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Foucault, This is Not a Pipe (abstract)

  • Michel Foucault. This is Not a Pipe. Transl. James Harkness. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
IN THIS BOOK, Foucault questions received notions of representation in art by engaging a number of artworks by Belgian surrealist painter Réné Magritte. Particularly by means of Magritte's notable work, Ceçi n'est pas une pipe (1926), which gives Foucault the title for his book, Foucault argues that within Modernity, people are falsely positioned within an established system of seeing that links reality with visual representation. Magritte's painting of a pipe, combined with the painted words "This is not a pipe," calls into question visual representation itself, inasmuch as what is painted on canvas is not actually a pipe, but a depiction of a pipe. The legend, which is wholly part of the artwork and not in its customary marginal frame, serves to point up the artifice of the conventional equivalency between "a pipe" and the image of a pipe. 
    Important to Foucault's analysis is the distinction between resemblance and similitude in visual representation. In saying that an image resembles reality, one assumes the ontological superiority of the latter. With similitude, however, the objective "referent" is gone; things and images are "more or less like one another without any of them being able to claim the privileged status of model for the rest" (10). As Harkness characterizes Foucault and Magritte in his introduction, both "engage in a critique of language: the former historico- epistemological, the latter visual. Each in his own way concurs with the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in asserting the arbitrariness of the sign." (Brent Whitmore.)


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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: <http://umn.edu/home/mh/txtimbw1.html>

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Created 23 December 1997

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