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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

This could be a pipe:
Foucault, irrealism and Ceci n'est pas une pipe

by G.S. Evans


In 1968 Michel Foucault wrote a small book titled Ceci n'est pas une pipe ("This Is Not a Pipe"), which discussed a similarly titled drawing by the Belgian artist Rene Magritte. What made Magritte's drawing so interesting for Foucault was the unusual effect (what he termed the "strangeness") created by the drawing's highly realistic depiction of a pipe on the one hand and the legend that Magritte wrote below it, which states, "This is not a pipe." For Foucault, the incongruity between the pipe and its legend illustrates his position, stated in The order of things: an archaeology of human sciences, that "[neither words nor the visible] can be reduced to the other's terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying . . . ." In Ceci n'est pas une pipe he specifically argues that the drawing (and the series of paintings by Magritte that it inspired) strips us of the certainty that the pipe is a pipe, as it "inaugurates a play of transferences that run, proliferate, propagate, and correspond within the layout of the painting, affirming and representing nothing" (49).

For us, however, Foucault’s casual dismissal of the possibility that a drawing and inscription of an object might effectively function as an analogue of the object is extremely problematic. As the article details, we, as irrealists, hold that there is a very real relation between what we see and what we say; this is made especially clear in the context of Magritte's drawing by the fact that illustrations and legends repeatedly and successfully point us to particular objects (e.g., when a pipe smoker buys a tin with an illustration of a man smoking a pipe and the words "50 grams of Pipe Tobacco" printed on it, he or she can reasonably expect to find pipe tobacco inside). It is the very concreteness and consistency of this relation, in fact, which makes the contradiction between the picture and the legend in Magritte’s drawing so problematic and, ultimately, troubling. For in our everyday world we expect and rely upon these things to be what they say they are. It is the fact that they occasionally don’t correspond to each other that upsets us (such as if the pipe smoker opened the tin and discovered liquorice there instead of tobacco). It is not, then, as Foucault would have it that "what we see never resides in what we say," but that what we see generally corresponds to what we "see" and it is the exception to this that causes the distress.

And it is because of these occasionally experienced exceptions that the legend "This is not a pipe” also cannot simply be dismissed as a mistake by the viewer of the drawing: we know too well that, though things are often as they seem, at other times they are not as they seem. Thus, it is the fact that the drawing evokes this ambiguous and multi-faceted nature of matter, which is always resistant and sometimes completely impervious to our efforts to attach a single, definitive meaning to it, that (in our opinion) lends the drawing its strangeness.


In the beginning of his essay Foucault gives a straightforward description of Magritte's drawing: "a carefully drawn pipe, and underneath it (handwritten in a steady, painstaking, artificial script...), this note: 'This is not a pipe.'" [15] It is, as Foucault notes: "as simple as a page borrowed from a botanical manual: a figure and the text that names it. Nothing is easier to say--our language knows it well in our place--than the 'name of a pipe.'" He then notes that there is a certain "strangeness" in the picture, and first considers, before dismissing, the possibility that the strangeness results from contradiction, arguing that contradiction can only exist between two statements, or in a single statement (he is speaking here of contradiction in the context of formal logic, where one can't establish correspondence between an idea and an object, and is thus by its very nature tautologous). He then moves to the vantage point of the correspondence theory of truth, where it is assumed that we can assume a correspondence between an idea and an object, and asks if the strangeness doesn't result from the fact that the statement "This is not a pipe" is a false statement (the fact to which it refers does not exist) because "its 'referent'--obviously a pipe--does not verify it?" His answer is simple: "But who would seriously contend that the collection of intersecting lines above the text is a pipe? Must we say: My God, how simpleminded!" And yet Foucault emphasizes that the strangeness he is speaking of cannot be explained away as a simple trick of language. For, of course, the picture is structured so that it plays heavily upon the long-established convention of language, from which we have learned to look at a drawing or photograph and say "This is a chair" or "That is my house." For Foucault, this convention of language is apparently all powerful, as for him: "No matter that it is the material deposit, on a sheet of paper or a blackboard, of a little graphite or a thin dust of chalk. It does not 'aim' like an arrow or a pointer toward a particular pipe in the distance or elsewhere. It is a pipe." [20]

Having thus, with a wave of the hand, dismissed any theory that would consider either the word "pipe" or the picture of the pipe to be an analogue of a real, concrete object (which we would hold that it is), he concludes: "What misleads us is the inevitability of connecting the text to the drawing...and the impossibility of defining a perspective that would let us say that the assertion is true, false, or contradictory." Indeed, if we assume him to be correct in stating that the drawing of the pipe is understood by the viewer to actually be the pipe, we can see the impossibility he is referring to: here is a pipe, and yet here is a statement (carrying equal validity) saying that this pipe isn't a pipe. Stripped as Foucault believes we are of any means to refer the matter to a concrete reality, this drawing would seem to leave us in a complete quandary.

