Session 3: March 4, 2011

Reflection: …the final words to last week’s session, posted by Mimei, were quite wonderful: ‘Sorry for a short note. I have an appointment with my client and I have to go now…’. I think this line captures what so many of us are experiencing week on week – and of course chimes with the continued underlying interest that has been noted about the connections with theories of the everyday. There are so many reasons why there is little ‘chance’ to read a book such as The Neutral. So many reasons why we can’t find the ‘space’ to allow for its ideas. What precedes Mimei’s final line is a nice response and continued consideration of Susanne’s interest in the ‘supposed random ordering of figures – what [Barthes] calls “Chance” … “arbitrary process of sequencing”’. ‘I can’t help but wonder,’ Suzanne writes, ‘the extent to which they influence each other in order of reading (and writing perhaps)’. Mimei adds to this, suggesting ‘if the work wants us to think about the arbitrary structure of sequence, we need to read/listen to/see the work more than once’. I firmly agree (…and so what are the chances?). I have found one instance of re-reading occurs where figures are continued over from the previous week. We read the beginnings of the entry on ‘Tact’ last week. I have found it particularly interesting flipping between these pages and those which continue the subject this week. I found a similar experience previously with the entry on ‘Weariness’. So the continuation of a figure perhaps results in a different level of attention than those held within one session – and marks a transition point…

Session of March 4, 2011 (Pages 32-46: Supplement I / Tact (Continued) / Sleep / Affirmation)

The continued thoughts on the connections with theories of the everyday gain real clarity with the entry on ‘Affirmation’, which begins with reference back to Saussure’s distinction between Langue/Parole – and with the important point: ‘Everything about the Neutral is about sidestepping assertion’. Perhaps, however, this makes the lovely entry on ‘Sleep’ problematic – less about the everyday, than the ‘everynight’!  Let us ponder…




  1. s.manghani

    Tact: I must say, I have struggled with this entry. I’ve enjoyed many of the references, it was lovely for example to read last week about the Japanese Tea Ceremony (which I have long been interested in) – indeed I’d like that to have been extended. However, I feel I have lost a sense of the Neutral under this term. Barthes frequently refers to, and indeed states his idea of the ‘principle of tact’. He makes sense, but equally it comes across as a ‘system’ of meaning, which undermines the so-called uncategorised Neutral. On p.34, he states the principle of tact being a ‘value-distinction … possible only through the practice of language’. There is the suggestion of ‘excessive marginality’ and also the ‘six cups of tea’ as a series of steps towards a goal (p.35). All of this would seem to ‘assert’ a system or an aesthetic, rather than open up the possibility of the Neutral.

    Nonetheless, intuitively the word ‘tact’ would seem to sit well with that of ‘neutral’. I immediately think of Mr Stevens, the butler, in The Remains of the Day, as someone who prides himself upon approaching each and every situation with utmost tact and control. But, indeed, it is a highly controlled, systematic approach. There are different ways of reading the novel. There is a sense of utter failure by the end (which perhaps is a state of the Neutral?), but equally we could argue Stevens’ strict sense of tact places him outside of or beyond the constraints of his and everyone else’s lives. Barthes suggests, on p.32, ‘tact requires the punctilous elimination of all repetition’. Steven’s life is highly organised and repetitive, but equally we could say his desire to reach the topmost sphere of his profession leads him to treat each and every situation with equanimity, as if each completely new. One never tires (or one never shows one tires) of being ‘at your service’ as a butler. Perhaps, then this returns to Susanne’s comment last, referring to the ‘dispersed materiality of Deleuze and Guattari’, and relating to their term ‘univocity’: “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 himself does refer to Deleuze (on p.36) – and this is follows the reference to Sabi, or the ‘Amorous’ – but here again, I’m not sure I follow the line of the argument vis-a-vis the Neutral.

    Any thoughts?

  2. hi sunil, hi fellow readers
    (i’ve changed time zones as i am now in the US)
    in answer to your questions, sunil, i’d like to say that i find the translation of ‘délicatesse’ as ‘tact’ problematic, if only because the natural relation between ‘délicatesse’ and ‘douceur’ (which is the title of the concluding section 3)c) of the ‘Tact’ section- i don’t know how it’s been translated into English – ‘softness’?) seems to make much more sense than with the term ‘tact’. ‘Tact’ does indeed conjure the emotionally-repressed Mr. Stevens (sorry, i’m not very sympathetic with the whole British/Japanese stiff-upper-lip attitude, and i’m not sure barthes would be either), in a way that ‘délicatesse’ does not – indeed, ‘delicate’ is an adjective you could apply to tea, flowers, skin, smells, taste, all of which relate to the neutral in a more obvious way. and the risk of being called ‘precious’ is also clearer if you think of the ‘delicate’ rather than ‘tact’.
    i enjoyed this section, and the one on ‘affirmation’, but i struggled for my part with the one on sleep, maybe as you say sunil because it’s about the everynight rather than everyday… I really find it difficult to get my head around the idea of sleep as a utopia – is it because Barthes seems to be moving away from culture here, and pushing the neutral into the field of the biological? maybe we need to imagine a biopolitics of the neutral in the foucauldian sense?
    more questions to come no doubt – thanks for the opportunity to think about this…

