PoMo, Collage and Citation. Notes Toward an Etiology of Chunkiness


Publication History:

“PoMo, Collage and Citation.  Notes Towards an Etiology of Chunkiness.” AD 269 (2021): 18-25 

The text posted here is an earlier draft and it is significantly different from the published version. Please only cite from copy in print

We can make things by taking a chunk of solid matter, as found, then removing matter from it as needed, until we get to the shape we had in mind; or we can proceed the opposite way, by picking and choosing a number of smaller chunks, either found or made, and adding them to one another, somehow, until we get to a bigger chunk.  When we make stuff the additive way, the smaller chunks, parts, or ingredients we mix and match may either show in the final product, or they may merge in a single, uniform block.  In the latter case, we end up with a monolith—although an artificial, not a natural one in this instance.  In the former case, we have a heteroclite (in the etymological, not in the current sense of the term): a whole that is made of discernible, discrete, or separate parts.

In classical antiquity art was an imitation of nature.  As nature often produces monoliths (example: a big boulder), while purposeful heteroclites are generally the result, hence the sign, of human laboriousness (example: a dry stone wall), classical artists aimed at merging the parts of their composition in a single, uniform, smooth and homogeneous whole—as smooth as if made by nature itself.  This principle is somewhat covertly implied in one of the most influential topoi (anecdotes, legends, or parables) of classical art—one of those apparently dumb little stories that the Greeks and Romans often used in lieu of a fully-fledged theory of what we now call the visual arts.  This is the story, as told, among others, by Cicero and Pliny: the famed Zeuxis, the best-paid painter of his time, was invited to a town in what would now be southern Italy to paint a picture of a goddess.  In search of inspiration he asked to see some examples of local beauties.  The town elders sent him a selected group of handsome young men.  Zeuxis protested, and he was then allowed to see some girls, but finding none quite to his taste, he retained five of them as models.  His painting merged features taken from all five, and it met with great success—hence the lasting popularity of the anecdote.  From the point of view of art theory however, and even of the theory of human knowledge, this seemingly innocent tale conceals a number of major theoretical conundrums, and the technicalities of Zeuxis’s mode of artistic operation—the parsing, selection, and the reassembly of parts coming from many models—have invited a never-ending stream of theories and speculations.  Evidently, the artist would not have limited himself in this instance to just cutting and pasting a number of pieces, as in a jigsaw puzzle; he would most likely have had to rework, modify, and adapt some of the parts somehow, in order to make them fit in and blend with one another.  Hence the question: how much of Zeuxis’s operation was what we could call today a collage, and how much of it would have been some looser form of imitation—the work of a talented artist only vaguely and distantly inspired by some of his models, or sources?  Could people look at his finished painting and tell: see, these are Emily’s eyes, Peggy’s nose, and Nancy’s lips?  Or did he blend all of his sources in one transfigured, truly supernatural composition, where one would say: see, there is a certain something in this portrait that reminds me of Emily, and of Peggy, and of Nancy, but it’s hard to tell what, precisely, comes from each?  This is where, in classical theory, art would have equalled nature, because this is the way nature works: this is the way a father looks similar to his biological son.


The Modern Chunkiness of Mechanical Modularity

This “organic” mode of composition, aiming at what we would now call design unity, and seen in classical antiquity and then again by many Renaissance Humanists as closer to nature’s own processes, would be challenged by the early modern rise of the technical logic of mechanical making.  Modern mechanical making typically uses casts, dies, mold, stamps, or other kinds of mechanical matrixes to reproduce identical copies; as each matrix costs money, it makes sense to use it many times, to spread its costs over many copies; the more copies are made, the cheaper each copy will be.  A typical design strategy to maximize economies of scale in a mechanical production workflow consists in using the same modular components in many different products, thus making more different products out of fewer, mass-produced identical parts.  This is why the same headlamps or dashboards are used in many different models and makes of automobiles, for example.  The iron logic of industrial modularity must have been evident from the earliest days of mechanical reproductions, but printed books, in particular—the earliest item of mechanical mass-production in the West—brought about a new perception of the modularity of artistic creation (hence a new appreciation of chunky art) due to a slightly more circuitous set of reasons.

