifically the everyday. I would have thought one of the attractions of the Neutral for Krauss is its connection to a poetics of everyday life. There must also be an interest that feeds across from her work on Bataille for Formless. Whilst there are of course many (stark) differences, the ‘operation of slippage’ (Formless, p.15), as Bois and Krauss describe Bataille’s informe, would seem to echo an intent of ‘operation’ in The Neutral. Fitting with (though none the less challenging) this week’s reading – with its continuation of ‘Weariness’ (the ‘tire’ from the end of last week’s reading that hadn’t quite lost all its air!) – there is the following observation in Formless: ‘Bataille [in considering Manet’s The Execution…] conceives of the semantic deflation of the picture as less a simple absence than as a violence, a desublimatory act of aggression … Manet’s indifference is not a simple retreat … it is an attack’! (I sense here similarly ‘intense, strong, unprecedented states’) …but I’m wandering into realms of misreadings no doubt, but I find these convolutions to be of interest.

      More importantly, however, I am really pleased the ‘everyday’ has come up from both your comment and previously that of Anna Dezeuze. It hasn’t been my way of thinking about the text, but I’m wondering why on earth not! It fits directly with my intentions to write about ‘neutral life’, but also it is a very useful way of situating Barthes’ as a critical thinker. Obviously this is to refer to critiques of the everyday that seek not only to describe it, but to change it – that it is the everyday world itself that offers something transformative. I certainly feel the need to spend much more time thinking about this… and I hope others will be interested to further this line of thinking…

      I’m intrigued by your suggestion that ‘all involve misreadings of Barthes’… perhaps you can elaborate on that? (it is tantalisingly lucid as a remark, yet remains only suggestive…)

  3. Susanne Gannon

    Hi folks, a late starter and inexperienced at online blog interfaces for discussion. I sat on a train (and yes at a bar beside the Harbour Bridge) and wrote a long and entirely disconnected from others and issues already raised personal response to what I was reading in a word doc thinking I might upload but too many words…. Let me work my way in to this mode and this text. I’ll snip some thoughts out and put them in here.

  4. Susanne Gannon

    Weariness (cont.)- this odd alignment with work somehow and with the creative, however this might be understood, at least “from the moment, perhaps, when one agrees to submit to its orders… New things are born out of lassitude” (p. 21). Perhaps this is the still zone from which new ideas emerge, or erupt, though this is not an energetic process, more ennervating, softer, passive, a submission to a zone of potentialities, requiring a certain trust.
    Sunil, you mention time & weariness. I’m intrigued by the axis of time, weariness is “a mere metaphor, a sign without referent” that is “without premises, without place, socially untenable” (p. 17) when it doesn’t conform to (whatever is) appropriate time . I am tempted to slip into anecdotage as part of a wander around Barthes’ figure but will resist for the moment..

    • s.manghani

      Susanne – last week I was prompted to say how I feel the Neutral – in relation to Barthes’s second reading as protestation – is more a ‘yes’ than a ‘no’. And by which I mean it is more open, fluid, complex, but also it is giving (and exposing of) something. The reference you draw out here to new things being ‘born’ seems to me to further that point. The neutral has some relation to natality.

      And yes, interest in the temporality of the Neutral is recurrent. I think this is an aspect that feeds directly into critiques of the everyday. Is this about description, however, or something more… an inscription, an operation?

  5. Dear fellow readers,
    This week’s readings certainly confirm to me the links between the neutral, everyday life, and art practices involved with the everyday., although like Sunil, i’d very much like to hear more from james (Elkins) about what he means about the ‘misreadings’ of Barthes involved in this exercise ! My (mis)reading would include the idea that silence can be an acceptance of the ‘silere’ and hence ‘cacophony’ of the world (obviously relevant to John Cage’s thinking about silence), as well as the notion that chattering (bavardage) is a form of silence (a very Blanchotian idea, and resonating with practices of everyday life and art). Also exciting for me were the discussions of futility, minuteness, discretion and the ‘art’ of doing something (like the tea ceremony) as a ‘practice of difference’ – all very pertinent for artistic practices consisting, for example, in simply getting together with friends to have a beer (Tom Marioni, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art, 1970).