    • s.manghani

      Anna – thanks for your remarks. This is really helpful to have your comments on the translation. Fascinating. Things alter hugely if we think in terms of ‘delicate’, whether in terms of tea, flowers, skin etc. Immediately the ‘Mr Stevens’ problem falls away (a problem Mimei has also noted in his comment below). So, this is good. I’m feeling what I enjoyed about this entry on Tact can be readmitted under a different ‘sign’!. I must get hold of a copy of the French. The translation in 3c is ‘Sweetness’, which again is very different to what your suggesting as ‘softness’. I feel I need to re-read the entire section.

      (I did find it amusing you saying you have little sympathy for the likes of Mr Stevens – that’s a nice wake up call for me, just to remind me that outside the ‘delicateness’ of the novel he would be an infuriating person to be with! Also it is interesting you suggest Barthes would be similarly unimpressed!)

      My daughter is going to come flying out of her Saturday morning (Japanese) school any moment, so I will keep this brief for now. I was thinking some similar thoughts regarding the body/biology with respect of Sleep. Also, I have Foucault hoovering in the background, not least because of the term discourse which is everywhere in the text. So, I’ll think some more and aim to add more shortly…

    • s.manghani

      Barthes writes, p.38, ‘”Utopian” sleep is indeed dreamless, but it is not, however, a fall into nothingness’. His idea of sleep is not frantic, like say Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’, nor ‘productive’ as with psychoanalytic ‘dream-work’ (as he notes, p.39). Instead he describes something else, ‘[a] slack time (between the tides of worry and of excitement), where I see (I sip) life, aliveness, in its purity, which is to say outside of the will-to-live’ (p.38).

      Anna, you suggest a dissatisfaction with Barthes entry on Sleep, because it appears to drift to something biological, or at least beyond conscious-waking life. Similarly, perhaps, Susanne’s later comments that she doesn’t find this idea of dreamless-sleep a ‘utopia’. However, she does suggest ‘his descriptions of non-sleep’ are more compelling. There would seem to be more to gain from thinking about the liminal ‘zone’ between waking and sleeping. There is something about when one is drifting to sleep or just waking that is more interesting as a mode of the Neutral – and perhaps this still fits with previous concerns of the everyday. In other words, we might better understand Barthes’ being able to see life, aliveness etc when we think of this drifting moment, or ‘slack-time’ . It also fits with his opening remark about ‘awakening’ – which is a reference back to The Lover’s Discourse, in which he writes of Werther sleeping soundly despite the terrible angst of his day.

      However, despite referring to ‘awakening’, this reference to Werther places emphasis upon sleep itself, rather than the in-between space of going to or waking from sleep. Before Werther commits suicide he ‘goes to bed and sleeps very soundly’ (TLD, p.203). This seems hard to comprehend. Perhaps a slightly less charged example would be of Sherlock Holmes. He is a character, when on a case, full of energy and often going beyond the need of food or sleep. However, frequently, Dr Watson is amazed at Holmes’ ability to simply switch-off from the details of a case should he deem it of no benefit to use up energy until in the possession of new data etc. Holmes can put himself to sleep (whether literally, or just go onto standby in terms of his work) in cool, detached fashion which perhaps we can relate to Barthes’ dreamless sleep. I am wondering if there is a visual work of art the opposite of Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’.

      I can relate in part with Barthes’ reading of sleep. Around the age of 12 I started a new school mid-term. The level of work was noticeably higher and of course I had missed a lot of what had been covered. On top of homework each night I had a stack of other pupils’ exercise books from which I was supposed to copy into my own books as a way to ‘catch-up’. I found it quite stressful and always felt lacking in some way. I remember I started to take great joy in bedtime. I knew it was the one occasion I could legitimately be ‘off-duty’. It became the perfect alibi for having not completed the work. Sadly as I’ve got older I’ve realised sleep doesn’t provide the cover it did then! But, nonetheless, I think it was a turning point from finding it difficult to sleep at night to relishing the idea of sound sleep…

      I’m tempted also to mention The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Obviously as an expressionist film everything is overwrought, yet the story (de)centres around the somnambulist. Everything we watch is like a nightmare, yet we never really know of the experience of sommambulist – his is ever a ‘slack-time’, a non-time, yet without falling into nothingness!

