clit2001 final paper, 2 may 2018, 讨论了roland barthes的符号帝国(empire of states) 里面的一些concept是怎样应用在迷失东京里的 最后简短的讨论了已是香港明日(already tomorrow in hong kong)作为比较 (又是一次最后24小时的用身体代价换来的..)
topic 6: Barthes argues inEmpire of Signs that Tokyo is an empty city and Japan is full of empty signs and open signifiers. UsingLost in Translation, discuss the validity of Barthes’ argument. Explore issues like sign and signification, place and non-place, and space in relation to urban narratives.
Vis-à-vis the Orient: The Search of Roland Barthes’ Empty Tokyo in Lost in Translation
Like many other major cosmopolitan cities in the East, Tokyo has always remained a mystical entity of the Orient to the Westerners, overwhelmed by urban significations inviting yet indifferent, whether in relation to its historical influences dating back to the Edo period or even earlier, or taking account of the supermodern context of today’s capitalism and consumerism it is situated in. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translationprecisely portrays a Tokyo that recalls the one Roland Barthes visited in 1966 prior to the publication of Empire of Signs, an Oriental city with an “empty core” both open and reluctant to decipherment. In response to topic 6, this essay investigates how this film embodies Barthes’ notion of Tokyo being a city of emptiness and Marc Augé’s account of non-places; it later expands the concepts to a larger context by briefly examining a more recent production,Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, that pays homage to the Coppola film.
In Empire of Signs, Barthes invites us to engage with an urban system that varies in essencefrom a “center-city” in the Western sense where “values of civilization are gathered and condensed” to present a “social ‘truth’” (Barthes 30); rather, Japan with all of its socio-cultural signs lacks a fulfilled center and preserves an indifferent attitude towards the seeking of actuality and underlying significations, which is usually centric in Western discourse. On the one hand, this empty core is interpretation-friendly as it bears no significant meanings, as if it is a “polite host” who is self-conscious of the emptiness but still invites you into the property “with all your preferences, your values, your symbols intact” (Barthes 69); on the other hand, however, the empty signs reject the assignment of definitive meanings since the interpretive process itself is so contingent that, as Goebel identifies, a “plurality of meanings” can be generated (189). In this regard, Japan, or the Orient per se, is “a matter of indifference” (Barthes 3) to Barthes in a sense that the ambiguously empty signification it entails stimulates the Westerners’ reading, if not, re-reading of the unfamiliar city and confronts them with the examination of their own cultures (Goebel 189).
Now, how is this notion realized in Lost in Translation? To be plainly honest, this production is nothing more than a mainstream rom-com that narrates an almost-cliché romantic encounter of two people in a foreign city, with the cast including well-known Hollywood stars like Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. Despite its successful reception, on the side, it has been criticized for engaging a Western Orientalist perspective by suggesting Westerners’ superior gaze and the stereotypes they project on Asian people and cultures (Day, “Totally lost in translation”; Marquand, “‘Lost in Translation’ doesn't translate well in Japan”; Wong, “Latent racism ‘Lost in Translation’”). Yet, film scholar Homay King argues that the film does not wholly subscribe to Edward Said’s traditional notion of Orientalism, that it rather introduces an ambiguous Western gazing position, with its embodied identity at times dissociated with the local and at other times taken part in (46). Taking a step back from the discourse of the film’s association with Orientalism, these discussions are merely perspectives to be taken, perspectives that are contingent and contextual. While Barthes in Empire of Signsattempts to emancipate from the Western semiotic tendency of deciphering the symbols into linguistic forms as he identifies in his article “Semiology and Urbanism”, similarly, Lost in Translationdoes not assert the reality of Tokyo it depicts, nor does it firmly adopt the Western position gazing at the Oriental culture; the film simply provides a series of observation of Tokyo, just like how Barthes observes the unfamiliar Orient within a total of 26 episodes in Empire of Signs. In other words, on the macro level, this film itself serves as an empty sign, like the kind Japanese Bunrakuactors’ face is to Barthes, one that is open to a plurality of readings yet resistant to a concrete actualization precisely because it is empty at root with “nothing there to read” (Barthes 62).
To further illustrate how the film portrays a Tokyo of emptiness, I would like to introduce here Augé’s concept of non-places. A non-place, he defines, is a space not “relational, or historical, or concerned with identity” (77-78) that exists in the supermodern society where the (pre)modern temporalities of time and space become less significant. The traveler’s space in Lost in Translationis what Augé identifies as “archetype of non-place” (86). Throughout the entire film, the two foreign travelers actively engage in the reading of the unfamiliar Tokyo, of its fascinating neon lightings reflected on the windows of a driving taxi, the panoramic spectacles exclusive to the hotel’s higher-floor residents, the various people they interact with at different venues, the locations they visit such as restaurants and hospitals, the food, the daily activities, and so on. Through the condensed texts in guidebooks and moving images greeting them when they stroll around, they form an impression of the city consisted of countless signs that in fact do not embrace any spatial or historical signification. In other words, the signs are only there for purposes of exhibition without implying any deeper significance since they do not contain any. Tokyo to the two characters is therefore empty. This is particularly discernible when Charlotte cries to a friend in the phone saying “I didn’t feel anything” experiencing the unfamiliar culture. She feels empty in front of these urban signs because she might have grown accustomed to the Western system of seeking a social truth and this new system of indifference is unable to fulfill the Western understanding and thus nevertheless appears strange to her. In this regard, a traveler’s non-place can also be considered the archetype of an empty space with its signs open to meaning-interpreting yet essentially meaningless.
