PRINT October 1983


This is Not a Pipe

When a philosopher, scientist, or poet turns his or her attention to an artwork, the results should be of interest to artists and critics alike. For if artworks truly are to live cultural lives broader than the purview of art specialists, it is precisely here that they may express that life through other voices and eyes and minds. Works such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Wallace Stevens’ Man with the Blue Guitar, and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach have enriched the stream of artistic relevance and attached a fragrance of deeply layered consciousness to the visual image. Michel Foucault’s little book on René Magritte is a worthy addition to this field; it should be regarded not as a work of strict art criticism or art history but as a philosophical revery expressed with a degree of poetic involvement.

This revery must be seen in context of Foucault’s view of history and his relation to structuralism. An exponent of the history of ideas as a form of philosophy in itself, Foucault has emphasized a synchronic view and a concept of the “episteme,” or ruling thought-structure of an age (somewhat similar to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the scientific paradigm). Foucault has often presented these ideas in a poetic/prophetic tone, draping them in the black of disintegration celebrated. In Histoire de la folie à l’age classique (1961; published in English as Madness and Civilization) he spoke of the “inevitable void” of the absence of “work” (or “order”) that surrounds and voraciously awaits historical paradigms of sanity. “History is running out,” he asserted, and madness “will triumph with the last word that history pronounces.” Foucault’s enthusiasm as a structuralist, in other words, has been for the inevitable (or so he claims) disintegration of all the structures which transiently pass as “sanity.”

It is this essentially prophetic aspect of Foucault’s thought that his Magritte book serves. In essence, he argues that Magritte, in the paintings Ceci n’est pas une pipe, 1926, Les Deux mystères, 1966, and 22 others which are treated more briefly, has, as it were, illustrated the process of semantic-structural disintegration by pitting image and word against each other and against themselves to their mutual loss of representational integrity. “A day will come,” he says at the close of the book, “when . . . the image itself, along with the name it bears, will lose its identity.” It is apparent that he relishes this prognostication.

This formidable conclusion is prepared by stages. First, Foucault proposes that the painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe was a riposte to a concrete poem by Guillaume Apollinaire in which the words “Et je fume du tabac de zone” (“And I smoke the pipe of place”) assume the shape of a pipe. The art-historical accuracy of this connection is less important than the hermeneutic use Foucault makes of it, presenting Ceci n’est pas une pipe as a disintegrated calligram from which words and image have fallen not merely apart but against one another. He analyzes at great length (and often with as much poetic as analytic involvement) the various inner oppositions set up around the word ceci (this). The word has been a prime instrument for formulating paradoxes since the “Liar” of Eubulides in the fourth century B.C.; its important property in this respect is that it can shift from other- to self-reference, involving both assertions and questions in self-referential circularity (“This statement is false”; “What is the answer to this question?”; and so forth). The reference of the “this” in the Magritte painting is ambiguous between other-and self-reference; it roams freely around the available referents, involving them all in a network of mutual contradiction and annihilation. The representation of a pipe is not a pipe. The word “pipe” is not a pipe. The word “this” is not a pipe. The work as a whole is not a pipe. And so on. Magritte points (far more succinctly than Foucault) at the separateness of the realms of sense perception, verbal refer-ence, and visual representation.

Foucault then discourses on what he calls the dominance of “similitude” rather than “resemblance” in Magritte’s work in general. By resemblance he means an essentially Platonic hierarchization of reality: A resembles B because B is the prototype and A the copy. A certain view of ontology is implied necessarily, a certain affirmation about what is real and what is less real. The Platonic-Aristotelian modeling of the world as an intricate hierarchy of genera and species is the ultimate construction of resemblance. Similitude, on the other hand, is an observation of similarity without any implications of metaphysical priorities or cosmic order. To say that A is similar to B in this or that way is not to imply that A is a copy of B or vice versa. Resemblance, in other words, is a specific partial selection and focusing of certain aspects of the endless free play of similitude, an attempt to derive from that play a model of order, sanity, reason. Magritte, Foucault declares, deals not with resemblance but with similitude; he strips away the veneer of focus and order that selective resemblance has placed on neutral similitude, restoring the experiential fact of inexplicable, infinitely disordered, multidirectional similarities among things. For Foucault, this constitutes a return from the arena of “work” to the vast “void” of the absence of work that surrounds it, underlies it, and is the substrate into which it will inevitably disintegrate and return. Magritte’s project of hastening the semantic decay of both word and image thus touches off that poetic and almost religiously exalted anticipation of anarchic openness that functions like an apocalyptic End of History, a restoration of Eden, a return to innocence, and so forth, in Foucault’s myth (for he too has made one).

Along the way from the 1926 painting to the end of history, Foucault presents his own formulations of the course of European art. Though they do not superficially resemble those of art historians, these are nevertheless cogent and concise. “Two principles,” he says, “ . . . ruled Western painting from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. The first asserts the separation between plastic representation . . . and linguistic reference. . . . ” That is, in effect, the emphasis on formal considerations and the avoidance of the inclusion of “literature” in the artwork. Contradicting this implicitly is the “second principle . . . [which] posits an equivalence between the fact of resemblance and the affirmation of a representative bond...The essential point is that resemblance and affirmation cannot be dissociated.” To offer an image that resembles something, in other words, is to posit that something as an existent, to imply a Platonic reification through representation. Western painting, Foucault argues, while eschewing linguistic reference, was nonetheless caught in a statement-making practice by its Platonic view of resemblance. Foucault interestingly discusses the demise of these two principles in the 20th century, as a longstanding episteme disintegrates like the earth shaking apart beneath our feet.

As an author Foucault presents an elusive and enigmatic persona, and this essay should be read as an expression, in a sort of partly ordered poetic outpouring, of that sensibility. If an author who has repeatedly denounced the personal voice, especially at the beginning of the “Discourse on Language” (published in America as an appendix to The Archaeology of Knowledge), can be interpreted in terms of personal artistic hopes of his own, one might presume that he hoped this little book would be received as a mystery of circularity and self-referentiality, like the paintings it discusses. Insofar as it succeeds, This Is Not a Pipe is more than a commentary on Magritte’s paintings; it is an attempt to translate their mystery into another mysterious object-form which is its similitude. Like the discussion of Las Meninas at the beginning of Les Mots et les choses (1966; published in English as The Order of Things), This Is Not a Pipe provides living insight into the tangled relationship between an artist’s and a philosopher’s modes of self-expression.

Thomas McEvilley


Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe, trans. and ed. James Harkness (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press), 66 pages, 30 black and white illustrations.