Written by Sunil Manghani
A special issue of Theory, Culture & Society (Vol.37, No.4), ‘Neutral Life / Late Barthes’, explores the late writings of Roland Barthes. Particular focus is given to the penultimate lecture courses delivered at the Collège de France, The Neutral (1977-1978), which is pivotal in understanding an ethics of the late works. The issue includes texts by Roland Barthes, Tiphaine Samoyault, Neil Badmington, Yue Zhuo, Rudolphus Teeuwen, Ryan Bishop and Victor Burgin.
‘…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’ (Barthes, 2005).
Roland Barthes’ relatively short career spans the period of the 1950s through to the end of the 1970s. The beginning of his life was severely hampered by tuberculosis, forcing him to spend much of his time in a sanatorium, and his death came prematurely at the age of 64, just five years after taking up the prestigious role of professor at the Collège de France. His acceptance of the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France can be understood as something of a disruption to the establishment. Louis-Jean Calvet (1994) reveals how Michel Foucault’s report sponsoring Barthes’ professorship is somewhat double-edged. Foucault refers to Barthes’ work as trendy and faddish, yet equally notes how the work reveals ‘existence of more deep-rooted and fertile cultural phenomena’, and suggests the importance of hearing from ‘outside the university’. Barthes echoes such remarks in his inaugural lecture. The establishment of his chair, he suggests, ‘is not so much the consecration of a discipline as the allowing for the continuance of a certain individual labor’, and adds that ‘semiology will replace no other inquiry here, but will, on the contrary, help all the rest, that its chair will be a kind of wheelchair, the wild card of contemporary knowledge’ (Barthes, 2000).
Barthes’ essay ‘From Work to Text’, his pronouncement of the ‘death of the author’ and The Pleasure of the Text (1975) are key post-structuralist statements from this period, as well as A Lover’s Discourse, which became a bestseller in France. His final book, Camera Lucida (1981), is widely cited, not least due to its portrayal of a deliberately idiosyncratic ‘theory’ (that critiques earlier semiotic terminology). However, the book is a highly personal and speculative account of photography, which has had a curious and sustained afterlife (Batchen, 2009; Elkins, 2011). Arguably, the true import of Barthes’ late writings has been somewhat obscured by overexposure to this final book on photography – a subject that Barthes himself notes is not one he was particularly interested in.
The special issue of Theory, Culture & Society, ‘Neutral Life / Late Barthes’, seeks to redress the balance and reflects the fact that there has been something of a revival, and even re-positioning, of the critical interest in Barthes’ writings. Stemming from around 2002, with an exhibition dedicated to his work at the Pompidou in Paris (Alphant and Léger, 2002), a ‘new’ Barthes emerged, informed by the posthumous publication of a wide range of materials. Most significantly, this includes his final three lecture courses at the Collège de France in the late 1970s. The first of these was only published in French in 2002, and more recently in English by Columbia University Press under the titles of How to Live Together (2013a), The Neutral (2005), and The Preparation of the Novel (2011). In addition, Mourning Diary was published in 2010 and Travels in China in 2013. These later writings have prompted renewed scholarship, captured for example by ‘The Renaissance of Roland Barthes’ conference held in New York in 2013, with key speakers including Rosalind Krauss and Jonathan Culler.
Barthes’ interests, as they come to light in the lecture courses, are concerned with social space and distances, with a reading of structures as intensities and suspensions, and with differing rhythms, notably ‘idiorrhythmy’, which situates a delicate balance of solitude and sociability. As per the brief account given here of Barthes’ career, it is common to hear of a shift or break in his thinking, from structuralist to post-structuralist. However, this underplays continuities throughout, which pertain to the construction of his lecture courses. Barthes’ use of fragmentary and deconstructive forms, for example, dates back to Michelet, originally published in 1954. And it is often forgotten that his most well-known text, Mythologies, while frequently cited for its final theoretical text on semiotics, is actually in the main a selection of witty and in some cases quite ambiguous essays. In ‘Late Barthes’, Jonathan Culler (2013) argues for the continued importance of the early work, for what he refers to as its ‘ludic systematicity’. Indeed, he is mindful of ‘the regressions of late Barthes’ as being potentially seductive. Nonetheless, he suggests, ‘astute readers should be capable of keeping those analyses [of the early works] in play so as to profit from them, while still finding stimulation in the late Barthes and in the possibilities his conflictedly metalinguistic writing provides’. It is in this vein that ‘Neutral Life / Late Barthes’ places critical attention upon the late writings.
Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly sceptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering… (Kundera, 1996: 8)
In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes begins to offer an account of an ethics rather than a politics of the text. It is written against the grain of left-wing and Marxist critique, which he took to be iconoclastic (overly concerned with the ‘power’ of the image and pleasure). He focuses upon the term ‘pleasure’ in a ‘tactical fashion’, noting in interview he felt ‘intellectual language was submitting too easily to moralizing imperatives that eliminated all notion of enjoyment, of bliss. In reaction, I wanted therefore to reintroduce this word within my personal range, to lift its censorship, to unblock it, to un-repress it’ (1985b). However, the use of the two terms pleasure (plaisir) and bliss (jouissance) can lead commentators to overplay the role of hedonism in Barthes’ late work. At the opening of The Pleasure of the Text Barthes introduces an anti-hero, ‘the reader of the text at the moment that he takes his pleasure’, as one who ‘endures contradiction without shame’ (Barthes, 1975). This might suggests a narcissism (as left-wing criticism might have supposed), yet Barthes is actually articulating a point about the post-structural subject (which is always elsewhere, fragmented, deconstructed). The terms of pleasure and bliss together delineate a self-consciously contradictory subject: ‘he enjoys the consistency of his selfhood (that is, his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is, his bliss). He is a subject split twice over, doubly perverse’. Furthermore, the ‘text of bliss’ is not simply an undoing, or state of loss, it is also ‘the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language’. Thus, Barthes’ notion of pleasure (as bliss) is not to be understood in the common sense of hedonism (as the personal pursuit of pleasure for its own end). Instead, in the Epicurean sense, Barthes relates pleasure equally to suffering, identifying with happiness as the avoidance of suffering – a point between suffering and not-suffering: a neutral point. ‘Something neuter?’, he asks. ‘It is obvious that the pleasure of the text is scandalous: not because it is immoral but because it is atopic’. While The Pleasure of the Text provides further insight into Barthes’ use of the term ‘Neutral’ as a critical concept, it does not necessarily tell us a great deal more about what might constitute a ‘good life’. It is an ethics of reading rather than a general ethics. The final lecture courses, however, present the clearest affirmative project of Barthes’ entire career. The Neutral in particular is pivotal in understanding the development of an ethics. He refers to a transposing of structural concerns:
Transposed to the ‘ethical’ level: injunctions addressed by the world to ‘choose’, to produce meaning, to enter conflicts, to ‘take responsibility,’ etc. → temptation to suspend, to thwart, to elude the paradigm, its menacing pressure, its arrogance → to exempt meaning → this polymorphous field of paradigm, of conflict avoidance = the Neutral. (Barthes, 2005)
Significantly the project remains a structuralist one, and, as such, Barthes is firm to say: ‘the Neutral doesn’t refer to ‘‘impressions” of grayness, or ‘‘neutrality”, of indifference’. Instead it refers to ‘intense, strong, unprecedented states. ‘‘To outplay the paradigm” is an ardent, burning activity’. To go beyond, outside of the structures of meaning, can indeed be something far more de-stabilizing and experimental.
Then comes the moment when I drift: no will to work; sometimes I paint a little, or I go for some aspirin at the druggist’s, or I burn papers at the back of the garden, or I make myself a reading stand, a file, a paper rack; by this time it is four, and I go back to work; at five-fifteen, it is teatime; around seven, I stop working; I water the garden ( it is good weather) and play the piano. (Barthes, 1977)
While Barthes’ love of stationery and writing as a physical, practical engagement is well-documented (Barthes, 1985b; Badmington, 2008; Manghani, 2016), what is less remarked upon is that he sustained a practice of drawing and painting throughout the 1970s. It is difficult to know how to refer to this practice. Barthes queries this himself in a brief note, ‘Colouring, Degree Zero‘, which is included in the special issue. The text originally appeared in Les Nouvelles Littéraires in 1978. The entry was one of several responses from a survey of writers on their practice of drawing and painting. It appears to be a deliberately short text, opening with the very failure of language that Barthes is alert to in his review ‘Is Painting a Language?’ from 1969. Here, Barthes refers to the ‘rigged question of art’, whereby, he suggests, ‘to ask if painting is a language is already an ethical question’ (Barthes, 1985a). In this earlier article Barthes appears to settle on the side of language, ‘the language inevitably used in order to read [painting] – i.e., in order (implicitly) to write it’. However, just a few years later, following his trip to Japan, which fuelled an interest in Japanese calligraphy and brushwork, Barthes begins a regular practice of drawing and painting. The ‘process of production’, as he puts it in the entry on colouring, would appear to offer a different answer to the thorny problem of language and painting. Barthes refers instead to the ‘relief (the restfulness) of being able to create something that isn’t directly caught in the trap of language’ – the latter a phrase he uses again in the same year when addressing his audience at the Collège de France during his lecture course on the Neutral.
