On Magritte, Language, and DNA

Friday, March 6, 2009 12:11:34 PM


Another article on Magritte linking /words/DNA:

On Magritte, Language, and DNA
By orDover

René Magritte is arguably my favorite artist. He often took logic as his subject matter, and in the nature of a true conceptual artists, used ideas as machines to make his art. This is clearly visible in his word and image paintings, which he first developed during a brief stay in Paris, which began in 1927. He united abstract shapes as well as recognizable objects with inappropriate labels. His interest in the relationship between objects, shapes, and words had nothing to do with Freudian associations, automatism, or the unconscious mind, which he did not believe in despite his ties to Surrealism. Rather than exploring the dream world, he wanted to “put the real world on trial,” to connect consciousness to the external world instead of the internal, and to explore linguistics and the arbitrary relationships between objects and their names. These paintings establish lateral relationships between words and images, challenging the usefulness of naming devices, the interchangeability of words and signified objects, and the functions of words and images within art.

The Interpretation of Dreams, 1952
Magritte’s word and image paintings, such as The Interpretation of Dreams (1952), often appropriate the style of elementary school textbooks that present spelling or grammar lessons. According to André Breton, Magritte used this “object-lesson” format in order to “put the visual image on trial.” They are similar in style to the linguistic models used by Ferdinande de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics (1915), who was the first to put forth the concept that signs and symbols of language are arbitrary constructs, meaning that the word “tree,” a sign built from letters, has no physical resemblance to the actual object of a tree, and is related to it merely through context and associations imposed by the social construction of written language. In Les mots et les images Magritte writes, “Everything tends to make one think that there is little relationship between an object and that which represents it,” a concept which he develops in The Interpretation of Dreams, where he places nominative words below figures that do not relate to the figures at all, such as the image of a horse labeled “the door,” displaying the arbitrariness of names and the way that names could theoretically be swapped between objects with no adverse effects. We might as well call a horse “door,” because the word “door” says just as little about the object of a horse as the word “horse” itself. Magritte thus aligns himself with Saussure by rupturing the relationship between signifier and signified and challenging typical forms of representation, both written and visual.

de Saussure diagram
This arbitrary nature of language is a very important concept to grasp. Magritted called a horse “the door.” He could have also called it “pferd” or “Ed” or “spoon.” Regardless of what arbitrary name is given to a horse, its essence remains the same—it is still the same physical being. Calling a horse “the door” doesn’t turn it into a door. It remains always a large animal with a long tail, big eyes, hooves, a long back and neck, pointy ears, and a muzzle.

Like English, binary is another example of an arbitrary language. 01000001 is the binary code for the letter A. It transmits specific information, and if it were changed then the product it is encoding would change. If we move the last 1 over just once space so that our code reads 01000010, then we are no longer describing A, we are now describing B. The signifier as changed the signified. But binary is still ultimately arbitrary because we made up the code. 01000001 has no special relationship to A except that which we ascribe to it.

It is also common to call DNA a language or a code. The religiously minded tend to grab hold of that concept and conclude that codes need an author to set them up, just as binary needed a computer scientist to ascribe signifier to signified. Of course they say that author is God. But saying that DNA is a language is merely a useful metaphor. DNA is not literally a language because it is not arbitrary.

DNA is represented by a sequence of letters, A T G C. Those letters are arbitrary since they belong to the realm of the Latin alphabet, but the chemical compounds that they represent, called nucleotides, are not. Nucleotides are unique and directly affect that which they describe. A sequence of nucleotides creates a gene, which contains the directions for the manufacturing of a specific polypeptide chain of amino acids, which are the building block of proteins. For example, the pairing of nucleotides into the codon (or “base triplet”) GCA leads to the manufacture of the amino acid arginine. If that codon is changed to CCA it leads to the manufacture of the amino acid glycine, something totally different from arginine. Because nucleotides are specific chemical compounds they are not arbitrary, and thus the sequences they form directly affect the amino acids they create. This would be analogous to the physical object of a tree being formed by roots in the shape of an E, a trunk in the shape of an E, branches in the shape of an R, and leaves in the shape of a T. With DNA, the signifier is an integral part of the signified.

Magritte helps to illustrate the arbitrary nature of language, and once that is fully understood, we can dismantle the argument that DNA is a language, and as such requires God as the author.

Copyright 2006 MattesonArt.com


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