Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 July 2021

ROLAND BARTHES or, of the Idolatry of Imperious Signs

"And the people bowed and prayed/

to the neon sign they made..." 

- Paul Simon, The Sounds of Silence

The book sat unread on my shelf for decades, its shiny white cover in the elegant Gallimard edition 

gathering dust for long periods until rescued and delicately inserted between other books so that only 

the spine lay visible with its title and author prominently displayed in black characters on white 

background: “L’Empire des Signes, Roland Barthes”. Like most bibliophiles, then as now, I gathered for 

my library books far in excess of what I could feasibly read. Barthes’s was one I kept pushing to the 

perimetre of my cerebrum and the periphery of my field of vision in part because I thought I could 

divine its contents from the suggestive, having already perused other works by the Frenchman such 

as “Mythologies” and “Le Degre’ Zero de l’Ecriture” and even the thin pocket-book, “Camera Lucida”. 

Despite having come to fame as a “structuralist” in the wake of Claude Levy-Strauss, who was a 

trained anthropologist, Barthes’s studies had little pretence of being “scientific” in any guise; they 

exuded proficuously instead an unseizable idiosyncrasy (insaisissable idiosyncrasie) impossible to 

categorize, let alone pin down. All human statements - judgements, opinions - are uniquely subjective 

and tendentious, of course; but those of the French philosophes at least since Rousseau are 


Barthes was not immune to this malaise - an extremism, really - that is much less pronounced in the 

much more methodical works of the great antagonists of French philosophy and culture tout court -

the German idealists and phenomenologists. Since Descartes’s Discours de Methode, the Greek word 

has proliferated throughout the Hexagon, but in effect the Cartesian method proved to be both the 

genesis and the apogee of methodical reasoning in France - waning steadily thereafter until it hit rock 

bottom with the sheer delusional palaver of a Michel Foucault and his even more illustrious epigones, 

known collectively as “post-structuralists”. If structuralism was not enough of a shadowy in-discipline, 

despite its anthropological pretensions or camouflage, its philosophical aftermath quickly descended 

into the nether realm of near-lunacy. Roland Barthes may be viewed, together with Louis Althusser, 

as the avatar and initiator of this perilous downward spiral into hermeneutic obfuscation.

Barthes’s judgement and intellect were always suspect to me. But they became alarmingly so when I 

read recently his infamous throwaway line about fascism demanding speech. What is bad about that 

indelicate statement, tossed like a decaying bone to the starved masses of pseudo-intellectuals that 

Western academies keep dishing out, is not that it is false: what dismays is the stark meaninglessness 

of the statement. And the outrage at the levity of this gratuitous attack on speech, which Hannah 

Arendt held highest in esteem, swells so rapidly and uncontrollably within me that I advert perversely 

to the justice of Barthes dying after colliding with a very big sign, a Parisian tram bearing doubtless 

many other advertising signs on its exterior. I had always figured that someone who, like Barthes, 

made great effusive show of his execration of fascism would most forcefully eschew all approbation, 

however remote, not just of “empires” but also of “signs”. Yet, there lies the stark, unpalatable truth -

whether consumed with chopsticks or fork and knife (more on that soon): the book on “the empire of 

signs” is a lengthy paean to Oriental empires and their ubiquitous signs.

Western civilization has always opposed empires, not just for their association with “domination” 

both extensive (empires are large if not vast) and intensive (empires are autocratic and imperial, 

hence, imperative), but also, by implication with these, for their totalitarian absolutism. The West has 

had also an ambivalent, and ambiguous, attitude to signs, for reasons at least metonymically related 

to the absolutist and totalitarian nature of empires. A sign is that symbol, that unique human ability, 

by which we seek to bridge that ineluctable “irrational hiatus” (Fichte), that Shadow (T.S. Eliot) that 

lies between the Idea and the Reality. By its very imperious attempt to bridge that hiatus, to close 

that gap, to fill that existential void, the sign points in a specific direction; it closes the universe of our 

imagination, it narrows our choices. For that reason, perhaps, Barthes surmised that “fascism requires 

speech” - in which case he ought really to have said “speech invites fascism”. To speak is, inevitably, 

to legiferate, to lay down laws. Speech is inexorably political. But from this to the conclusion that 

speech implies or debouches into fascism is to misunderstand fundamentally the political character of 

fascism. Barthes was a mere philosopher: he understood next to nothing of history, let alone of 

politics: yet, like most French philosophes, then as now, he simply presumed that he did. It would not 

be excessive to state that presumption is nine tenths of French philosophy.

