The title of this blog entry could be yet another proposed synonym for mathematics, one that hints at an alternative to the sterile but persistent opposition between discovery and invention. Or it could be an allusion to the practice of mathematicians by which what corresponds to our intuition is made to be true by a process of successive refinements and clarifications, a practice performed, for instance, by the characters designated by Greek letters in Lakatos’s Proofs and Refutations. The word “perform” is used in the sense of J. L. Austin’s performative utterances, by which states of affairs are brought about simply by pronouncing words.
That quotation from the Stanford Philosophy of Encyclopedia fails to do justice to the practice of a mathematician, which largely does consist in persuading colleagues of the truth of a proposition by pronouncing the right words in the right order. I’m counting on the psychoanalysts following this blog to confirm (or disconfirm) my suspicion that psychoanalytic theory views speech as a source of pleasure insofar as it has the power to bring about changes in reality. And this, I am tempted to argue (but I will resist the temptation), is a powerful source of pleasure in mathematics.
Having said that, I don’t doubt that some mathematicians find pure logical syntax pleasurable as well.
This time around I want to draw attention instead to the practice of making value judgments real simply by pronouncing them. I have in mind the process by which, by publishing an article with the title John Horton Conway: the world’s most charismatic mathematician, Siobhan Roberts (or, more likely, her editor at the Guardian) has in fact made John Conway the world’s most charismatic mathematician, in the same way that James Brown has been the hardest working man in show business ever since he was introduced as such in 1963. And while the numerous contenders for the title of Mozart of mathematics can look forward to a rude struggle to claim the honor, Galois secured his position as Rimbaud of mathematics when the professional ice-hockey player François-Henri Désérable published last year’s best-seller Évariste.
Roberts also pronounced me, in a potentially performative tweet, a (the?) “poetic mathematician,” but there’s no chance that will stick; my prose is too obviously prosaic when read alongside the likes of Goethe (pp. 83, 172, 190, 208) or Leconte de Lisle (p. 163) or Rakim (p. 248) or Patti Smith (pp. 250-1) or Mos Def/Yasiin Bey (p. 252). On the other hand, the very kind review by M. Schiff in Choice, by pronouncing that MWA is “part memoir” in a text primarily addressed to academic librarians, may well have turned it into a book that is part memoir — aided, indeed, by Amazon’s habit of ranking it among best-selling memoirs (today, most implausibly, it’s the 944th best-selling memoir in Canada’s Amazon site). If so, I have no choice but to get used to it, even if I quoted Henry Lord Brougham as early as p. 14 to make the point that if the book is the memoir of anything it’s the memoir of an ideal-type, not of a “generally uninteresting and unvaried” individual like the one writing these lines.