Japan, observes Roland Barthes, that most urbane of French radical intellectuals, is “an empire of signifiers, so immense, so in excess of speech.” Thus begins his investigation of that fictive nation, not as a “reality” (or “essence”) constituted by history, philosophy, culture, and politics in contrast to the Western, but purely as a symbolic system. It presents a situation of writing that exposes the fissure of the symbolic, like “flashes” or seismic events that creates an emptiness of language.

In writing about Japan, Barthes aims to subvert the notion of meaning, and its locus in Western tradition, the individual subject. In these fissures–the irreducible differences an alien language reveals–we can uncover the very limits of language, the ideology of speech, from which we can begin to contest (Western) society.

Barthes observes that in Japanese the subject is turned into a great envelope empty of speech, not that dense kernel which proclaims itself in utterances. It confines fictive beings into inanimate “products,” or signs properly cut off from their primary referents in living things. In the Japanese zen (as in the Chinese ch’an and Hindu dhyana), the act of knowledge is without a knowing subject, and without known object. It is a perception of emptiness.

Shinjuku Girl
Shinjuku Girl:
The hat, the fur coat, those stick-thin legs.

Subway Somniloquy
Subway Somniloquy:
Who was he talking with in his dream?

This evisceration of the core is exemplified in the over-politeness of the bow. It is pure ceremony, an exercise of the void. By the strength of its codification–the scrupulosity of its codes, the graphism of its gestures–it signifies nothing. The Form is Empty, the Buddhist says. The “person” bowing is bounded in quotations, its metaphysical substrate deferred or in doubt. Humiliation (the extreme prostration of the self), is therefore as meaningless as its Western converse, self-assertion (a fullness of the self).

There’s something “moody” about these scenes.
What is this about? Perhaps about nothing.

This mode of being (or non-being), extends even to Japanese civic life. Whereas, the Western city is concentric around an essential center, where the values of civilization are gathered and condensed (church, offices, stores, cafés), the Japanese city of Tokyo orbits around a center that is empty.

Gādo-shita: pubs under the train tracks,
watering holes for Japanese salaried men.

The city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who. Daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred “nothing.”

Family picnic
Family picnic; Chiyoda Sunday flea-market;
Cool kid: haircut, puffer jacket, patched jeans.

There is no Emperor (no Subject, no God)–or at least he has evaporated into the figment of a collective dream. And yet the city continues its frenetic activity, in constant deflection from this center which is empty. It is a circulation of signs around a vacuum of meaning–a floating world, unmoored, turning on a chasm.

(Tokyo, 2015)


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