From The Neutral: Session of March 11, 1978


Translated by Rosalind Krauss Translator’s Introduction

As Barthes had promised in the lecture with which he inaugurated his assumption of the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, he would pursue a “phantasmic teaching,” one based on the “comings and goings of desire, which [the teacher] endlessly presents and represents. I sincerely believe,” he continued, “that at the origins of teaching such as this we must always locate a fantasy, which can vary from year to year.”1 But the fantasy on which Barthes’s penultimate course, “Le Neutre,” is based did not “vary from year to year”; it held steady, rather, over the trajectory that took him from Writing Degree Zero with the zero degree an early version of le neutre, through all the rest of his books. Perhaps its most touching statement is to be found in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, where Barthes traces his mature commitment to this domain back to the impulses of his early childhood, so that even while playing a version of tag in the Luxembourg Gardens, his inclination was to neutralize the exercise of power which rules an opponent “out”: When I used to play prisoner’s base in the Luxembourg, what I liked best was not provoking the other team and boldly exposing myself to their right to take me prisoner; what I liked best was to free the prisoners—the effect of which was to put both teams back into circulation: the game started over again at zero. In the great game of the powers of speech, we also play prisoner’s base: one language has only temporary rights over another; all it takes is for a third language to appear from

* Excerpted from Le Neutre, by Roland Barthes, forthcoming from Columbia University Press. English translation copyright © 2005 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. 1. Roland Barthes, “Lecture,” trans. Richard Howard, October 8 (Spring 1979), p. 5. OCTOBER 112, Spring 2005, pp. 3–22. © 2005 Columbia University Press.



the ranks for the assailant to be forced to retreat: in the conflict of rhetorics, the victory never goes to any but the third language. The task of this language is to release the prisoners: to scatter the signified, the catechisms.2 Indeed, Barthes was obsessed by “the great game of the powers of speech,” a cathexis that impelled his interest in semiology’s analysis of these same powers. His prisoner metaphor highlights his sense of language’s coerciveness, something his lecture went so far as to call “the fascism of language.”3 For language always demands a choice, an identification of gender, of person, of desire for one or the other of two opposed values—the oppositions structural linguistics terms binaries, and semiology calls “paradigms.” It was the position of Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of structural linguistics, that meaning itself is generated by the friction of one binary element against the other, to form the fundamental oppositions that leave the unchosen pole implicit within any speech act. Such oppositions could be white vs. black (the versus abbreviated by “/”), high/low, hot/cold, or in a later study by Barthes himself: S/Z. Barthes suffered at the hands of this demand for choice, and he lamented, “by its very structure my language implies an inevitable relation of alienation.”4 Alienating or not, however, Barthes recounts his commitment, indeed his “joy” over binaries in the Roland Barthes: For a certain time, he went into raptures over binarism; binarism became for him a kind of erotic object. This idea seemed to him inexhaustible, he could never exploit it enough. That one might say everything with only one difference produced a kind of joy in him, a continuous astonishment. Since intellectual things resemble erotic ones, in binarism what delighted him was a figure. Later on he would find this (identical) figure again, in the opposition of values. What (in him) would deflect semiology was from the first the pleasure principle: a semiology which has renounced binarism no longer concerns him at all.5 The major binary male/female carries us to the problem of how to translate Barthes’s title: should it be “The Neuter” (the third term between the genders) or “The Neutral” (which is how Barthes’s most effective English translator, Richard Howard, renders it in Roland Barthes? 6 What Barthes himself designates as the sexual basis of the third term in the various disciplines to which he refers in his preliminary
2. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 50. 3. Barthes, “Lecture,” p. 5. Reacting to a remark by Ernest Renan on the French language’s inoculation against reaction, Barthes said, “But language—the performance of a language system—is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech” (ibid.). 4. Ibid. 5. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, p. 51. 6. Ibid., p. 132.

Session of March 11, 1978


presentation (for example, the drones among bees) would lead one to “neuter.” But Barthes also uses the domain of international law (and Switzerland) as a basis, in relation to which only “neutral” makes sense. Furthermore, the structural linguistics of Barthes’s generation—that of the Prague School, Hjelmslev, and Greimas, in particular—was fascinated by the phonetic fact of “neutralization,” which is the annihilation of distinction between sounds within certain languages: for example, the difference between d and t at the ends of words in German (with hund pronounced as hunt) or the difference between d and t in English after s (as in the case of still, which is pronounced sdill). Since “neuter” is more transgressive, I was tempted to choose it; but since “neutral” has the broadest implication within structural linguistics and relates to Barthes’s contempt for what he calls “The Critique Ni-ni,”7 and in Le Neutre, “niniisme” (neither-norism) refers to the neutrality assumed by journalists committed to telling both sides of any story, it seemed far more apt. Additionally, for structural linguistics, neutralization explains the action of sublation or the transcendence of difference. In this course, Barthes calls the constancy of his commitment to a “third language” his “desire for neutral.” In the Roland Barthes, he presents it as his dream of an “exemption from meaning”: Evidently he dreams of a world which would be exempt from meaning (as one is from military service). This began with Writing Degree Zero, in which is imagined “the absence of every sign”; subsequently, a thousand affirmations incidental to this dream (apropos of the avant-garde text, of Japan, of music, of the alexandrine, etc.). Curious that in public opinion, precisely, there should be a version of this dream; Doxa, too, has no love for meaning, which in its eyes makes the mistake of conferring upon life a kind of infinite intelligibility (which cannot be determined, arrested): it counters the invasion of meaning by the concrete; the concrete is what is supposed to resist meaning. Yet for him, it is not a question of recovering a pre-meaning, an origin of the world, of life, of facts, anterior to meaning, but rather to imagine a post-meaning: one must traverse, as though the length of an initiactic way, the whole meaning, in order to be able to extenuate it, to exempt it. Whence a double tactic: against Doxa, one must come out in favor of meaning, for meaning is the product of History, not of Nature; but against Science (paranoiac discourse) one must maintain the utopia of suppressed meaning. In his lecture, Barthes returns from semiology to literature to speak of the latter as the practice that can outwit language’s power play:
7. “La Critique Ni-ni” appears as “Neither-Nor Criticism” in Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), pp. 81–83.



