This Is Not a Pipe: The Treacheries of Indigenous Housing
There was an important moment in surrealist art when the Belgian painter René Magritte pointed out the simple truth that his painting of a smoker’s pipe was not a pipe (see fig. 1). Today there is still a small shock to be had in recognizing the layers of automaticity embedded in our conventions of viewing. We react immediately. Of course, Magritte’s painting is not itself a physical device that one can fill with fragrant tobacco, ignite, and inhale, allowing smoke to curl and linger on lip and in lung, but an image, complete with corrective text that refers to its literal status: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Then a belated realization hits: the tag “This is not a pipe,” while a subtle calligram, is itself also figure, seemingly factual script, which we “read” only to be doubly deceived. Enticing us to elucidate meaning, the referential text deflects attention away from its own status as also, like the pipe, painted image. It is a reflection of text, brushstrokes on a surface fashioned into the shape of an explanatory legend. The text that seems to reveal also masks, a form of trickery that is best captured by the painting’s title, La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images).
By interrupting culturally engrained habits of viewing and interpretation, Magritte’s work draws attention to how perception and analysis are subtly directed through habituated modes of viewing and classification. As Michel Foucault put it, in an essay on exactly this painting, there is a long-standing habit in Western interpretation of suspending further thought when faced with a figure that resembles another object or figure. When an image exerts this hold, a “what you see is that” effect kicks in: “Resemblance and affirmation cannot be dissociated” ( Foucault 1983: 34). Writes Foucault (1983: 37), “Ceci n’est pas une pipe exemplifies the penetration of discourse into the form of things.” Or as Magritte puts it, “A thing which is present can be invisible, hidden by what it shows” (quoted in Gablik 1976: 12).
It might seem odd to begin an essay on the contentious politics of indigenous housing in Australia with a leading surrealist painter. After all, a house is not a painting. But then neither are indigenous houses, houses. They might look like houses, most especially when they are newly constructed or refurbished. But the appearance of new “affordable” houses, buttressed by scripted policy announcements about dollars spent and program achievements, misdirect our interpretation away from what is literally in front of us: a cheap, partly complete steel shed or copy of a house of bare utility, which looks like, but is not, a house. It is a nonhouse (fig. 2).
The supply and maintenance of affordable housing and infrastructure remains one of the most vexed issues confronting indigenous public policy. Many permanent indigenous dwellings are in need of major repair or replacement; are overcrowded; and lack sufficient water supplies, washing facilities, or sewage infrastructure. The scale of the poor housing situation for indigenous Australians is subject to highly fallible calculations; but drawing on information from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW 2005), the high dependency on government supply for indigenous accommodation becomes clear. Of the estimated 165,700 indigenous households in Australia, two-thirds are rental situations, of which nearly 60 percent are public housing (AIHW 2005: 1). Across Australia, more than one-third, or 58,100, of the permanent houses accommodating indigenous households have structural problems, a proportion that grows to 44 percent of all houses occupied by indigenous people in the Northern Territory (AIHW 2005: 94).
Diagnoses of why indigenous housing remains so poor despite seemingly vast program expenditures may alternately blame the racist state (e.g., Morgan 2006) or point to inadequate consultation processes (e.g., Lee and Morris 2005). But by far the most common tendency is to attribute much of the cause to the incapacities of the Aboriginal householders (e.g., Hughes 2007). Whether hard-line or empathetic, aired in policy backrooms or as eyewitness accounts on talk radio and Internet postings, there is a dominant mode of interpreting damaged houses that places indigenous values and behaviors at the center of the housing problem, an interpretive syndrome that tends to bounce off the seeming look of things into well-worn grooves of explanation and remediation. The prevailing theory is that houses become structurally compromised in swift time frames more or less because of the way householders tend the house.
For the beginnings of a counternarrative, we ask that you hold in mind the following: endemic overcrowding (or high-use load) contributes to rapid wear and tear, and since much Aboriginal housing is cheaply constructed, repair and maintenance issues quickly become a problem. This has a series of material effects. On the one hand, intermittent maintenance exacerbates degradation of housing stock. On the other, it swiftly creates a visual image of mess and decrepitude that, like the portrait of a pipe, invokes an interpretive automaticity for the remediating viewer. The unkempt house represents a lack of householder pride that becomes the portmanteau explanation for the substandard nature of indigenous housing stock. The visual blight is the shaman’s material object: a stone found in the gut that is responsible for all other afflictions.
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This article draws both on long-term Healthabitat data and program efforts led by directors Paul Pholeros, Paul Torzillo, and Stephan Rainow and on wider anthropological fieldwork conducted by Tess Lea. Lea’s anthropological fieldwork began in 2005 under a scoping grant from the Charles Darwin University Research Innovation Panel. Fieldwork between 2007 and 2009 was made possible by an Australian Research Council Industry Linkage Grant. Our thanks go to Caz Comino, Gillian Cowlishaw, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Shane Thamm, and Paul Torzillo for useful comments on earlier drafts.