Session 6: March 25, 2011

Reflection: It was a slow start perhaps, but we ended up with plenty of comments last week, and also the site statistics have been strong. I suggested the materials (notably with the lengthy Supplement III) allowed for the chance to catch up with ourselves a little. And that seems to have happened. There are a range of remarks, some catching up from previous weeks and a number of responses to Images of the Neutral. Mostly, I think we found this section disappointing. Anna updated on some previous thoughts relating to John Cage, which relate to certain modernist aesthetics, whilst I found Gavin’s contemporary references to ‘young people in nightclubs and ‘cam girls’ in their bedrooms making videos’ extremely thought-provoking (I still mean to jot some thoughts down). Paul also added some thoughts on images, which again evidence a tussle with this section. Overall, I think we have all struggled – in various ways, and certainly in identifying examples – when applying the Neutral to the visual realm – something I find interesting in itself. Also of note, we largely chose not to reflect on the section on Anger… I’ll say no more…

Session of March 25, 2011
(Pages 78-93: Supplement IV / The Active of the Neutral / Ideospheres)

Again, this week there is an opening Supplement entry. In this case, in the main, Barthes reflects back on his ‘Neither-Nor Criticism’ essay from Mythologies. Whilst initially there can appear a direct relationship, Barthes very usefully unpicks the contractions to help reveal important distinctions with the Neutral. Following this is a section on The Active in the Neutral, which also provides a lucid accounting of the Neutral; seeming to chime well with our previous discussions. Finally, there is an entry on Ideospheres. Arguably, this re-plays various points about ideology in general, and which are not necessarily so clearly connected to consideration of the Neutral (at least as presented), but which certainly yield a number of nice phrases and metaphors for us to ponder…



  1. Dear all,
    Yesterday morning as I was getting ready to leave the house some Evangelists rang the doorbell, holding their bibles. ‘I don’t have time for this’, I rudely announced, before rushing to the nearest coffeehouse to read – religiously – this week’s Neutral class. It was reassuring in this context to read Barthes’s section on the ideospheres, just to make sure I was not embracing a new religion. I was left wondering, however, if there’s a place for ritual in the neutral.
    I really enjoyed the ‘active’ images of the neutral, which will no doubt assuage our uneasiness about the negative images of last class. Most relevant for my concerns with contemporary art since the 1960s are the neutral’s challenge to hierarchy (indeed very Zen/Tao), the themes of weakness and strength (the broader topic of my book project is ‘precariousness’ in contemporary art), and the idea of stupidity. For anyone interested in stupidity in art, I recommend Jean-Yves Jouannais’s 2003 book titled ‘L’Idiotie’ (in French, and by no means Barthesian, although it intersects in some ways with the neutral).
    Those are my random thoughts of the week; looking forward to hearing yours!

    • s.manghani

      I think there is quite a bit of ritual that goes with the course itself. In the second line of the opening lecture, Barthes says: ‘Between each hour, a pause of a dozen minutes’. I’ve always read this as being very particular. And of course there are plenty of references to rituals; of sleeping, Zen rituals (passing a flower etc), and most obviously the tea ceremony. Perhaps ritual would make a good figure of the Neutral…

      I find myself thinking of the way my dad ‘prepares’ a cup of tea. He would never accept my offer of me making him a cup, he’d always politely refuse and instead wait for the kitchen to become vacant. He takes his time. His own time. And the final ding-a-ding-ding as he stirs with a teaspoon is a signature. It starts to make sense, ‘that each subject has his own = idiosphere’. Perhaps this only can make sense to me because I know my father. It is a scene I can conjure. Yet, actually, I realise I don’t know anything of what this occasion really means. There is a suspension, an exemption of meaning. The offer of my tea is politely declined and in its place another tea is made according to a ritual of one. I wonder what my father is really doing when he makes his tea… Perhaps there is an echo here with what Barthes describes as ‘living this back-and-forth: caught up between the exaltation … and the desire, the great desire for a respite…’