For the text is the very outcropping of speech, and it is within speech that speech must be fought, led astray—not by the message of which it is the instrument, but by the play of words of which it is the theater. . . . The forces of freedom which are in literature depend not on the writer’s civil person, nor on his political commitment—for he is, after all, only a man among others—nor do they even depend on the doctrinal content of his work, but rather on the labor of displacement he brings to bear upon the language.8 This raises one more knot within the flow of translation, for Barthes’s idea of leading language “astray” is consistently expressed by the verb déjouer, which in its literal rendering as “outplay,” or “outsmart,” stays within the idea of language itself as a play of power. Barthes first takes up Déjouer as a figure in his analysis of Georges Bataille’s essay on the Big Toe, where Howard translates it as “baffle,” which I find both precise and economical and have adopted for the most part here.9 Since the word relates to the field of play, Howard also uses “fake,” as in “fake out.” “Outwit,” or “thwart,” could also serve. Barthes’s argument is that the Big Toe baffles the paradigm noble/ignoble and is thus a foretaste of his idea of the Neutral. The elegant and scrupulous edition of Barthes’s course published by Le Seuil has been retained here with only a few additions of translator’s footnotes to explain some technical terms and to guide the reader to pertinent literature. As a teacher, my own pleasure in following how Barthes constructed a course, opening his personal experience and his convictions to his students, has been intense and has sustained me during the labor of this translation. This labor has been shared by my husband, Denis Hollier, whose patience and erudition have cloaked my work with borrowed feathers I can now strip away, but only after thanking him most warmly.10 —Rosalind Krauss, 2004

8. Barthes, “Lecture,” p. 6. 9. See Bernard Comment, “Politique: Déjouer Tout Pouvoir,” in Roland Barthes, ver le neutre (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1991), pp. 219–54. 10. My thanks as well to David Macklowitch, graduate student at Columbia University, for his perseverance in finding the English translations of Barthes’s wide range of references.

Session of March 11, 1978


Supplement II Concerning the course. Inside me, from one Saturday to another, the course “works.” Even though prepared ahead of time (however little), it keeps moving: it gets a new topicality from what wants to be incorporated into it retrospectively: whether by thoughts posterior to its verbal presentation [esprit de l’escalier], or because small events in my weekly life resonate with what was said. I believe that it is important to let such things happen and to admit this, because it shows that the course is not the presentation of the current state of a “thought” but rather (at least ideally) the shimmering of an individuation --> one could then accept the word “course” without bad feelings: its connotation being bad mostly if the “course” is “magisterial.” While, after all, course < cursus: what runs, what flows (course of a river): 1330: estudier a cours:11 “without interruption”; I would say: without the present being interrupted. Concerning “Tact.” I return to “Tact” because I have the persistent feeling that I haven’t really explained the reason why I gave so much importance to all the sophisticated protocols of Japanese tea. I thus return to “Twinklings,” “Minutia.” Going out, evenings at dusk, sharply receiving tiny, perfectly futile details of street life: the menu written in chalk on the windowpane of a café (chicken mashed potato, 16 francs 50—kidneys crème fraîche, 16 francs 10), a tiny priest in cassock walking up the rue Médicis, etc., I had this vivid intuition (for me, the urban dusk has a great power of crispness, of activation, it’s almost a drug) that to fall into the infinitely futile helps one’s awareness of the feeling of life --> (it’s after all a novelistic rule). --> Tact is thus on the side of vividness, of what allows life to be felt, of what stirs the awareness of it: the utterly pure taste of life, the pleasure of being alive --> of course, one must agree on what one means by “life,” all-purpose word --> life: (1) as power, will-to-possess, will-topleasure: life has nothing to do with tact, it has contempt for it, suppresses it as siding with the decadent, the deliquescent, the exhausted, of what is on the verge of dying; (2) but also, life as lived time [durée]: that whose very duration is a pleasure --> duration of life: Tao value (cf. the magic immortality of the real body): the infinitely futile becomes then so to speak the very grain of this vital duration --> tact = fabric of life. Concerning “Affirmation.” I said: writing is in and of itself affirmative (more so than speech): unfortunately it doesn’t help to add rhetorical caveats as softening devices (“in my humble opinion,” “it seems to me,” “according to me,” etc.). However, a typically arrogant sentence I read in the newspaper this week made me miss the presence of a “softener” --> it could have been about politics, but no: about music --> Télérama, March 11, 1978: “Do you remember? It’s not so distant; eighteen years ago. When the greatest French pianist of this century died, June 15, 1962, there was, as one would say, ‘a feeling of unease’” = it’s Cortot --> three remarks:

11. French dictionaries date from 1330 the semantic extension of the word “cours” (as in “the course of a stream”) to that of a curriculum of study (as in “Barthes’s course”: estudier a cours).