  3. Mimei Ito

    Hi. I, too, experienced a difficulty with the entry “Tact”, because it is not clear how the English term “tact” is connected to the discussion of the Neutral. Since the word “tact” has not been a part of my vocabulary, I looked up OED and found that it means “skill in avoiding giving offenceor winning goodwill by saying or doing the right thing”: I also looked up myEnglish-Japanese dictionary, and it says that “tact” means something like “smartness” or “skill” which allows you to get along with other people. Either dictionary did not help much, because they reminded me some repressing moral code in communities. Then I picked up a Japanese translation of this Barthes book in a bookshop (on my way to another client visit!), and found it translated into a Japanese word meaning “delicacy” or “sensitiveness”. I think this makes more sense, but I still feel it needs more clarification. Perhaps, my problem is that I am puzzled why Barthes begins this entry with “principle” of tact. “Principle” is always paradigmatic. Any principle (of tact or anything) should be problematic from Barthes’ standpoint. But the delicacy or sensitiveness may not necesarrily be predicated upon its principle: rather it can be out of the sense of “care” or “affection”. I appreciate if somebody can post any suggestion regarding this…..

  4. Mimei Ito

    An error in the translation: 2 b (page 40) should be “A certain thought of immortality” instead of “immorality”…..

    • s.manghani

      …yes! Well spotted. I re-read this section on Sleep last night (with a mind to further the conversation with Anna), but my eyes must have skated over this (again). I was also very sleepy… hence no further comment yet, but I have my notes and will do so soon.

      Overall, we have identified a number of issues with the text this week, which is interesting and indeed useful. I was going to say in an earlier post how I do find the syntax of the text difficult at times. The note form is hard to follow at times to know just what Barthes is intending. Perhaps I’ll post up some examples and see what others think. However, equally, the ambivalence of some of the sentences (and their incomplete form) almost seems necessary to the topic of the Neutral!

    • Susanne Gannon

      Very interesting musings… I too have found the note form somewhat difficult in sections of this week’s lecture as Sunil mentions. Sleep as a dreamless ‘utopia’ is not so compelling but his descriptions of non-sleep are more so – transition states : ” like an airlock, not so much between two worlds as between two bodies” (those bodies both being a single body – Barthes, me, whomever) p. 37 (a spatial figure for this image?) and the “slack time…where I see (sip) life, aliveness, in its purity…outside of the will-to-live” p. 38 . This version of temporailty nice counterpoint to perhaps the ‘ taut’ times of everyday – appointments with clients, children to be collected, planes to be boarded, lectures to be delivered etc…the precision and demands of non-neutral (allocated?) temporality. No doubt there is more about time and the neutral to come.

      In the figure of Tact, and the back and forth and cross the lectures is helpful, his turn to language in the section on Metaphorization p. 34 intriguing – “the same gesture under two different verbal species” p. 34. Translation variables, thanks Anna and Mimei, give new angles. Do delicacy or sensitiveness work so well with his discussion of metaphorization? He veers away from it though it underpins so much of what he discusses under eg ‘sabi’ (at this point I’ve had to go and make a pot of the precious Dragonwell tea I carried back from San Francisco).

      I must say I am reassured by his ‘drip by drip understanding’ p. 37, performing a degree of tact in the self-effacing comment. (maybe easier to do this from the podium of the College de France – or reclining on the table Foucault – than our locations).

      • s.manghani

        Yes, I have been meaning to add something about the difficulty with the note-form of the text. There is one in particular from this week’s reading, the opening sentence of Affirmation, that bothered me each time I read it:

        I list here (to list ≠ to treat: to indicate blanks to be filled in) an essentially philosophical file: that of the consequences arising from the assertive nature of language. (p.41)

        The double use of colons confuses me. It’s logical enough once I read over it again, but still I can’t immediately catch the drift.

        Like you I found the descriptions inbetween waking and sleeping really nice, the ‘airlock’ image was something that stayed with me. You’re right this raises a point about temporality again. Yet, Barthes chooses spatial metaphors: ‘Now we understand where the Neutral leads (I don’t say: “What it is,” because that would be definitional dogmatism; rather: to discover a region, a horrizon, a direction)’ (p.45). I’ve added further thoughts about Sleep above in response to Anna’s comments.