Foucault continues: "I cannot dismiss the notion that the sorcery here lies in an operation rendered invisible by the simplicity of its result, but which alone can explain the vague uneasiness provoked. The operation is a calligram that Magritte has secretly constructed, then carefully unraveled." What does he mean by this? He would seem to be saying that Magritte (literally or metaphorically) first created a calligram, which might have looked something as follows:

This is a
i              p
s              i peThis is a pipeThis is a pipeThis is
a pipeThis is a pipeThis is a pipeThis is a pipe

But, when we look at a calligram, we can either see a pipe (when we look at the shape the letters form) or we can read those same letters and understand the phrase to be signifying the thing we call a pipe. We cannot, however, do both at the same time. We must therefore choose as to whether we "read" that there is a pipe present, or we "see" one present. The importance of the calligram for Foucault in this context, then, is that it is a tautology between an image and an object; we recall that earlier he stated that we cannot call This Is Not a Pipe contradictory because of the limits of formal logic, where "contradiction could exist only between two statements, or within one and same statement." He explains: "The calligram uses that capacity of letters to signify both as linear elements that can be arranged in space and as signs that must unroll according to a unique chain of sound. As a sign, the letter permits us to fix words; as line, it lets us give shape to things. The calligram aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our alphabetical civilization: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce and to articulate; to imitate and to signify; to look and to read."

But how is it that Magritte has here unraveled a calligram? we might ask. "From calligraphic doubling [such as we see in the above example]," writes Foucault, "Magritte seemingly returns to the simple correspondence of the image with its legend. Without saying anything, a mute and adequately recognizable figure displays the object in its essence; from the image, a name written below receives its 'meaning' or rule for usage. Now, compared to the traditional function of the legend, Magritte's text is doubly paradoxical. It sets out to name something that evidently does not need to be named (the form is too well familiar). And at the moment when he should reveal the name, Magritte does so by denying that the object is what it is. Whence comes this strange game, if not from the calligram? From the calligram that says things twice (when once would doubtless do); from the calligram that shuffles what it says over what it shows to hide them from each other." [23-24] Thus, according to Foucault, Magritte has created a calligram, with its inherent tautology, and then "unravelled" it, the modus operandi of this unraveling being the text's denial of what the object is. Magritte shows us the tautology of the calligram even though there is no longer a calligram, and therein lies the strangeness of the drawing.

But to what end this strangeness? Foucault considers it to be Magritte's contribution to the anti-linguistic program of modernism, intended to show, in the words of James Harkness' introduction to Foucault's essay, that "a painting is nothing other than itself, autonomous from the language that lies buried in representational realism." But where painters such as Klee and Kandinsky used abstraction to make their point, Magritte "allows the old space of representation to rule, but only at the surface, no more than a polished stone, bearing words and shapes: beneath, nothing." [41] In spite of initial appearances, a work by Magritte is a "gravestone" of representational realism. "Magritte names his paintings in order to focus attention upon the very act of naming," Foucault writes. "And yet in this split and drifting space, strange bonds are knit, there occur intrusions, brusque and destructive invasions, avalanches of images into the milieu of words, and verbal lightning flashes that streak and shatter the drawings." [p.36] Magritte thus helps to overthrow two principles that, according to Foucault, long governed painting. The first is the principle of resemblance, which "presumes a primary reference that prescribes and classes" copies, where "either the text is ruled by the image (as in those paintings where a book, an inscription, or the name of a person are represented); or else the image is ruled by the text (as in books where a drawing completes, as if it were merely taking a short cut, the message that words are charged to represent)." Where "verbal signs and visual representations are never given at once. An order always hierarchizes them, running from the figure to discourse or from discourse to the figure." [32-33] The second, related principle is that there is "an equivalence between the fact of resemblance and the affirmation of a representative bond. Let a figure resemble an object (or some other figure), and that alone is enough for there to slip into the pure play of the painting a statement--obvious, banal, repeated a thousand times yet almost always silent...[that] 'what you see is that.'" [34]

Magritte's unraveled calligrams, according to Foucault, help to show that neither language nor painting "can be reduced to the other's terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say." Lacking the hierarchy of resemblance from which we can say with confidence "This is a pipe," we are left with a situation in Magritte's paintings that Foucault calls similitude, where things are cast adrift to "multiply of themselves, to be born from their own vapor and to rise endlessly into an ether where they refer to nothing more than themselves...".


