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by Neil Leach
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006
289 pp. Paper, $ 24.95
ISBN: 0-262-62200-9.

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 approach.

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. Leach’s 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 Leach’s 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 author’s definition). Leach claims that the photographs "capture very precisely the main theme of the book——the 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: Putnam’s Sons, 1977.



Updated 6 December 2006

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