ceci ce n’est pas un pipe

ceci-nest-pas-une-pipeSo what is it?

Of course it’s not a “pipe” but a painting of a pipe. [Or not even that but an image on a screen of a painting of a pipe].

“Well you can’t fill it with tobacco and smoke it”
R Magritte


Or is it even that?

What is a “pipe”? On a simple level a pipe is a thing, sometimes it looks like the thing  depicted in this famous painting by Rene Magritte that stirred a few indignant folks when it was first exhibited,  and still does that today.

Yet “pipe” is actually an idea, or even a set of ideas, that we construct in our minds and form into language so we can communicate and share our ideas about the meaning of “pipe”.

What? Ok, so Your ideas of “pipe” are likely not be quite the same as mine. My grandfather sometimes smoked a pipe and it looked a little like the one in the painting…. but it stunk, reeked, ponged so much he wasn’t allowed to smoke it in the house.  So my ideas of “pipe” have more to do with that than they do about any object in a painting.

surrealistplumber_danpiraroAnd I also do some plumbing so I think the cartoon here is the best way I’ve seen of understanding what Magritte was up to: better than  any essay in an art history textbook and certainly better than my attempt above.

We use symbols to communicate ideas about the world. Using spoken and written language we use words to label objects,  ideas, thoughts feelings, emotions  and experiences so that we can communicate our ideas with each other. It is the very basis of language. Sometimes the label I use means something very different to  me than it might mean to you – even when that thing is something that is , at least on the surface, as simple as a pipe.

ceci ce n’est pas un “schizophrenic”

So when we use a single word to talk about a very complex range of experiences and ideas -let’s say, a  label like “schizophrenia” it pays to be very, very  careful about we mean and how it might be understood.

Now, “schizophrenia” is a word, a label, a symbol, a shorthand that represents a bunch ideas about a whole range of messy, difficult, painful and mysterious human experiences that are far more complex than any simple object that I might pull from a pocket and pack with tobacco and put in my mouth to create a stink.

“Schizophrenia” is a term, a label – part of a whole taxonomy of labels used to categorise a whole range of difficult human experiences. This taxonomy is created and administered by a whole bunch of people who choose to label themselves “psychiatrists”.

[Though it is noticeable that a few of these folks themselves are are becoming uncomfortable with the “stigma” associated with that label, but more on that another time.]

Even leading researchers and scientists with careers in the $350 million plus per annum  schizophrenia research industry who study the phenomena admit that we know very little . The phenomena that this single word attempts to describe is possibly the most complex in human experience, and even more of a mystery from the outside.  That’s a tall job for any single word, even one with a winning scrabble score.

No one word will, can  ever, capture entirely this phenomena, and since it is a highly personal, complex one having at least some and often a considerable component of mystery, perhaps no number of words ever will.

Yet we toss around this difficult word like we know what it is we are talking about. Further, it’s  highly derogatory derivative “schizophrenic”  is used to label people themselves rather than the  phenomena that we might think they may be experiencing.

When  I hear you say “schizophrenia” I really don’t know what you mean.

And when I hear you say “schizophrenic” I can’t help fleetingly think that you are afraid to see  beyond the label to the person and their suffering…

I wonder, do you?

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