The Neutral, Week 1: Preliminaries, Benevolence, Weariness

First in a weekly series of reading-group posts about Roland Barthes’ 1978 lecture course on The Neutral, organized and hosted by Sunil Manghani of York St John College (where I had my first ever teaching job about ten years ago, the year after I did my MA in Cultural Studies at Leeds and discovered Barthes). The reading group post for today is here, and I am going to go and post comments there now!

Firstly, here are some pictures of Barthes, because it is always good to look at a picture of Barthes, and because this whole exercise of miming presence at Barthes’ lecture course is making me wish to have been there in 1978. Like Hanold, in Jensen’s Gradiva (or at least in Derrida’s reading of Freud’s reading of Jensen’s Gradiva):

He dreams of bringing back to life. He dreams rather of reliving. But of reliving the other. Of reliving the singular pressure or impression which Gradiva’s step, the step itself, the step of Gradiva herself, that very day, at that time, on that date, in what was inimitable about it, must have left in the ashes. He dreams this irreplaceable place, the very ash.

Derrida’s writing there gives me the same kind of pleasure as Barthes’: a physical pleasure, which comes from a particular kind of relaxation of the mind. To read Barthes (or to read Derrida), I have to put my mind at a particular angle, a sort of alertly-receptive angle, where I’m not reading through the words for the meaning, but where the words and their effects arrive together, quietly reorganizing my thoughts. It’s one of the reasons Barthes is so hard to paraphrase, and one of the reasons why even now I’m starting this post I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to respond to this book, these words.

But I know where I want to start: with a line of Lucan’s De Bello Ciuili [On the Civil War], an awesome Latin epic poem about civil war which I wrote about in my book. (Oh, really? Well, if you like.) I actually quoted this line in a HP fan story once. It’s Book 2, lines 62-63:

uix tanti fuerat ciuilia bella mouere
ut neuter

It means: ‘It would scarcely have been worth waging civil war, even if it meant that neither of the two sides won’. That last bit is two words in Latin: ut (‘in order that’) neuter [ = ne uter], ‘neither one nor the other’, ‘neither of two choices’. And in my book, I write about how the whole of Lucan’s epic shows how the choice between two sides in the civil war is bound up with the choice between two meanings (this isn’t a new insight – Shadi Bartsch and John Henderson started this way of reading Lucan in the 1980s). But Lucan’s tormented, brilliant, difficult, violent epic is a long, almost unreadable, demonstration of the way civil war warps language and human relationships. Because in civil war, words have a polemical meaning and a polemical force: it’s through the definition of terms that one is able to define, and therefore justify the killing of, an ‘enemy’ who may also be one’s kinsman. Language itself becomes the site of conflict, of war.

So when Barthes begins his lecture course on the Neutral by saying:

meaning rests on conflict (the choice of one term against another), and all conflict is generative of meaning: to choose one and reject the other is always a sacrifice made to meaning, to produce meaning, to offer it to be consumed

I think of Lucan, who also intuited and showed that the way difference operates in language is intimately bound up with conflict and violence ‘outside’ language. And I think of Barthes’ Society of the Friends of the Text, which he says (in The Pleasure of the Text) would enable ‘difference without conflict’; and also of his essay ‘Longtemps, je me suis couche´ a bonne heure’, in which he talks about wanting to write a novel because ‘the Novel is never arrogant, never terrorist; its truth is the truth of affect, not ideas’. It’s a long struggle in Barthes’ work (and in mine, as a consequence), to read textually — to be textually, in a way — to keep the complications and pleasures and challenges and provocations of a text (any text!) in play without trying to master them, to shut them down, to WIN at READING. He says later in this lecture (and this might be the bit that I love best of all):

Make no mistake: this is not about more intellectual sophistication. What I am looking for, during the preparation of this course, is an introduction to living, a guide to life (ethical project): I want to live according to nuance. Now there is a teacher of nuance, literature; try to live according to the nuances that literature teaches me (‘My tongue on his skin =/= my lips on his hand’) –> chair of literary semiology = (1) Literature: codex of nuances + (2) Semiology: listening to or watching for nuances.

To live according to nuance. He also figures this way of living as

to be looking for my own style of being present to the struggles of my time.

At the very end of today’s session, talking about weariness, he says that what wearies him in conversation is having to take up a place, a position, as in a game; what he likes is ‘to float in a space’ (‘to float, i.e., to live in a space without tying oneself to a place = the most relaxing position of the body: bath, boat’).

