Last week, as I was preparing a public lecture on “The Commerce of Anonymity,” I began to think more about the conceptual relations between anonymity and the neutral, and in particular the ways in which together they might bear upon acts of mourning.
At once drawing me back to ideas that I recently presented in chapter 5 of my book, The Decision Between Us, on Roland Barthes’ neutral mourning, and also closer to more recent events in which many of us find ourselves mourning the deaths of largely unknown or anonymous others, I returned not only to Barthes’ work, but also to Maurice Blanchot’s, in order to try to think about how a politics and ethics of the anonymous and neutral might disrupt or refuse some of the more dominant and prevailing responses to such violent atrocities and mass deaths.
In his book, The Step Not Beyond, Blanchot writes that,
The anonymous after the name is not the nameless anonymous. The anonymous does not consist in refusing the name in withdrawing from it. [Thus we might say that the anonymous is the withdrawal of the name through (as) the name of the nameless]. The anonymous puts the name in place, leaves it empty, as if the name were there only to let itself be passed through because the name does not name, but is the non-unity and non-presence of the nameless (34-35).
The name is the passage through which the anonymous passes. And in its passing/withdrawing through the name, the anonymous leaves the place of the name empty, as if the anonymous were the place-name (if not place-holder) for the name.
What I want to suggest is that as the neutral name (neuter) of the name, the anonymous, when mourned, calls for an equally neutral mourning. For Barthes, there is indeed a form of mourning that is without codification and assimilation, and without any one proper place. Hence, it is not only without memorial or monument, it is, Barthes argues, therefore also socially untenable. Moving away from the will-to-possess toward the will-to-love, this neutral mourning represents the second type of “neutral” that Barthes is (more) interested in. It is differentiated from the first-degree neutral (i.e. the suspension of conflicts), while at the same time being distinct from the “desperate vitality” (a phrase that he derives from Pasolini), that he takes to be equivalent to a hatred of death. Thus while Barthes does not use the phrase, I think we find here what amounts to a conception of neutral mourning. Within the context of my current thinking and writing, I want to suggest that such neutral mourning is at the same time, anonymous mourning, specifically the mourning of those who go by anonymous names (in the departure of the departed, in passing).
For just as for Blanchot, “the anonymous puts the name in place” yet only to be the place of passage for the name and its emptying out of nomination, so with Barthes, the temporality of the neutral is nothing more than a moment or instant, specifically an opportune opening—what we might think of as the kairos to Blanchot’s anonymous topos.
This itinerancy of the anonymous and the neutral is what makes them both operate as lures, yet not in terms of a name, but as predicates or adjectives. Which is to say, as a certain kind of aesthetic provocation and attraction, and an opening of the ethical. For what Barthes more fully says about the kairos of the neutral is that “perhaps the Neutral is that: to accept the predicate as nothing more than a moment: a time” (Neutral, 61). The kairos (or opportune moment) of the neutral, is the non-nominalizable singularity (of space and of time) that is anonymity (as in the German neuter form Das Moment: cause, force, momentum).
Neutral mourning is the will-to-love that moment of departure that passes between the anonymous and the predicate—between any one name and passing quality. The neutral and the anonymous are thus not the names (or not only the names) but the adjectives or predicates of an originary movement, force and temporality of the momentums and moments of being together (i.e. the commerce of anonymity).
In light of recent events, this is what we must respond to, counter-sign (“not in our names”), and thus begin to take responsibility for—prior to and in excess of political and theological sovereignty. It is in this way that we might affirm, as Michael Naas has argued, “that there can be no sovereign last word [or name] to put an end to the violence or the endless discussion” (The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments, 167).