Contra Barthes: a Rant

Last Fall I read Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, for my MFA course work. It’s a short book, comprised of chapters a few pages long that I found maddeningly difficult to get through. Really a series of semi-poetic musings more than a true semiotic or philosophic work. I’ve ranted about Barthes in these pages before. Here’s one I found in my journal from last November.

A single 250-word sentence from the chapter, The Incident, in Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs:

What one can add is that these infinitesimal adventures (of which the accumulation, in the course of a day, provokes a kind of erotic intoxication) never have anything picturesque about them (the Japanese picturesque is indifferent to us, for it is detached from what constitutes the very specialty of Japan, which is its modernity), or anything novelistic (never lending themselves to the chatter which would make them into narratives or descriptions); what they offer to be read (I am, in that country, a reader, not a visitor) is the rectitude of the line , the stroke, without wake, without margin, without vibration; so many tiny demeanors (from garment to smile), which among us, as a result of the Westerner’s inveterate narcissism, are only the signs of a swollen assurance, become, among the Japanese, mere ways of passing, of tracing some unexpected thing in the street; for the gesture’s sureness and independence never refer back to an affirmation of the self (to a “self-sufficiency”) but only to graphic mode of existing; so that the spectacle of the Japanese street (or more generally of the public place), exciting as the product of an age-old aesthetic, from which all vulgarity has been decanted, never depends on a theatricality (a hysteria) of bodies, but, once more, on that writing alla prima, in which sketch and regret, calculation and correction are equally impossible, because the line, the tracing, freed from the advantageous image the scriptor would give of himself, does not express but simply causes to exist.

Barthes, R; Howard, R., trans. Empire of Signs, pp 79-80, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Inc. 1982

The subject at the outset of this sentence, “these infinitesimal adventures” appears to refer to all the little things that “happen” to one in Barthes’ imaginary Japan of empty signs. “Something always happens.” One must take it on faith that these things are true in his imagined Japan and that his imaginings should hold some interest for us.

In what way does the accumulation of infinitesimal adventures provoke an erotic intoxication? Why can they never have anything picturesque about them? How can the Japanese picturesque (presumably a style?) be indifferent to us? In what way is it detached from modernity? How is modernity the specialty of Japan? Murakami would no doubt be surprised to learn that these things that happen everywhere and all the time can never be novelistic either, because they lack narrative “chatter.” However, they can be read (semiotically, one supposes) and offer “demeanors,” which, as a result of Occidental “narcissism” are signs of a “swollen assurance,” a combination of abstract noun and adjective that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around. You get the idea. This endless run-on sentence, with its incredible syntagm-less asides, parentheses, sub-clauses and ellipses is a meaningless tissue of nonsense. It definitely meets the criterion of ’empty.’ Imagine having to read page after page of this and then declaring it to be insightful!

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Adam Isler


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