René Magritte’s Guide to Personality, Literacy, and the Uncanny Valley

Attending the René Magritte exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art last month, several pieces struck me as strong illustrations of principles that became widely recognized long after he produced his works.

Portrait of Paul Nougé (1927) by René Magritte with commentary by exhibit curator, Anne Umland


Trait Theory vs. Social Psychology

When Magritte painted Paul Nougé, he doubled the image, reproducing his own image of his friend while subtly changing it. In doing so, he broke from the tradition that portraiture should “represent a singular self.” Rather, Magritte is saying, all representations are just that, a record of one view of a person, one facet of their personality.

In 1927, the year Magritte painted Nougé, the orthodox model of personality was Trait Theory, which considered personality to be defined by traits relatively stable across situations, largely ignoring variance in behaviors as noise rather than data. Beginning in the 1930s, new studies began to undermine this model.

“When an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him…Information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him.”
-Erwin Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in 1959, arguing that individuals tailor their behavior to “call forth a desired response” from someone and establishing a beachhead for a model of personality as interactive with environment. Nine years later, Walter Mischel wrote in Personality and Assessment, “highly generalised behavioral consistencies have not been demonstrated, and the concept of personality traits as broad dispositions is thus untenable.” Much of the field of psychology found his arguments persuasive and the era of trait theory largely ended.

Magritte’s Nougé portrait was painted before this paradigm shift, yet he portrays personality not as a singular, invariable construct, but one presenting multiple facets, the expression of which changes with context. Nougé is not a universal “object,” but an instantiation of himself that will vary depending on his audience. At the a basic level, Nougé might be sociable/extroverted in some situations, withdrawn/introverted in others, and neither when he is alone.

Notably, Mischel’s theory maintains many adherents, but parts have been discredited and new attempts have sought to merge the the Trait and the Social-Cognitive models, in part by showing that while stable traits may exist and be innate, behaviors are the culmination of stable traits and shifting variables like motivation.

Le Joueur secret (The Secret Player) (1927) by René Magritte with commentary by the Art Institute of Chicago's Stephanie D'Alessandro
Le Joueur secret (The Secret Player) (1927) by René Magritte with commentary by the Art Institute of Chicago’s Stephanie D’Alessandro

When mediated experience becomes pervasive, the line between mediated and non-mediated breaks down.

As televisions, computers, phones, video games, and other technologies have proliferated, mediated experience has become normal and the distinction between a physical object in ones immediate environment and a virtual or telepresent object begins to break down. Recent work at MIT has eroded these distinctions further, implicitly asking which is the non-mediated subject and what is the mediated object. Ultimately, the line can become so blurred that non-mediated experiences begin to be mistaken for mediated ones.

In a seminal survey of the literature of how mediated experiences can feel non-mediated, Matthew Lombard and Theresa B. Ditton identify several key conceptualizations of mediated presence, including “presence as realism…the degree to which a medium can produce seemingly accurate representations of objects, events, and people.” Lombard and Ditton view this conceptualization of presence to be primarily the domain of the human factors engineer, but of course, it was also an important consideration of realist painting, the dominant style for several decades before Magritte began painting.

“Part of Magritte’s project is to play with things that are commonplace and in turning them on their head, bringing out the strangeness of looking at paint on a canvas and expecting to see something real in it.”
-Stephanie D’Alessandro

In Le Joueur secret (The Secret Player), Magritte challenges this goal, constructing a scene from a number of, mostly, quotidian objects. Noam Chomsky famously wrote “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as a demonstration of how a sentence could be grammatically correct and yet nonsensical. Here, Magritte has assembled a scene that is correctly put together, but which remains non-representative, a tension that renders its subjects strange or disconcerting and that questions “the strangeness of looking at paint on a canvas and expecting to see something real in it.” The viewer is meant to approach the canvas only to be denied the sense of presence through realism.

The difficulties of separating the real from the false and the mediated from the non-mediated have only become more profound in the decades since Magritte painted his “loggerhead” turtle. 45 years later, Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley,” which might be defined as “the strangeness of looking at a constructed object and expecting to see something real in it.” As the divide between physical and virtual shrinks Magritte’s implicit question resonates like never before.

La Clef des songes (The Interpretation of Dreams) (1936) by René Magritte with commentary by exhibit curator, Anne Umland
La Clef des songes (The Interpretation of Dreams) (1936) by René Magritte with commentary by exhibit curator, Anne Umland


“The word is not the thing

Through many paintings and illustrations, Magritte explored the disconnection between words and the things they signifies. Writing in the surrealist journal La révolution surréaliste in 1927, Magritte observed, “an object is not so possessed of its name that one cannot find for it another which suits it better,” illustrating the sentiment with a picture of a leaf labeled as le canon. 

“An object is not so possessed of its name that one cannot find for it another which suits it better.” (“Un objet ne tient pas tellement à son nom qu’on ne puisse lui en trouver un autre qui lui convienne mieux.”)
-René Magritte, Les mots et les images

For the next three years, he continued to explore this idea, and he returned to it once more in 1936 in La Clef des songes. In Magritte’s work, words variously stand as substitutes for objects (e.g., 1928’s L’Apparition [The Apparition]) or in opposition to objects, with labels incorrectly applied. In both cases, he challenges the viewer to separate the written word from that which it represents.

While Magritte was questioning the connection between words and reality in the late 1920s, much of academia would only come to this issue later. In 1933, Alfred Korzybski memorably wrote in Science and Sanity that “the word is not the thing.Nearly 50 years later, Walter J. Ong wrote

“A literate person, asked to think of the word ‘nevertheless,’ will normally (and I strongly suspect always) have some image, at least vague, of the spelled-out word.” (Orality and Literacy)

Magritte, operating in a movement that “[proposed] to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought” (The Surrealist Manifesto) was clearly fascinated by how words, and particularly written words, shape “pure” thought. The journey from orality to literacy can only be taken in one direction, but Magritte nevertheless pushes the viewer to divorce written word from physical object, if only momentarily.


That Magritte may have intended little of this must be acknowledged. He was explicit in his intention with La Clef des songes, and his remarks in La ligne de vie show the issue of mediation was on his mind even if he used a different vocabulary to describe it. However, the interpretation of his portrait of Paul Nougé, and the connection between Le Joueur secret and the uncanny valley may be interpolation fueled by current thought. The possibility that these concepts might diverge from Magritte’s intentions does not diminish his images as illustrations of powerful ideas.

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