Tact, or délicatesse, was an old obsession of Barthes’s, going back to the early years of his career in the polarised, Manichean world of the 1940s. That had been a time, as the historian Tony Judt in 1992 showed, when experience, choices, humanity itself were ‘divided … into binary categories: good or evil, positive or negative, comrades or enemies’. The suspicious atmosphere of the Cold War in France, when both Left and Right were in Barthes’s view equally compromised, required not political commitment, as defended by his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, but a particular kind of neutrality – difficult to define, because it was not an absence of concern or lack of care; rather, it came from a desire to preserve the integrity of life itself, in its endless human differentiation. The neutral is, for Barthes, a refusal to participate in oppressive social systems; an anticipation of utopia.
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