In this, the final post of this series, I would like to outline some of the conclusions about mathematics that Valerie Walkerdine reaches in her book The Mastery of Reason.
I want to suggest that it is often the case that we live our daily lives as fantasy. (p.148)
What is the fantasy are living when we participate in Mathematical activity? Walkerdine describes it as (p.188):
…the fantasy of a discourse and practice in which the world becomes what is wanted: regular, ordered, controllable. The imposition of this discourse onto the world therefore renders to the mathematician… an incredibly powerful position. For s/he produces statements which are taken to be true. The result of a fantasy is lived as a fact.
This fantasy is maintained by (p.190):
… the suppression of all that exists outside the rational… creating a world ordered in the image of that fantasy.
Mathematics prohibits the irrational and produces the rational. It is the epitome of logic. As such, it can be argued that the teaching of mathematics is central to the production of the 'rational child'.
The power of mathematics lies in the suppression of meaning, and subsequent generalisability, of its statements. When these (inherently meaningless) mathematical statements are then applied back onto anything in our world, they gain the appearance of universal 'truths' and 'facts' that describe our experience. The power of mathematics, and our power over the universe, is confirmed.
As Walkerdine explains (p.199):
Mathematical discourse is the object of a fantasy… anything can potentially be read in this discourse – it thus provides power over anything… it provides a fantasy of mastery.
However, this ‘mastery’ comes at a cost. By suppressing all that which is not rational, we exclude many aspects of what (many consider) makes us human, such as emotion; as such, mathematics it is often viewed as being cold, without humanity.
If this is the case, if emotion and desire are suppressed, what then is the source of the pleasure (for some) afforded by mathematics (p.199)?
The pleasure afforded is a pleasure of control – the ‘somebody else’ that the mastery of mathematics makes possible is somebody who is certain, gets right answers, has closure rather than being ceaselessly caught in the web of desire. Desire is mastered…
Indeed, Brian Rotman suggests mathematics is the ‘product of desire’, in which:
…assertions that are proved true stay true forever, and must somehow always have been true.
This view is shared by Walkerdine (p.200):
[Mathematics] is a specific and powerfully created discourse in which power and control are inscribed in its very form… It is produced out of a desire and lived through a fantasy.
What is the source of this desire that mathematics (and rationality) seeks to control? Here Walkerdine turns to Freud (p.190):
Since satisfaction is altogether impossible, the infant must embark on ‘filling the gap’, of mastering, and dealing with, the loss.
According to Freud, we cannot satisfy our desires, we can only seek to control them. Lacan called the ‘Symbolic’ the place where desire is controlled, but for Lacan the Symbolic is in language, whereas Walkerdine extends the Symbolic to include mathematics. She suggests that (p.199):
If desire is controlled, it is not fulfilled, or satisfied. Its Other, therefore, the loss, the object desired, exists waiting in the wings, in the external reference suppressed in the discourse. The Other of mathematics is uncertainty, irrationality… Such a system produces a very powerful body of truth, against a terrifying Other which it must ‘know’.
Lacan and Freud suggest the Other is Woman, and that the original object of desire is the Mother. This is of course only one theory. Walkerdine suggests here that, in the discourse of mathematics, the Other is '...uncertainty, irrationality...' This is perhaps self-evident, and possibly rather vague, but purposefully so; perhaps she is suggesting that there is no single, universal Other?
Whatever the source of our desires may be, and whatever the Other might be, it is certainly feasible that the pleasure afforded by mathematics is the fantasy of control over these desires, this Other.
It seems feasible that we do live our lives according to fantasy, and that mathematics, and the reasons why we enjoy it, or teach it, may not be what we think they are.
It also seems feasible that mathematics may indeed contribute to the maintenance of the present social and political order, based as it is on the rational, the scientific, the quantitative.
Finally: If mathematics requires the suppression of what is not rational, what might be the effect of the increasing dominance of maths in the curriculum on the development of our children as a whole? If the mastery of reason is held above all else as the pinnacle of knowledge, what is the future for our society?