Session 5: March 18, 2011

Supplement: In the opening of the reading for this week, Supplement III, Barthes comments on the problem of dialogue (of the problem with interacting with those present at his lecture course) and also the fact that dialogue (as we know it) is precisely what is put into question with the Neutral. There is a wonderful echo of what Barthes says with our experience of interacting (or not) here online. Indeed, we might say we cannot consider the Neutral here…

In this course, there are too many listeners … for it to be possible for one or another among you to have a dialogue […] I am unable to respond to a question, to a comment, on the spot, and it’s precisely because I claim the right of not knowing how to answer, because I hope to put the very idea of reply in question, that I utter with such insistence a desire for the Neutral -> the echo needs time to develop: to what is said to me, I can only give an echo, not an “answer”, and the richer, more pertinent the stimulus, the more this echo needs a silence before being returned. (p.62)

I have been mindful all week that a number of echoes are still to find a voice. In particular, I have been wanting to add more to the exchange with James in Week 3, in which some thoughts arose regarding two models of thinking about the Neutral, and to Anna’s comments last week regarding Barthes’ essay on Robbe-Grillet. I have read the essay in question, a few days ago, and it has sparked all sorts of thoughts. I have been trying to consider how these thoughts might actually tie-in with those raised in week three too. As such, I’m keen to pull these threads forward to this week, rather than reply to the earlier posts. It is perhaps Barthes’ lengthy Supplement III this week which provides suitable grounds upon which to do so. I will aim to post up a specific comment a little later on.

Reflection: Last week’s session took place under the dark shadow of the events in Japan, which is perhaps one reason why it feels more difficult to pull strands together. The Supplement offered further thoughts on the earlier entry on Tact and also, as I felt, opened up a question again about the relationship between the course on the Neutral and Barthes’ period of mourning. The key entries, however, were on Color and The Adjective. I suspect a number of thoughts will circle back to these entries as they are both, whilst rather different, quite suggestive of a number of problematics of the Neutral. Rather than offer any synthesis, I’d like to just reiterate a few nice observations from last week. I was taken with Ika writing of ‘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’. Also, Anna very usefully drew attention back to Barthes’ earlier interest in the writer Robbe-Grillet and in particular Barthes’ essay of 1954, in which he suggests the novelist ‘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.”’ Again, we encounter configurations of the everyday. I was also pleased to see a contribution from Mary, which portrayed a delicate fabric of one’s day vis-a-vis the reading of the Neutral; and I particularly liked her line that: ‘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’.

Session of March 18, 2011 (Pages 62-77: Supplement III / Images of the Neutral / Anger)

This week’s session perhaps offers a little respite. Aside from an entry on Anger no less (which again remarks on the body, perhaps taking us back to the earlier entry on Sleep), there is an accessible and brief entry on ‘Images of the Neutral’, as well as supplementary asides (which actually make up the majority of the session) in which Barthes responds to various letters he has received. Barthes’ more candid tone of the Supplement is easier to follow in many respects and offers some interesting reflection on the course as it has unfolded. We might take a cue from this to also step back and reflect on our reading so far. Barthes also offers up a ‘little bit of suspense’, when he says: ‘The writing of the Neutral, I think it exists, I have encountered it. Where? I will say it at the end (June 3).’ We shall see…

I’m very grateful to Susanne, who has sent this picture, with the suggestion that whilst not necessarily neutral in colour, it is uncommitted in form. Something for us to ponder…


  1. s.manghani

    Images of the Neutral: Given my interest in applying the Neutral to image studies, the entry for this week on ‘Images of the Neutral’, would seem to be ideal. And yet, it is an entry that disappoints me. It is very brief. It actually seems rather removed from a consideration of images and also crucially I find it rather one-sided, or one-dimensional. The main thrust of the entry is the idea that ‘the Neutral has a bad press: the images of the Neutral are depreciative’. Barthes offers six accounts of such images: Thankless, shirking, muffled, limp, indifferent, and vile. These are provocative words, and I find his commentaries interesting, but not necessarily galvanising, at least with respect to images. As a slightly more playful comment this week, I thought I could offer a series of web-links. Each of which present ‘celebratory’ images of the Neutral (which doesn’t mean they are ‘good’!), suggesting a rather different take on the Neutral. I am wondering perhaps, we are in a quite different ‘period’ of the Neutral, populated with images such as ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘Coke Zero’!

