Session 9: May 6, 2011

Reflection: Last week’s entry on the ‘beside-the-point answer’ (in relation to what Barthes referred to as the ‘terrorism of the question’), really hit upon something about contemporary professional spheres. The question and answer form plays a strong role in our day to day lives, which would seem to place the Neutral out of reach. Is it that we cannot reach it, or that we dare not to? A question would seem to arise as to whether or not the Neutral can exist as a social phenomenon. On a quite different note, two contributors offered fertile thoughts relating the topic of music. The notion of white, or pure music came up. It would be worth thinking about this phrase against a study such as Richard Dyer’s White, but taken simply as a marker of pure, or zero-degree music there are some fascinating lines of enquiry opened up. I imagine a parallel listening group…

Session of May 6, 2011 (Pages 122-135: Rites / Conflict / Supplement VI / Oscillation)
Unlike recent weeks, the reading for this session covers a number of different topics. The lecture opens with a commentary on rites. The initial entry on public rites perhaps opens up again thoughts about the Neutral and the social sphere, though it is a very short entry (and specific to Barthes’ visit to China in ’74). This is followed by thoughts on private rites and a connection to the practice of writing. There is an entry on conflict, which in a sense echoes aspects of last week’s reading, with a commentary, for example, on ‘dodging the conflictual’. Barthes breaks the lecture with a reading from Janouch on Kafka. He then concludes with the figure of Oscillation, which is a word that has often come up, and again picks up explicitly on the temporality of the Neutral – which has been of interest to many of us.



  1. Dear all,
    After a few weeks’ absence, I’m pleased to be back online, and even happier that in this session Barthes addresses, if only briefly, the question of ritual that I had mentioned last time. I believe ritual forms is important for our understanding of the neutral (and the everyday) – see for example the Japanese tea ceremony – and this is where it may intersect with other performative practices.
    The section on ‘the letter’ is intriguing (not for the least reason that the Suzuki quote is precisely the one used, erroneously I believe, by Arthur Danto in ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’), but i don’t really understand Barthes’s choice of this term ‘letter’ (the footnoted opposition between ‘the letter’ and ‘the spirit’ is not helpful)– any suggestions ?
    Another part that I find both evocative yet somewhat confusing is the sub-section on ‘le temps vibré’ (vibrating time ?) in the discussion of ‘oscillation’. Understanding this temporality, I feel, could help us connect it back to the performativity of the ritual, but I don’t really understand how time operates here (whether for the billiard player or French people going away on holidays). Again, any thoughts would be welcome here.

    • s.manghani

      Anna – I agree ritual opens up some fascinating ideas about the Neutral. In some places I find the reading for this week to be quite lucid and instructive, but equally I share some of your confusion. As you suggest, what does the Letter stand for?

      I found the opening schema, of the universal principle of ‘nature’ through to the rites and ceremonies, quite evocative – particularly, at the moment in the context of the UK. The new government came to power last year with rhetoric of a so-called ‘Big Society’ – it remains a vague term, but essentially puts forward the view that citizens can and should do more for their communities, and as a means to keep the State small. In many ways, the rhetoric associated with the Big Society would seem to conflate step 2 (morality, goodness) with step 4 (rites and ceremonies). I am very interested to know to what extent the Neutral can bear significance to the social, civic sphere – when so often it works to outplay it. [For those in the US, you might consider an analogy to the rhetoric and concept of the Big Society in Kennedy’s famous line ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’.]

      Barthes, of course, quickly moves to the private sphere and the ritual of writing, but again the significance of needing a structure to break that structure comes through. Or, rather in this case, we need to be outside of structure in order to then extricate ourselves; ‘worry hampers me from reaching the Neutral, but I want the Neutral precisely in order to pass beyond worry’. But, the public and private are held together here:

      …the problem should probably be externalised: what is vicious in the Baudelairean recommendation is the way it reintroduces interiority into the ceremony. While the more formal the rite, the more pacifying its virtue: try not to give a content to the rites; think that (private) ceremony leads to freedom, instead of requiring it. (p.123)

      Here, turning to the private ritual of writing, Barthes evokes Kafka: ‘Writing is, after all, a kind of invocation of spirits’. And he introduces the phrase, ‘a little bit of Symbolic’. It is a bit confusing, not least because at one point he states ‘not in the strictly Lacanian sense’, but I think essentially this phrase has to be read as a play on Lacan’s term of the ‘objet petit a’ – which as a peusdo-algebraic term stands for one’s unattainable object of desire. According to Lacan it is meant to be untranslatable, so as to perform the very idea it grasps at. I.e. the objet petit a is not of the symbolic. Barthes, then, would seem to inverse the idea, and locate ‘a little bit of the symbolic’ (an object petit of what is known; perhaps through ritual). Thus, Barthes refers to a ‘little bit of the forbidden: this bit of rule which ceremony rests’ – it is that bit of our desires which is coded or translated in someway. And we need it, in order to work around or against it. Barthes then suggests a certain balancing act around this point of the ‘little bit of the Symbolic’:

      …in life a little bit of symbolic is needed; good usage of obessionality -> a lot of symbolic distances from the Neutral but a little takes one back to it again. (p.124)

