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Empire Signs [Paperback]

Roland Barthes
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

1 Jan 2005
Now it happens that in this country (Japan),' wrote Barthes, 'the empire of signifiers is so immense, so in excess of speech, that the exchange of signs remains of a fascinating richness mobility and subtlety.' It is not the voice that communicates, but the whole body - eyes, smiles, hair, gestures. The body is savoured, received and displays its own narrative, its own text. Barthes discusses bowing, the courtesy in which two bodies inscribe but do not prostrate themselves, and why in the West politeness is regarded with suspicion - why informal relations are though more desired than coded ones. He described the progressive Japanese spectacle and the demeanor worth regard to food: the essentially visual denotation of the coloured state of raw flesh or vegetable of Sukiyaki or tempura. The cook's purpose is 'to make us witness to the extreme purity of his cuisine; it is because his activity is literally graphic.' He explains the relation between ideographic writing and painting; the theatrical traditions of No, Kabuki and Bunraku; the pure designation (which abolishes finality) of the Zen literary expression, the haiku; the organization of space in the ideal Japanese house, in which propriety or ownership is never delineated - walls slide, partitions are fragile - and there is nothing to grasp. 'What will be in question,' wrote Barthes of this seminal, previously untranslated work, 'will be the city, the shop, the theatre; manners, gardens, violence; faces, eyes and the brushes with which it is all written but not painted.' Translated from the French by Richard Howard.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product details

  • Paperback: 122 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books (1 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374522073
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374522070
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.5 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 268,124 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.

Product Description

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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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent insights 13 Oct 2013
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) 3.9 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a modest, brilliant, and underestimated essay 14 July 2002
By Joseph S. O'Leary - Published on
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Artificiality Without Apology - Barthes is 21 Feb 2008
By bachelormachine - Published on
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars 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.
18 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An emptiness of language 25 Jan 2003
By Charles E. Stevens - Published on
Barthes talks of an emptiness of language necessary to reach enlightenment, but occasionally emptiness is just emptiness. Exhibit A: "Empire of Signs."

That might be a little harsh. It might be better to say that Empire of Signs is an example of art for art's sake. Barthes claims to be attempting to isolate a number of features, treat them as signs, and create a system called Japan. Barthes does indeed make good on his promise (or is it a threat?) and paints a very vivid, creative system he calls Japan. He admits that he has little knowledge of Japan to begin with, and so his observations are primarily reflections of his own imagination and not the country that actually is called Japan.

At this point red lights should be flashing and loud alarms should be going off in the reader's head: what Barthes admits to doing is exactly what he claims to abhor--Orientalism. Empire of Signs is a beautifully written, intelligent book (which is why I give it two stars instead of one), but by no means is it anything more than an essay on Japan According To Roland Barthes. Furthermore, although Barthes claims to have an indifferent opinion toward Japan, it become clear right away that he is in love with Japan when he starts his odes to pachinko and his love poems for the chopstick. The good news is that Barthes doesn't seem to be taking himself too seriously: the tone of the book is light, almost stream-of-consciousness in style. I just can't help but shudder to think that there are people out there who are trying to think of Japan and the Japanese in terms of the ephemeral realms of the sukiyaki pot.

For anyone interested in the Japanese perspective and analysis of the "signs" of Japan, I would recommend Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's "In Praise of Shadows" or books by Alex Kerr ... Edward Said's "Orientalism" is an interesting (if not a little dense and controversial) look at orientalism ... but if you really want to know a little more about this "Empire of Signs" that is Japan, pick up a travel guide. Better still, read some Japanese literature by Soseki, Tanizaki, Oe, or the contemporary writer Haruki Murakami.

Roland Barthes' "Empire of Signs" is like a very rich chocolate cake: pretty to look at, but very difficult to finish without becoming slightly nauseous. Imagine a high-brow "Dave Barry Does Japan" and that just about sums up "Empire of Signs" in this reviewer's humble opinion.
1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Empire of Signs 2 Mar 2009
By Charles I. Campbell - Published on
This strange book is at once fascinating and frustrating. Barthes' view of himself and the world is as if he were someone from another planet. I'm not sure whether I understand Japanese culture more or less from reading it, and I suspect that Barthes would find that irrelevant. Nevertheless it is a good romp and a glimpse at how a denizen of the realm of literary theory (and a gay intellectual) looks at things.
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