23 November 2010

Foucault and Hofstadter on Magritte

In Foucault’s analysis of Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe I was surprised to see the same idea cropping up as I found years ago in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. Foucault sees the painting as an “unravelled calligram”. A calligram, if you don’t know, is a piece of text arranged to form an image. Thinking about what that could look like I recalled seeing Hofstadter’s drawings, which look very much like my own attempt shown above.

Hofstadter is riffing on the theme of self-reference and recursion. Foucault, on the other hand, is exploring the explicit and implicit linguistic statements being made in the painting. Yet they both arrived at the same idea. They were writing about the same time, around 1980, but I doubt they were very familiar with each other’s writings.

Foucault’s essay is good fun. The relationships and paradoxes seem infinitely deep in Magritte’s paintings, so that one could talk about them forever, and Foucault manages to dig a lot out of them. His main point is that Magritte has severed the connection between resemblance and the affirmation of the painting as representing something real, as corresponding to the real world. Magritte retains a part of resemblance, namely similitude, but any overall resemblance to the real world is subverted by the juxtaposition of disparate objects, by visual tricks, and by the intrusion of text.

In the pipe paintings, Foucault says, we have the remains of a calligram, as if an image something like the one above had unravelled, the text dropping down below, and the pipe filling out with the standard painting techniques of similitude, in this case three-dimensional modelling.

Foucault, M. 1983: This Is Not A Pipe, University of California Press
Hofstadter, D. 1979: Godel, Escher, Bach, Penguin Books

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