An Ontological Riddle
There are, arguably, a handful of artworks from the first half of the last century that seem to articulate or foreshadow the preoccupations of the intellectual life of the twentieth century and beyond. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon fragments the object of perception and with it, the unitary self-understanding of the perceiving subject; Duchamp’s Fountain and other readymades set out to erase the line between the work of art and the everyday, and undermined the normative idea that beauty should be a necessary condition for the artwork; any one of de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings of 1909-1919, with their narrative logic deliberately dissolved into the enigmatic categories of mood, read like postcards from a country already in the throes of the postmodern crisis of reason. René Magritte’s 1929 painting Trahison des images, perhaps better known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe, has a place among works like those. In both its title and its content it prefigures the related critiques of representationalism and metaphysics associated with poststructuralism. For, in highlighting the ambiguous status of the image in order to assert what a pipe is not, it implicitly raises the question of what a pipe is. Or, more subtly, it provokes us to ask the basic question, “What are the conditions that make possible our experience of the pipe-that-is?” More than a painting, it is an ontological riddle, a riddle whose answer rebounds and holds implications for the image that is itself an important component of the riddle.
In its visual composition, Trahison des images isn’t very complicated. It depicts a pipe, a very ordinary bent billiard pipe, in a full-on side view, isolated against an otherwise empty background done up in a bland, neutral color. The pipe is rendered in a flat manner; its illusionism—its capacity to make us think that the object before us is real—is minimal; while providing a faithful image of a pipe, it is no trompe l’oeil painting. Magritte’s pipe seems more proper to an illustration than to a work of art; it would be perfectly in place as, say, a sign hanging above a tobacconist shop. Or better, as an illustration appearing in a dictionary or encyclopedia under the entry “pipe,” which is to say that taken by itself, its purpose would appear to be to declare, in unmistakable visual terms, “this is a pipe, this is what a pipe looks like, this is what we refer to when we use the word ‘pipe.’” Which is why the inscription just beneath the pipe, neatly lettered in a carefully impersonal, cursive hand, is jarring. It plainly declares “ceci n’est pas une pipe”--this is not a pipe. It is a statement of ontological difference: that this is not what it appears to claim it is. The painting seems to contradict itself, since the image is of nothing other than a pipe. Hence the riddle, but what can its meaning be?
In his well-known essay Ceci n’est pas une pipe, Michel Foucault rejected what might seem to be the obvious meaning of the painting—that it comprises an image and a label, with the latter declaring that the image is not the object that it represents. Foucault asserted instead that the painting is in fact a secret calligram—a verbal work in which words are set out on the page to form a picture of what the work is about. Although the words “ceci n’est pas une pipe” are not arranged to take the shape of a pipe, the painting counts as a calligram for Foucault because as he describes it, a calligram “aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our alphabetical civilization: to show and to name...to imitate and to signify...” (p. 21). A kind of hermaphroditic mode of representation, the calligram erases the distinction between word and image, between showing and telling.
To be sure, Foucault’s reading is subtle and ingenious. Magritte appears to have rejected it, but even so, its elegant rhetoric can seduce us into believing that the painting is in fact a calligram that doesn’t appear to be a calligram, all the while directing our attention away from what seems obvious about the painting: that it contains an explicit denial, in writing, that the image of the thing is the thing. But this most obvious reading of Trahison des images is not for all its obviousness a reading to be ruled out of bounds. And not only because Magritte himself was very much interested in using his paintings to explore the philosophical questions concerning the relationship between the representation and the represented. For the obvious reading—the reading of ontological difference, which starts by dis-identifying the thing and its image--opens a way that raises questions beyond questions of representation. To find the answers we have to confront the sensible thing to see what it is that, often hovering just below the threshold of awareness, tells us “this is a pipe.” Once we’ve done this we find that we can move dialectically from the image to the thing, and then back to the image—which now will appear as a richer form of signification. But first we might address Magritte’s title and ask, “How is this image treacherous? What does it appear to betray?”
