Camouflage by Neil Leach; MIT Press, 2006. 289pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams  | 1 July 2006

After the Alan Sokal affair, cultural studies writers have been nervous of transgressing the boundaries between pretentious quackery and insightfulness. Reviewers too, tread cautiously for fear of humiliation. This is a pity, because such intellectual caution tends to obscure the rare occasions when a cultural studies’ book hits the nail on the head. Unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

The book deals with the way in which we see ourselves, and by reflection, how we see others. Leach asserts and reasserts one simple idea: that the masks that we hide behind in our everyday lives actually create who we are. We ‘become’ the pretence – the object of our imagination – and in so doing we affect those others hiding behind their own masks.

This mixture of assertion and a simple observation of the negotiations of everyday life becomes a mechanism for reconstituting the social self. ‘The role of camouflage is not to disguise,’ he says, ‘but to offer a medium through which to relate to one another.’

Like politicians, he is keen to reconstitute social capital as a means to create a sense of communality. Like politicians seeking to fill a void in the heart of society, Leach is trying to re-engage the dis-enaged simply by redefining disengagement as the new engagement. Leach seeks to convince us that the very problem of fragmentation can be recast as a force for cohesion. Such is illogicality of his task that he employs metaphysical justification rather than political ones.

He suggests ‘fostering a sense of connectivity between human beings and their environment’ willing them to ‘surrender’ to their surroundings. As such this book chimes with the religious fervour of our environmentalist times. In so doing, he demeans, or downplays, the human, conscious element of socialisation. ‘The surface masquerade may have a lasting impact on questions of identity,’ he says. ‘Far from denying any true sense of self beneath, it may actually contribute to a sense of self.’ Admittedly, as at any point in a dialectical proposition there is an element of truth, but his principle is overstated. Unfortunately, his lack of critical engagement leads him to celebrate the world of ‘appearances’ because it is, in his eyes, a progenitor of the human.

The book’s opening line is that ‘we human beings are governed by a chameleonlike urge to blend in with our surroundings.’ Leach uses the moral force of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno and many, many others to give this generality – which is as untrue as it is true – some intellectual weight. But he seldom engages in a real debate. He simply dismisses Lasch’s political concerns about the corrosive effect of contemporary narcissistic obsessions with personal health, well-being and faux-individualism preferring instead Marcuse’s more ‘positive’ model, which posits that only by recognising the self can one begin to see the potential for overcoming alienation.

Leach points out that architects reproduce and reflect their own aesthetic values through their designs, which, for Leach, symbolises a self-reinforcing act of creativity; a dialectical relationship between the production and consumption. He doesn’t countenance that reality doesn’t actually work this way. Instead, we have a descent into neo-Hegelian mystification, wallowing in the transcendent power of the ‘enchanted realm’ (those things external to the self).

By the end, he has reconstituted Science as a faith, Progress as primitive and narcissism as an ‘identification not with the self, but with the other… a continual process of broadening one’s horizons.’ By this sleight of hand, introspection is reinterpreted as public engagement. Black becomes white. And cultural studies still has a lot to answer for.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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