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Roland Barthes and the Value of Closets

The French literary theorist urges us to resist being enlisted in the army of the good in favor of preserving our sanity and spending quality time with friends

Blake Smith
August 03, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

There is no such thing as neutrality, we often hear. Our contemporary culture warriors, whose livelihoods depend on our sense of mutual enmity and embitterment, continually remind us that there is no escape from the conflicts they stoke. Ibram X. Kendi insists there can be “no neutrality” toward his brand of antiracism; the only alternative is racism. From the right, social conservatives cheer on figures like Sohrab Ahmari for claiming that there can be “no neutrality” on so-called social issues, and that politics itself is nothing other than the selection of a class of “clerics” to enforce moral “orthodoxy.” Kendi, whose signature political ambition is the creation of a Department of Antiracism, staffed with ideological clones of himself, may use different terminology, but he could hardly dispute the substance of Ahmari’s point.

Such sweeping polemical binaries are not merely self-interested rhetorical ploys by shallow pundits, but essential structuring assumptions of the ethical tradition of the West. In the Gospels, Jesus warns that “whoever is not with me is against me,” refusing the possibility that one might receive his claims to being the Messiah with something other than either faith or hostility. That we could meet such a grandiose assertion with bemusement, skepticism, or simple indifference is denied to us in advance. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that our modern political thinking, from Karl Marx to Carl Schmitt, gives so much emphasis to the revelation of what appear to be insuperable conflicts, and to demolishing what is said to be political liberalism’s naïve ambition of pacifying them through dialogue and mutual respect.

But although neutrality does not have behind it the great philosophical or spiritual pedigree of sundering, violent announcements that life is, as Nietzsche says, a “school of war,” we do in fact find ourselves constantly, albeit usually unconsciously or incoherently, seeking relief from intolerable conflicts and intolerant claims. We find ourselves saying that assertions to moral and political authority are “opinions” to which all have a right (as if they were not true or false, good or evil, and in any case having some effect in the world). We step quietly away from interlocutors’ efforts to enroll us in their polemical campaigns, politely taking the missionaries’ pamphlet or demurely murmuring “hmm” to a moralizing friend. As we pursue these personal tactics of opacity, resisting the demand to be transparently “with” or “against” whoever is summoning us at this very moment to make stark and immediate choices, we dream of places where the imperatives of prophets and politicians can be deferred or forgotten in the sharing of enjoyments with chosen others. No one understood these longings better than Roland Barthes.

Toward the end of his life, in the spring of 1978, the French literary theorist gave a series of lectures at the Collège de France on “The Neutral.” In them, Barthes worked through—in an ostensibly random order, meant to perform a playfully “neutral” stance toward the content of his course—some practices by which people elude polarizing questions, and some sites, real and imagined, to which they flee. Barthes’ later lectures, and his work more generally, are rarely understood today in political terms. But they offer insights into what could be called the work of being apolitical: the everyday moments by which, escaping summons to enlist ourselves in the army of the good we make it possible for people to live with each other decently. From Barthes’ perspective, it is not so much that politics requires “pre-political” foundations (such as relative cultural homogeneity and shared values, as is often understood in a tradition deriving from Aristotle), but rather that politics is only survivable insofar as its drive to conflict is everywhere slowed, blunted, and resisted by our apolitical moves toward “the neutral.”

Conflict has all almost all our cultural heritage in its favor, Barthes complained: “the Western tradition is a problem for me in this respect … it makes conflict into a nature and a value.” That is, we are told both that life cannot be otherwise than a cacophonous clash of opposing views, one of which must triumph—or, more radically, that it is a universal struggle among competitive individuals, who strive to dominate all others. But we are also asked to see this “natural” situation as somehow desirable, and those who perform most effectively within it as possessing exemplary qualities. Our heroes are the warrior, the entrepreneur, and the activist, not the neutral parties. Neutrality appears cold, lifeless, effeminate, weak, and suspect.

Barthes himself had once despised neutrality. His most famous work among American readers today, his collection of essays Mythologies, contains a short evisceration of what he called the “The Neither-Nor Critique,” by which centrist, ostensibly free-thinking intellectuals feign to be above the fray of political partisanship. In the mid-1950s, when the essay was written, politics meant for French society the conflict of Marxism and its anti-Marxist opponents. Critics who claimed to support neither the Soviet Union nor the United States, neither communism nor capitalism, and neither the parties of the French left nor their conservative foes, Barthes argued, tried to present themselves as “an arbiter endowed with an ideal spirituality” by which they could escape the conflicts raging within and beyond France. But, he warned, this was a double illusion.

