6th April 2020


As the lockdown and isolation continues beyond what must be the longest March I’ve ever experienced, virtual connection is proving to be the new norm. Which has its benefits. The David Foster Wallace Research Group is branching out and doing a group read of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Really interesting experience – reminding me a lot of my time as an undergraduate on a James Joyce course. Now, of course, I’m blessed/cursed to be more attuned to the mathematical references. So, in response to her son’s maths homework, ‘the fact that as soon as I [the narrator] see[s] numbers in parentheses I kind of freeze up’, opens up this really interesting approach to mathematical (il)literacy and the emotional, affective responses it generates. There’s also much navigation/orientation around and between the narrator’s home and mind with numerical temporal markers – an important, rational inscription yet one constantly challenged (or in dialogue with) memory and other thought-trains.

I’m thinking too of Bergson’s ‘mathematical’ time, and of Tim Morton’s description of Husserlian transcendental reason as a ‘mathematiz[ing]’ force, inseparable from phenomenological experience.

Right now, I’m probably most interested in pursuing this in relation to music. Timbre and frequency. What Jason Robert Brown calls his ‘mathematical’ approach to structure and composition. The fact that all composers have the same limitations – how to arrange the same finite elements in each bar – and how these literally rational tools are how the musical problem is posed and how it is solved. At the same time, there is the rather more pedestrian understanding (a deceptive one) of those everyday mathematical applications: a cooking recipe; a calendar; a ‘personal best’ on a distance run or weight-lift. In short, lots of ideas brewing, and – now most of the marking is done and we’re still on lockdown – plenty of time to be reading. That said, some days are hard and, as is constantly pointed out, now is the time to become unshackled from frameworks of ‘productivity’. Nevertheless, I’m pleased that the PhD hasn’t completely obliterated my curiosity – after a little fallow period, new buds emerge.

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