Session 8: April 29, 2011

Supplement: Due to the Easter break a few additional comments may have escaped notice: Susanne has posted comments to the close of Session 7 and Gavin Wilson has contributed to Session 6, with comments relevant to both the entry on Consciousness and on Colour (he includes an interesting link to Psychological Properties Of Colours, offered in relation to Barthes’ entry on colour and specifically the colour grey!).

Reflection: The final session prior to the Easter Break received a high number of visitors to the page, but did not garner much written response. I suspect we were are all rather tired after 7 weeks of the reading group. I hope we are suitably refreshed and ready to read the second half of the book! At this point it is perhaps worth offering a few more general points of reflection. One of the ongoing dilemmas is how a forum such as this can actually handle a text as open and subtle as <i>The Neutral</i>. There is no easy solution – indeed there is no solution full stop. …which ultimately I am glad about! However, I have received a few comments (some here and some through correspondence) suggesting that thoughts posted here veer too much away from the text itself, more inclined to offer links and associations with other sources and other frames of reference. The other side of the coin, many have seemingly enjoyed the varied ‘texts’ which have been opened up by the comments here. Personally – and of course I’m aware many of my posts are of the latter kind – I feel hearted by the fact participants have felt at ease to take things in directions of their own choosing. Thus, we haven’t necessarily developed sustained dialogue concerning specific points (through a set of threaded comments). Instead, I have come to understand the ‘space’ we have here as a communal jotting-pad, accruing all sorts of thoughts and responses. An ‘intertext’ if you will. It seems to me our (unsaid, unplanned) approach is fitting with this week’s topic of ‘beside-the-point answers’ (see below); indeed with much of the approach of the lecture course. We might suggest, then, this is not a ‘place’ for the staging of a debate or an enquiry. Instead, and I hope, our ‘virtuality’ allows for a ‘space’ to test out things without needing to be tied down, committed, correct, definite…

As we know from an earlier session, Barthes equates the demand for a position with weariness: ‘The present-day world is full of it (statements, manifestos, petitions, etc.), and it’s why it is so wearisome: hard to float, to shift places. (However, to float, i.e., to live in a space without tying oneself to a place = the most relaxing position of the body: bath, boat)’ (p.19). Here then we are present with a space, not a place… I hope it continues to allow for a floating of different thoughts…

Session of April 29, 2011 (Pages 107-121: Answer)

Following a three week break for the Easter Holiday, Barthes returned to deliver the eighth lecture in the series on the Neutral. There was no preamble, no supplement to the lecture and he covered just the one figure, the ‘Answer’. The opening premise was to look more unusually at the ‘form’ of the answer. Typically, we want to know the contents of an answer. Barthes, however, considers the discursive form of question and answer, highlighting a certain ‘terrorism of the question; a power is implied in every question’. He writes:

The question denies the right not to know or the right to the indeterminacy of desire -> With certain subjects – I am one of them – every question is, or claims to be, precise (precision as power, as intimidation: science’s trickiest power play) -> constant desire to give imprecise answers to precise questions: this imprecision of the answer, even if it is perceived as a weakness, is an indirect way of demystifying the question… (p.107).

He goes on to chart various ‘Beside-the-point answers’ as a way of outplaying the power of the question. ‘What we must do,’ he writes, ‘is learn how to denaturalize questioning…’ […and given the modality of online writing, perhaps we can think too how we might learn to denaturalise blogging, to post comments that ‘can refer to intense, strong, unprecedented states’!]