a. The reader is himself responsible for the arrogance as well: I don’t find that Cortot is the greatest French pianist of the century;12 besides, this type of improvised rating is unacceptable: in art, no “greatest,” because as a subject, I can always disagree, and no criteria of ranking on which to agree. b. I had the impression to discover that, curiously, but in an interesting way, the arrogance of the judgment comes in large part from the obliqueness with which the syntax smuggles it in: “Cortot is the greatest pianist of the century” = altogether more a provocation than an arrogance; but the incident clause naturalizes the affirmation: it goes so much without saying that it is enough to allude to it in passing: as if it were a natural attribute. --> To study: what I have called the “Moussu trope.”13 c. Unbearable arrogance, perhaps precisely because it is not really writing: it’s fake writing (journalistic writing): no use of the “I” (an egotistical writing is not arrogant) and yet a kind of verbal fat (“Do you recall?” “as one would say,” etc.). To study one day this journalistic writing. Finally a personal incident, which will nicely introduce the figures to come: Thursday, March 9, fine afternoon, I go out to buy some paints (Sennelier14 inks) --> bottles of pigment: following my taste for the names (golden yellow, sky blue, brilliant green, purple, sun yellow, cartham pink—a rather intense pink), I buy sixteen bottles. In putting them away, I knock one over: in sponging up, I make a new mess: little domestic complications. . . . And now, I am going to give you the official name of the spilled color, a name printed on the small bottle (as on the others vermilion, turquoise, etc.): it was the color called Neutral (obviously I had
12. Paul Meunier, “Cortot l’enchanteur,” Télérama, March 11, 1977, p. 30. In 1977, special programs on the radio and on television were celebrating the centenary of Alfred Cortot’s birth (1877–1962). The atmosphere of “unease” that had surrounded his funeral related to his collaborationist activities during the Occuptaion. Gide, however, did not wait until World War II to dissent from the general applause that greeted Cortot’s first Chopin recordings (The Journals of André Gide, trans. Justin O’Brien [New York: Knopf, 1967], vol. 2, pp. 76, 77 [entries for October 30 and November 2, 1929]). As for Barthes, the French pianist whose sensibility he felt to be the closest to his own was Y ves Nat, especially in his interpretations of Schumann’s Kreisleriana (Barthes, “Rasch” [1975], Oeuvres complètes, ed. Eric Marty, 3 vols. [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1993–95], vol. 3, p. 297). Hereafter cited in the text as OCIII. Télérama is the French TV weekly. 13. Barthes told the story of the origins of the “Moussu trope” during the discussion period that concluded the Cerisy decade organized by Antoine Compagnon in June 1977: “I often have to put things I consider very important in subordinate clauses or in parentheses. I consider it to be a fullfledged rhetorical figure to which I’ve given a proper name. The first time I went to the U.S., I was ‘Visiting’ at Middlebury College for the summer, and I left for it on a boat; in the train to Le Havre, I ended up with two people who were also going to Middlebury College to teach. There was an extremely respectable woman, gentle and a bit intrusive, who went there each year to give diction classes: she would teach students how to tell fables of La Fontaine; her name was Madame Moussu. I call this figure the ‘Moussu figure.’ You will understand why. At one moment, when Madame Moussu, whom I didn’t know, saw me light a cigarette, she said to me: ‘Oh, my son always says: Since I began at the Polytechnic, I stopped smoking.’ There’s a rhetorical figure in which the principal and only information, namely that her son was a polytechnician, was given through a subordinate clause. If you notice present-day language, we all do that. It’s thus a true rhetorical figure” (Prétexte: Roland Barthes. Colloque de Cerisy, ed. Antoine Compagnon [Paris: Union Générale d’Edition, 1978], p. 413). 14. Sennelier: art supply store (established in 1887) on the quai Voltaire near the École des BeauxArts. The color of ink Barthes bought is named “Teinte neutre” (Neutral tint).

Session of March 11, 1978


opened this bottle first to see what kind of color was this Neutral about which I am going to be speaking for thirteen weeks). Well, I was both punished and disappointed: punished because Neutral spatters and stains (it’s a type of dull gray-black); disappointed because Neutral is a color like the others, and for sale (therefore, Neutral is not unmarketable): the unclassifiable is classified --> all the more reason for us to go back to discourse which, at least, cannot say what the Neutral is. Color 1. The Colorless: Two References Two references, among many others, on which I will linger for an instant, since it is quite obvious that what interests me is the (mythical) correspondence of the colorless and the Neutral (“neutral colors”).15 1. Lao-tzu: Portrait of Lao-tzu by himself: “I am as if colorless . . . neutral as the newborn who has not yet felt his first emotion, as if without project and without goal.”16 (a) The baby without emotion? The metaphor doesn’t work today: the baby is stuffed with intense, searing emotions, but what Lao-tzu might perhaps be
15. In relation to this figure, see the entry “La Couleur—Color,” in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, p. 143; OCIII, p. 204. 16. Lao-tzu, quoted in Jean Grenier, L’Esprit du Tao (Paris: Flammarion, 1973), p. 36.

Photo: Thomas Hollier. 2005.



saying: these are not “cultural” emotions, coded by the social. (b) Without project and without goal = without will-to-possess. 2. Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights and the altarpiece “form” (“backdrop against which the altar is leaning and which is used as decoration”). Flemish altarpieces: five-surface triptychs closing up --> opposition of front and back (inside/outside) --> opposition of color and grisaille (monochromes: values of gray). Thus: the closed wings of The Garden of Earthly Delights: monochrome gray—landscape circumscribed by a transparent sphere (the crystal ball of the seers). 2. Interpretations Let’s try to see the values invested in the opposition between colorful and colorless. a. Richness/Poverty Altarpieces, tones of grisaille: less expensive colors—open altarpieces (that is, offering the colored surfaces to the viewer) only on grand occasions or for the great nobles who gave a good tip to the guardian --> color = festival, riches, upper class ≠ grisaille, monochrome, “neutral” = quotidian, social uniformity: cf. presentday China: impression of Neutral (in the clothing, uniforms), social indistinction --> festival, color --> “emblems” of politics, of the “people” as dominant entity (banners).17 (Altarpieces: disappeared at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the church was no longer commissioning. In a general way: place of color within the economy. In the Middle Ages, vivid colors: financial investment, luxury, like spices.) --> The Neutral is mythically associated, if not with poverty, at least with no-money, with the non-pertinence of the riches/poverty opposition. b. Back/Front In the altarpiece, criss-crossed: the front side, the “main” surface, rich, brilliant, colorful = what is ordinarily hidden ≠ the side, what is ordinarily shown --> the Neutral is shown in order to hide the colorful. Here we are in an ideology of “depth,” of the apparent versus the hidden. The hidden = rich, the apparent = poor. Evangelical theme (≠ petit-bourgeois ideology of “showing off,” lining of fake cloth, front rich, back [unseen] poor). The Neutral = the back, but a back that shows without attracting attention: doesn’t hide but doesn’t show ( = very difficult): in short, something like The Purloined Letter --> problem for us: is the
17. Barthes was invited to China in May 1974 with Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, and other members of the Tel quel editorial board. Upon his return, he published “Alors la Chine?” (So, how was China?), an article in which he writes, among other things, “Besides its ancient palaces, its posters, its children’s ballets, and its Mayday, China is not colored” (Le Monde, May 23, 1974; OCIII, p. 32).

