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From Le Corbusier’s stark white walls to Gertrude Stein’s stripped sentences, Modernism is known for its minimalism, its turn toward de-ornamentation. The ornament, however, did not disappear; it continues to assert its presence in high Modernist works and to insinuate its intimacy with vocabularies and thoughts about race, gender, the human, and the synthetic in the first half of the twentieth century. The correlation between detail and decadence, heralded at the birth of Euro-American Modernism by men as diverse as Adolf Loos and Henry David Thoreau, is in fact a very ancient one. It has also been observed that the association between detail and decadence is highly gendered (Schor 2007, Wigley 2001). What has been less noted are the ways in which the lasting debate about the detail also encompasses an enduring discourse about racial difference. For men such as Loos, Thoreau, and others, the call for de-ornamentation is never simply a matter of style. In his 1854 essay “Economy, " Thoreau was already espousing the moral values of a modern life built on stringent simplicity. For him, ornamentation and material excess represent the lures of “childish and savage tastes” and of “savage nations” (Thoreau 2003: 56-7). In 1908, Loos wrote his famous treatise “Ornament and Crime” which ushered in modern architectural theory by dismissing the ornamental detail as regressive, even criminal (Loos 1985). According to him, as men mature and evolve, they must also learn to relinquish the regressive pleasures of ornamentation. We will see incarnations of this idealization of the pure surface again and again: in J.C. Flügel’s conceptualization of modern men’s fashion; in Le Corbusier’s Law of Ripolin; and in our own sleek laptops today. Essays such as “Economy” and “Ornament and Crime” thus pave the way for a long trajectory of Modernist preoccupation with the ideal of a clean and de-ornamented surface. This discourse of modern, aesthetic simplicity, moreover, produces an enduring nexus of metonymic meanings whereby purity, cleanliness, simplicity, anonymity, masculinity, civilization, technology, and intellectual abstraction are set off against notions of excessive adornment, inarticulate sensuality, femininity, and backwardness. This renunciation of style is, however, also itself a style and one that is particularly thick, if not downright haunted. As I have argued elsewhere, when we take a closer look at Loos’s theoretical writings, as well as his architectural designs, we find Loos’s unadorned surfaces to be crowded with or busily inscribed by what Judith Butler calls the “uninhabitable zone of the other” (Cheng 2011a: 23-34). We can see this tension most visibly in his conceptualization of the architectural façade itself. In his other seminal essay, “The Principle of Cladding” (1898), Loos famously attributes the foundation of architecture not to solid material, as might be expected, but to mobile surfaces: primitive fabric or skin. There, contrary to his usual allergic response to anything primitive, he prioritizes what he calls “cladding” (Bekleidung), the oldest and most primal of architectural details. Thus the origin of architecture for him lies in a very primitive notion of covering. Suddenly, the supposed distinction between unnecessary, regressive, and ornamental covering and essential, foundational, and formative cladding begins to blur. This paradox explains why this master of masculinist de-ornamentation would also be known for producing what was also called an “architecture of the womb” (Quetglas i Riusech 1992: 92). I might add that we can detect a similar paradox in “Economy, " where Thoreau shows an almost compulsive penchant to express his principles of reduction through the form-one might say, the rhetorical ornament-of detailed and space-occupying itemized lists. In short, even as the moderns decry the ornamental detail, they remain attached to its invitations, and profound contradictions underlie modern aesthetic theories about de-ornamentation. This paradox holds implications for, and is implicated by, the two grand racial discourses that emerged out of the nineteenth century and inherited by Modernism: Primitivism and Orientalism. Both utilize the trope of the surface-and in particular, human skin-as the foundational idiom of their rhetoric. The discourse of Primitivism tends to speak in the vocabulary of regressive nakedness, while the discourse of Orientalism often speaks in the language of sartorial intemperance. It is through Orientalism that we most readily discern that lasting connection between detail and decadence. From Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours (1884) to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), the long nineteenth century repeatedly iterates an associative link among aesthetic detail, femininity, debauchery, death, and the “oriental.” In this sense, the birth of the popular character Dr. Fu Manchu (1913) with his anachronistically ancient “Chinese dress” and his long nails stands as an extension of this enduring association among Asianness, criminality, effeminity, and excessive decoration. The eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Euro-American craze for chinoiserie offers yet another example of this equation between orientalized subjects and aesthetic/ commodifiable objects. And, indeed, who served more ubiquitously as the synecdoche for the ornament itself than the “Oriental woman”? She is ornament (see Figure 26.1). This aesthetic equation between the Asian woman and decoration was repeatedly displayed, in literature, art, and Victorian pseudo-ethnography. Afong Moy, also known as “The Chinese Lady, " was brought to the United States between 1834 and 1847 by the Carne Brothers as an exotic, touring attraction, much in the tradition of Sarah Baartman, the Venus Hottentot. But unlike Baartman who was spectacularized for her naked body, “The Chinese Lady” was fully and fussily dressed. Her presentation often relies on a mise-en-scène that equates architectural embellishments (excessive covers, drapes, and clothes) with the “Oriental” woman’s own overrefined and hence decadent body. Her body in repose becomes a tableau vivant, an object among object. Her interiority is thus offered as exteriority itself-indeed, as textile.1.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781317698418
ISBN (Print)9780415642484
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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