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Barthes and the Empire of Signs (Postmodern Encounters) [Paperback]

Peter Pericles Trifonas

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3 Sep 2001 Postmodern Encounters
Roland Barthes' experience of Japan, a morass of signs where appearance and reality intermingle, led him to move from linguistic semiology to a much broader critical enquiry into the field of mass media and popular culture. Do we inhabit today an 'empire of signs'?

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Empire of Empty Signs

‘Empire of Signs’ illustrates the shift in Barthes’ later work. The text is more poetic than analytical, more reflective than critical. Barthes takes pleasure in playing with the narrative point of view by undercutting its validity so as to decentre its authority and disrupt its legitimacy. He wants to resist the temptation to mythologise his subject, Japan. That is, to idealise and naturalise an image of an Oriental culture as opposed to an Occidental one. The foreword that Barthes provides to ‘Empire of Signs’ reads as follows:

‘The text does not “gloss” the images, which do not “illustrate” the text. For me, each has been no more than the onset of a kind of visual uncertainty, analogous perhaps to that “loss of meaning” Zen calls a “satori”. Text and image, interlacing, seek to ensure the circulation and exchange of these signifiers: body, face, writing; and in them to read the retreat of signs.’

In ‘Empire of Signs’, theory is embedded or grounded within the style of expression. There is no direct application of a method we could call ‘semiological’. By consciously refusing to ‘gloss’ the images of Japan that he presents, Barthes avoids an appeal to the Western visual motif of light and darkness and its ideology. He forgoes its mythology and accepts the resulting loss of meaning, preferring not to attempt to enlighten the reader with the Truth about Japanese culture. Culture, if anything, is a retreat into signs for the sake of finding meaning within a system of signs whose reality is but a fiction of language – that is, an arbitrary way of coding and making sense of the world. Barthes, I think, would have agreed with this statement, given that his view of myth and its corresponding discourse, history, was indeed a sceptical one. History, like myth, produces cultural narratives that confuse the paths to making meaning of present events in relation to past occurrences. That is why Barthes refuses intentionally to gloss the text of ‘Empire of Signs’ and its images: the effect would be to reproduce the ethnocentric myth of Japan that is its Western history.

There could be no other choice. What Barthes knows about Japan is always already filtered though ‘an emptiness of language which constitutes writing’. Meaning is delayed, access to truth prevented. On the one hand, the signs of Japan are empty for him, without natural referential meaning, so there can only be forms of representation that he does not fully understand. Mythology is thus avoided. The signs of Japan are just the signs of an empire. Or an empire of signs. On the other hand, as an outsider to Japanese culture, Barthes must locate himself within the ethnocentrism and cultural blindness of a narrow range of meanings that the image of Japan stimulates in the Western reader. Mythology is everywhere, but this time it comes from within him. It colours Barthes’ responses to the signs he sees and experiences. ‘Someday we must write the history of our own obscurity’, he says …

‘... manifest the density of our narcissism, tally down through the centuries the several appeals to difference we may have occasionally heard, the ideological recuperations which have infallibly followed and which consist in always acclimating our incognizance of Asia by means of certain known languages (the Orient of Voltaire, the “Revue Asiatique”, of Pierre Loti, or of “Air France”).’

Barthes’ knowledge of Japan is limited to what he has read of its history and seen of its images, either through experience or in the media. This exposure to a Western archive of texts and images that are called ‘Japan’ establishes the ‘myth’ of Japan as part of an Oriental culture as opposed to an Occidental culture. It is given a historical legacy that we call the ‘History of Japan’ which makes the cultural differences of Japan comprehensible to the Western mind. This image of ‘Japan’ – its myth – is consequently an invention of the West. It bears no resemblance to the real Japan. It is a Western history of Japan. There is a reason to this representation of Japan that is produced outside of Japanese culture itself and that creates the Western mythology of ‘Japan’ – gives it its ‘exotic gloss’, Barthes would say – as part of an Oriental culture contrasted against a European culture. So, in one respect, nothing stands behind the empire of signs that Barthes calls Japan. It reflects the anxiety that the Western reader of culture feels when coming face-to-face with an unreadable text. The Japan of ‘Empire of Signs’ should, in this sense, be called an ‘empire of empty signs’. The fact that the West ‘moistens everything with meaning’ frustrates Barthes. It limits the ethics of reading to an excavation of the text for its significance. He therefore chooses to invent Japan, to write a fictional representation which does not have the pretensions of Truth and History as its grounding. Missing are the transcendental signs of Western culture that depend on a metaphysical foundation of meaning: e.g., the Word, God, the Subject, the ego, presence, an immovable centre, and so on. Barthes can only relate the dizzying heterogeneity of Japan in a montage of images and texts that are striking in themselves. The experience of loss that he feels during his contact with the emptiness of its signs tempers his readings of cultural forms and practices. And yet, a question remains to be answered: Is it possible to write a history of Japanese culture without succumbing to reconstituting its Western mythology?

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