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  • Enumerating Language:"The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics"1
  • Vicki Kirby (bio)
Abstract

A written symbol long recognized as operating non-alphabetically—even by those deeply and quite unconsciously committed to alphabeticism—is that of number. . . . But, despite this recognition, there has been no sustained attention to mathematical writing even remotely matching the enormous outpouring of analysis, philosophizing, and deconstructive opening up of what those in the humanities have come simply to call "texts."

Why, one might ask, should this be so? Why should the sign system long acknowledged as the paradigm of abstract rational thought and the without-which-nothing of Western technoscience have been so unexamined, let alone analyzed, theorized, or deconstructed, as a mode of writing?2

A written symbol long recognized as operating non-alphabetically—even by those deeply and quite unconsciously committed to alphabeticism—is that of number. . . . But, despite this recognition, there has been no sustained attention to mathematical writing even remotely matching the enormous outpouring of analysis, philosophizing, and deconstructive opening up of what those in the humanities have come simply to call "texts."

Why, one might ask, should this be so? Why should the sign system long acknowledged as the paradigm of abstract rational thought and the without-which-nothing of Western technoscience have been so unexamined, let alone analyzed, theorized, or deconstructed, as a mode of writing?2

Evidence of the predictive success of forensic investigation is now pivotal to the narrative disclosure of many television drama series and scientific documentaries. We are used to seeing criminal profilers and laboratory sleuths sift through abject detritus each night on our television screens, looking for patterns of connection and causality. And increasingly, we come to expect that the cryptogram of the crime scene is a riddle that will be solved. Yet to the lay person with no specialist expertise to provide an [End Page 417] explanation, the simple question "how is this possible?" remains compelling. Of course, the question is simply answered by acknowledging the algorithmic predictors and other forms of mathematical computation that translate between the seemingly random and the structured, the possible and the probable, the abstract and the material. However, the "transubstantiation" or magical alchemy that allows mathematics to render different materials into completely foreign forms and values must surely make us ponder the ontology of mathematics itself.

Interestingly, mathematics is rarely included in contemporary analysis about culture and representation, because to discuss mathematics implies being able to do mathematics. As a result, many of us quietly leave the field to its own practitioners. We surmise that the arcane nature of mathematics and its powers of prestidigitation reveal more about our own ignorance than they do about some mysterious puzzle in regard to number. With good reason, we imagine that for many mathematicians there is no mystery, just a series of problems to be solved by an economy of logic whose provocations are easily explained. However, as one writer on the subject, Keith Devlin describes it, mathematics in essence is "the science of order, patterns, structure, and logical relationships."3 In his primer on mathematics provocatively titled The Maths Gene, Devlin argues that mathematics is a language like any other, with an internal algorithm of combinatorial possibilities.

A system of relational configurations that refers to itself, mathematics would appear to satisfy the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's most basic perceptions about language. And mathematics also replicates the difficulty one finds in identifying the essential unit, or "object," that explains the system's functionality.4 And yet even for those of us familiar with the Saussurean legacy and its implicit challenge to what we conventionally mean when we say "language," the connection between the lean reductions of calculation and a natural language such as English feels strained. Even the most cursory consideration might posit that the ludic quality of natural languages involves a surfeit of figural possibilities, an exuberance of meanings and emotional [End Page 418] registers that outstrip comparison. And surely, this wealth of expression seems so dimensionally intricate, inventive, and comprehensive that it authorizes the special place conceded to language in contemporary criticism, and more powerfully, the special place assumed by that species whose privilege it explains—Homo Loquens.

We...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6520
Print ISSN
1063-1801
Pages
pp. 417-439
Launched on MUSE
2004-09-23
Open Access
No
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