From Index to Eidolon
“This is not a pipe” is a simple declarative statement of negation. “This” is an indexical, a word ordinarily used to point to something present, something ostensibly here--an ostensive pronoun, an indication that this “this” is an example of what it is. But in this case it points away. The “this” is negated immediately by the “is not” that follows it; “this” is not what it purports to be. If this sentence were to appear in the hypothetical dictionary or encyclopedia entry Magritte’s painting seems to parody, the lesson would be: “This is not what a pipe is. This not-pipe you see is just an image of a pipe.” And therein, we might reasonably conclude, lies its treachery.
But how could the image be treacherous? For something to be treacherous something must be betrayed—and what does the image betray? At a fairly obvious level, it appears to betray the object it portrays. The object it portrays is not there, its place has been taken by an impostor. The image is the impostor, it is not the object, and to put the image in its place is to negate the object—to posit something other than the thing that is not the thing, but simulates the thing nevertheless. By virtue of its simulation, the image is what it is not and is not what it is, it is a nothingness disguised as a thing. It is an eidolon.
Eidolon (εἴδωλον) is a term for “image” that goes back to Homer. Its earliest surviving occurrence is in the Iliad, where in Book 5 Apollo creates a phantom copy of Aeneas to substitute for the real Aeneas (5.449-50), and in Book 23 the deceased Patroclus’eidolon—his ghost—requests burial (23.64). The eidolon is a phantom or a seeming likeness, and in either case an illusory double. In Plato it is the untruthfulness of the eidolon that is stressed. It is a simulation that is other than the real, an image as the not-true, the not-real. A similar notion of the eidolon as an unreal simulacrum comes to us by way of the lyric and dramatic poets. Both Stesichorus and Euripides, possibly drawing on an old tradition, produced works in which the Helen who was abducted and taken to Troy was revealed not to have been the real Helen but instead was a phantom (εἴδωλον) Helen—an image crafted out of a cloud. The real Helen was in Egypt, where she was sequestered during the war. There were thus two Helens, the true Helen and the untrue simulacrum. Truth and untruth here became a matter of fate since, as Plato says in referring to Stesichorus’s poem, it was “ignorance of the truth” of the untruth of the eidolon-Helen that caused the war (Republic 9.586c). It was a war literally over nothing. In this variation on the abduction story the betrayal of the image literally takes on epic proportions. It isn’t only the Greeks and the Trojans who are betrayed by the simulacrum-Helen; the real Helen is betrayed by having had thrown onto her the responsibility for the war the phantom Helen caused.
The eidolon is an ontologically ambiguous entity with a qualified mode of existence. It is an imitation whose claim to being is parasitic on that which it imitates, and so has a kind of dependent existence, one that can, as in the Helen-as-eidolon narrative, potentially set a train of events in motion by virtue of its substitution for the object it simulates and on which it depends for its efficacy. And yet for all that it is not that object at all. The image as eidolon can only be a negation of its model, a nothingness that in the end is the absence of the real thing, of which it is the insubstantial semblance. In its power of resemblance is potential for betrayal and dissemblance.
Turning back to Magritte’s image of a pipe, we can say that it is not a pipe because it is merely an eidolon, a simulation and an untruth no matter how true to life it is as a likeness. As an eidolon its betrayal takes place at an ontological level, since the ontological difference it signifies is had by way of an untruth rooted in, and inseparable from, resemblance.
The Sensible Pipe
If the image of the pipe, understood as its eidolon, is not a pipe—as clearly it isn’t—the question then naturally arises: What is the pipe? The answer would seem to be easy enough. It is the pipe I see before me and pick up and turn over in my hand. This would seem to be the pipe in its originary sense, which is to say the pipe in the way that we experience it in our basic, unreflective, everyday manner of making our way in the world. That seemingly originary manner of encountering the pipe would give us this intuitive answer to the question—the pipe is the sensible pipe, the pipe given to our senses. In other words, the pipe as present to us in some ostensibly direct and unproblematic way.
