Architecture and the Aesthetics of Totalitarianism

The arts, of all kinds, give us insights into how and what their creators think and feel–that is, to their worldview. In this story on some of the grandiose building projects of Venezuelan dictator wannabe Hugo Chavez, Charles Lane draws on some actual aesthetic scholarship to make some revealing points about “high modernism” and why that style has been so attractive to totalitarians:

Chávez acts on an ideology that anthropologist James C. Scott of Yale has called “high modernism.” In his brilliant 1998 book about the phenomenon, “Seeing Like a State,” Scott explored the peculiar mix of good intentions and megalomania that has driven one unchecked government after another to pursue the dream of a reconcentrated populace: “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

Central to high modernism is an aesthetic sense that prefers straight lines and right angles to the crooked pathways and sprawling gardens of spontaneous rural development. Nyerere, for example, was determined to give his East African country a landscape dotted with symmetrical “proper” villages, like those he had seen in England.

Architecturally and ecologically unsustainable, high modernist projects always collapse of their own weight sooner or later. As Scott writes, “the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities . . . that have failed their residents.” Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fit that assessment also, as visitors to Germany’s Eisenhuettenstadt, begun in the 1950s as Stalinstadt, can attest. Designated “the first socialist city on German soil” by East Germany’s Communists, it was plunked down next to an immense steel mill and commanded to thrive. Today, the depressed city is hemorrhaging residents.

Yet the high-modernist experiments continue — think of China’s Three Gorges Dam and the accompanying vast uprooting of villages. Fundamentally, they are not about economics. High modernism is the architecture of centralized political control. When people live scattered across the countryside or, in the case of Venezuela, clinging to the mountainsides around the capital, they’re relatively hard to govern in any fashion, let alone by authoritarian means. In government-built grids, Scott notes, they can be identified, counted, conscripted and monitored.

A Football Turning Point?

As one of the lucky few whose satellite package happened to include the NFL network, I stayed up late last night watching the epic confrontation between the Green Bay Packers (my team) and the Dallas Cowboys (America’s team). Though the Packers lost, 37-27, it was a thrilling game, and I realize I may have witnessed a historic turning point. Brett Favre, the Cal Ripken of football, went down with an arm injury early in the game. But his back-up, Aaron Rodgers, came on the field and did a brilliant job, throwing 11 straight pass completions including a touch-down and moving his team up and down the field with alacrity. The Packers came within two idiotic pass interference penalties (from injured Charles Woodson’s backup) from possibly winning the game. Though I hope very much that Favre comes back for the next game to keep his games-played streak alive and to take the Packers to the Superbowl and beyond, the torch may have been passed. And Rodgers didn’t drop it, bringing hope to the Packer nation.

Fuzzy Math

Instead of learning addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, are your kids doing math problems like these?:

A. If math were a color, it would be –, because –.
B. If it were a food, it would be –, because –.
C. If it were weather, it would be –, because –.

If so, they are learning fuzzy math. Read that linked article for how this postmodernist “constructivist” approach to mathematics has become such an educational fiasco. Try solving the above problems for “fuzzy math” (If fuzzy math were a food, it would be ___, because ___.)

Problems with the Laws of Physics

Thanks, Webmonk and others, for pointing out the howler in that article that alleges that scientific observation might destroy the universe: The scientist was quoted as denying that we was referring to causality, but the reporter ignored his own source and went on to assert causality all through the story! (Why didn’t I notice that?) Still, the truth remains that science is becoming far less materialistic, common-sensical, and reductionistic than it used to be.

Frank Sonnek points out a better article that illustrates that point, how the very concept of a scientific law is up for grabs. The writer says that the very notion that there are laws that govern nature derives from Christianity, which gave birth to modern science. He also gets tangled up himself, saying that we must not allow ourselves to invoke a divine providence, that we have to find a solution from within the system, even though that is proving impossible!

The Majority that Rules?

According to this report, 62% of Americans believe that it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that the government knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks but did nothing to stop them.

In the linked article, Richard Miniter debunks the “evidence” often cited, but this raises another issue. Democracy alone is not necessarily a good thing, if the majority that rules is ignorant, easily manipulated, or fanatic. Thank God that what we have–and what is needed in Iraq, among other places–is a constitutional republic, a rule of law, that checks and balances even democracy.


As I construct my new site for this blog, it’s time to work on the blogroll. Many of the blogs I listed on the old World site no longer exist or are no longer active. This is my chance to bring everything up to date.

In particular, I would like to list the blogs of people who regularly comment here on Cranach. That way, readers are intrigued, for example, by tODD’s combination of confessional Lutheranism with relatively liberal politics, or Lars Walker’s literary reflections, they could go to their blogs for more. Bruce has a new blog that I like to visit. (Then there is Frank Sonnek. We urgently need a blog from him!)

My software keeps track of sites that link here. If you have a blog and link to Cranach’s new address, I’ll know, and then I’ll link to you. Assuming, of course, your blog is appropriate.(Since this Cranach blog is at a new address,, it’s important that you update your link to it, just as I need to update my links to you.)

As you may know, the number of links a blog has affects how soon it comes up on Google and so attracts more readers. Let’s help each other out here.