The inclusion of the text on colouring in the special issue helps set the scene of Barthes in his late period. The act of painting, it can be argued, is a practice (a repetition) Barthes undertook in response to what he saw as the crisis of language (or language as ideological constraint). The text is followed by an interview with Tiphaine Samoyault, author of Barthes: A Biography (2017). Various extracts from the biography are woven into the dialogue, so offering fuller contextualization of Barthes’ work. Unlike previous biographers, Samoyault was granted access to a wide range of private papers and materials, and as such was able to reflect carefully on his writings and relationship to other key thinkers of the time. Neil Badmington’s contribution to the special issue, ‘An Undefined Something Else: Barthes, Culture, Neutral Life‘, helps to further unpack Barthes’ thinking in the later work, particularly his desire to outplay the ‘trap’ of language. Set against Barthes’ early semiotic project, Badmington shows how the project of the Neutral is a refusal of the expected paradigmatic formats typically ushered in through everyday discourse. The suggestion is that we can challenge discourses of power, but not via the same old critical pieties, of ‘the self-satisfied revelation of what is hidden beneath the surface of the everyday’. As Badmington puts it: ‘We have seen this trick often enough in cultural studies . . . It is tired, easy, and the moment has come to move on [. . .] Signs are too cunning, too subtle, too stubborn, too strong’. While operating with the devices of an ‘early’ and ‘late’ Barthes, showing a significant shift from the reading of signs to their undoing, Badmington actually brings The Neutral into dialogue with Barthes’ own critique of the semiotic project. In doing so, Badmington poses an open question for what the figure of the Neutral might offer for the analysis of culture. Crucially, an answer to this question will need to come later, beyond Barthes himself, but which, as Badmington shows, can productively work upon ‘the desire for Neutral’. Arguably, we need to start to write like Barthes, not about and ‘with’ him (a particular problem that arises from writings on Barthes’ work, which can often seem insular in their terms of reference).
To gain a fuller account of Barthes’ interest in the Neutral, and its political conception, we can usefully look back to Barthes’ early texts. Yue Zhuo’s contribution to the issue, ‘Commitment to Degree Zero: Barthes’ First Approaches to the Neutral‘, provides an extended analysis of the Neutral vis-à-vis the leitmotif of ‘degree zero’ (notably, both Zhuo and Badmington can be described as ‘astute readers’, to echo Culler, keeping the early Barthes in ‘play’ while working through an account of late Barthes). Returning us to Barthes’ early reflections on ‘white’ or ‘neutral’ writing in Writing Degree Zero (1968) (but also including consideration of some of Barthes’ lesser-known essays from the student journal Existences and articles from the newspaper Combat), Zhuo shows how Barthes’ first configuration of the ‘neutral’ is in response to (though also in sympathy with) Sartre’s theory of committed literature. While ‘consenting’ to the notion of the political responsibility of literature, Barthes nonetheless offers us something different with his notion of writing, or, as Zhuo explains, the ‘engagement of Form’, which she argues prefigures the Neutral. Her article shows how some of the unsolved issues of the early texts reappear in The Neutral, but are equally refigured in the process. As Zhuo notes, unlike his peers, Barthes does not attend to explicit political questions, ‘he does not prescribe the Neutral to any political agenda or progressive goal’. Barthes can be criticized for a retreat into aestheticism, yet Zhuo’s contention is that in fact Barthes secures a role for art and literature as forms that resist the appropriation of content and dominant discourse. As she puts it, ‘Barthes has not committed anything to us, but perhaps everything’.
