Day By Day

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Totalitarian Temptation in Modernism

Terrific article by Terry Teachout in the WSJ on Buckminster Fuller and the totalitarian temptation in modernism.
Was modernism totalitarian? That's coming at it a bit high, but it's true that more than a few top-tier modernists were also one-size-fits-all system-mongers who thought the world would be improved if it were rebuilt from top to bottom -- so long as they got to draw up the plans. Just as Arnold Schoenberg wanted to scrap traditional harmony in favor of his 12-tone system of musical composition, so did Le Corbusier long to demolish the heart of Paris and turn it into an ultraefficient "machine for living" dominated by cookie-cutter high-rise apartment towers. So what if the rest of the world liked things the way they were? Send in the bulldozers anyway!
Read the whole thing here. Teachout has put his finger on the great sin of the Twentieth Century, the hubristic notion that credentialed experts had not only the right, but the duty to run other peoples' lives, because that was the path to utopia. It's not surprising that intellectuals and artists should adopt such self-serving foolishness, but it is absolutely terrifying that so many people acquiesced to it.

Donald, over at Two Blowhards reacts to TT's article.
[I]t might be almost a given that bright people with well-articulated worldviews and idea systems have a greater than average tendency to want to see to it that the rest of the world buys into their positions. I have to conclude that it's one more aspect of human nature and that, fortunately, most such people are tucked away in academia where the damage they do tends to be minimized compared to what it would be if they were, say, politicians.
Read the whole thing here.

This relates to my own argument, oft expressed here and elsewhere, that academia is in essence a playground wherein adolescents are encouraged to engage in what Jacques Barzun calls "intellectual play". That is, to take ideas and play with them, testing and torturing them, linking them up to see what emerges, etc. The point is that academia is a fantasy environment, sheltered from the exigencies of real life, where there is a strong incentive toward irresponsible thought and action. Because of its fundamental irresponsibility, the boundary between academia and the outside world should be at best semipermeable. The sillyness should be contained lest it spread into areas where real damage could result.

This is why I am strongly opposed to the romantic notion of the public intellectual. Such people should be walled off from society rather than imposed upon it.