The Neutral

Any new book by Roland Barthes is an event, and the lectures in The Neutral, given at the Collège de France in Paris during the 1977-1978 academic year, reaffirm his position as a consistently insightful, as well as remarkably accessible, practitioner of literary theory. Whereas contemporaries such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan often seemed to be vying for the title of most obscure high priest of literary speculation, Barthes’s willingness to address a nonspecialist audience in works such as Mythologies (1957; English translation, 1972)which includes essays on “The World of Wrestling,” “Soap-Powders and Detergents,” and “Steak and Chips”attracted a much wider readership.

At the same time that Barthes became an influential analyst of the meaning of everyday cultural phenomena, however, he earned the respect of his fellow scholars with groundbreaking conceptual formulations that helped to reorient the course of academic literary studies. His idea that writers do not possess a privileged understanding of the meaning of their work, summed up in the somewhat misleading phrase “the death of the author”it is the author’s authority over her interpretation, not her existence, that Barthes believes to be “dead”has been instrumental in encouraging subjective approaches to literary criticism that emphasize the importance of the reader’s response to what is being read. Conversely, Barthes’s essay “The Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1966) and S/Z’s (1970; English translation, 1974) development of the concept of narrative coding gave critics a rigorously objective toolkit for the systematic dissection of written texts.

The idea of the neutral has been touched upon previously in Barthes’s work, notably in the concept of the “zero degree” developed in Writing Degree Zero (1953), which cleared a small space for nonpolarized phenomena amid the clash of dueling binaries. The subsequent influence of deconstructionist forms of literary analysis and their emphasis on the binary oppositions that structure people’s communication with one anotherin which Barthes was for a time an active and eager participant with such works as Elements of Semiology (1968) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973)have tended, however, to crowd out any serious or extended consideration of the role of the neutral. The idea that the literary critic proceeds by the identification of the dominant and subordinate terms in binary relationships, and then illuminates the ideological implications of these relationships by reversing their polarities and making the subordinate term dominant, has become a formula for the generation of deconstructive interpretations of texts, and often a rather mechanical and contrived one. In the volume under consideration here, Barthes engages with what had in effect become a kind of tyranny of the binary opposition, as he returned to his earlier interest in searching for signs that there are in-between, unappropriated, and essentially neutral places that have escaped the domination of discourse by dichotomous thinking.

The organization of The Neutral reflects its origin as the contents of a college course, but any fear that this might result in some dry-as-dust academic tome is subverted by some of its author’s engagingly idiosyncratic touches. After a brief outline of how the course will proceed, Barthes makes a typically frank admission of what it is about: It is “The Desire for Neutral,” he reflects, that might better describe what he is seeking here, thus acknowledging the personal interest that underlies the book’s normative academic sequence of readings and lectures. This quintessentially Barthesian move, which both confesses and foregrounds the role of autobiography in his work, is the first in what will be a series of intimate disclosures that engagingly humanize an intellectually demanding text. Thus an apparently mundane anecdote about knocking over a bottle of the pigment “Neutral” ties Barthes’s domestic and scholarly activities together in a way that is both amusing and intellectually suggestive. More seriously, his thoughts on the consequences of the death of his mother depict a writer who is well aware that...

(The entire section is 1748 words.)