Center-City, Empty Center

by Kiko Matsing

from Empire of Signs
by Roland Barthes, Hill and Wang, 1982

Mu, emptiness.
Mu, emptiness

Quadrangular, reticulated cities (Los Angeles, for instance) are said to produce a profound uneasiness: they offend our synthetic sentiment of the City, which requires that any urban space have a center to go to, to return from, a complete site to dream of and in relation to which to advance or retreat; in a word, to invent oneself. For many reasons (historical, economic, religious, military), the West has understood this law only too well: all its cities are concentric; but also, in accord with the very movement of western metaphysics, for which every center is the site of truth, the center of our cities is always full: a marked site, it is here that the values of civilization are gathered and condensed: spirituality (churches), power (offices), money (banks), merchandise (department stores), language (agoras: cafés and promenades): to go downtown or to the center-city is to encounter the social “truth,” to participate in the proud plentitude of “reality.”

The city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a cener, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who. Daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred “nothing.” One of the two most powerful cities of modernity is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs, and trees whose own center is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness, forcing the traffic to make a perpetual detour. In this manner, we are told, the system of the imaginary is spread circularly, by detours and returns the length of an empty subject.

Marginal Notes: The most accessible of Barthes’ oeuvre I have read so far (and I still have a long way to go!). Even Barthes enjoyed writing L’Empire des signes more than any other book (Barthes, Jonathan Culler, 1983). For Vince, Baudelairian flâneur of Old Manila: I enjoyed your Short Walks: Echague, R. Hidalgo, Anloague, Escolta, Quiapo, Bilibid Viejo, Recto, Estero Cegado, Hormiga, Ongpin, Dulumbayan, San Sebastian.