  1. Susanne Gannon

    I enjoyed Barthes’ typology of beside the point ‘answers’ in this chapter and I think there is much relative here to the academic contexts within which we work and the normative discursive forms that we perpetuate in our teaching and other activities. Despite intentions to ‘denaturalize questioning’ (p. 108) – indeed isn’t it a central mode of critical discourse to ask another question, to unpack implications and assumptions embedded in a question, to continually ‘complexify’ – I am also aware of having commented on student work that they have not answered the question…. ( oh the tyranny of the question!) even when the question is their own such as in a research context. I wonder, reading this, how many times have I peer reviewed a paper that has not fulfilled the promise of the question it raises initially – and the promise implied in a question posed at the start of a paper is some sort of (probably not beside the point) answer. The ‘four rules or maxims’ of quantity, quality, relation, modality (p. 109), although here related to a ‘good conversation’ are equally applicable to much academic writing. Perhaps this is why too much of it is mundane, predictable and sadly unsurprising. (Casting no aspersions on Humanities or Cultural Studies, as I know disciplinary discourses may be quite different, but I am mostly located inside a school and academic area that leans more towards other disciplines). To what extent am I part of the tyrannical disciplinary apparatus? (that is a rhetorical question – which Barthes does not here address – not I guess related to the neutral because it is a statement not a question anyway).

    In another quite public arena of academe, I can’t help but think of the mode of questioning/ answer often seen after papers at conferences.

    • s.manghani

      I too made various connections with the academic context. The entry on Gide is wonderful: ‘They can’t know that you are incapable of defending a position you’ve taken…’! …but also, particularly in the current UK context of higher education at the moment, in which a shift to more privately funding (and in the process asking very much higher fees), there is a palpable sense of ‘questions are being asked’ – from all sides, with an equal number of missing answers. One colleague of mine, who is wonderfully adept in philosophy (and has contributed here, in Session 1!), raised a similar point to Barthes about being required to answer and indeed to give eloquent, philosophical responses to all manner of things, to the point however that all becomes about the ‘form’ of the question and answer (a simulation of intelligence all that is required), not anything about the actual ‘content’ of the reply. Any yet, if only we can genuinely voice what it is that education needs (urgently) right now, in the depths of its despair…

      All the ideas Barthes has here about departures, flights, silences, forgettings, deviations, incongruities, other logics, dialogues etc… all strike me as getting at the core of education, which never goes in straight lines. Elsewhere (in his Inaugural Lecture), Barthes says: ‘…the “good” teacher, the “good” student are those who accept philosophically the plurality of their determinations, perhaps because they know the truth of a relationship of speech is elsewhere…’ – which of course echoes the point that the ‘best Neutral is not the null, [but] it’s the plural’ (p.120).

      Herein lies a problem: Approval for plurality has the potential to remove clarity and commonality. Barthes poses the question that perhaps the beside-the-point answer is in fact ‘dangerous’, or at least ‘very hard to practice socially’ (p.114). To what extent does the Neutral suggest a wholly different ‘form’ of engagement – one very far removed from current practices? As has been noted above, the academic sphere (and there are plenty of other similarly structured domains) is apparently indelibly skewed with the ‘terrorism of the question’. Whilst there is great play at denaturalising questioning, it quickly becomes (a) a repetitive ‘product’ of education; and/or (b) a legitimation of what Susanne nicely labels ‘beside the point grandstanding’! We seem to be left with the Neutral as a some kind of critical theology… but is that something one only ‘turn to’ (and make as one’s path in life, as likely a solitary journey), or is it a mode that can be brought to bear in particular instances – a sort of negative dialectic, of interminably working through contradiction. The latter would seem to fit Barthes suggestion that the ‘desire for the Neutral continually stages a paradox’ (p.13) and that ‘I don’t construct the concept of Neutral, I display Neutrals’ (p.11). …we return then to the point: ‘the problem of the neutral in fact is not that it is nameless but that it has many names, none of which is the right one!’

      I’ll begin again…

  2. Susanne Gannon

    (continuing) often flagged when someone in the audience who seems to have a question until they speak and begin with “This is not a question but more of a statement….”.
    This is itself a sort of reply to a paper but sometimes (often?) a beside the point grandstanding, not the subtle deviation that Barthes describes as “derailment, bifurcation, rerouting” (p. 112) but more aggressive, a performance of sorts that redirects attention. Perhaps some relation to what Barthes describes (p. 116) as the problem of linearity:
    “As is the case with all linguistic manifestation – all discourse – it’s fundamentally a problem of linearity, of linkages, of sequencing. For our problem (dialogues, conversations, replies, answers): the sequences are by status divided between two or more partners ~ structural problem: two on a single line. …” and so on… Not the elegant or playful ” pirouette” of the Zen Koan (p. 117) or the disingenuous evasion of Melisande (p. 113) but more to do with status.

