by Neil Leach
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006
289 pp. Paper, $ 24.95
Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold
University of Kansas Medical Center
A few years ago I reviewed False Colors:
Art, Design, and Modern Camouflage,
an entertaining and informative study
by my friend and colleague, Roy Behrens
(1). In another context the late Bill
Ober told me that "the plural of anecdote
is data," and along the same lines I anticipated
that by reviewing a second book with camouflage
in the title I might be promoted to expert!
But the present volume by Neil Leach lacks
a subtitle and landed on my desk as a
surprise: His is indeed an idiosyncratic
Leach proposes that we are much influenced
by architecture and creative design, and
that we all seek to adapt to our surroundings.
He goes on to develop a working hypothesis
that "fitting in," "feeling at home,"
and "finding our place" promote a widespread
desire for "camouflage." I wonder how
broadly the arguments and opinions expressed
in his book will be embraced by the Leonardo
readership. Leachs premise certainly
could not be further from the view expressed
by Julian Levy (2) that "the artist alone
among all the world has the duty to pursue
a special point of view to the farthest
reach, to exaggerate and embellish just
the things which others prudently modify,
diminish, or retrace toward the common,
less lonely, comprehensible, and useful
center." Parenthetically, such a creative
artist puts himself more at odds with
society than does the creative scientist.
Perhaps a few quotes from his introduction
will suffice to indicate the flavor of
Leachs work: "We human beings are
largely conformist creatures driven by
a chameleonlike urge to adapt to the behavior
of those around us. . . . Beneath the
urge to assimilate at a physical level
there also lies a desire to assimilate
at a mental level. We have to think ourselves
into the environment. . . . We human beings,
then, seem to have the capacity gradually
to grow into our habitat,
to familiarize ourselves with it, and
eventually to find ourselves at
home there." And under the sub-heading,
Consequences for architecture, Leach asserts
that "[s]o deeply has technology embedded
itself within our modern psyche that it
has become part of our definition of ourselves.
. . . [T]his process of assimilation suggests
that architecture, and indeed the whole
realm of aesthetics, can play a significant
role in aiding these processes of identification."
As an original paperback it employs appropriate
quality paper and the overall production
is handsome. The text has three parts
without clear explanation of how the divisions
were chosen. On pp 10-14 the author previews
the contents of his chapters, which range
from "sympathetic magic" through "narcissism"
to "melancholia." The text concludes with
a theory of camouflage in which the author
remarks: "Let us start by clarifying that
the term is being used here not within
the narrow, conventional sense of military
camouflage, but within the broader sense
of representation and self-representation"
(238-247). As mentioned before, the book
is sorely in need of a subtitle. Thirty-seven
pages of notes and references are assembled
in the penultimate section. An adequate
name index is provided, but there is no
index of subjects.
Eighteen illustrations based on black
and white photographs by Francesca Woodman
have been nicely placed, each one preceding
a new section. They are variously ephemeral,
enigmatic, or energetic, and constitute
an attractive visual feature, but on first
riffle they do not seem much related to
camouflage (either the traditional or
the present authors definition).
Leach claims that the photographs "capture
very precisely the main theme of the bookthe
desire in human beings to identify with
and become part of their surroundings."
Neil Leach is the author, editor, or translator
of more than a dozen books and has taught
at a number of institutions. According
to The MIT Press, his research "focuses
on the interface between architectural
theory and contemporary debates within
continental philosophy and cultural theory."
1. Arnold, W.N. Leonardo (The MIT
Press), volume 36, number 1, February
2003, pp. 83-83.
2. Levy, J. Memoir of an Art Gallery.
New York: Putnams Sons, 1977.