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Empire of Signs Hardcover – 1 Jan 1982
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"If Japan did not exist, Barthes would have had to invent it--not that Japan "does" exist in "Empire of Signs", for Barthes is careful to point out that he is not analyzing the real Japan, there is no terrible "innerness" as in the West, no soul, no God, no fate, no ego, no grandeur, no metaphysics, no 'promotional fever' and finally no meaning . . . For Barthes Japan is a test, a challenge to think the unthinkable, a place where meaning is finally banished. Paradise, indeed, for the great student of signs." --Edmund White, "The New York Times Book Review "
If Japan did not exist, Barthes would have had to invent it--not that Japan "does" exist in "Empire of Signs," for Barthes is careful to point out that he is not analyzing the real Japan, there is no terrible "innerness" as in the West, no soul, no God, no fate, no ego, no grandeur, no metaphysics, no 'promotional fever' and finally no meaning . . . For Barthes Japan is a test, a challenge to think the unthinkable, a place where meaning is finally banished. Paradise, indeed, for the great student of signs. "Edmund White, The New York Times Book Review""
"If Japan did not exist, Barthes would have had to invent it--not that Japan does exist in Empire of Signs, for Barthes is careful to point out that he is not analyzing the real Japan, there is no terrible innerness as in the West, no soul, no God, no fate, no ego, no grandeur, no metaphysics, no 'promotional fever' and finally no meaning . . . For Barthes Japan is a test, a challenge to think the unthinkable, a place where meaning is finally banished. Paradise, indeed, for the great student of signs." --Edmund White, The New York Times Book Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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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?
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.