The Treachery of Images

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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This is not an image by Dan Piraro.
"You never disappoint me." Hagbard said. "If they ever hang you, you'll be arguing about whether the rope really exists until the last minute."
Robert Shea and Robert Wilson, The Illuminatus Trilogy

When someone wants to really blow your mind, they will show you something. It can be an ordinary object or a piece of music or anything really, as long as they can see or hear it. And then they say, "This does not exist." With this mantra, the falsity of the world is stripped away and perhaps the hidden mask of reality is revealed. This is often an indicator of a Mind Screw. Compare and contrast Clap Your Hands If You Believe. See True Art Is Incomprehensible.

You are not seeing this page. There is no page. There are merely a series of HTTP messages sent as TCP segments twisted into a form resembling a page. Believe nothing. Can be dreadfully annoying and dull if it takes itself too seriously, or delightful and intellectually stimulating if it doesn't.

Beware of who you use this on. Depending on the person, they may just bluntly disagree and the whole thing might fall apart. A common retort might be "This fist is not real." *Pow!*

Needless to say, incredibly easy to parody.

Two Plus Torture Makes Five is a darker version when someone forces you to see and believe things like these.

These are not Examples:

There is No Anime & Manga Here

  • Washu does this to Tenchi concerning Sakuya Kumashiro near the end of Tenchi In Tokyo.
  • In Umineko no Naku Koro ni, the only reason Battler has anything remotely resembling a chance is that most of what we "see" is Beatrice's explanation of what happened. In the third arc in particular, she tried to distract him with shiny, epic magical fight scenes, but Virgilia pointed out that he could always deny that it reflected reality, since no objective evidence was left. And yes, it's confusing.
  • Ditto in the anime and manga of Pokémon have much more advanced shapeshifting skills than in the video game, but aren't particularly bright. In at least one case, a Ditto that was shown a picture of something turned into a picture.

This Is Not Art

This Is Not Comic Books

  • Scott McCloud (of Zot fame)'s Understanding Comics takes this to a thought-provoking Overly Long Gag extreme to explain... something. (It might have been comics as a "cool" medium per McLuhan.) Not only is it not a pipe, it's not even a painting of a pipe. Is it a drawing of a painting of a pipe? No, actually it's not even that—it's a printed copy of a drawing of a painting of a pipe. In fact, it's several printed copies, appearing in multiple panels, each one dependent on the reader to observe.

"Do you hear what I'm saying? If you do, have your ears checked, because no one said a word."


This Is Not Film

  • The Matrix: "Do not try to bend the spoon; that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: There is no spoon. Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."
    • Which was actually inspired by Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, which you can see on Neo's shelf earlier.
    • In point of fact, once the kid hands the spoon over, it isn't even a real's CGI.
  • Mulholland Drive: "No hay banda! There is no band. Il n'y a pas d'orchestre. [...] And yet we hear a band." A subtle clue showing that the whole thing is Diane Selwyn's Dying Dream. Or is it?

"It is a recording. It is a tape. It is an illusion."

  • A central theme of British Cult shocker The Last Horror Movie.
  • "There is no monster." One of the worst films of all time tried to have a Mind Screw ending: Monster a Go-Go! was about an astronaut who crash landed and mutated into a giant monster and a scientist tries to save him. Except the end revealed that the astronaut actually landed safe someplace else and the monster - gasp! - wasn't real:

"As if a switch had been turned, as if an eye had been blinked, as if some phantom force in the universe had made a move eons beyond our comprehension, suddenly, there was no trail! There was no giant, no monster, no thing called 'Douglas' to be followed. There was nothing in the tunnel but the puzzled men of courage, who suddenly found themselves alone with shadows and darkness! With the telegram, one cloud lifts, and another descends. Astronaut Frank Douglas, rescued, alive, well, and of normal size, some eight thousand miles away in a lifeboat, with no memory of where he has been, or how he was separated from his capsule! Then who, or what, has landed here? Is it here yet? Or has the cosmic switch been pulled? Case in point: The line between science fiction and science fact is microscopically thin! You have witnessed the line being shaved even thinner! But is the menace with us? Or is the monster gone?"


Joel: Oh, the joke's on us!
Tom Servo: Boooooo!

  • Lampshaded in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. At the beginning of the film, Jack Sparrow broke into and out of a fortress in order to obtain a drawing of the key to the titular Dead Man's Chest. Now all they have to do is find the chest, right? Wrong. First they have to find the actual key itself, because all they have so far is a drawing of the key.