Zhuo’s findings are aptly traced in Feng Jie’s article, ‘Clothing Degree Zero: A Late Reading of Barthes’ Fashion ‘‘System”’. As a close reading of Barthes’ posthumously published notebooks from his 1974 trip to China, and in picking out specifically his use of the phrase ‘clothing degree zero’, Feng re-considers Barthes’ interest in fashion in post-structuralist terms to present a re-reading of his early, well-known, but conventionally semiotic text, The Fashion System (2010). By combining Barthes’ Neutral with reference to François Jullien’s (2004) comments on Barthes’ trip to China (as well as mention of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Chung Kuo-Cina), Feng presents Barthes’ use of fashion as a neutral form, which in his diary, Travels in China, works precisely in the way Zhuo describes to resist dominant discourse (in this case relating to the very pronounced ideological framing of the Chinese state in the 1970s). Rudolphus Teeuwen’s ‘‘‘The Dream of a Minimal Sociality”: Roland Barthes’s Sceptic Intensity’, takes us further into a reading of the late writings, in particular How to Live Together and The Neutral. Teeuwen picks up on Barthes’ reference to the notion of épochè, or ‘suspension’, derived from the Greek Sceptics to refer to the suspension of judgement. Where Zhuo helps position the political context of the term the Neutral, Teeuwen focuses on the ethical turn of the late work. He helps show how Barthes’ development of the Neutral is less attuned to a ‘state’ (as we might consider with ‘degree zero’) and more to do with intensity, of gradient degrees.
While Barthes could be accused of turning away from the political, indulging even in an individual’s fantasy of incidents, Teeuwen’s account, in conjunction with those presented by Badmington, Feng and Zhuo, shows how Barthes’ late work marks an important refusal of oppositional frames in which contemporary issues are posed, and which, for Barthes, can only lead to forms of arrogance, violence, and narcissism. Barthes draws attention to the Neutral as a means not only to disrupt dominant frames, but also to refuse entry into them. His ‘incidental’ accounts of the Neutral are an attempt to give form to a desire that offers release to the subject, rather than builds it. We come, then, to understand the Neutral less as a form of critique, more as an alternative means of living. An ethics of the Neutral is also brought out in the final two contributions to the issue, specifically with respect to matters of writing. Ryan Bishop’s article, ‘A Circle of Fragments: Barthes, Burgin, and the Interruption of Rhetoric‘, develops an account of Barthes’ use of fragments as set against the dominant order and received wisdom. Bishop reminds us of Barthes’ interest in pre-Socratic rhetoric, but also positions his account in terms of the contemporary art practice of Victor Burgin. Having come to prominence as a conceptual artist in the late 1960s, notably as a political photographer of the left, Burgin has long been influenced by his reading of Barthes. A common engagement of both is upon the relationship between language and the image. Belledonne (2016), a recent CGI projection work by Burgin, is rendered here in parallel to Bishop’s text. The artwork reflects directly upon Barthes’ time spent being treated for tuberculosis in his early life, and is developed through the rhythmic relationship of imagery and textual intertitles. As visual ‘fragments’ of a projection work, the images that run throughout Bishop’s piece provide a ‘performance’ of Barthes’ writing as a ‘circle of fragments’. Taken as a whole, we can reflect upon what Bishop refers to as potential liberatory strategies for eluding rote use and effects of language, image and thought. In supplement to Bishop’s article, and as a coda to the journal issue, a new text by Victor Burgin, ‘Nagori: Writing with Barthes‘, offers a further reminder (and experience) of the liberatory strategy of the fragmentary form.