In the first place, “neither-nor” thinkers, posing as independent minds, set themselves up in a camp of their own opposed to the rest of society, “leading to a new dichotomy, just as simplistic as the one that, in the name of complexity itself, they had sought to denounce.” Rather than adding nuance to the debate between right and left, the “Third Party” of supposedly neutral thinkers waged a partisan struggle against partisanship. Moreover, Barthes added, such intellectuals were not in fact separable from the conservatives. Of Marx no less than Jesus could it be said that one was either with or against him. It was thus easy “to understand which side the Neither-Nor is on,” that of capitalism.

Two decades later, Barthes had learned to appreciate the hypocrisies by which people seek to establish and defend their right to be neutral. He did not give, exactly, an admission of having been wrong. But he began by insisting that there was an important distinction to be made between taking up neutrality as a distinct position, as if it were a stance of its own equivalent to other partisan positions, and the various desires and tactics by which people move toward “the neutral.” Rather than being a definite condition or explicit commitment, the neutral is something we experience in fleeting moments. We let certain things remain hidden or implicit, we delay the application of certain rules, we refuse to acknowledge certain differences or similarities, letting things go on a little longer as they are without pronouncing judgment on them. It is a momentary “possibility of keeping silent” rather than a new demand upon the world.

Over the course of his lectures, Barthes offered brilliant descriptions of how we seek the neutral. When an interlocutor tries to compel our agreement, or force us to avow our animosity, we might for example slow her down with “minutia,” the “art of the useless supplement” by which we gain time, quibbling over details, and losing the initial demand in a thicket of niceties. Or we might be excessively, even “perversely,” polite, confusing our interlocutor with semblances of agreement that, on closer inspection, reveal themselves to be nothing but indefinite deferrals. In a revealing passage, Barthes notes that his own style, notoriously elliptical, pretentious, and demanding, is itself a way of slowing down readers eager to find some position “for” or “against” whatever target. Conversely, those of us less verbally adept might use our “stupidity,” refusing to understand what is being demanded of us, or the “banality” of cliches that soothe our interlocutors into thoughtlessness.

Such tactics help us dodge and delay imperatives to take sides. They also reveal a longing for a more lasting escape somewhere beyond conflict. Barthes suggests that there can never be such a place for very long; any conventional defense of its borders would transform it into another unneutral domain. But they do exist, at the margins of our society or quietly in its midst.

Barthes knew the value of neutral spaces firsthand. He had spent the years 1942-45 in a sanitarium, far from the agony of the German occupation, receiving a treatment for tuberculosis that consisted chiefly of silence and immobility for the greater part of the day. Just before “The Neutral,” he had devoted a course at the Collège de France, “How to Live Together” (1976-77), to such sites where people can share a pattern of life distinct from that of the culture around them. True to his “neutral” tactic of erudite obscurity, he called this distinct tempo of activity “idiorhythmia.”

His concept echoed one elaborated a decade before by Michel Foucault in an essay titled “Other Spaces.” Foucault (who also indulged in inventing highfalutin words out of Greek roots) had argued that all societies have “heterotopias,” places with distinct rules that exist in a kind of physical or cultural periphery to the rest of society. Unlike utopias, which are imagined in order to criticize and transform the order of the world, heterotopias offer their inhabitants or visitors a chance to transform themselves—or at least to suspend temporarily who they usually are by submitting to a “heterochronia,” an alternative relationship to time. Sanitariums and monasteries, but also temporary sites like fairgrounds, appeared to Foucault as examples of heterotopias.

Where Foucault, abstract and impersonal in his analysis, pointed to the social function of such spaces (which secure the order they seem to elude by offering release or containment for dissent), Barthes articulated the desires and fantasies that drew people toward them. He described, as powerfully as Virginia Woolf, the longing for a room of one’s own, “withdrawn from surveillance.” The “struggle to have a room,” he insisted, is “a struggle for freedom,” but also for an “anti-gregarious” space in which one can exercise one’s “will to power” over oneself, exploring new ways of being outside of social norms. Barthes pitted such privacy, the necessary precondition for self-construction, against “the family’s outer coating” that stifles individuality, and the “crowd,” in which, as in a “school of fish,” differences among “subjects are annihilated.”

A private room and private life, however, are only the beginning of freedom, which has to be enacted with others in order to make sustainable over the long term a new kind of life, or to intensify the possibilities of other, more short-lived experiments in being different from one’s ordinary self. While the family and crowd impose their standards on individuals, other ways of living together can open possibilities for change. Romantic and sexual couples stand apart from “every group,” as do intentional communities like monasteries.

