Volume 3, Number 2 (July 2006)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
Review of: Roland Barthes. The Neutral: Lecture Course At The Collège de France (1977-1978). New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Text established, annotated, and presented by Thomas Clerc under the direction of Eric Marty; translated by Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier.1
…what are the writings of Barthes… but a philosophy of disappearance? The obliteration of the human, of ideology?2
In reading this book of lectures by Barthes I found many instances where I heard the voices of my own better teachers speaking to me from twenty years ago. Such has been the influence of Barthes on some members of the generation which followed him. The Neutral reads me as a pedagogue and I will allow it, in this writing, to read it reading me, to you. I offer reflections on some of its implications for, and challenges to, contemporary pedagogy from the point of view of a university professor who deeply enjoys the classroom and Barthes explorations of what it means to give a course.
Barthes course is, among other things, a series of reflections on preparing and delivering a course. Letters and conversations with members of the audience from the previous week often serve as “supplements” with which he begins a lecture, usually in an attempt to expand on a previous thought, but never to simply clarify. Power is a central concern of pedagogy (we know this from how so much pedagogic practice avoids even mention of the topic), and Barthes is concerned with power: the “great game of the powers of speech” and the “fascism of language”.3 These are essential subjects for university professors especially in North America where the role of the university professor is often confused with representing critical thought and “teaching” it to students. Barthes approach demands the deconstruction of all thought. Only when this is achieved have we as teachers passed through a discipline and the various ideological positions which seek to control it.
Barthes illuminates, by his very practice, the joy of a deconstructive approach to the classroom. Here the university teacher is bearer of nuance, an artist against arrogant knowledge, offering a welcome to fellow drifters. Barthes lecture course also participates in the greater game of raising the stakes for speaking as a lecturer to an audience assembled for the purpose of “learning” or “knowledge”. As the title of the lecture series promises, “The Neutral” will work against any sense of pre-established meaning. Barthes task is not to construct the concept of the Neutral, but to display neutrals.4 There is no effort to define the word “Neutral” but to gather thoughts under its name. The audience is subject to a constant challenge to confront themselves as the professor is doing in making and giving the course.
The art of the course, says Barthes (the artist as professor), is “to make the Neutral twinkle” – to sharpen the stakes of the Neutral as research for aporia. For Barthes the Neutral is “everything that baffles the paradigm”.5 The paradigm is here understood as the “well-spring of meaning”. The Neutral is not mere impressions, grayness, indifference – for Barthes it “can refer to strong unprecedented states” – to outplay the paradigm in an ardent burning activity. He says he is seeking “my own style of being present to the struggles of my time”.6 Commitment for Barthes is a form of drift. Meaning, truth, and the real appear only locally, along restricted horizons as partial objects.7
Methodological rigour is the death of free thought and the beautiful sense of play that is the essence of human thought. Barthes works an “irrealistic and im-moral discourse” against method.8 To say Barthes is thinking pedagogy “beyond the end” is perhaps a Baudrillardian way to put it – thinking valued for its enigmatic and poetic qualities. When a lecturer or seminar leader teaches free of the prison of rigid methods, searching for ideas from multiple, diverse and contradictory sources, a course may come to life with a spontaneity and the pure joy of thought and the search for the Nothing that underlies everything. Such is Barthes course The Neutral in which he shares with his audience the pure joyous uncertainty of thinking without methodological confines. Barthes feels the terrorism of the social at every turn as he does the fierce discipline (and pack mentality) of the university and he attempts to show his students another approach.
Barthes says he “wants to live according to nuance” as such he is searching in his course for the thing he most wants his audience to take from it: an introduction to living, a guide to life, and hence a kind of ethical project.9 Barthes was at the time of this lecture occupying the Chair of Literary Semiology at the College and at the peak of his creativity. For him literature is a codex of nuances, and semiology is listening to, or watching for, nuances. An appreciation of this approach informs every page of the thirteen lectures. The Neutral is unsustainable he says, but we will “hold on to the unsustainable for thirteen weeks: after that, it will fade”.10 Those of us inspired by Barthes and our own teachers who were inspired by him have yet to experience this fading.
Barthes’ lectures are a series of fragments and as anyone who works with fragments and fragmentary thinkers like Baudrillard knows well, the art of the fragment, and the great difficulty of the fragment, involve decisions about the order in which to arrange them.11 In his desire to not take a position, but to resist the demand to take a position by researching, illuminating, floating, shifting places, drifting in the margins of the margins… Barthes puts into practice his belief that “there is no truth that is not tied to the moment”.12 He is ever tactful, which by his own account involves “a verbal operation that frustrates expectation”.
