Session 7: April 1, 2011

Reflection: I personally struggled to apportion time last week to post up my comments, which perhaps also meant a fairly quiet week! It is a pity as the lecture materials last week, particularly the account of ‘The Active of the Neutral’, provide very lucid views on the Neutral. I posted up a series of quotes from the text in an attempt to distil these views, which perhaps we’ll still find useful to return to as we proceed. Also an interesting point was raised regarding the role of ritual in the Neutral – something which might play into this week’s reading too…

Session of April 1, 2011 (Pages 94-106 : Supplement V / Consciousness)

This is the last week prior to a three week break for Easter and conveniently we have reached a half-way point in the text. This week just one figure, on Consciousness, which marks a return to Barthes’ interest in states or behaviours which suspend conflict, rather than discourse. Thus, as he states, consciousness here does not relate to ‘conscience’  in the moral sense, but, as he points it, in a ‘classic-psychological’ sense and to recall <i>conscientia</i>:

“Consciousness”: to know as a couple by oneself, to be composed, as one, of two complicit subjects: the knowledge of each rests on the knowledge of the other: knowledge reinforced, tied, powerful, overpowering (≠ invalidates the view of consciousness as a unitary state)

In the main the figure picks up upon writings about the effects of drugs, particularly with references to Baudelaire, Benjamin and Blanchot. It presents two phases: (1) ‘The intellectualist hyperconsciousness; and (2) hyperconsciousness ‘insofar as it stands out against an affective background’. In addition, the lecture is prefaced with a further supplment text, which reflects on previous figures, including Ideospheres, and in which Barthes challenges his own previous way of seeing things (‘the absence of ideology degree zero, the ideological Neutral as idyllic’), with the suggestive ‘picture of the absence of ideology as barbarism’.


  1. s.manghani

    The use of the letter ‘H’ and ‘H.B.’ (referring to ‘Haschisch Baudelaire’) intrigued/confused me as I read the entry on Consciousness. However, footnote 16 (in the English translation) reminds of Barthes ‘investment in the letter H’ in Roland Barthes, with the entry, ‘La déesse H – The goddess H’. It is only a single paragraph, and seems worth quoting here:

    The pleasure potential of a perversion (in this case, that of the two H.’s: homosexuality and hashish) is always underestimated. Law Science, the Doxa refuse to understand that perversion, quite simply, makes happy; or to be more specific, it produces a more: I am more sensitive, more perceptive, more loquacious, more amused, etc. – and in this more is where we find the difference (and consequently, the Test of life, life-as-text). Henceforth, it is a goddess, a figure that can be invoked, a means of intercession.

    I’m not sure I accept this bringing together to the two H’s – it seems to me to read very awkwardly today. Perhaps this reveals Barthes’ unwitting engagement with the Doxa of his day (and so can be usefully read back against his opening, supplementary comments on the Neutral and ideology). Whilst he is writing from a point of view of liberation, the reference to perversion is a severe own-goal. However, the more simple construction here of the ‘more‘ is in keeping with the entry on Consciousness, giving a very succinct account. The crucial point for Barthes is to take consciousness ‘as being itself a drug’.

    I again feel Barthes’ interests in Eastern philosophies, which yield holistic viewpoints and a sense of interconnectedness, balanced (as in Zen) or just without hierarchy (Tao), underlies much of the analysis – though in this case it is not raised. He writes for example: ‘…the consciouesness-drug follows an entirely different path: = a tireless deepening of the same that I am, but from being so treated the same becomes something like an other, insofar as it is inconceivable: to become other by dint of being the same’. He refers to the paradox of ‘opacity in transparency’, with an illuminating metaphor of the music score:

    …the subject (who I am): like a score (large surface of staves): each part (each wave) is independent, clear, vivid, sung and heard vividly; but in me, underneath me, there is no me to read the whole, vertically, harmoniously -> hyperconsciousness, Neutral: I am clear to myself but without truth: a very clear language (nothing hermetic, abstruse), but without referent; for everything I believe about myself is false and I am without truth nevertheless -> my sharpness is useless. or again: there is no orchestra conductor in me who could read the score in its verticality.

