While I found myself disagreeing with much of Roland Barthes' Empire of Signs (it appears to come at the beginning of the height of Western fascination with the "Japanese Way"), I very much enjoyed the essay.

In particular, I was interested Barthes' notion that Tokyo resists printed interpretation, instead relying on orientation on the ground and continual experience. Just coming off of the fantastic Seeing Like a State, I wonder about how a large city, the capital of a wealthy and highly organized country, could resist the simplifying and codifying that one would expect to take place during periods of intense modernization. I imagine that the Japanese state has devised its own, less obvious system of control and information gathering that serves its needs in this city. I'm inclined to believe that the apparent chaos of a "city without addresses" is a superficial gloss on what is in reality a well organized system.

All the same, it does appear that neighborhoods in Tokyo support and rely on local expertise, and this quotation from the essay captured my imagination:

The inhabitants excel in these impromptu drawings, where we see being sketched, right on the scrap of paper, a street, an apartment house, a canal, a railroad line, a shop sign, making the exchange of addresses into a delicate communication in which a life of the body, an art of the graphic gesture recurs: it is always enjoyable to watch someone write, all the more so to watch someone draw: from each occasion when someone has given me an address in this way, I retain the gesture of my interlocutor reversing his pencil to rub out, with the eraser at its other end, the excessive curve of an avenue, the intersection of a viaduct...

Posted
AuthorChris Hamby
Categoriestokyo