Irene Cheng’s “The Racial Geometry of the Nation: Thomas Jefferson’s Grids and Octagons” is indicative of the wokeist/Postmodernist plight of academic scholarship today vis-à-vis Thomas Jefferson. There is a smoothness to the essay and a structure, and there are sprinkled in several “technical” terms to give the essay quasi-intellectual feel.

Yet that is on the level of “feel.” Careful critical analysis of the paper—something anathema to Postmodernists—shows that the thesis is merely promulgated without warrant. There is no discernible argument.

Jefferson’s love of geometry, Cheng asserts, is instanced through his tendency to use grids and octagons in his thinking on material projects. She then works backward to show—surprise, surprise!—his grids and octagons are perfect illustrations of Jefferson’s racism.

With respect to grids, Jefferson, led by his Republican (liberal) political vision, saw the vast lands of America to be distributed relatively equally among Americans. Jefferson saw “America as a spatially extensive republic in which property would be widely distributed rather than concentrated in a few hands.” He lobbied for 50 acres of Virginian land to be distributed to all men. He also pushed for legislative reforms: e.g., riddance of entails and of primogeniture. Also, his political vision entailed subdivision of acquired lands for citizens. Adds Chen, “The grid was an ideal spatial device for accomplishing Jefferson’s goal of subdivision, since the square section could be (and was) divided recursively into 160, 80, or 40-acre lots over the course of the nineteenth century.”

To facilitate subdividing, Jefferson employed grids. “The grid’s self-similarity also made it a perfect figure of Euro-American imperial expansion. … Infinitely expandable, the Land Ordinance grid was a crucial spatial device for converting lands from a Native American property regime based on communal ownership to European-American system of private property over the course of the nineteenth century. In the process, the homogeneous grid cultivated racial homogeneity as well: Imperial expansion would be [sic; why the use of the subjunctive?] compatible with racial exclusion.” All the benefits of Jeffersonian liberalism were to be only for Whites.

If we follow the “logic,” the grid was the perfect tool for subdivision. Yet since Jefferson enjoyed a Euro-American, liberal perspective of property, his grids were to be used only for (mis)appropriation of property, held communally by Natives, for the good of Whites, and only for the good of Whites. And so, grids were evil inasmuch as they were appropriated by acquisitive, esurient Euro-Americans, covetous of owning as much property and as many things as they could steal.

Yet there is another dimension to Cheng’s argument. It seems, by implication, to rule out all others than Whites. Why? Since grids are homogenous—and that is the best way to take her queer claim “the homogeneous grid cultivated racial homogeneity”—their use in parsing out American land must be racially homogenous: viz., in the service of one and only one race. Thus, if Whites are using grids, other races, for some reason inexplicable, cannot. QED!

Cheng thus sums: “The grid was the overdetermined spatial device singularly capable of embodying and helping to realize Jefferson’s utopian vision. With its associations with Enlightenment rationality, Anglo-Saxon ‘hundreds,’ territorial expansion, and recursive property division, the land ordinance grid melded equality, exclusion, and erasure into one tangible figure.”

What does Cheng mean by “overdetermined spatial device”? In analytic philosophy, “overdetermination” has a precise meaning. An event is overdetermined if it has at least two sufficient causes. For instance, a prisoner’s death is overdetermined if he has his head lopped off at the exact time that the rest of his body is crushed by a bulldozer. Yet Cheng’s Jeffersonian grid is “overdetermined” because it is multifunctional: it embodies Jefferson’s utopian vision and it helps to actuate that vision, or, in other words, it is both a cause (sufficient or probabilistic?) of liberalism and the effect of liberalism. How that occurs she fails to explain.

We turn next to octagons. “If the grid was Jefferson’s designated figure for shaping the polity at a territorial scale, the octagon was his spatial device for forming, and expressing, the mind of the nation’s constituent liberal citizens.” Here too Cheng might misleadingly say that octagons are “overdetermined”—i.e., multifunctional or both causes and effects of liberalism. Octagons are expressions of the minds of covetous liberal citizens and they also shape those minds.

Just what is it about octagons that make them symbols of liberalism as well as “agents” of liberalism–again both a cause and effect of liberalism?

She begins, “As an architect, Jefferson was obsessed with octagons.” And yet, “rather than positively identifying Jefferson’s motivations, my task here is to try to understand the overdetermined [sic] meanings that octagonal geometry held for both Jefferson and other Americans—in other words, to understand Jefferson’s octagons as cultural artifacts.” Here again we confront that versatile notion of overdetermination–a term she employs loosely, when “ambiguous” would seem to fit nicely.

