Remarks on Roland Barthes, L'Empire des Signes 1

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: A comparison of the argument in Barthes' Empire of Signs with the argument in Barthes' Mythologies.

In his Mythologies, Roland Barthes advanced three important theses. First, that there are very few non-signifying fields in everyday life. Second that the fields of signification habitually signify at the two levels of denotation and connotation. Third, that the connotations are properly called 'myths', for they are the representations which a social class, the bourgeoisie, 'has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world' . The short mythologies, which comprise the first half of the book, are a 'revelation' and critique of everyday life; the second half of the book ('Myth Today') develops the two-level theory of signification.

Though it is not written as a development or commentary upon the three theses of Mythologies specified above, Barthes' later book L'Empire des Signes - published in 1970 by the "art house" publisher, Skira, - clearly bears upon them, and I wish to examine this later work in relation to the three theses. This is to take some liberties with Barthes' text, but surely fewer than Barthes himself takes in constituting a textual system, 'Japan', which does not claim to represent or analyse the reality of Japan. For in the L'Empire des Signes Barthes claims simply to have selected from somewhere in the world a' a certain number of traits' where 'trait' is used as in graphics and linguistics out of which the system 'Japan' is deliberately formed.

The thesis that there are very few non-signifying fields in everyday life is sustained in L'Empire des Signes by an ingenious maneouvre. What is the privileged field of signification? It is language, written or spoken. How might one best demonstrate the ubiquity of signification? Why, place oneself in a country where not only does one not speak the language, but where the clues which a common alphabet or way of speaking provide are absent. And proceed to write about that country's sign system.

This is the maneouvre Barthes makes, explicitly as a refutation of the 'ideological assertion' that 'there is no communication other than in language' . Indeed it may be the very opacity of language which allows one to appreciate the vastness and richness of the 'empire of signifiers'.

Though perhaps unintended this strategy has, I think, the virtue of bringing to prominence the doubts about the possibility of a semiology worthy of the name of knowledge which the earlier Mythologies raised but failed to settle.

In Mythologies the theory of knowledge at work in the short mythologies, which permits the definiteness of the interpretations given there, is an empiricist one. Myths are seen and heard; the senses provide the knowledge which Barthes transcribes in the mythologies themselves. Knowledge of myths is acquired without the mediation of language, and language is required only to convey what is already known. Thus, of a photograph of a Negro soldier saluting the French flag, Barthes writes, 'whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great empire'.

Now in L'Empire des Signes this epistemology, which is simultaneously a method of work and means of validation, is more obvious and even more necessary. As a foreigner in a land where he does not speak the language, Barthes is 'reduced' to observing what passes before him. He cannot translate, interrogate, or compare the meanings he imputes to things he observes with the meanings ascribed by native speakers. His method of work becomes that of walking about the method of the tradidtional flaneur, the stroller who observes the world as he (the flaneur is always male) passes. If what he sees is to be worthy of record in a public text, then observation alone must yield all that is necessary in the way of evidence and proof for his conclusions, which become a mirror of the world.

But Barthes describes himself as being a 'reader', not a 'visitor' in Japan. He seems to deny belief in the primacy of perception which I have been imputing to him, and assert the primacy of codes. Yet how can these codes be known to him, if the possibility of explantion in language is excluded? The answer must be that the codes are knowable without the mediation of language; the culture of the world is therefore an open book, which offers itself to be read (rather than mirrored) without other context than the system ('Japan'), supposedly to be constituted, but in fact already constituted at the beginning. I conclude that we must take him literally when he designates as a 'haiku' 'every discontinuous trait, every event in Japanese life, such as it offers itself to my reading [tel qu'il s'offre ma lecture]'.

The theory of reading imputed to Barthes in the previous paragraph may well appear most implausible. It becomes explicable in relation to a thesis developed in L'Empire des Signes which is antithetical to the second thesis Barthes advances in Mythologies. For whilst the culture of the Occident is full of connotation and myth, that of Japan is devoid of either. L'Empire des Signes constitutes a system where a second level of meaning does not exist, a blissful, innocent, world which offers no excuse for paranoia.

A picture of a cucumber and two aubergines has no other meaning, open or concealed; it is a picture of a cucumber and two aubergines, la lettre.2

The empire of signs is free of the possibility of symbolic substitution, with us an obsession; it renders commentary impossible, for 'commentary' could only be repetition the sort of commentary known to that age which also knew the open book of the world. Signs are unequivocal and univocal. In the theatre, for example, there are only bodies, not souls; eyes, not a look. The signs of the actor neither reveal, express or represent. 'Empire of Signs?', concludes Barthes, 'Yes, if one appreciates that these signs are empty [vides] and that the ritual [of exchanging signs, as in kow tow TP] is godless' .

This grand theme gives unity to Barthes' text, which while structured like a series of short mythologies, insistently denies the relevance of the theory of myth developed in the earlier work. Whether in relation to Pachinko, a Japanese equivalent of pin ball; or of the haiku; or Bunraku, the puppet theatre; or Zen, Barthes is insistent, 'that there is nothing to grasp [il n'y a rien saisir]'. So much for the mysteries of the East! There are none. Everything lies flat, expressionless, significant on the surface.

'Empty' signs mean by their opposition and combination; the empire of signs is a structuralist field. In the terminology of Roman Jakobson, the Japanese sign is dominated by the poetic function (the haiku is written just for the sake of writing), where the sign itself is foregrounded and becomes the centre of attention, and where the combination of signs is the object of study, though the combination is itself constituted in the structuralist activity.

In Mythologies, myth is the work of a social class, the bourgeoisie. In L'Empire des Signes there is no myth and no bourgeoisie. The dimension of political critique has disappeared, unless as an indirect critique of the full, ideological signs of the Occident. Even the Zengakuren are introduced not as contestants of the Empire, but as confirmation of the correctness of the grand theme which is applied to them. Thus, the violence of the Zengakuren is not expressive of hate, or indignation, or morals; it is not expressive at all. It is immediately a sign ['elle est immediatement signe' ] having its origins and sufficiency in itself. Conformably, the rhythmic slogans of the Zengakuren do not announce the Cause or Object of the action that for or against which one is fighting but simply double or repeat the action in announcing it: 'The Zengakuren are going to fight'. It is an action outside time; therefore outside politics. It is inside the void of signs.

These signs might be characterised as performative, for they perform their function in being announced.

'Japan', like music, is a system of deeds.


1. Written 1976. Published in 1980 as Appendix 4 to the second edition of Trevor Pateman, Language, Truth and Politics. Lightly revised for this 2010 re-publication. Translations from L'Empire des Signes are my own. I have suppressed page references which can be found in the original version of the essay.

2. This idea is anticipated in Barthes' 1964 essay, 'Rhetoric of the Image': 'Since it is both evictive and sufficient, it will be understood that from an aesthetic point of view the denoted image can appear as a kind of Edenic state of the image; cleared utopianically of its connotations, the image would become radically objective, or, in the last analysis, innocent.

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