Session of March 11, 1978


Neutral really a breachable, peelable surface, behind which richness, color, strong meaning hide? (cf. the unconscious, is it really what hides behind the conscious?) c. Origin Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:18 wings of the triptych, when closed (reverse side): gray monochrome; this monochrome “is used” to represent a panoramic landscape, bounded by a stretch of water, with heavy clouds = the third day of Creation, according to Genesis: time of the first rain, first trees and bushes. And we recall Lao-tzu: colorless and undefined, “like the newborn who hasn’t yet felt his first emotion.” --> Neutral: time of the not yet, moment when within the original nondifferentiation something begins to be sketched, tone on tone, the first differences: early morning; Daltonian space (the Daltonian can’t oppose red and green, but he perceives surfaces of different lightness, intensity); cf. silere: the bud, the egg not yet hatched: before meaning. d. Shimmer The grisaille, figure that could be called the “color of the colorless,” points to another way of thinking the paradigm as the great principle of organization. Model of the paradigm: the opposition of primary contrasted colors (blue/red): it’s the opposition par excellence, the very motor of meaning (phonology). Now the monochrome (the Neutral) substitutes for the idea of opposition that of the slight difference, of the onset, of the effort toward difference, in other words, of nuance: nuance becomes a principle of allover organization (which covers the totality of the surface, as in the landscape of the triptych) that in a way skips the paradigm: this integrally and almost exhaustively nuanced space is the shimmer (already spoken of in various earlier courses):19 the Neutral is the shimmer: that whose aspect, perhaps whose meaning, is subtly modified according to the angle of the subject’s gaze. e. Indistinction In the Fashion System,20 the signifying opposition doesn’t pass between such and such color but massively between the colorful and the colorless: colorless here
18. Painting by Hieronymus Bosch in the Prado Museum in Madrid, dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century (1503). 19. One of the fragments in the Sade section of Sade/Fourier/Loyola is titled “La Moire,” which Richard Miller renders as “watered silk”: “it is a damask fabric, a tapestry of phrases, a changing luster, a fluctuat ing and glitter ing surface of st yles, a watered silk of languages” (Roland Barthes, Sade/Fourier/Loyola, trans. Richard Miller [New York: Hill and Wang, 1976], p. 135). As for “diaphoralogy,” see Barthes’s “Presentation” of the 1979 special issue of Communications on “Conversation” (OCIII, p. 1000), as well as “Deliberation” (1979), in Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), p. 366; OCIII, p. 1009. 20. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).



meaning not “transparent” but precisely: unmarked color, “neutral,” ”indistinct” color: whence the paradox: black and white are on the same side (that of marked colors) and what comes to oppose them is gray (the muffled, the faded, etc.): colors follow a semantic principle of organization (marked/unmarked ).21 --> Thus we see that in the end the ultimate opposition, the one that both fascinates and is the most difficult to think about to the extent that it self destructs in its very statement is that between distinction and indistinction, and this is what is at stake in the Neutral, the reason the Neutral is difficult, provocative, scandalous: because it implies a thought of the indistinct, the temptation of the ultimate (or of the ur) paradigm: that of the distinct and the indistinct. We have seen it, this problem: that of fashion but also (let’s shake up genres) that of negative theology. The negative mystics (Eckhart) clearly saw it: “The distinction between the indistinct and the distinct is greater than all that could separate two distinct beings from one another.”22 Thus it is logical that Bosch would entrust to monochrome, to Neutral, the “representation” of the early steps of Creation, when Creation was still very close, still clouded by originary indistinction, that is with the God-matter. Think here, with a slight modification, of the lines by Angelus Silesius: Lose all form <all color> and you will be like God, For yourself your own sky in a quiet rest.23 Thought that brings us back to Lao-tzu’s declaration: “I am as though colorless and undefined . . . ” etc.: the thought of the Neutral is in fact a borderline thought, on the edge of language, on the edge of color, since it’s about thinking the nonlanguage, the noncolor (but not the absence of color, transparency) --> language and the coded practices that flow from it always reframe the Neutral as a color: cf. my little apologue at the outset. The Adjective Frequent reference here to facts of language: affirmation, adjective, and even facts of grammar. It’s because for me—that’s something I firmly believe in, with all the obdurate strength of my feelings—language is pathetic: I struggle with grammar; I

21. See the entry “Dialectiques—Dialectics” in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (pp. 68–69; OCIII, pp. 147, 274). (In the comparisons “John is as old as Mary” and “John is as young as Mary,” “old” is the unmarked term because it raises the issue of age without specifying anything further [one doesn’t need to be old in order to be x years old]; “young” in the second proposition is the marked term because it not only raises the issue of age but it also qualifies the age as youthful. For structuralism, binaries are often oppositions of marked and unmarked terms). 22. Vladimir Lossky, who adds: “The difference between the colorless and the colorful surpasses everything that distinguishes two surfaces of different colors” (Lossky, Théologie négative et Connaissance de Dieu chez Maître Eckhart [Paris: Vrin, 1960], p. 261). 23. Barthes quotes from Angelus Silesius, L’Errant chérubinique, trans. Roger Munier, intro. Roger Laporte (Paris: Planète, 1970), p. 90.

