NYT, Edward White, on Barthes’ Empire of SIgns

IF Japan did not exist, Barthes would have had to invent it – not that Japan does exist in ”The Empire of Signs,” for Barthes is careful to point out that he is not analyzing the real Japan but rather one of his own devising. In this fictive Japan, there is no terrible innerness as in the West, no soul, no God, no fate, no ego, no grandeur, no metaphysics, no ”pro-motional fever” and finally no meaning.

In Barthes’s Japan, Zen is all-important, especially for ”that loss of meaning Zen calls a satori.” If ”S/Z” is an examination of the stink of personality and the baneful yearning for transcendence that has corrupted the West, then ”The Empire of Signs” is its antidote: a study of a hypothetical society where things possess an innocence. For instance, in Japan, Barthes declares that ”sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere; in the United States, it is the contrary; sex is everywhere, except in sexuality.” Similarly, the famous flower arranging of Japan is an art not concerned with symbolism but with gesture; there the point of a gift is not what it contains but the exquisite package that encloses it; and the Bunraku puppet theater is superb because of its reserve, its avoidance of the hysteria of the Western theater, its delegation of ”the whole cuisine of emotion” to the speaker who sits to one side of the stage. Barthes contrasts the attitudes of the Western theater and the Japanese: ”The voice: real stake of our modernity, special substance of language, which we try to make triumph everywhere. Quite the contrary, Bunraku has a limited notion of the voice; it does not suppress the voice, but assigns it a very clearly defined, essentially trivial function.”

— Edward White, NYT 1982