    I’d also like to know why Krauss and Bois decided to translate the ‘neutral’ – Krauss’s introduction to the publication of an extract from the translation in ‘October’ seems to confirm sunil’s suggestion of the parallel between the neutral and the informe as an ‘operation’ seeking to ‘baffle’ (déjouer) binaries, but since I’m reading ‘Le neutre’ in French I don’t know what they say in their introduction to their translation in their book – will try to get my hands on it.
    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts…

    • s.manghani

      Your ‘(mis)reading’ includes ‘the idea that silence can be an acceptance of the ‘silere’ and hence ‘cacophony’ of the world (obviously relevant to John Cage’s thinking about silence)’. I think this is my reading too. Where Barthes suggests the tacere joins the silere (p.29) I have felt it suggests something like a filter that can be applied – see my reply to Mimei below. The idea does then relate to the notion that chatter as a form of silence, where silence equates to ‘noise’ – and that we typically filter out. There seems another delicate balancing act here between a passive chatter (that simply exists) and an active chattering, to enter into chatter, which is fraught with danger, since as Barthes puts ‘chatterboxes are bores’! In thinking about artistic practice concerned with the everyday – how do we determine an optimal point in the switching, or filter? Does Barthes’ language and ‘system’ of the Neutral help us with cross-analysis of different artworks?

      I want to come back to the points about the minute, tact and particularly the tea ceremony. I’ve found the entry on Tact difficult to get into (though it does continue next week, which might help), yet I am drawn to the word – and definitely the tea ceremony! It is true this opens up more on the relationship to ‘acts’ of the Neutral – it perhaps shows the Neutral to be of greater pertinence to performing arts and mixed media, rather than the visual arts. I shall return to these thoughts.

  6. s.manghani


    I have a particular interest to tease out ideas of the Neutral and ecological discourse (which I’ve ‘declared’ elsewhere). Apologies if only of marginal interest…

    There has already been mention of the ‘unsustainable’, and also of relevance I’d suggest is the (brief) reference to Taoism (see ‘Dry and the Damp’, Benevolence), under which sign ‘everything is equal’. This week, however, the link is made more explicit.

    Silence as stillness is referenced in relation to a (mystical) silence of nature, as a ‘timeless virginity of things’. Barthes refers to it as a ‘preparadigmatic condition’, which then has no grounds upon which to reveal itself. Yet perhaps we can listen out for it. I’m thinking here of Serres’ evocation of ‘noise’: 

    ‘Background noise is the ground of our perception, absolutely uninterrupted, it is our perennial sustenance, the element of the software of all our logic. It is the residue and the cesspool of our messages. No life without heat, no matter, neither; no warmth without air, no logos without noise, either. Noise is the basic element […] Noise is the background of information…’

    Of course added to this – and already mentioned above by Anna (also noted a few times last week) – there is the work of John Cage; not least 4’33”, the ‘composition’ of the ‘preparadigmatic condition’. (See also: Yve Lomax’s Sounding the Event; an engulfing read) 

    But Barthes also writes of a ‘right not to listen’, which is intriguing, not least for the link he makes to ecology: ‘…a collective, almost political … right to nature’s peacefulness, the right to silere, not the right to tacere: here we find ecology, the ecological movement’. He makes a nice play of ‘pollution’, that the ecological movement fails to address ‘pollution by speech’. But, here, the age of the text shines through. We don’t talk less now about pollution, more about energy consumption. Pointedly, the right to be silent, for nature to simply stand still, has been lost to the ‘pollution’ not only of development, but arguably also the energy of the ecological movement itself. We have green economies, green technology, green consumption etc etc. 

    Aside: given there have been various references to Camera Lucida, it is perhaps worth referring here to the following line (which comes in the discussion of Sander): ‘Society … mistrusts pure meaning: It wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise (as is said in Cybernetics) which will make it less acute’ (p.36). Taking this logic, the noise of the ecological movement is perhaps its own undoing! 

  7. Mimei Ito

    If silence is not a sign, properly speaking (p. 24), then what about the noise? (Composers such as Yanis Xenakis and Joji Yuasa seem to have addressed this problem in their works.) Barthes writes that silence’s syntagmatice value is in “a polyphony of at least three voices”; since white noise consists of sounds with all kinds of wave length with equal strength, it may be seen (or heard?) as a polyphony of the infinte number of voices…….