Presence in this usual, everyday sense rests on the implicit intuition that there is a world, that it contains objects, and that these objects project themselves into my field of perception. Presence in this naive sense consists in the unselfconscious grasp of the contingency of the world as it is encountered here, under these circumstances, in this situation. Presence is a mode of our being-in-relation-to-things that takes for granted that things really exist and that they are really here before us in some immediate way. This naive sense of presence, this natural attitude toward things, rests quite comfortably on the assumption of the existence of the sensible thing—the contingent thing that projects into my field of perception at this moment. On this assumption—unthought and perhaps in some sense unthinkable--the sensible pipe that I see and turn over in my hands is a pipe, this and nothing else. And that would seem to be the implicit message of Magritte’s painting: “This (image) is not a pipe, but the sensible pipe, of which this merely is the image—now, that is a pipe. This image is only a pseudo-presence, a simulation of the real presence that only the sensible pipe itself can assert.”
The contrast here is between the phantom-like, dependent being of the image qua eidolon and what we might think of as the thatness of the sensible pipe—the fact that it is. It is a quality that makes itself known by its impinging on our perception and consequently making us say that it is. The thatness of the sensible pipe strikes us as a pure positivity in that in its physical plenitude—the solidity of the material it’s made of, the grain of its wood, the projection of its volume into space, the weight and density we can feel in our hands—it seems a pure manifestation of what is. Its implicit claim is that it is what it is, and nothing else; it is this thing that I can see and can hold and thus commits no treachery. It has the honesty of real existence. By contrast, its image is a negativity, a substitute for what is that obscures at the same time that it substitutes or replaces what is. Its image is its phantom, its eidolon, a shadow that overshadows the thing that throws it off--an abyss of being that opens up between us and the pipe and separates it from us.
But what if there is more to presence than just the plain thing plainly seen? What if there is something else that lays the groundwork this otherwise naive encounter between us and the sensible thing? Because when we look into it, we find that this natural, unthinking attitude rests on a set of assumptions, unarticulated though they may be. This naive notion of presence, in other words, rests on something Merleau-Ponty aptly described in The Visible and the Invisible as s “perceptual faith.” “Perceptual faith” is the unreflective acceptance of the perceptible as the manifestation of the world as it actually is, with or without us. As Merleau-Ponty describes it, perceptual faith assumes that there is a “pure gaze, which involves nothing implicit” as it directs itself to “something that would be before it without restriction or condition.” The pure gaze takes it on faith that it meets the thing as it really is, by virtue of the thing’s being immediately and fully present. But, Merleau-Ponty claims, this faith ultimately is unsustainable and “unjustifiable” once we begin to question it. For the sensible thing, the visible thing, is intertwined with what he calls “the invisible”--a latent structure that, while existentially inseparable from our experience of the thing seen, is logically differentiable from it. It is this something beyond perception that is the basis of the thing’s seemingly simple presence to us through perception; there is, in other words, something implicated in the encounter with the perceptible that is not perceptible but on the basis of which the perceptible presents itself as presence. In sum, it is on the basis of the invisible that the visible makes itself visible. If the perceptual faith is founded on the promise that the real is exhausted by the visible, it is a promise that necessarily will be broken. Call it the Treachery of Things.
The Structure of “The Invisible”
Taking Merleau-Ponty’s claim as a starting point, we can come to understand the invisible as a complex structure or aggregate of two complementary components: the eidetic and the significant.
“Eidetic” derives from “eidos” (εἶδος), often rendered as “idea” or “ideal.” The general sense is of essential form, or that on the basis of which a thing is knowable as the thing it is. The eidetic thing is the intelligible, as opposed to the sensible, thing. As such, the eidos is the thing as the thing that it is, independent of any particular instance of its appearance.
