Growing up, my mother had a plaque on our piano: dark brown wood covered with white markings, both horizontal and vertical straight lines. What looked to us as children like ancient Chinese symbols, we would later learn had a very hidden meaning, available only to those with a willing concentration. One day, my sister and I asked my mom why we had the weird symbols in plain view, in a place of honor with all our family photos and favorite possessions. She told us to look closely at the plaque, paying close attention to its meaning. We looked for a very long time, after which my mom gently prompted us not to look at what was there, but at what was not there. We understood almost immediately. In the negative space between the white markings, the brown wood spelled out the word “JESUS.” In essence, we needed to read between the lines. Literally.
Similarly, Rene Magritte was a Belgium surrealist painter famous for his eye-catching and purposefully-deceptive paintings. One of his most famous paintings, a selection from “The Treachery of Images” was a painting of a pipe against a plain background, underneath which were written the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” translation: “This is not a pipe.”
Inspired by Magritte, my friend Jackie decided to get a tattoo which would translate into the French of “This is not a tattoo.” We all thought that this was a creative-if not completely random- selection, but at the same time we supported her decision. Now, the original painting by Magritte is clever because, obviously, the words are true: the painting is of a pipe, and therefore is nothing more than a painting of a pipe. A painting of an object, the re-creation of an original, cannot still be considered the same thing, not possessing the same integrity or characteristics necessary for it to be similarly classified. In other words, a pipe is a pipe is a pipe… except when it’s not.
Jackie’s tattoo, however, takes a nice spin on this idea because a tattoo of any type will still remain a tattoo, even if the tattoo itself asserts the very opposite. This reminds me a great deal of Lacan’s exploration of the phrase “I am lying.” The enunciation takes on a greater meaning. You cannot say that you are lying if, inherent in the lie, you are telling the truth. A character from a popular television show explains this idea perfectly when he awkwardly explains to his teenage son how he often stretches the truth, “Oh Chris, everything I say is a lie. Except that. And that. And that. And that…”
Therefore, a person can say one thing and simultaneously say the opposite. In the same vein, two people can look at a single thing and see/interpret it in two completely different ways. In fact, the cover of the writings by Levinas had a similar eye-teasing image: the trademark two faces and/or the one goblet. One picture can signify, and often does signify, a very specific meaning to a person. Individual responses elicited by such illustrations say a lot about the duplicity of signification. In our readings and class discussions, we have often come across this idea. The difference between the signifier and the signified becomes embroiled in individual perspective as well as greater societal implications. This focus on perspective nicely sets up the new unit we are beginning: a survey of the face and body, the vessel through which we carry out our interpretations, and, at the same time, are most quickly interpreted.