Session of March 11, 1978


pleasure through it: through it a dramatic existence comes to me (cf. fascism of language).24 1. Adjective and Neutral A. From the point of view of value (evaluation, foundation of values), i.e., in relation to the desire for Neutral that is the basis of this course, the status of the adjective is ambivalent: 1. On the one hand, as a “qualifier,” it sticks to a noun, to a being, it “enstickens” [“poisse” à] being: it’s a superqualifier, an epithet: set down on something, added to something; it seals up being into some kind of frozen image, it closes it up in a kind of death (épithèma: top, tomb ornament).25 In this regard, it is a powerful counter-Neutral, the anti-Neutral par excellence, as though there were a constitutional antipathy between the Neutral and the adjective. 2. On the other hand and on the exact opposite, in the Greek philosophical tradition, the adjective forms an alliance with the Neutral (by means of the article: to)26 to express being; frequent in Heraclitus: the dry, the humid, etc.; taken over constantly by Romance languages (with articles): the true, the beautiful, etc.: see below “the neutral gender”—and very well highlighted by Blanchot when he started to theorize the Neutral.27 In short, when languages (with articles) want to express the Neutral insofar as it bears on a substance, they don’t use the substantive but the adjective, which they disadjectivize by means of an article in the neutral: they counter the adjective with the substantive (established through the article) and the substantive (what follows the article) with the adjective. B. The stake of this ambivalence: the predicate, the relation between Neutral and predication --> the Neutral would be like a language with no predication, where themes and “subjects” would not be filed (put on file cards and nailed down) by means of a predicate (an adjective); but, on the other hand, in order to deconstruct the subject/predicate paradigm, language has recourse to a hybrid grammatical entity, the substantivized adjective: a type of category whose very form resists predication: difficult “to file” the humid if not under humidity --> the Neutral wallows in a
24. For the motive of the fascism of language, see Barthes’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France (Barthes, “Lecture,” p. 5; OCIII, p. 803). 25. Barthes: “The adjective is funereal” (“Sa voix—His voice,” in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, p. 68; OCIII, p.146; see also “L’adjectif—The adjective,” in ibid., p. 43; OCIII, p. 127). 26. To: Greek article of the neuter. 27. For Blanchot, see The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. xiii–xxiii and “René Char and the Thought of the Neutral,” pp. 298–306.



(as much as possible) nonpredicable form; in short, the Neutral would be exactly that: the nonpredicable. Hence, we might possibly stretch the object “adjective” out to substantives, if they are theorized by the speaker as kinds of absolute and nonpredicable qualities (Boehme’s qualitas). And we’ll reencounter, mixed, braided together, the good and the bad adjective: the one that is on the side of the Neutral and the one that is on the side of arrogance. 2. Quality as Energy The qualitas (roughly: article + adjective: example: the acrid): a strong theory among the Renaissance hermetists: Paracelsus (1493–1541) and above all, later, Boehme (1575–1624), about whom we will often speak. a. Foundation of the Thing, of the Name The qualitas is what falls onto “the things” (in their state of indistinction) and imprints itself on them like a force of distinctiveness, of specification, of nomination: it’s what founds the thing by means of its name. Paracelsus: “Everything corporeal, plants, trees, animals, belongs to a same essence, but each differs insofar as, at the beginning, the verb fiat imprinted a quality on it.”28 –> This imprinted (by God) quality = the signature (theory of the signatures, of Paracelsus, then Boehme). Boehme’s vision of qualitas is less transcendent (the fiat landing sovereignly onto things), more vehement, more “gutsy”: qualitas rises out of things like a force, the imprint of the name coming from within like a potent ink becoming visible: Boehme’s quality = an active force, something that throws itself, spurts and grows, that “qualifies,” that is, something that makes a thing be what it is --> (important for us) nuance: quality is a theater of battling forces: nothing ironic; in modern terms, one would be tempted to say: it is an intensity (thus entering a game, a dialectic of intensities, a shimmer of forces). b. Quality as Desire Being a good mystic, Boehme is Cratylian, he believes in “true” etymology. Thus qualität < quelle, spring, surging force, soaring fountain (we have encountered this usual meaning with Paracelsus), but < quaal, suffering, torture: “In each quality there is an element of anger, of suffering and furor, since each quality suffers from

28. “Jacob Boehme writes in the De signatura rerum, ‘Everything bodily is of the same essence, plants, trees, and animals; but each differs according to the quality that the Verb’s fiat imprinted onto it at the beginning.’ It’s there that the theory of the ‘Signatures’ that Paracelsus developed so extensively has its basis (Serge Hutin, L’Alchimie, Que sais-je? no. 506 [Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1966], p. 61).

Session of March 11, 1978


its isolation, its limitation and tries to overflow, to be united with other qualities.”29 --> Dynamic, loving battle of the qualities among themselves and of the two sides, the good and the bad, of a single quality: The hot—light: good, sweet, joyful; ardor: burns, devours, destroys. The cold—freshness: good; furious and incensed form: freezing, which gels.30 A structural, paradigmatic game is thus set between qualities; that’s to say, two opposed qualities + one quality that combines them, reconciles them: it’s the A and B of the A/B paradigm: complex term (≠ Neutral: neither A nor B). (Let me remind you once more: I am “Saussurian” = not a “faith” but a willingness to borrow Saussurian models in order “to understand” [to speak]. (1) Model of the paradigm and of the syntagm + (2) Brøndalian [Hjelmslevian] model: A/B; A + B; neither A nor B; complex degree, zero degree, neutral).31 Thus, in Boehme: acrid/sweet --> bitter.32 The acrid: this is not a sensuous quality = power of abstraction, of coagulation, of condensation. Gives birth to hardness and cold. Like a salt = salinity. The sweet: victory over the acrid. Quality of water that dilutes and attenuates salt. Without sweetness, all bodies as though petrified, in an absolute hardness = bodies in which life would be impossible. Principle of fluidity. The bitter : 33 trembling, penetrat ing. A tendency to raise it self up. Interpenetrating movement of the acrid and the sweet. Notice that in Boehmian energet ic (it’s a purely paradigmat ic thought): the relat ion of t wo terms (acrid/sweet) is never defined by juxtaposition, discourse, narration, syntagm (cf. Jakobson’s conception of poetry: an extended paradigm),34 the dialectical relation (combinatory: cf. myth, the story for Lévi-Strauss )35 occurs, however, within the limits of the paradigm, by means of the invention of a complex term.36 This, important
29. “It is extremely interesting to see Boehme’s etymological explication of the word: Qualität (Boehme sometimes spells it Quallität) comes from quellen, Quelle and thus evokes a surging force, a spring, a fountain. . . . ‘Quality’ is also related to Quaal or Quahl, suffering, torture; an indication that in every quality there an element of anger, of suffering, and of furor, since each quality suffers from its isolation and its limitation” (Alexandre Koyré, La Philosophie de Jacob Boehme [1929; Paris: Vrin, 1979], p. 88). 30. [Oral: “which deadens.”] 31. See “Argument,” in the February 18 session of Le Neutre. 32. Boehme’s first three qualities (Koyré, La Philosophie de Jacob Boehme, p. 132). The full list includes the acrid, the sweet, the bitter, heat, love, the tone, the sound or Marcunius, and the body (p. 129). 33. In this example, “bitter” is thus the third, or complex, term. 34. “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination” (Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok [Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1960], p. 354). 35. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 206–231; see also “From Myth to Novel,” The Origins of Table Manners, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pp. 87–131. 36. [Oral: Barthes develops the difference between paradigm and syntagm for speaking subjects.]