Barthes is in constant dialogue with pedagogues and with himself as a teacher. His observations go the core of pedagogy and force us to face the power of language: “In choosing one’s language, one chooses one’s real”. The artist professor has chosen to be on the “margins within the margin, marginalities that can’t be recuperated by fashion”. Everything about the neutral for Barthes is “sidestepping assertion”13 for in discourse, the place of the lecture, we can never say what the Neutral is. We can, he shows us, register its twinklings, its “shimmer” that aspect whose meaning is “modified according to the angle of the subject’s gaze”.14
Knowledge is never cohesive in Barthes lectures, he refuses to interpret, and denies having any mastery whatsoever. He describes the act of preparing lectures as an instance of creation, inventing meaning from various materials which he liberates from many sources while subjecting them to an anamorphosis, the gaze of his particular subject position from a particular angle. The artist professor is a later day mannerist (and isn’t that an interesting postmodern twinkling in the late 1970s?) Here truth is stretched and elongated, interpretation is denied in favour of brief illuminations and twinklings, drift. “Desire is nothing but a passage”15 and Barthes lectures on the Neutral are his passage through it, “perhaps tomorrow” he thinks aloud, “another desire”.16 It is important, as Baudrillard will express this idea later, to pass through all disciplines, no matter how precious any one of them may be.17 The pedagogy of the lecture for Barthes, and his lesson to all of us, is its nature as a passageway not to knowledge to be “handed down”, but a personal journey shared with our audience who are encouraged to take up their own passages, their own desires.
Barthes course fails as it must – given that the lecture can never contain the full promise of the Neutral. For the Neutral to take over the lecture, the lecture would be reduced to a series of supplements: “Suppliments to nothing: that’s the ideal Neutral!”.18 For me this idea can be more fully explored in a seminar where the audience, small in number, share with the originator of the course, a literature as an ongoing series of supplements. The supplement is a marvelous tool for both lecturer and audience, and for seminar leaders. It is an opportunity to gather up, share, probe, deepen the questions, stir, as well as drift further. I can no longer perceive my own courses in any other way than to cast light on a world that is given to us unintelligible and enigmatic in a way that makes it even more unintelligible and more enigmatic.19 The goal is to create a course and setting it free to the audience as it were, yet never giving up one’s stake in it – in Barthes words: “love doesn’t have to be confused with the will to possess”.20 Barthes provides us a way to dethrone the professor as an act of his/her liberation. The course may then be an open and free exploration of a constant series of supplements (which include undergraduate seminar presentations) in which the participants are held to the criteria of creativity, nuance, …drift. The audience at the lecture or those co-participants in a seminar are then pushed to occupy the position of skeptical neutrality, never to “kiss the feet of the concept” or to be “had by it”.21 Our students may then experience the Neutral as “not social, but lyrical, existential: it is good for nothing, and certainly not for advocating a position, and identity … the Neutral doesn’t know”.22
Barthes gives us a sense of the Neutral as the art of being in the world, the carrying of difference even to the point of indifference, the discovery of coexisting ideospheres, places of overlap within the “logosphere” that biological ambiance of language, the one within which we all live.23 Against the violence of pedagogy as slave to method, a pedagogy of tenderness and imagination to an excess.24 We can provide undisciplined spaces for our undergraduates in which their confidence may grow as does a sincere comfort in thought but not if we do not constantly remind them of the terrorism of the discipline under which the course takes place. Barthes encourages finding pleasure from “our very thoughts and that nothing [not even our proximity to disciplined knowledge, as prisoners in the first moments of escape] could rob us of this pleasure”.25 Keeping the preceding in mind, we may try to impart upon our students Barthes notion that “No neutral is possible in the field of power”. Barthes provides pedagogues seeking to move away from the field of power of their own discipline – and the Interpol like operators now appearing in multidisciplinarity – with a sense of the Neutral as not “the null” but rather, “the plural”.26
Barthes remains deliciously undecided throughout his lectures. He avoids the reactive neutral for the active neutral. These lectures stand as a series of memories and resistance against the ravages of time on what he has read and those he has known (his recently departed mother in particular). A course for Barthes, is not about its name, its subject, its title, it is rather about the subject who assembles it and the readings of a lifetime which punctuate that assembly of fragments. Ordering the fragments, that is the central task of the lecturer. A kind of ordering that is random – random against the arrogance of faith, certitude, the will to possess, to dominate.27 The suspension of interpretation, of meaning, is the best solution to the problem of arrogance. At a time when we live in a global terrorist war against terrorism (!) when one fundamentalist rages against the other, both with God on his side (Bush and bin Laden), it is necessary to create courses which value things in which not to believe. As Baudrillard, who writes very close to Barthes approach, has put it:
So today, with the loss of utopias and ideologies, we lack objects of belief. But even worse, perhaps, we lack objects in which not to believe. For it is vital – maybe even more vital – to have things in which not to believe.28
At a time when leading academics have publicly supported the US Patriot Act and books like Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil29 pass for an intellectual response to the problem of state power (a book not far from Bush’s position if we read it closely, originating in the same middle class fears and phobias), Barthes has much to offer those who construct courses.30 It is beyond question that Barthes was one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers, but his influence on pedagogy may be his most lasting gift to us – if we are willing to receive it. Against disciplining and methodological rigour, a kind of drifting that calls on the self of each participant to speak from a place of welcome and free inquisitiveness. Do we have the confidence in ourselves as lectures and seminar leaders to provide this gift? Can a profession so thoroughly dominated by the traditional masculine provide it?