Barthes suggested that in thinking about what is valuable about such relationships, we should not focus on their apparent goals of ecstatic fusion of lovers or mystical union with God. Rather we should consider how the practices that sustain such relationships work, how they give people a margin of freedom from the imperatives of their societies, perhaps precisely because they can posit as a kind of alibi for the pursuit of personal autonomy a lofty, vague, socially acceptable goal of human or divine love. If, however, we allow ourselves as observers to be uncertain about—that is, neutral toward—the value of these purported goals (and indeed equally uncertain about “political faith, which has replaced religious faith for the intellectual caste”), we can see couples, religious organizations and even political groups as models not so much of pursuing some romantic, spiritual or social good, as of maintaining the distance from society requisite for autonomous self-development. We make claims about the supposedly highest things in order to buy ourselves a margin of independence by which, together with chosen comrades, we can become ourselves more truly, in all of our individual strangeness.

What we are now accustomed to calling “safe spaces” are rarely sites of freedom and experimentation. The term usually refers to sites that institutions such as universities designate within themselves for specific moral and political purposes, in which activities will be visible to the powers on high and held to their standards of goodness. They are spaces made safe by and for power, not spaces safe from it.

In contrast, it may seem strange to cite the “closet” of unavowed sexuality as a more viable example of a “space” that connects the privacy of one’s own room with the shared, somewhat anti-social, activities of “idiorhythmic” living with others. For most of us today, it seems imperative to be able to avow and seek public recognition of one’s sexual identity, as well as one’s religious faith, political views, etc. Barthes, however, as a gay man who never quite declared himself such in print, suggested that behind this apparent desire for self-expression by individuals is a demand for transparency imposed on them from without, as mistaken and as dangerous as our tradition’s overvaluation of conflict.

In an arresting passage of “The Neutral” that is almost (but, critically, not) a declaration of his sexuality, Barthes insisted that our pursuit of the neutral reveals the strange, unnatural quality of “the interview” and the need for a space away from it. In our media, professional life, and even what passes for small talk, we have become habituated to posing each other questions that supposedly bring into speech “personal” truths. The interview, Barthes suggested, imposes on its subjects a sort of “double bind,” as the coded, formalized quality of interviews means that it is never truly intimate information that is being sought, but rather a kind of socially acceptable pseudo-intimate self. Still worse, insofar as questioners and answerers imagine themselves to be dredging something up from the deepest interior of, or beneath, subjectivity, an interview is “the worst of violences,” a violation of the possibility of keeping secrets from others—and from ourselves.

Here Barthes drew on Freud, who had argued in the first of his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis that keeping secrets is the very mechanism of our existence as subjects, of being “respectable” in the eyes of others and “coherent” in our own. This suggests that being wholly known, even to ourselves, would dissolve the knowing ego in a magma of unspeakable, contradictory desires. Every interview, Barthes concludes, threatens its subjects with such a dissolution by posing, under infinitely varied forms, only one, always unanswerable question: the question of one’s sexuality, of what it is one really wants—which is just what one cannot say and remain respectable, cannot know and remain an integrated personality.

However dated readers in an age of omni-surveillance and ostensible liberation may find Barthes’ evocation of a closeted sexuality, his critique of our tradition’s insistence on the importance of conflict, and its demands that individuals “know themselves” and demonstrate that knowledge in acts of public self-avowal, could not be more current. Our contemporary approaches to selfhood and politics are founded on an impossible, dangerous ideal of transparent, comprehensible individuals who fit neatly into sides and categories. We must often pretend to be such people, but given that we can never successfully be them, we inevitably thwart demands for transparency through nearly invisible, and never valorized, tactics of resistance, such as stupidity and banality. Sometimes, archly, we signal to others the true significance of our obscurity, or hint what it is that we never say.

These evasions may seem pathetic, seen from the vantage of the great virtues that our theorists of conflict celebrate. Even from Barthes’ own earlier perspective in Mythologies, they seem complicit in evil, refusing to fight openly against it. But as anyone exhausted by our culture wars knows, the neutral is essential to a livable life, one shared with people whom one cannot do without and whose demands for transparency one can never answer. Scaling up from the personal, Barthes encourages us to think that certain kinds of neutrality—certain zones of obscurity, certain questions we refuse to publicly ask each other, certain forms of indifference to the “real” desires and identities of those we live among—are the key to a politics that constrains conflict. His insights suggest that although we demand “representation” and “visibility” for every aspect of ourselves, what we in fact need the most are more rooms of one’s own, more pretexts for eluding society’s imperatives, and more closets.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.