for us: this purely paradigmatic view leaves the thing (the being) isolated, erratic—the acrid, the sweet—saving it from predication: world of nonpredicated, non “storied” essences. What type of thought of the Neutral is implied in such a system? = reflects the ambivalence alleged at the outset: 1. = thought of things as nonpredicable, since the object fades away to the profit of the quality: world of qualities, not of qualified, predicated substances. It’s thus the thought of a certain Neutral. 2. But this Neutral remains conflictual, sensitive to the struggle of angry forces that stand against each other: the overcoming of the conflictual doesn’t occur through suspension, abstention, abolition of the paradigm, but through invention of a third term: complex term and not zero, neutral term.37 3. Aggression Through the Adjective A. Not to be forgotten: the adjective is a commodity. In a good many domains, (market) value of an object, of a service, is debated and calculated as a function of the adjectives that one is able to attach to it, or at least one should study the fields where the adjective comes first: a painting by Klee? No, but a movie star, yes. And political ratings are inseparable from adjectives, manifestation of the image. Télérama, March 4, p. 22.38 If, leaving these historical, mystical (Boehme), and sociological regions, I move to the way, subjectively, I am affected by, the way I feel the adjective (I believe, as you know, in the pathetic structure of language), I will still have to deal with some aspects of the conflictual energy, of the “anger” that defines the Boehmian quality: for I always receive the adjective badly, as an aggression, and I do so in all cases, no matter which value is attributed to it by the figure under which it is addressed to me.

37. See Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning” (1970), in The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 40–62; OCIII, pp. 147, 196. 38. [Oral: Barthes describes opinion polls as “festivals of adjectives.”] Barthes is referring to an opinion poll conducted by Télérama of TV viewers, who were asked to attribute a set of adjectives—“sincere, convincing, warm, intelligent, simple, competent, dynamic, courteous, close to the concerns of people like you, interesting, clear, amusing, none”—to five French political figures (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Raymond Barre, Jaques Chirac, Georges Marchais, and François Mitterand) (“Télévision pendant la campagne,” Télérama, March 4, 1977, pp. 22–23).

Session of March 11, 1978


B. a. The Deprecating Adjective I (like everyone) sometimes hear myself qualified (as a writer) with intentionally depreciative adjectives: accusation of “preciousness,” of “theoretical coquetry,” of muffling, etc. The aggression (the unpleasantness) doesn’t only arise from the (depreciative) intention but from this: 1. The adjective that comes from outside me upsets the Neutral in which I find my quietude: I am tried by being qualified, predicated, I rest by not being so (she alone, isn’t the mother the only one who doesn’t qualify the child, who doesn’t force him into an assessment?): subjectively, as a subject, I never feel myself adjectivized, and it’s on this mode of adjectival anesthesia that the postulation of the Neutral is grounded in me. 2. The adjectival interpellation throws me back like a ball (a stake) into the vertigo of reciprocal images: by adjectivizing me as “precious,” the other puts himself in a paradigm, he adjectivizes himself as “plain,” “direct,” “frank,” “virile”; and to this paradigm (I-bad/he-good) there responds the symmetrical and reversed paradigm: I can adjectivize myself not as precious but as subtle-delicate and henceforth adjectivize him as hick, crude, stubborn, victim of the virility lure --> formally both value paradigms have entered some kind of deal, “work” like a turnstile: ego +/alter -, in which ego and alter oscillate according to the source of the utterance --> endless walk, two-termed dialectic, vertigo without respite, because the turning excludes respite, suspension, the Neutral. I am caught in the weariness of the paradigm. b. The Laudatory Adjective: The Compliment Do laudatory adjectives appease me at least? How does the Neutral man behave when faced with “compliments”? The compliment pleases, it doesn’t appease, it doesn’t bring rest --> in the received compliment, there is for sure a moment of narcissistic tingle; but (quickly) past this first instant, the compliment, without wounding (let’s not exaggerate!), makes one uneasy: the compliment puts me in apposition to something, it adds the worst complement to me: an image (compliment = complement). For there is no peace in images. The refusal of the compliment probably arises from a boundless narcissism, which equates the subject to a god: Paul Valéry (“M. Teste’s Logbook”): “A compliment-–what an insult! He dares praise me! Am I not beyond all qualification? That is what a Self would say, if it dared!” 39 Moralistic demystification (very much like La Rochefoucauld) justified
39. Paul Valéry, “Extracts from Monsieur Teste’s logbook,” in Monsieur Teste, trans. Jackson Matthews (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 42.



