Imperative or Description? On Roland Barthes’ Notion of The Neutral in Minimalist Art and Ethical Minimalism



I can’t seem to get smallness out of my mind.  It’s not simply an obsession.  The Kabbalists of Safed and also Kafka knew that.  The notion of “tsimtsum” (also spelled “tzimtzum”), in particular, addresses smallness and contraction in terms of a dynamic (a movement from one state to another).  It emerges in JS Foer’s recent novel, Here I Am.  Like Jacob, the main character of the novel and also the narrator of that novel, I can’t help but notice how while things around us seem to be getting larger and larger, they are in fact getting smaller and smaller.  They are not simply infinite in number; they are also becoming infinitesimal.   They seem to be coming close and yet, at the same time, moving away.

We too seem to be shrinking on a daily basis.

Social Media – on the one hand – makes things more minute and multiple.  We can’t possibly read every post or learn from everything (clickable).

It’s overwhelming.

We are so small in comparison to this endless flow of information.  There is a kind of passion.  We can’t stop clicking.  We can’t click enough.  But each click makes us smaller.  Each little link seems to matter to us, but there are too many.   This is what I would call a description of smallness, a phenomenology – if you will.  In light of this reflection on smallness,  I have been wondering if “smallness” is an ethical imperative – the imperative to become small – or is it only an aesthetic description?  Or is smallness an experience?

Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent book, Wasting Time on the Internet, suggests that smallness may be an existential choice   The individuality of the “digital flaneur” exists.  It is a tangible.  We can “experience it.”  But it is the browsing – of the digital flanuer – which seems to be an ethical imperative.  Goldsmith associates this browsing with Roland Barthes notion of “the Neutral” which he illustrates through Marcel Duchamp’s seemingly aesthetic but purely sensory notion of “the infrathin.”

If we take Goldmith’s illustration to heart, I would argue than Duchamp’s word suggests an aesthetic figure for something that is also ethical.   There is an ethical choice – by the artist or thinker- to record the feelings or affects of different sensations that are, what he says elsewhere, “pure minimalism.”   “Browsing” as read in terms of a sense of the digital flanuer, is the act of someone who – through a choice to withdraw a certain relation to the world that doesn’t know how to browse – drifts through existence to feel and record the alteration of states: from feeling the sliding of silk on a pant leg to hearing – as Goldsmith translates it into current parlance – the sound of an email whooshing away.

Today, there are countless different experiences of alteration – of one small thing to another –  which can give us the freedom to drift.  This freedom is not simply a gift from the neutral, it is an action.  As I argued in my last essay on Goldsmith’s interest in smallness, one’s attentiveness – in the spirt of Paul Celan’s reading of Kafka and Kafka’s reading of Malebranche – is the “silent prayer of the soul.”  To know this is to know the secret –  it seems – to Goldsmith’s reading of Roland Barthes explanation of the Neutral.

I went back to a book of lecture notes that Roland Barthes created and used in his courses in Morocco – before his death – in 1976 and 1977 to see what Roland Barthes would say about two subjects that Goldsmith reads vis-a-vis the Neutral: the aesthetic and ethical smallness.   These extensive and beautiful lecture notes are in a collection entitled…The Neutral.   

I discovered something fascinating.

Barthes compares and contrasts an aesthetic and an ethical reading of “the Neutral” and argues that one form of minimalism – in modern art – is false while the other one, which he beautifully describes, is true because it is the true “style of behavior.” It is not merely a description.  Minimalism is also a way of being in the world.  It is ethics and it is an aesthetic.

What would Barthes say of Duchamp’s minimalist art?

Helen Molesworth has argued that Duchamp’s “ready-mades” articulate an “avoidance of work” in the world, that is, a kind of flaunuer whose small life drifts though existence.  The work of art – in the spirit of the flanuer – is an action against the world.  Browsing through states of the neutral, the making small of one’s attentiveness through a dedicated attention to smallness, is an avoidance of the world, which characterizes – for also Barthes and Maurice Blanchot – “the avoidance of work.”  Avoidance, in other words, is an action that participates in the neutral.  The avoidance of the world – which we find with the drifting of the Flanuer from one altered state to another –  is true because it – as I will show below – can’t even be doubted by a skeptic.

Although Duchamp would seem to work perfectly, minimal art, suggests Barthes, may present a “false image” of “the Neutral.”

False image of the Neutral as minimalist:  “Minimalist Art,” New York, 1960s: artists opposed to the overflow of the abstract expressionism of action painting; shaving off all the extra-visual connotations (literature, symbolism): the object must be presented in a plain obviousness, with the clarity of an irrefutable reality > depersonalized and even mechanized fracture > “to neutralize form and color: to banish all emotion, all anecdote > From my point of view, the assimilation of the Neutral with the minimal is a misinterpretation (1) because the Neutral doesn’t erase the affect but only  processes it, formats its “manifestations” (2) because the minimalist neutral has nothing to do with aesthetics, but only with ethics.  (The Neutral, 199)

Barthes – in this reading – indirectly suggests that there is a “minimalist neutral” that informs an ethics.  And it is his reading of the relationship between “the minimalist neutral” and “The Neutral” (with a capital “N” and a definite article “the”) that discloses a way of life that, for Barthes, provides the subject for the best and the most compelling description and imperative – that he can imagine – for the good life.  He calls it the “minimalist thought of the Neutral.”

