Friday, October 14, 2011

Paradox by Maggie Nelson

A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses. It signals the possibility – and sometimes the arrival – of a third term into a situation that otherwise appeared to consist of but two opposing forces. Roland Barthes elaborates this third term – which he calls the Neutral - with the utmost beauty and intelligence in his 1977 – 78 series of lectures titled The Neutral . Barthes’s Neutral is that which throws a wrench into any system ( doxa) that demands, often with menacing pressure, that one enters conflicts, produce meaning, takes sides, choose between binary oppositions (i.e. “is cruel/is not!”) that are not of one’s making, and for which one has no appetite.

As it disrupts such demands, the Neutral introduces responses that had heretofore been unthinkable – such as to slip, to drift, to flee, to escape. In a world fixated on the freedom to speak and the demand to be heard, the Neutral proposes “a right to be silent – a possibility of being silent… the right not to listen…to not read the book, to think nothing of it, to be unable to say what I think of it: the right not to desire.” It allows for a practice of gentle aversion: the right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things.

Preserving the space for such responses has been one of this book’s primary aims. Of equal importance has been making a space for paying close attention, for recognizing and articulating ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure. I have intended no special claim for art and literature – that is, no grand theory of their value. But I have meant to express throughout a deep appreciation of them as my teachers. For, as Barthes suggests, insofar as certain third terms – however volatile or disturbing – baffle the oppressive forces of reduction, generality, and dogmatism, they deserve to be called sweetness.

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