Session 4: March 11, 2011

Supplement: This morning as I tried to prepare this week’s session of the Neutral Reading Group I was struck still by the pictures coming out of Japan and surrounding region following the huge earthquake there and subsequent tsunami. The forces of nature displayed are staggering and throw into question the too often unsaid precariousness of life. Fredric Jameson has once written: ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thorough-going deterioration of the earth … than the breakdown of late capitalism, perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’. At the opening of the session of March 11, 1978, Barthes reflects back on the entry of Tact, to emphasise it as something that ‘allows life to be felt, of what stirs the awareness of it’. The thoughts perhaps pale in comparison to the ‘awareness’ today’s events bring to us. But, equally, Barthes notes, ‘one must agree on what one means by “life”…’ It strikes me, we are at a point in time when consensus has still yet to be reached, but that we are increasingly aware some kind of new ‘settlement’ is vital…

On a separate note, I would like to share a link to an article I have been sent. Monika Szewczyk’s ‘Art of Conversation, Part I‘ discusses the interest over “the conversational” or “the discursive” in the field of contemporary art. The article draws substantially on the writings of Blanchot and Barthes to offer an account of the Neutral with respect to a range of examples in the visual arts (which is very pertinent to this week’s entry on Color).

Reflection: Last week’s session brought to light two important technical matters. Firstly, our discussion on the entry on Tact revealed varied responses and notably a significant query over the translation. As Anna highlighted, the translation of ‘délicatesse’ as ‘tact’ is problematic; a point we need to hold on to, not least this week, since Barthes offers some further thoughts on the entry with his opening ‘supplementary’ remarks. Secondly, the recurring difficulty to explicate the Neutral through language, and through a ‘course’, was given further scrutiny with the entry on Affirmation. Whilst Barthes frequently alludes to the difficulty, if not impossibility, of any definitive account of the Neutral, this particular entry on Affirmation can be considered the most significant philosophical entry in the text so far – and reveals tremendous problems, or at least tensions with the undertaking of the lecture course (and its form). A point was also raised about the body as a site of the Neutral in relation to the entry on Sleep. There was some difficulty over Barthes’ notion of ‘utopic’ sleep and implications which arise in relation to a potentially ‘docile’ body (with all the echoes of Foucault’s work here intended).

Session of March 11, 2011 (Pages 47-61: Supplement II / Color / The Adjective)

Barthes’ opens this week’s session with Supplement II, which includes a useful clarification on the entry of Tact and also the wonderful vignette, ‘a personal incident’, in which Barthes spills the bottle of Sennelier ink labelled ‘Neutral’. The episode opens up a line of thinking about a more material and/or visual account of the Neutral, which is picked up in the first proper entry in this week’s session, on Color. This week also includes a lengthy entry on the Adjective – which from a more technical, linguistic perspective can be said to continue with the problematic of last week’s entry on Affirmation.



  1. Mimei Ito

    We were hit by the quake today. I was in my office and it was the worst quake I’ve ever had. I am OK. I walked back from my office near the palace (the “emptiness” in the center of Tokyo); It took us (my wife and me) two hours to get home. No significant damage so far in Tokyo. We still feel tremor…. I left Barthes book in my offiice, so I will not be able to post this week…..

    • s.manghani

      Thank-you for posting this comment. It is really good to hear from you, to know you are safe. I can only watch the BBC News endlessly repeat film loops of the devastation. Such terrible scenes. Take care both of you…

  2. 1. I am really glad that Mimei Ito is okay, and my thoughts are with everyone in Japan.

    2. I have a rambling post about the first half of this week’s seminar here, but what I think I’d like to pull out is the idea of that ‘what is at stake in the Neutral’ is

    the ultimate opposition, the one that both fascinates and is the most difficult to think about to the extent that it self-destructs in its very statement… that between distinction and indistinction

    Elsewhere Barthes talks about this as the distinction between what is ‘marked’ and what is ‘unmarked’, relates it to the idea of the Neutral as nuanced, proceeding through nuance rather than through distinction, and says:

    the Neutral doesn’t hide but doesn’t show (= very difficult)

    This seems to me to get at what Barthes means by ‘tact’ (delicatesse), as has been discussed in the last couple of sessions. Anna and Mimei were concerned about ‘tact’ as a term, which seemed to both of them to suggest a repressive cultural/moral code (surely the opposite of the Neutral!) and I too found it a bit of a confounding word – I’m grateful to have been given the French. But Mimei’s definition of ‘tact’ as

    skill in avoiding giving offence or winning goodwill by saying or doing the right thing

    strikes a chord, for me, with the idea of a mode of writing or speaking which neither hides nor shows: which neither conceals its own positionality nor arrogantly/aggressively makes a virtue out of that positionality. (So sometimes I feel it’s important that I frame something with the fact that I’m speaking as a lesbian, but I don’t want to go SPEAKING AS A LESBIAN I AM THE ONLY PERSON WHO CAN POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND THIS.) The Neutral as neither ‘hiding’ nor ‘showing’, then, seems to be related to tact as a nuanced form of interaction. Or perhaps we might understand ‘tact’ (‘delicatesse’) in terms of the ‘shimmer’: a mode of speaking or writing which is capable of multiple interpretations/connotations, and whose meaning ‘is subtly modified according to the angle of the subject’s gaze’.

