Empire of Signs / L'empire des Signes, 1970
book by Roland Barthes
The Empire of Signs was written after Barthes' visit to Japan in the late 1950s and in reaction not to Japan itself but to the Japan Barthes read from the signs surrounding him. He is said to have been amused of being in a country where he could not read anything written, and where everything was a multitude of symbols for him to observe. The Japan Barthes write is a Japan without center - endless periphery surrounding and empty central space of unreadable text.
Japan is to Barthes a semiotic paradise, a land of empty signs. Everything is a symbol, not for something, but for either another symbol, or for emptiness. Because of his decision to write his perceived Japan, Barthes is able to define it as it pleases him and in accordance to this idea of an empty center. (He carefully differentiates between the "real" Japan and the Japan he writes about, his interest lies only in this latter perceived Japan.)
The most quoted example is his description and reading of Tokyo; a city with an empty (or sacred) center where the unseen Emperor lives. This city is the opposite of the concentric ordered Western City; movement in Tokyo is avoiding the center, not drawn into it. He sees the same logic applied to orientation on the street, there are no (for Barthes) usable numbering of the houses, instead addresses are given as street intersections, by references to signs or landmarks. In the west numbering of the houses suggests a direction or progression along the street, not so in Japan. In order to move about the city the visitor must write his own system of signs onto the scene of the street, it is the reader-as-author once again.
He notices the same empty center wherever hi directs his attention; in Japanese aesthetics where the empty canvas/paper is a large part of what is seen, in poetry; Haiku is to Barthes a way to Zen nothingness, beyond God and beyond the ego of the author; "vision without commentary". Zen Buddhism is of course easily adapted to this hunt for the signifier without signified. Even eating is without center or meaning; the Japanese dinner is fragmented and ornamental, and without the centerpiece so common to western cuisine. He describes Japanese cooking as "the twilight of the raw".
And of course there is a similar empty center in the text Empire of Signs, a story not told and kept secret from the reader, only to be decoded much later; namely Barthes visits to all male brothels in Tokyo. His own homosexuality is in this and many texts to follow yet another layer of secret signs, an empty space in the center of the author of the text. Thus the personal sneaks in into the theory, and it would continue to do so, thereby allowing Barthes a departure from formal semiotics, to pursue reading as an act of pleasure.
"(...) I perceive the conjunction of a distance and a division, the juxtaposition of fields (in the rural and visual sense) simultaneously discontinuous and open (patches of tea plantations, of pines, of mauve flowers, a composition of black roofs, a grillwork of alleyways, a dissymmetrical arrangement of low houses): no enclosure (except for very low ones) and yet I am never besieged by the horizon (and its whiff of dreams): no craving to swell the lungs, to puff up the chest to make sure of my ego, to constitute myself as the assimilating center of the infinite: brought to the evidence of an empty limit, I am limitless without the notion of grandeur, without a metaphysical reference. (...) One might say that an age-old technique permits the landscape or the spectacle to produce itself, to occur in a pure significance, abrupt, empty, like a fracture. Empire of Signs? Yes, if it is understood that these signs are empty and that the ritual is without a god. Look at the cabinet of Signs (which was the Mallarmean habitat), i.e., in that country, any view, urban, domestic, rural, and the better to see how it is made (...)"
(Barthes, "The Cabinet of Signs" in The Empire of Signs)
"The Japanese readers immediately feed the distance that he tries to keep from Japan in Empire of Signs serves. As Hidé Ishiguro shows in “The idea of the Orient,” Barthes’ attempt of interpreting Japan is intellectual stimulating, perhaps, especially to the Japanese. It is precisely because it was not intend to be read by the Japanese."
(Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, Structuralism Course Paper by Yamamoto Yuji, available at http://www.hi-ho.ne.jp/roman/papers/structuralism.htm)