    So… what might we to make of the following:

    (1) Farrow & Ball – Neutral Tones

    (2) Neutral – integrated communication design and technology solutions

    (3) Neutral – Certified Responsibility Clothing

    (4) Muji – Online Store
    For those not familiar with the chain, retail store Muji, it is a long-standing Japanese company, which has a professed ‘philosophy of “No Brand”‘:

    Mujirushi Ryohin is the full name of the popularly known Muji brand from Japan founded in 1980. The name in English means: “No label, quality goods”. Muji has been one of the brands that have popularized the anti-brand movement. With a mission to popularize quality of goods without screaming of any designer tags, Muji has merchandise of good quality at affordable prices. Though the brand does not have a corporate tag line, it occasionally comes out with the tag line “Simple. Functional. Affordable”. This is to ensure that the message is engrained in the customers’ minds. [Source]

    I’m sure there are plenty of other interesting examples… please do post any up!

  2. s.manghani

    Perhaps worth pointing out: At the close of the entry on ‘Images of the Neutral, Barthes talks away his notes (as reported in the endnotes, n.24, p.227) to explain how the Neutral is ‘the unstable’:

    doomed to oscillate between two postulations: the bad, or reactive, one, that of facticity in Sartre’s sense of the word, equivalent to submission to contingency, and the good, or active, one, corresponding to simplicity – in the ethical and aesthetic sense’

    This would seem broaden the scope to allow for the depreciative images Barthes accounts for and the celebratory images I have given as examples. The words ‘simplicity’ and ‘ethical’ being apposite. Of course, again, through this we have the idea of the Neutral as being of their oscillation, rather than a ‘thing’ in itself.

  3. s.manghani

    Anger: A couple of weeks ago we had the entry on Sleep, in which Barthes referred to the idea of ‘hyperconsciousness’ – a state of sleep (drifting into, first awakening from) ‘where I see (I sip) life’. We raised some thoughts and queries about the usefulness of the Neutral in this case being literally beyond knowledge, situated only in a bodily sense. This week, the entry on Anger poses something similar, though here can relate to waking life. His use of the Greek to pathos, as ‘what one feels, as opposed to what one does’, is useful to open the ideas up. And he ends on a very interest, but undeveloped point about Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ (or at least Blanchot’s reading): ‘Not a being, not a becoming, but a pathos’: the passion of difference’ (p.77). There is a rich seam here… I’d be interested to hear others might think to elaborate on Barthes’ comment (perhaps some of you are keen readers of Nietzsche and/or Blanchot?).

    Barthes uses the phrase ‘philo-écriture‘ (in attempting not to revert to ‘metadiscourses (-oligies)’). One simple point I’d make is that there is a constant play of the body as writing in Barthes. Notable for example with his piece on ‘The Grain of the Voice’ and also in ‘The Third Meaning’ – in which he looks for elements in various film stills which go beyond/outside of the usual informational and symbolic codes. Interestingly, most of the features he refers to are elements of the body – eyebrows, fingers etc. Similarly the ‘punctum’ in Camera Lucida is predominately trained upon (often uncontrollable, ill-pose) elements of the body.The references here under Anger (e.g. of headaches and queasiness etc) seem to me to echo something of this ‘writing’ that Barthes frequently describes.

  4. dear all,
    first things first: i’m sure i’m not the only one watching the news and thinking of you, mimei – i hope you and yours are holding up well.
    on the neutral: I agree with you, Sunil, that the ‘images’ discussed by barthes in this section have nothing to do with visual images ; the ‘bad press’ of the neutral is the right term to describe what Barthes is discussing – the word ‘image’ in French also has the other meaning that it has in English (see image-consultants etc).
    I was happy to see barthes addressing directly one of the concerns i had voiced in session 1 of our reading group, when i was worrying about his ‘aloofness’, which is related to the way the neutral has been criticised for being ‘indifferent’. I would have liked him to develop this beyond his discussion of fichte, but maybe the last words of this session on anger, where he describes the neutral as a ‘passion for difference’ may go some way towards explaining what he means when he speaks about ‘different kinds of indifferences’?
    Also, I thought the discussion of ‘malaise’ / queasiness was an interesting complement to the section on fatigue we read a few weeks ago.
    Looking forward to hearing more of your assorted thoughts!

