EMPIRE OF SIGNS by Richard  Howard


translated by & by
Email this review


Brief appreciations of things Japanese, of the "richness, mobility, and subtlety" of the Japanese "exchange of signs": published in France in 1970, and Barthes at his most seductive. These are the observations of every traveler, translated (without strain) into recognitions. "The dinner tray seems a picture of the most delicate order"; it is actually a palette, "with which you are going to play in the course of your meal. . ." (In the next piece: "by chopsticks, food becomes no longer a prey to which one does violence . . . but a substance harmoniously transferred.") And this sequence of thoughts leads Barthes to remark on the absence of a center, "a precious heart," a deep meaning ("food is never anything but a collection of fragments"). There then comes Tokyo: a city with an "empty" center, the forbidden grounds of the (figurehead) Emperor's palace. Japan not only affords Barthes a profusion of complex signs, it suites his penchant for the formal--and for non-meaning, the absence of a symbolic charge. "The haiku is not a rich thought reduced to a brief form, but a brief event which immediately finds its proper form." Thus, also, the reflections on bowing; on Bunraku puppets; on the Zengakuren riots ("a great scenario of signs" climaxing in a purely vocal exercise--"The Zengakuren are going to fight"--without a subject or stated cause.) The Bunraku reflections echo the Bunraku piece included by Susan Sontag in A Barthes Reader (p. 621)--where Empire of Signs is lauded but not directly represented. The book is small and, even with 18 black-and-white illustrations, pricey. There is more concentrated pleasure here, however--along with fewer stylistic and other impediments--than in major works of the canon.
Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0374522073
Page count: 132pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1982


NonfictionMYTHOLOGIES by Roland Barthes
by Roland Barthes
NonfictionMOURNING DIARY by Roland Barthes
by Roland Barthes
NonfictionPAPER TRAIL by Richard  Howard
by Richard Howard


NonfictionMYTHOLOGIES by Roland Barthes
by Roland Barthes
NonfictionTHE RUSTLE OF LANGUAGE by Richard  Howard
by Roland Barthes