only if one doesn’t use it to harden the ego into an essence. Hypernarcissism like a blushing that passes: followed by the desire not to be above all qualification but to be outside it. Narcissus knows no rest—and ultimately, what I fundamentally want is to rest. Yet, as for myself, I pay compliments, I distribute adjectives: Why? How? A type of reaction prompted by the (frequent) situations where abstention is taken as negation: not to “compliment” = too negative meaning, which I don’t want --> also, “my” compliments, in a certain way, are embarrassed: not because of insincerity but because of a kind of compromise between the good that I think and the antiadjective principle that makes it impossible for me to say it: I am trapped by language –> apparent lack of conviction, luke-warmth, noncredibility.40 We thus understand the damage that an excessive compliment can cause. The nature of this compliment: it compromises (which is what all adjectives do). A grandiose example of this assassination through compliments (the dithyramb, the unconditional apologia): Joseph de Maistre and the pope: the pope panicked by the avalanche of dithyrambic arguments. Cioran (excellent introduction): “de Maistre, as skilled at compromising what he loves as what he detests”41 --> ultimately: to inspire fear in the one you extol. c. The Refusal of the Adjective Do not confuse the refusal of the adjective with the suspension of adjectives (see below). Refusal of the adjective = moral practice, suppression of the adjective which we call de rigueur for more than a question of “attitude”: in general, “scientific” attitude, which suppresses the adjective, not because it wounds but because it is hardly compatible with objectivity, truth. Someone even went so far as to connect this refusal on the part of science to the question of pleasure: Lucien Israël on hysteria: “pleasure difficult to describe scientifically, because only adjectives can describe pleasure.”42 To tell the truth, I don’t believe this: thousands of adjectives applied to pleasure won’t describe it: the only linguistic approach to pleasure is, I believe, metaphor or more precisely catachresis: “limping” metaphor in which the denotated term doesn’t exist in language (the arms of a chair); but metaphor

40. [Oral: “For a compliment to be credible, one must make it inventive.”] 41. Cioran in the preface to his Joseph de Masitre anthology: “For those who are ignorant in the art of excess, there is no better school than that of de Maistre, as skilled at compromising what he loves as what he detests. A mass of praises, an avalanche of dithyrambic arguments, his book Du Pape somehow alarmed the Holy Pontiff, who sensed the danger of such an apologia. There is only one way of praising: to inspire fear in the one you extol, to make him tremble, to force him to hide far from the monument you are raising to him, to constrain him by generous hyperbole to measure his mediocrity and suffer from it. What is a defense that neither torments nor disturbs, what is a eulogy that doesn’t kill? Apologias should always be murders by enthusiasm” (E. M. Cioran, preface to Joseph de Maistre, Textes choisis et présentés par E. M. Cioran [Monaco: Rocher, 1957], p. 11). 42. “Scientific language eschews adjectives while, in the area that concerns us, they seem to be the only terms available” (Lucien Israël, L’Hystérique, le sexe et le médecin [Paris: Masson, 1978], p. 87).

Session of March 11, 1978


has none of the “dangers” of the adjective: it is not apposition, epithet, complement, but slippage (which is what its name means).43 4. To Dismiss Adjectives Refusal, suppression, censorship of adjectives ≠ abolition, lapse, obsolescence, erasure: preparation for experiments in linguistic abolition: they are to be found in the borderline languages (and not in the endoxal44 language). I will flag four of these experiments that share the attempt at this superhuman project: to put into question + to exhaust predication ( = adjectives): a. The Lover’s Discourse On the one hand, the loving subject covers the other with laudatory adjectives (a polynymy well known to theology or to religious practice; for example: litanies to the Virgin); but also, or finally, unsatisfied by this rosary of adjectives, feeling the rending lack from which predication suffers, he comes to seek a linguistic way of addressing this: that the totality of imaginable predicates will never reach or exhaust the absolute specificity of the object of his desire: he moves from polynymy to anonymy --> to the invention of words that are the zero degree of predication, of the adjective. The “Adorable!” the “je ne sais quoi,” the “it,” the “something,”45 etc. (In linguistic culture, two objects seen as beyond predication either in horror or in desire: the corpse [Bossuet]46 and the desired body). b. The Sophists Here is an intellectual (nonmystical) treatment of predication: Antisthenes’s argument used by Protagoras to demonstrate that it is not possible to contradict: nothing can be attributed to a being, if not its own denomination: only the individual exists: I see the horse, not horsiness --> predication becomes impossible, because the subject is irreducible to the predicate --> therefore two contradictory discourses don’t contradict each other; they simply bear on different objects: there can never be anything false because one cannot say on a given subject anything else than the subject. 47 Notice the social strength of this paradox (in
43. [Oral: “To speak not through adjectives but through metaphors, that’s what poets used to do.”] 44. Barthesian neologism, from the Greek doxa; it designates the language of the doxa, of public opinion. 45. [Oral: “Elle a du chien” (she is really something).] 46. Barthes has in mind Bosset’s 1662 Sermon sur la mort, which begins: “Could I allow myself today to open a grave in front of the court, and wouldn’t such delicate eyes be offended by such a lugubrious object?” (Sermons: Le Carême du Louvre, ed Constance Cagnat-Deboeuf [Paris: Gallimard, 2001], p. 146). 47. “As we learn from Plato in the Euthydemus, he [Protagoras] was the first to use in discussion the argument of Antisthenes which strives to prove that contradiction is impossible” (Diogenes Laertius, “Protagoras,” in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925], IX, 53, vol. 2, p. 465). Antisthenes insisted “that nothing can be described