    I have struggled across much of this week’s reading to really understand the relationship of consciousness (as it is portrayed here) to the Neutral – yet I find these few lines particularly resonant. And, again, whilst Barthes does not draw attention to Eastern philosophies, as he does elsewhere, I take them to be very important in his construction of a hyperconsciousness, without referent. In Empire of Signs he writes: ‘The whole of Zen wages a war against the prevarication of meaning. We know that Buddhism baffles the fatal course of any assertion (or of any negation) by recommending that one never be caught up in the four following propositions: this is A – this is not A – this is both A and not A – this is neither A nor not-A‘. And the final entry in that book, ‘The Cabinet of Signs’, offers a wonderful spacial analogy, which is perhaps very fitting with this week’s entry on Consciousness as both an awareness of oneself, but equally of seemingly one step removed, almost leading to the loss of oneself (but not suggest loss as anything negative)…

    Empire of Signs? Yes, if it is understood that these signs are empty and that the ritual is without a god. […] take for example the Shikidai gallery: tapestried with openings, framed with emptiness and framing nothing, decorated no doubt, but so that the figuration is removed, sublimated … in Shikidai gallery, as in the ideal Japanese house, stripped of furniture (or scantily furnished), there is no site which designates the slightest propriety in the strict sense of the word – ownership: neither seat nor bed nor table out of which the body might constitute itself as the subject (or master) of a space: the center is rejected (painful frustration for Western man, everywhere “furnished” with his armchair, his bed, proprietor of a domestic location). Uncentred, space is also reversible: you can turn the Shikidai gallery upside down and nothing would happen, except an inconsequential inversion of top and bottom, of right and left: the content is irretrievably dismissed: whether we pass by, cross it, or sit down on the floor (or the ceiling, if you reverse the image), there is nothing to grasp.

    The ‘drug’ of consciousness that Barthes writes of suggests to me something of an uncentred, non-proprietorial ‘site’. (For those interested, I reproduce the photograph of the Shikaidai gallery, as taken from Empire of Signs, both right-way up and upside as its own reflection, in ‘Lost in Translation, Or Nothing to See But Everything’, in James Elkins’ edited book Visual Culture).

  2. Lloyd Spencer

    It will seem as if I am picking unfairly on a single word . . . but it is a word that helps me isolate and report my symptoms, the symptoms of my difficulty in responding to the discussions so far. The word is “construction” as in “…his construction of a hyperconsciousness” above.

    “Construction” seems to capture something of the activity within the posts of this reading group. But Barthes at that point — at many significant others — seems to me to groping for words with which to report (or confess) to certain rather vague symptoms. Here, hyperconsciousness.

    The word seems clear, unambiguous because I feel I know — and I would suggest we all know — the experience. Sartre explained that all consciousness is doubled. In order to be conscious of anything at all I must at the same time be conscious of being conscious. But this is not that structural feature of consciousness. Nor is the kind of self-consciousness that accompanies social awkwardness.

    Hyperconsciousness I understand as a kind of heightened consciousness which is not necessarity intense or rich, just as when one hyperventilates, the excess intake of breathe, air, oxygen does not necessarily lead to a more efficient functioning.

  3. Lloyd Spencer

    Sorry, that wasn’t as clear as I would have liked… it is frustrating that one cannot go back and edit a post.

    I meant that I don’t see Barthes as involved in “construction” — whereas that word seems to apply rather neatly to what so many posts do, and what they put around, the words of the text.

    • s.manghani

      Lloyd, I think you were clear. I’m not sure it is fair to say the posts here are ‘constructions’. I feel everyone is very attuned to what Barthes is getting at. However, equally, here is not a place necessarily to ‘perform’ the Neutral. I accept there is a fairly rigid system that might not suit everyone, but it makes for a better carbon footprint! More specifically, I don’t think it follows the posts are constructions. There is a lot of sharing of ideas, ponderings and connections. Dialogue is of course all about constructions, and Barthes is very clear of the contradiction of delivering a lecture on the Neutral… But it is still a valuable document, I think.

      You imply criticism in what you say, but you do not really make the point. You’re welcome to state your concerns more squarely, which indeed may be useful, but I think I’d rather hear what interests you…

    • Sunil Manghani

      …though I do accept, ‘construction’ was a poor choice!

