The Neutral

  • Roland Barthes
  • Columbia University Press
  • 2005

Like Jean Baudrillard, the late Roland Barthes viewed the proliferation of news media in Western society, with its overloaded and misunderstood signs, as a symptom of late-stage capitalism. Like Baudrillard, Barthes was interested in seduction and in consciousness and value. And like Baudrillard, Barthes’ philosophy attracts and does battle with duality. Barthes’ writing, grounded in language theory, almost consumes itself as it is written; The Neutral is full of side notes, references, tables, graphs and quotes. In this, he is unlike Baudrillard, who writes the present as is; Barthes writes the past as if it will be, as if it were still being created, using anecdote and reference to advance his theory.

The Neutral is a collection of lectures Barthes conducted at the College de France in 1978, two years before he died. Barthes writes, “Only the Dead are creative objects”, and the text is almost a ghost of itself, inhabiting previous texts and texts by dead authors. Barthes discusses writers as diverse as Spinoza, Paul Valery, and Thomas De Quincey, absorbing their works and history into an intertextual present moment that is itself a form of ‘The Neutral’: the area between, above, and beyond the antagonism of the either/or and so outside the constrictions of Western thought. Barthes also riffs on subjects from Buddhism to Pyrrhonic Skepticism by way of the study of signs, objects, and their correspondent belief systems. Scenes and memories from his childhood intersperse his theories and act as philosophical vignettes, themselves the essence of the neutral.

The book is one of paradox — a book of and against paradigmatic thought.

These lectures masquerade as a discourse; camouflaged as text, the book is one of paradox — a book of and against paradigmatic thought. The theory of le neutre first appeared in Barthes’s earliest work Writing Degree Zero, and The Neutral summarizes his questioning of the Western philosophical canon and attempts to unthread its binary structure. Barthes theorizes that neutral points are beyond and without opposition: they baffle, they emerge from and/or escape the dualistic world. These points are what Barthes calls “twinklings” and they include sleep, silence, anger, and (my favourite) indifference.

Barthes’ writing style is cool and limpid, and the translators — Denis Hollier and Rosalind Krauss — have rendered the lectures in a similar manner. This is a beautiful book, not only in appearance but also in the author’s relaxed, almost wistful intelligence.

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