        It is an interesting point that ‘delicacy’ or ‘sensitiveness’, rather than ‘tact,’ might not work so well with metaphorization. Although, when we say something needs to be dealt with delicately or with sensitivity it does often mean speaking in euphemisms!

  5. James Elkins

    Hi, sorry I haven’t been posting, but I did read the section for this week. I’m wondering something you (Sunil, Anna, everyone) may know much better than I do. The section “Affirmation” seems intended to introduce a subject that Barthes would have known was especially fundamental for his project: the relation between “discourse” and something more propositional, logical, and “naturally assertive.” Because I’ve just finished a year or so pondering “Camera Lucida,” I may be over-reading, there’s something strange to me about “Assertion.”

    I wonder why Barthes did not think it was a potential problem to describe something that “sidesteps assertion” using a form (the philosophic analysis of “affirmation” into four categories) that is itself assertive. I know, of course, there’s a history of this problem: Barthes would have known Lyotard’s “Discours, figure,” and later there was Cixous and others, developing analogous problems. And I know that from Barthes’s point of view, this lecture is far from a traditional philosophic disquisition, and certainly far from his own earlier work on semiotics. But here, in this text, I can’t quite see how he does not think an “assertive” investigation of something intrinsically different from assertion is a problem, unless it is sufficient for him to outline what his subject is not — but I can’t quite see that, either, because so much of “The Neutral” works in that fashion, talking about things “the neutral” is not, and this section would seem to have to be an exception, a moment when he needs to talk about foundational questions of logic and sense. (I think, too, of Deleuze on nonsense, and the concerted attempt to locate something that is outside sense.) As a project, I can read “Camera Lucida” as an example of what happens when something like “the neutral” corrodes and undermines “affirmation”: but I can’t understand how it happens in this lecture.

    • s.manghani

      Indeed, the text is peppered with caveats about what the Neutral is not, or what it ‘would be’ were things different… etc etc. And you are right this section on Affirmation is particularly revealing. I wonder if there is simply a point to make that we are not able to read Barthes’ book of the Neutral (since he never wrote it, and perhaps never intended to – there is the joke he makes about it as a book, which is ambivalent). The format of the lecture course arguably prompts him to present ideas in a very specific way, in an assertive manner (and seemingly at a early stage). Looking at his diary notes there is real sense of ennui with the life of the intellectual, which is at odds with presenting a lecture course. So, I don’t think the text is authoritative as such of what Barthes would have wished a book on the Neutral to be. (There is a lovely moment I remember reading in his diary where he prefers to curl up with a book about Napoleon than to read some ‘avant-garde’ thesis). The Preparation for the Novel also brings to light similar problems. Was he going to write a novel, or should we already take his ‘novelistic’ writings to be the first manifestations of what he would write? Would ‘The Neutral’ as a book have been novelistic?

      However, I think there is a more exact point you raise about this section. I want to consider it more carefully (and re-read the section). So, I’ll aim to come back to this. In the meantime, perhaps you might find the following of some interest. I have put up a new blog post, on August Sander and the Neutral (, with lots of reference to Barthes short entry on Sander in Camera Lucida. As a blog entry is it obviously in a ‘draft’ style of writing, and speculative for it. I hope it can relate partially to the point here about form; if only that Camera Lucida might be more revealing of an approach Barthes’ may have taken for a book on the Neutral. But also, I mention it simply given your recent work on Camera Lucida – maybe it’ll be of interest (or perhaps quite the reverse, having only just stepped away from that text!).

    • s.manghani

      I’m interested to hear you say more about how you think Camera Lucida is ‘an example of what happens when something like “the neutral” corrodes and undermines “affirmation”’. Maybe I’d need to tease this out by reading along with Barthes’ remarks on page 42 of The Neutral, or of course wait for you new book… But I do take your point about the assertive form. I wanted to add some comments to my previous ones above. Sorry for the delay…

      Around the time of devising and later delivering the Neutral lecture course, Barthes had of course been publishing a number of other pieces that used keyword entries. Notably Roland Barthes and The Lover’s Discourse. I feel these texts are poetic and playful in their use of keywords and generally in how they flow. The Neutral does something the similar; Barthes even remarks on the ‘arbitrary process of sequencing’, p.12. And yet, there does seem to be something altogether different. In my previous comments I suggested the nature of the lecture course might be one factor, and that we must only see the the text as notes towards a final text that would likely be very different. However, the ‘presence’ of Saussure in the text is intriguing, and even suggests a ‘return’ of some kind…

