“Sweetness is the Final Word of Skepticism”: Roland Barthes on Skepticism, Sweetness, and Stupidity

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When I first ask my students about the meaning of skepticism, they often give me answers that confuse it with pessimism, bitterness, and negativity. Roland Barthes argues the contrary: that skepticism has nothing to do with bitterness. According to Diogenes Laertius, the 3rd century biographer of Greek philosophers, “sweetness is the final word of skepticism.” And the state that attends skepticism – which informs its “sweetness” – is “insensitivity” (“apatheia”) or “gentleness” (“praotes”).   Drawing on Laertius, Barthes creates a nuanced reading of skepticism which should appeal to us today and help us to go beyond a metaphysics based on what he calls a “balance” of opposites. Instead of focusing on balance and the concern with truth, Barthes calls for what he calls “drifting” and this modality is the way to sweetness, happiness, and apatheia.   Barthes reflections on these aspects of skepticism suggest that he sees the skeptic as a kind of artist who lives outside of the realm of judgment and truth. The artist is a daydreamer in the sense that s/he is apathetic and is more concerned with perception than in its meaning.

According to Barthes, “epoche” is the “key concept of Greek skepticism.” He defines it as the “suspension of judgment.” When the mind is suspended, it “neither affirms nor denies anything.” And although judgment is suspended, the “skeptic stays in touch with what he feels, with what he believes he feels.” He doesn’t try to judge or understand what he feels in a “dogmatic away.” Rather, he just “announces his impressions.”

Instead of “abdicating” from “intensities,” the skeptic keeps “life as a guide” and this, says Barthes, is the “ethical dimension” of skepticism.   Letting life be a guide is equivalent to allowing one self to drift into and out of “intensities.” This drifting aims at “happiness” and “rightness.” But for this to happen, one need s to set things in opposition. However, one does so in a way that doesn’t look to “balance” the opposites. He calls balance a “myth.”

To the mythical image of balance, we can oppose another image: that of the drift: an opposition (conflict/paradigm) can be “neutralized” by a balanced blockage of forces…but also by parrying, drifting away from the antagonistic binarism. (202, The Neutral)

According to Barthes, what is at stake in the rift between “balance” and “drift” is “security.” One can either cling to “balance” and “truth,” and be secure, or one can cling to “drift” and abandon all security. This suggests that in drifting one may experience the unsettling nature of drives and trauma (Freud) or reactions (Deleuze). Nonetheless, in doing this, Barthes suggests, by way of ancient skeptics, that there will be a happy (“sweet”) state of indifference (“apatheia”).

This state, says Barthes, “presents the most affinity with Neutral.” It evinces what he calls a “gentleness.” This comes with passing tactfully (not strategically) and gently from one state to another. He calls it a “neutral awakening” from sleep into a state between sleep and dreams, a kind of daydream state.   It has a kind of timing that is abberant, a kairos which Barthes calls a “kind of hunger for contingency.”   And the goal of this hunger is to be found in writing which looks to “outstrip the world.”

A whole work (of writing) is needed for worldliness to be outstripped and outclassed by writing: it’s a revelation that is only brought about at the very end: writing drives out worldliness…but over the course of a long initiation, of a drama complete with episodes. (172).

The neutral, which the skeptic experiences, “listens to contingency, it doesn’t submit to it.” It’s hunger, in other words, is continual. Sweetness consists in dodging the system and by following the span of kairos as it moves from one state or scene to another. Only the truth, in the skeptics view, is bound to time and fate.

This dodging reminds me of Buster Keaton who, it seems, might be considered a figure of the skeptic, as understood by Barthes. He is innocent, tactful, and caught up in a drift. He is constantly thrown out of balance and drifts from one state to another. His time is not the time of fate; it is the time of chance. But, in the end, he gets by and gives a model for comedy.

What one might miss in all this is that even though Barthes suggest “tact” as a part of being skeptical. There is also a kind of “stupidity” that comes with drifting and with the “suspension of judgment” (epoche). In his autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, he writes lovingly about stupidity:

What is it? A spectacle, an aesthetic fiction, perhaps a hallucination? Perhaps we want to put ourselves in the picture? It’s lovely, it takes your breath away, it’s strange; and about stupidity, I am entitled to say no more than this: that it fascinates me. Fascination is the correct feeling stupidity must inspire me with…it grips me (it is intractable, nothing prevails over it, it takes you in an endless hand-over-hand race). (51)

In passages like these, we can see that Barthes is associating perception and drift with a kind of stupidity that is “intractable” and “prevails.” But instead of giving it a negative valance as many philosophers would do, regarding perception as such, Barthes calls it lovely and embraces it. After all, the suspension of judgment, which comes on one out of nowhere, prompts an experience of stupidity. It is not an experience in which everything comes together so much as an experience of how things drift apart. But instead of seeing it in a tragic or comic manner, doesn’t Barthes, in associating all of this with stupidity, give us a sense of how skepticism is not bitter but sweet and…comical? Or is skepticism…fatal…since it “grips me” and “prevails over me”…stripping me of my freedom….taking me on an “endless hand-over-hand race?”

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