Must Mathematics Brand to Survive?


"Rockefeller Center (2006)" by Mr Bullitt - Photo taken by Mr Bullitt from Sweden. 
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

The other day, while I was seeking the way out of the Rockefeller Center basement, with growing desperation, admiring the crowds enjoying the legendary Rockefeller family hospitality, I wondered why the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris and the International Congress of Mathematicians aren’t called the Institut John D. Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Congress of Mathematicians, respectively. After all, both were built in large part with Rockefeller money.   If stadiums and concert halls and museums can be named after wealthy philanthropists, why not the lecture halls, the mathematical institutes, the conference centers where we pursue our problematic vocation?  When our research is financed by private sources, why are our theorems not branded with the names of our benefactors?

If it’s only recently that branding as an adjunct to marketing has become ubiquitous— though not yet in mathematics — it’s because the transition from liberalism to neoliberalism is still under way, not yet complete.  This is what I conclude from reading Wendy Brown’s deep and deeply depressing Undoing the Demos:  Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. In Brown’s view, a revision and critical reading of Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics lectures,

Neoliberalism… is best understood not as economic policy, but as a governing rationality that disseminates market values and metrics to every sphere of life and construes the human itself exclusively as homo oeconomicus.

Capital investment and appreciation becomes the sole legitimate goal, competition becomes the primary value, and public goods become an anachronism.  The result is that it is increasingly

…difficult to explain why universities, libraries, parks and natural reserves, city services and elementary schools, even roads and sidewalks, are or should be publicly accessible and publicly provisioned.  Why should the public fund and administer them?  Why should everyone have free access to them?  Why shouldn’t their cost be borne only by those who “consume” them?

This brings us directly back to the question:  who should pay for mathematics?  Only those who “consume” it?  Brown teaches at a public university and is mainly concerned with the liberal arts, but everything she says about the “leading line of defense” — in other words, the “apologies” — required of the humanities and social sciences is equally valid for pure mathematics.

…the market value of knowledge — its income-enhancing prospects for individuals and industry alike—is now understood as both its driving purpose and leading line of defense.  Even when the humanities and interpretive social sciences are accounted as building the analytic thinkers needed by the professions or as building the mind and hence securing a more gratifying life for the individual, they align with the neoliberal notion of building human capital.  In neither defense are the liberal arts depicted as representing, theorizing, interpreting, creating, or protecting the world.  They are not conceived as binding, developing, or renewing us as a people, alerting us to dangers, or providing frames, figures, theories, and allegories …  Above all, they are not conceived as providing the various capacities required for democratic citizenship.  Rather, they are conceived as something for individuals to imbibe like chocolate, practice like yoga, or utilize like engineering.  … Even [neoliberalization’s] critics cannot see the ways in which we have lost a recognition of ourselves as held together by literatures, images, religions, histories, myths, ideas, forms of reason, grammars, figures, and languages.  Instead, we are presumed to be held together by technologies and capital flows.  That presumption, of course, is at risk of becoming true, at which point humanity will have entered its darkest chapter ever.

The situation may not yet be so desperate in mathematics.  In some countries, at least.  Over the past five years I have been struck by the number of highly qualified Italians hired by French mathematics departments.  Just last week I was told that young Spanish mathematicians will have to wait 5 or 10 years for positions to open up in their country, which perhaps should have allied with a successful brand and held a Facebook Congress of Mathematicians instead of an International Congress in 2006.

And worries like those mentioned here are commonplace (even in reviews of this book).   But what I really want to know is:  Why are we seeing none of the impassioned rhetoric on display in the quoted passage from Undoing the Demos, and in all the texts about the importation of business models in higher education?  Even I felt, and continue to feel, the need to use uncomfortably and inappropriately moderate language.  Is it because mathematicians, unlike social scientists, are expected to adhere to a form of expression so rigorous that it can be verified for correctness by a proof-assistant?  Or am I simply afraid that if I just came out and said what I think without going through endless detours and qualifications, then no one would take the book seriously?   Even a book whose title promises no apologies?

11 thoughts on “Must Mathematics Brand to Survive?

  1. sure

    Mathematics and physics is not that protected from liberalism. On the contrary, there is less and less funding for fundamental research and more and more funding for applied one. In France, for example, the suppression or the so called “ANR Blanc” being replaced by society motivated project is a good proof of that. Also, there is now too much people applying for too little positions, and the criteria are usually related to production (number of articles, citations, …): productivism is entirely part of research nowadays.
    (Moreover, I wouldn’t be so proud of what france is doing by recruiting people from other countries. What happens with such policies is that you’re not going to recruit spirituality motivated people who are “true scientists” and started doing sciences lately – that is, following the normal academic cursus -, but mainly (socially and culturally) privileged people who had the opportunity to start sciences before academic education (being consequently better at obtaining a position when its time to apply for one). There’s no reason that these “privileged” people, usually empty from any philosophical or spiritual involvement, are actually better scientists in the long runs.)

    The problem with liberalism is not that it wants to make everything quantifiable, but that it denies any kind of spirituality, and puts the (happiness of) individuals at the center of the world. Meaning and explanations (what scientists are looking for!) aren’t possible without beliefs, philosophical involvement and some form of transcendence (thus spirituality). Hence, there’s no meaning nor explanation, no theory but only verifiable facts and experiments says liberalism. Moreover, happiness of the individual being on one hand the goal of life for liberalism, and on the other side subjective, all form of order, structures, and hierarchies must be arbitrary, only led by the will to be happy of some individual. Thus, sciences goal is not to explain or to make sense of the world, even less to look for a dubious transcendence says liberalism, but it is to create happiness: it therefore has to be enslaved to the individual and its will to be happy. Liberalism is in this respect a form of “happy” nihilism: “happy” because it tries to destroy all structures/taboo/culture our societies created in order to leave the anarchy of wild life and do , and nihilism because it is more than subjectivist (it denies any form of meaning and transcendence), .

    So, who should finance fundamental science for a liberal? People who gets some happiness by doing so, obviously. Who gets happy by funding sciences tho? Nobody: fundamental science does not create individual happiness because
    1) it requires years of investment in order to understand its questions and some of its answers,
    2) it is really hard to do,
    3) it is not applied, and won’t give you a better smartphone or sextoy.

    One shouldn’t think that the real problem of sciences comes from liberalism. It comes from the will of individuals to be happy and their belief in happiness as a life’s goal. Liberalism is just a good ideology exploiting these weaknesses, even creating some part of it. If you want to fund (fundamental) sciences, fight happiness first.


    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      Exhibit B, actually — see the comment about the “AXA Jersey” in my article Or maybe Exhibit C: did anyone get the name of the auditorium where Villani was speaking?

      Brown warns about confusing liberalism (Adam Smith, Bentham, Mill) with neoliberalism (Friedman, Hayek). Liberalism is about exchange, neoliberalism about competition for market share, and the human is understood as a form of human capital which needs to be invested and maximized.


      1. Jon Awbrey

        I realize the words have taken on different senses on different sides of the pond, but when I was in school we learned to call that Adam Smith, British East India Company brand by the name of mercantilism, that begat capitalism, and that is mostly what the corporate-libertines are selling today.


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