- Empire of Signs: From Japan towards Korea?
Often, during my two-year stay in Korea (2011 – 2012), I asked myself what book might best help me understand this new environment. Roland Barthes’ cult book, Empire of Signs, often came to mind. The book is not about Korea, but rather the Japan of the late 1960 s. Nevertheless, despite all the obvious differences, it seemed useful for elucidating the preoccupations of my stay, whenever I wanted to ‘read’ the signs of a culture that was ‘new to me’. After all, how can you speak of a theatre, a civilisation, a society, or a foreign nation when you do not know the language, the customs, or the politics?
And so I chose Empire of Signs as vade mecum, nevertheless conscious of the difficulties and misunderstandings that this choice would surely engender. The book, published in French in 1970, was written by Barthes in 1969, following three short trips to Japan in 1966 and 1967. I reread the book at the start of my stay, with a particular lecture at the university in mind, more than forty years after having discovered it when it came out, long before the semiological wave of the 1970 s.
In the teaching work I undertook there, my reflections once back ‘home’, and when accounting for my time in Korea to friends, readers, and myself, I never stopped questioning the Barthes ‘method’. It is a method that precisely is not one, since the author is “in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself ”(3), seeking only to “isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system. It is this system which I shall call: Japan.”1 (3). How did Barthes manage to describe a “system” as complex as “Japan”? And, more to the point, how, from contemporary Korea, can one “deliberately form a [comparable] system” (3)? As a last resort, I called upon the protection of Roland Barthes; I attempted to find his point or points of view. But was this still possible, or, rather, still reasonable? To which Barthes should I devote myself?
Barthes’ Point of View
He himself identified, in his Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1974), three steps to his approach: 1) A demystification phase (in Mythologies); 2) A moment of semiological science; 3) An approach to textual theory. Empire of Signs belongs to this third and final phase, the point at which Barthes abandoned his condemnation of ‘bourgeois’ ideology, and came to be suspicious of the pseudo-science of semiology, becoming definitively open to The Pleasure of the Text,2 to writing “in place of life” as much in the place of life as in life’s place.3 1966 – 1970 marked in the academic world a break with structuralism and the earliest form of semiology, something thinkers like Derrida, Lacan, and Barthes all noted at the famous 1966 ‘post-structuralist’ conference at Johns Hopkins University.
It was nevertheless still as a semiologist, and not as an anthropologist, sociologist or philosopher of ideas and mentalities that Barthes became interested in the “Japan-text”.4 He does not turn himself over to a socio-economic analysis of Japan in the 1960 s. Scrutinising a few traits of the “Japan-System”, he still locates himself in a [End Page 7] semiology of objects and cultural practices; he remains in search of what seem to him to be indexes, traces of the Nippon culture. Unsurprisingly, his gaze is drawn to everyday objects and sensations linked to the body. Food and cooking, sex and sexuality, are all “incidents of the body”. But his point of view changes with each observed object.
His point of view is, however, never that of a self-assured Westerner: ironic, and bloated with superiority, imagining himself to know the functioning of another culture simply because he is able to see from a universal perspective, or at least believes as much. The symbolic systems he extracts are always arbitrarily chosen; the Orient, he admits, is “indifferent” to him: if he appreciates Japan, he does not accord it an...