On Numeration (Khan meet Steigler)

I’ve been spending some hours this weekend reviewing math at the amazing Khan Academy.  The following reflection is meant as a contemplation of a trend and not in any way a critique of their valuable work.

Consider the screenshot below: where the value assigned to IAK of 66º does not accurately reflect it’s value. Both angles IAK and GCJ, if measured with a tool like a compass, are 45º angles. Yet IAK is labelled 66º and the correct answer to the angle GCJ is 24º. It does not seem like an important mislabelling, yet there is a fundamental conceptual issue at stake here. And it has a relation to poetry (perhaps tenuous) but it’s an issue of trust. As Tom Waits said: “The large print giveth, the small print taketh away”. Exactly as here: where the faint inscription at the bottom states: “Note: Angles not necessarily drawn to scale.”

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Bernard Stiegler (in Techne & Time vol1) writes “Numeration is a loss of originary meaning and sight, a loss of the eidetic intentionality that underlies scientificity as such: ‘In algebraic calculation, one lets the geometric signification recede into the background as a matter of course, indeeed one drops it altogether; one calculates, remembering only at the end that numbers signify magnitudes…’ The technicization science constitutes its eidetic blinding.” (Stiegler. pg.3)

And indeed a form of blindness is occurring, in this realm of math education, numbers don’t lie but reality does. It is analogous to flying on instruments in a plane; or trusting the supercomputer’s judgement; exterior phenomena are downgraded. Reality itself becomes something that confuses the viewer, common sense evokes mistrust. Data is God. And this process exemplifies a strategic stressing of numerical order over phenomena.

Normally, I am sympathetic to the capacity of science to avoid cognitive biases: but not when the visual representation of observed reality is palpably contorted. This process privileges a mode of reasoning at the neglect of observation. By bypassing reality, the posthuman hybrid augmented secularized infinite numerical field replaces the experiential refuge. Analysis of abstraction becomes the only mode of reasoning capable of arriving at truth because reality lies.

Slavov Zizek in A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology critiques overlays of abstract knowledge and propaganda that obscure reality: “I am already eating from this trashcan all the time. The name of this trashcan is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating”. Numerical ideology performs exactly this sleight of hand, replacing reality with a reality-that-cannot-be-trusted, and in doing so negates the body as a perceptual force.

Poets have trust issues with math. As mathematicians have trust issues with poets. Intuitions and concepts often clash with the conclusions of engineering.  Hallucinations and prophetic visions, once the bread and butter of poetry, are not credible. Numeration takes this one step farther and inserts doubt into normal perceptions.

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