- Title: This is not a pipe – “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”
- Author: Michel Foucault
- Translated: James Harkness
- Published: 1983
- Publisher: University of California Press
- ISBN: 978-0-520-23694-3
Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
How words (language) linked to the objects? This is the question that Foucault tried to answer in his masterpiece “Les Mots et les Choses,” which translates “The Order of things.”
It had been thought that the language and the reality were bonded together mystically. Ursula K. Le Guin portraited this myth very clearly in her “Earthsea” novels.
In Saussurean linguistics, words do not refer to things. A Word is arbitrarily assigned to an object and conveys the meaning of graded differences in a network of other words.
Magritte’s Surrealism reinterprets the mystical link among images, language, and things in a different context. His images are familiar but rendered irrationally or senselessly. This non-representational quality of Magritte’s images overcame the boundary of representation, making the things go adrift and free from their signifiers.
Let’s get to the point. What is happening when you see the painting, “This is not a pipe”? You know you are looking at a pipe, a representation of a real pipe. In a Platonic sense, it is a copy of the real one. How do you recognize the image as a pipe? You have seen a pipe (real or picture), and your brain created a mapping between a signifier “pipe” and the qualities of what a pipe means. After that, even when you see different types (shapes) of pipes, you can reconnect the mapping.
Now, the image is before your eyes. You recognize that it is a pipe, more correctly, the drawing of a pipe. But the text underneath it gives an impression of contradiction and paradox. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” It is a very true statement that breaks down our automatic mental process. We recognized “This is a pipe” and “This is not a pipe” at the same time without any contradictions. Only when the text gives the emphasis to the latter, we are getting a different impression – vague uneasiness. –
The book “This is not a pipe” is about Foucault’s continuous pursuit to understand power and social relations. He assumes René Magritte in the historical line of Klee and Kandinsky that challenged the established system of image, symbols, and text. They freed painting from resemblance and affirmation – the classical sense of painting -.
You might disagree with Foucault’s highly opinionated homage to Magritte. I have seen most of Magritte’s works at the galley (https://www.moma.org/artists/3692). My expression was mixed; impressive, but somewhat too expressive and rather superficial. But I have to appreciate Foucault’s rather provocative view to give me a chance to look at Magritte’s classics works in a different context.