    I also keep remembering that a lot of the formalist/New Critics talked about ‘tact’ as an important quality in a literary critic, and I never knew what they meant either. But this is opening up interesting possibilities for that, too.

    • s.manghani

      It intrigued me that the line you quote, ‘…doesn’t hide but doesn’t show’, when read in isolation echoes the definition of ideology (associated with the camera obscura) that says it does not hide anything, but distorts. In other words everything is made apparent, but just in a certain order(ing). Is the neutral just another ideological position? On the one hand yes. Last week, for example, Barthes made this point in reference to silence: ‘what is expressly produced so as not to be a sign is very quickly recuperated as a sign’ (p.26). This leads him to consider outplaying silence too! 

      But surely there is a difference between distorting and not showing something. Intuitively I want to agree with you about the prospects of what you describe as ‘a mode of writing or speaking which neither hides nor shows: which neither conceals its own positionality nor arrogantly/aggressively makes a virtue out of that positionality’. This would be to outplay ideological positions by neither denying them, nor drawing strength from them. However, when we think about the definition of tact as ‘skill in avoiding giving offence or winning goodwill by saying or doing the right thing’, we are back squarely in the domain of ideology, for what is ‘the right thing’? And more importantly who determines the right thing? If we think again of Mr Stevens, the butler in Remains of the Day, we can see how tact upholds a hierarchy – whether it is along political, economic, social and even emotional lines. 

      Looking back at the passage from which you took the line, ‘…doesn’t hide but doesn’t show’, it is all there: ‘Here we are in an ideology of “depth”, of the apparent versus the hidden’. Reference to The Purloined Letter might be thought to offer a glimmer, a shimmer of something else, but really only reinforces the ever-present and unseen effects of ideology – always easily overlooked. It seems to me there is a great deal to consider in final line of the passage:

      is the Neutal really a breachable, peelable surface, behind which is richness, color, strong meaning hide? (Cf. the unconscious, is it really what hides behind the conscious?)

      I can’t help thinking reference to Bosch’s altarpiece is a subterfuge. From the beginning Barthes is very clear, ‘the Neutral doesn’t refer to “impressions” of grayness…’ (p.7). Yet here we have a simple opposition set up between color (‘ardent, burning activity’?) and gray monochrome. Barthes is playing out the ideas of a common discourse. He remains ‘tactful’ in this exchange, which I think has the effect of leading us to believe the distinction. Yet the final line in parenthesis regarding the unconscious strikes me as Barthes’ true position; a rhetorical question: ‘…is it really what hides behind…?’ – no. It is what is suffused throughout. There is no ‘behind’, no hidden meaning we must extract. The neutral is in every position and in-between… So it is is not monochrome, nor colour… But something else. Although the fall back into ideology, the recuperated sign, hovers over each exchange…

  3. Susanne Gannon

    Mimei, I’m not sure how to respond through Barthes but am glad to hear that you and your wife made it home and am sorry for all that you and your fellow citizens are suffering through and for the difficult times to come. Thanks for even thinking to let us know. Susanne

  4. Mimei Ito

    Hi all. Everything seems normal in Tokyo now (except some public transportation services). And I have my copy of Japanese translation of The Neutral now. Hopefully i will post something tomorrow….

  5. i’m also happy to hear you’re doing well, mimei – i hope the gentle barthes can bring a little calm to you in the current turmoil.
    my thoughts on this week’s readings: while the beginning of supplement II certainly confirmed my initial attraction to the neutral as a science of the ‘infinitely futile’ details of everyday life, i did not think that the semantic/linguistic direction of the neutral that some of the readers (sunil, james, …) have raised in the last few weeks in relation the section on ‘affirmation’ among others, would be relevant my own research… until I read the section on the adjective this week. as it happens, a few days ago i was reading barthes’s 1954 essay on robbe-grillet (i’m looking at his influence on bruce nauman in the late 1960s), where barthes praises robbe-grillet for … his use (or rather non-use) of adjectives! while i don’t think that makes robbe-grillet a writer of the neutral (his relentless emphasis on surface would be at odds, i think, with the complexity of the neutral), it’s been interesting to see that barthes was as early as 1954 applauding RG’s destruction of the closed ‘carapace’ with which the adjective emprisons the object, and concluding that this is a means to open the object to the ‘new dimension’ of time. and the conclusion of the essay takes us back to the everyday, as B writes that RG teaches us to look at the world ‘with the eyes of a man walking in his city with no other horizon than the scene before him, no other power than that of his own eyes.’
    also: i just realized that my preference for the term ‘the delicate’ rather than ‘delicacy’ in last week’s discussion about the translation of ‘délicatesse’ as ‘tact’ was in fact an example of what barthes describes as ‘qualitas’, which leads me to wonder why barthes decided to use ‘délicatesse’ rather than ‘le délicat’ in his course…