With death and senescence before him … to endure ending in the form of lateness but for itself, its own sake, not as a preparation for or obliteration of some-thing else. Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present. (Said, 2006)
…Pasolini, in a poem, says that the last thing that remains to him is “a desperate vitality” … What is it then that sets retreat from arrogance apart from hated death? It’s this difficult, incredibly strong, and almost unthinkable distance that I call the Neutral… (Barthes, 2005)
At the close of his preliminary remarks for The Neutral, Barthes breaks off to say something of his personal situation, regarding the death of his mother: ‘a serious event, a mourning: the subject who will speak of the Neutral is no longer the same as the one who had decided to speak of it […] underneath this discourse . . . it seems to me that I myself hear, in fleeting moments, another music’ (Barthes, 2005). The event of mourning leads him to be ‘fully conscious’ of what he has evoked through the Neutral. To the ‘first’ Neutral of the planned lecture course he adds a second: its deeper undercurrent. In the first instance, then, Barthes’ interest in the Neutral is in ‘speaking of the suspension of conflicts’ (as we see with the contributions from Badmington, Zhuo, Feng and Teeuwen). And on the whole this is the line of enquiry taken throughout the course: it is ‘the difference that separates the will-to-live from the will-to-possess: the will-to-live being then recognized as what transcends the will-to-possess, as the drifting far from arrogance’ (Barthes, 2005). However, ‘underneath this discourse’, there is ‘in fleeting moments, another music’, the result of a ‘wirelike sharpness of mourning’. The ‘second’ Neutral, he writes, ‘is the difference that separates this already decanted will-to-live from vitality’. Here Barthes is echoing the poem by Pasolini, which he cites on several occasions, and which ends with the refrain that all that remains (for a young sick boy) is ‘a desperate vitality’. It is fairly obvious to understand the attraction of this poem for Barthes, given that he spent some 15 years of his youth suffering from tuberculosis, separated off from the world in convalescence. Yet, it returns to him in these final years with a new ‘late’ significance.
Table of Contents
Neutral Life / Late Barthes
Theory, Culture & Society (Vol. 37, No. 4)
Tiphaine Samoyault and Sunil Manghani
Alphant, M. and Léger, N. (ed.) (2002) R-B Roland Barthes: esposition présentée au centre Pompidou, galerie 2, 27 novembre 2002-10 mars 2003. Paris: Seuil / Centre Pompidou / IMEC.
Barthes, Roland (1968) Writing Degree Zero, trans. by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang.
Barthes, Roland (1975) The Pleasure of the Text, trans. by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.
Barthes, Roland (1977) Roland Barthes, trans. by Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Barthes, Roland (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. by Richard Howard. New York: Hall and Wang.
Barthes, Roland (1983) Fashion System, trans. by Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Barthes, Roland (1985a) The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang
Barthes, Roland (1985b) The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, trans. by Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang
Barthes, Roland (1990 ) A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. by Richard Howard. London: Penguin Books.
Barthes, Roland (2000) A Barthes Reader. London: Vintage.
Barthes, Roland (2005) The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977-1978), trans. by Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia University Press.
Barthes, Roland (2009) Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers and Siân Reynolds. London: Vintage Books.
Barthes, Roland (2010) Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977 – September 15, 1979, trans. by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Barthes, Roland (2011) The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France, 1978–1979 and 1979–1980, trans. by Kate Briggs. New York: Columbia University Press.
Barthes, Roland (2013a) How to Live Together: novelistic simulations of some everyday spaces, trans. by Kate Briggs. New York: Columbia University Press.
Barthes, Roland (2013b) Travels in China, trans. by Andrew Brown. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Batchen, Geoffrey (ed.) (2009) Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
Badmington, Neil (2008) ‘The “Inkredible” Roland Barthes’, Paragraph, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 84–94.
Calvet, Louis-Jean (1994) Roland Barthes: A Biography, trans. by Sarah Wykes. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Culler, Jonathan (2013) ‘Late Barthes’, The Conversant. < http://theconversant.org/?p=7979>
Derrida, Jacques (1994) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.
Elkins, James (2011) What Photography Is. New York: Routledge.
Kundera, Milan (1996) Slowness, trans. by Linda Asher. London: Faber and Faber.
Manghani, Sunil (2016) ‘An Exercise in Drawing’, Barthes/Burgin: Notes Towards an Exhibition, ed. by Ryan Bishop and Sunil Manghani. Edinburgh University Press, pp. 109-136.
Said, E. (2006) On Late Style. London: Bloomsbury.
Samoyault, T. (2017) Barthes: A Biography, trans. by Andrew Brown. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Sunil Manghani is Professor of Theory, Practice & Critique at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton (UK). He is the author of Image Studies: Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2013) and co-editor of India’s Biennale Effect: A Politics of Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2017); Images: A Reader (Sage, 2006); and Farewell to Visual Studies? (Penn State University Press, 2015). He was a co-curator of ‘Barthes/Burgin’ (2016), an exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery, and co-editor of the two related books, Barthes/Burgin (EUP, 2016) and Seeing Degree Zero: Barthes/Burgin and Political Aesthetics (EUP, 2019).