    • s.manghani

      Anna – I wasn’t necessarily meaning to refer only to visual images, though obviously by including the links that I have there are predominately visual aspects on display. However, I think most of the examples I offer are akin to brand images, which would relate well to the work of image consultants and certainly operate on various levels (across the spectrum of what Mitchell suggests as a ‘family of images’, in his book Iconology). I was a little more disappointed that Barthes fixes upon the idea of depreciative images. I shouldn’t be surprised. He frequently marks his suspicion of the image. In Roland Barthes it is very evident his desire to outplay his own image (which goes before him). But of course, as much as he speaks of depreciative images, he is also attuned to the idea to ‘stage an image-system’. There are these constant contradictions. As he writes in the Supplement for this week’s reading, ‘what I’m indirectly and obstinately speaking about, is aporia; one could notice … that almost all the figures (up to this point) stage an aporia’ (p.68-9).

      The ‘contradictory’ movement is clear in the entry last week on the Adjective, where despite a clear attack on the adjective he closes by rescuing it back:

      …to evacuate adjectives from language would be to posteurize to the point of destruction … Don’t bleach language, savor it instead. Stroke it gently or even groom it, but don’t “purify” it. We can prefer lure to mourning, or at least we can recognize that there is a time for the lure, a time for the adjective. Perhaps the Neutral is that: to accept the predicate as nothing more than a moment: a time.

      [Mimei – here again is a remark on temporality, which chimes with your remarks here this week]

      I went back to Barthes’ essay of 1954 on Robbe-Grillet, which you referred to last week, Anna. The essay is included in my copy of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy/In the Labyrinth (Grove Press). Barthes focuses on the importance of the visual: ‘Robbe-Grillet requires only one mode of perception: the sense of sight’. This, I think, does lead to the potential of ‘neutral’, or ‘zero-degree’ writing:

      Robbe-Grillet’s object is never drawn in three dimensions, in depth: it never conceals a secret, vulnerable heart beneath its shell […] the object has no being beyond phenomenon: it is not ambiguous, not allegorical, not even opaque, for opacity somehow implies a corresponding transparency, a dualism in nature.

      This idea that object has no ‘being beyond’ itself suggests to me something very similar to the Zen and Taoist writings. Also, the contrast with the ambiguous and the allegorical is interesting, particularly for what he has to say about painting (as one form of visual image). Barthes presents an opposition of the ‘classical treatment of the object [in] the school of Dutch still-life painting’ and ‘Robbe-Grillet’s description of an object [with] its analogies with modern painting’. To give a little more detail, he writes of these two modes as follows. On the Dutch painting he writes [and apologies, but I quote at length, since some may not have this text to hand]:

      [In Dutch still-life painting] variety and minuteness of detail are made subservient to a dominant quality that transforms all the materials of vision into a single visceral sensation: luster, the sheen of things, for example, is the real subject matter of all those compositions of oysters and glasses and wine and silver […] One might describe the whole effect of this art as an attempt to endow its object with an adjectival skin, so that the half-visual, half-substantial glaze we ingest from these pictures by a kind of sixth, coenesthetic sense is no longer a question of surface, no longer “superficial”. As if the painter had succeeded in furnishing the object with some warm name that dizzily seizes us, clings to us, and implicates us in its continuity until we perceive the homogenous texture of a new ideal substance woven from the superlative qualities of all possible matter. This, too, is the secret of Baudelaire’s admirable rhetoric, in which each name, summoned from the most discrepant orders of being, surrenders its tribute of ideal sensation to a universal perception

      The reference to Baudelaire is interesting I think since it opens up consideration of Walter Benjamin too. Baudelaire was a key influence, particularly in relation to the Arcades Project, out of which we get his notion of the dialectical image. I’ve frequently drawn upon this work, most obviously in Image Critique and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. However, I have always felt frustration with Benjamin – here I find a key realisation that, due to the allegorical mode, Benjamin really doesn’t suit my interests in the Neutral. However, it is difficult to find clear alternatives. By way of contrast to the Dutch still-life painting, Barthes suggests the folllowing:

      Robbe-Grillet’s description of an object finds its analogies with modern painting (in its broadest acceptation), for the latter has abandoned the qualification of space by substance in favor of a simultaneous “reading” of the planes and perspectives of its subject, thereby restoring the object to its “essential bareness.” Robbe-Grillet destroys the object’s dominion-by-substance because it would frustrate his major intention, which is to insert the object in a dialectic of space. Not that this space is Euclidean – the extreme care Robbe-Grillet takes to situate the object in a proliferation of perspectives, to find within the elasticity of our field of vision a singularly fragile point of resistance, has nothing whatever to do with the classic concern to establish the dimensions and depths of academic perspective.

      I’m asking we accept the idea that Robbe-Grillet’s writing fits with notions the Neutral (I think the case can be made based on Barthes’ original interest in Writing Degree Zero and also following the remarks I’ve made here, above). However, there are key problems. First and foremost, as stated back all that time ago in Writing Degree Zero, and reiterated in The Neutral with the entry on Silence, the non-sign quickly becomes recuperated within the system of signs, so we cannot fix upon the Neutral as being equivalent to modern painting. Added to which of course, Barthes is very vague about modern painting – what does he mean by ‘in its broadest acceptation’? The preceding passage on Dutch still-life painting is rich and evocative. It is very specific too. Turning to his opposite example, Barthes does not provide a great deal of detail. I’d be very interested in what others might think… Anna, I know you mentioned last week you read Barthes essay on Robbe-Grillet as part of an interest in the work of Bruce Nauman – perhaps you can elaborate? Crucially, I still feel short-changed by Barthes on ‘Images of the Neutral’ – though equally, I take it as an opportunity to develop the ideas!

    • s.manghani

      …a quick note on the aloofness/indifference. Anna, I looked back to comments from week 1, where, as you say, you raise your concern ‘with barthes – as with cage – [as being] the risk of aloofness’. I remember now, you linked this to wanting to hear more about how I might consider the relation between yes and no. I have said various things about yes/no over the weeks, I’m not sure they have really helped with this point. You go on to suggest a ‘fine line between yes (to nuances) and no (to transfiguration – see cage’s text about rauschenberg’s white paintings which is a list of ‘nos’ – to expression, to composition, etc).’. I’ve not had a chance to read the Cage reference in this case. I’m wondering if perhaps you could elaborate a little?

      The section on ‘indifferent’ is rather short and ‘stuck’ within Fichte’s schema. The final line (in parenthesis) that ‘there are many indifferences’ is frustrating. Again, we come to the poem by Pasolini and the idea of protestation in the line ‘Me? A desperate vitality’. There is also, as you say, the final line of the session, under Anger, regarding ‘the passion for difference’. I’ve been reading Barthes Mourning Diary. It is a beautiful book and I think, like the other published diary notes in Incidents it is revealing of Barthes natural tendency to withdraw and to be almost ‘out of his depth’ in society. I’m sure he could literally come across as being aloof, but actually the diary notes suggests to me is far too affected by those around him to ever actually be aloof! The ‘desperate vitality’ (and desperate being the key word!) and the ‘passion for difference’ would seem to be nicely illuminated by the little incident he recounts in the Supplement entry for this session, when he describes being sent a book to review:

      …this someone called me to ask me what I think of his book. At that very moment, there arises in me the desire for Neutral : the desire not to read the book, to think nothing of it, to be unable to say what I think of it: the right not to desire: is there a power of exemplarity (of law) in the desire for nondesire?

      • Sunil, thanks for your tireless responses – it’s good that you are pushing us to develop our throwaway thoughts. I checked Cage’s text about Rauschenberg’s white paintings and realized I misquoted it in my comments in session 1- his list of ‘nos’ in the untitled statement issued by the Stable Gallery for this 1953 exhibition is as follows:

        To whom
        No subject
        No image
        No taste
        No object
        No beauty
        No message
        No talent
        No technique (no why)
        No idea
        No intention
        No art
        No feeling
        No black
        No white (and no and)

        So, to go back to our discussion, I would agree with you, Sunil, that saying no for Cage as for Barthes is the starting point for saying yes to the world – going back to Cage’s desire to let sounds (and silence) be themselves rather than ‘vehicles’ for authorial intentions. The problem with this deliberate indifference (which leads to the ‘passion for difference’) arises when viewed from a traditionally political perspective, such as the one quoted by Fichte – is Cage (or Barthes) encouraging a kind of passivity, a retreat from the world of action, change (let alone revolution)… When Cage suggests that trying to improve the world will ‘only make it worse’ in a later lecture, we are faced with this problem directly.