This Is Not Literature

  • In Mark Twain's story The Mysterious Stranger, after the *ahem* friendly angel has wrought death, madness and devastation on the community, he tells the young boy/narrator that the boy is the only real thing in the universe, and that everything else - including the angel - is a figment of his imagination. Twain was not in a happy place when he wrote this.
  • In Dave Barry Hits Below The Beltway, Dave Barry wonders how lawyers become "people who refuse to make a simple, understandable statement about anything," and imagines a scene in law school, with a law professor holding up a spoon, and turns on the electrodes attached to his students each time they say that it looks like a spoon. This is apparently the kind of response the professor wants to hear:

Student: In certain purely superficial respects, it may resemble what is sometimes called a spoon, depending of course on the definition of "spoon"; however, we intend to present expert testimony showing that there are a number of other plausible explanations, such that it cannot be determined beyond a reasonable doubt that this is a spoon, or, for that matter, not a spoon, per se, depending on who is paying us three hundred dollars an hour plus expenses. Nor have we established that, legally, that is your hand.
Law Professor: Correct. (He presses the button again anyway.)

  • The novel Nineteen Eighty-Four uses this trope endlessly and is one of the most basic functions of the party. A relevant part of O'Brien's conversation with Winston revolves around whether the Party could, pragmatically speaking, change reality itself, with the torturer arguing that he could "float like a soap bubble" if he wanted to. After all, if Winston perceives (forcibly) such a thing, and it is on record, in what sense is it untrue? Also, it is never revealed whether Goldstein or Big Brother are real, but it is suggested that, sociologically speaking, for all intents and purposes, they are real.

"Does BIG BROTHER exist?"
"Of course he exists. The Party exists. BIG BROTHER is the embodiment of the Party."
"Does he exist in the same way as I exist?"
"You do not exist," said O'Brien.

  • In Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time, Susan Sto Helit becomes a school teacher. We see her holding up a cardboard clock and asking the kids what it is. Susan is mildly impressed when one of the kids eventually guesses it's "all cardboard, made to look like a clock". One of the lessons Miss Susan drills into her students is "Always see what's really there."
    • Blends with Unusual Euphemism in Unseen Academicals, when Smeems refuses to admit that the Emperor actually goes out, leaving a curious Nutt to ask "How many times has the candle that never goes out, um, not gone out?" and receive the reply "The candle that never goes out has failed to go out three times since I have been Candle Knave."
  • Godel Escher Bach plays with both the concept and the painting, including a character taking the pipe from the painting and smoking it.
  • In C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce the blessed former apostate finally gives up on trying to reason with his damned apostate friend not very long after the damned soul has gone so far off the deep end in his pseudo-intellectual diatribe that he ends up complaining about how the blessed man is talking "as if there some hard, fixed reality where things are, so to speak, 'there'."
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land, a Fair Witness replied to 'What color is that house' with 'It appears to be white on this side', as she could not seen the other side, and even if she were to walk over there and look, she could not be sure that someone had not repainted it as soon as it was out of her sight.
    • This extends so far that they will even look over at the house before answering, just to make sure. Note that in the case of this example, the house in question was the property next door to the one the woman lived at, and this she was probably very familiar with it. But her training was such that she was unable to assume anything.
  • Fruits of Reflection by Kozma Prutkov give us this priceless advice:

106. If upon a cage of an elephant you will see a sign reading: "buffalo", do not believe your eyes.


The Television Is By No Means Live

  • In the surrealist Jim Henson directed teleplay The Cube, one of the many odd characters the protagonist meets is a professor. The professor argues that none of the man's experiences is true, as reality itself is an illusion, and he is merely a character on TV. To illustrate, he picks up a hammer and explains that if you could look closer and closer at it you would see that it is made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which are made of energy and none of those items is "anything you could call a real thing". The man exclaims "You're right, it isn't real!". Whereupon the professor says "Then how do you explain this?" and hurls the hammer at the wall, leaving a hole.

This is Not Music

  • This is Not a Song, it's a Sandwich, by Psychostick.
  • Probably "This is Not a Photograph" by Mission of Burma, although—in keeping with their commitment to obscurity—you can't really tell whether the song is a Shout-Out to Magritte, or something else entirely. Their tribute to "Max Ernst" is somewhat more straightforward, ending with a repeated "Dada" chant.
  • This is Not a Love Song, by Public Image Ltd.
  • The Lonely Island's "Threw It On The Ground" : the guy is handed given a cell phone, and told that it's his dad. He says, "man, this ain't my dad. This is a cell phone." (So he threw it on the ground.)

These Are Not Newspaper Comics

  • In one Dilbert comic, Dogbert was trying to get someone to invest in his latest "Give more money to Dogbert" fund. His argument consisted of handing a piece of paper to the very, very stupid client and saying, "If you invest in the Dogbert Deferred Earnings Fund, one day this could be yours!"

"I could own a mansion?"
"You could own a photograph."

  • The comic Zogonia in Dragon magazine once featured a character buying an incredibly realistic illusion of a pipe. Disbelief, somehow, failed to get rid of it, indicating it may have been a pipe all along.

