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Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes

Empire of Signs (1970)

by Roland Barthes

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Barthes's book on Japan belongs to the same genre as Swift's Gullivers’ Travels, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire's Candide and as Barthes himself signals, Micheax's Garabagne. In this genre, travellers to a foreign country which is largely mythical, fictional, fantastic, reflect on that country's institutions, casting light on the writers' own.

This may seems a strange assertion. Japan is a real place, and Barthes really visited it. But this book is more an examination of Western thought about Japan, especially about Zen, and about Western thought itself, about how Western thought and language is ceaselessly spinning out sign systems, is in fact, an infinite supplement of supernumerary signifiers which form the basis of Western consciousness. In Empire of Signs Barthes imagines the possibility of this ceaseless chatter ceasing, he imagines a system of emptiness, which he sees in Japanese/Zen culture.

The book is short, consisting of 26 very short chapters on different aspects of Japan: food, chopsticks, calligraphy, pachinko, the haiku, the eyelid and so on. Barthes's mediations are spot-on accurate, imaginative, fanciful, grounded in reality, and beautifully expressed.

The book is a kind of dialogue (between East and West), and this is reflected at sentence level; sentences seem to have two layers, the direct and the parenthetical:

A Frenchman (unless he is abroad) cannot classify French faces; doubtless he perceives faces in common, but the abstraction of these repeated faces (which is the class to which they belong) escapes him.

Barthes comments on his own comments. At the level of the discourse then, the book enacts that infinite supplement of supernumerary signifiers, nudging the reader into his own supernumerary signifiers.

I'm going to briefly summarize the four short chapters on haiku from this marvelous book….

Read more on The Lectern ( )
5 vote tomcatMurr | Aug 8, 2011 |
L'empire des Signs is a fruit of Barthes' 1966 travel to Japan. Observing Far East from an unusual perspective, totally unorientalistic Barthes explores signifiers and signifieds of a culture in a meditative way. A good book to start studying semiology, and understanding Asia. ( )
  ribbons | Nov 21, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374522073, Paperback)

With this book, Barthes offers a broad-ranging meditation on the culture, society, art, literature, language, and iconography--in short, both the sign-oriented realities and fantasies--of Japan itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:31 -0400)

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