        My research on the relation between Nauman and Robbe-Grillet is still inconclusive – my only starting point is that Nauman read Robbe-Grillet (possibly in the same edition that you’ve quoted, Sunil). One of the reasons for my difficulties is that I don’t agree with you, Sunil, that Robbe-Grillet is a writer of the neutral, for the reason I mentioned in my comment last week – that the neutral cannot be reduced to sight alone. Although like RG’s writings, the neutral refuses a kind of allegorical/transcendental depth, I feel that it covers a whole range of sensations, experiences, nuances, that RG deliberately evacuates from his writings. How we reconcile RG and the neutral raises of course the question of how we relate the early and late Barthes.

        My other problem in trying to read Barthes’s text on RG in connection to the neutral (and to Nauman’s work) is that like you, Sunil, I’m not satisfied with his analogy with modern art, which seems indeed to general to be useful. Perhaps we have to go back to Cage here and look at the difference between ‘modern’ art and the XVIIc still-life as one between the qualities of the object being presented ‘for’ and ‘in’ themselves, as opposed to the ‘lustre’ qualities of the still-life which have been created by the painter’s style of painting. The contrast is still not compelling.

        Perhaps we need to try and think the neutral beyond the visual, or the image, and think about time, music, experience instead (a move that would certainly resonate with contemporary artistic practices that are not painting).

  5. Mimei Ito

    Hi all. I am doing fine in Tokyo, although it has been a week in axiety since the first hit of the quake. We now have a scheduled electricity stoppage in Tokyo, because the power supply is not sufficent for the consumption. The Fukushima nuclear plant is more than 200 kilometers away from Tokyo: so there is no immediate danger at this moment. My office has been closed for two days (on Monday and Tuesday), but now it has resumed normal business operation (although we are told that we leave the office by 6pm, which is unusual for Japanese white collar workers, who normally work over-time until 7-8pm).
    My reading of The Neutral is a week behind. But I am happy to find Barthes’ claim (here and there) on the temporal dimension of the neutral, because I have been tempted by the idea of exploring the temporal aspect in visual arts (like the time required to “scan” the painting, or the movement of figures on the screen at a cinema).

  6. Gavin Wilson

    Like Mimei, but for completely un-traumatic reasons, I am catching up with the rest of the reading group. Therefore, my thoughts range across a number of recent themes.
    Like you, Sunil, I found Barthes’ reductive conception of ‘Images of the Neutral’ somewhat puzzling. They left me asking more questions (part of the exercise to be sure) of how a semiotics of the still image might differ from that of moving imagery. Barthes is characteristically suspicious of commercial media’s appropriation of the photograph, yet I long for (as many others must do – futilely) a dialogue with him about contemporary manifestations of digital moving imagery. Barthes’ six part negative typology of ‘depreciative images’ cannot surely be considered a ‘universal’. In its facility to move, drift, shimmer, video escapes the shackles of a restrictive negativity, encompassing bad/negative adjectives, traversing the neutral, perhaps moving to a more positive ontology. This reminds me, hazily, of Deleuze’s considerations of cinematic time and movement and the latter’s utilisation of, reliance on, aspects of un-historisized memory; the continuing flow of remembered presents. Only in a defeatist mourning for the loss of moments of existence can bad adjectives inveigel themselves.
    At the start of ‘Supplement III’ on page 62 Barthes protests mildly that ‘there are too many listeners (split up into different rooms, some of which are “blind”).’ Is Barthes recalling Plato’s often-recounted allegory of The Cave? This seems to introduce a theatrical jousting with perceptions of reality, fittingly playful in the context of our own readings of a developing, shifting course of observations/ruminations/mental images.
    In offering an ‘echo’ which ‘needs time to develop’, isn’t Barthes forwarding his desire for Neutral, requiring or not requiring a reply, expressing different modulations of an essential character with new resonances? This drift seems to be in a certain direction, if not quite arriving at a fixed point of understanding then a partial knowledge – the flower of knowledge.
    In part 1. Color; Isn’t it the case that the male taking pleasure in beauty is a functional impulse, rousing him from his stupor to action; a dynamism necessary for survival. Color is playfully conflated with exhibition/performance. Our contemporary reading of this dynamic of bodily worn adornment might reference young people in nightclubs and ‘cam girls’ in their bedrooms making videos for online sharing, melding vlogging and performance of their life stories, but displaying selective facets of their personalities to a virtual gaze.
    In part 2; So the Neutral recognises the admission of a lack of mystery in the whole, doctrinal knowledge. It leaves an undetermined space for the insertion of hermeneutic meaning. On the other hand, Bias is always intentional, aggressive impostion of interpretation on the neutral/natural.
    I’ve always thought of adjectives as being active, of carrying with the ‘ing’ a residue of the verb, more powerful and impulsive than the pronoun. But isn’t this in a sense getting us further away from considering the speech act as locus of neutral?
    To return to an earlier strand in Supplement II – where Barthes declames ‘life has nothing to do with tact’, it is the ‘will-to-possess’ – I cannot help but be reminded here of Kristeva’s notion of ‘abject’, of a kind of horror of desiring appearances that reflect an idealised perception of bodily loss. Tact is a denial of an otherwise horrific loss, is a covering-up of absence. Thus I am led to Barthes’ approaching the Neutral of the pathos.