Domato: What's going on?
Dindil: Kev is not holding a pipe, and I'm watching him.
Kev: Strange... I am holding a pipe.
Dindil: You are?
Domato: Whatever you guys are smoking, throw it away.


This is Not a Radio

  • Parodied in The Goon Show, in which photographs of something are the same as the real thing.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the Man in the Shack, who claims not to rule the universe, also claims to be unconvinced that anything he experiences is real. Another episode mentions a man who claimed that nothing was true, though he was later discovered to be lying.
  • In The Burkiss Way there's a sketch where a man is in a travel agency trying to decide on his holiday destination:

Customer What about that poster on the wall?
Travel agent: It's a bit papery, sir.


These Are Not Video Games

  • This is parodied in Kingdom of Loathing with the Not-a-pipe: "You do not light the not-a-pipe, and you proceed to do something with it that is not smoking. Whatever it is, it's very refreshing, and gives you the feeling that your head has been replaced with either a window or a giant apple."
  • Another parody is the Lemmings 2 level "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", which looks like a water pipe. The Bilingual Bonus is that pipe is correct French for a smoking pipe, but not a plumbing pipe (conduit) or the other kind of water pipe (houka), so it really "n'est pas une pipe".
  • In Kingdom Hearts II, a Nobody sent to recover Roxas is baffled by photos of Roxas. The photos are also not real; Roxas is trapped in a virtual reality program.

There Are No Webcomics

This Is Not Western Animation

  • In one Family Guy scene, Peter bids on what he believes is a boat. It turns out he bid on a picture of a boat. Then the next item for sale is revealed to be an actual boat.
  • Similarly played with in SpongeBob SquarePants, where Mr. Krabs offers Squidward and Spongebob an incentive for learning the names of customers by showing them a brochure of an exotic tropical cruise. (Never mind how one can have a boat cruise underwater). After Squidward goes to ridiculous extremes to earn the cruise and ending up being thrown in prison, Mr. Krabs visits the incarcerated squid and gives him his prize... the brochure. "It was takin' up too much space in me drawer!"
  • Home Movies - at the Medieval Faire, Mr. Lynch (who's really into the thing) spots Mc Guirk (who's working there because he needs the money) talking on his cell phone. Lynch tells him to get rid of it:

Lynch: It doesn't exist!
Mc Guirk: Lynch, I don't wanna have a philosophical discussion with you, okay?


This Is Not Real Life

  • Also, "The map is not the territory."
    • The phrase is also a military aphorism to remind commanders that all the vaunted map reading (and later, satellite imagery, UAV recon, intercepted traffic, etc) is no substitute for a boots-on-ground view.
  • The Xbox 360 was in low supply at the time and some crafty hoaxers at eBay managed to sell pictures of the actual console by hiding "This auction is not for a Xbox 360 game system, but instead a picture of one" within a lot of specs and praise for the console.
    • Another guy did the same thing selling pictures of a mobile phone.
    • This actually still happens, though now with "This auction is for a Xbox 360 box". Ebay also changed its rules such that such disclaimers are supposed to be much more noticeable.
  • A Real Life theory that the universe as we know it is a three-dimensional hologram of an n-dimensional universe composed of nothing but information. We are the shadow cast by the true shape of the universe. Referenced heavily in Warren Ellis's Planetary.
  • Various philosophers and religious scholars have debated this point throughout the ages. Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the principle of Maya in Hinduism both stress this point for instance.
  • Zeno's Paradox is a related concept (also featured extensively in Godel Escher Bach). Since you can continually halve the distance between two objects, and since there are an infinite number of points in between, it is impossible to traverse the distance. (Before you can go there, you must go halfway there. Before you can go halfway there, you must go a quarter of the way there. Before you can go a quarter of the way there...) According to records, the philosopher Diogenes responded by standing, and silently walking out of the room.
    • Integral calculus provides the real answer to Zeno's Paradox: Though there are an infinite number of points, each point is infinitesimally small. Integration shows how an infinite sum of infinitesimal amounts converges on a finite sum. Without calculus, a lot of physics would be downright impossible. (Not to mention computing, because integration is how digital devices can approximate the non-digital world.)
  • A man in Florida parked his car illegally and was mailed a picture of his illegally parked car from the police who said he had to pay a $45 fine. The man responded by mailing the police a picture of $45. The police's response? Mailing him a picture of handcuffs.
  • "This page has been intentionally left blank." LIARS!
    • "Leaving posters on this wall is illegal". Yeah, right.
  • Urban Legend tells of a philosophy professor who, for the final exam, placed a chair at the front of the room and challenged the students to prove it did not exist. One student scored 100% by writing "What chair?"
  • There exists a photo taken by Kunaver and Mohar, showing the famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek sitting behind a golden frame, called Slavoj Zizek does not exist. This one actually alludes to Zizek's own theory of frame and appearance.