Andy's Math/CS page

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Theory and Me

Recently Columbia U. Press published a large anthology of literary criticism and metacriticism with the provocative title Theory's Empire. It aims to describe, from a fairly critical standpoint, the trajectories of various influential 'isms' in the recent study of literature: postcolonialism, postmodernism, deconstructionism, etc. I haven't read it yet, but judging from the blog-buzz it could be an important retrospective. I hope that some scientists too are persuaded to look it over and learn something (by way of comparison) about the vicissitudes of theory in humanities departments.

What is it that makes 'theory' so enticing? I think it can simultaneously convey feelings of surprise, hidden connections, and newfound mastery that together bring the theorist or reader into a charmed state. Thinking becomes an urgent activity, and big thoughts make contact with the world, resonating in the air like gongs.

Anyway, this was my experience as a junior and senior in high school when I discovered and got feverishly involved in the 'postmodern' theorists--Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, etc. At a point when I was still fairly uninterested in math/science, tired of school, and resentful of the authority of both, these authors offered an exhilerating counternarrative and an alternative standard of intellectual rigor. Although they generally disavowed systematic thinking, their writing was characterized by a small number of patterns (often taking the form of a surprise inversion) that operated repeatedly in diverse settings to yield radical consequences--a set of 'magic keys' to experience.

That experience gradually turned sour. I realized that in my eagerness to apply these new theoretical ideas anywhere and everywhere I was becoming insensitive to the world; my thinking was driven by the need for radical contrarianism rather than the desire to truly understand. Then, too, I took my first computer science course, which opened up a whole new chapter in my adventures in theory (a tale for another time). Today I am very far removed from the person I was in that period. My relationship to theory has cooled down considerably even as it's grown happier and more productive; this is, I'm sure, due both to the nature of mathematics as a field and to my changing temperment as I leave adolescence behind (of course, the factors are related).

But mathematical and scientific theories are not necessarily so different from others. They too can form empires in our minds and govern our search for meaning, and it is up to scientists to choose their masters wisely. Just as philosophical systems like postmodernism run the risk of becoming vacuous in their generality and predetermined in their findings, I think there are significant risks in becoming absorbed in scientific trends, like 'nonlinear science', that combine emotional resonance, polemicism, and seemingly unbounded applicability.

Not to say that good science doesn't appear under that rubric. None of this should be taken as criticism of particular theories, in particular of the pomo theorists mentioned, whom I've seldom read since high school (oh yeah, and their appeal wore off even faster once I got to Swarthmore and they became commonplace..). I'm just describing an individual relationship to theory, in the hopes that it might help others reflect on theirs.

Some people have 'break-up songs', that help them both to look back and to move forward; for me and postmodernism I'd say it was Pynchon's novel 'The Crying of Lot 49', which captured in transmuted fashion a lot about my own search for meaning in high school: the growing uncanniness, the thrill of transgression and revelation; the need (without clear motive) to uncover patterns of power, domination, and covert resistance; the eventual nausea and disillusionment, along with an unshakeable sense that a mystery has slipped thru one's fingers.

And on that note--new Pynchon out this month. Fingers crossed!


  • Maybe the problem is that there is no such thing as "truly understanding" the world. Literature signs in resistance. With mathematics, at least the illusion is possible...

    By Blogger Cheshire Cat, at 4:00 AM  

  • Cheshire Cat--thanks! I don't know how to answer your surmise. But, for my purposes, I'm willing to settle for something mor modest:

    I take it as axiomatic that the world is always larger than one's current knowledge.

    So if one's experience feels largely predetermined, or, worse, willfully predetermined, it seems unlikely that one is coming closer to worldly understanding. That's the quickest way I know to diagnose the problem with my days of grinding the postmodern axe. There's nothing surprising about a surprise inversion when it's a forced, genre convention.

    The converse seems to fail--one can live in perpetual novelty and openness to experience without developing any kind of authoritative understanding. I know my own understanding is paltry and growing only in increasingly esoteric directions.

    Still, I take it as a healthy sign that I'm now able to face the perpetually multiplying unsolved problems of math without either becoming depressed or contriving grandiose pseudo-solutions (such as proliferate around the P vs NP question). I do my best, I have no idea what's coming next, and I'm OK with that: this, rather than any objective improvement in the theories I work with, is what makes me the most confident I've come a long way since high school.

    By Blogger Andy D, at 10:00 PM  

  • In Defense of Theory
    (or, Justifying my Minor)

    Gayatri Spivak, Derrida's own translator, said in an interview that she went through a period of real disenchantment with Deconstructionism, once she realized that it wasn't necessarily feminism. She then set about to see how she could use Dec. productively. It's common for people to become swept up in theory at their first go: either because it presents a fascinating intellectual exercise, or because it urgently voices something about one's own culture and identity that had gone unspoken. Much (feminist, anti-colonialist) theory was born out of that personal sense of emergency.

    Of course, bringing first-person cultural experience into academia was seen as suspect, if not antithetical, to the whole Ivory Tower project. In my eyes, smuggling in some of these 'outsider' voices was the biggest triumph of post-modernism: it did succeed in creating a more neutral space for marginalized authors to address each other, and that openness and engagement did carry over to the larger culture. The best kind of theory retains that spark of urgency, but doesn't let its message disappear in a cloud of identity-obfuscation. The stakes are simply higher when one refuses to write in the tone of a third-person voice-over. To me, the biggest problem with post-modernism is bad or soul-less writing, not bad ideas; I find the dodgy style some authors fall back upon to be pretty insufferable.

    The most interesting arena for theory is in religion, not literature. It's one thing to point out that the author is a social construct; it's another to confront sacred canonical texts without cultural supremacy. It often surprises pomo fans when they read Derrida's later writings, where he asserts there are two "undeconstructibles": hospitality and G-d. For myself, feminist scholars like Irigary and Seidman are the ones best at reinterpreting religion for a modern world, because their engagement with both modes of exegesis are so deep.

    Nowadays I see theory as a western-born attempt to shake up western-bred dualities, thereby providing a way to understand the infinite number of concepts of langauge in the world: words as magic, words as math, words as art. Linguistic homogenization happened fast, and now we're trying to undo it, or at least open it up. For example: At the turn of the past century, Jewish scholars held a conference theorizing a transnational Yiddish literature; temples in Senegal built of scribe's reeds, taking the Quran literally about "dwelling inside the holy words"; African scripts in the Kongo combine letters and cosmograms, sacralizing public space through the written word... One couldn't understand all these human-linguistic phenomena through the anthropological lens of a generation ago, or through the logocentric biblical exegesis of a century ago. I think Derrida and Co. would be pleased to hear that "a mystery has slipped thru one's fingers" -- maybe it wasn't meant to be caught and pinned down in the first place.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:27 AM  

  • I'd enjoy hearing more, some day, about your relationship to Pynchon and about how encountering CS altered your model of theory.

    By Blogger Michael, at 9:11 PM  

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