As we have already noted, our objection to Foucault's understanding of This Is Not a Pipe comes well before he articulates his concepts of resemblance and similitude; in fact, even before he proposes the unraveled calligram as the "only" possibility that can "explain the vague uneasiness provoked" by Magritte's drawing. (Footnote 1)

Specifically, we fail to see how it is that the conventions of language can lead us so entirely from the realization (and the ability to so realize) that the "drawing representing the pipe is not the pipe itself" to "the material deposit, on a sheet of paper or a blackboard, of a little graphite or a thin dust of chalk ... is a pipe," with no possibility that it might be thought of as "an arrow or a pointer toward a particular pipe in the distance or elsewhere."

For is it really true, as Foucault asserts, that Magritte's carefully drawn pipe doesn't aim toward a particular pipe in the distance or elsewhere? Especially, in fact, Magritte's "scholarly...academic" drawing of a pipe, "the entire function of [which] is to elicit recognition, to allow the object it represents to appear without hesitation or equivocation." It is true that the viewer might say, in reaction to Magritte's precise representation, "but this is a pipe," but couldn't it be argued that the viewer doesn't mean, even in the moment he or she says it and thinks it, that this drawing of a pipe is literally a pipe? He or she, we would argue, fully understands it to be an analogue of the pipe: as evidence of this we would point to the fact that, even in the moment that he most emphatically says and "believes" this is a pipe, the viewer is not tempted--for even the slightest fraction of a second--to try and pick the "pipe" up and smoke it to prove his or her point. No matter how vividly, in other words, the picture conjures the thought of a real pipe, the viewer is aware of the fact that it isn't a real pipe, bur rather an analogue of a real pipe.

But surely this refutation of Foucault's argument has come too easily, aided no doubt by the fact that Foucault--in this essay, and for whatever reason--hasn't provided us with any rationale for his complete rejection of the image as an analogue of the object. We must look elsewhere in his writing to try and deduce this rationale, which very quickly brings us to Foucault's argument in The Order of Things that there is a mystical identification of words with the essences of things in Western culture, where languages "speak the heaven and the earth of which they are the image; [and] reproduce in their most material architecture the cross whose coming they announce--that coming which established its existence in turn through the Scriptures and the Word." This way of thinking (which Foucault considers to be a foundation of Western thought), then, goes back all the way to the Old Testament, where the Word is the Beginning. Thus the word "pipe" can't serve as a pointer for the simple reason that it has already become, in the mind of the viewer of the drawing, the thing itself in this mystical, Platonic fashion. And hence the quandary that Foucault suggests, and which forms the basis for the rest of his essay.

But we are not convinced that this saves Foucault's explanation: evoking this mystical bond still doesn't, in our view, explain why the viewer so readily accepts that the drawing of the pipe is an analogue of the pipe. Even in that moment when the viewer, in considering the basic paradox of the drawing, suspends the judgment, "this is a drawing of a pipe" (at which level the title of the drawing is very much true), and accepts the drawn pipe as being a "real" pipe (at which point the title becomes absurd), he or she doesn't, as we've already said, reach for the pipe to smoke it. In any case, this moment when the viewer becomes captivated by the drawing can be likened to the kind of reverie that we enter into when we read a book, watch a movie, etc.: where we go from seeing or experiencing the analogues as only being representations to actually being the thing itself. But, as with any reverie, a sudden contact with "reality" will snap the viewer out of it. The viewer of Magritte's drawing, once he enters this reverie, might well be thinking "this is a pipe"--indeed must be if he or she will take any interest in the drawing beyond its technical or material aspects--but a loud noise, another viewer in the gallery, a call coming into his or her cell phone, will all bring the viewer back to the realization that the drawn pipe is simply a representation of a "real" pipe. If this, then, is the mystical bond Foucault is speaking of, it is a short-lived one.


