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Empire of Signs Hardcover – 1 Jan 1982

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Product details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Hill & Wang; First American Edition edition (1 Jan. 1982)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809042223
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809042227
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 14 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,247,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Roland Barthes was born in 1915 and studied French literature and classics at the University of Paris. After teaching French at universities in Rumania and Egypt, he joined the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, where he devoted himself to research in sociology and lexicology. He was a professor at the College de France until his death in 1980.

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About the Author

Roland Barthes was born in 1915 and studied French literature and classics at the University of Paris. After teaching French at universities in Rumania and Egypt, he joined the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique, where he devoted himself to research in sociology and lexicology. He was a Professor at the College de France until his death in 1980. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Howard's translation clearly transmits Barthes' complex yet fascinating fictive linguistic journey. To begin to understand one's own culture such a journey is always recommended.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 11 reviews
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
a modest, brilliant, and underestimated essay 14 July 2002
By Joseph S. O'Leary - Published on
Format: Paperback
The translation omits several of the illustrations in the original (perhaps they cost too much). As often in English translations from the French, the traps set by cognate words (faux amis) are not always avoided: respectable as "respectable" (p. 63; should be "worthy of respect"); vicieux as "vicious" (p. 68; "defective" would be better; on the same page "The Form is Empty" should be "Form is Empty"), s'inventer as "invent oneself" (p. 30; "find oneself"). Barthes offers a string of short zuihitsu-style essays, impressionistic flashes, confessing that his Japan is a fictive theoretical construct. The recurrent theme is that Japan teaches us to liberate the play of signifiers from the tyranny of the signified. The influence of Jacques Derrida's early essays, published shortly before this book, is apparent. Barthes's view of Japan is by no means as shallow or inaccurate as captious critics make out. The sure guiding hand of his friend Maurice Pinguet of Tokyo University, author of "La mort volontaire au Japon," preserves Barthes from major errors. Japan as a dance of signs referring to other signs, in a perpetual foreplay, a delicious lightness of being, may not be much in evidence in the horrible cityscapes of the present (thanks to the voracious construction and real estate industries), but that image does correspond to an aspect of the culture, going all the way back to The Tale of Genji.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Artificiality Without Apology - Barthes is 21 Feb. 2008
By bachelormachine - Published on
Format: Paperback
It wearies to hear once more that Barthes' "The Empire of Signs" is an example of hypocritical cultural imperialism. It's been said too many times, and further it's an inaccurate assessment of the actual text to begin with. I don't see the need to apologize for this book before recommending it - simply a need to introduce it in terms of what it actually pretends to accomplish as well as what it never imagined it could do. In a word, it's hardly as though Barthes was a Heidegger.

As the reviewer mentions, Barthes' shows his hand from the very beginning and does not attempt in the least to produce an objective or scholarly account of Japan. Who could imagine that Barthes, no stranger to genuine historical and anthropological analysis (though he wrote none of his own) would ever have imagined to himself that, here, he could have produced, spontaneously, a passable work of scholarship in a slim volume containing no documentation or critical notes whatsoever?

If Barthes is working within any genre at all here, it's not that of scholarship but rather of the essay as first established by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne's writings on indigenous Brazilians were in no way expected to provide an objective picture, much less construction, of life amongst the cannibals. Montaigne rather finds in the accounts he has heard of the Caribbeans an occasion to reflect on the concerns of his own culture, in particular epistemology, history and the value of the values of civilization. Montaigne was well aware of what he was about, as was Barthes.

There is clearly no need to question the merit of thorough anthropological and historical research. However, those disciplines do not exhaust the possibilities of writing on other cultures. That we possess the methods necessary for the production of objective accounts of cultures, does not mean we no longer have a need for more subjective (or perhaps more non- or pre-objective) forms of investigation. Reason and the understanding cannot take from the imagination what is its proper due.

It strikes me that the kind of phenomenological reverie evinced in Barthes' encounter with Japan (his "love affair" with chopsticks, which is openly fetishistic and evokes a dual, maternal phallus which is not-one, which does not slice but rather unswaddles or snuggles a dumpling) is highly indebted not only to Montaigne's writings but also to Bachelard's later critiques of objective science. This sort of literary entry into a "paradis artificiel" does not come without a price. And certainly the cost of entry to, or residence in, this world of maternal jouissance was one which not only Baudelaire himself, but also numerous other writers, as antique as Augustine or as recent as Barthes himself, were perfectly willing to admit, and indeed make the problematical focus of entire books and careers.

Barthes' "The Empire of Signs" is not only a welcome complement to more conventional scholarly writing, but is in fact conditioned and called for by it - as Barthes says elsewhere, the only proper response to writing is more writing. If Barthes had not written this book, someone else would have had to write it instead.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Barthes the "Gaijin" and His Adventures into Pure Presence 7 Mar. 2015
By Dylan O'Brien - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Roland Barthes has, in "The Empire of Signs" described his *experience* in Japan, not Japan-in-itself. To this (subjective) end, the book is fantastic. If you're looking for something more "objective" and/or dry, you'd be better off elsewhere. But this has been said about the book numerous times, and I'm not really contributing anything by repeating it. Instead, I'd like to post a review that actively engages with the text.