  2. s.manghani

    This week’s reading offers some of the most lucid accounts of the Neutral so far I think. It is pity however, it is the one week I have lost the struggle to keep space free to comment…

    Perhaps I can telegraph points over the course of the day…

    (1) Under the entry for The Active of the Neutral, there is a lovely line about the calligraphy master, who ‘doesn’t correct, he achieves silently in front of the student what the student must little by little by little achieve alone’. Some of you may know my piece ‘Ink and Wonder‘, for the Times Higher, in which I recount my experience of taking Japanese calligraphy classes with my daughter. This line rings so true… each time we had produced our work the teacher would work over the characters in red ink. But not so much to clearly show how to improve, rather more as if dancing over the page, demonstrating a ‘future’ of calligraphy. And we would work from an example drawn by our teacher, which she would complete as we stood either side watching. She would make it look so easy, but the first thing you learn is that it is far from easy! I’m interested in the idea that perhaps we can demonstrate the Neutral, but not necessarily transfer it – i.e. it is not teachable as such… though there is slither of hope that ‘little by little’ it can be achieved by another, sometime, elsewhere… (a life long practice?)

  3. s.manghani

    WANTED: Active of the Neutral

    There are various lines in this week’s reading which seem to crystallise Barthes’ notion of the Neutral, or at least are more emphatic. In the spirit of the ‘active’ I thought I’d try to list them here as a sort of ‘manifesto’ to see if they distil, or add up to anything… I post them here in the spirit of a Wanted Poster (the reward being their own reward!):

    – ‘neither-norism is reactive-affirmative ≠ the Neutral is active-negative’ (p.80)

    – ‘what is this desperate vitality that the Neutral has in its favour…? With, resonating in the word: Nietzschean music’ (p.81)

    – ‘the Neutral, the subject in the Neutral, abstains from taking on the task of “correcting” the work of others’ (p.82)

    – ‘Subject in the Neutral: would not fear contaminations’ (p.82)

    – ‘The Neutral challenges the principle … of hierarchical ranking’ (p.82)

    – ‘it denies uniqueness but recognizes the incomparable’ (p.83)

    – ‘…would look for a right relation to the present, attentive and not arrogant’ (p.83)

    – ‘The Neutral would be the very movement … that veers toward a certain thought of death as banal, because in death, what is exorbitant, is its banal quality’ (p.83)

    – ‘”respectful like a guest; trembling, like ice that is about to melt…” … The extraordinary audacity of this Neutral (≠ arrogance) comes perhaps from the unexpected beauty of metaphors?’ (p.84)

    – ‘the neutral subject might be able to be the witness of the effects of his strength’ (p.84)

    – ‘I primarily want to underscore the Zen rule of bodily restraint’ (p.84)

    – ‘the Neutral would be the generalized dwelling of the less, of reserve, of the mind’s advance over the body’ (p.84)

    – ‘rhythm is all in the delay’ (p.84)

    – ‘I was in relation to them in the not-so-much mode, therefore in a “stronger” position than they’ (p.85)

    – ‘a rule (≠ law) of the Neutral: it would consist in finding a way to disseminate intelligent stuff, as though between the lines … of a flat, dumb … fabric’ (p.85)

    – ‘…of Blanchot’s suggestion: “The Neutral: that which does not leave indifference. More precisely, that which does not leave indifference to it’s definitive equalization”‘ (p.86)


