2015 marks Roland Barthes’ (1915-1980) centenary. With an inimitable take on both the classification and declassification of culture, Barthes’ writings have long influenced a diverse range of fields and interests. Underlying much of his writings is an insistence on ideological critique, yet always set against deliberations of nuanced terms such as idiolect, pleasure, the neutral and ‘idiorrhythmy’. The centenary prompts inevitable reappraisal of Barthes’ oeuvre and his relevance to contemporary cultural and literary theory. Of particular interest is the combined theoretical and creative significance of his work. Diana Knight’s important study, Barthes and Utopia (1997), has previously noted of the oft-misleading separation suggested between Barthes’ political and ethical concerns, and his creative projects in writing. This same concern framed a recent 2-day conference, The Renaissance of Roland Barthes (April, 2013, CUNY, NY); the organizers noting how the ‘theoretical significance and formal innovation of his late work, especially his lectures, has yet to receive the international attention it deserves’. It is also rarely discussed that throughout the 1970s Barthes maintained a practice of drawing, as well as writing. As a key theorist for the visual arts, the fact Barthes maintained an art practice has implications for how we ‘read’ his work.

The posthumous publication (in both French and English translation) of Barthes’ three key lecture courses delivered at the Collège de France became available only recently, some twenty years after his death. In sequence, these are How to Live Together, The Neutral, and The Preparation of the Novel. The courses reflect Barthes’ preoccupation with the everyday, yet reveal a new degree of sophistication, both formally and conceptually. Reflecting back on the period (leading up to Barthes’ untimely death in 1980), Michel Foucault is quoted as saying that Barthes seemed ‘completely developed;’ suggesting: ‘he is one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.’ Such ‘late’work was of course never to come to fruition. Yet, the lectures, presented in their original note form, present perhaps the clearest affirmative project of Barthes’ entire career. The Neutral in particular is pivotal in understanding an ethics of the late works. Barthes refers to a transposing of structural concerns ‘to the “ethical” level: injunctions addressed by the world to “choose”, to produce meaning, to enter conflicts, to “take responsibility,” etc’. There are echoes of Barthes’ early references to colourless writing (Zero Degree Writing) and neither/nor criticism (Mythologies), but more substantially The Neutral develops an explicitly philosophical investigation, which draws upon a Nietzschean (and Deleuzian) perspective, but equally takes an explicit steer from Eastern philosophical traditions. While Barthes is perhaps most cited for his rumination on the temporality of the photograph, the lecture courses frequently give rise to an ethics not only of time, but also space. A figure repeated in both How to Live Together and The Neutral is of a school of fish, as a pattern of fluidity preserving ‘tactful’ spaces between. Crucially, for Barthes, Neutral ≠ neutrality; it is not divestment, but ‘an ardent, burning activity’, through which a history of the world (earth) is revealed as an unsustainable will-to-live, untrammeled by our will-to-possess the sustainable. If perhaps we argue Deleuze offered a ‘politics of desire’, understood through models of growth (or out-growing), Barthes appeared to be working towards an ethics of desire that was about making choices of the finite.

Papers are invited for a special ‘Global Public Life’ section of Theory, Culture & Society, with the aim to publish at the end of 2015. NB. All papers will be subject to the usual peer review process. Contributions focusing on Barthes’ late writings are particularly welcomed, but broader reflections on the political and ethical dimensions of Barthes’ work are encouraged; along with examination of emergent topics such as Barthes’ practice of painting and drawing.

Send initial proposals ASAP to s.manghani@soton.ac.uk

Timeline: First full draft to be submitted 1 December 2014 and final draft due in Spring 2015.


Neutral Life: Reflections on Roland Barthes’ Late Works

Proposed Section of Global Public Life, Theory, Culture & Society

NB. Contributors are invited to form a panel for the forthcoming conference Roland Barthes at 100 (30-31 March 2015) which will provide an opportunity to meet and discuss each other’s draft papers ahead of final submission. For inclusion in the RB at 100 panel, Neutral Life, please supply an abstract by 16 June 2014.