“Sifting through Jefferson’s likeliest sources reveals that the octagons had multiple valences [possible connotations or denotations?], each entailing a distinct understanding of the human subject and its relation to architecture.” Those “valences”—here another strange choice of a term, which is grounded in physics but has a derivative meaning in linguistics (and Cheng’s use is here is not traceable to either!)—are “ideal Platonic bodies,” “faith in geometry as the ultimate form of reason,” and a “Sensationalist interest in how certain figures could influence sight and sound.” She adds, “together, these overdetermined sources produced a sense of the house as both representation and shaper of an ideal subject—specifically, a liberal subject. By liberal subject, I mean the autonomous, private, property-bearing, ‘free’ man conjured by political theorists like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and invoked in Jefferson’s writings.” Jefferson, like Locke and Rousseau, had in mind the “freehold farmer, [who] was always conceived as white and male and, as we saw above, comprised [sic] the foundation and end of the republic—the man who could ‘administer’ ‘with his own eye’ a piece of land.” She sums, “For Jefferson, the house—and particularly, the octagonal house—was a tool to both represent and produce the liberal subject,” and “liberal,” thinks Cheng, entails only Whites.

Still Jefferson’s use of octagons is unique. To demonstrate that, Cheng takes us to John Adams. “To see the uniqueness of Jefferson’s approach to octagonal forms, it may be useful to compare his view with that of John Adams, who likewise betrayed a fascination with eight-sided rooms and described their special properties in visual terms.” While Jefferson qua architect “was engaged in literally producing an optical field,” Adams viewed octagons metaphorically. She continues her expiscation:

In his book Defence of Constitutions, Adams wrote that Americans should regard the history of Greece as a kind of “boudoir”—which he explained as “an octagonal apartment,” mirrored on every side, a form that was found in European houses.” Elsewhere, Adams described the Defence itself as an “American boudoir” that would allow the newly formed American states to “see themselves … in every possible light, attitude and movement. They may see all their beauties and all their deformities.” These passages from Adams lend further evidence for the argument that octagonal architecture was associated with visual effects productive of liberal subjectivity in early-nineteenth-century America. Only for Adams, instead of enabling the vision of a sovereign subject outward, octagons produced a reflected gaze, enabling introspection and self-understanding. This capacity for self-reflection is one of the constitutive fictions of Enlightenment liberalism: Only subjects capable of self-knowledge are competent to engage in self-government, consent, and dissent. Yet whereas Adams used the octagon room as a metaphor for self-inspection (albeit based presumably on actual octagon rooms that he had seen or heard about), Jefferson the architect believed that eight-sided architectural forms could literally and materially produce specific effects on sentient subjects—by enabling a simultaneous enjoyment of retreat and visual surveillance.

This is a strange argument, if it is indeed an argument. That we should come to grasp Jefferson’s notion of octagon by expiscation of Adams’ metaphorical view of them is indeed queer for two reasons. First, it is impossible to show that something of a kind is unique of its kind by comparing it to one other thing of its kind: here, Jefferson’s use of octagons and Adams’ use of them. Second, she has readers try to grasp Jefferson’s conception of octagons by fully explicating Adams’ conception, while saying next to nothing about Jefferson’s. That is like trying to explain to someone, who is ignorant of puffins, what a puffin is by explaining to him what an aardvark is. The only relevant sentence is the last: Octagonal structures for Jefferson led to enjoyment of retreat (privacy) and allowed for visual surveillance. In short, one can hide and one can spy on others in octagonal structures—the last Cheng calls “visual dominion over their properties.” Why that is not true of other geometrically structured buildings is unclear.

Hence, “Jefferson became aware of yet another visual dynamic produced by the octagon that we can relate to the production of liberal subjectivity: the defining of private and public domains.” She justifies that by reference to Jürgen Habermas, the paladin of philosophical clarity, who maintains “that the separation of private and public spheres is a constituent feature of liberalism: the bourgeois public sphere relies on the prior demarcation of the conjugal family as a private domain.” She continues, “According to Habermas, it is in the intimate sphere of the family that bourgeois man is created—a private subject with a ‘saturated and free interiority.’” What is a “saturated and free interiority”? Whatever it is, it must be something wicked, filthily so, for “these privatized individuals then enter into the public sphere to rationally debate their previously constituted and known needs and desires,” and when that happens, there is social bedlam. Death to the bourgeois and long live the proletariat!

