The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Science   /   Fall 2016   /    Book Reviews

Goodbye to All That

Matthew Mutter

Agnes Martin, April 6, 1991, by Charles Rushton (b. 1943); © 2016 Charles Rushton/Art Resource, New York/ARS, New York.

What were the motives to so many vocational renunciations among writers, scholars, and artists?

What prompted Arthur Rimbaud and Agnes Martin to abandon their chosen art, Franz Kafka and Søren Kierkegaard to forsake bourgeois happiness, or William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein to disavow academic life? Such dramatic refusals are the subject of Ross Posnock’s extraordinary new book Renunciation. Although Posnock sets out to clarify the motives behind these puzzling vocational “renunciations,” his deeper aim is to rehabilitate an overlooked spiritual tradition embedded in our modern aesthetic and philosophical projects. Through a thick description of nearly three-dozen writers, artists, and philosophers, Posnock explores possibilities for an “immanent” spirituality compatible with modern secularity. This Zen-like spirituality does not depend on God and explicitly rejects any “dualistic” metaphysics; it erases all distinctions between higher and lower goods and values, or between this world and any better, transcendent one. Indeed, part of what must be “renounced” is our importunate metaphysical need for depth, stability, truth, and even “meaning.” Posnock’s subjects are attuned, rather, to the fullness (and, paradoxically, the “emptiness”) of what merely is. Their aspiration is to live and make art, in a phrase repeated throughout the book, “without a why.”

Although Renunciation is no polemic, it cultivates an active resistance to two intellectual enemies: scientism, which insists that all meaningful knowledge must conform to the procedures of empirical verification, and postmodernism, for which “linguistic determinism reigns as an article of faith.” For Posnock, both of these discourses are constrained by an obsession with “explanation,” which is ultimately a desire for mastery. The scientistic version of explanation assumes that we “know” an object when we have traced its material causes or constitutive elements; the postmodern version assumes that we understand a phenomenon when we recognize that we cannot “know” it at all, since it is merely an ideological effect of language. Posnock is therefore interested in writers and artists who renounce “explanation” in an effort to recover the authority of “experience,” which has been marginalized by these two discourses.

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