Reviving classical Latin—Cicero’s Latin in particular—had long been a core project of early modern Humanism.  Around the time when Columbus discovered America a Renaissance Humanist, everywhere in Europe, was in the first instance a specialist in the imitation of Cicero—someone who could write in Latin as well as Cicero once did, and in the same style; to recall and reuse Cicero’s words and expressions in their own writing Humanists often ended up learning Cicero’s texts by heart.  Then books, always rare and expensive, were suddenly made cheap and ubiquitous by the new technology of print, and scholars soon realized that they could easily keep the entire Ciceronian corpus on their desktops to consult at will.  Printed indexes, thesauri, and the alphabetical or thematic sorting of content made textual searches and information retrieval easier than ever before.  As a result, citing and quoting, cutting and pasting (sometimes literally) from such easily available sources became pervasive and even fashionable; and with that, the notion that every new text could be composed as the semi-automatic assemblage of prefabricated (or, indeed, pre-written) textual fragments, or a mosaic (the technical term of the time was a cento) of ready-made citations.  Early in the 16th century the elegant humanist Erasmus even wrote a perfidious—and, at the time, hugely popular—pamphlet against the new fad of cut-and-paste composition.  To no avail: citationist writing kept spreading, and soon some even started to theorize it.  Prominent among these, the Neo-Platonist polymath Giulio Camillo (also known at the time for his talents as a lion tamer) built his mysterious Memory Theatre as a mechanical tool meant to facilitate the disassembly and recomposition of Cicero’s writings.  In Camillo’s theory, every new text is a collage of older textual chunks—in that instance, each and all carefully and exclusively excerpted from the corpus of Cicero’s original writings; but the principle was so widely applicable that it could be easily extended to other contexts and contents.

And it was.  Camillo’s interest in architectural theory is documented; he was also a friend of Sebastiano Serlio.  As Camillo explained in a long lost manuscript (found and published only in 1983) the analogy between the architect’s job, and the writer’s, is self-evident: humanist writers, like him, wanted to use Cicero’s language to express new ideas; humanist architects, like Serlio, wanted to use the language of classical architecture to build new buildings; therefore, the programme being the same, architects and writers could use the same rules to play the same game.  When translated into architectural terms, Camillo’s cut-and-paste, or citationist method meant: establishing a corpus of chosen monuments of classical antiquity; breaking them up into smaller chunks, cut into sizes fit for combining with others in new compositions; last, compiling and publishing a catalogue of ready-made parts complete with the instructions needed for their assembly—as in an IKEA kit today.  Strange as it may appear today, this is exactly what Serlio did, starting in 1537.  His multi-volume, multi-instalment treatise in print, which was for long hugely influential, particularly in Northern Europe and in Protestant countries, did not contain actual spolia from old buildings, but it featured a long list of virtual modular chunks, duly sorted according to a sophisticated arborescent hierarchy, each drawn in plan, elevations, and section, together with sets of rules for the redesign of each chunk at different scales and in different contexts if needed.  These rules did allow for some leeway and occasional alterations in the design of each part, but a drawing (and a building) made by the montage of many chunks is bound to look chunky.  Serlio unapologetically acknowledged that, proudly showing off—sometimes even emphasizing—the whacky chunkiness of his designs as way to call attention to the unusual spirit and very untimely ambition of his programme.  For his was a deliberately mechanical design method, meant to teach the basics of good architecture to all and sundry; meant to turn design into a professional, socially responsible, run-of-the-mill technical operation.  Not surprisingly, Serlio never had good press—and remains to this day unpopular among design scholars (whereas Michelangelo’s coeval and at times even more obnoxious architectural chunkiness has often been more generously appraised).  But through Serlio’s work, and partly as a side effect of his notoriety as a philistine avant-la-lettre, architectural chunkiness earned an early and equally unpalatable, albeit at the start mostly subliminal reputation as the outward and visible sign of a mechanistic view of the world—the view of a modern world that was then barely dawning.

Such mechanical connotations became inescapable when, a few centuries later, modernist art started to tackle, critique, and question the technical logic of industrial mass-production.  Braque’s, Picasso’s, and Gris’s collages were assemblages of printed (or stenciled) typographical characters, of mechanically printed wallpaper, or of actual newspaper pages; Duchamp’s ready-mades were montages of standard items of mass-production: bicycle wheels, snow shovels, bottle racks.  To make a long story short, throughout the 20th century assemblage, montage, collage, cut-and-paste, and citation were primary attributes of the machine-made environment, as well as pertinently seen as such when used as artistic devices.  Chunkiness in the arts stood for industrial modernity, because industrial mass-production, assembly-line modularity and standardization tend to generate chunky stuff.  Each fabricated part can of course be as streamlined as needed, but the technical logic of mechanical assembly still requires that separate chunks, no matter how smooth, be joined together in a heteroclitic, hence chunky whole.


