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On role and actuality

A case study on René Magritte's «La trahison des images» («Ceci n'est pas une pipe»)

La trahison des images, else The Treachery of Images by René Magritte, is a painting that challenges one’s basic intuitions of what lies in front of their own eyes. The painter presents us with a realistic depiction of a pipe, with the caption “This is not a pipe” (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”). The paradox resolves once one realises that they are merely looking at a painting of a pipe, not a pipe as such.

Does that really solve the problem?

The difference between a painting and a pipe consists, at the face of it, in their intended and expected functions. Intent is the role that object was meant to assume in the case envisaged by its creator. It can also refer to what its user wants it to do at the moment. While expectations pertain to the same role as conceived by those who may interface with it under certain circumstances, or in the particular constitution of the case.

A painting can be said to realise its telos in educating, entertaining, or otherwise appealing to the aesthetic and intellectual sensitivities of the subject who experiences it. Yet a painting also potentially functions as its creator’s claim on an achievement: a token which one may exchange for recognition among their peers, material wealth, and the like. Still, the making of a painting, the process itself, is not necessarily subordinate to considerations of social status and economic standing, for the artist produces art to satisfy their own call to express themselves through that medium.

What is a painting in one case is not the same in another. The painting as a product of art is not equivalent to the painting which is placed at the auction house where its likely buyers are financial investors who assiduously seek to hedge their bets by attaching them to the asset of a perhaps much vaunted luxury good. The intended role in the former scenario is largely cultural, while in the latter it is business-centric. The same painting is presented as distinct from itself when the constitution of the case is refashioned: its roles ante and post such a change differ.

For there to be a painting that is understood in its capacity as a work of art there has to be an environment that is conducive to such an appreciation; a set of contributing factors which, in their interplay, substantiate such a role; an environment that assigns meaning to the painting and determines whether that coincides with the intent of its creator or user[s].

In the absence of an appropriate environment, there is no painting qua art. There may be the raw materials, such as canvas or wood with oil colours laid on top, but the meaning, the one that is contextually developed as an intersubjective narrative, remains latent or not actualisable. Matter is not a painting. Matter in a given form is still not a painting. Matter in a given form plus a meaning assigned to it can be a painting under specific circumstances.

One must then expect a contemporary painter to present their work with the caption “This is not a painting a priori… though you can interpret it as one”.

This is not a pipe… It is the representation of a pipe: a painting. Or is it? Can a painting be properly talked about without considering the technical aspects that are peculiar to its art, such as the colour combinations in use, the shapes, the strokes of the brush, the contrast of light and shadow? Is there a painting for which one can never discern the elements of its artistry or otherwise not be concerned with them in the slightest, as we do in this article, yet continues to be treated as a painting? For what we are commenting on is not the painting as that which has been painted in its totality, but only the paradox represented therein. Is the paradox itself, detached from its underlying colouration, texture, etc., the painting of René Magritte? Or must it be framed as an element or a particular quality of it? And if it is an element that we choose to study in its own right, is our study still about the painting?

Could René Magritte be incorrect in their claim that Ceci n’est pas une pipe? The statement is imprecise, or can at least be read in ways that its writer did not foresee, as it assumes that “pipe” can only signify that object which is used for the particular function of smoking, or of smoking tobacco. Yet as with the painting, a pipe can never have a singular and predetermined function independent of the milieu it is immersed in. Just as with the painting, the pipe does not exist without an appropriate environment that bestows upon it a role. Which suggests that while the pictorial instantiation of the pipe is not the pipe qua a special implement for smoking, it still is, in a sense, the unmistakable depiction of a pipe, as its impression corresponds with the one we get while observing a tangible pipe: oh, this is a pipe!

Consider now René Magritte as the agency of the painter during the moments when La trahison des images was being painted. One can only assume that the painter sits in their studio with a tangible pipe positioned at some distance from where the painting is being drawn. That pipe in the studio, under those particular circumstances, is also not a pipe in the sense of an object that is being used to smoke tobacco, because the painter assigns to it an entirely new role without necessarily rendering obsolete its previous one: the new role of a still nature, a model whose purpose is to be observed and the impression of which is to be expressed as a form within the painting and then be altered anew by the inclusion of the caption which introduces the paradox discussed herein.

One could argue that a pipe is a pipe only insofar as it conforms with its intended purpose of smoking tobacco. However that line of reasoning introduces an arbitrary stratification in the multitude of possible contextual functions of the pipe, where it treats the intent of its creator as somehow superior to that of its user[s] in all possible states of affairs, with the creator also becoming a user. There is nothing intrinsic to pipe in general or to this very pipe as originally conceived that prevents it from attaining a function which is peculiar to the constitution of the case. The actuality of any given presence is neither predetermined nor unalterable: it is always realised as a quality that stands emergent from the interplay of factors constituting the case.

Think about the pipe that René Magritte painted; the particular pipe in its specific capacity as the famous object that Magritte used in the studio to perform the role of the still nature that ultimately informed La trahison des images. Suppose that this pipe is retrieved from Magritte’s belongings and is placed in a museum. Is it still a pipe in the sense of actually being used to smoke tobacco? Or has it yet again attained a function that is specific to its newfound role as an exhibit in the museum? One must then wonder what it means for something to be couched in terms of a cultural exhibition: what is the intended function of the exhibit as derived from the context it is in and what are the concomitant expectations of those involved. And the same principles apply when that very pipe gets sold to another institution for an inordinate amount money: is the buying agent paying for the original intended function of the pipe or for the peculiar intersubjective meaning it attained through the history of art? Or perhaps something else entirely?

Thus our problem is not whether the representation of a presence is the presence itself in those cases where a distinction between the two magnitudes can be maintained, but that there can be no decontextualised telos as there is no standalone presence. Something exists in something, not in nothing.

[ Read: On non-Being and the prime mover (2021-04-03) ]

The original intended role of any given presence cannot precondition or otherwise constrain its evolving actuality. The actual is situational. It is contingent on sets of relations between presences where the presences and their relations evolve or generally change to deliver unique configurations which in turn engender their own emergent realities. To insist on the original or intended role of a presence is to disregard the indeterminate nature of its actuality as such, or to dogmatically assume it as constant.