The Rest is Silence. On Mathematics and Critical Theory
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There is untapped potential for critical theory in mathematics. As Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno first conceived of the critical project in the 1930s, critical theory steadfastly opposed the mathematization of thought. Mathematics flattened thought into a dangerous positivism that led reason to the barbarism of World War II. However, closer inspection of figures adjacent to the Frankfurt School – such as the journalist, cultural critic, and later film theorist Siegfried Kracauer – challenges this narrative and shows that mathematics provided a resource for early versions of critical theory. For Kracauer, mathematics and, in particular, geometry offered metaphors to negotiate the crises of modernity during the Weimar Republic. Revisiting Kracauer’s blend of mathematics with cultural critique uncovers a more capacious vision of the critical project, one with tools that can help us intervene in our digital and increasingly mathematical present.
Matthew Handelman is an Associate Professor of German and a member of the Core Faculty in the Digital Humanities at Michigan State University. His research interests include German-Jewish literature and philosophy in the early twentieth century, the intersections of science, mathematics and culture in German-speaking countries, as well as the digital humanities and the history of technology. His first book, The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory appeared with Fordham University Press in 2019. He is currently working on a new project that looks at the idea and practice of Kulturpolitik in the late Weimar Republic.
Nina Engelhardt is an interim professor at the Department of English Literature at the University of Cologne. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Amongst others, her research focuses on the relations between literature and science, particularly mathematics.