So I guess this is what I’m thinking about, after reading the first session of the lecture course: a way to float in language, a way to be in language without succumbing to its coercive, conflictual, arrogant, terrorist aspects, to its structure(?) of difference and domination. But that this is not an abdication, but a style of being present to the struggles of our time. (I have just taught a class on Joanna Russ’s fabulous, intense, angry The Female Man, and I wonder if I floated through it, somehow: present to the struggles in the class and in the novel, but not taking up a prescribed position in a predetermined game. Or if I wish I had. Or if I did, but I wish I hadn’t).

Okay. That’s it from me. But as a postscript: at a point where I am more and more desperately weary of the deadness of disciplinarity, I can’t tell you how good it was to hear Barthes say:

We are going to grant ourselves the right to treat all conditions, conducts, affects, discourses (with no intention or even possibility of exhaustiveness) as far as they deal with conflict or its release, its parrying, its suspension…. Our project is obviously not disciplinary: what we are in search of is the category of the Neutral insofar as it crosses language, discourse, gesture, action, the body, etc.

God. More and more, the project of my life is to find or make a place where I can do the kind of work that Barthes did. He talks briefly in this section, actually, about how he has somehow made himself unfollowable:

I would like to call attention to the fact that my repeated efforts to use and to justify an aleatory exposition (breaking from the ‘dissertation’ form) have never had any echo. It’s fine to comment, to discuss the concept of fragment, it’s fine to have a theory of the fragment – I am regularly interviewed about it – but no one realises what a problem it is to decide in what order to put them.

There are, and have been since the 1970s/1980s, a lot* of people in the Anglophone academy trying to write like Derrida, and (it seems to me) there have been very few people trying to write like Barthes. Carol Mavors (in her fantastic book Reading Boyishly) talks about telling someone she was working on Barthes and having them respond: ‘How retro!’ Not just because he’s a hard act to follow, but because, I think, of the way in which Barthes is interdisciplinary. Which is the way in which I aspire to be interdisciplinary (or antidisciplinary).

Which I can’t help fearing is a really counterproductive career move. Oh well. I’d better go resubmit all my grant applications and see what the people with the money have to say about my desire to write Barthes’ unfinished novel for him, and write fragmentary, interdisciplinary monographs about textuality. I’ll keep you posted.

*Okay, some.

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12 Responses to The Neutral, Week 1: Preliminaries, Benevolence, Weariness

  1. nix says:

    Lovely and exciting!


    a way to float in language, a way to be in language without succumbing to its coercive, conflictual, arrogant, terrorist aspects

    sounds a bit like what some meditation people call “awareness-ing”, when you are aware of your body, your breath, your mind, and all the busy thoughts you are trying to have and when you notice the thoughts happening you bring your mind back to being aware – with a gentle touch, a light touch. You let it happen, you let you happen, but you also float in a deep, relaxed awareness; you don’t get drawn into it.

    I mean, I’m sure it’s not an equivalent thing, but the similarities struck me.

  2. inez b says:

    Making time to sit thoughtfully with these posts of yours is anticipated as a necessary new pleasure for my life. I feel brainier already. How the universe wants you to write those “fragmentary, interdisciplinary monographs about textuality” …

    • nowandrome says:

      Ha, and already I am going to be late with the second one! But thank you, Inez, that’s so lovely to hear.

      (The universe wants me to, it’s just the capitalist patriarchy that doesn’t.)

  3. nix says:

    where did your other post go?!!

  4. nix says:

    P.S. I meant to say, I wanted to link it when discussing the issues I’m having with MQFF.

    • Ika says:

      Ha, I decided I couldn’t take on anxiety about slagging my uni off in public this week. It’s actually been queued for two months – I’ll put it up at the end of next week, when I get back from Redemption all happy and excited and can afford the extra time/energy of going ‘hogod’…. I am really happy you saw it though!

  5. Hello. I love Barthes, but have not read (and don’t own, yet) The Neutral. Are you going to be discussing the text weekly on the neutrallife blog on top of the year-old comments, or using fresh posts? I stumbled across this blog randomly last week, but am tempted to join in!
    – Rick, Sheffield.

  6. oh, hahahahaha – my mind threw a wobbly and I got totally mixed up looking at the year-date and confused myself. I can’t delete my above post for some reason. Please ignore as I’m stupid 😀

    • nowandrome says:

      No worries – goes to show how seldom I post! (Am actually a bit tempted to continue the reading of The Neutral a year late, now, so thanks for reminding me of the anniversary…)

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