In terms of urban experiences, Charlotte can only perceive the city from a surface level where everything remains superficial due to the absent core of signification. Note that in this context, to perceive the city means to passively receivethe observations supplied at hand, including but not limited to the language, the people, the visual images and the common cultural practices. This is also applicable to Bob for whom the Oriental exoticism is greatly grounded in superficiality as to the film’s stereotypical depiction of Japan’s sex and entertainment industries. With the empty signs within Tokyo serving as equipment in the formulation of a certain perception of the city, and with the Western readers’ temporary loss of self-identity and the disconnection with the physical surroundings in the non-place, a Tokyo is perceived at its most inauthentic representation vis-à-vis reality. If anything, what is being perceived here is merely an illusion of Tokyo which is fundamentally a void, a signifier that signifies nothing and for this reason precisely, anything.
A concept somewhat opposed to “perceiving” would be what I call “conceiving”, whose process requires an urban reader to actively engage with the urbanity so as to delve into a deeper signification. This notion very much aligns with the aforementioned Western system of decoding and making sense of the signifiers, something Barthes attempts to avoid conforming to in his 1966 visit to Japan. To conceive a city from a cultural outsider’s point of view nevertheless exerts a meaning that is derived from other cultures’ complexities onto the local system; in this case of the Occident’s read of the Orient, it is a form of appropriation of cultural ideology, the mismatch of two individualities, thus invalid in Barthes’ account. In his words, what lies in the Orient is “the possibility of difference”, the idea of which ultimately attracts him and “allows [him] to ‘entertain’ the… unheard-of symbolic system… detached from” the Western one (3). Same way of thinking applies in Lost in Translation; there is simply no need for the two foreign travelers to obtain a certain meaning from the urban semiotics, for the lexicon notion of the “regular correspondence between signifiers and signified” has to be extended beyond (Barthes 415-416). Furthermore, the essence of Japan is its empty core which lacks definitive meanings; to conceive its urbanity would be something incompatible with the Japanese system.
As I have previously mentioned, Empire of Signsis Barthes’ appreciation of not just the Japanese culture as a series of empty signs, but of the Orient in general a unique system of indifference that intrigues him. What Empire of Signsshares in common with Lost in Translationis that they both to a large extent manifest the idea that the Orient culture encompasses signs from which a concrete meaning is absent, of which the otherness only allows outsiders to perceive an illusionary actuality rather than to conceive the underlying significance because there is none; moreover, the possibility of presenting to travelers as a non-place reinforces its unique emptiness. Yet despite its empty signification, it retains a sense of indifference to a plurality of interpretations by the productive urban-readers. To push the above conclusion a step further, I shall in the last paragraph situate the concepts in the context of Hong Kong, another major Oriental cosmopolis like Tokyo, by making a brief examination of Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong.
The film is a 2015 indie production about two strangers’ romantic encounter in Hong Kong, with the screenplay inspired by Lost in Translationas well as The Before Trilogy. What differs from Lost in Translationhere is the characterization; Josh is a Caucasian guy who has been an expat in Hong Kong for a decade while Ruby is an American girl of Hong Kong origin who pays a visit to Hong Kong for the first time. The introduction of two perspectives of city-readers complicates the discourse of whether an Oriental city exhibits open signifiers to not only the Western travelers but also to the local dwellers. To review this issue using Augé’s non-places, when a space becomes more than a traveler’s space of in-between-ness, when an individual retrieves his/her once insignificant identity, when certain relations are constructed in relation to other individualities and the physical space and time, that space no longer possesses attributes of a non-place. Therefore, Hong Kong to Josh is a place rather than a non-place, where his reading of the city is divorced from the perceptual level. In this context, one’s reading of the Orient is position- and positionality-dependent, in a sense that one’s position with respect to the society together with its associated factors determine his/her perspective and experience of urbanity. Since the two protagonists have different perspectives, their gazing positions also differ from each other; while Hong Kong is a place to Josh with fulfilled meanings and significations, it is yet a non-place for Ruby where signifiers remain to be empty and indifferent to decipherment. Additionally, one interesting feature of this film is that it poses discussions concerning not only Asian stereotypes but many American stereotypes as well, which playfully challenges both the Oriental and the Occidental perspectives. At the interface of two culture systems, Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong serves to mediate between the East and the West with every cultural sensibility it has to offer, just like how the two individualities encounter vis-à-vis in Barthes’ Empire of Signs.
Augé, Marc. “From Places to Non-Places.” Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, translated by John Howe, Verso, 1995, pp. 75–115.
Barthes, Roland.Empire of Signs. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1982.
Barthes, Roland. “Semiology and Urbanism.” Architecture Culture, 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology, edited by Joan Ockman and Edward Eigen, New York: Rizzoli, 1993, pp. 413–418.
Day, Kiku. “Totally Lost in Translation.”The Guardian, 24 Jan. 2004, www.theguardian.com/world/2004/jan/24/japan.film. Accessed 2 May, 2018.
Goebel, Rulf J. “Japan as Western Text: Roland Barthes, Richard Gordon Smith, and Lafcadio Hearn.”Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 1993, pp. 188–205.
King, Homay. “Lost in Translation.”Film Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, 2005, pp. 45–48.
Marquand, Robert. “'Lost in Translation' Doesn't Translate Well in Japan.”The Christian Science Monitor, 19 Apr. 2004, www.csmonitor.com/2004/0419/p07s01-woap.html. Accessed 2 May, 2018.
Wong, Vanessa. “Latent Racism 'Lost in Translation'.” The Michigan Daily, 24 Jan. 2016, www.michigandaily.com/section/arts/lost-translation. Accessed 2 May, 2018.
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