After having evoked a very literal vision of camouflage yesterday (see the article), the book entitled Camouflage written by Neil Leach in 2006 and published by the MIT Press, proposes a more philosophical way to interpret such notion.
In this book, N.Leach interprets camouflage as a phenomenological survival strategy or masquerade that questions the notion of the “self” and the “other”. It can be said to be a sort of treatise of aesthetics in architecture, a value that after having being demonized currently comes back as a self-sustaining argument. N. Leache stands obviously out of those two “schools” and proposes a series of chapters referencing the depth of the aesthetical discourses by themes (mimesis, mimicry, becoming, death, narcissism, identity, paranoia, belonging, sacrifice, melancholia, ecstasy…). Each of those chapters are accompanied by beautiful photographs by Francesca Woodman of young women phenomenologically amalgamating their bodies with the building.
Neil Leach uses references from philosophy (Benjamin, Adorno, Deleuze, Caillois etc.), psychoanalysis (Freud, Lacan), gender studies (Butler), anthropology (Levi-Strauss), religion (St Teresa), botany (orchids), zoology (chameleons), literature (Bataille) and myth (Narcissus, Daedalius, Medusa etc.). One who would like to explore all those fields related by the erudite Leach would have to read the book (or listen to the course at USC attached at the very end of this article, but this is only an overview of the book) but here, I would like to copy the two first pages of the chapter “Sacrifice” that I find profoundly interesting (probably because that might be one the most “architectural” moments of this book):
In popular culture, several myths survive which associate human sacrifice with the construction of buildings. They tell the tale of the incarceration of human beings within the walls or foundations of buildings during the process of construction. Many of these myths emanate from Central and Eastern Europe. One of the most famous examples is “The Ballad of Master Manole and the Monastery of Arges.”
The ballad tells the tale of Master Manole and his nine masons, who agree to build “a high monastery, unequaled on earth” for the Black Prince. If they succeed they will be given gold and turned into noblemen, but if they fail they will be walled in alive in the foundations. The masons work away for four consecutive days, but each night the section of wall they have built the previous day collapses. The workmen are in despair, and the Black Prince threatens to carry out his promise. In a dream, however, Master Manole hears a voice from the sky: “All that is built will fall at night until we decide, all of us together, to wall in the wife or the sister who at dawn tomorrow will be the first to come bringing food to her husband or her brother.” Manole persuades the others to agree that whosoever appears first at dawn the next day will be walled in. Unfortunately for Manole, this proves to be his own wife, Ana. Manole catches sight of her from afar, and entreats the gods to send raging winds and torrents of rain to block her route. Although they accede to Manole’s request, there is nothing he can do to prevent her arriving.
The great masters, apprentices, and masons were glad when they saw her. But Manole sadly embraces his sweetheart, takes her in his arms, and climbs the scaffold. He set her on the wall and said to her, jestingly:
“Fear nothing, my dear one, for we are going to wall you in up here, but it is only in jest.”
Ana trusted him and laughed and blushed. And Manole sighed and began to raise the wall. The wall grew and buried her, up to the ankles, then to the calves. And she –poor thing!- stopped laughing and said:
“ Manole, Manole, stop your jesting now, for the jest is not good. Manole, Manole, Master Manole! The wall presses me too hard and breaks my little body!”
But Manole did not answer her and went on working, the wall rose even higher, burying her, up to the ankles, up to the calves, up to the ribs, up to the breasts. But she –poor thing!- went on weeping and speaking to him”
“Manole, Manole, Master Manole, the wall presses me too hard and crushes my breasts and breaks my child.”
Manole, in a fury, worked on. And the wall rose and covered her, up to the sides, up to the breasts, up to the lips, up to the eyes. And so the poor thing was seen no more: but they heard her still, speaking from the wall:
“Manole, Manole, the wall presses me too hard, and my life is failing.”
Once Ana has been walled in, the wall stands firm, and Manole and his masons manage to complete the monastery. But then the story takes a further twist. The Black Prince asks the masons if they can build him another one, even more splendid. In their pride, the workmen boast that they can build one “far more shining and far more beautiful.” The Prince listens and ponders. They had promised to build him a monastery “unequaled on earth,” yet now they claim to be able not only to equal it, but even to surpass it. In their own terms they have clearly broken their promise. Accordingly, the Prince has the scaffold torn down, and leaves the workmen stranded on the roof. And so the workmen, in a bid to escape, build themselves wings in the manner of Daedalus and Icarus. But as they leap down from the roof they crash to the ground, and are killed. And as Manole himself leaps, he hears a voice from the wall: “Maole, Manole, Master Manole, the wall presses me too hard and crushes my weeping breast and breaks my child and my life is failing.” He too is killed by his fall, and a spring then gushes up from the spot where he strikes the ground.
This chapter introduces perfectly an article that I will publish very soon and which implies a similar narrative. It also introduces a very expressive metaphor to my article Violence on the Body in which I was evoking (once again) my claim for which architecture carries inherently a violence against the body. The wife who keeps screaming her pain to feel the walls “breaking her body” is in effect, an evocative image of the wall’s power that a body with his bare energy cannot destroy despite what Michel Foucault was -unusually too quickly- thinking when he affirmed that only architecture’s appropriation can carry such violence, not its physicality itself.
The following photographs help us to develop a resistance toward such violence. By becoming wall, making one with architecture in an Architectural Body (notion borrowed to Arakawa and Madeline Gins), one actually implement what Leach calls in a pretty Darwinist way, strategies of survival.
(Leach Neil. Camouflage. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. p188-189)