Surrealist painter René Magritte’s famous painting “The Treachery of Images” displays a drawing of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). The painting points out a problem with referential images: when we look at an image that refers to another object, making the connection between image and object replaces further thought about the work itself. Tess Lea and Phil Pholeros argue that to understand the failures of publicly funded housing for indigenous Australians we must do what Magritte prompts—pry the “image” of a house apart from what makes a “real” house. Understanding the controversy surrounding the alleged “incapacity” of Aboriginal householders to care for their housing requires the recognition that, in some cases, “a pipe is not a pipe” (191).
“A length of polyvinyl chloride tubing is not a pipe,” they write, “when, as is the case with much indigenous housing in Australia, it is not connected to an effluent disposal system” (191). This is only one of the more common failings of structures that appear to be houses but are, in fact, “composite deceptions” (191). After extensively studying the quality of housing provided to indigenous communities around Australia, Lea and Pholeros argue that most of the houses are illusions. They look like houses but lack key features of functionality: working bathrooms, kitchens where food can be prepared, basic electrical safety. These treacherous illusions persist despite government regulation. In fact, regulatory bodies participate in making non-houses into houses by regularly signing off on shoddy or incomplete maintenance work.
Most people, whether donors, government, or the public, don’t distinguish between the image of a new house and the functionality of that house, so when housing disintegrates, its failure is attributed not to builders’ cheap materials and poor construction, but to the moral failings of house owners. Some anthropologists have objected to the blaming of indigenous residents by putting forward “sympathetic” accounts of how indigenous communities have differing cultural conceptions of space and technology. However, Lea and Pholeros argue, these interpretations only perpetuate the idea that genuine housing is falling apart due to inadequately prepared owners. They thereby hide the reality: the cause of Aboriginal housing failure is primarily the failing of the physical housing itself. Their point is neatly made in a final image depicting a row of beaming funders standing in front of a brand-new house, the first in a new development. The caption? “This is not a house.”
Tess Lea and Phil Pholeros. 2010. “This Is Not a Pipe: The Treacheries of Indigenous Housing.” Public Culture 22(1): 187–209.
This column, a new regular contribution to Anthropology Now, will highlight emerging anthropological research that has the potential to reshape contemporary social and political debates. A series of short reviews will be coauthored and edited each issue by a diverse student collective from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which has historically supported publicly engaged anthropology. The members of the collective would like to thank Katherine McCaffrey, Ida Susser, and the rest of the editorial board for this opportunity and their continued support.
In addition, the members express their appreciation to the “Discoveries” student collective of the sociological journal Contexts for generously advising on process and approach.