To understand the eidetic, we need to back up and look again at the thing in its physical presence. What this presence is is a contingency—an accident of situation, a product of the circumstances under which the thing is encountered and the perspective through which it is apprehended, and of the actual physical thing itself with all its individual peculiarities, flaws, and irregularities. This physical presence can never be more than a partial presence; given the limits inherent in the contingent situation in which it is encountered, the perceptible thing is the thing grasped in a state of incompleteness. To grasp the thing as what it is, something beyond the merely perceptible is necessary; this is where the eidos comes in. The eidetic thing, in contrast to the physical thing encountered in a given situation, is the thing in its completeness and not subject to the variations and accidents of contingency. It is the thing as ideal, as perceived from all perspectives, and as such is the thing as imaginary.
This notion of the eidetic as imaginary owes more to Husserl than to Plato in that it understands the eidetic, to the extent that it is a product of the imagination, to be a relation embedded in an act rather than a picture or quasi-object in the mind or a transcendent entity of some sort. Nor do I claim that the eidos is a natural category or structure out there in the world “as it really is,” existing prior to and independently of the mind, and passively and transparently grasped by the mind. Rather, it is the product of the mind or better yet, of many minds; the eidetic as a concept or category is something shared, to a greater or lesser extent given idiolectical variations, across members of a given life-world and can be expected to be, at least to some extent, parasitic on language, given language’s capacity to categorize things in the world (and hence to help create the eidetic structures through which the visible world is grasped in its invisible dimension). The eidos in this sense is the ideal, spelled with a lower case “i.” It is ultimately, in Richard Kearney’s formulation, a “fiction of the imagination,” with the understanding that the imagination is a properly cognitive faculty at least in part shaped by the shared conceptual structures and possibilities of a given language community, rather than something completely arbitrary and productive of nothing but solipsistic fantasy. And as a fiction it is a necessary fiction, without which the sensible thing, and by extension the surrounding world, would make no sense.
As an imaginary fiction, the eidetic thing would seem to negate the real thing in the way that what we ordinarily think of as the imagination, in positing that which is not or that which is not yet, negates the real. And yet if indeed it does negate the real it does so by affirming it, since it is the criterion in relation to which the sensible can disclose itself. It doesn’t invalidate the physical presence of the sensible thing but instead validates it, while at the same time negating any ostensible claim it may have to being the sole determinant of what it is. It is, in other words, the negation of the illusion that presence is something that is perceived directly, and in negating this illusion, it opens a space for what is ultimately an affirmation. This physical pipe is not by itself a pipe, but rather is the occasion for the pipe to disclose itself—to imagination as well as to perception. And to that degree, to be present.
Because it presents the thing in its invariance and independence of the contingent situation in which we perceive it, it is the eidetic thing, or rather the eidetic dimension of the thing, that informs and underwrites our ability to grasp what the thing is when we do perceive it. The eidos, in other words, is something implicated in the encounter that is not perceptible but on the basis of which the perceptible presents itself as presence. It fills in what sensible experience hides or obscures but is inseparable from—one might say co-present in--the sensible experience and affords it. Maurizio Ferraris captured this inseparability when he described the eidetic as “sensation saved in its ideality” (p. 96).
The second component of the invisible is the significant. At the same time that the sensible presence of the thing implicates an eidetic dimension, it implicates the significance the thing holds for us. This second component of the invisible is, in effect, the third dimension of the thing’s presence, the other two dimensions being the sensible and the eidetic. This third dimension—the significant—involves a complex interplay of imagination, which discloses the way in which things hold out possibilities for us in relation to our various concerns, needs and desires, and of our affective attitude, which discloses the emotional meaning and associations of the thing as it relates to us, to the extent that it does relate to us. This second component of the invisible reflects the fact that the things we encounter in the world aren’t simply neutral bits of matter but instead are things that matter to us, potentially if not actually. Just as the way we actually experience the sensible thing is inextricably bound up with, and implies a prereflective grasp of, the eidetic thing, so the way we actually experience the sensible-eidetic thing is permeated by a sense of its significance for us, as grasped through, e.g., the affective state through which that significance is signified, or in the way that the thing may trigger associations rooted in our past and situated within our “unconscious” or sub-liminal structures of experience. Simply put, the thing as meaningful has a place within the thick and often tangled network of affective associations and correspondences, memories, desires and so forth, through which we encounter and understand the world. (Indifference is an affective response as well; the thing to which we are indifferent is the thing of no significance, as signified by our indifference. It matters to us as not mattering to us.) As with the sensible and the eidetic dimensions, the affective dimension isn’t the product of an obscure metaphysic but rather simply belongs, as Merleau-Ponty put it in The Visible and the Invisible, to “the very sphere of our life,” a sphere we inhabit more or less unthinkingly.
