Monday, December 30, 2013

"Empire of Signs" Roland Barthes

Barthes's book on Japan belongs to the same genre as Swift's Gullivers’ Travels, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire's Candide and as Barthes himself signals, Michaux's Garabagne. In this genre, travellers to a foreign country which is largely mythical, fictional, fantastic, reflect on that country's institutions, casting light on the writers' own.

This may seems a strange assertion. Japan is a real place, and Barthes really visited it. But this book is more an examination of Western thought about Japan, especially about Zen, and about Western thought itself, about how Western thought and language is ceaselessly spinning out sign systems, is in fact, an infinite supplement of supernumerary signifiers which form the basis of Western consciousness. In Empire of Signs Barthes imagines the possibility of this ceaseless chatter ceasing, he imagines a system of emptiness, which he sees in Japanese/Zen culture.

The book is short, consisting of 26 very short chapters on different aspects of Japan: food, chopsticks, calligraphy, pachinko, the haiku, the eyelid and so on. Barthes's meditations are spot-on accurate, imaginative, fanciful, grounded in reality, and beautifully expressed.

The book is a kind of dialogue (between East and West), and this is reflected at sentence level; sentences seem to have two layers, the direct and the parenthetical:
A Frenchman (unless he is abroad) cannot classify French faces; doubtless he perceives faces in common, but the abstraction of these repeated faces (which is the class to which they belong) escapes him.

Barthes comments on his own comments. At the level of the discourse then, the book enacts that infinite supplement of supernumerary signifiers, nudging the reader into his own supernumerary signifiers.

I'm going to briefly summarize the four short chapters on haiku. Bold is chapter titles, italics are quotes from Barthes, parentheses are my comments.

It is evening, in autumn,
All I can think of
Is my parents

1. The Breach of Meaning
·      the deceptive easiness of haiku
·      it is intelligible but appears to mean nothing (nothing beyond itself)
·      it presents its meaning simply
·      in contrast with Western poetry which demands a chiselled thought, the haiku allows one to be trivial, short, ordinary
·      Western poetry has unavoidably two systems of meaning: the symbol, the metaphor; and reasoning, the syllogism
·      (for the Western reader) the haiku is attracted to one or other of these two signification systems
·      first: we assign the haiku a 'poetic' meaning - in Western lit, 'poetic' is a symbol of the ineffable, the inexpressible-
·      in this poetic meaning, everything in the haiku becomes symbolic
·      second: we see the three lines of the haiku as a syllogism: rise, suspense, conclusion
·      if we renounce both these systems, commentary becomes impossible: to comment on the haiku means simply to repeat it
·      Western methods of interpretation fail the haiku

The West moistens everything with meaning like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples.

The work of reading which is attached to it is to suspend language, not to provoke it.

How admirable he is
Who does not think "Life is ephemeral"
When he sees a flash of lightning

 2. Exemption from Meaning
·      the Buddhist syllogism contains four propositions:
·      this is A
·      this is not A
·      this is both A and not-A
·      this is neither A nor not-A
·      this is the obstructed meaning, an impossible paradigm
·      in this way, Zen wages a war against meaning
·      for example, the Sixth Patriarch recommended his students to give the following answer: if questioning you, someone interrogates you about non-being, answer with being. If you are questioned about the ordinary man, answer by speaking about the master etc
·      (The Sixth Patriarch is one of the major figures of Zen/Chan Buddhism, a Chinese Scholar/monk 大鑒惠能 Dajien Huineng early 8th C BCE)
·      the patriarch's recommended response is designed to disrupt the paradigms of Q&A/language and therefore to imperil the search for meaning
·      Zen makes the mere mechanism of meaning apparent

·      the haiku is an attempt to attain a flat language, a language with no layers of meaning (Barthes calls this 'a lamination of meaning') - a first level signifier: a signifier which is matte
·      all we can do with this matte signifier is scrutinize it, not solve it
·      Zen and the haiku are a praxis designed to halt language
·      Satori (Nirbana, enlightenment) is a suspension of the constant inner language of consciousness
·      because language sums up other languages to penetrate meaning - secondary signifiers, thoughts of thoughts - Zen perceives of this a kind of jamming
·      the abolition of secondary thought is one of the aims of the haiku
·      the haiku attacks the symbol as a semantic operation (by refusing the possibility of a secondary language)

·      it does this by measuring language, a concept which is inconceivable to the Western mind
·      the Western mind always tries to make signifier and signified disproportionate (by saying a little with many words, or by saying a lot with few words)
·      the haiku, on the other hand is an adequation of signifier and signified, a suppression of margins, smudges and interstices
·      in the haiku, signified and signifier are measured ('get the measure' of something is also meant by this)

·      the practice of saying haiku twice:
·      saying it once is to give the meaning of surprise to its sudden, perfect appearance
·      saying it more than twice is to simulate profundity, to postulate that meaning can be discovered in it
·      saying it twice is an echo, neither singular, nor profound

There is a moment when language ceases and it is this echoless breach which institutes at once the truth of Zen and the form -brief and empty- of the haiku.