  4. Susanne Gannon

    With regard to Sunil’s uncertainty in the post above, about ‘really understanding….’ this for me (on a very personal level) is futile and not really my goal. ( it might have been in another project eg if i had wanted to summarize or paraphrase the key ‘points’ of the book for something like “A readers guide to Barthes’ The Neutral” but this is i think no one’s goal here.) Rather the pleasure is in the circling around the neutral and the figures in this book of Barthes, to which i bring my own somewhat idiosyncratic transversal lines of reading, or intersection, or flight, if you like. And the pleasure is in the communal space of this circling, or these movements of thought (quite literally as well as figuratively across vast tracts of land, across oceans) of the project that Sunil has enabled, and the responsibility he has taken to begin the provocations each week with his readings and provocations. Frankly I bought the book specifically because I stumbled over something about the project. I haven’t used Barthes for some time. I didn’t know the book had been published and am not as familiar with all his work as others here but i am so enjoying this. OK that was my aside, though it has taken over the text. Perhaps I will begin again. (I have had an idea for a poem from the first week – of course as yet unwritten – called “On reading The Neutral nowhere” – it might yet break through).

    • s.manghani

      …I can see how it might sound that I ‘really’ want to understand the text, as if to pin it down, turn it into information. However, those who know me would hopefully say that is not ‘really’ fitting… I think what I was getting at was more a ‘desire’ to get in amongst the text and I felt less able to with this section of the text.

      Pleasure, circling, communal space… I like these phrases better. Let’s see how things go following the Easter break…

  5. Susanne Gannon

    Supplement V p. 94: “It’s the way I used to see things: the absence of ideology, the degree zero, the ideological Neutral as idyllic”. P. 94. Who are “they”? Here it is his ‘young white collar workers’ but perhaps now it is much broader and certainly inclusive of academia in ‘neoliberal times’ with ‘no discourse to transform, upset, uplift, justify, naturalize’ – is this the old leftie in him (always of the generation of 68)? But the “pure discourse of the refrigerator, of the automobile, of the country house” rings a bell through the decades, though of course it is affordability of any house in bloated overpriced cities, and it is the pure discourse of the flat screen LCD tv and 54 cable channels on the horizon and no glimpse of the sky (oops getting a bit far from the text here) but it seems we are indeed ‘all Americans now’. In Australia the political left, such as it is, is in disarray with an inept state Labor party just dumped in a local election and the national Labor government, just in by the skin of its teeth last year, flailing about for an ideology (say, social justice, equity, diversity??) that might again serve the people, the party, the nation. The conservatives are not as ambivalent about ideology, and it seems the voters like this. Barthes ends this supplement with the binary “perhaps one should distinguish the (barbaric) null from the (utopian) Neutral” – this seems naive, dated. Enough of my aside, on Barthes’ aside (aka Supplement V).

    • s.manghani

      …I like the threads you pull together here. I sense fascinating lines of enquiry by looking at both the Neutral and Barthes’ much more well-known text of Mythologies. I frequently use Mythologies in the classroom, or at least I have reintroduced it, though not typically to go over the long essay, Myth Today. Instead to look at both form and content of the short journalistic pieces. I think they harbour so many possibilities and contradictions which remain relevant – and seem to chime with what you are saying here.

      I like the bursting of a bubble with your suggestion that the distinction between the barbaric null and utopian Neutral is naive and dated. In the introduction to The Semiotic Challenge Barthes opens with the scene of a student coming to see him: ‘she wanted to prepare a third-cycle doctorate on the following subject, which she proposed quite ironically, though without a trace of hostility: An Ideological Critique of Semiology‘. He uses this scene to offer a short history of semiotics, bringing it up to date with the post-structural account he was then heading into and which leads to work like the Neutral. I really like the way Barthes was always willing to undo his own authority. I feel there is humility in his writing, which perhaps makes it all the more enduring.

  6. Susanne Gannon

    Hmm, I suspect my meandering comments are providing an ideal preview of next session’s figure of the ‘answer’.

    • s.manghani

      …I quite agree, though I really shouldn’t ‘reply’ here, or at least I should be writing much more beside the point!!

  7. Susanne Gannon

    Yes, funny, the tyranny of the software demands a “reply…” what are the nuances of ‘reply’ vs ‘answer’? Maybe ‘answer’ is more dogmatic and ‘reply’, even in its imperative and capitalsied form (‘Leave a Reply’) invites a more meandering by the way even tangential engagement. At least on a Sunday morning where I am…

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