Starting with the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the French philosophes - under their various guises 

as anthropologists or historians, or all social sciences combined - seized on this very Kantianseparation of signifier and signified - the hiatus between idea and reality that signs are meant to 

bridge. A sign is a signifier, but its role in the sphere of human signification is curtailed by its inability 

to identify with the object it wishes to signify: therein lies the ambivalence and ambiguity of signs. But 

it is in this “shadowy area”, in this gray zone, that human freedom is possible as free-dom, as a dom￾ain of choice not dictated or necessitated by coercion. The signified is the Kantian “thing-in-itself”; the 

sign can be both a “thing-in-itself” as the physical symbol that signifies, and an idea or concept, as the 

signifier. Signs are essential aspects of being human because they are the only way in which we can 

ex-press, literally “push out (Aus-drucken, in German) our subjective thoughts and make them 

“objective” - both as material signs or symbols and as “purposes” or “directions” for human action. 

Signs are intrinsic to being human; and yet they are dangerous because their ex-pression or 

objectification of thoughts entails and engenders a limitation, a restriction, a confinement and 

condition of human freedom.

Hence, signs may well be essential to human being; but the content and use of signs is extraordinarily 

important because central to and crucial for human action. Signs speak - and speech is intrinsically 

political. Indeed, signs are most dangerous, most obfuscating, when they are used to elide, to occlude,

to curtail speech. The less a sign says, the more immediately it points to the signified, the more 

thought-less it becomes. The sign mediates between thought and action: that is why im-mediate signs, 

those that eliminate the imaginative space between thought or intention and object or objective are 

dangerous in the extreme - because they restrict the time needed for re-flection (Latin, flectere, to 

bend), for de-liberation, for critical ana-lysis (backward looking thought). Signs that eliminate speech 

are the most dangerous signs of all!

This may seem counterintuitive or maybe even contradictory, but the chief use of speech is to make 

literacy possible. Speech or parole is the most elementary and elemental form of human 

communication - and therefore of human signification. A word is an oral and aural sign, one that is 

capable of being assigned a symbol. And communication, in turn, is a form of symbolic manipulation 

whereby we can combine spoken words in a complex manner to effect a response from our fellow

humans - to affect their behaviour, their conduct, hopefully in the direction intended by us. Spoken 

communication is a way to manipulate sounds that have become symbols by way of their 

combination into a language or langue. Leadership is ultimately the ability to manipulate sounds that 

have become signs into a set of symbols whose manipulation allows communication as meaningful 

instruction affecting and inducing conduct - as leadership.

But speech is obviously very limited so long as sounds cannot be stored or repeated. It is thus that 

humans sought from the earliest times to turn words into tangible and visible signs. - Which is why we 

say that, given the vastly superior efficacy of tangible and visible symbolic communication to the 

spoken word, so hard to record and reproduce as sound, speech outdoes itself, overcomes itself 

metaphysically and sociologically to become the conduit to literacy. In the course of human 

civilisation as a universe of communication, as language and not simple confined parole, the chief use 

of speech is to make literacy possible. Here the later complex developments, language and literacy, 

explain the earlier elemental form, parole and speech. This is just another way of saying, with Karl 

Marx, that the spinning Jenny “explains” the wind-mill - because evidently all the technical and 

material progress of the wind-mill is implicit in the operation of the spinning-jenny, whereas the 

opposite is clearly not true. In human history, taken as the story of civilisation, it is the later 

development that explains and is superior to the earlier one, both in complexity and in effectiveness 

for giving material expression to and enabling the fulfilment of human needs.