  7. s.manghani

    In week three, in response to some of my thoughts, James Elkins drew out two possibilities or ‘models’ of the Neutral:

    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.

    I’ve been meaning to respond to these ideas and it seems to me useful to pull the thought forward to this week, since Barthes offers some revealing remarks in his lengthy Supplement. Firstly, however, I should say, I’m not sure if I would split things into these two ‘models’ (though I do like the sense of them). To read the original exchange in full, look back at the comments for Week 3. However, to summarise: I used the phrase ‘evasive and fluid’ in writing about the entry on Affirmation in which Barthes returns to Saussure. I wrote: ‘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.’ I then also referred to Barthes remarks that it is ‘impossible to speak … of humility humbly’, to suggest that equally we can not speak of the neutral ‘neutrally’: ‘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!’

    It is true, Camera Lucida does seem to fit the second ‘model’. Its ‘concept’ of the punctum is ironic as a theoretical term, since it is deliberately evasive or fluid itself. However, it starts to point at something which we believe to be outside of, or to one side of, ordinary assertion’. I’ve quoted above, a portion from the Supplement from this week, in adding to Anna’s comments on indifference, in which Barthes describes being sent a book to review. The author then calls to find out what he thought of the book!

    At that very moment, there arises in me the desire for Neutral : the desire not to read the book, to think nothing of it, to be unable to say what I think of it: the right not to desire: is there a power of exemplarity (of law) in the desire for nondesire? The Neutral is not an objective, a target: it’s a passage. In a famous apologue, Zen makes fun of people who mistake the pointing finger for the moon it points to -> I am interested in the finger, not in the moon.

    The idea that Barthes is interested in the ‘finger, not in the moon’ would again seem to fit well with a text such as Camera Lucida. We might be lulled into thinking there is a theory of photography on offer, when actually he is more interested in looking at us looking at photographs, not what is in the photographs. He is interested in why and how we mistake ourselves for looking at the finger, not the moon. Perhaps we could say the photograph of his mother is the ‘moon’ in this case. He is actually secure about this and he is not about to confuse things further by pointing directly at it. Indeed, the fact he does not want us to see this photograph (even though it does appear!) seems to fit with the idea that he is more interested ‘in the finger, not in the moon’. Thus, we might relate the evasive and fluid model within/alongside semiotic analysis. The Neutral in this case refers to (though is at pains not to define!) the boundaries of where meaning is made or lost. It is of structural interest. As Barthes writes at the beginning of the Neutral course: ‘My Definition of the Neutral remains structural’ (p.7). And not to forget, his point here is that the Neutral refers to ‘intense, strong, unprecedented states’.

