The Treachery of T-Shirts

This week, Philosimplicity is launching a brand new set of t-shirts in a series called The Treachery of T-Shirts. The name and shirts are a reference to the famous surrealist painting The Treachery of Images by René François Ghislain Magritte. Although the nearly 90-year-old painting and its meaning have been discussed to death, and the message of the painting has probably thoroughly permeated throughout our culture, it still does feel like something worth talking about.

About The Treachery of Images

The painting is simple, it features a beautifully drawn pipe and the words “this is not a pipe” written in cursive French. The point its making is that the image, though properly constructed and representative of a pipe is itself not a pipe. The insight might seem mundane, but it touches on several issues within semiotics and metaphysics about how humans construct meaning. Entire essays and books have been written on the painting, and though not much new can be said about it, in a future post, we’ll explore some dimensions of the topics the painting invokes.

The joke behind Treachery of T-Shirts

Like Treachery of Images, the t-shirts of the Treachery of T-Shirts series rely on the ambiguity of perception to convey their meaning. Since a majority of the t-shirts exclusively display text, however, there is a subtle difference from the type of ambiguity conveyed through Treachery of Images. The painting relies on a representation, an image, to help create its ambiguity whereas the t-shirts rely on referential ambiguity. On the t-shirts, ambiguity emerges from the confusion of whether or not the t-shirt’s message refers to the wearer or the shirt itself. The ambiguity only resolves once a perceiver commits to a specific interpretation, with one interpretation making more sense than the other.

More on referential ambiguity

Appreciation of both the t-shirts and the painting that inspired them requires an understanding that words and the things that they refer to, or their “referents,” are two different things. As perceivers, we have to actively match referents to their appropriate words, symbols, and meanings. Although this kind of referential humor isn’t common in everyday language, other types are. Literature, puns, and poems are full of ambiguity that stems from homographs, homonyms, homophones, and clever word choice.