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Empire of Signs Paperback – September 1, 1983

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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)

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

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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: 5.4 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #400,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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35 of 39 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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14 of 16 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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Dylan O'Brien on March 7, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Roland Barthes has, in "The Empire of Signs" described his *experience* in Japan, not Japan-in-itself. To this (subjective) end, the book is fantastic. If you're looking for something more "objective" and/or dry, you'd be better off elsewhere. But this has been said about the book numerous times, and I'm not really contributing anything by repeating it. Instead, I'd like to post a review that actively engages with the text.

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.
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Format: Paperback
Barthes, having spent a decade thinking about signs, discovers in Japan a culture of pure signs. The haiku, for example, neither describes the real nor attempts to discover its meaning. Tel! (i.e. "so it is"), says the haiku, and nothing more. Richard Howard as usual makes Barthes sound more dogmatic, more insistent than he is. "The empire of signs" is not an ethnography or even a "mythology" (in Barthes's sense -- a debunking of what in this case would be Orientalist myths about Japan), it is the record of an encounter, rather brief and without an understanding of the language, in which Barthes relates as fiction a Japan of his own making, which nevertheless gives this reader a thirst for learning about the "real" Japan.

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.
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