Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Feist and Canada (and Barthes)

This post can start with the following quote from Dr. Peter Simon, the president of the Royal Conservatory of Music (based in Toronto), on the occasion of its 125th anniversary, and upon the bestowing upon Leslie Feist the title of Honourary Fellow of the Royal Conservatory: “The exceptional music created by Feist . . . has strengthened Canada’s standing throughout the world as an incubator of creativity.” This comment is somewhat ironic since virtually all of Feist's recorded output was recorded outside of Canada (Let It Die and The Reminder were recording in France, while Metals was recorded in California; perhaps only Feist's first album, Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down) was recorded in Canada, in Toronto). These creative works might have been "incubated" in Canada (though even that is arguable), but they were "birthed" elsewhere.

To begin a study of Roland Barthes' "neutral," it is useful to consider where the neutral lies: according to Barthes, the neutral is a "third term," that seems to be found between binaries. So, in this case, the most obvious binary is: Canadian/not Canadian. For Barthes, the third term is there between them. The "third term" can be thought of in the context of gender (the neuter, or the drone bee in a hive), or in the context of politics (Switzerland as a neutral), or in the terms of sound, that is, "the annihilation of opposition between sounds within certain languages." (xiv) This third way of conceiving of the third term is probably the most appropriate here, in that Feist annihilates the opposition between "Canadian" and "not Canadian." She inhabits that "other place" (I'm now in love with my own classification of "Faux-Toronto" and the "space of the music of Metals." For Barthes, the neutral is "neither-nor," which seems to fit Feist quite well. She is neither Canadian nor not Canadian. She is, just like the definition for CCM. I'm not missing anything in that last sentence: Feist is what she is (religious connotations aside).

To use Richard Howard's term in translating Barthes' text, Feist baffles the paradigm Canadian/not Canadian.

There is a bit of a difference between Feist as Barthes' neutral, and Barthes' own conception of the neutral. The neutral is a sort of "degree zero," a language without sign, and thus exempt from meaning. I'm not sure that Feist being a neutral makes her exempt from meaning. In fact, it seems to work the other way: she is infinitely full of meaning (I am reminded of Victor Turner and the liminal, that is, full of optimistic, infinite, possibility).

If Feist's vocal injury around 1998 or 1999 was one site of destruction and rebirth (as I have argued in the past), then her retreat from public life after her success ("1234") and her response is her second rebirth. Her first branded her in a particular way, marking her physically (resulting in the very sound we hear). The second rebirth freed her from that. Now she cannot be pinned down; she is not exempt from meaning, but now she "cannot be determined, arrested." She is "post-meaning." (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 87)


Author Unknown, "News Releases: The Royal Conservatory's 125th Anniversary Royal Occasion Gala Honours Measha Brueggergosman and Feist," The Royal Conservatory (9 May 2012); available from; Internet; accessed 6 June 2012.

Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Richard Howard, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

Rosalind E. Krauss and Dennis Hollier, "Translator's Preface," in Roland Barthes, The Neutral, R. E. Krauss & D. Hollier, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), xiii-xvii.

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