Cheng ends by noting Jefferson’s many references to “public” and “private” in his writings. “In republican theory, politics was a temporary duty, to be followed by retreat to one’s private life.” For Jefferson, the private life came first, and Cheng appeals to Joyce Appleby for proof of that. That, of course, is much easier than combing Jefferson’s writings.

She sums. Grids were prime tools for appropriation of Indians’ lands held in common. Privatization of property is one of the bedrocks of capitalism—”a reminder that Jefferson’s agrarian republicanism was dependent on a seemingly insatiable imperial expansion that relied on the expropriation of Indian lands and erasure of Indian systems of land tenure.” While the grid, aiming to an equitable distribution of property seemed good—the diffusion of wealth and power from the few to the many—”the grid’s promise of equality was never truly universal,” because the new propertied were only to be white farmers.

And so, Jefferson’s chauvinism is evidenced by his use of octagons in architecture. “The geometry of these designs evoked older humanist analogies to the harmonies of the human body and cosmos, the Enlightenment idealization of reason, and sensationalist aesthetic principles—all of which affirmed an ideal, sovereign subject,” exclusively white and male. She ends: “The imagined inhabitant of these houses was implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—rational, free, white, and male. Ensconced in his private abode, able to survey the surrounding landscape, this inhabitant was the master of his property, his individual square of the Jeffersonian grid.” In the decades after Jefferson’s death, “the liberal, individualist, and racially-exclusive [sic] valences of the grid and octagon would become ascendant over their more radical, egalitarian, and democratic potentialities.” In short, the grids’ and octagons’ promises of equality and liberty would become empty: subordinate to Whites’ lust for power.

The essay overall is a train wreck. Cheng’s persistent use of metaphors (e.g., reflected gaze, optical field, and overdetermined spatial device, and the melding of equality, exclusion, and erasure into some concrete figure), her sloppy, imprecise use of language (e.g., overdetermination, liberal subjectivity, and valence), and the overall illogicity of her overall argument (more precisely, her wandering train of thought; quite Kerouackian) is typical of the nonsense that passes for scholarship in Postmodernist “discourse.” When scholars are not taken to task for wholesale neglect of clarity of expression, the result is tohubohu—that is, bedlam.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “The essay overall is a train wreck.”
    These seven words sound like a perfect summary of Cheng’s essay—though I have not read it (And do not intend to. I would sooner have rabies).
    Both of my grandmothers were college-educated circa 1900-1910. My maternal grandmother was a writer, poet, pianist, and teacher of music to students at The Mississippi School for the Blind. She was a grand Southern lady. When I see writings such as Cheng’s, described above in your review, and the glorification by modern “Wokesters” (whatever the hell that means) of such academic monstrosities, I thank God for putting me and others at the knee of the ladies of my family who were educated, without political glorification, and shared their scholarship with others using simplicity and truth.
    Good effort, Dr. HolowChak. Thanks.

  • Pete Hale says:

    Whoever can take someone’s hobby and apply racism to it needs their head examined and to get some sunshine.

  • Mike M says:

    The whole essay is nothing but a fancy way of saying, “I hate Thomas Jefferson because he was a white man and because intellectually and mentally I don’t even come up to the bottom of his boots.” Of course for Cheng to admit that would require a level of moral and intellectual honesty that no liberal will ever possess.

    • Dr. Mark Andrew Holowchak says:

      Well, Mike, she has probably won numerous awards for the essay and been promoted to dean by now….

  • Dr. Mark A. Holowchak says:

    That’s what gets published today. Sorry, but I forgot to put the various pronouns I use next to my name: he, him, her, she, it, android, sexually confused, etc.

  • Joseph Wolfersberger says:

    These people are racist to the core. They say non-whites are not capable of understanding math , punctuality, speaking clearly/well educated (note I don’t say properly. I love the dialectical variety and different accents) and so on.

    They see non white as “less-than” who need guidance for the smarter more educated experts.. Eugenics anyone? They have to take care of their little brown and black brothers.

    And the term Freeholder, how is it racist? It is a person who owns land free and clear. ( New Jersey called their Board of County Commissioners ” Board of Chosen Freeholders”
    that had to be changed because it was racist. They haven’t yet changed the name of the Monmouth County seat from Freehold. But I’m sure it’s coming. Change the name to Commision! ) In colonial.times freeholder was limited to white,debt-free men’ only but that is no longer the case. Using that logic voter is racist too.