    An interesting question for me is how might academic discourse in those sorts of sites be more open/ be opened up? What structures are conducive to less tyrannical forms of communal exploration of thought? Sunil’s notion of the blog as ‘communal jotting pad’ is great.

    I am struck by Barthes’ comment on LaoTzu’s name as a puzzling of the “heavy modern machinery (analytic, logic, nobiliary, police) …. The problem of the neutral in fact is not that it is nameless but that it has many name , none of which is the right one! The best Neutral is not the null, it’s the plural. ” ( “and..and…and”)

  3. s.manghani

    I’m not sure the extent to which silence (as a ‘response’) can be adduced as Neutral. Barthes writes of Swedenborg’s silence as demonstrating ‘great strength because it means accepting to let one’s image be changed’ (p.110). I understand this to a point, it does sound quite laudable. Yet, equally, the fact that he wrote regardless of those trying to enter into dialogue with him might be deemed arrogance.

    I recently came across an abstract online for a conference paper based around my book Image Critique. The author of the abstract had completely mis-read a specific argument regarding the ‘End of History’. It was suggested I somehow held the same view of Fukuyama, when in fact the chapter offers a close reading in order precisely to highlight the problem of its dominant framing. My immediate reaction was to want to correct this point. There was a comments box at the foot of the page, so technically it was possible for me to respond. But I thought about the idea of letting one’s image be changed. Stepping away from a ‘false’ image of myself does seem like taking up a certain neutral position: I’m conscious of the matter, but I choose to play no part in it. That suggests to me, structurally, to be a site of in-betweenness. But… is it really ‘a structural creation that would defeat, annul, or contradict the implacable binarism of the paradigm’ (p.7)? Barthes writes of ‘the “ethical” level: injunctions addressed to the world to “choose”, to produce meaning, to enter conflicts, to “take responsibility,” etc.’ (p.7). However, the Neutral as an ethical domain, and as that which refers to ‘intense, strong, unprecedented states’, is perhaps purely a private experience. Because the Neutral tends to manifest as a non-assertive action, it is not brought into any kind of exchange. It remains only as part of an ‘interior’ dialogue. So, is its ‘ardent, burning activity’ only an experience of the individual? – more akin perhaps to anxiety, since it is about possibilities rather than actual occurrences (the Neutral is conceptual, not material)? Of course we can reveal our anxieties, we can share an account of the Neutral – but perhaps only in the way we might tell a friend of a dilemma… and their response always remaining guarded to a point because it is never their own dilemma and they can never know the full consequences of one’s actions because ultimately the situation is specific to an individual.

    I mention my book, because also there are two sentences, close to the end, which remain enigmatic to me (as a potentially Neutral state). I’m not sure I truly get what I say myself (I’m incapable of defending a position I take!) and I know they are the few lines which really keep me thinking further (and in many respects inform my interest in exploring the idea of ‘seeing’ degree zero):

    ‘With images there is always a potentially blank expression – the kind of expression you see in someone’s face when they refuse to answer, when you just don’t know what it is they are thinking. However, rather than see this as an end to dialogue, I would rather consider it a precious resource – for it is at this time that images have the capacity to tell us things we otherwise did not know’ (Image Critique, p.208)

    These lines clearly play into the idea of the Neutral as plural. Yet, the metaphor of a person’s face is based on a very personal experience – of someone I just never seem to know how to read. It can be incredibly frustrating, and often doesn’t seem to be an opening of any kind, more a deadening of communication. A loss. Silence, flight, departure… these responses seem to oscillate between a potential Neutral and a negligence. So… when Swedenborg leaves his image open to change, is he simply removing himself from a system of meaning, or is he outplaying it? Barthes writes:

    Nonanswer: continue to do what one was doing , in an obtuse manner: this, when it isn’t a provocation for a “scene” … can be very subversive: the difficulty, if one can say so, is that it is hardly, if at all, noticeable: persistence should not look like stubbornness’

    To return to my example, a blank expression on someone’s face can all too quickly seem a provocation and/or stubbornness. Or put another way, if we are to accept a blank expression as genuinely neutral, the recipient of a blank expression is not necessarily equipped to read this as neutral; therein provocation is in the eye of the beholder! However, perhaps thinking about images there is more scope for the Neutral. The image is persistent, but hardly stubborn. Nevertheless, I’m still unsure how silence, departure and flight work as ‘beside-the-point answers’ as opposed to deviations and incongruities.

    The problem of the neutral being unnoticeable comes through again on p.116, with the line that ‘…no Neutral is possible in the field of power’ – this follows a lengthy extract from Voltaire, which is presented as a possible example of the beside-the-point answer, but then is retracted based on the ‘punch line’ relating the prison to escaping debate. The question arises as whether or not the neutral simply sits outside of power (whereby no system of signification can trace it), or whether it can actually intervene. Given the Neutral is generally related to nuances, it would seem more likely the former… it can become apparent, fleetingly, but can not actually be contained in any way. (the diagram on p.117 would seem to be getting at this point, but does not appear to be adequately developed).

  4. James Humphreys

    …the section which quotes from Maeterlink’s libretto for Pelleas et Melisande prompts the question: which composer’s (purely instrumental) work could be said to exemplify the Neutral? Apart, that is, from some works of Cage. Certainly not Debussy…perhaps some late piano pieces of Satie: one thinks of the Six Nocturnes and the 1er Minuet which have been described as “pure, white music”…

    • s.manghani

      I’m certainly very fond of Satie’s music… can you give any references to the description of his work as ‘pure, white music’ – I’d be interested to follow that up. I appreciate you turning attention to the music… I had simply been drawn to the dialogue as it is presented in the text. I found the excerpt rather beautiful and illuminating for the Neutral, but it is interesting to consider the musical form in which it occurs… I suspect it offers even greater potential for (thinking about, or experiencing?) the plurality of the Neutral as Barthes goes on to describe.

  5. James Humphreys

    Apparently, Satie described his Socrate (another late work) to his friend Valentine Gross as “blanche et pure comme l’ Antique”. He also described the work as not being troublesome or Russian or Persian. The notes to my CD of the Nocturnes rather defensively state, “from some of the comments inflicted on these pages, Satie would appear to be entirely absent: glacial coldness, impersonal tone, inexpressiveness not to mention those who think they can detect a touch of irony here and there…” One thinks of Barthes’ Blanchot quote: “The neutral does not seduce, does not attract.” Which adjectives could be said to characterise the Neutral in music (corresponding, perhaps, to those Barthes applies to the image)?

  6. Mimei Ito

    Hi all.Now I am catching up my reading. Regarding the tyranny of questioning, I am definitely a part of this tyranical system, since my profession is conducting surveys on buying behavior of infomation technology among large business enterprises, and these surveys are typically conducted on the Web, where respondents are not allowed to skip or ignore some key questions in the survey. This is one of “benefits” of using Web technology when conducting a survey, because you can control the way respondents reply to each survey questions. If you want to depart, flight, or forget these “preset” formats, the best thing to do would be not to open up the Web survey page in the first place.

  7. Mimei Ito

    I think that the modern history of Wentern music since Wagner is predicated on the question of how to “ouotplay” the paradigm, particularly the paradaigm of sonata form. Perhaps, we could put it as an attempt to achieve the neutrality in music. I guess that there have been two strategies to do this: the first is to explore the pure whiteness in music, by stripping off any “meaning” in musical elements. John Cage’s Apartment House ( would be one example. Chance operation is also one of attempts of this kind. The second strategy is to pluralization of music: Serialism and tone cluster (such as one by Ligeti) may be seen as examples. Interestingly, we see here in music that the pursuit for the neutral have been made in two different directions; the pure “whiteness” on one hand, and the “plurality” on the other.

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