Sunday, 9 January 2011


Barthes's Empire of Signs might well be read as another chapter in what Federico Luisetti calls 'political Orientalism' (pdf). 'Japan' is explicitly rendered as the possibility of displacing our own narcissism, of locating 'the very fissure of the symbolic' (4), and allowing Barthes to '"entertain" the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system' (3). One of the 'flashes' Japan affords Barthes is a reflection on 'The Writing of Violence'. For Barthes the riots of the Zengakuran permit 'a writing of actions which expurgates violence from its Occidental being: spontaneity.' (103) As he goes on:

In our mythology, violence is caught up in the same prejudice as literature or art: we can attribute to it no other function than that of expressing a content, an inwardness, a nature, of which it is the primary, savage, asystematic language ... [it is] an anterior, sovereignly original force.' (103)

In contrast the violence of the Zengakuren 'is immediately a sign': expressing nothing' (103). It is intransitive, concerned to create 'a great scenario of signs' (106), and exhausting itself in its immediate expression.

Of course, Barthes's caveats don't exhaust the dangers of 'Orientalism', but here we can, along with his work in Mythologies, a neo-Brechtian reaching for the 'pure sign'; in the case violence that is not primordial but signifying, but then not signifying a meaning or use, but only the 'nothing' of its own immanence.


Miguel Cardoso said...

I still find Barthes extremely useful and indeed subtly violent, particularly in his brechtian moment,or whenever the Brechtian in him finds a way to break through the sentimental condensations of his turn to pleasure and embodiment.
Though I think if you look through The Empire of Signs towards the wider political implications of this anti-essentialism, I think they lie in a subtle ethical queasiness towards the social. There are of course many ambiguities about "the social", but he sometimes solves them too quickly - and his flight towards literature as something in excess of the social (the average, the vulgar, the stereotype)is a continuation of his formalism through other means. I'm not using formalism pejoratively, but I think it marks a problem rather than a solution. And I think similar types of problems appear in Rancière's political thought.

Benjamin said...

I would tend to agree that the flight into 'asocial' jouissance, which is a form-problem, is, as you say, no political solution. This brief note came form a possible future critique of the simplicity of the model of 'representation as violence', ie Barthes's remark that the language system itself is 'fascist'. I'm trying to tarce continuities in his earlier Brechtian moment, from Mythologies, and hopefully open a more nuanced grasp of violence.