- An Epoch of RestRoland Barthes’s “Neutral” and the Utopia of Weariness
Le neutre, le neutre, comme cela sonne étrangement pour moi.—Maurice Blanchot, L’Entretien infini
The structuralism of the 1970s exalted the importance of language. It made meaning a matter not of reference to nonlinguistic reality but of difference within language, and thus gave language the conflictual shape of a battleground for assertive possibilities. From within structuralism, however, emerged its unexpressed alternative, a rich, dark seam of weariness with language, a desire to sidestep it, to be exempt from its demand for meaning. This sort of weariness, this desire for exemption from the structuralist force of language, enriched structuralism’s analytical bent with utopian desiring. Some of the subtlest literary theorists of the time, such as Maurice Blanchot (who never considered himself a structuralist) and Roland Barthes (who continued to identify himself as one), fostered this move away from structuralism’s linguistic turn.
It is the use of the specific structuralist notion of the “Neutral” that I will consider in the following pages. I will do so mainly in two ways: (1) by looking at how some influential structuralists of the 1970s uncovered and defined the affinity between the Neutral and utopia; and (2) by concentrating on the specific utopian forms that Roland Barthes sees emerging from the Neutral, especially as he deals with them in The Neutral, the notes for his Spring 1978 lecture course at the Collège de France. Those utopian forms are remarkably low-key and remarkably private: to Barthes, utopia becomes a private retreat in which the world cannot exercise its designs upon one, and the Neutral is the arsenal of strategies that allows one to absent oneself from [End Page 1] the world’s designs. The spring of Barthes’s utopia is weariness; the shape of it tends toward mysticism. William James’s characterization of mysticism remains instructive: mystical states are “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all in-articulate though they remain” (329). With mysticism for its shape, Barthes’s utopia, by definition, is not very clearly defined. One prominent form in which Barthes sees it manifested, though, is in that of Japan. A third part of this article, therefore, is a look at Barthes’s Japan and the way it contrasts with the Japan of Edward G. Seidensticker, scholar and translator of Japanese literature and a man whose impulses are antineutral and antiutopian.
In their analyses of the oppositional structure of language, structuralists brought out intriguing complexities and asymmetries. One such is the “Neutral,” the structuralist term that carried the seed of the counterstructuralist ideal of an escape from meaning as a categorical choice from possibilities offered by a linguistic paradigm. Explaining Greimas and Rastier’s semiotic square, Louis Hébert writes that it is “a means of refining oppositional analyses. It allows us to refine an analysis by increasing the number of analytical classes stemming from a given opposition from two (e.g. life/death) to four—(1) life, (2) death, (3) life and death (the living death), (4) neither life nor death (angels)— to eight or even ten” (27). In this schema, the term that connects the two positives, “life and death,” is the “complex term” whereas the two negatives, “neither life nor death,” form the “neutral term.”
The neutral term was and continues to be productive of much insight. Fredric Jameson, for instance, routinely uses Greimas’s rectangles as a device to uncover unexpected logical and ideological entanglements in terms we tend to use upon false assumptions of simplicity. He works out the square, in one example, for the terms “for” and “against” (2005, 178–81). They are each other’s opposites, but each term also has a less logically absolute counterpart in contradiction: “for” contradicts “not for,” while “against” contradicts “not against.” The terms “for” and “not against” also have a relationship of kinship, as do the terms “against” and “not for.”
It is possible to hold both the positions “for” and “against”: they then combine in the “complex term” that needs the help of irony to...