The Neutral, Week 4: Color

[I missed writing up in Week 2, and even missed reading in Week 3, my ‘extra’ time being taken up by various mostly good things; this week, I’ve only read the first half of the seminar so far and wanted to start writing it up before I had to be in class. I’ll try and add my thoughts on the second half, ‘Adjective’ (which I’m excited about because I’ve always loved the way Barthes writes about the adjective), if I have any time today, but I teach 11:10 -12:40 then have meetings at 12:45, 2pm, 3:15 and 4:30 and then I have to get to the health food shop before it shuts, so…]

How to even write about this. The intense pleasure reading Barthes gives me, and the intense identification, both experienced bodily, as a relation or position of the body in relation to the world. But also a feeling of yes, that’s it, a profound relaxation of my mind into a position or a medium which suits it (a kind of recognition, even a being-chosen?) and which is utterly different from the way my mind is most of the time at the moment, irritably skim-reading great epic poetry for first-year classes and filling in forms and saying the same three things about how to structure work to four students a day… Reading this made me feel like the Frank O’Hara poem The Day Lady Died, which ends:

and everyone and I stopped breathing

He starts today’s session by going back to something he’s said earlier, and explaining his reasons for doing so: throughout this course (throughout all his writing) he attempts to contextualize and explain his decisions – often in relation to his own tastes, his feelings, his personal history – not just to cover over and (deceptively) legitimate his decisions and his thoughts in relation to some sort of disciplinary discourse or ideology. This genuine attempt to do away with what he calls ‘arrogance’, which is to speak from a position which does not know itself and which seeks to cover over the ways in which it is positioned. He writes at one point about journalistic writing as ‘fake writing’ and says:

no use of the ‘I’ (an egotistical writing is not arrogant) and yet a kind of verbal fat (‘Do you recall?’ ‘as one would say’, etc.). To study one day this journalistic writing.

Which reminds me of my similarly long-held and always-deferred ambition to study the way Ruth Rendell writes, which strikes me as profoundly fake and wrong. Later, too, he says

we have seen it, this problem: that of fashion, but also (let’s shake up genres) of negative theology.

Such a deep identification with Barthes here, such an antidisciplinary impulse in his writing, a refusal to think that fashion and negative theology have nothing in common (but also, never that sort of trivializing/anxious-hysterical tone, ‘look at me I’m writing about fashion AS IF it was important like theology hee hee!!’, that creeps into a lot of work that involves a thinking-through of personal investment or idiosyncratic connection-making; I guess I mean another kind of falseness, a pretence that the personal investment isn’t at stake, that there really is an importance to fashion equivalent to negative theology, when of course – there ‘really isn’t’ any system of ranking importance, hierarchy, etc, outside of subjective desire on the one hand and ideology on the other). So this whole course is demonstrating, for me, the possibility of a mode of thinking and writing which is not arrogant, which I guess is neutral (and which I passionately believe in and want to practice).

In this week’s session, Barthes discusses how ‘what is at stake in the Neutral’ is

the ultimate opposition, the one that both fascinates and is the most difficult to think about to the extent that it self-destructs in its very statement… that between distinction and indistinction

(This reminds me of a moment in Derrida’s thought which I return to again and again – it’s in my three big Derrida texts, which I read as deeply entangled with one another, Of Grammatology, ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’, and Archive Fever. It’s the idea of writing or spacing as producing the difference between figure and ground (it’s what links writing to the inhabitation of space in general for Derrida and for me): in Archive Fever there’s a fabulous description of the moment when Gradiva’s foot touches the ground and makes an impression on it, the moment of the indistinction between the imprint and the impression, the touch of the foot and its representation. It also reminds me of my practice of taiji (tai chi), which my teacher once told me could be understood as ‘the martial art which consists in learning to differentiate between yin and yang’. We always started the Form in a posture called ‘wuji’, which means ‘undifferentiated’, the state of the universe before yin and yang became different from one another, before starting to move and experiencing weight, balance, emptiness/fullness, yin and yang in our bodies. So again I have a very bodily understanding of this idea.)

But also, this question of what is figure and what is ground, what is ‘marked’ and what is ‘unmarked’, comes back to me in another phrase of Barthes’ this week:

the Neutral doesn’t hide but doesn’t show (= very difficult).

Absolutely something I try to do in my writing, and that I see in Barthes. Not to hide my thinking, the connections I make, the sources I draw on, the critics and texts and experiences and things that co-produce my writing, but not to ‘show’ – in the sense of not framing my writing in a way that makes it functional or instrumental, not adopting a posture of THIS IS WHAT I HAVE TO SAY, IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO THE WORLD BECAUSE [x, y, z].

I don’t know. I’m reading this text at a time when I’m feeling despairing about the possibility of doing the kind of work, the kind of writing I want to do and finding a reader for it anywhere, which is (paradoxically?) prompting me to sharpen my sense of what the kind of work I do is. Because I think I get read a lot as a ‘theoretical fan-studies scholar’ or a ‘popular-culturizing Classicist’, someone who flattens important intellectual distinctions or mis-appropriates ideas from one discipline to serve another. But reading Barthes, I get a glimmer (a shimmer?) of what it is I really want to do, and I need to start putting that sense into words more. The Neutral as a way of framing my work in the way I’d like it to be framed, rather than in the way I feel I have to frame it (for the AHRC, for my university, for my own self-aggrandisement)?

But Barthes also says that

the Neutral is the shimmer: that whose aspect, perhaps whose meaning, is subtly modified according to the angle of the subject’s gaze.

and I don’t know yet how that relates to what I’ve been thinking about the practice of the Neutral. Is the Neutral something that is practiced, or something that is experienced?

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One Response to The Neutral, Week 4: Color

  1. s.manghani says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts here. There is a ‘protestation’ (as in the second Neutral?) in what you say and the energy with which you say it. I too feel a glimmer of what I want to write by reading Barthes, and definitely as something that is not trying to conform to all the usual necessities! I’ve just received a copy of Barthes’ Mourning Diary. In a sense I wonder whether it should have been published. Bathes clearly only wrote for himself. A very private text. However, I am grateful to read it. It is a beautiful book. It only compounds a desire to write, without needing to write to somebody/something.

    It’s great to have your contributions on the reading group. I’ll add some comment there too following your post.

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