In fact, there could be a minimalist thought of the Neutral; such a minimalism would be as follows: a style of behavior that tends to minimalize the subjects interface with the world’s arrogance…but not with the world, not with affects, with love, etc.” it that sense, there could be an ethical minimalism but in no way an aesthetic or affective one.  (200)

The “right minimalist ethic” would “help bring harmony between the maximum internal intensity (i.e. hyperconsciousness”) and the minimum external” (200).  Barthes argues that this harmonization is found in what he calls Tao minimalism.  He contrasts it to Hegel’s expansionist philosophy -which is a “process leading toward the flowering of absolute knowledge, celebration of the more – with Tao minimalism:

With Lao Tzu, the treatment of negation (in each and everything its negative) is mystical: return to the non-distinct, celebration of the less > Lao Tzu tends to the apologia of the minimal image. (200)

Barthes suggests that it spurred his interest in the meaning of epoch for the skeptic.  It is also a kind of minimalism but marks a “suspension of judgment.”   The “thought of the Neutral” must take the skeptic’s epoche to heart.   The skeptic doesn’t “put sensation or perception in doubt but only the judgment that ordinarily accompanies the feeling” (201).   His reading of smallness via the minimalist ethics of Lao Tzu is associated with the meaning of the skeptic’s relationship to “intensities.” Rupture, epoch, could in fact be a good thing that makes one “happy.”

Skepticism: not an “abdication” from intensities: “he keeps life as a guide” (beautiful formula) (2) Epoch has an ethical dimension (aims at a “happiness”, at a “rightness.” (202)

In other words, skepticism is a “suspension of judgement” and experience of “intensities” which also has “an ethical dimension.”   It seems as if he is suggestion that there can’t be an ethical and aesthetic relation to the Neutral.  The skeptical epoche relates to sensation, but this is deemed ethical.   What do we make, then, of the rendering of this relationship?  Isn’t this aesthetic and ethical?  Can the exposure to “intensities” and smallness be articulated in poetry or art?  Isn’t that what Barthes, himself, is doing?  Perhaps this is the irony.

Through Charles Baudelaire, Barthes suggests that the poet can render the experience of the Neutral in terms of becoming small.  Baudelaire “raised the problem” of the “confrontation between my intensity and external intensities (of others, of the other)” in terms of his poetic reflections on the epochal experience of radical alteration:

Many social, worldly experiences, where suddenly the subject feels himself desynchronized, “thrown off level,” “disharmonized” …derealized in relation to the others who seem to him excessive, emphatic, excited, false > reflex of retreating, of shrinking, not letting oneself be seen and not letting it be seen that one does not want to be seen: pure minimalism.  (200)

This is what Baudelaire means when he writes of the “difference between pitch and level.”  The words articulate not simply a reflex but also an act of “pure minimalism.”  This experience, he suggests, should be the subject of art because it reflects what – as he argues in relation to the “epoche of the Skeptic” – can’t be doubted.  This is marked by Barthes’ threefold reflection on the Neutral (“the thought of the Neutral”) in terms of sensation as minimalism, minimalism as ethics, and “pure minimalism” as the subject of the poet’s reflection.

For Barthes smallness can be read, as Goldsmith has, in terms of the “digital flanuer.”  In could certainly be read in these terms.  But I would suggest that in his book Wasting Time on the Internet,  Goldsmith’s reflection on the Neutral and its illustration, through Duchamp’s notion of the “infrathin,” can’t be understood as an ethical and aesthetic model of smallness without reading Barthes.   Taken together, we can see what the importance of addressing smallness is: today, it is the ultimate subject of art, ethics, and experience.

Smallness runs throughout Barthes’ notes for his courses in Morocco in the 1970s, it dots the pages of Walter Benjamin’s “illuminations” and “reflections,” and it leaps out at us in Goldsmith’s reading of the “digital flanuer.”  Reading smallness in terms of the Neutral  should give us pause.  These readings insist that the experience of shock is coextensive with truth and happiness and that the sensation of alteration is the most important subject of aesthetics and the source the “rightness” of action” and a “minimalist ethics.” This would suggest that smallness is and should be a guide for action, a thing of reflection, and the basis of all true art.  If it’s to be true, perhaps it should be any one or else all of these at the same time.  After all, the thought of smallness (of the minimal) for all of them could be called the Thought – not of Being (as Heidegger might say) but – of the Neutral.



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