Philosophical & Comical Depreciations: On Roland Barthes’ Images of the Neutral


Some of the greatest works of modern and postmodern literature, poetry, and visual art are obsessed with the meaning of movement and alteration.    This interest is at once temporal and special.  Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, one will find that Bloom’s consciousness moves rapidly from one idea or image to another.    There is a temporal alteration of rhythm running throughout his pages.   What is fascinating about this alteration of image and time is that it is marked by the text.   Although this text seems – in a Whitmanesque sense – to be in the epic mode of expansion, it’s focus on intricate detail is what makes the text and the image move rhythmically.   There is an alteration between the infinitesimal and the infinite; between contraction and expansion.   But the irony of this alteration is that for Joyce’s novel to give the impression of infinity it must become infinitesimal.

As I have noted in a recent post on Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of Duchamp’s concept of the “infrathin” in terms of the “digital flanuer,” contraction and smallness are aspects of what Roland Barthes calls “the Neutral.”  It is in the attention to tiny alterations between one state and another that one experiences the neutral.  What Kafka and Celan would call the “natural prayer of the soul” is the attention to these small shifts in the fabric of existence.  One could argue that this isn’t simply the act of browsing; one’s existence in the modern world – which is constantly expanding – seems to hinge on it.   Roland Barthes’s take on “minimalist art” and “minimalist ethics,” confirms this insight.  For Barthes, smallness – as espoused in modern art – is not an aesthetics.  It is – ironically – an ethics.

Through the image of deprecation or minimization, Barthes finds an articulation of “the Neutral.”     In his lectures on the Neutral, Barthes is not simply explaining what the Neutral is; he is also giving his students several images – a composite, if you will – of the Neutral.   One of the most interesting images he sets forth are those that are found in philosophy.   For this field, the “images of the Neutral are depreciative”(69, The Neutral.)   While – as he points out – they seem to give the Neutral “bad press,” a “bad image,” and a “bad adjective,” his readings cast a different light on them which sees deprecation in a positive sense.    He – more so than any of the philosophers who discuss the neutral – crafts different images for the neutral based on their words.

Barthes files these “bad images” of the neutral in philosophy under six categories: “thankless,” “shirking,” “muffled,” “limp,” “indifferent,” and “vile.”   I’d like to briefly go through them and reflect on what they – taken together – suggest about how smallness and, by extension, comedy, is the other of philosophy.   To be sure, the composite of the image of the Neutral that Barthes puts together – by way of different philosophers (and their “bad” images) – can be found in the schlemiel

Interpreting Maurice Blanchot’s claim that the Neutral does not seduce or attract, Barthes suggests the image of the “thankless” child who exists somewhere between childhood and adulthood.

Being in no way seductive = unrewarding; an unengaging child; a child who doesn’t seduce, contrary to all the rules of childhood; awkward (ingrate) age: between childhood’s seduction and that of adolescence = not lovable and seems not to love.  (69-70)

The image of the man-child – a term often used in relation to the schlemiel as a “perpetual adolescent” – grows out of these characterizations.  However, what Barthes doesn’t note is that there is – in comedy – a kind of charm to awkwardness.   We see this, today, in so many films and TV series (from Parks and Recreation and just about any Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow film to Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which all use deprecation copiously).

The second image that he evokes is “shirking.”  “Subject in the Neutral: said to flee one’s responsibilities, to flee conflict, in a word, most defamatory: to flee”(70).  The best examples Barthes comes up with this “shirking” come directly from the schlemiel who – as Hannah Arendt notes with Rahel Varnhagen or Charlie Chaplin, and can be seen in much schlemiel literature, is always on the run:

Here, exceptionally: escapes, parryings, shifts in direction: successful, light, jubilant, triumphant (cf. Marx Brothers or Chapin in a department store), as if that came to me from a reversal of the (overwhelmed, discredited, astray) Neutral into sovereign Neutral.  (70)

Barthes argues that the Netural has an “affinity for the muffled,” which is a “mixture of dullness, hypocrisy, and a taste for narrow convenience.”    Playing on different words, Barthes suggests a muted kind of emotion – a self-deprecated form of emotion that is “muffled.”  We often find this with schlemiel characters – think, for instance, of Ben Stiller’s roles in many comic films or even Gretta Gerwig’s female version of the schlemiel.   The point is that the muffling of emotion in the schlemiel as anti-hero is juxtaposed to the pathos of the heroic character.

