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Loosing the thread

Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Loos' Cultural Criticism By Janet Stewart. Routledge, 2000. 220pp. £19.99

This book about Loos'writings started life as a dissertation and it shows. At the beginning other writers on Loos are dismissed for not doing justice to one or another complexity. They are especially castigated for seeing Loos' writing in relation to his architecture, a fault the reader ends up wishing Janet Stewart shared.

Loos is one of the most slippery writers imaginab le , and in some par t of herse l f Stewar t knows th is .

Her overall characterisation of how his pieces work is that they display 'circular form founded on paradox'. I don't think 'circular' here means more than 'unstraightforward' and paradox also means. . .

unstraightforward. For a book about many short texts, this one one contains incredibly little detailed analysis or criticism. But the author quotes enough of Loos' words for the reader to realise that 'paradox' is inadequate to these utterances which contain more violent assaults on logic than that word can suggest.

I don't think Stewart realises how strange her chosen subject is. She calls his famous remark that any modern man with a tattoo not already in prison is either a latent criminal or a degenerate, 'tongue-in-cheek'. Elsewhere she elaborately points out that Kafka's America and Loos' are not the same.

Throughout the book she labours the obvious and stubs her toe on the most delightful aspects of the work.

Early in the book we are thrown into an enumeration of the folders in the Albertina's archive of Loos material, without a hint of what the contents might be or why we should be interested. Next comes a publication history of the two main collections of Loos' pieces, where we learn about variations in the order in which they are printed without learning whether the variation is significant, and if so, of what.At this point the content of Loos' writing has barely been referred to, let alone described.

Reading this book is like being dropped into a vat rather than taking part in a discussion. We can't blame the author for some of the obstructive forms of academic discourse which she did not invent, but you could use her book as a demonstration of how badly communication can misfire when the author talks to herself like this: 'The investigation is organised around the 'architectuality' and 'paratextuality' of his texts and lectures, where 'architectuality' describes the gestures towards genre demarcation contained in the set of categories which determine the nature of a text. . . .' People who like to understand what they read w ill need to translate this.

Nor can we blame Stewart for creating the jargon she uses: 'signifier' is always preferred to words like 'subject' or 'topic'. But her (old) buzzwords are borrowed clothing disguising an absence of fresh thought in the present. I do not think the author would relish her clear-headed, sharp-tongued subject casting his eye over this book.

Nonetheless, I learned something from Stewart's research. Loos apparently acted out the characters he described in his lectures, the nervous modern gent on the edge of his chair, the dancer picking up the charleston. He even gave dancing lessons and offered guided tours of his own interiors and key Viennese buildings. He lectured tailors' apprentices, loathed folk art and national costumes, and wanted to do away with the difference between city and country.

Some of Stewart's illustrations are evocative - the handmade chair with its maker's scrawled price information beneath, and the inflammatory posters for lectures, but not the pictures of the stuffy interiors in which they were delivered. She also re-awakens me to how invigorating he is. But I don't accept that he aims for consistency, so the idea that there are 'two competing models of fashion in Loos' analysis' is nonsense; there are far more than two, if you can tolerate the confusion, and analysis isn't the right word for his far from gentlemanly destructions.

Robert Harbison is professor at the University of Nor th London

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