relation to society, to social practices of discourse): if the paradox were to be retained, generalized subversion. 1. Contradiction would no longer be a weapon that defeats the enemy; the true and the false would no longer settle the disputes of language. 2. This would be the reign of the irreducible: on the one hand, no individual would be reducible to another --> absolute individuation; on the other hand, every individual being incomparable (for the adjective, the predicate is the middle term that allows for the comparison), no generality would be possible, and, notably, no science; and if we recall that, according to Kierkegaard, language is general (and hence moral), to block, to evacuate all generality, is truly to carry oneself to the limit of language, to the edge of its impossible. c. Negative Theology This is the exemplary field of the suspension of the adjective, since the whole mystical experience consists precisely in not predicating God. But, as in the lover’s discourse (and we know the affinities between the lover’s discourse and mystical discourse), this “suspension” occurs in two phases; or by two degrees: 1. Affirmative method, or cataphasis: affirmation through polynymy: divine names, numerous and voluminous: God considered as universal cause; names correspond to the various effects of this cause, the determination, the operations of God aimed ad extra 48 --> 2. Then, negative method or apophasis:49 anonymy: brief method: aims at the divine essence by denying it, first its furthest names, then its most proximate names; thus goes beyond the plane of causality.50 (Notice again that the abolition
except by its proper definition: one predicate for one subject; from which it followed that contradiction is impossible, and falsehood nearly so” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. Hugh Tredennick, in Aristotle in Twenty-three Volumes [1933; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989], V, 29, 4, vol. 17, pp. 287–89). Barthes source was Jean-Paul Dumont, trans. and ed., Les Sophistes: Fragments et témoignages (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1969), p. 25. 48. “The search for the ‘unnameable name’ should not make us forget the multiplicity of names that fit God. If the theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius [the Areopagite] exalts the anonymity of God in his transcendent ‘superessence,’ it doesn’t exclude polynymy. God is anonymous or ‘polynymous,’ according to whether he is considered in himself or, qua Universal Cause, in his operations ad extra” (Lossky, Théologie négative, p. 41). 49. Cataphasis, in Greek: affirmation; apophasis: negation. Barthes considers his negative semiology to be apophatic (see “Lecture,” p. 13; OCIII, p. 811). 50. “On Divine Names as well as the lost (or more probably fictitious) treatises On Symbolic Theology and Theological Sketches thus appear as successive degrees of an exegesis that begins by positively expressing itself (affirmative method, or cataphasis). They are voluminous, because they proceed by considering the relation of a universal Cause to its effects, God’s operations, both internal or external. . . . To grasp something of the powers of God, they multiply inadequate formulae and ‘dissimilar’ images. On the other hand, the negative method (or apophasis) is very quick, because it is content to define divine essence by successively denying to it the further names and then the nearest ones. Thus it outstrips the realm of causality. But the true Mystical Theology is still beyond progressive negations” (Maurice de Gandillac, introduction to Pseudo-Denys l’Aréopagite, Oeuvres complètes, trans. and ed. Maurice de Gandillac [Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1943], p. 34).

Session of March 11, 1978


of predication upsets, erodes all scientific and endoxal logic: “outmodes” contradiction and proposes a world [a language] that does without causality, without determination --> “mad” attitude.) d. East For the sake of speed, I’ll talk at the same time about Hinduism and about the Tao while, of course, they are not identical at all: a. In India, way followed by Shankara and his school. Universal being defined in a negative manner: neti . . . neti: it is neither this nor that51 ≠ visible things: in fact “you are that”:52 what the mirror says (Lacan),53 inauguration of the image. (It’s pure negative theology.) b. The Tao is unknowable because, were we to know it, we would enter the domain of the relative and it would lose its quality of absoluteness. --> “One cannot say anything about it, because, if one said something about it, it would be subjected to affirmation and to negation.”54 We know this, the Tao is not a religion (it’s more a magic and/or an ethics): no God. --> The “without-God” of the Tao and the “God” of mysticism (above all, the negative) merge on the way to apophasis, to the rejection of predication, which is captured so well in this verse of Angelus Silesius: “If you love something, you love nothing. God is neither this nor that. Give leave to the something.” 55 5. The Time of the Adjective Suppress the adjective? First of all, this is not “easy” (to say the least!), and then, in the end, it would suppose an ethics of “purity” (“truth”/“absoluteness”) to which should be opposed a more dialectic ethics of language (that’s what’s at stake in this course: an ethics of language): A friend points out to me: “to say of someone that he’s handsome is to imprison him in his beauty”! I say: yes, it’s true, but all the same: not too fast! let’s not go too fast! It’s beautiful, it’s free, it’s human. It might end up being necessary to let go [faire son deuil] of desire (that’s what psychoanalysis tells us), but

51. Grenier, L’Esprit du Tao, p. 118. Shankara: Indian philosopher (788–820). 52. Tat tvam asi: “you are that” in Sanskrit. Barthes also quotes the Sanskrit Ta, Da, Tat as an example of a blank word in “Tel—Thus,” in A Lover’s Discourse, p. 221; OCIII, p. 666. See also “Tathata,” in Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 5; OCIII, p. 1112. 53. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977). 54. Grenier, L’Esprit du Tao, pp. 14–15. 55. Silesius, L’Errant chérubinique, p. 47.



let’s not do it right away: pleasure of desire, of the adjective: so that “truth” (if there is any) not be immediate: pleasure of the lure: the sculptor Sarrasine died from truth (Zambinella was nothing but a castrato), but he got pleasure from the lure (Zambinella was an adorable woman):56 without the lure, without the adjective, nothing would happen. Of course, an adjective always imprisons (the other, myself), that’s even the definition of the adjective: to predicate is to affirm, thus to confine [affirmer, donc enfermer]. But at the same time to evacuate adjectives from language would be to pasteurize to the point of destruction, it’s funereal, cf. this Australian tribe that suppressed a word, as a sign of mourning, each time a member of the tribe died. Don’t bleach language, savor it instead. Stroke it gently or even groom it, but don’t “purify” it. We can prefer lure to mourning, or at least we can recognize that there is a time for the lure, a time for the adjective. Perhaps the Neutral is that: to accept the predicate as nothing more than a moment: a time.

56. In Balzac’s Sarrasine, to which Barthes devoted the seminar in 1968 and 1969 that led to the publication of S/Z .

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