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The Neutral: Literature as Theory/Theory as Literature

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Organizer: Jana Schmidt

Co-Organizer: Youna Kwak

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In his lecture courses on the Neutral at the Collège de France in 1977-78, Roland Barthes went in pursuit of shades that belong nowhere, figures “without premises, without place, socially untenable.” In these and other late lectures including The Preparation of the Novel, he appeared to be roaming widely to make room for an ethical, non-conceptual way of theorizing that bears resemblance to the 18th century history of morals, the essay and the fragment, and religious mysticism: “Our project is obviously not disciplinary: what we are in search of is the category of the Neutral insofar as it crosses language, discourse, gesture, action, the body, etc.”   Most of all, Barthes was intent on abandoning the distinction between theoretical exposition (teaching) and living (practice), or between philosophical and literary writing (the practice of nuance). Thus, in the shadow of the question of theory’s relation to that which seeks, fervently, to “outplay” paradigm, meaning, and the assertiveness of language, the lectures on the Neutral raise the question of whether writing about literature can itself be a way of practicing literature? The question has gained renewed urgency among multilingual, experimental, non-paradigmatic writers, philosophers, and artists who envision the literary as a theoretical project; theory as a “preparation” for literature; and aesthetic practice as generative of modes of living. In our seminar, we will examine forms and figures of the Neutral that seem to “thwart” or “outplay” the binarisms and hierarchies that organize: poetry and scholarship, popular culture and high art, silence and boredom, paradigmatic and non-paradigmatic production, expertise and improvisation, and literature and practice.

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