    So far so good (?). But what of the Black Hole model, ‘in which something radical and irreparable happens when you practice or embody the Neutral’ and where ‘[l]anguage and assertion then appear at an infinite distance’? I don’t necessarily find it easy to split these models, but perhaps one way I’d see this is that the structural account of what is ‘evasive’ can go on to be considered as an action, or as an entity (such as a black hole!) – so it becomes more than just a structural account; it becomes an intervention, or better, an outplaying… In the same incident quoted above, whilst he draws out the idea of looking to the finger, not the moon, as a structural concern, it is also the ‘desire’ he refers to that is significant. What would really happen were he to let his desire ‘not to read the book’ take hold? The important point is that he doesn’t want to be rude by not reading the book, he simply doesn’t want to… no more, no less. He inches here towards a practice, or embodying of the Neutral. My original reference to the black hole (which might seem a little overblown) was to describe the problem of being able to conceptually identify a real phenomenon, yet realise that it is impossible to ever experience it. Not because it is not real, but because it is by its very nature outside of our own means. We would need to envisage and devise, even evolve a different way of being! On the prosaic matter of the telephone call that Barthes recounts, he presents the possibility of a very different exchange on the line, where he has a right not to desire. However, as it stands, this cannot be communicated – and any attempt to do so would be beside the point. You can imagine the conversation: ‘I haven’t read your book, not because I wish to ignore it or that I don’t appreciate it, I simply had no desire to do you… it is not you, it is me!’… However much one would try to make this reasonable response it can only come across as being rude and dismissive (which takes us back to some of Anna’s original concerns over a certain aloofness).

    Again, I’m not sure the two models really make full sense, nor do they necessarily stand for separate approaches as such. Indeed they may just create confusion (possibly the labels, ‘evasive’ and ‘black hole’ are misleading!). Certainly I think they interrelate, but if there is a difference it is likely quite important. A structural account is more concerned with form, it relates to a reading of the text and gives rise to the writerly and novelistic responses to the text, which we known from Barthes other writings. Whereas the ‘Black hole’, the ‘what if’ model, were you to practice the Neutral, seems to me more open to questions of politics and ethics. It is possible to connect up and/or bring into tension here writings of Derrida, Delueze, Agamben and others aside. The idea of a nondesire that Barthes speaks of seems more difficult to approach from a writerly, and novelistic approach, since these modes suggest a playing out of desire. The suggestion I made that the black hole of the Neutral ‘would radically engulf or rather disperse all former means and modes of utterance should you enter it’, is rather more difficult to accept and bring in to any specific formal account. Perhaps, then, the somewhat systematic approach of The Neutral isn’t so questionable. It would have been far more difficult to produce the ‘book’ of the course in the way we’re familiar with books such as Camera Lucida or Roland Barthes. Barthes writes:

    …the Neutral is perhaps a figure, a mask, a painted screen (a symptom?) that takes the place of something else. Of What? Perhaps, for example, of a political anxiety or a relational anxiety? It’s not for me to tell, since, in giving an interpretation, I would do nothing but give a new interpretandum. But we can mediate on it, without drawing a conclusion.

    He goes on to say that either ‘I speak of the Neutral and I make it into a law; or I don’t construct a law from it, but then I don’t speak of it (and the whole course falls apart)’. Here again is the same problem he faces whilst on the telephone. Either he plays along or he doesn’t, but it all falls apart. What he is ‘indirectly and obstinately speaking about, is aporia’, against which he defines the course:

    step by step: how to recognise the world as a tissue of aporias, how to live until death by going (painfully, pleasurably) through the aporias, without undoing them by a logical, dogmatic blow of forces? Which is to say: how to live aporias as creation, which is to say, by the practice of a text-discourse that doesn’t break the aporia but floats it as a speech that tangles itself in the other (the public) lovingly …?

    This way of creation through aporia seems to brings us back to Barthes’ preferred mode of the novelistic, in which he ‘paints, rather than digs’ (to paraphrase his line from the inaugural lecture). However, as I’ve said above, I’m not sure the Neutral lends itself to this ‘loving’ mode. It seems something rather more radical and which perhaps cannot be held within the bounds of a book… Given Barthes description of the Neutral as a ‘painted screen’, I think of sliding shoji panels that you get in a traditional Japanese room. These often offer a painted vista of some sort, but also open to reveal a real view of the surroundings. You can slide these panels in various was to configure and reconfigure a room. Perhaps the Neutral has to be thought of as a means to configure and reconfigure in this way – ‘…its not an objective, a target: it’s a passage’. If we have to think of this in printed form, perhaps the best example would be something like Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, with its set of ten sonnets printed on card, each line on a separated strip, open to multiple configurations.

