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Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

“Words and Images” 1


In 1929, in the last number of La Révolution Surréaliste, René Magritte published a short series of images with captions, under the title “Les Mots et Les Images” (“Words and Images”). This relatively little-known essay explores the relation of line, picture, letter, word, and meaning. It’s a useful starting-point for the topics I want to consider in this seminar, partly because it’s an early effort; partly because it’s a specifically graphical effort; and partly because Magritte concerns himself with just the sort of issues I care about. I’ll post the frames here one by one, with informal comments. (The translations of the captions are my own; Suzi Gablik has published a translation which I’ve read (probably in her Magritte), and the French is pretty simple, so our translations may converge — but I haven’t seen hers in a long time, and have not consulted it in preparing the version I offer here.)

Here’s the first image:



Un objet ne tient pas tellement à son nom qu’on ne puisse lui en trouver un autre qui lui convienne mieux

An object does not adhere to its name such that one could not find for it another which suits it better (I don’t have the French right at hand — I’ll add the original text as soon as I get it.)

This restates the basic structuralist premise about the relation of words to their referents; there’s nothing about a leaf that makes “leaf” a more appropriate word for it than, in this case, “canon” or “cannon.” Words don’t have an ontological relation to their referents.

I’d add — though it’s not an immediate inference from this image — that the relation between words and their referents depends solely on the practical communicative effect of calling a leaf (or whatever) one thing rather than another. If I developed the affectation of calling leaves “cannons,” people who spend a lot of time with me would get used to that and allow for it, while people less well-acquainted with me might be perplexed. The habituation and perplexity don’t derive from the essential characteristics of plant structures specialized for photosynthesis, nor from the letters or phonemes for “leaf” or “cannon.” The meaning of “leaf” or “feuille” is a function of people’s expectations of one another. When those expectations approach a very high degree of predictability, we can freeze them into definitions — but even then, people continue using the words in ways that escape our definitions, and we must either reassess our definitions or try to persuade people not to use words that way.

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this dancey-tension:
Words are common labels or names or designations for shared meaning, in which case something could be called anything, as long as 'we' agree on what that anything is. Yet, the relationships and conversations between words themselves might be just as important and exciting as our own.

Would we lose something beautiful if we were capable of wordless, conceptual communication?

Is a thing changed by being named?

December 24, 2006 1:54 AM  
Blogger AKMA said...

What would "wordless, conceptual communication" be like? (This is one of the reasons I want to include Wittgenstein in the reading for the seminar; he pushes hard at our intuitions about "wordlessness," many of which won't stand up to the stress.)

Is a thing changed by being named? Well, if there's no intrinsic "name" to the thing, how would changing the name change it? It would certainly change our relation to the thing, but the relation isn't an aspect intrinsic to the thing. Is it?

December 24, 2006 3:13 PM  
Blogger ruidh said...

What can change is how we see the word in relationship to other words. Similar sounds, assonance, alliteration etc. can make connections between words that

Lewis Carroll wrote poetry with nonsense words that sound like or evoke real concepts. He was fond of "portmanteau words" which combine multiple concepts in a single word.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

December 28, 2006 9:00 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Always felt Magritte could use more interrogating.

1. If M.'s image/text is "restating" a nostrum about word and reference, it does so in part by deviating from said nostrum. It posits an asymptotic potential for finding another name that suits (convienne) it better. Offering no convenient criteria with which to gauge the suiting.

2. How arbitrary is the leaf? The cannon/canon? The linkage? (Ask an artillery plant.) We have words, linked forever to leaves, language trees. We have words aiming to name, shooting at targets, seeking to can(n)onize the truth.

3. It takes Nietzsche one graf to move from "leaf" to language as an army of canonical metaphors.

In this context, should be allow Magritte to be innocent of such co/incidents of reference?

December 30, 2006 4:56 AM  
Blogger AKMA said...

1. Yes, Tom, I’m not sure why one would say another nom “suits it better.” He should have said “just as well,” I reckon — you’re quite right to point out the absence of a barometer of “suitability.”

2. Not sure how to reply, but thanks for the link to the artillery plant; I was intrigued to learn what Matisse would have called it (best I can come up with so far is plante au feu d‘artifice “fireworks plant,” somewhat different — I daresay arbitrarily different — from “artillery plant.”.

3. Well, sure; I’ve always appreciated that essay. Are you proposing that there’s something intrinsically militaristic about construing the relation of nom to objet as contingent rather than determined?

December 30, 2006 7:06 AM  
Anonymous tom said...

What Magritte should have said might depend on how he's read. You find him re-stating the structuralist mantra. But then what is to be done with the rest of what he puts there? He seems to wish to poke the sober ribs of linguistic logic a bit, doesn't he? What if these each might be little games of reference rather than statements about reference?

Signs and things of course have entirely arbitrary relations, but that's them standing alone. Here they are in small compositions that include visual as well as verbal cues. Each offers or suggests more than just a statement about signs and things. Signs, referents, statements about signs and things, invite us to engage, to read.

Nom to objet: Interesting - there's certainly grammar, which is anything but arbitrary, given that it rules how signs are composed.

My underbaked thought, though, was more that Magritte seems to be playing with images of language - leaf, cannon - that have a certain history as topoi in writings about language behind them. To find, in Nietsche, writing about the arbitrariness of signs, the proximity of leaf and canon that we see on the open face of Magritte's word and image can suggest that Magritte's use of these particular images might be more determined than we first think. That even as he's thematically proposing arbitrariness of sign/thing, he's created an example in which their presence can be seen as not entirely unmotivated. Arbitrariness and overdetermination might here be getting played off in interesting ways here.

December 30, 2006 6:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. "What would "wordless, conceptual communication" be like?"
I'm not suggesting that it would be possible, rather I assume it isn't. I'm just wondering if there is something beautiful about the names for things. When I watch an electric piano play 'perfectly' a difficult piece, it is no where near as exciting/interesting/moving as watching a person play the same piece.

2."Well, if there's no intrinsic "name" to the thing, how would changing the name change it? It would certainly change our relation to the thing, but the relation isn't an aspect intrinsic to the thing. Is it?"
Name me stupid and see what I become.
Even if the relation isn't intrinsic to the thing, can changing what we call the thing change the relations?

December 31, 2006 1:15 PM  
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November 23, 2010 9:03 PM  
Anonymous slacks said...

Thanks for sharing this is very historical.

July 01, 2011 4:13 AM  

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