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Michel Foucault’s This Is Not a Pipe (Treachery of Images)

12 Jan

This philosopher is new to me and new to this site. I will be talking more about him from here on out. The French post-structuralist philosopher wrote This is Not a Pipe referring to the surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s painting Treachery of Images. This painting yields confusion as to what Magritte’s point was and what it means overall.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe is French for This is not a pipe. The issue here is what does it mean to write this across a clear painting of a pipe. Michel Foucault’s writing about the surrealist painting is a clear detailed analysis of the two versions of the painting, the calligram in the painting, and a lot of other detailed information. Foucault’s section of the writing The Unraveled Calligram is th section I have interest in because it gives 3 possible explanations to what the [this] is referring to.

A calligram is a piece of art that is made of a word or phrase or many phrases. When the word or phrase(s) is put on paper/canvas it is structured into a shape of something and what the word or phrase says represents the shape the word or phrase makes.

The above is a calligram. It makes the shape of skilled guitarist Jimi Hendrix and any enthusiast of his would understand that the words the calligram says are of Hendrix’s music. Magritte’s calligram in his surrealist painting has the same function but is with one word.

Going back to the calligram later, the two issues is what is meant by this? and what is Magritte’s point? Magritte’s point is an easy one. He stated himself he would be lying if he were to say that the pipe in the painting really was a pipe. Could you fill that pipe? no you for sure could not, therefore that is not a pipe. What Magritte is aiming to convey is that the non-pipe is a representation of a pipe.

This is an idea that is and can be applied to epistemology and phenomenology in epistemology did just that. Phenomenology, Foucault and Magritte are not related and have no ties, this is just my noticing a similarity in principle between the painting and phenomenological epistemology. Phenomenology is a school of epistemology that studies phenomena and perceives the world unempirically in that when object X is viewed it is not thought that the object is being seen, it is thought that the phenomenal representation of object X is being seen. Therefore being is taken out of the picture in consciousness in epistemology. So, phenomenologically, if one were to see a pipe in real life it would be viewed as a representation of a pipe, however that representation of a pipe being filled would just be an episode of a representation of a pipe being filled with a representation of tobacco. Coming back from my epistemological tangent, in Magritte’s painting it is just a matter of aesthetics in surrealism, while phenomenological thinkers are just a matter of viewing things as phenomena as representations. These two are only the same in principle.

Knowing Magritte’s point to the painting, Foucault discussed 3 functions of the [this] in Treachery of Images. In the first function of the [this], the [this] is referring to the picture of the pipe. The statement is what Magritte’s point is, that the picture of the pipe is not really a pipe.

The second function of the [this] is when the [this] refers to the written statement [This is not a pipe]. It is saying that the statement of the pipe is not the representation of the pipe. This seems difficult to grasp because when speaking of the statement it might be thought that it cannot be denied that [pipe] refers to the above design. Foucault states that ‘design and designation do not overlap’. I understand this as the statement denying that it corresponds to any object like pipe.

The third function of the [this] is when the [this] refers to the entire boundless painting overall. Here the calligram matters in two ways: 1) In the English version of the painting where [this is not a pipe] is what the statement is, the calligram is with the word [pipe] the place in the pipe where tobacco goes in is where the top of the p and the ipe, and the taller part of the p is the long part of the pipe.

Look at the large letter p and try to envision how the pipe can become a calligram with the p especially when the ipe are added. Foucault has illustrations in the writing but I could not find them on the internet. The third function of the [this] again refers to the whole boundless (second version of Treachery of Images by Magritte) painting with the pipe representation and the statement. The calligram here being with the word pipe, the proclamation is that [this], the painting and its entailments is not any representation of a object pipe or a statement/word meaning a pipe.

“Hence the third function of the statement: “This” (this ensemble constituted  by a written pipe and a drawn text) “is not” (is incompatible with) “a pipe” (this mixed element springing at once from discourse and the image, whose ambiguous being the verbal and visual play of the calligram wants to evoke” (Foucault).

In this third function there is an ambiguity. This lies in the identity of the [a pipe] because it is not understood what it refers to because of the ambiguous calligram. The above is a quote on the third function of it from Foucault, and he even says that here lies an ambiguity.

2) The second calligram is with the French version of Magritte’s painting (the second version) where instead of [This is not a pipe], [Ceci n’est pas une pipe] is stated across the surrealist painting under the representation of the pipe. Here lies a different calligram and a somewhat similar ambiguity. The calligram is in the [une] and the u is the part of the pipe where tobacco is inserted to smoke and the other parts of the pipe is the ne and the word [pipe].

Foucault goes on into talking about Klee and Kandinsky and a lot of other things, but I have less interest in that and more in the painting, its functions, its ambiguities, the calligram(s), and the aesthetic value it possesses.

This painting contains astronomical aesthetic value for the following reasons: the three functions of the [this], the utter confusion at first sight of this painting, and the ambiguities from the calligram in each version of the painting. Hegel had 3 ways (as I have continuously affirmed as my standards for aesthetic value) to recognize aesthetic value and beauty in artistic pieces (and media now I think): 1) coming close to imitation of nature, 2) so beautiful you are emotionally moved, or 3) it is so confusing that it sucks you in and does not allow you to think otherwise because you want so much to comprehend. This surrealist painting causes utter confusion in the viewers of the painting because the desire to comprehend the functions of the statement and the desire to comprehend the ambiguities in the calligram(s). Once one understands 2 of the simple functions the [this] of the painting, the third function will create new confusion because whether in the French version the calligram is in the [une] or in the English version where the calligram is in the [pipe], there is renewed confusion as to what the third function means and aims to claim. Foucault even said himself in the writing that the calligram ‘evokes ambiguous being’ of the calligram. It is because of this large amount of things to take into account about Treachery of Images that this painting has aesthetic value by Hegel’s third qualification because it sucks one in in that the person desires to comprehend so much.

Through my reading about Magritte and into Foucault’s analysis of the painting I am only further sucked in than I was when I first saw it. I have made some progress in comprehension but I am right back where I started. This somewhat is what artists aiming for this kind of aesthetic value try to achieve.

Thanks for the support. I shall write more in the coming and soon weeks about phenomenology, existentialism, ethics, some older modern and 19th century philosophy, and more about epistemic justification.

If I misconstrued anything about Magritte’s painting or Foucault’s analysis of the unraveled calligram, please let me know on twitter (cosmosz), by email (cosmosuniversez@yahoo.com) or comment below.

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