The Post-Modern Chunkiness of Historicist Citation, Fragmentation, and Intertextuality

Fast forward to the end of modernity—and to the post-modern turn of the late 1970s.  Given the state of affairs I just described, collage and citation should have been, back then, unlikely candidates for PoMo adoption.  If you are a PoMo militant in, say, 1978, why would you care for a set of stylistic signifiers and compositional devices that were then universally seen as staples and icons of modernity—i.e. of your own chosen enemy?  Yet, as we now know, PoMos of all ilk soon embraced citationist chunkiness without any reservations, and apparently oblivious to the modernist lineage and credentials of mechanical collaging, gluing, and pasting.  This unexpected development was mostly due to one book and to the influence of one of its two authors.  Colin Rowe had began his career by claiming that, some four centuries apart, Palladio and Le Corbusier were in fact up to the same thing—one in plan the other in elevation. One generation later, the anti-modernist crusade of Colin Rowe scored another home run.  The core argument of his Collage City (1978, with Fred Koetter) was that architects had been led astray by their faith in technology and science or, in other cases, by their subservience to popular taste.  As an antidote to both fallacies Rowe suggests that architects should re-establish “a sceptical distance from big visions of social deliverance”[1], i.e. architects should abandon all hope and ambition of doing something good for the rest of the world.  As practical means to that end, Rowe offers two models: collision city, the city of bricolage, of which the archetype is Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli; and collage city, the city as a museum, of which Rowe’s best example is Biedermeier or Restoration Munich (the historicist city of von Klenze and von Gärtner); Rowe’s second choice was, oddly, the little town of Novara in Piedmont.  Both collision city and collage city, as their names suggest, are assemblages of disjointed fragments—i.e. they are seen as the result of relatively uncoordinated additive processes, in the absence of a unified urban design; in the case of collage city, the fragments are citations—and in the case of Munich, verbatim replicas—of monuments from different periods of architectural history, mostly referring to the classical tradition (and it may as well be that British-born Rowe, 1920-1999, did not know any other).

So there you go: in a few pages, thanks to Rowe’s droning and often vapid, wordy prose, Braque’s and Picasso’s modernist collage was turned into a formal game of linguistic reference to the history of European classicism; and chunkiness and disjointedness, often the sign of the belligerent or antagonistic attitude of so many activist avant-gardes in the visual arts, became the signe identitaire, and the rallying cry, of a new wave of architects whose main project was to have none.  To be noted, Rowe was not alone in plotting that chart back then, and in many ways his collage urbanism was very much in the spirit of the time: the itinerary of the architectural collage, from modernist modularity to historicist citation, is parallel and similar to the coeval drift of the critical notion of intertextuality, born as an technical offshoot of modern structural linguistics with Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but which would soon thereafter come to mean something akin to a theory of endless textual referentiality—a game of mirrors whereby, via citations or allusions, a text deliberately refers to another, and then to another, ad libitum and to the detriment of denotative meaning.  So for example Jean-Luc Godard’s references to the history of cinema and to film theory in his nouvelle vague masterpieces of the early 1960s were meant to hone cinema’s power as a militant art of the index; Quentin Tarantino’s game of citations in Pulp Fiction, to quote a famous line from the movie itself, “doesn’t mean a thing” (Butch’s actual line to Esmeralda Villa Lobos in episode 5 of the movie cannot be quoted verbatim).  Pulp Fiction has no message at all.  It does not convey any urgent “vision of social deliverance.”  It is a post-modern movie.

For all Colin Rowe’s formidable and lasting influence, most notably in American academia, the spectacular rise of post-modern design in the late 70s—particularly in Europe—was primarily driven by the writings and ideas of Charles Jencks.  Collage and citation, whether of the historicist kind or not, had no role in Jencks’s theories of post-modernity.  Sure, some of the buildings he championed, starting with his seminal Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977) looked conspicuously chunky, yet Jencks does not appear to have devoted any attention to chunkiness as a critical or stylistic category.  For Jencks, unlike Rowe, did have a “vision of social deliverance.”  Jencks’s mission was to liberate humankind from the shackles of industrial, mechanical mass-production.  Jencks always saw architecture as a means, not as an end in itself; his post-modernism always had a strong, and very modern messianic component.  This is why Jencks soon realized that the best way to advance his PoMo project was to spring forward, by means of technical change—not to fall backward, by dint of chunky fragments and historicist collage.  But the part of the story that would follow from there is already well known. 


[1] Colin Rowe, Fred Koetter, Collage City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1983), 143 (first published 1978).


AD 269


“PoMo, Collage and Citation.  Notes Towards an Etiology of Chunkiness.” AD 269 (2021): 18-25