Friday, October 22, 1999
site news

Factoid: the servers that host the apparently-boring are co-located with those that host the apparently-jocular Illuminati Online. Coincidence, or ominous presentiment?

Books I've finished lately

I promised to talk about Roland Barthes's "Empire of Signs", and now that I've finally finished it here I am. I said this about it on

Mind-tickling. Not About Japan. (Four stars)
An interesting, thought-provoking, pre-PostModern piece about sign and symbol, meaning, surface and interior, and all that sort of thing. An exploration of how else a culture might be, riffing off of the West's image of Japan, but not really about Japan at all.

Worth a read. Short and almost mythical. Reminds me somehow of Hesse's "Journey to the East", but probably not for any very good reason.

One large idea that Barthes circles around in the book is that you can have a sign without any representation; a sign that is not a sign of anything. Or at least that you can approach that (or at least that you can write a book about a semi-fictional place where things sometimes approach that).

Now this seems silly on the face of it. A sign is a sign only if it does signify, surely? If the inkmarks on a piece of paper aren't a sign of something else, then they are just atoms, just inkmarks on paper, and they aren't a "sign" in any useful sense.

On the other hand, our notion of "sign" isn't really that simple. If you take a toilet from the bathroom (where it isn't a sign, just a toilet), and put it in a glass case in a museum, it's not just a toilet anymore. Is it a sign? Things behind glass cases in museums are always signs, so of course it is. But is it a sign of anything?

Less bizarrely, non-representational art in general (most music, some sculpture, some painting, even some literature) isn't a sign of anything, but somehow it seems to partake of the universe of signs nonetheless. A string quartet isn't a sign of anything (in particular?), but somehow it's also not just a bunch of vibrations in the air.

The Mona Lisa, or this, or even simple thin