[(Heb.) Tamar: date tree, a figure/symbol of sublime beauty; (Ar.) T’mar: garden, beauty achieved by order]


Marco Polo’s recount of Tamara starts with a journey through a stream of undifferentiated data:

You walk for days among trees and among stones. (11)


Rules of Form: The Recognition of Signifiers

At first, the traveller doesn’t seem to recognize any signifiers in this data stream. The recount continues then with the introduction of the notion of the sign, in particular the indexical sign and the symbol:

Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; […] the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. (11)

The recount points out the importance of the form of expression, that is, the traits that a mark must show in order to be recognized as a valid signifier in the meaning system:

From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes… so that the worshipper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. (11)

What cannot be recognized as a signifier and associated with a concept remains what it is:

All the rest is silent and interchangeable, trees and stones are only what they are. (11)



Finally one arrives at Tamara. The recount of the city touches several concepts, especially the connotation or metaphor (Roland Barthes, 1957).

The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things […] a sign that something – who knows what? – has as its sign… (11)

Other signal warn of what is forbidden… and what is allowed. (11)

The wares, too… are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things… (11)


The Symbolic Order

The recount goes then over to the symbolic order itself, the order that gives all signs in a discourse their ultimate meanings:

If a building has no signboard or figure, its the very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate it’s function. (11)

The final passages focus on the act of reading and productive articulation, a process that, once familiar to the signs of a culture, almost happens involuntarily due to the power of the symbolic order:

Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the cities says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names [signifiers] with which she defines herself and all other parts. (12)

As the traveller leaves Tamara, Marco Polo points out how the symbolic order is both producing the truth and making it impenetrable:

However the city really may be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. (12)


The Involuntary Act of Reading

One may try to leave the symbolic order, but whoever “tasted” language cannot do but keep reading things in things:

Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon, the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant… (12)