CFP: Mathematics and Modern Literature 3rd-4th May 2018

There is no First or Last
Only Equality
And who would rule
Joins the majority.

—Mina Loy

Mathematics and Modern Literature is a collaborative, interdisciplinary conference exploring the ways in which writers active between the late nineteenth century and the twenty-first century engage with, represent or reflect upon mathematics in their work.

We are delighted to announce that our keynote speakers for this event will be Dr. Nina Engelhardt (The University of Cologne) and Professor Tim Armstrong (Royal Holloway, University of London). Dr. Nina Engelhardt is a lecturer in English and American Studies at The University of Cologne and has published on the topic of mathematics and science in modernist literature, particularly the works of Thomas Pynchon. Her monograph Modernism, Fiction and Mathematics is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press. Professor Tim Armstrong is based within the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London. His recent publications include The Logic of Slavery: Debt, Technology and Pain in American Literature and Modernism: A Cultural History. Professor Armstrong is also the co-editor of the Edinburgh University Press series Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernist Culture, one of the organizers of the long-running London Modernism Seminar, and a member of the executive committee for the British Association for Modernist Studies (BAMS).

On the face of it, few activities, disciplines or modes of thinking seem as disparate or as incommensurable with one another as those of mathematics and literature. If, according to a common, broadly ‘Platonic’ conception of the subject, mathematics insists upon rigor and exactitude in order to discover eternal, objective and universal truths, literature is often imagined as addressing itself to that which is irreducibly human, subjective, particular or contingent. Where the one may be lauded for yielding access to a neutral, unchanging domain of that which is the same forever and for all, the other might be celebrated as the privileged medium of that which differs, or of that which is true or real for us as creatures of material, historical, cultural, intellectual and linguistic change.

Just as this sketch of ‘literature’ will not suffice—failing, as it does, to take account of the significant and often dramatic ways in which our conception of literature and the literary has shifted since the late nineteenth century—so the opposing caricature of mathematics proves inadequate to register the crises and developments that affected the field—and the ways in which mathematicians and others understood it—over the same period.

As historians of mathematics such as Herbert Mehrtens and Jeremy Gray have suggested in recent decades, mathematics at the turn of the twentieth century may be seen to have been in the midst of a critical and pervasive ‘modernist transformation,’ roughly contemporary with the modernist movements in the arts with which we are generally more familiar. Rooted in developments during the nineteenth century, including the invention of non-Euclidean geometries as well as the elaboration of set theory, ‘modern’ or ‘modernist’ mathematics was subsequently characterised by its tendency to trouble or to break with established notions of mathematical truth, representation, intuition and meaning. As their subject became increasingly abstract and axiomatic in its approach, mathematicians laboured through what became known as the subject’s ‘foundational crisis,’ impelled by an anxious sense of the need to devise or discover a new, firmer footing for the science.

By 1931, the foundational crisis in mathematics had largely petered out, while any residual hope of placing mathematics solidly upon a provably complete and consistent set of axioms was dispelled by the work of Kurt Gödel. However, the field of mathematics has continued to experience profound developments since its ‘foundational crisis,’ from algebraic geometry, topology, group theory and category theory to probability, chaos theory, cryptography and computer science. In addition to ‘modernist’ mathematics, then, Mathematics and Modern Literature also sets out to explore how writers have engaged with later developments in the science, up to and including the influence of (big) data, code and algorithmic technologies upon contemporary literature.

How do writers during this period encounter, understand and interact with mathematics, whether basic, elementary or advanced, whether ‘classical’ or ‘modern(ist)’? To what extent do they negotiate contemporary developments within the field of mathematics? How have authors engaged with the the invention of computational machines and computer programming language, and how have interpretive practices, such as digital humanities, shaped the way we read and interpret texts? What is at stake when we read for quantity?  How are mathematical objects, symbols, concepts and ideas invoked, adapted, deployed, emulated, played with or transformed in literary texts? What kinds of meanings, implications or significance—political, philosophical, social, religious, magical, affective or otherwise—do mathematics and mathematical objects, processes and ideas have for writers? To what extent are these meanings, implications and ideas reproduced, subverted or critiqued in their work?

This conference invites papers on topics that might include, but are not limited to:

  • mathematics and politics
  • mathematics and gender
  • biopolitics / (big) data / code / algorithms
  • digital humanities and the implications for reading / interpreting texts
  • the concept of universality / objectivity / neutrality in literature and mathematics
  • mathematics, literature and affect
  • mathematics and the everyday / extraordinary.
  • mathematics and pedagogy
  • mathematics and the concept of genius / amateurism
  • ‘modernist’ mathematics and its relations to literary and artistic modernism(s)
  • mathematics and form
  • mathematics and style
  • mathematics, literature and truth / proof or measurement / verification
  • mathematics and magic / mysticism
  • the relations between quality and quantity
  • representations of mathematicians and the institution of mathematics
  • mathematics and experimentation
  • mathematics as language / language as mathematics
  • mathematics and poetic meter / rhythm
  • the meanings and aesthetics of mathematical symbols
  • methodologies of literature and mathematics studies

The conference also welcomes contributions that address mathematics in painting, sculpture, music, dance and architecture—in addition to or alongside literature—during the same period.

Please send proposals (250-300 words) for fifteen-minute papers to mathmodlit@gmail.com by 5th February 2018. Please include a short (100-150 word) biography with your abstract. Notification of decision will be made by 19th February 2018.

Panel submissions will also be considered and should be 45 minutes in length. Please send 750-800 word abstract for panel submissions plus individual biographies. Please note that all male panels will not be accepted.

Lunch, refreshments and a wine reception will be provided on both days. Further details will be released in due course, and registration will open in February 2018.

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