Mathematicians as hackers or tricksters?

Last week I met the cultural theorist McKenzie Wark at an event at Cabinet Magazine in Brooklyn.  I’ll have to write about Cabinet at some point; they have a very original take on mathematics, and Margaret Wertheim, who spoke at the same event, has written extensively on mathematics and is the director of the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles.  Wertheim and the Institute for Figuring need posts of their own.  Right now I want to comment on this quotation from Lukács (History and Class Consciousness) which I read in Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto:

This fragmentation of the object of production necessarily entails the fragmentation of its subject. In consequence of the rationalization of the work-process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error.

This was published in 1923 — at the height of the Foundations Crisis in mathematics, curiously enough — and provides an interesting perspective on the drive to rid mathematics of human error.  The hacker appears in an ambivalent role at the end of my Chapter 8, as one possible image of the mathematician as trickster:

Circumstances force the typical cyberpunk protagonist into a life of underground resistance to a political and economic order projected onto a future dominated by AI but not so different, in the end, from the instrumental market rationality with which each of us must come to terms in this life. But this faceoff mirrors the confrontation within mathematics between two facets of the same split personality: mathematics is both the condition of alienation and the skill without which community cannot be restored.

In Wark’s book, the hacker is the creator of abstraction:

We produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations, hacked out of raw data. Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colorings, we are the abstracters of new worlds.

This is written in a (romantic) manifesto style but it is actually a text of cultural analysis, and I think it’s relevant to the discussion of HOTT, as well as to the quotation from my Chapter 8; Wark’s hacker has the same split personality.

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2 thoughts on “Mathematicians as hackers or tricksters?

  1. Jon Awbrey

    And again …

    The well-known capacity that thoughts have — as doctors have discovered — for dissolving and dispersing those hard lumps of deep, ingrowing, morbidly entangled conflict that arise out of gloomy regions of the self probably rests on nothing other than their social and worldly nature, which links the individual being with other people and things; but unfortunately what gives them their power of healing seems to be the same as what diminishes the quality of personal experience in them.

    Robert Musil • Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities)

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    Reply

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