TY - JOUR
TI - Mathematical dreamworlds: speculative fictions of mathematics from the enlightenment to the global anglophone novel
DO - https://doi.org/doi:10.7282/t3-3ynt-cw15
PY - 2020
AB - At its core, my project asks whether people who are excluded from liberal notions of the human can use these notions towards liberatory ends. Mathematical Dreamworlds explores how women and postcolonial subjects use mathematical language to reimagine the universal human in the long 20th century. Rather than a calculative or quantitative discourse, Anglophone novelists portray mathematics as dreamworlds, realms removed from the actual, real world that individuals inhabit through mathematical thinking. In this space of mathematical thinking, Enlightenment thinkers formulated what it means to be human and to be universal. I argue that Anglophone novelists remake this mathematical dreamworld in ways that invite readers to rethink mathematics’ claim to transparency and objectivity, and to form more inclusive notions of the human and the world.
Part One of the project consists of a single chapter, “Universal Man Emerged Out of a Mathematical Dreamworld,” that reads mathematics in Enlightenment philosophical texts. Within liberal modernity, mathematics was understood as training in reason that produced the universal, rational subject. Part 1 takes a deeper look at the way that mathematics was understood to operate on thinkers through readings of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (1637) and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). This analysis reveals that Descartes and Kant produced mathematical dreamworlds, writing that narrates pure mathematical thinking as an experience that takes place in a realm beyond the real, physical world. In the space of pure mathematical thinking, a sensible realm where all markers of time, place, culture, and history are absent, Enlightenment philosophers understood the universal human to come into being. Appearing in 19th-century discourses on liberal education, this notion of a mathematical realm where individuals could transcend their subjective experience was used to justify British imperial authority: mathematical training turned individuals into rightful rulers of empire. I call these writings that narrate mathematics as the experience of being in another realm beyond the real world speculative fictions of mathematics. This makes it clear that although mathematics appears in fantastical and dreamlike forms in Anglophone novels, their authors did not make them so. Rather, Enlightenment philosophers of the human produced the speculative fiction that these authors are still unpacking.
Part Two of the project consists of three chapters that trace how Anglophone authors challenged this mathematical dreamworld that is the birthplace of the universal human, both from within and beyond empire. They turned to the novel because its capacity for linguistic diversity allowed them to comment on mathematical discourses from the outside. My second chapter begins with Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day (1919), where Katharine uses mathematics to imagine an alternative space in which she experiences freedom from imperial and patriarchal forms of subject-constitution. The third chapter moves from metropole to postcolony to analyze Amitav Ghosh’s use of a transcendental realm of mathematics to imagine a subaltern woman at the center of a global history of science in The Calcutta Chromosome (1990). The fourth and final chapter takes up Nnedi Okorafor’s use of mathematical dreamworlds in her writing of African speculative fiction in her Binti trilogy (2015-2017). Binti, a young girl from the Namib Desert in southwestern Africa, finds in a mathematical dreamworld an immaterial, imaginative geography through which she can formulate a view of her self and of her value that challenges neoliberal discourses of progress and development. Placing Binti into a dreamworld of mathematics, Okorafor reworks what it means to be human and to be universal. Mathematical dreamworlds, appearing in the Anglophone novel as spaces that thinkers can dwell in and become modified by, cannot be explained by previous approaches to mathematics and literature that see mathematics as formalism or as descriptive language. By writing characters excluded from liberal modernity’s notions of the universal human into mathematical dreamworlds, Anglophone authors interrogate and remake the ground of emergence of the universal human.
KW - Postcolonial
KW - Literatures in English
LA - English
ER -