...perhaps what Zen calls 'satori' is no more than a panic suspension of language, the blank which erases in us the reign of the Codes, the breach of that internal recitation which constitutes our person...('Codes' is a Barthesian term, from S/Z, meaning the reference discourses which underlie Western literature. Basically, here he means any kind of secondary thoughts.)

The echo merely draws a line under the nullity of meaning.

I come by the mountain path.
Ah! this is exquisite!
A violet!

I saw the first snow
That morning I forgot
To wash my face

 3. The Incident
·      Western art transforms the 'impression' into a description
·      in the West description - A Western genre- is the equivalent of contemplation
·      two kinds of contemplation: forms of the divinity (Loyola), evangelical narrative episodes
·      in the haiku, there is no metaphysics centred around a subject or around a god
·      the haiku is centred around the Zen character Mu (nothing), an apprehension of the thing as an event, not as substance
·      the haiku is centred on what happens to language, rather than what happens to the subject producing/receiving the language
·      the haiku does not describe (this seems counter intuitive until one realises what Barthes means by ‘describe’, namely, the relationship between the sign and the signified. According to B this relationship doesn't exist in the haiku. In the haiku, language has no referent, is the essence of appearance, and an untenable moment. It is language degree Zero. Barthes calls this later in the essay an 'escheat of signification')
·      it presents language as a category, as a painting, a miniature picture

·      the order and dispersion of haiku, in anthologies and other texts
·      on the one hand there is plethora, on the other brevity
·      this creates a dust of fragmentary events with no direction or termination
·      the haiku and the self, the self is nothing but the site of reading, timeless
·      the haiku reflects the self
·      for example, in the Hua Yen doctrine (one of the key tenets of Mahayanna Buddhism, the Buddhism of China and East Asia, the origin, one can say, of Zen), a haiku is a jewel which reflects all the other jewels in a kind of irradiation, but one with no centre
·      in the West, the analogy of this is the dictionary, a play of reflections without origin
·      reflection: in the West, the mirror reflects the self, in the East, a mirror reflects nothingness, it is empty

·      this can be applied to everything which happens in the street in Japan
·      the streets are full of incidents, which a Westerner can only read in the way he reads a haiku
·      but the ability to create haiku is denied the Westerner (because of the way his consciousness is founded in language and his concept of language as a system generating secondary languages)
·      the incidents observed in the street do not have anything picturesque about them, nor do they have anything novelistic about them
·      novelistic: they do not contribute to the chatter which would make them descriptions or narratives
·      the incidents of the street present a rectitude of line, a stroke, a gesture
·      the graphic nature of Japanese life, writing alla prima
·      the line does not express, but causes to exist
·      there can be no hesitation, no regret, no trial and error in the stroke of the brush
·      these gestures do not refer back to the self, there is no self-sufficiency, only graphism

The haiku's time is without subject: reading has no other self than all the haikus of which this self, by infinite refraction, is never anything but the site of reading.

The haiku reminds us of what has never happened to us; in it we recognize a repetition without origin, an event without cause, a memory without person, a language without moorings.

The old pond:
A frog jumps in:
Oh! the sound of the water.

4. So
·      the purpose of haiku is to achieve exemption from meaning
·      this is impossible in Western lit, which contests meaning only by making it incomprehensible
·      the haiku resists commentary, and it's this commentary which is the most ordinary exercise of our consciousness
·      the haiku doesn't instruct, express, divert- it serves none of the purposes usually attributed to literature due to its insignificance and due to the way it resists finality
·      the haiku is written just to write

·      in Western lit there are two basic functions: description and definition (again Barthes is using ‘describe’ in a special sense here: embellish with significations, with moralities, committed as indices to the revelation of a truth or of a sentiment)
·      the haiku resists both of these
·      the haiku does not describe in the sense of giving meaning to reality
·      the haiku does not define except only in the sense of giving a gesture, but this gesture is only an efflorescence of the object
·      the haiku only designates, it has no vibration or recurrence
·      it says: 'it's that', or 'it's thus' or 'it's so', or even just 'so.'
·      it's like the flash of a photo one takes very very carefully, but with no film in the camera
·      the haiku is stripped of any mediation of knowledge, of possession, of nomination,
·      it's like a child pointing at something and saying 'That!'

The haiku's task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible).

The haiku is a faint gash inscribed upon time.

Nothing special says the haiku, in accordance with the spirit of Zen...nothing special has been acquired, the word's stone has been cast for nothing; neither waves nor flow of meaning.

Full moon
And on the matting
The shadow of a pine tree

In the fisherman's house
The smell of dried fish
And heat

The winter wind blows
The cat's eyes

How many people
Have crossed the Seta bridge
Through the autumn rain?


Candy Minx said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I read Empire of Signs many many years ago while visiting a friend in NYC who was doing his phd in sociology. I joined in with his prof (Richard Sennett) and fellow students in a group discussion of the book....back in the 80's. I am hoping to do a group read of this book in near future and found your blog while ordering the book. Cheers!

rebus said...

Very helpful, thanks