Presence, After All
From the above, we can conclude that the originary experience of the thing, its basic presence, does not consist solely in the brute physical fact of the thing—the sensible thing—or even of the sensible thing made intelligible by the eidetic dimension of the thing, but also includes its significance or meaningfulness, as disclosed by our attitude or affective orientation to it. If the image of the pipe as eidolon--as simulacrum, substitute and phantom--is not the pipe, neither is the sensible pipe alone, nor the sensible pipe intelligibly grasped. The pipe, the real pipe as it is for us, is the sensible pipe we recognize as a pipe and that we encounter in an opening cleared for us by an implicit, interpretive experience underwritten by the associative structures we bring to the encounter. The pipe that appears in that opening, the pipe in its
various dimensions, is the pipe as it is present to us. This is a pipe not only because it is a physical thing projecting itself into my perceptual field, a thing that, in addition, I recognize as having certain features and qualities beyond those I immediately perceive, but because it holds out the possibility that I might use it (or avoid it if I am a non-smoker), or calls up some memory or other association or otherwise holds some meaning pertinent to me. It has a place, in other words, within the network of concerns, needs, aversions, affective associations, and so on, that binds me to the world and its furniture—the things, events, people, institutions, and so forth that make up the contents of my world—, and that is largely woven and maintained below the threshold of awareness.
The invisible dimensions of the thing are an integral part of our experience of the thing when we encounter it; they are the invisible basis of its visible presence. For the brute fact of the sensible thing isn’t enough; without the eidetic and affective dimensions, it is just an inert opacity—present to perception, to be sure, but in a mute way. “Presence” reaches beyond this opacity and locates itself through the disclosure of the visible through the invisible and vice versa. The so-called “metaphysics of presence” wouldn’t then consist in the (presumed) immediate contact with a really existing thing, but instead would consist in the meeting of the thing and the person encountering it through the faculty--”metaphysical,” if we want to call it that, because it involves intuitions that overflow the physical given--that is the cognitive/affective imagination. It is an imagination that is always at work covertly, always operating in even the most unthought-about experiences—an ongoing activity taking place beneath the threshold of awareness, although there is nothing to prevent it being made available to awareness through reflection. It is this double-sided imagination, together with perception, that provides the conditions that make possible our experience of the thing-that-is. Of the pipe-that-is.
And this gives rise to the ironic thought that the physical thing, no less than its image, is in the final calculation itself an eidolon of itself—a simulacrum of the thing as it actually is present to us in all three dimensions, both visible and invisible.
From Eidolon to Agalma, From Image to Symbol
When we come back to Magritte’s painting, after having solved the ontological question it implicitly poses, we can begin to see that the image of the pipe may turn out to be more than a phantom-like thing pretending to be something it in fact isn’t. If the real pipe has revealed itself to consist of multiple dimensions, so too now does Magritte’s image of the pipe, and it is no longer enough to see the image simply as, or only as, the eidolon it first appears to be. It still is not a pipe, but it discloses a deeper relationship to the real pipe now. It becomes a visual sign of a different order and complexity that reveals a depth or heft of signification that goes beyond simply not being what it depicts, although that ontological difference, and the corresponding conceptual gap that opens up between what it is and what it is not is, remains a necessary, if only initial, step in its articulation.