    • s.manghani

      Anna – just quickly: I have added a further response to your post last week – with some thoughts mainly on the entry on Sleep. Also, I added a further comment on James Elkins’ entry (and he has subequently replied) – perhaps some things there worth seeing, since you do refer in your post here. I thought I’d caught up with myself, but maybe not! Anyway, I’ve enjoyed reading your line of enquiry here – particularly bringing in the work of Robbe-Grillet. The stiching between Barthes’ much earlier work on ‘zero degree’ writing is of interest to me (if somewhat uncharted waters for me). I’ll aim to add some further points specific to your post here later today, or tomorrow.

  6. s.manghani

    As we know, a period of deep mourning takes hold of Barthes prior to the preparation of the Neutral course. In my mail yesterday came a copy of Barthes’ Mourning Diary. It is a beautiful book. The day after his mother died, Barthes began the diary (of course without the intention of publishing a book), writing brief notes to himself on, as Natalie Léger describes in her forward, ‘slips of paper (regular typing-paper cut into quarters) of which he kept a constant supply at his desk’. Léger also note how the ‘format of the quartered pages required an always concise wording’. Each page, then, presents only a short, pithy entry, but making for a very moving account. It is one of those book you scan a line and before you know it you’re pages and pages in. Reading it in the context today of Facebook and other social media, I can’t help think of it as a collection of Barthes’ (very) private ‘status updates’ (- what a performance that would be!).

    He writes: ‘Since I’ve been taking care of her, the last six months in fact, she was “everything” for me, and I’ve completely forgotten that I’d written’. But what does this mean for the writing which follows, such as with The Neutral? Is he writing absentmindedly? Further on, he writes of his grief: ‘I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it … although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths’. We could say the Neutral operates in this ‘although’ – the remark has it both ways. He doesn’t want to make literature out of anything he might think, out of his grief; yet equally he sees this as an origin. What might this say for the remarks he offers up in the preliminaries of The Neutral?

    Personally, I have found the bringing together of the Neutral and mourning to be very productive. I find the section, ‘The Wirelike Sharpness of Mourning’ (p.13-14), extremely lucid and, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been very struck by the notion of the ‘second Neutral’, with its ‘desperate vitality’ (p.14). In Supplement II of this week’s reading, the earlier reference to ‘life’ returns with the ‘feeling of life. On the one hand, ‘life has nothing to do with tact’, it is the ‘will-to-possess’. But on the other hand, Barthes suggests of a pleasure to do with a more futile life: ‘the infinitely futile becomes then so to speak the very grain of this vital duration → tact = fabric of life’ (p.47). Here again we have the realm of the everyday; with reference to a certain vividness of life, of which one can hope to obtain an awareness.

    I continue to wonder: does the work of mourning cloud the operation of the text (to understand the horizon of the Neutral) – or does it provide a necessary rawness (beyond oneself) to aid in that understanding, as heightened awareness?

  7. Mary Modeen

    With only moments plucked from an overfilled day, I didn’t want to lose the chance of adding a few thoughts. In this section, thinking about colour, about adjectives, I read ‘The adjective that comes from outside me upsets the Neutral in which I find my quietude.’ On many levels, I am struck by these words. First, as a person without quietude, I long for that space which is in between the hustle and bustle of daily life, the space away from other people’s words (adjectives), and the judgments and values these imply. The adjective (judgment) that come from the outside is resisted by Barthes, in his mode of adjectival anesthesia, which allows him his postulation of the Neutral. This is his space apart, his hermitage of the Neutral. It is not that it has no colour–it is a colour he choses to remain nameless, a colour whose name from other people he will resist. His disappointment in the spilled ink is not that it truly does have a colour, rather, it is surely in the fact that it is so ordinary; he does not fancy a true Neutral, a true space, that could be so easily labeled with the adjective like the word ‘grey’.

    • s.manghani

      Mary, I am replying to your comment quite late, but as I’m sure you can guess, the lack of quietude has got in the way. Again. Given the weight of events in the world this week (and ongoing) I have been questioning a range of issues about the pertinence of the Neutral in itself and a reading of it at our current conjuncture. I have also felt frustrated with trivial matters in the workplace. The collision of these things is jarring to say the least. The Neutral can come across as a tremendous luxury, and a reading of it only more so. Yet the point of it to outplay the need to make assertions seems to me very profound. You put this so well when you write: ‘It is not that it has no colour–it is a colour he choses to remain nameless, a colour whose name from other people he will resist’. I also find your comment about the problem of the spilt ink being not its defined colour, but ‘that it is so ordinary’ an interesting observation. It is worth pondering this line in relation to a number of points Anna has raised about aligning the Neutral with questions of the everyday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s