The next two categories that Barthes explores – “limp” and “indifferent” – come from Fichte.   In his description of the skeptic – who, for Barthes, immerses him or herself in the Neutral – Fichte uses the most negative terms: “In this fake being, limp, distended, multiple, there are a crowd of antitheses, of contradictions that live peaceably side by side.”  Playing on this, Barthes argues that the notion of “the limp” is a “vitalist idea.”  If “what lives is only alive if it destroys what is around itself,” than the neutral is “limp” because it doesn’t destroy what is around itself.  It lives “side by side” with contradiction.   The image of the limp suggests that the movement of the neutral is wounded by multiplicity and contradiction.  It doesn’t negate them.  Many a schlemiel – like Jacob, who is likened to a “simple man” by the Torah/Hebrew Bible – limps because they live with indecision.  This, for Fichte, is a “bad image.”

The “indifferent,” for Fichte, associates the neutral with individualism as opposed to the collective.  This image is telling because – as we see in many schlemiel stories and jokes – the schlemiel is the odd one out.  He doesn’t fit into the collective.  The fact of the matter is that schlemiel comedy  – as Groucho says – wouldn’t belong to a club that would have it (or take it personally, “me”) as a member.  The indifference to the collective is also an indifference to war and violence which, for Fichte, are necessary for the collective to triumph over decadence.

The last category of the Neutral is “the vile.”

The term comes from Kojeve who, as Barthes argues, makes a distinction between a good and a bad silence.  (Silence is a characteristic of the Neutral since it pulls back from speech and dwells in reserve.)   The silence of Parmenides and Heraclitus is good while that of the skeptics is bad.  The difference between them is the subject of silence.  For Heraclitus and Parmenides the silence is based on the truth of either Being or Becoming; the skeptics, the silence is not over truth or the concept.  It’s deprecation has to do with doubt, indecision, etc.   As I noted in a recent essay, the epoche – the suspension of judgment –which comes with an acute attention to the alteration of states, displaces speech.

While this suspension certainly has its tragic elements, it can be argued that it is ultimately comical.  Think of all the times – for instance – that the “right” words are missed by this or that schlemiel comedian.  There is a shock or suspension of judgment that comes with this realization.  We see this all the time in Curb Your Enthusiasm.  The silence that comes in the wake of this failure is not directed at any concept.  It is directed at a failed situation or missed opportunity.

Barthes’ categories of deprecation – “thankless,” “shirking,” “muffled,” “limp,” “indifferent,” and “vile” – could all be applied to Larry David.   To be sure, David plays off of them in nearly every episode.  His character – while wealthy and recognized – is in a constant state of deprecation.   The schlemiel can give us another image of the Neutral that is – in contrast to negative images of the skeptic in philosophy – funny.     What makes this image funny is the movement from expansion to contraction where the infinitesimal displaces the infinite; where the run is displaced by the limp; and where philosophical silence is displaced by awkward silence.   In this displacement, in his movement between states, (comical) deprecation comes to the fore and makes for a viewer and a vile, indifferent, muffled, etc character who shirks and shrinks before our very eyes.

Today, as opposed to the philosopher’s of the past, we don’t see deprecation as tragic.   Becoming small – as Barthes suggests – is not merely entertaining.  Perhaps the image of deprecation doesn’t communicate an aesthetics so much as an ethics.    But while Barthes looks to Taoists who reduce their possessions and celebrate their lack of knowledge as a kind of stupidity (“It’a obviously a Tao “‘virtue’…in Tao ethics, in order not to attract attention, avoid noticeability, refrain from clinging to a good image,” 85), we have schlemiels to remind us.  But can we say that a schlemiel like Larry David can, like the Taoist,  provide us with an image of “ethical minimalism”?





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