24th February 2020

 

It’s been 515 days since I submitted my dissertation “in fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English Literature”. I’ve decided to record my post-doc thoughts and feelings here – for reflection if not for posterity – and aim to write something here every week. At the moment, the University and Colleges Union is in industrial dispute with employers, with members currently striking for the second time in as many months. Emotions are high and raw. So, this seemed like as good a time as any to consider where I’ve come from, the present crucible, and where the compass needle now points. It’s not going to be particularly pretty or well-edited prose – then again, a log was once a clumsy, heavy chunk of wood, floating helplessly – but I’m certain no one else is going to be reading this.

 

My doctoral dissertation examined intersections of mathematics and literature within (mainly American) encyclopedic narratives. It was the most difficult piece of writing I’ve ever undertaken. I named it ‘Encyclopedic Architectures: Mathematical Structures in the Works Of Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace’. I should probably say a little about what mathematics has to do with literature and how it’s been read in this context. While mathematics has been represented throughout the history of literature  during the last eighty years – which saw the rise of the information age, whose technological advances are underpinned by  mathematical logic, from micro-chip computing algorithms to geostationary satellite communications – fiction has become increasingly concerned with its representations of mathematical ideas, images, and practices. Studies of literature have tended to consider the latter as an eternal, platonic ideal, rather than historically contingent practice; the critical development of the latter – from models by Gillian Beer, through those of Joan L. Richards, Helena M. Pycior, A. D. D. Craik, Daniel J. Cohen, to Uri Margolin, Mathew Wickman, Brian Rotman, Steven Connor, and Mary Poovey – provide multiple avenues of interdisciplinary comparison. These investigations of the institutional foundations of both scientific and artistic practice compliment a broader institutional turn in literary studies, as exemplified by such texts as Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) as well as more established historiographical veins that include Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (1996).

 

More recently, then, literature and science studies have acknowledged and situated historical points of cultural crossover. This approach permits a reconfiguration of, for example, the conventional timeline of structuralism in the humanities to acknowledge cross-discipline exchanges. Indeed, although it is rarely emphasised, the history of humanities’ structural movements in the latter half of the twentieth century – from the early work of Saussure and Jakobson to later developments by Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes, and Foucault – was bridged by the revolutionary mathematical work of the Bourbaki group in the 1930s. My use of mathematics, then, drew upon the case of Nicolas Bourbaki, whose ‘encyclopedic’ treatise, Éléments de mathématique, I argued, provides an important cultural touchstone for contemporary visions of mathematics as a totalised system. The pseudonym for a group of world-leading French mathematicians working in the middle of the twentieth century, Bourbaki attempted to create a definitive mathematical textbook from three foundational ‘structures’. Their 1948 article ‘The Architecture of Mathematics’, often considered a manifesto for the group, details three ‘great’ or ‘mother-structures’ – topological, algebraic, and ordered structures – which together (they claimed) encompass the entirety of mathematical activity and theory. While playing an important part in Bourbaki’s project to unify, encircle, and totalise mathematics, these structures also reveal how encyclopedic narratives utilise the figurative efficacy of mathematics to challenge such epistemological exhaustion.

 

I found that reintegrating mathematics into the structuralist timeline enabled fruitful dialogues between this structuralist science and (post)structuralist artistic works. By treating mathematics not as an unlikely and alien adjunct to post-war culture, but within this larger intellectual context, it became clearer how mathematically informed postmodern fictions at exactly this point in history – especially those by the key, mathematically literate postmodern authors upon whom this study focuses, namely, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace – are working in a cognate fashion to other fields undergoing structuralist revolutions. Here are a few examples. Though Don DeLillo’s 1976 novel Ratner’s Star has long been recognised as structured upon the history of mathematics, considering how this encyclopedic novel alludes to its intertexts through the figure of the Möbius strip reveals its fundamentally topological structure. The difficult equations in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) can be seen, through the concept of algebraic structures, to model Pynchon’s metaphorical processes. Finally, Wallace’s use of enumerated endnotes in Infinite Jest (1996) complements his interest in Georg Cantor’s mathematical set theory, explicated in Everything & More (2003): understood through ordered structures, Wallace’s hierarchical manipulation of narrative containers are revealed to be mathematically informed representations of consciousness.

 

So, I was trying to articulate the overlooked ways in which representative mathematical concepts inform signature literary developments of Gravity’s Rainbow, Ratner’s Star, and Infinite Jest – key postmodern works whose formal challenges reflect society’s increasing reliance on calculation, and also reveal the contingency of mathematics on cultural and political changes over the last fifty years. The stock market, the internet, the codes that, with computed accuracy, keep planes in the sky and drop weapons of mass destruction: the technological revolutions of the last century – facilitated by mathematics – have fundamentally altered our perceptions and representations of the world. At a wider angle, then, by tracing the influence of the structural turn in mid-twentieth-century mathematics through the (post)structural revolutions in the social sciences and humanities, I was trying to suggest how postmodern U.S. fiction – through its devices of allusion, metaphor, and sensibility – responded and continues to respond to the increasing cultural influence of mathematics.

That’s probably enough for now. It wasn’t as straightforward (if that’s the word) as it may appear, but it’s now the brightest star in the sky (or the heaviest anchor in the depths) and, I think, a useful point of orientation.

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