This is why, to repeat, the intrinsic scope and aim of speech is to enable literacy, the most widespread 

form of human communication and cooperation. It is speech that enables literacy, which is why 

literacy is the implicit, intrinsic realisation and fulfilment of speech. Any and every form of symbolic 

signification or symbolic manipulation that hinders or severs the link between literacy and speech by 

making speech more “illiterate” is a pernicious and vicious attack on speech as the most elemental 

and elementary vehicle of human communication and intercourse, of coexistence and cooperation -

of civilised and fulfilled human existence. This is why I was taken aback when I realised that Barthes’s 

irrepressible aim in The Empire of Signs was to praise all things Japanese and, by implication, Chinese, beginning with the language, with Chinese idiograms - something I premit I have come to dub as 

“idiot-grams”. It bewildered me - much more than befuddled - that a self-anointed iconoclast such as 

Barthes, the author of “Mythologies”, should fall for the most jejune, ill-conceived myths about 

Orientalism, chief among them his puerile infatuation with Chinese idiot-grams - with “signs”! To be 

sure, our alphabetic letters are “signs”, too. But they connote phonemes, speech sounds - which is 

why even our non-phonetic Western languages such as English, are in reality just as “phonetic” as 

Romance languages. By allowing the reader to connect - whence the “connotation” - individual letter 

signs to distinct sounds or phonemes, our alphabetic system allows every individual to link or connect 

sets of letters or words to distinct sounds or - sit venia verbo! - “words”! Indeed, we do not 

distinguish between written words and spoken words or vocables (vocabulary, from the Latin vox or 

“voice”). (Small wonder the economist Albert O. Hirschman hypothesized that the only alternatives to 

domination were “exit”, meaning flight or exile, and “voice”, meaning revolutionary opposition.)

Yes, our Western languages offer this supreme advantage and proud distinction that the written signs 

of “mandarins” in China and Japan do not: our letters give us “voice”, the power - oh, what a power it 

is! - of speech through literacy! It is of fundamental importance to understand and appreciate fully 

the bestial stupidity of Monsieur Roland Barthes - this execrable impostor, this “hypocrite lecteur” -

epitomised in his immortally immoral absurd rambling about “fascism requires speech”. Or was it the 

other way round? “Speech requires fascism”? It matters not: both allocutions are the miserable 

sordid musings of a worthless soul - contemptible in the highest just for this one levity, ah, but of the 

most contemptible kind. To think! To think that Hannah Arendt championed speech, the power 

emanating from our ability to utter words as the highest, most sublime expression - indeed, oral and 

aural objectification - of our innermost and noblest being - of our power to think and to act in the 

world! (In Latin, the word for thinking is “cogitare”, from co-agitare, moving together, shaking, 

upsetting, altering the established order.)

Idiot-grams tear asunder the elemental, perhaps divine (Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was 

the Word [Logos, logic]. And the Word became Flesh”, not the other way round!) nexus between 

words and objects by making these signs illegible to all but the most learned “mandarins”. Chinese 

idiograms offer no clue whatsoever as to how we are supposed to read them. Consequently, each 

“reader” has to be able to memorize every idiograms as it indicates each individual word and the 

object that it “signifies”. Thus, Chinese idiograms are “illegible” to all but the most erudite Chinese -

to wit, the “mandarinate”, the exclusive and oppressive caste of Chinese imperial and imperious 

clerks who worked incessantly and tirelessly to ensure that only they could decipher - ah, ciphers, 

signs again! - the meaning of their ludicrously convoluted signs that supposedly stood for “words” but 

not in legible (!) form - rather, only as “signs”, as symbols that relate directly, immediately (without 

the mediation of thought, of speech) to objects. The Chinese dictionary - but there is no diction! (Latin, 

dicere, to say, to speak) - or vocabulary - but again, no vocables! No voice! - is despicable and 

autocratic in the extreme - good enough reason for us Westerners to seek to…ob-literate it, to 

expurgate it from our collective memory as the supreme exaltation of human domination, subjection 

and oppression that it truly is. “A boot stamped on a human face, forever”: George Orwell’s 

description of the Nazi goose-step is an appropriate and adequate definition of Chinese idiograms, of 

all they symbolize: - all the pernicious practices of Oriental autocracy; the hideous subjection and 

enslavement of entire populations of humans that it most ignominiously represents.

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. If you require proof, look around. The pompous Barthes, the 

idiot brain and his idiot-grams; the French callow delusional philosophe with his flamboyant, 

boisterously vile confabulations about speech and fascism. Like Marcel Proust in the very last 

paragraph of “Un Amour de Swann”, I only had to start reading “L’Empire des Signes” to realize, with 

consternation and disdain, that what I had long believed to be a repository of sociological wisdom, 

was merely the meretricious ramblings of an idolatrous mind - Roland Barthes’s: Not an iconoclast, 

but a genuflector before the hieratic empire of mindless, speechless signs. 

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