      On p.8, Barthes dates his interest in the Neutral all the way back to Writing Degree Zero and in this section on Affirmation he offers a very clear statement on Saussure. In one way, then, Barthes is not so far from his earlier work on semiotics. The Neutral is an analysis of the recurring ‘slash’ between language and speech: of langue/parole, s/z, studium/punctum… and the analysis does come across as being systematic and propositional, even if its subject matter is evasive and fluid. Picking up on the idea from p.43, that arguably it is ‘impossible to speak … of humility humbly’, perhaps Barthes makes the decision early on that he will not (can not) speak of the neutral ‘neutrally’; meaning as some kind of sidestepping of assertion. The Neutral becomes something like a black hole. It is conceptually possible, but would radically engulf or rather disperse all former means and modes of utterance should you enter it! I am surely over stating the case. I’m pretty confident Barthes wasn’t thinking of a black hole when suggesting ‘the Neutral leads… to discover a region, a horizon, a direction’, p.45. Yet, I like this idea of Barthes being a theoretical physicist of language, whereby it is still possible to see the world in wholly new ways, but using the propositional language/formula of old…

      However, I disagree with Barthes’ account of how ‘language is naturally assertive’, p.42. He suggests ‘yes (the affirmation) is implicitly inscribed in all of language, while the no requires a special mark at each occurrence’. I would say it is the other way round. Indeed, I’ve said previously (in weeks one and two), how I consider ‘yes’ far more difficult to say than ‘no’. The whole point of Saussurian linguistics is the ‘discovery’ of the arbitrary nature of the sign; a meaning through negation – when we say ‘it’s that’, we’re equally, if not more so, saying ‘it’s not that, nor that, or that…’. ‘Yes’ is harder to define, it is about nascence and of a shared existence (one must agree to your ‘yes’). As such I consider ‘yes’ to be far more fragile and of a special case; closer I’d argue to the Neutral itself. It is something I consider specifically, if playfully, with my article ‘Yes… But When?‘. (…perhaps I read too much, and/or erroneously, into Barthes’ statement on the ‘second Neutral’, p.14, of a ‘desperate vitality’… But either way, surely his remarks on vitality and protestation do not tally with his account of affirmation, of a ‘yes’ that is the ‘naturally assertive’ force of language).


      • James Elkins

        Sunil, Anna, and everyone,

        Just a few thoughts to develop this. Perhaps we could distinguish a couple of forms of the Neutral in this particular context — i.e., forms of the Neutral when it appears as a matter of language, assertion, and ways to decline them. I would be especially interested to know how you and other more concerted readers of Barthes would tease apart these two possibilities:

        1. The “black hole” model, in which something radical and irreparable happens when you practice or embody the Neutral. Language and assertion then appear at an infinite distance. To me, this is reminiscent of Foucault’s interest in forms of psychotic utterance (Brisset, etc.), and of things like Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s very entertaining books on “nonsense.” For me, the scholastic, Alexandrian moment of this “black hole” model is Rosalind Krauss’s attempt to co-opt Lyotard’s reading of Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten” to produce a theory of pure irrationality. (In “Optical Unconscious,” and in some passages of the “Formless” book.)

        2. The “evasive and fluid” model (I’m taking these words in quotation marks from your post, of course!), in which the Neutral is a form of discourse outside of, or to one side of, ordinary assertion. This would include, in my reading, Camera Lucida, and any number of passages in Berthes’s meditations on writing, from the Michelet book onward.

        If this makes sense at all, what relation might the two have to one another?

        • s.manghani

          I’ve finally had a go at some follow-up thoughts, but I’ve decided to pull them forward to the current week. See comments for Session Five.

          NB. I’ve been able to follow up the references made regarding ‘Foucault’s interest in forms of psychotic utterance’, Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s “nonsense,” nor Rosalind Krauss’s use of Lyotard’s reading of Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten”. I’m glad to have these reference points, but obviously it’ll need much more time spend to follow them up. Instead, then, I’ve thought things through specific to the reading of The Neutral – which may or may not work!

  6. Susanne Gannon

    PS To continue in an orientalising mode, the catalogue description of Dragonwell tea (though Chinese) has a somewhat poetic and metaphorical flavour and definitely an aroma of tact (minutiae, supplement, subtlety).

    • s.manghani

      Susanne – this is great! And reminds me of ever the need for tact/sensitivity when writing about things I don’t ‘understand’ such as zen and the Tao!

      (…also, I must say, I am really enjoying these little touches of the ‘everyday’ that we’re all dropping in from time to time)

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