    • s.manghani

      Just as Barthes suggests that tact reveals a perversion, it seems silence cannot help but reveal noise. On p.27 He summarises his argument that (1) we first assume silence to work against the paradigm. In a sense my choice of word there ‘against’ reveals the problem. It does prove to work against (so being caught up in a paradigm) rather than outplaying it. It then (2) ‘congeals itself into a sign’. So, as with his observations in Writing Degree Zero, ‘what is expressly produced so as not to be a sign is very quickly recuperated as a sign’ (.p.26). We are left with the idea that (3), ‘the Neutral, meant to parry paradigms, will – paradoxically – end up trying to outplay silence (as sign, as system)’.

      Barthes looks at this from a Christian, Pyrrhonian, Zen and Taoist point of view, seeming to favour the latter two. There is an interesting line of argument about interior and exterior speech. It is one thing to be silent, but to be able to silence one’s thoughts is another matter! (‘Initiation of the Tao: “first stop judging and speaking; then stop judging and speaking mentally …” […] integral silence; speech: a kind of springboard for silence’, p.29). This, then, leads out to a question of noise (and at what level we deem it):

      This integral silence is no longer simply the tacere but joins the silere: silence of all nature, scattering of the fact-of-man throughout nature: as if man were some kind of noise of nature (in the cybernetic sense), a caco-phony. But always the same aporia: to speak this cacophony, I need a course

      Here is the line – ‘in the cybernetic sense’ – that reappears in Camera Lucida. From what I understand, noise exists in all circuits. In electronic circuits, this is due to thermal noise caused by random variations in the current. It can be reduced by reducing the temperature of the circuit, but this will limit the minimum signal that can be received. There is a filter point, which we can set, but always with a trade-off, with some signal being bracketed out, deemed as noise. I was always reluctant to use the Dolby noise reduction system on my cassette deck (a problem we seem now to have lost!), since it lessened the brightest of the music! Is the Neutral about finding that trade-off point, and trying to recalibrate it at an optimal level? ‘Silence of all nature’ equates to the ‘noise of nature’ by the fact that we seek to filter it out – we literally silence it. The Neutral, with examples coming from various artworks perhaps, suggests adjusting one’s set to ‘make known, to state the not to speak, however lightly’.

      Perhaps we can develop this more usefully with the terms polyphony and cacophony?

  8. Susanne Gannon

    p. 27 “narrateme” has me puzzled – is this a contraction of the ego’s call for a story “narrate me” (faint echo of Adriana Cavarero’s work on narrative). Amusing discussion of Kafka’s dilemma over the quantification (and rhythm) of silence – “how many repetitions are required for a sign either to be constituted” or outplayed. And the “one and the other” – the “scatterbrain” or the “beside the point” as another stategy (-ies?) for outplaying the paradigm of speech/ silence). Rather an elegant and enigmatic silence. But that sort of social silence incites interest, suggests depth and the unspoken rather than the emptiness or the uncommitment of the Neutral. P. 27 the notion of “dogmatic silence” recognizable in so many sites eg. workplace meetings

    • s.manghani

      Hi Susanne, …I’ve been a little slow to reply, waylaid with admin! …as with weighing conversation, one wonders how much/little admin one needs to do ‘if one does not wish to be considered silent’. Sadly, I find admin is rather panoptic in its operation…

      Anyway, to the question of the ‘narrateme’. My sense is that this refers to a ‘little’ story of one’s own… It resonates I think with The Lover’s Discourse which is made up of a whole series of little narratives one tells oneself when in (or out) of love – here I think the line fits, from bottom of p.26, ‘Notice the paradox: silence only becomes sign if one makes it speak, if one doubles it with a caption that gives it a meaning’. This leads me to wonder whether the Neutral does end up having a strong connection to the ‘writerly’ mode, to what Barthes referred to as ‘novelistic’, which, dare I say it, prompts a nice follow-up reading group on The Preparation of the Novel!! There would be a point to say that the Neutral is never straightforwardly to be found, but to be produced, whether written or fashioned in some (artistic) process. Perhaps?

