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Ceci n'est pas une pipe

created 2004-05-26 20:41:53

(Up to: Hacking Reality Previous Readings Foucault )

Notes on the short book "This is not a Pipe" by Michel Foucault, translated by James Harkness. [Excerpt]


Foucault examines the relationships between words, pictures and reality, centering foremost on Magritte's painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", unsurprisingly.

Chapter 1 gives an overview of the questions and concepts raised by the picture, and it's younger sibling "Les Deux Mysteres".

Chapter 2 examines the relationship between the image of a pipe and the words labelling it as a kind of "unravelled calligram" (a picture formed of words and letters - see a calligram example). Foucault perceives the separation of picture and words as an opposite to a calligram - it is a way of achieving the other extreme, to get away from the idea of a "pipe" object as much as possible, perhaps - in order to highlight the apparent falsehood, but actually maybe quite true statement that there is no pipe. Will highlight the various aspects to which there is no pipe below.

Chapter 3 compares Magritte's works to those of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, inspecting their fusion, respectively, of form and symbols (i.e. signs given meaning), and of form and resemblance (i.e. picture-type likeness).

Chapter 4 is awaiting notes, but looks at Magritte's substitution of pictures with words, et al.

Chapter 5 is awaiting notes, but returns to the ideas outlined below, and ventures into the difference between "resemblance" and "similitude".

Chapter 6 I haven't read yet.

Form, Meaning, Reality and Reference

There are a number of possible concepts suggested by the "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", none of which are probably more "correct" than any of the others, and therein lies the beauty - the painting is all, any, or none of them at the same time.

These concepts revolve around the different "components" involved in the piece (although not necessarily shown in the piece), identifiable as:

  • A picture of a pipe, or a series of lines, curves and colours that resembles a real pipe.
  • The word "ceci", or "this", in the sentence "ceci n'est pas une pipe"/"this is not a pipe".
  • The series of curves that go to make up the (painted) sentence "ceci n'est pas une pipe".
  • The concept of a real pipe, in the real world. This could also be distinguishable from an actual pipe, similar to the abstraction between Plato's World of Ideas and World of Forms. But we won't go that far here. Although see "Was Magritte ATaoist" which makes the link under a more Eastern influence. Note also that the translator mentions the links between verbal definitions and the real world, as if the latter is defined by the former (e.g. "In the beginning was the Word"), something which Taoism sets out not to do, right from the start.
  • The painting itself (in terms of its pictorial representation, not the tangible item that is "ceci...", although that could potentially be an item here too).

Now that these have been defined, we can see that the word "this", around which the puzzle revolves, can actually refer to any one of a number of contrastedly different "things" - the word in the English language, the picture of a pipe, the painting as a whole, the sentence within the painting. The first-glance, instinctive opinion that no, it is a pipe is only reached through an assumption about how we, as thinking humans, perceive our own relationship with pictures, words, and the world. It is only through a familiar, though somewhat arbitrarily defined convenience that we see the painting as "wrong", and hence why it is so confusing to us.

As an analogy, the same can be said of any symbols that we use - alphabets and numbers, for example, all hold their power only because their meaning has been widely agreed upon. Without this common "mapping" to some concept (just as the word "horse" maps to a large, galloping creature), the symbols themselves are useless.

To understand "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", or at least to find it non-confusing, we need to break down the conformities and established rules that we take for granted in the way that we think. Perhaps by doing this, we may also be more accustomed to observing more closely other aspects of ourselves that we do not normally think about.

This also bears similarities to the concept of the "third"set out by Alfred Korzybski, and picked up on by William S Burroughs, as illustrated in this passage from a K5 article on the novel Naked Lunch:

_This idea is simple enough, and can be found in the work of both Roland Barthes and Kenneth Burke (who probably attended the same lecture series given by Korzybski at the University of Chicago in the 1930's that Burroughs did). It takes opposition with the either/or dichotomy of Aristotle and says that there is always a third option available in all choices. For instance, there is not always black or white: there is often gray; there is not always good or bad: there is often good and bad; etc.

While sounding simple, the idea is quite complex when applied, and Burroughs invested a lot of time in developing it in his work. He felt that by investing an object with a verbal value, such as calling a `chair' a chair, you deceive people because it is just a construct designed to fool you. The word itself is nothing but an agreed upon phonetic sound. Instead, in reality the chair is an object in and of itself, and by attaching illusory names to real, physical objects you undermine logic._

(See also: Language And Intellect )

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