Friday, May 3, 2013

2 + 2 = 5

I'll be giving a paper at the London Modernism Seminar on Saturday 11th May, 11am-1pm, Room G35, Senate House. Ben Hickman (Kent) is also giving a paper about communism and literature. Here's a little summary of what I'm planning to say - do come along!:

2+2=5: (Anti-)Communism and Arithmetic in Orwell, Koestler and Others

Why did British writers, when they wrote about the Soviet Union, often deploy the imagery of numbers, arithmetic and mathematics? This paper scrutinises a number of such instances, including Orwell’s famous use of the equation “2+2=5” in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Koestler’s fascination with Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of prime numbers in The Invisible Writing. These are put into relation with a number of instances in less celebrated works where questions of number or of mathematical reasoning are politicised by being applied to the Soviet Union.

The paper proposes to situate these literary representations in relation to three key debates that intersected in interesting ways. Firstly, a debate about utilitarianism’s attempt to quantify social goods and the romantic rejection of that attempt; secondly, a debate about the philosophical foundations of mathematics (which involved Peano, Russell, Wittgenstein and Heidegger); and finally, a debate about the relation between mathematics and dialectical materialism, which involved key British and Soviet scientists and mathematicians and reflected on the position of science under Communism.

Taking my cue from recent calls (by Alain Badiou, Steven Connor and others) for a rapprochement between the humanities and mathematics, I will argue that this was a period in which numbers and arithmetic were profoundly politicised—and frequently anathemised—in literature.

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