Throughout this book, Barthes repeatedly finds himself amidst a system which directly contradicts his own in many ways, before returning back to his cleanly-woven fabric of everyday thought to analyze these contradictions. He frequently reaches a kind of baby-like state, where everything he encounters seems to be forced into a pure, senseless presence. This is a common experience to most westerners arriving in Japan. Signs do not seem to be systematized, and seem rather to float freely on an "ocean of nothingness" or something of that nature: an experience that fluctuates between excitement and terror.

Actually, this kind of mood reigns wherever there is a true encounter with the external, the unfamiliar, the "other", whether it is an individual person, a culture, or even just a general situation. When our usual system of meaning doesn't work, when it breaks down in the face of a highly discrepant actuality, we become infants once again, surrounded by strange objects which do not yet have a "sense" and thus do not make sense. In "Empire of Signs", Barthes has captured this mood perhaps even better than Martin Heidegger did when he called it the "present at hand".

I have only two criticisms for this book, which are minor in comparison to my appreciation for it. Firstly, Barthes has focused a lot on the delightful aspects of of Japan in this book at the cost of all other emotions. You, while reading this book, can imagine him giggling like a baby in a crib with a beloved toy dangling from a thread overhead. His fixation on this vision of Japan remains strong throughout the entirety the book. What he neglects to discuss is the terror of this toy being taken away, or even the terror upon turning his head to "an-other part of the room". To be sure, his delight is a kind of anxious delight, but it always remains delight. Barthes is like the baby which never cries, and we're, as readers, left to wonder if he is, perhaps a bit autistic on account of this fact.

Yet there is certainly an-other aspect of japan commonly discovered by travelers from the outside. Although the Japanese are often more than happy to treat the western visitor (whom they call "gaijin" or "outside person") like a beloved baby, the truth is that the Japanese are very much embroiled in their own world. The Japanese experience terror and resentment just as we do, although it is perhaps harder for us to detect, especially as outsiders. Read Kenzaburo Oe if you want to learn about the profound fear & disillusionment which often lurks beneath the "harmonious play" of Japan. As long as we are "visitors", as long as we are "outside people", we must understand that we are treated with kindness and sheltered from the more unsettling aspects of Japanese culture on account of this fact. Our Japanese hosts will often go to great lengths to avert our eyes from the secrets which can only be known to the lifetime member of Japan. Thus, Barthes's book is best read as a depiction of the "foreground" of Japan, with a shadowy and unacknowledged background, mysterious and foreboding.

My second criticism is that, on far too many occasions, Barthes opposes the "western" to Japan as though the two were diametrically opposed, and then implies that Japan has somehow achieved a "higher synthesis" than "the west". At these moments, Barthes departs from the usual intoxication of being involved in a foreign culture, into a kind of utopianism, with its corresponding condemnation of "the west" that created the very eyes with which he looks out onto this "new frontier of meaning". Ironically, this hierarchical way of thinking is itself rooted in mainstream western philosophy, whereas both eastern philosophers (Lao Tzu, Dogen, etc) and fringe western philosophers (Eckhart, Spinoza, Bergson) are often more interested in arrangement than rank. Perhaps the last form of westernization of eastern culture is a "utopianization" of it.

Barthes has shown us the authentic Japan, but who can show us the everyday Japan? Can we, as "outside people" even comprehend the everyday Japan in which its exoticism has disappeared, as anything other than anxiety and melancholy?
Seen through signs, plus a correction 29 Sept. 2014
By Dennis Des Chene - Published on
Format: Paperback
Barthes, having spent a decade thinking about signs, discovers in Japan a culture of pure signs. The haiku, for example, neither describes the real nor attempts to discover its meaning. Tel! (i.e. "so it is"), says the haiku, and nothing more. Richard Howard as usual makes Barthes sound more dogmatic, more insistent than he is. "The empire of signs" is not an ethnography or even a "mythology" (in Barthes's sense -- a debunking of what in this case would be Orientalist myths about Japan), it is the record of an encounter, rather brief and without an understanding of the language, in which Barthes relates as fiction a Japan of his own making, which nevertheless gives this reader a thirst for learning about the "real" Japan.

On p83 Barthes mistakenly attributes to Shakespeare (which he quotes in English) a passage from Wordsworth's Prelude (6:600-602), and reads Wordsworth's `sense' as if it were exactly the French `sens' (which in this context means `meaning'). In fact the passage signifies almost the opposite of what Barthes needs it to say: in the flash (i.e. ray, sudden light; the "going out" is not a being extinguished but a going forth, as some phileophers thought rays issued from the eye to yield perceptions of external things) the infinitude which is the soul's destiny is revearled. It's too bad the translator didn't at least point out the misattribution; in Google searches I see that people have quoted the passage from Barthes and attributed it, as he does, to Shakespeare.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Exactly what I asked for!!! 19 April 2014
By Jane Suh - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The quality of the book was very nice and the book itself, its cover and its content, was exactly what I thought I was getting. I hate it when the covers advertised do not match what I get, and that wasn't the case here.
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