  4. Gavin Wilson

    Response following my reading of ‘Session of April 1, 1978’ from The Neutral

    It seems I’ve derived an equal amount of pleasure and stimulus from following Barthes’ ‘Supplements’ as from the body of the lecture material for The Neutral. For me, the Supplements act like an un-opinionated mirror, reflecting both an image of ourselves (reversed) as readers, students, and Barthes as the writer-guide. These reflections occur by virtue of as much light being reflected as falls on the mirror/Supplement: Light, minus heat = neutral.
    Reading Supplement 4 on page 78 again, Barthes’ mention of receiving the page by Henry Miller on ‘Parisian gray’, and its relationship to colour, made me remember my art school training in colour perception.
    It went something like this: Juxtaposing a swatch of light grey (not the darker grey of the photographic standard, 18% light reflectance) surrounded by a saturated, strident, assertive colour, somewhat miraculously introduces a tint of that colour’s complementary colour (opposite it on the colour wheel) into the grey where there was none previously. This is one of several after-effects, experimentally observable in studying the psychology of visual perception, which are generally ascribed to fatigue in specific parts of the visual system.
    This says to me that colour is not only naturally fatiguing, but can only achieve a quality of neutrality in isolation. When it is near something else, it makes a statement, it has no choice, it has an effect, it resonates.
    For suggestions of other perceptions of ‘grey-ness’, see the following link:
    Amongst several observations made, is one stating that ‘Neutral colors help to put the focus on other colors or serve to tone down colors that might otherwise be overpowering on their own’, and that an oppositional, binary and perceptual/qualitative assessment of ‘grey’ reveals it as:
    Positive = psychological neutrality.
    Negative = Lack of confidence, dampness, depression, hibernation, lack of energy.
    Reading page 58, Baudelaire, 2, what this suggests to me is that memory in film can represent a conception of remembering the future. Witness Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster Inception (Warner Bros. 2010) or Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey (Warner Bros. 1968). Here, memory, even memory describing a forward trajectory, is often painful or otherwise problematic. We may be seeking for but don’t have a drug of the past and future: The past-imperfect tense, and the future-speculative tens constitute fantasies which deny empirical investigation. They require philosophy, or fiction.
    Observation re. page 100: Like adolescent children, challenging boundaries to their breaking point, the artist is always (should be) compelled to do art in spite of themselves – or, more likely, because of themselves. This child-like searching after the margins of Self/Other, where the two diverge, has a resonance of the Deleuze/Guattari conception of the rhizome – the artist’s powerlessness to stop exiting into the porous space of contamination.
    In her (for me) seminal poetic prose novel of 1966 By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, Elizabeth Smart writes largely in the present tense of the immediacy of love’s drug. Using an extended metaphor of the transformative power of love over momentary, fleeting reason, Smart aims her arrow at transcending the temporal, the concrete and the spatial:
    ‘But I have become a part of the earth: I am one of its waves flooding and leaping. I am the same tune now as the tree, hummingbirds, sky, fruits, vegetables in rows. I am all of any of these things. I can metamorphose at will’ (p. 45).

    Delineating the drug of obsessional love, the whole of her short novel exists in a state of always falling into or out of sleep.
    Page 100/101, B, adds a new detail; sensitivity, emotivity (=empathy, knowledge of Self/Others). Metaphysic of external experience against an internal thought – imagination. This approaches a philosophy of living more freely, more really; of emotive lucidity (p. 102).
    Drugs, therefore, = a crisis of temporality, where desire is destined to remain in an unimaginative (not a neutral) present. Problems arise when imagination deludes the Self into believing that no crisis is happening or imminent – that there is no desire for the neutral, or a moral philosophy of pleasure.
    Gavin Wilson

    • s.manghani

      Like you, I always enjoy reading the supplements – in fact, often I find them more lucid and engaging. It is interesting your phrase ‘the Supplements act like an un-opinionated mirror’. Arguably, being more off the cuff, they are more opinionated. They have not gone through the filter of the lecture notes proper. Yet, I think there something about them that is more immediate like the image in a mirror.

      I really enjoyed reading your comments – they read like supplements of your own. I was particularly interested in your comments on the perception of grey. I’d like to follow-up on this comment (and will continue to think it over), as with many other aspects you raise. There are various references here, which interweave in fascinating ways and with real richness too. Just yesterday, I happened to see again a short clip of Zizek talking about love (see: I think it adds, if pushing and pulling, with what you illustrate in reference to Elizabeth Smart.

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