PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review


by Neil Leach

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006

xiv + 289 pages. Illustrations, notes, and index of names

$24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-262-62200-9

In Camouflage, the British architect, curator and architectural theorist Neil Leach invokes the work of twentieth-century critical theorists from a range of disciplines and institutional settings in an effort to fashion a new mandate for architectural practice in a time when surface representation and branding have come to dominate the built environment. He uses the term “camouflage” to gloss a human tendency to rapidly assimilate to even the most unwelcoming environments--cookie-cutter hotel rooms, prison cells--and he enumerates three implications of this tendency for the theory of design. First, drawing on an essay of Gianni Vattimo’s published in Leach’s own edited volume, Rethinking Architecture (1997), he suggests that an architecture consistent with human cognition would be one of “background music,” “belong[ing] largely to our peripheral vision,” rather than of obtrusive “object buildings” (8). Second, and potentially in contradiction to his first thesis, a recognition of the ease with which human beings incorporate unfamiliar objects into their sense of home should encourage us to “challenge traditionalists who argue that technology is a perpetual source of alienation” (8). Third, architecture can take an active, practical role in facilitating this human tendency toward camouflage. Environmental design should incorporate a reflexive awareness of the ways in which, without really thinking about it and mainly through the soothingly repetitive enactment of intimate rituals of self-care (brushing teeth, laying out clothes), human beings come to feel at home in the most alien spaces. Alluding to McLuhan, he notes that “just as we learn to drive a car through that car,” so the novel technological paraphernalia that saturate and mediate contemporary experiences of the urban environment can quickly come to feel like “extension[s] of our bodies” (10).

Leach offers an aesthetics of hope, a counterpoint to his previous critique of contemporary design practice, The Anaesthetics of Architecture (1999). He suggests that the pessimism of earlier commentators, including Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, but especially Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, as to the possibilities for authentic forms of human engagement with an environment dominated by the consumer indicia of late capitalism, was premature. “Rather,” he contends, “in a culture of branding, identities are themselves forged through that domain. … It is precisely through the imaginary realm of representation that so-called ‘reality’ is acted out” (242). Leach’s effort to undermine media theorists’ nostalgic yearning for an imagined, ever-receding time before mediation is admirable, but his critique lacks substance. He invokes a psychological underpinning for the human experience of the environment only to the extent it supports his case for embracing “that domain” (the anaphor is vague—presumably he means “the domain constituted through a culture of branding”), without considering the ways in which this historically novel domain has reshaped human social and cognitive life (see, for instance, Coombe 1998).

Throughout Camouflage, Leach’s use of critical sources is flawed by a lack of attention to the cultural and institutional contexts in which the authors he cites were writing. Even as he advances the proposition that an unchanging human cognitive tendency toward mimesis, assimilation, and adaptation should inform the design of the environment, he seems to subscribe to an evolutionist model of culture culled straight from the writings of nineteenth-century British armchair anthropologists such as E. B. Tylor and James Frazer. At several points he cites Frazer’s The Golden Bough authoritatively as a source of ethnographic data, notably on the role of sympathetic magic among primitive peoples. He summarizes Freud’s argument in The Origins of Religion that the history of civilization is recapitulated in childhood development:

Animism would therefore correspond to the autoerotic or narcissistic phase, religion to the period of object-choice, and the scientific phase to the final period of maturity. This attempt to link the development of civilization with the development of the individual is of crucial importance, for it immediately situates our inquiry within a temporal perspective in which one historical paradigm can be seen to differ from another. . . . [I]t is to some extent through the early development of the individual that we might attempt to read the early development of civilization (156).

Leach’s uncritical acceptance of the Tylorian scala natura is shockingly out of place. It reflects not an endorsement of colonial racism but simply an unawareness of the history of anthropology and a concomitant undertheorizing of his choice of critical interlocutors. Not once in his extended discussion of mimesis does he mention Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life; he seems unaware that the meanings of mimesis, totemism and various forms of magical identification were hotly contested at the time Freud was writing (see Kuklick 2006). And he radically misreads Michael Taussig’s intervention in the theory of mimesis as a vindication of the Frazerian evolutionist scheme (57-64). This is too bad. Evolutionism saw its demise with the advent of extended, immersive ethnographic fieldwork in which the social theorist is forced to reflect on her own experience of adapting to an alien environment—the sort of process Leach would like to hold up as the basis for a progressive architecture.

Ultimately, Leach’s effort is marred by a seemingly arbitrary choice of critical sources coupled with an absence of concrete examples. His project--theorizing an architecture of positive identification, a way for us to be at home in a world of airport cities and ambient television--is important and long overdue (it has been thirty-five years since Learning from Las Vegas was published). We can hope that Camouflage represents an early experiment in theorizing an environmental design of postindustrial mimesis, with further iterations to come.

References Cited

Coombe, R. 1998. The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kuklick, H. 2006. “’Humanity in the Chrysalis Stage’: Indigenous Australians in the Anthropological Imagination, 1899-1926.” British Journal for the History of Science 39:535-568.

Leach, N., ed. 1997. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge.

_______. 1999. The Anaesthetics of Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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