It is the analogous nature of the drawn pipe--which Foucault so casually dismisses--that forms the basis for our argument as to the strangeness of the drawing. We believe that the viewer, upon first looking at the drawing, will typically see it more "objectively," e.g., as an object on the wall of a gallery (or an illustration in a book, or a picture on a computer screen, et al). At this stage the viewer might well note the material nature of the work itself--that this is a drawing, for example, or a reproduction of a drawing, featuring a pipe and a legend on a canvas (indeed, it is at this point that the viewer might possibly think of the drawing in the first sense that Foucault describes, that a drawing of a pipe isn't actually a pipe, and that therefore the picture could be seen as a kind of visual pun). The viewer will then attempt to engage with the drawing on its own terms, shutting out as much as possible outside distractions, and enter the reverie described above. Once the viewer succeeds in entering this semi-hypnotic state, the drawn pipe will then become (in our sense, not Foucault's) a real pipe, similar to how in a dream the objects, no matter how improbable, are "real." The viewer will then be in full contact with the absurdity that the legend proposes: that this is a pipe, and yet the legend says that it isn't one. But to repeat our above argument, we are not suggesting any deeper meaning than that the signs (the drawn pipe and the word "pipe") have now become for the viewer more or less equivalent to the object pipe, which can be picked up and smoked. Whence, then, the strangeness? From the very reality of the object "pipe" that these signs refer us to. Having accepted, in this semi-hypnotic state, that this is indeed a pipe (especially since the drawing is, as Foucault said, representational in the academic style that is intended to be the quintessence of direct representation), the viewer is thrown into disarray by the fact that the legend (the quintessence of accurate, scientific written description in such drawing) states that it isn't a pipe. How, the engaged viewer must ask, could this be? Surely this is a pipe (as in an analogue of)?

Having accepted the picture as being fully (if temporarily) analogous to the existing objects that they designate, the contradiction between the picture and legend forces us to directly confront the inherent ambiguity of matter itself. Which is to say that the drawing and statement refer to a "real" object, a pipe, which we place tobacco in and smoke. And yet, in spite of all of our efforts to so define this real object as being, in its essence, finally and irrevocably, a pipe and only a pipe, this same existing object perpetually (if passively) resists such a categorization by having the potential to be so many more things than just a pipe. To mention a few examples: fill it with triethylamine (which causes a fish-like odor) and it becomes a stink bomb, a tool toward a cheap practical joke; fill it with a powder containing cyanide and it becomes a potential murder weapon of the type favored in murder mysteries; more innocently, for a child who discovers he or she can blow bubbles from it, the pipe becomes a toy, nothing more, nothing less. Even for a pipe smoker who has been using it "properly," but who has stopped smoking for the moment and has set it aside, it can take on a different essence: let us say he or she is sitting at an outdoor cafe working on a manuscript and a wind suddenly springs up, in that case he or she may well suddenly reach for the pipe and use it to hold down the manuscript--in that moment, he or she might not be thinking of it as a pipe at all, but as a paperweight. Even within its normal use, a pipe can carry very different connotations: fill it with tobacco and smoke it and it becomes, for many people, a symbol of elegance and sophistication, for others a symbol of pretentiousness or of cancer-causing vices. Finally, to an alien species of the future that doesn't possess the physical capability to smoke (let us say their breathing apparatus utilizes gills) and who happens to come across a pipe while doing an archeological dig of our extinct civilization, it would either be a meaningless and incomprehensible object or, perhaps, one they wrongly relate to an object of their own devising whose purpose would be equally incomprehensible to us.

Of course, such a distinct, ordered list of possible essences that might encompass the object "pipe" does not literally pass through our minds as we view Magritte's drawing. From the drawing, however, we do sense that an object is somehow always more than what we have made of it--in fact, the incongruity between the pipe and the legend forces us to focus on this fact, which can be rather unsettling. It is this ambiguity inherent in our perception of matter that, we believe, Magritte was referring to when he said that he was trying to show us the "mystery evoked in fact by the visible and the invisible;" we believe Magritte's conception of the invisible to be analogous to the infinite number of possibilities that the object has, and that our finite minds can never wholly capture. (That we can stare matter squarely "in the face," do detailed scientific studies of it, contemplate its essence, and yet ever only partially succeed in defining what it is, creates not only a mystery, but an unsolvable one that also makes the drawing strangely compelling.) Or, to state our position in the terms that Foucault has been using: we do not agree that Magritte's drawing represents a complete rupture with resemblance, but rather that it shows the inherent limitations of resemblance; that the "anchor" of resemblance, the object being depicted, hasn't in fact disappeared (as Foucault would have it) from Magritte's drawing but that instead Magritte has used this "anchor" to remind us just how limited our ability to apprehend the object actually is. Namely, that our categorization of a really existing object with such and such physical qualities is based on habit, custom, and experience, and not because the object is the actual essence we give it (i.e., this object we call a pipe, because it was built in the manner that it was, facilitates the act of smoking but can never be wholly defined as being that and only that). Thus the statement "this is not a pipe" doesn't negate the actually existing object that is depicted in the drawing but rather the essence that we have given it (Footnote 2), thus revealing that the object itself simply is -- existing matter wholly indifferent to what we call it or do with it.

