Roland Bathes: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977

Roland Barthes’ “Comment vivre ensemble” and “Le Neutre” lectures are here for all to enjoy.

NOTES on “Comment vivre ensemble”

The audio material available here represents the whole lectures given by Barthes during his first 2 years’ teaching at the Collège de France in 1977 and 1978, and also his inaugural lecture about the question of power (and the way it is inscribed in the core of the language).

The Collège de France, in Paris, is a prestigious institution created in 1530 and whose vocation is both being a research center and a teaching space. Neither a University nor a High School, it also has to be distinguished from public research centers and does not award any degree either ; admission to lectures is free and open to all students without any preliminary registration. There are 52 chairs for 52 holders in a wide range of subjects. Professors are elected by their peers and, on their arrival, name their own chairs according to the researching themes they mean to develop. Actually, in opposition to the other institutions that provide an established knowledge (Lacan’s « S1 »), the Collège de France deals with knowledge “inthe-making” (Lacan’s « S2 »). The prestige of the Collège can be judged by its old professors : Champollion, Paul Valery, Henri Bergson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, André Leroi-Gourhan, Pierre Boulez, etc.

Roland Barthes was elected to the Collège de France on Michel Foucault’s proposal in March 1976 and created the chair of literary semiology there. A few days after his inaugural lecture on the 7th of January 1977, Barthes starts his lectures entitled « Comment vivre ensemble » (“How to live together”) for the year 1977.

The initial question that he asks to himself (: « How to find the right distance between me and my neighbour in order that an acceptable social living may be possible for all of us ? ») finds a direct answer in Barthes’ following proposal : the idiorhythmy as a way (as a fantasy) of living, i.e. a system in which everyone should be able to find, impose and preserve their own rhythm of life.

These lectures about living in community seem strangely refer to themes that Michel Foucault had previously dealt with. According to Barthes, power is precisely what forbids any idiorythmy because it imposes strict rhythms to individuals. The design of the paragon of an idiorhythmic way of living should be that of an anchorite or an ascetic stylite secluded on the top of his column (cf. Buñuel’s Simon Of The Desert) ; on the other hand, the total rejection of idiorythmy is what will produce such communities as convents, monasteries or phalansteries (and we should also add two other types of communities that proscribe the possibility of idiorythmy to individuals, two main institutions in Foucault’s works : psychiatric hospitals and prisons).

During his 1977’s lectures, Barthes will apply himself to clear a path to a living-together (probably utopian), towards this fantasy of society he suggests : a society that would allow everyone to live according to his own rhythm inside the community but without being based on an extreme solitude for each individual (hard to reach, except in the case of the authentic extatic mysticism and in the case of a deep – pathological – feeling of dereliction), a society that wouldn’t be based on the extreme alienation of individiuals by a power (whatever its forms) fixing strict rhythms.

— Guillaume Patin, Editor / Curator

NOTES on “Le Neutre”

Just as the previous year’s teaching about the living-together did, the 1978 ‘s lectures originated from one of Bathes’s personal fantasies : Neutral, the desire of Neutral. This is not a recent concern since Writing degree zero in 1953 already dealt with this subject.

Barthes straightforwardly defines Neutral as something that thwarts, dodges the paradigm. Saussure’s paradigm is based on the necessary opposition between two virtual terms (A and B) ; the mechanisms of this conflict is that it finally has to lead the individual to choose one of these two terms in order that a sense may happen. Neutral, then, stands as a third structural term that annihilates this implacable binarism of the paradigm. The neutral term occurs from the cancelling of the opposition in the paradigm : Neutral, degree zero, is defined as what is neither A nor B.

Ethics (the range of the prescribed choices for individuals, of the responsabilities they have to take upon themselves, of the sense they continuously has to produce) currently implies another range in which individuals are tempted to dodge any conflict, any choice, tempted to avoid the sense : that’s where the range of Neutral for Barthes lies.

The method that he will apply during this teaching will be globally the same as the one he applied during the previous year : i.e. defining an object of study, an argument for these lectures, then describing several figures of this object (without defining or explaining them). These figures of Neutral (androgyny, consciousness, tolerance, tiredness, sleep, etc.) have previously been chosen with a claimed subjectivity and then brought before the audience in a random order to avoid any creation of sense that would only be an artefact (a real drawback in his teaching about the Neutral, i.e. precisely about what thwarts the production of sense). In that respect, the lectures must both describe and echibit the dimension of Neutral. Barthes’ stake is to show up the weakness of the common ideas of doxa about insipidity and platitude of Neutral ; on the contrary, he tries to restore its strength, its bright and intense dimension in dealing with states, behaviors or speeches that aim at the removal of this intrinsic conflict inside the paradigm.

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