By virtue of the accompanying text having declared it not to be the thing it appears to be, the image diverted our attention away from itself. To this extent, as we saw, it is an anti-index, a pointing away rather than a pointing toward. Or better, a pointing away from one thing—itself--and toward another: the thing it represents. Which is to say that by asserting that the image of the pipe is not a pipe, Magritte engaged in an exercise of redirection. His image, together with its disclaimer text, pushed us away from the visual sign and down the path of inquiry that lead to the real pipe—that complex of sensible, eidetic, and associative dimensions that constitutes the pipe as we actually encounter it. We needed the eidolon, we needed the image Magritte both provided and warned us off from, to see this. To see that that is a pipe, because this is not. And now that we return to the image we see it in a new, complexly shaded light. It no longer appears to be merely an eidolon, but instead takes on the function of a different kind of image: an agalma.
The core meaning of agalma (ἄγαλμα; plural ἀγάλματα [agalmata]) is a cult statue or a likeness with an honorary function. It occurs often in Plato to denote a figurative image of some sort, such as the puppets throwing shadows onto the cave walls in the Republic, or in the Symposium, where Alcibiades compares Socrates to a hollow statue of an ugly Silenus hiding within it beautiful statues of the gods. But it is its later sense, deriving from the eight book of Plotinus’ fifth Ennead, that is of interest here. There, Plotinus asserted that
The wise men of Egypt...when they wished to signify something wisely, did not use the forms of letters which follow the order of words and propositions and imitate sounds...but by drawing images (ἀγάλματα) and inscribing in their temples one particular image (ἄγαλμα) of each particular thing, they manifested...that every image is a kind of knowledge and wisdom...and not discourse or deliberation.
The agalma that Plotinus describes here is a purely ideogrammatic symbol depicting in a concise visual form the eidos of the thing represented. As such, it shows an understanding that reflects the Classical Greek conception of Egyptian hieroglyphs as, in Erik Iversen’s concise formulation, a “synthetic system of writing in which abstract notions and ideas could be represented by concrete pictures of natural objects” (p 49). Whether or not the wall carvings Plotinus was referring to were in fact hieroglyphs or belonged to some other system of iconic depiction (as his translation Armstrong suggests), and whether or not the Egyptians considered them writing per se or a form of visual art, as Assmann asserts, the important point is that they, as agalmata, were understood to represent the intelligible dimension of the things they pictured, through their non-discursive picturing of the things’ appearances.
Stripped of the Neoplatonic mysticism in which it is couched and adapting it to our own usage, Plotinus’ agalma is a symbol representing a type of which the individual depicted by the visual sign is a token. It is a symbol that isn’t based on a superficial correspondence of appearance vis-a-vis the thing it represents or a relationship of substitution, but rather serves as the visual sign of the essence of the thing—with “essence” being understood here as the idea produced by the cognitive imagination. It is a kind of eidetic shorthand from which the thing can be inferred not only in its appearance, but in the full reality of its qualities and possibilities. Like an eidolon an agalma is an image, but one that symbolizes the thing it depicts in a way that exemplifies it in a condensed, non-discursive form; an agalma is a visual sign as a paradigm as well as an image. In a sense, the agalma is analogous to the thing it exemplifies in that it represents an invisible concept similar to the way a sensible thing “represents” the eidos that corresponds to it.
(And the symbol as agalma would seem to refute the assertion that the real resists symbolization. Instead, the real makes itself known through the symbol, and it is by virtue of symbolization that the real is made apprehensible.)
A central feature of an agalma consists in the fact that its content overflows the visual sign through which it is conveyed. In an echo of the way the invisible informs and overflows the visible object at the moment the object is apprehended, the image-as-agalma transcends itself and expresses more than what lies on its visible surface. Like the perceptible object, the visible symbol implicates a complex, invisible meaning lying beneath the perceptible image. In this regard the agalma in its structure mirrors the structure of the thing it represents.
With one exception. The agalma only represents two of the three dimensions of the thing as it is present to us. As a visual sign, it represents the thing’s appearance; as a symbol it represents the eidetic thing as exemplary of its type. This isn’t to say that it can’t give rise to a sense of the represented thing’s affective or other meaningfulness in the viewer, but only that such a sense would be a secondary or emergent meaning that goes beyond the agalma’s proper function, which is to represent, in a visual and non-discursive form, the thing as appearance and exemplar.
