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A Great "Pedagogy" of Nuance: Roland Barthes's The Neutral

From: Theory & Event
Volume 8, Issue 4, 2005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

A Great Pedagogy of Nuance:
Roland Barthes’s The Neutral
Roland Barthes, The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France (1977–1978) (European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism). Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 304 pages. $29.50 (Hardcover). ISBN 0231134045. [Translation of Le Neutre: Cours au College de France (1977–1978). Text established, annotated, and presented by Thomas Clerc under the direction of Eric Marty. Paris: Editions du Seuil/IMEC, 2002. ISBN 202478447.]

Rejecting rumors that Roland Barthes had “let himself die” after being hit by a van near the College de France in 1980, Michel Foucault described watching him teach a week before the accident: “I thought, ‘He’s in his element, he’s acquired the distinguished bearing of a man who is mature, serene, completely developed.’ I remember thinking, He’ll live to be ninety years old; he is one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.”1

In 1977, accepting the chair of literary semiology at the College for which Foucault recommended him, Barthes voiced his hope to renew “each of the years it is given me to teach here” the manner of “presenting a discourse without imposing it,” thus acknowledging the inevitability of power in discourse, but finding the means of loosening, baffling, lightening this power.2 At the origin of every course Barthes located a fantasy, and in his 1978 course at the College it was the Neutral, or rather The Desire for Neutral. The Neutral is that which “baffles” the paradigm (paradigmatic meaning depends on a binary opposition of terms: A/B, For/Against, or, in the case of the Neuter, Masculine/Feminine). The Neutral suggests the possibility of a “suspension” of the arrogant conflicts of meaning. This is the “argument” of the course, but Barthes emphasizes his method of presenting the course, with multiple digressions and supplements, through a series of figures, traits, or “twinklings” (scintillations) of the Neutral (Benevolence, Weariness, Silence, Tact, The Androgyne...). At several points Barthes insists that his method is simply to list or “open files” (a truly generous gesture). No exhaustive bibliography, intertexts chosen with a kind of “joyous dilletantism”3 for the pleasure of reading (a “beautiful” phrase), from a range of disciplines crossed by the Neutral: grammar, logic, philosophy, painting, international law. And a range of doctrines which he cites without pretending to know (he insists that he is not a guru: “I know nothing and do not pretend to know anything about Buddhism, about Taoism, about negative theology, about Skepticism”4). Thomas Clerc—who originally annotated and presented the manuscript of the course—remarks that “thanks to the figure, Maurice Blanchot and John Cage, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan, Pascal and Baudelaire, Pyrrho and Joseph de Maistre are joined.”5 Barthes reveals, without defeat or defiance (or an odd mix of both), that the Neutral cannot be “saved” as a philosophical concept.6 Barthes does not refuse philosophy, in fact he laments the anti-intellectual refusals of philosophy, psychoanalysis and Marxism.7 However, philosophical consistency means avoiding logical or doctrinal contradiction, intention to speak of “the concept” as a universal risks arrogance. The Neutral is not arrogant, it is closer to an affect than a concept, it allows for contradiction. So, for Barthes, “to write” the Neutral involves substituting a metaphor for the concept.8

This scrambling, baffling, even scandalous aspect of the Neutral is clearly its appeal for Barthes, who nonetheless acknowledges all the “bad images” of the Neutral as failure or impotence. Rather than uselessly protest against this “virile” denigration of the Neutral (as non-virile) what can be done is to propose a third term: “to drift by displacing the paradigm. —> For ‘virility,’or for lack of virility, I would be tempted to substitute vitality. There is a vitality of the Neutral: the Neutral plays on the razor’s edge: in the will-to-live but outside of the will-to-possess” or what Barthes, citing a poem by Pasolini, calls “a desperate vitality.”9 This move of sidestepping the opposition is a repeated gesture...