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THIS IS NOT A PIPE, By Michel Foucault. With illustrations and letters by Rene Magritte. Translated, with an introduction, by James Harkness. 66 pp. Berkeley: Quantum Books. University of California Press. $14.95.

IT'S a pipe, a palpable pipe: not a painterly pipe, not an abstract pipe. Lord knows, it's not an Expressionist pipe; it isn't even a Freudian pipe. Beneath it in the obsequious copybook scrawl of a child, the subversive caption reads, ''This is not a pipe.'' It is signed ''Magritte.'' Here is paradox enough to sate the most perverse appetite. And in the French philosophe Michel Foucault, himself no mean practitioner of the oddball, Magritte's looking-glass pipe has found its Lewis Carroll, as the reader of this book will discover.

Doing a double take, one realizes that, of course, this is not a pipe; it's a picture of a pipe. Our philosophe is able to detect some significance in this precious banality, for does not Magritte's statement that the painting is not a pipe disturb the very illusion of presence that ''realistic'' representation pretends to effect? Perhaps the statement also curls in on itself to say, ''This sentence is not a pipe.''

Anyone familiar with Mr. Foucault's influential work, especially ''Les Mots et les Choses'' (the English translation was called ''The Order of Things''), will immediately see that Magritte's work has everything to recommend it to a writer of Mr. Foucault's sensibility. Throughout a lifetime of philosophical labor, Mr. Foucault has been engaged in ''excavating'' the shifting notions of representation in the history of Western culture. The very distinction between representation and world (a distinction that supplants the one between self and world for Mr. Foucault) has been given many different colorings. To the Neoplatonists of the Renaissance, the world was an ensemble of signs pointing to a world of heavenly Ideas beyond the limits of sense. In that conception, the sensible world and thought were united as attempts to represent the same undepictable reality. Even for the scientists of the 17th century, the world was a book from which one could construe God's thought.

Descartes, however, radically changed that picture by claiming that the physical world is devoid of significance and that God communicates directly with rational creatures by inscribing various ideas (innate ideas) in the soul. After Descartes the Idealists sought to subtract the absurdly meaningless material world. They argued that we are familiar only with appearances; the appearances signify a world outside us, but it is a world that may or may not really be as it appears to us. The gap opened up by Descartes between representation and world was closed up again by the Idealists, but only at the cost of our losing contact with the real world: The knowable world, nature, was simply the world of appearances, and the self, being the creator of its world, must of course stand outside of it; reality and self were jointly exiled from nature.

This situation Hegel and the Romantics in the 19th century found intolerable, and perhaps we can here detect that great divide of sensibility that yawns between scientific or Positivist philosophy and those philosophies that have been circulating in Europe since Hegel and that have tried to put man, nature and reality back together again. The interesting thing about Mr. Foucault is that he has reopened the radically sceptical case, but his Idealism says not that we know only appearances but that we know only the projections of our language. There is, for Mr. Foucault, no such thing as absolute knowledge; such knowledge would have to transcend its own representational resources, whether those resources are verbal or pictorial. Moreover, like the American philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, Mr. Foucault thinks that different eras occupy different worlds, worlds that are created by the thought of the period and that determine the limits of what its thinkers can possibly conceive.

NATURE, in Mr. Foucault's story, is simply the way each age represents the world to itself. The representational function must be outside nature since it produces nature. Thus there can be no natural science of man or thought. The appropriate stance for the mind in this predicament is to reject all pretensions to truth and to be available to the play of all possibilities, using each to cancel the claims of the others. And since different historical periods inhabit the diverse worlds of their own creation, and words and symbols can have no fixed reference across such distinct worlds, there is no possibility of understanding between periods. But Mr. Foucault is no solipsist: We're all in this predicament together, since our world is the projection of our common language.

What makes ''This Is Not a Pipe'' a book of such interest is that Magritte's art provides the perfect pretext for Mr. Foucault's sermon. Doesn't a picture that declares, ''This is not a pipe,'' undercut our expectation that representation will give us the thing - in this case, the pipe - itself? The difficulty it presents is no accident. Magritte was perhaps unique among the visual artists of this century in the depth of his philosophical lore. Another of his pipe dreams contains a depiction of a pipe on a blackboard under which ''This is not a pipe'' is inscribed in a schoolmasterly hand. Floating above the blackboard Magritte depicts a kind of Platonic pipe. By virtue of its disproportionate size and free-floating dislocation, this utopian pipe is made to seem a mirage, while the depiction of a pipe, comfortably ensconced in its frame, enjoys a higher ontological dignity. The superficial contrast between the flat, two-dimensional blackboard pipe and the Platonic or transcendental overpipe is subverted, and it dawns on us that it is the picture of the pipe that we know, not the pipe in itself.

In ''Personnage Marchant Vers l'Horizon,'' Magritte depicts a man in topcoat and hat, his back to the viewer; he is surrounded by blobs, and these blobs are festooned with names - ''chair,'' ''horse,'' ''cloud'' and so on. Language doesn't regiment reality but leaves it as slimy as ever. Still, language spreads itself on the world, and its projections are all we know.

From Mr. Foucault's reading Magritte emerges as a deeper Modernist than, say, Kandinsky. Magritte uses its own resources to undo realistic representation, unraveling the world in a series of visual puns, paradoxes and contradictions. His work proposes a critique not simply of depiction but of all ''texts'' that aim at the truth. In place of the sovereignty of truth, Mr. Foucault takes Magritte to recommend a free play of the imagination. But by what right Mr. Foucault can recommend this esthetic stance is a mystery to me. Although he may have a taste for the playful as against the authoritarian, what reason can he give to persuade others to accept his preference? None at all, since there can be no communication between worlds informed by different values: The advocate of any position either preaches to the converted or babbles meaninglessly. Thus does hyberbolic relativism induce conceptual claustrophobia. Mr. Foucault's is not an easy view to live with.

This essay not only proposes a new understanding of Magritte; it also constitutes a perfect illustration and introduction to the thought of the philosopher himself, France's great wizard of paradox. Magritte's respectful fan letters to Mr. Foucault, which are included in this volume, the useful introduction and splendid translation by James Harkness and the handy (though hardly sumptuous) black-and-white reproductions of many of Magritte's works combine to make this a document of extraordinary interest.

Copyright 2006


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