Unlike the physical object, whose invisible dimension is grasped in everyday encounters through an interpretive event that is spontaneous and without explicit thought, the interpretive event through which the meaning of the symbol-as-agalma is revealed may require reflective inference. It may, and even perhaps must, require such reflection for the visual sign to be grasped precisely as an agalma. (Can there be instances of the spontaneous apprehension of a symbol’s latent meaning?) While this inference is far from presupposing the initiation into arcane knowledge or mystical illumination that Plotinus speculated was behind the apprehension of the meanings of Egyptian temple carvings, it may nevertheless call for a close reading of the visual sign in its proper context. In the case of Magritte’s painting, this context is provided by the textual disclaimer beneath the image. The text compels the kind of reflective attention that has as its logical endpoint the understanding of the image as an agalma.
The Treachery of Honesty
Of course not every image is a symbol, and not every symbol is an agalma. Magritte’s pipe counts as an agalmatic symbol because of what it does, and how it appears at the end of the process it puts in motion. It raises the question of the ontological difference between image and thing and consequently provokes the follow-on question of what it is for the thing to be present in its reality. It is by seeing that Magritte’s pipe is not a pipe that we can see what is a pipe and, returning to his image of the pipe, can now apprehend it as representing the idea of a pipe--”pipe” as a type of which individual pipes are instances. In raising these questions, and provoking their answers, Magritte’s pipe invokes the invisible—both in relation to the pipe and to itself—and allows the viewer no longer to see it simply as an eidolon, but rather to reinterpret it as an agalmatic exemplification of what it depicts.
Beyond this, Magritte’s decision to depict the pipe in isolation and in the style of an illustration gives the image an appearance that lends itself to being read as an example of a type—like the dictionary figure it seems to parody. (Is it too absurd to suggest that an illustration in a dictionary is the contemporary near-equivalent of those eidetic carvings on Egyptian temple walls that fascinated Plotinus?) In being rendered in the way it has—removed from any surrounding context and put on display in a simple to grasp, unangled side view--Magritte’s pipe seems more appropriate to showing the form or idea of a pipe rather than to depicting an individual, contingent pipe in the world.
When we grasp it as an agalma, Magritte’s pipe isn’t simply an image of a pipe but instead is a fully symbolic, visual analogue of a pipe. It is an analogue that knows itself to be an analogue; it is an analogue whose sense is dependent on an acknowledgment of the ontological difference its textual disclaimer explicitly signals. And as we have seen, it is the ontological gap between the image and the thing it represents that provides the context of an opening out of which the interpretive moment can arise, a moment whose result is the bringing together of the symbol and the thing symbolized. It is a movement that, in reconciling the visual sign and thing in this way, retrieves the meaning of the word “symbol”--the “sign by which one infers”--from its origin in the Greek for “bringing together.”
Where then is the treachery of Magritte’s image in all of this? In its self-betrayal. By not being the thing it represents the image of the pipe doesn’t commit treachery against the pipe so much as it betrays its own status as an analogue. It isn’t deceit that makes for the image’s treachery, but honesty.
Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 1997).
Maurizio Ferraris, “What Is There?,” in Jacques Derrida & Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, tr. Giacomo Donis (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2001).
Euripides, “Helen,” in Euripides Volume V, ed. & tr. David Kovacs (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2002).
Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe, tr. & ed. James Harkness (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1983).
Erik Iversen, The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (Princeton: Princeton U Press, 1993).
Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining: From Husserl to Lyotard (London: Harper Collins, 1991).
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U Press, 1968).
Plato, Republic Volume II, tr. Paul Shorey (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1935).
Plotinus, Ennead V, tr. A. H. Armstrong (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1985).
Stesichorus, “Palinode,” in Greek Lyric Volume III, ed. & tr. David Campbell (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1991).