Thus, the drawing cannot be characterized as either giving ontological priority to the "depicted" over the "depiction" (which characterized Western art for so long), or as giving ontological priority of the "depiction" over the "depicted" (which is what Foucault argues there to be in the drawing). The strangeness of the drawing, we hold, stems from a stalemate between the depicted and the depiction, a stalemate that leaves us "hanging"--stripped of both the depicted object's human-given essence and the possibility of defining an objective existence for it--thus forcing us to confront the ambiguity of existence.


Where would Magritte himself stand on this question? It is certainly an issue that greatly concerned the artist, as he thought of his art as a kind of philosophy; so much so that he considered himself to a painter of ideas, not of pictures. Further, frustrated by the endless attempts of critics to interpret his work symbolically and/or psychoanalytically, Magritte was clearly drawn to the fact that Foucault's philosophy refuses such pat, reductionist interpretations of his art. Though Magritte died before Foucault wrote This Is Not a Pipe, the two of them did correspond a few times regarding these questions; it is interesting to read the letter that Magritte wrote to Foucault on May 23, 1966, in which Magritte reports having read Foucault's The Order of Things. Indeed, Magritte starts his discussion with a consideration of Foucault's concepts of resemblance and similitude; Magritte, however, interprets Foucault's concepts rather uniquely, with little regard for what Foucault actually wrote. Resemblance, for Magritte, is thought, which "resembles by being what it sees, hears, or knows; it becomes what the world offers it. It is as completely invisible as pleasure or pain." Similitude, on the other hand, describes a set of relations between things: "It seems to me that, for example, green peas have between them relations of similitude, at once visible (their color, form, size) and invisible (their nature, taste, weight). It is the same for the false and the real, etc." Thus, for Magritte, resemblance is invisible, similitude can be either visible or invisible. But art confounds this by "being a thought that sees and can be visibly described." The invisible can sometimes be visible, then, "on condition that thought be constituted exclusively of visible images."

There is certainly a strong sense in Magritte's letter of there being a concrete connection between what we see and what we say. Thought resembles by being what it sees, hears, or knows, Magritte states, and further we hear of visible "relations", such as color, form, and size, among those things that we see. Even though, in this letter, he had just read The Order of Things, Magritte's approach and language strongly suggest that he is talking about perceiving real objects in the world. He doesn't even hint at the cultural/linguistic superstructure proposed by Foucault--which is supposed to completely obscure our ability to directly perceive any such objects. Indeed, Magritte's description of the invisible is almost phenomenological: "To my mind, the 'invisible' is the removal of the habitual meaning of the things that are visible in the picture, by means of which our mystery comes to dominate us completely."

And this mystery, in his own description, seems far closer to an existential concept of being than anything to be found in Foucault's writings. Indeed, it is difficult to see too much of a parallel between Foucault's similitude, which "inaugurates a play of transferences that run, proliferate, propagate," and Magritte's interpretation of the term, in the form of a "mystery," which is described by Magritte as being: "'sterile,' 'empty,' 'without content,' 'incapable of changing anything for better or worse.' It is miserably and ridiculously reduced to being the absolute and necessary principle by which reality can exist, by which the most absurd things and the most sublime things can be made manifest...".


(1) We certainly have no difficulty with the first two points of his analysis. The first simply has to be true--the laws of logic bear no reference to reality by their own definition and thus cannot be refuted by reference to real objects (e.g., the present king of France is bald). The second one, as Foucault writes, is true as far it goes but--as we would also argue--to reduce Magritte's drawing to a simple parlor trick doesn't do justice to its impact on the viewer, and doesn't ultimately remove the drawing's strangeness. Back to the text

(2) We would agree that the "discourse" that Foucault says comes with representation has a further effect on how we perceive the object "pipe," but only as one aspect of many. That it fully determines how we see the object we do not, obviously, agree. Back to the text

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. This Is Not a Pipe.. Tr. James Harkness. Berkeley : University of California Press, c1983.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things : An Archaeology of Human Sciences. New York, Vintage Books [1994, c1970]

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Psychology of Imagination.. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

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