    These people who call everyone racist see every person they the lense of race. They are so obtuse and incapable of self reflection to see they are the very definition of racist

  • Kenneth Robbins says:

    I would ask someone on this blog to explain what is a racist, and what’s wrong with being one.

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      If you are White and want your children to look, believe and act as you do…you are a racist. If you are any other color of human and want the same thing, you are to be honored.

      harvard (not worthy of capitalization) has recently discovered thousands of free blacks fought voluntarily for the Confederacy…harvard also told us a few months ago thousands of their mega-donors suddenly and simultaneously stopped sending checks to their globoccultist indoctrination academy…it seems the mega-donors had been sending their money to harvard for a desired result…to attack White Christians…when the money was not used to this end, the funding vanished.

      • Kenneth Robbins says:

        Thank you for your reply to my questions. In my opinion you are very close to my understanding. White Americans and White Southerners in particular are most identified with Christianity. Racism is just an instrument of control. The goal of this term is to attack God.

        • William Quinton Platt III says:

          Yes sir. We are just the low-hanging fruit because of the indoctrination academies supported by public expenditure.

          It’s why you can read of the Crittendon Compromise in history books but not of the Corwin Amendment…it’s why no yankee writer has ever mentioned Corwin in the history of yankee propaganda.

          We live in a marvelous age…all of the lies are being revealed. Keep posting truth.

          God bless you and yours.


    • Dr. Mark Andrew Holowchak says:

      That is the problem–discretionary use of “racism” without properly defining the term. In my book, Rethinking Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Race and Slavery, I offer the following definition:

      Racism=df The prejudged notions that humanity is divided into distinct biological groups (i.e., races), that certain races are superior to others,
      and that any superior race is entitled to treat an inferior race as inferior or with contempt.

      NOte use of “prejudged” for it implies incapacity to change one’s mind if there is compelling evidence to do so.

      • Kenneth Robbins says:

        Racism, sexism, homophobia, no longer need to be defined. To be called by one of these terms places one in a defensive position. You have been charged and convicted, end of story. That is the reason they are used so much. Mankind is divided into groups, read the Holy Scriptures. What we really need to discuss is culture. Cultures are not equal and men are not equal. Do you believe that a culture of cannibals are equal to a Christian culture? Can i not be prejudice against the cannabal. Must i accept every culture as equal. Must i accept every man as an equal? Show me some compelling evidence to change my mind. I favor the Southern White Cultures above all others.

        • Matt C. says:

          As far as mankind and his groups, yes, God in Genesis instituted nationalism for the protection of the other 3 institutions He established: volition, marriage and the family. Nationalism was prodded again after the flood through Noah’s 3 sons. Then with the rebellion against God through internationalism at Babel, God let the nations go and made Israel. Through them, He will show what a nation will be like with God as their God. Of course, they failed; and any people would have (for all have sinned). He has redeemed them and Israel one day will be that light on the hill, after this pause of grace. I like the Southern culture, its men and women and history, however, when the Lord returns and establishes the millennium, all the nations of the earth, if they want blessing, are going to go to Jerusalem through the Jew. There might be a thriving Southern culture then, perhaps, I don’t know, but it needs to be realized that the future here on earth is Israel will be the head and all nations will be subordinate to them. Until that time? Well, just don’t neglect the Saviour and learn what the Lord is accomplishing now, in the heavens, before the prophetic program resumes.

      • William Quinton Platt III says:

        Races have differences…my favorite 1984/Brave New World example is the big, red bus called ONEBLOOD…as soon as you step foot into “ONEBLOOD BUS” they ask you , “WHAT IS YOUR BLOOD TYPE?”

        It’s this kind of insanity that has infected humanity since communists in Europe decided to create a new religion in 1848 and it’s a fact thousands of mega-donors simultaneously stopped sending money to harvard when money intended to attack White Christians was used for other matters.

        • William Quinton Platt III says:

          O negative is the universal donor…O negative is only found in Caucasians and closely-related Asians…it is not found on the continent of Africa south of the Sahara.

  • Matt C. says:

    Brother! I’m glad God’s word is not as complicated as all that (Cheng’s essay). Well, perhaps she can take solace in the fact that the Saviour is of the seed of Abraham and Isaac, Shem-ites. She too is a Shem-ite; probably not Jewish though, I’m guessing. Hopefully she has believed on that Saviour. And perhaps she can also take solace in the fact that Shem (the Hebrew) one day, on this earth, will be the head and not the tail. Japheth and Ham will, in that day, be subject to Shem (the Hebrew). Maybe that will make her happy if that is what she needs.

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