Category: mathematics

Forthcoming: Poetico-Mathematical Women

I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection on history of early modern science and I was just asked to write up the abstract for said piece. In writing, I found myself pretty jazzed about the piece and thought I’d share at least the abstract with you all. I’m particularly tickled by the way the chapter harmonizes with work I’m doing right now on my book, which is all about long histories of quantifying media and interfaces.

“Poetico-Mathematical Women” offers a recontextualization of the first ever mathematical periodical – The Ladies’ Diary – as central to the tradition of early modern aesthetic rationalism. Pairing poetic enigmas with mathematical inquiry, the Diary creates readers attuned to a new intellectual paradigm and leverages early modern interest and pleasure in the procedural, formal qualities shared by mathematics and poetry.  While often held out as exemplary in bringing mathematics into a humanist context, Wernimont demonstrates that the Diary actually follows a well-worn, if under-recognized path that includes canonical history of science texts such as: Mercure Galant (1672-1724), Bernard Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686), and English works such as Aphra Behn’s translation of Entretiens, titled A Discovery of New World (1688), and Peter Anthony Motteux’s Gentleman’s Journal (1692–94). In so doing, she argues that such texts represent early lineages of modern algorithmic culture – a culture invested in the pleasure and power of procedural logics – and demonstrates the centrality of women’s writing within this tradition.”


wikipedia’s Augustine

Because I work on literature and mathematics, I tend to look at a number of different forms, modes, and genres. What this loses in particularity, it makes up for by illuminating shared traditions. Emerging from the discussions at EMDA thisweek, and of the ESTC data in particular, are a number of questions and ideas about early modern exercises as part of the print tradition.

I’m not quite sure right now how to talk about exercises – are they a form? They aren’t quite a genre (?), but they do entail expectations and function as techne in ways that I might think of genre doing. Perhaps the most famous of the exercises in the early modern are those of the Augustine tradition, beginning with St. Augustine’s Confessions, which include a set of spiritual exercises.

Pierre Hadot argues that spiritual exercises like those of the Augustine tradition focus the believer in a state of attention – they are designed to create a specific kind of temporality, that of the eternal present. Hadot is interested in tracing a long lineage for spiritual exercises – extending from antiquity to Ignatius of Loyola, Descartes, Pascal, Wittgenstein, and perhaps even Foucault. While I like Hadot’s long view approach, I miss the koan-like quality of the Augustine exercises themselves when I try to think Wittgenstein or Foucault in there.

It occurred to me yesterday, however, that there might be a tighter formal link between the rhetorical and mathematic exercises of the early moder period and that such a shared formal schema might suggest certain common habits and cultural values around rhetoric and mathematics.

Progymnasmata – classical preliminary exercises for the “intro” rhetoric student were designed to focus the student on a particular area of classical oration. Did they share the emphasis on the present that Hadot argues for in the Augustinian exercises? I’d have to think more about it. While they were designed to be cumulative in a way that I’m not sure is there for the spiritual exercises, there remained the possibility of returning to the exercises in non-sequential ways for the purposes of inventio or invention.

early modern paper mathematical wheel (Yale)
early modern paper mathematical wheel (Yale)

Then there are the mathematical exercises. They are at least as old as classical rhetoric and devotional writing, with the earliest known mathematical exercise dting from ca. 3350 BC. Like poetry, mathematical exercises were considered “recreation” – both in the sense of re-creation and of play. A night spent working through mathematical problems was on par with a card game for Samuel Pepys and his wife. 

What does all of this have to do with anything digital? Well, I’m looking for a better sense of how many people were writing about exercise – whether spiritual, rhetorical, mathematical or otherwise. Right now, I have a hard time understanding the scope of the field, as it were. To give you a sense of what I mean – here’s a snapshot of what “mathematical exercise” (variant sp but not forms) yields in just the Folger Shakespeare Library’s online catalogue

Screen shot 2013-07-12 at 7.36.33 AM

800+ entries, even if there are numerous false hits, is a enormous number of texts and this is just for one archive (partially catalogued) and for one kind of exercise. My problem is a pretty classic one of size – I can’t see the forest. Using the ESTC data and a visualization designed to illuminate the different kinds of exercises and their dates of publication would at least offer one view of the forest – still a partial view, but a view nonetheless.