This is a pipe

No doubt inspired by my 4/29/20 posting “Magritte by Banksy”, Mark Mandel commented yesterday on my 8/19/17 posting “Magrittean disavowals”:

I have never — well, not for many years — considered the “Magrittean disavowal” in “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”


at all paradoxical. It’s quite accurate. That is not a pipe, but rather a painting of a pipe.

It’s a shame that the technical term oxymoron has come to be used for a figure of speech involving an apparent contradiction, since etymologically it’s ‘sharp’ + ‘foolish’ and would be just the label we’d want for claims like Mark’s above: superficially clever, but deeply foolish.

A gallery of examples. For the moment, with minimal commentary.

(#2) Ceci est une pipe. According to Mark, the claim is flat false: that is not a pipe, but rather a painting of a pipe

(#3) On the Vox site: “CNN’s new ‘This is an apple’ ad targets [REDACTED]: “This is an apple. Some people might try and tell you that it’s a banana”” by Meghann Farnsworth  on 10/23/17. According to Mark, the claim is flat false: that is not an apple, but rather a photograph of an apple

(#4) “This is me at the hardware store” (with a joke for my friend Corry Wyngaarden); according to Mark, that claim is flat false: that is not me, but merely a picture of me

Of course, I could do this endlessly. And of course there’s a general fact about English (and parallel French) usage at work here that Mark has somehow disregarded entirely, in his zeal for literal cleverness in interpreting #1.

Deictic Predication. My nonce name for a clause construction in English (also usable for its close parallels in French and some other languages), with default form and interpretation:

Deictic Predication:

Subject: a demonstrative (this / these / that / those)

Predicate: a PRS form of be + a Pred(icate) NP

Interpretation: the Subject overtly (when accompanied by a pointing gesture to some target) or covertly (by being juxtaposed to some target) refers to the target, and the clause asserts that the Pred NP applies to it

So: I stand close to some creature, and either point to it or just announce This is a wolf, thereby asserting that this creature is a wolf. Or I stand close to some person, and either point to them or just announce This is Joe, thereby asserting that this person is some contextually salient person named Joe.

These are straightforward examples of Deictic Predication. But it’s a flexible construction, and a major conventional extension of its flexibility — this is absolutely everday English usage — is for demonstratives as used with simulacra or reproductions: drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures. As far as I can tell, the demonstrative in Deictic Predication in such cases can always be used to refer not to the simulacra but to the the things those simulacra represent.

This is a pipe, in conjunction with a drawing, painting, photograph, or sculpture of a pipe, straightforwardly can always be an assertion not about the image but about the thing itself. (In fact, such locutions most often are.) That is a brute fact about usage. It’s a systematic metonymy.

(See examples above, starting with #2.)

Which is why Magrittean disavowals are (genuinely) paradoxical.

12 Responses to “This is a pipe”

  1. Mark Mandel Says:

    Sure. But when did Magritte ever follow the same rules as other people?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    No No No. The whole point is that Magritte was depending on our customary interpretations, and *then* confounding them. If you don’t understand that, there’s no point in talking to you.

  3. Jeffrey Goldberg Says:

    I think you are both right. Magritte is deliberately confounding customary interpretation, but his purpose for doing so may be to force a recognition that the painting is not the thing.

    It is kind of like someone answering “yes, I am capable of passing the salt”, but to draw attention to a more substantive point.

    At least that is how I have always taken it.

  4. Jamesetta Hakwins Says:

    Without knowing much about Magritte’s ideas or other work I cannot speculate on what he _meant_ to transmit with that and, after all, that is a work of art and, as such, open to interpretation. However — and I may well have been incredibly naïve in that — I have always interpreted that as saying just that: that is not a pipe, but a picture of a pipe; the artist would be bringing to your attention that fact that a representation of an object is not that object.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      That is *exactly* the idea that I’m subjecting to criticism in this posting.

      • Jamesetta Hakwins Says:

        I think I fully understood that; I’m both agreeing with that idea (agreeing with Mark Mandel and commenter Jeffrey Goldberg above) and trying to show that I don’t think Mandel’s comment is to be considered clever (whether superficially or not, and whether ultimately foolish or not) but, actually, that he’s espousing something that to me seems self-evident, and is misinterpreted by others.
        Again, I don’t claim that I’m correct.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Jamesetta Hawkins: things that seem self-evident, to just stand to reason, etc. are not infrequently just flat wrong, and very often require serious amendment. Everyday reasoning about the world relies on unexpressed and unanalyzed theories about how the world works, and these theories are sometimes stunningly wrong or, more often, misleading. Just maintaining that something is self-evidently true is often just belligerently asserting pig-ignorance. Saying “Well, that was just my idea, I don’t claim to be correct” merely asserts that you’re not willing to consider evidence.

  5. jpgoldberg Says:

    Arnold, I remain confused about the nature of your criticism. Are you saying something closer to (1) or to (2)?.

    1. Pointing out that picture of a thing is not the thing is trite.
    2. Normal implicature leads us to normally call a picture of a thing, the thing itself, and so it would be silly for Magritte to try to make use of the distinction.

    I read your argument as (2), but I disagree with the part from “and so.”

    It isn’t always silly to say, “yes, I am capable of passing the salt.” in a context when talking about painting, it isn’t silly to say the picture of a thing is not the thing. If that was Magritte’s intent, then he was shifting the topic from pipes to art.

    I feel that the stronger criticism is (1), but it might not have been trite at the time. So my feeling is that the point of the painting is the obvious one, but it hasn’t aged well.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      What I said, I thought very clearly, in my posting was this:

      This is a pipe, in conjunction with a drawing, painting, photograph, or sculpture of a pipe, straightforwardly can always be an assertion not about the image but about the thing itself. (In fact, such locutions most often are.) That is a brute fact about usage. It’s a systematic metonymy.

      I don’t think I can be clearer than this, and I’m not capable of going beyond that.

  6. jpgoldberg Says:

    Here is a quote, via Wikipedia, from Magritte

    The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!

    • Jamesetta Hakwins Says:

      I’m interested in reading Arnold’s comments on that.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        I’ve always assumed that Magritte was being playfully disingenuous, as he often was.

        But I am at the end of my tether here, and will not post further on the topic.

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