    I’m not sure if my remarks here are making sense, or just going round in circles (maybe that’s the point!). I will stop. To my left is my 6 year-old daughter playing Monopoly ‘with’ (or for) me… it is giving me a headache, but I have to wonder if in fact her complete ‘nondesire’ in what I am trying to do (as I write at my computer) is the best example of the Neutral I can give right now… it is a happy, innocent, yet strong and ardent state!! …and doesn’t feel the need to pretend to be interested in what I am doing!

  8. James Elkins

    Thanks for that. I’m content to give up the dualistic model, which I thought was emerging from the earlier exchange. But I still wonder about what happens, in Barthes’s thinking, when it comes time to describe his practice in these seminars, or in any of his later books. My own “answer” to “Camera Lucida” (the book that’s coming out in a couple of months) is, by my sense of things, an attempt to write “at” his writing, and see what it might be like to inhabit that frame of mind in which (to put things a bit as they are here, in “The Neutral”) I set down my declared desire to say something about photography, and see where that desire, when it reappears as writing, leads me. But I am not under any illusion that if Barthes were still alive to read my book, he’d find it mechanical in its author’s optimism that so much of any writing practice can be usefully described. The semiotics, yes — the “codes” and so forth — but not the range of thought that congeals or collects into books like this one, or “Camera Lucida.” This is a clumsy way of saying that I think Barthes practiced, and also felt, an insouciance in regard to something absolutely crucial about the form of his own projects. Weirdly, “The Neutral” points away from that insouciance by dividing its thoughts into so many categories, and by not caring when even the least propositional speculations are given in propositional terms.

  9. Paul Frosh

    Sorry for the long slience. I’m having more trouble than I expected with this text, especially after getting so much pleasure from the first session – some of that is certainly to do with fitting concentrated quality reading time into everyday life in a productive way (and if an academic can’t do it, who can), but some is also to do with the transcribed lecture format. I hoped that things would get less frustrating as I allowed the ideas to “settle” – that time would help to clarify – but it hasn’t. I’m now having difficulties with the relation between visual images and the neutral, always brining myself back to the idea that the neutral ‘baffles the paradigm’ (maybe I should let this go, let the neutral flow, let it perform its bafflement on me): what confuses me is the relation between visual images and affirmation. I like Sunil’s misgivings about Barthes’ claim that affirmation is unmarked, and negation marked – that, in contrast, the yes is fragile and reaches out to the other. However, in the realm of visual images – especially photographs – my inclination is certainly to agree with Barthes: photographs affirm through exposure (though, in the dominant techniques of pre-digital photography, there is an interesting relation to negation – the negative from which postives are produced): this is unmarked, a yes not dependent upon (indifferent to?) the agreement of the other, affirming through replication what cannot be repeated existentially (to paraphrase Camera Lucida). Photographs that negate would appear to be highly marked, and rare (struggling to find examples…). Visual images that baffle the paradigm, that hover between affirmation and negation? – possibly ‘this is not a pipe’ (too obvious, cliched, ‘paradigmatic’?); in photography, for me at least, Diane Arbus’ ‘Identical Twins’, baffling the perception and categorical distinctions between identical and singular, same and different, replication and source (this can of course apply to photography itself: more bafflement).

    • s.manghani

      Paul – it is great to have your comments. I think you’re right the transcribed lecture format can be very difficult to read at times – and/or it is easy to read too much into what is written! I’m hoping you might find the next session’s reading more enjoyable. I feel the opening section and the figure on The Active of the Neutral to be instructive – I think there are some lovely lines of lucidity. Still, we can see how we all fare…

      It is very interesting reading your remarks on visual images and sensing the tensions you raise about dealing with the text. Overall, I think we struggle to offer suggestions for examples of the Neutral in visual terms, which I find interesting in itself. However, the idea of ‘the negative from which positives are produced’ is very suggestive… dare I say, I find there a little ‘shimmer’ of thought to hold on to…

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