Bookforum | Dec/Jan 2006

In 1974—three years, that is, before he gave the course at the Collège de France now available in English translation as The Neutral—Roland Barthes and several contributors to the review Tel Quel went to the People's Republic of China to express their solidarity with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The revolution was then in its late phase, though that would become clear only in hindsight. Somewhat earlier, a wing of the Tel Quel–ists had formed a faction called the Movement of June 21. The group took over the journal's offices, putting up militant posters and otherwise acting in accord with the demand to bombard the bourgeois headquarters. A couple of editors resigned. The rest worked to drive Chairman Mao's dialectical principle that "one divides into two" ever deeper into meaning itself—practicing class struggle not just in philosophy, as Louis Althusser and his disciples had pledged to do, but in fact within the signifier. (This required reading a lot of Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille.)

The manifesto of the June 21 insurgents was published in a special issue of Tel Quel devoted to the work of Barthes—which was not exactly a coincidence. The situation was complicated, full of negations and negations of negations. Barthes wasn't a Maoist. But he wasn't not-a-Maoist, either. From Mythologies (1957) onward, he had, in effect, treated the semiological domain as the scene of a kind of "two-line struggle"—with denotation (the limited and "given" meaning of a sign) being something like the capitalist regime, exploiting and corrupting the vital powers of connotation (the overload of implication, the nuances and echoes that a sign conjured up). "I would just remind you," Barthes said in the interview appearing in that same issue of Tel Quel, "of the tasks that Brecht suggests for the intellectual in a non-revolutionary period: Liquidate and theorize."

So when the chance came, he went to China—not as a true believer like his friends, perhaps, but certainly as a fellow traveler, in the strictest sense. And when the group came back, it took a while for the effects fully to register. The revolutionary engagement would give way in time, replaced by explorations of the sacred, the feminine, and the unconscious. (Not that these had ever been wholly absent: As Eric Hayot's fine study Chinese Dreams: Pound, Brecht, Tel Quel [University of Michigan Press, 2004] reconstructs, a whole series of aesthetic and libidinal fascinations were at play in avant-garde versions of chinoiserie.)

It is worth remembering that Barthes was among the first to express disappointment in the trip to China, in a short essay published just after the group's return. He was polite about it, but it had bored him silly. He and his friends had gone to China to "shake the tree of knowledge," he wrote, "hoping the answer [would] fall to the ground and we [would] be able to return home bringing back with us our chief intellectual nourishment: a secret deciphered." No such luck. In People's China, the signifier was not in ecstatic excess of the signified, after all. "We leave behind us then the turbulence of symbols" and end up in "a vast land . . . where meaning is discrete to the point of being rare.

"As for the body," he wrote, it was obliterated by "the uniformity of the clothing, the prosaic gestures . . . the dense crowds." It was impossible to escape the "extraordinary impression—perhaps a heartrending one—that the body no longer has to be understood, that here it stubbornly resists signifying, refusing to allow itself to be caught up in any reading, erotic or dramatic (except on the stage)." And how many Maoist "model operas" did you really want to attend, anyway? It was an aesthete's hell.

Was the trip to China, then, the hinge, the moment when the manner and substance characteristic of "late Barthes" (perfectly exemplified in The Neutral) crystallized out of the earlier?

I don't know. If so, it makes a good story. There is always some hint of a narrative in Barthes's books from the late period. His pulverization of the essay form into constellations of fragments was no longer justified, as in S/Z (1970), by reference to some methodological rationale—a pursuit of rigor with the aim, in turn, of destroying petit bourgeois ideology. Instead, Barthes celebrates the element of drift in his own theoretical development; the schemata and taxonomies begin to seem maybe not capricious but at least skeptical about the demands of seriousness. His writing verges ever more on the confessional, without really becoming memoiristic, even in the book he called Roland Barthes. "The semiologist is, in short, an artist," he said in 1977, in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France. At the time of his death, three years later, he was preparing to write a novel.

Maybe all of this would have come to pass even if he hadn't gone to China. But in reading The Neutral, I found myself thinking back to that article from 1974 quite often, wondering if it might not be a fragment he would have worked into the unwritten book for which his course of lectures was a preparation. (The volume we now have consists of the mass of notes from which he spoke.)

The category of the Neutral that Barthes seeks to evoke in his lectures is an effort to evade those structures of language that impose themselves as obligatory. First, it is a refusal of gender. The Neutral is the neuter. It is also a refusal of the rest of the oppositions that align themselves with the paradigm of gender—particularly active/ passive and subject/object. But more, the Neutral is irenic. It subsumes "every inflection that, dodging or baffling the paradigmatic, oppositional structure of meaning, aims at the suspension of the conflictual basis of discourse."

In China, as Barthes described it upon his return, "the conflictual basis of discourse" had saturated every level of it: "The discourse always represents . . . the struggle between two 'lines,'" he had noted in 1974. And that meant that it remained in a state of alert: "a movement by means of which the revolution is continuously kept from losing its momentum."

The Maoist obligation to draw from a combinatoire of ideological clichés did not, Barthes had written, preclude "a certain playfulness." The masses were filled with the energy of "desire, intelligence, struggle, work, everything that divides, overflows boundaries." (This sounds like an effort to stay on the good side of his still-Maoist comrades.) But infinitely more compulsory than the rigidity of revolutionary doxa was the obligation to speak it. Four years later, he defines the Neutral as that which "postulates a right to be silent—a possibility of keeping silent."

It is a horizon constituting the implicit. "In fact," he continues, "in every 'totalitarian' or 'totalizing' society, the implicit is a crime, because the implicit is a thought that escapes power."

The Chinese subtext to The Neutral itself remains implicit, if not quite silent, and
it is perhaps a violation of Barthes's discretion to insist on it. ("People who understand quickly frighten me," he says. Point taken.) The category of the Neutral formed part of the reservoir of concepts he had drawn on well before taking up his position at the college. He took the notion from Maurice Blanchot, who in The Infinite Conversation had called it "that which cannot be assigned to any genre whatsoever: the non-general, the non-generic, as well as the non-particular." To confine it to the dimensions of political discourse, then, would be absurd, and Mao is not the only "master of thought" whose mobilization of agonistic formulas and stereotypical syntagmas is to be escaped by cultivation of the Neutral.

But that transcendence is contradictory. Barthes recognizes that the Neutral is full of paradoxes: "In order to withdraw," he says, "to preserve the discourse from affirmation, in order to nuance it (toward negation, doubt, interrogation, suspension), one must ceaselessly fight against speech, raw material, [the] 'law' of discourse." While the Neutral is the "thought and practice of the nonconflictual, it is nevertheless bound to assertion, to conflict, in order to make itself heard." In other words, as the Maoist formula had it, "one divides into two."

Barthes's way around this is, well, to let a hundred flowers bloom—filling The Neutral with a heterogeneous set of glosses on Buddhism, negative theology, Pyrrhonic skepticism, poetry, psychoanalysis, Jules Michelet. . . . The element of free association (the quality of erudition as daydream) is at the same time a performance of the very concept of the Neutral as escape from any authority established in the "law" of discourse.
"I am outside mastery," Barthes tells his listeners. Of course he protests too much. But let him continue: "The master is the one who teaches the whole (the whole according to himself); and I don't teach the whole. . . . My aim [is] to be neither master nor disciple but, in the Nietzschean sense (thus with no need for a good grade), 'artist.'"

Scott McLemee is a columnist for the online magazine Inside Higher Education.