      On first reading, Barthes’ reference to the ‘letter’ confused me. In the footnotes, it is remarked Barthes states orally ‘as opposed to the spirit’. I think we can take from this the idea of a contrast when we say ‘to the letter of the law’ or ‘in the spirit of the law’. One is rigid and determined, the other is based upon the same, but remains ambivalent. However, staying with the practice of writing and the connections with Lacan, I think there is also the echo of Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’. The idea of a little bit of symbolic taking us back to the Neutral would seem to fit nicely with the idea of hiding something (the letter) by leaving it directly under one’s nose. In Poe’s story, the detective searching for the stolen letter takes the apartment literally apart to locate it, but in vain. Yet the letter remains on view all the time. Because the operation seemed to require a search in the first place, leaving the object of desire out in the open was in fact one of the best ways of hiding it! I’d need to think about this more, but I feel there is something about a pivot point between the objet petit a and the ‘little bit of the symbolic’ that Barthes is getting at here, and as a site of the Neutral. Perhaps, then, to reach the third stage, of innocence and wisdom, we need to find ways to hide things from ourselves, by placing them right in front of us…

  2. james Humphreys

    One cannot help but be struck by the similarities between the Neutral here and Derrida’s différance. The Neutral is said to “baffle” the (Saussurean) paradigm; différance, with its movement of differing/deferral, is neither a word nor a concept and, like the Neutral, resists a full and complete meaning. Might the Neutral be seen as a subset of différance? Or perhaps the Neutral is a reformulated or updated différance?

    • s.manghani

      James – I think you have a very good point. It has been an ongoing, but unsaid question. Barthes, of course, would have been very aware of this formulation. Why doesn’t he adopt the deconstructive language? It seems logical to consider the Neutral as a subset of différance. And yet…

      Is the Neutral really about deferral? It is of the dominant paradigm, but equally it does seem to suggest an actual position, or an attempt to take up a position (which happens to be inbetween). The references to Zen for example does a lot to ‘undo’ knowledge, but nonetheless there is a formulation am assertiveness. Also, I think there is something about the body that Barthes is always interested in that seems to me to be distinctive. But… these are hardly definitive…

      I’d really like to explore this point more. What do others think? Deconstruct has that enviable quality of being widely applicable… what would it mean to the Neutral (as a project) to call it a subset of différance? Or, the other way, is there value in resisting this subsumption? Does the Neutral ‘naturally’ resist such an idea, given its operation always to baffle the dominant paradigm? Answers on a ‘postcard’ anyone?

  3. s.manghani

    Nietzsche is frequently cited throughout the text. In the same spirit Barthes refers to ‘files’ he’d like to establish on key, and indeed idiosyncratic topics, I have in mind a whole reading group on the influence of Nietzsche for the Neutral. Perhaps then for another day…

    In the meantime, if anyone has any thoughts on the role of Nietzsche’s thinking in relation to the Neutral it would be great to hear. On p.126, Barthes cites Deleuze on Nietzsche: ‘The notions of struggle, war, rivalry or even comparison are foreign to Nietzsche and his conception of the will to power. It is not that he denies the existence of struggle but he does not see it as in any way creative of values’. This appears to open a fruitful line of enquiry, helping to link perhaps Nietzsche’s will to power to Barthes ‘desperate vitality’ (p.14), without the mistaken ideas of struggle and fight of the fittest etc. However, references to Balinese culture, and the annulment of the conflictual doesn’t seem to me to quite make sense, or at least I am lacking in understanding and knowledge – especially with respect to the line ‘+ lack of climax in music, art, theatre’. This is something I am keen to look into in more depth. It would also perhaps relate to Barthes’ summary of China as ‘colourless’. More lies here…

    Turning, however, to oscillation (as hesitation) opens up further relation to Barthes ‘desperate vitality’. I’m very taken with Gide’s hesitation:

    The difficulty he has making a decision is truly incredible. It’s not so much the choice that seems difficult to him, but it’s that the choice risks depriving him of the more agreeable, the unexpected that could occur’ (Van Rysselberghe, cited p.131)

    People frequently take me to be hesitant (and definitely when ordering food). But I’d much rather say I’m attuned to the risk of missing out on what is more agreeable, and unexpected! …More seriously, I think there is a point here about writers and ‘theorists’ – seen as removed from ‘reality’ because they ‘think too much’, I’d argue they can be immersed in too much reality (or realities), which leads to hesitation. Hesitation doesn’t need to be considered a stalling, but an opening out! …and crucially, I think Gide’s hesitation relates to a desperate vitality (to holding out on something more important) – in this case, apparently, ‘a reconquest, a stabilisation, a working on one’s image’.

    With regards to the nature of ‘time’ in the final section on ‘vibratory time’: On the one hand, hesitation seems to relate to a becoming, a nascence – for Gide, or that which could occur. However, Barthes’ also relates the hesitation to ‘perfect pitch’. Time, then, would seem to have a musical quality. It is about being in-sync, according to a rhythm – and he notes of an ‘efficiency’: ‘The relation between vibration and perfect pitch {justesse}, the right efficiency {l’efficience juste}, is illustrated by the example of the billiard player, whose gesture looks hesitant and yet is characteristically skilful’ (p.134).

    Perhaps we need to think not so much about the unfolding of time, but more about the physics of time – how a sound wave, for example, fits into a given space to produce a specific resonance, or how a musical scale is appropriately divided according to its harmonics. Thinking about time in these terms seems to take us back to ritual, to the ‘right’ order of things, the ‘right’ unfolding and sequencing. Time here is about how things fit together ‘just so’. How, for example, the billiard player’s cuing acting is correctly balanced throughout its duration. Every point in time is ‘just so’. Equally, people prefer to divide up their work and leisure according to a certain rhythm that is pleasing to them. All of this seems to be held by the very evocative line: ‘Perfect pitch of the vibrating time: once again, leaving the existential, one can go back to collectivity and even (and above all) to the species’.

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