Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes

Barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Rather than somehow deciphering Japan, he is exploring his own position to exoticism, and ethnocentricism, he is creating a utopian thought experiment to get outside of his own paradigm of the conflicts with language his embeddeness in French literature do not allow him to escape. This is not a discussion of Japan, but a discussion of Europe, of France, of his own language.  He is revealing not an observed object, nor the act of observing, but the constitution and process of an observer.

Ikebana becomes an art not concerned with symbolism but with gesture; the point of a gift is not the banal object contains but the exquisite package that encloses it; and Bunraku is superb because it breaks apart the hysteria of the Western theater, insisting on artifice, relegating the voice to the single speaker on the side of the stage, revealing the puppet has manipulators (thus making the artifice visible):  “it rids the actor’s manifestation of any whiff of the sacred and abolishes the metaphysical link the West cannot help establishing between body and soul, cause and effect, motor and machine, agent and actor, Destiny and man, God and creature…No more strings, hence no more metaphor, no more Fate; since the puppet no longer apes the creature, man is no longer a puppet in the divinity’s hands, the inside no longer commands the outside.” (62)

He states his project is to address “the possibility of a difference, of a mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems.” (4) He is not seeking out the symbols of an orient but rather searching for the “fissure of the symbolic.”


About kathrynpagel

Professor of Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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