Thursday, 24 May 2012

Science and art

Today's post is slightly off-topic for this blog, but I couldn't help myself. I promise it won't happen too often. I just received, via the departmental mailing list, an advertisment for what sounds like quite a nice event at the Tate Modern, in London. They are showing a film about mathematics and mathematicians, which will be followed by a discussion with Michael Atiyah and Cédric Villani, two very successful mathematicians, from different generations, countries, and sub-fields. This is great, but it is part of a broader series of events, going by the name Topology.

If you follow the link above, you will find some of the most extraordinary pseudo-intellectual bullshit I have ever had the displeasure of reading. The conceit seems to be that the development of topology in mathematics had wide ramifications for such diverse fields as psychology, psychoanalysis, and architecture (I'm not joking). From the website:

"Limit, boundary, interior, exterior, neighbourhood, disconnection and cut were central notions that became ways of describing the fields of forces experienced by individuals. Static ideas of space as a container were replaced by understandings of movement-space, of multiplicity, differentiation and exclusive inclusion that in turn have led to new ideas of power, subjectivity, and creativity."
Oh dear.

It only gets worse when you read the descriptions for some of the other events in the series; it is all meaningless crap like the above, with the occasional "topology" or "topological" thrown in out of context. One thing which is pretty clear is that the author has never studied topology in their life, or if they have, they failed to understand it. Here's another taste:

"Spaces of Transformation will incarnate through performance, an intensive non-ordinary moment of space-time, a closing celebration that will give shape and meaning to the entirety — changing, shifting and integrating. A dynamic paradoxically entangled topological logic, with future-anterior foldings into and out of other heterogeneous space-times in relational processes of becoming."
Perhaps it only makes sense if you've taken magic mushrooms or something.

This is part of a broader trend of trying to marry art and science; for example, CERN now employs a choreographer. In general, I think it's fantastic if artists turn to science and mathematics for inspiration; not only does this have the potential to lead to some interesting art, but it can help to get people excited about science, so that perhaps they will be motivated to learn about the ideas behind the art. But I don't think this cause is furthered by people writing the type of drivel exemplified above. Art is emotional and subjective, and should be described as such (the exception being to make comment on the technical prowess of the artist), with scientific language reserved for the discussion of science; using it otherwise only has the effect of dumbing down public discourse. Vacuous statements do not obtain meaning just because you couch them in the jargon of a profound subject.

Let me finally turn the spotlight back on myself, and observe that when you study mathematics and/or physics, it is easy to fall into the trap of intellectual snobbery, and denigrate all those who study other less-exact pursuits, such as psychology, 'social science', philosophy, and so on, as being inherently inferior. That's not what I'm doing here, because I think all those fields can teach us important things; if every 'thinker' concentrated on the mathematical sciences, the world would be a sorry place indeed. But people like the author of the above website have nothing interesting to say, and this should be pointed out.


  1. I have mixed feelings about this. Firstly I have zero difference in opinion with you regarding whether any of these other fields are actually using the concepts of mathematical Topology in a meaningful way. Secondly, I am utterly confused as to how the fields of psychology, psychoanalysis, and architecture specifically could possibly gain anything from Topology. However, regarding art and critical theory and the likes I think I see it a little differently.

    As you pointed out, art is subjective and emotional. Therefore, if they want to take a bunch of words that came out of Topology, reinterpret them and use them to define an art movement, I can't see the problem with that. Whatever gives them inspiration to help them explore what humans can think/feel about their existence is fair game to me. Even if they want to borrow connotations from the mathematical use of the word to put into their art I don't see that as bad. And then the critical theorist does need to discuss the art that was created as well as its inspiration - so that seems fine to me too.

    That is, so long as it doesn't give anyone the illusion that because they understand the art that develops that they also understand mathematical Topology in any way. Maybe in the end this isn't different to your own thoughts, but just expressed with a different emphasis. This is a genuine concern though, because this is dangerous for the public understanding of the real science.

    Incidentally, Michelle (the artist/critical theorist at The Trenches) actually blogged about the exhibit at which that film was first shown here.

    1. Like I said, I'm happy for artists to find inspiration wherever they can, and if that is in the world of science and mathematics, then all the better. But don't pretend it's something it's not. We use fancy-sounding jargon in mathematical science, because it allows us to communicate efficiently and precisely with each other; behind each term is a technical definition, which we don't want to repeat every time.

      By way of contrast, does "A dynamic paradoxically entangled topological logic, with future-anterior foldings into and out of other heterogeneous space-times in relational processes of becoming." tell you anything at all about the dance piece it purports to be describing?

    2. Yeah, I'd kind of missed that the first time through (my mind must have turned itself off halfway through the quote). I'd love to try and give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they've adopted those words and each word does mean something and that, although I don't understand it, some artist involved in the movement they are coming from would, but I doubt it.

  2. I think it is very important that the organisers and participants of such events, by which I mean elaborate outreach programs where representatives of different disciplines are invited to discuss the perceived cultural exchanges that seem to take place between their respective fields, in the broader context of creative enterprise, have to make it clear that such events are as much experimental as digressive/exploratory, and are not to be taken literally. The trend nowadays is that, all too often, the layman has the wrong idea that mathematics is a form of art, since it is easier for one to appreciate a vague notion of aesthetics of colours, shapes, and such, than a rigorously well-defined mathematical structure that necessitates years of hard work, frustration, and insight to develop an understanding of, and intuition for, how the edifice stands in all its glory, at least cognitively. I also tend to disagree that the creative processes that go into doing mathematics and the practising the arts are one and the same, but this is a different issue.

    Coming back to your observations, it is unfortunately the case that such spurious use of mathematically precise terms is rather widespread in the social sciences, that since the days of Foucault for example. Sokal and Bricmont have written a lot about this problem in their book "Intellectual impostures". Incidentally, it was an immense pain for me to read the loads of whaleshit that the authors picked up from the totally rubbish outpourings of these impostures.

    1. Intellectual Impostures was also the first thing that came to my mind when I read this. Lacan claiming that the square root of minus one is equivalent to the human male erectile organ and so on ...

  3. My apologies for another comment, but I forgot to say that I would really encourage you to attend this event, only for the sake of hearing Villani. He has a fantastic personality and charisma, and does a very good job in going out to encourage the public to pay attention to mathematics in education (he's very public, and loved, in France.) And as you correctly remarked, it will be a discussion between two mathematicians of very different character, so that is something to look forward to :) Finally, I have the DVD of the film they are screening in London, and it's very noteworthy (the producers, R. Depardon and C. Nougaret, did a marvelous job!)

    1. Great! It does sound like a very good event, and I hope that didn't get completely lost in my ranting. :-)


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