The Mouth before The Voice: Food, Fantasies, The Mother

Here’s a book review I wrote just this morning. Tangential though it may seem to our concerns, I hope it will help at least a few of you in your reading of Augustine.

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It is wearisome to hear once more that Roland Barthes’ “Empire of Signs” is an example of hypocritical cultural imperialism. It’s been said too many times; and, further, it’s an inaccurate assessment of the actual text to begin with. I don’t see the need to apologize for this book before recommending it – simply a need to introduce it in terms of what it actually pretends to accomplish as well as what it never imagined it could do. In a word, it’s hardly as though Barthes was a Heidegger.


As a previous reviewer mentions, Barthes’ shows his hand from the very beginning and does not attempt in the least to produce an objective or scholarly account of Japan. Who could be foolish enough too imagine that Barthes, who though he wrote none of his own was certainly no stranger to genuine historical and anthropological analysis; who could be foolish enough to imagine that Barthes would ever have considered himself here to have produced, spontaneously, a passable work of scholarship in a slim volume containing no documentation or critical notes whatsoever?

Barthes’ writings, for all their diversity, began with a concentration on the sign as a unit of discourse, and the way signs become bundled into larger meaningful wholes. This a model, which though directed toward the analysis of the novel, nevertheless had it’s basis in the concept of speech – which he saw in very abstract diagrammatical terms. Over time however Barthes began to pay increasingly greater attention to the materiality, the maternality, of the sign, in particular the written sign. Barthes’ reading of Japan offers a vision of culture which is compelling insofar as it appears wholly different from that of the West, one which entails viewing all cultural activities as various forms of inscription as opposed to speaking. Barthes oppose Western logo-centricism (Word- and Voice-centered reality), then, to Japanese grapho-, or grammo-centrism (Writing-centered reality). Such a fundamentally inscriptive culture, highly ec-centric from the West’s perspective, locates thought and action on the outside rather than the inside of the subject. It never assumes that action and communication (if those words apply here at all) take place in an natural and unmediated fashion, or in terms of a living and present Voice. Rather writing, speech and action are always intimately bound up with some technological or instrumental variant (sword, stick or banner) of the Pen.


If Barthes is working within any genre at all here, it’s not that of scholarship but rather of the essay as first established by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s writings on indigenous Brazilians were in no way expected to provide an objective picture, much less construction, of the “rawness” of life amongst cannibals. Montaigne rather finds in the accounts he has heard of the Caribbeans an occasion to reflect on the concerns of his own culture, in particular epistemology, history and the value of the values of his own “over-cooked” civilization. Montaigne was well aware of what he was about, as was Barthes.

There is clearly no need to question the merit of thorough anthropological and historical research. However, those disciplines do not exhaust the possibilities of writing on other cultures. That we possess the methods necessary for the production of objective accounts of cultures, does not mean we no longer have a need for more subjective (or perhaps more non- or pre-objective) forms of investigation. Reason and the understanding, as Kant might have said, cannot take from the imagination what is its proper due.


It strikes me that the kind of phenomenological reverie evinced in Barthes’ encounter with Japan (his “love affair” with chopsticks, which is openly fetishistic and evokes a dual, maternal phallus, an anti-Platonic phallus which is “not-One”, which does not slice but rather unswaddles or snuggles a dumpling) is highly indebted not only to Montaigne’s writings but also to Gaston Bachelard’s later critiques of objective science, for instances his The Poetics of Revery. This sort of literary entry into a “paradis artificiel” does not come without a price. And certainly the cost of entry to, or residence in, this world of maternal jouissance was one which not only Baudelaire himself, but also numerous other writers, as antique as Augustine or as recent as Barthes himself, were perfectly willing to admit, and indeed to make the problematical focus of entire books and careers.

Barthes’ “The Empire of Signs” is not only a welcome complement to more conventional scholarly writing, but is in fact conditioned and called for by it – as Barthes says elsewhere, the only proper response to writing is more writing. If Barthes had not written this book, someone else would have had to write it instead.

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