      For a review of The Preparation of the Novel, see:

      • Susanne Gannon

        Thanks Sunil, and of course “Barthes by Barthes” might then be considered a little catalogue of narratemes – eg. the day he threw his own surgical souvenir – a “ribchop” – and its gauze wrapping out the window where “some dog would come and sniff them out” (p. 61). I’ve just ordered “The preparation of the novel” & would be very keen to follow through. In terms of writing – B’s method here and in TLD —- I don’t think people have commented yet on his supposed random ordering of figures – what he calls “Chance” p. 11 & p. 12 the “arbitrary process of sequencing” – I can’t help but wonder the extent to which they influence each other in order of reading (and writing perhaps). Unless he wrote them all entirely separately and in some other order and then ordered them, there must be links from one to the other in sequence, and if he did write in some order or non order we cannot discern, in any case we carry through ourselves the sequence of lectures and the entire apparatus of ‘a course’ and of us as readers of a text in sequence in time and space (albeit interrupted by thirty+ years) and we make links one to the other, back and forth between the figures in some cumulative & systemising way.
        Barthes talks about his ordering of the figures via the lottery draw and title (oh, I love this) perhaps a trace of Dadaism or the Oulipo movement/”the state of constraint”/literary structures derived from mathematics and science & certainly location (Paris) and timing (60s) right and ripe for B’s sensibility.

        Postscript from leftside from Calvino – the arch claim of an author who can’t help but babble despite a desire for something like silence: “How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone’s ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition that is my person”. Now this is an intriguing version of the Neutral with much resonance between other work of Barthes, Derrida and other postsructural writers. The notion of the subject, of subjectivity, as “an uncomfortable partition”.

        • Mimei Ito

          I am interested in Barthes’ way of ordering in writing and other forms of artworks, particularly music. At this point, I just want to point out that, if the work wants us to think about the arbitrary strcuture of sequence, we need to read/listen to/see the work more than once. I remember that there was a performance of John Cage’s opera “Europera 5” in Tokyo in 2007, they perfomed two times (one afternoon session and a night session). People who attended both sessions experienced different order of perfoming parts because the opera is designed based on chance operation, deciding the order of playing by lottery drawing. Perhaps Barthes’ text wants to be read more than once….
          Sorry for a short note. I have an appointoment with my client and I have to go now…

  9. Susanne Gannon

    P 28 the “subject being nothing but language (speech) thoroughly from end to end” so inner silence a limit zone of human experience/ death. And meditation then might be aspiration for this emptiness, this limit experience, this premonition of death. though I guess ‘aspiration’ is incompatible with meditation. [Thinking of a friend who celebrated her 50th birthday with her first Vipassana 10 day silent meditation] Barthes moves to consider Buddhism at the bottom of this page – the naive layman who knows just “the way” not the theoretical constructs, the babble that surrounds and impedes the way. P. 29. The paradox, the impossibility of the Neutral, the aporia where “to speak it is to defeat it, but not to speak is to miss its ‘setting up'”.
    In this paragraph an intriguing link to the sort of dispersed materiality of Deleuze and Guattari, to something like “univocity” – eg. “The essential in univocity is not that Being is said in a single and same sense, but that it is said in a single and same sense, of all its individuating difference or intrinsic modalities” Difference & Repetition p. 36 & Barthes “the silence of all nature, scattering of the fact of man throughout nature: as if man were some kind of noise of nature” p. 29. Your ecological interests Sunil. Your comments about the “noise” of the green movement – all its babble and chatter – and the imperative (*we feel) to join in with this.

    • s.manghani

      So here it is the ‘death’ of the subject, as some kind of ‘limit zone’. It evokes for me the idea of the Self cluttered with words, letters even, that need to dissolve. But equally, there is an important idea at stake about the turn to Zen and the Tao. It is not that the layman lacks knowledge, rather s/he can exist in the knowledge. He wants to hold onto some mode of criticality and awareness. And again, I think this is where Barthes considers a ‘third’ term, or position… silence begins by outplaying the paradigm, but only to be subsumed back into it. The need then to outplay silence is more important, but in a way that is not simply a return to speaking a paradigm. Your reference to Deleuze and Guattari is pertinent. A question would be, is the Neutral really a necessary approach – perhaps it is too much a sign or myth, and other writings such as with Deleuze and Guattari take us further and with more rigour. I’m playing devil’s advocate here… I don’t want to buy it!

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