G is for Greatness

| March 6, 2014

A recent interview in The Atlantic with novelist Jennifer Percy (see percy article) and her decision to switch from a career in physics to writing in order to better understand and appreciate the world, got me (re)thinking of the conflict raised in class about scientific authority and the attendant aesthetic, epistemic, ontological, and political fallout.

If the scientific offense is to over-rationalize the world by converting it into ‘universal’ measurements, the Romantic offense is to over-sentimentalize it, converting it into private imaginative and emotional response. Here the problem of representation arises in both directions, resulting in opposite ways of mistaking the map for the territory. Whether the objectivity of the scientific account or the subjectivity of the poetic account, the object in question is lost to its representation, muzzled by contrasting anthropocentrisms.

Physicist Richard Feynman describes it from a scientist’s point of view:


The map-territory problem is not unique to chemists and poets. Mistaking representations for the things themselves is a core theme in the unraveling of modernism over the past century. Central to post-modern thought is the attempt to deal with scientific arrogance or Romantic innocence by asserting the map as fundamental to the human condition. We are always already our linguistic and cultural categories. If we are not muzzling ‘the other’ (Modernism), then we are putting words in its mouth (Romanticism). The post-modern agenda is to assert this epistemic limitation of being human, solving map-territory problems by dismissing any access to the territory outright.

For the purpose of argument, we might characterize Modernism, Romanticism and Post-Modernism as each professing some totalizing view of the world. Modernism and the reduction of the world to numbers and laws; Romanticism, to sentiment and imagination; and Post-Modernism to language and human construction. What happens when we seek residence in the borderlands, between these dichotomous territories? Is it possible to seek the purchase on the world offered by the analytical methods of science, yet remain an experiencing subject, capturing the insight of such analysis through emotional and imaginative response, while then translating that response into an aesthetic experience? – in the spirit of Latour’s ‘non-modern world’ and Rorty’s ‘literary culture’, a way out of Modernism while trying to avoid joining either of its rebellions.