Eastern philosophies deeply inform Barthes abstinence from choosing an idea or a position.31 The second half of the book is especially laden with Barthes perceptions and applications of Eastern wisdom. This he weaves back to Pyrrho’s “I abstain”. A self described “post Sartrean”, Barthes drifts across the subject of commitment as he essays the Neutral. To be engaged, to be publicly engaged, to speak outside of faith, of commitment, to inform a lecture with these ideas, this is his understanding of the Neutral brought into the university.
The final concept discussed by Barthes is the androgyne and this puts a nice point on his lectures. Here, as he has done throughout, he departs from the traditional Western masculine which has been the subject of so much of his talk. Traditional masculinity inhabits the paradigm, the Western obsession with conflict as the source of all things, and the arrogance of meaning. Against these the Neutral (never equated with either indifference and unfeeling), baffles. It baffles in ecstasy, enigma and a gentle radiance. To all paradigms the Neutral replies: “smile”. Here Barthes exits the neutral leaving it to us to sustain the unsustainable.
One studies, one “teaches” what one desires. His course would have been better titled (Barthes tells us): The Desire For the Neutral. The lectures which constitute The Neutral are a series of intriguing digressions which represent that which he seeks: to baffle (or at least dodge) the paradigmatic, oppositional structure of meaning. For pedagogues, a book of pedagogy against binaries. Finally, the neutral has a proper “press agent” and rarely has it ever received such good press. Against the weight of centuries of being instructed otherwise, we are presented with a strong active neutral. Barthes led us far from the disciplined masculine west to show it to us.
I have learned as I write this review that I have won my university’s most prestigious award for teaching. A poetic coincidence I think for one who owes so much, by way of his teachers, to Barthes. The students who nominated me for this award mentioned many qualities in my classrooms that I have learned from Barthes and Baudrillard. It is marvelous to know that Barthes influence lives on in them and matters so much to them today. As such, my own experience of The Neutral is that it is a book for the ages. Reading The Neutral, attentive to its pedagogic implications, has been like reading my own heart as a teacher. Baudrillard has captured this aspect of reading Barthes:
Roland Barthes is someone to whom I felt very close, such a similarity of position that a number of things he did I might have done myself, well, without wishing to compare my writing with his.32
As for Baudrillard, reading The Neutral is a lesson on the circumstances that make him possible and the conditions which made him indispensable.
About the Author
Dr Gerry Coulter is the founder of IJBS.
1 – This review is dedicated to all of my former students who now teach, especially: Dr. Angela Failler, Dr. Mary Ellen Donnan, Dr. Kelly Landon, Norma Husk (Ph. D. in process), Andrea Christensen (M. Div.), Lauren Cruikshank (M.A., Ph.D. in process), Christiana Meredith (M.A.), Bianca Gonsalvez (M.Ed.), Allison Conroy (M.A. B. Ed.), Shelley Balkwill (B. Ed.), Tamy Superle (M.A., Ph.D. in process), Jordan Watters (M.A. in process), Emily Theriault (M.A. in process), Francoise Bessette (M.A. in process), and Kelly Reid (M.A. in process). Special thanks also to Kelly Reid for inspiring this review and to Mary Ellen Donnan for the proof reading and insightful commentary.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories I. New York: Verso, 1990:160.
3 – Roland Barthes. The Neutral: Lecture Course At The Collège de France (1977-1978). New York: Columbia University Press, 2005:vii.
4 – Ibid.:11.
5 – Ibid.:6.
6 – Ibid.:8.
7 – See also Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:108.
8 – Ibid.:32
9 – Ibid.:11.
10 – Ibid.:11.
11 – Ibid.:12.
12 – Ibid.:13.
13 – Ibid.:44.
14 – Ibid.:51.
15 – Ibid.:68.
16 – Ibid.
17 – Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with S Mele and M Titmarsh” (1984) in Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:81.
18 – Roland Barthes. The Neutral: Lecture Course At The Collège de France (1977-1978). New York: Columbia University Press, 2005:69.
19 – See Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:83. Elsewhere Baudrillard writes: “The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us – unintelligible. And, if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible” (The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:105); and “The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible” (Impossible Exchange. London: SAGE, 2001:151).
20 – Ibid.:71.
21 – Ibid.:72.
22 – Ibid.:80.
23 – Ibid.:86.
24 – Ibid.:102.
25 – Ibid.:106.
26 – Ibid.:120.
27 – Ibid.:152.
28 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:48-49.
29 – Michael Ignatieff. The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror. Princeton University Press, 2003.
30 – Ignatieff has since been elected to the Canadian Federal Parliament, and is at the time of this writing one of the main contenders to become the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
31 – Roland Barthes. The Neutral: Lecture Course At The Collège de France (1977-1978). New York: Columbia University Press, 2005:180.
32 -Jean Baudrillard. In Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:204.