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Empire of Signs Paperback

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 122 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang (September 1, 1983)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374522073
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374522070
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.3 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #257,815 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"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

Language Notes

Text: English, French (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Joseph S. O'Leary on July 14, 2002
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.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By bachelormachine on February 21, 2008
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.
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18 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Charles E. Stevens VINE VOICE on January 25, 2003
Format: Paperback
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 ...
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Charles I. Campbell on March 2, 2009
Format: Paperback
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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