- The Professor’s Desire
Roland Barthes. THE NEUTRAL. Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Trans. of Le Neutre. Paris: Seuil, 2002.
I add: a reflection on the Neutral, for me: a manner—a free manner—to be looking for my own style of being present to the struggles of my time.—Roland Barthes, The Neutral
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.—Roland Barthes, The Neutral
Le Neutre reaches us late. Like an echo, it needed time, and it took its time to come. The second of the three courses Roland Barthes gave at the Collège de France between 1977 and 1980, Le Neutre was published in 2002 by Éditions du Seuil, following the editorial work of Thomas Clerc, under the direction of Éric Marty.1 Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier’s translation as The Neutral brought it to life in English in 2005. After thirty years, Le Neutre comes indeed late, but perhaps its lateness, the time of the echo, is part of its very scene.
Barthes did not conceive of Le Neutre as a book. It was a course, to happen as a onetime affair and then be put aside: “We’ll have to hold on to the unsustainable for thirteen weeks: after that, it will fade” ; “This course is made to die on the spot” . As such, the course is not only an attempt to do justice to a “subject,” to which, Barthes insists, we should not hold on once the course is over, but also to meditate on the very situation of teaching.2 The course on the neutral offers the occasion to ask, What is it to teach? And teaching, we soon find out, is a matter of desire: the course should have been called The Desire for the Neutral. The teacher follows his desire and, in doing so—Barthes is reminded by a student—inflects and curbs the student’s desire. What is it, then, that one desires when one desires the neutral? The teacher is pressed to offer something by way of definition:
I define the Neutral as that which outplays [déjoue] the paradigm, or rather I call Neutral everything that baffles the paradigm. For I am not trying to define a word; I am trying to name a thing: I gather under a name, which here is the Neutral.
The neutral is a “thing” (no qualifying adjective) that outplays, baffles, or dodges the “implacable binarism” of language as seen through Saussurian linguistics: in order to [End Page 32]
produce meaning, one is in the same breath choosing A and refusing B. The search here is for a ”thing” that might suspend, thwart, or elude the paradigm, what Barthes calls its arrogance. Indeed, what would it mean to escape the necessity of choosing, say—this is Barthes’s first example—between je ris (I laugh) and je lis (I read)?
A problem for the teaching theater unfolds: the moment one names the “thing,” one brings it into the paradigm, constructing an opposition between the neutral and arrogance. The scene of teaching performs an aporia: “Neutral = impossible; to speak it is to defeat it but not to speak it is to miss its ‘setting up’ [. . .] to speak this cacophony, I need a course” . There is an obvious tension between teaching, its demands for clear and transparent meaning-making and inherent institutional arrogance, and the neutral. “Arrogance”: “the taking of too much upon oneself as one’s right; the assertion of unwarrantable claims in respect of one’s own importance; undue assumption of dignity, authority, or knowledge” [OED]. The teacher is inevitably occupying the place of arrogance. Indeed, foregrounding its righteousness and authority, arrogance is standing, a position Barthes associates with a certain kind of fascism. The neutral teacher struggles to dodge the arrogance inherent to the teaching scene. Sitting, he stammers, cacophonizes. One speaks, but one accompanies speaking with a continuous performance of an apology for speaking.3 The teacher does not offer an anchor in...