Totalising discourses. How do you tell a mathematician from an engineer?

By Peter Rundell

Consider a tap, an empty jug next to it that can hold water, and a kettle on the other side of the kitchen.  How do you fill the kettle?  Both the mathematician and the engineer would fill the jug with water from the tap, take it across the kitchen, and fill the kettle.  Now revise the experiment: a tap, a jug full of water, and a kettle on the other side of the kitchen.  The engineer would take the jug across the kitchen and fill the kettle, while the mathematician would empty the jug, thus reducing the problem to one we have already solved.

One thing that has struck me recently is the variety of ways of seeing the world that that take one lens, one image, one perspective, and apply it to everything.  These totalising discourses tend then to reduce all questions to those within the paradigm – much like the mathematician.  As a mathematician I can sympathise with this desire for conceptual unity, but I’ve recently become aware of its hazards.

Where I currently work, I meet at least three – I’d like to think four – of these visions of the world.  Two of them are familiar, and indeed one of them seems to dominate much thinking in London: the economic discourse.

This sees everything through the spectacles of the allocation of scarce resources.  Exchanges take place to maximise utility in market places that are characterised by a variety of buyers and sellers with different offers and different demands.
Since theory predicts optimum efficiency in perfect markets without inefficient interventions by state regulation, this encourages us to “set the market free”.  Since efficiency is obtained by including a wide range of sellers and buyers, this invites us to bring more and more into the marketplace.  By recognising the opportunity cost of time spent, we can bring leisure into the market; by recognising the marginal increase in future earnings we can similarly capture education.Some familiar theorems about efficiency – a suitably value-loaded term, for who wants to advocate an inefficient solution? – then invite us to see all interactions as the exchange of value, all transactions as market-based.

And since every interaction between people can be seen as a bargain in which each seeks to maximise their utility – itself a monotone increasing function of quantity – we can reduce all interactions to implicit sales.  Since the only way to decode those transactions (which all interactions have become) is through some common numeraire, everything becomes monetised.  We find the opportunity – indeed, the obligation – to analyse every form of human interaction as a purchase; families are economically efficient marketplace responses to the need for food, clothing, and shelter.  Risks are hedged in futures markets in everything from food to health care, and in the end we have money the measure of all things.

And yet … and yet …  Do we really believe that we fall in love through a calculation of the future stream of hugs and kisses?  That we bring up children as a financially optimal insurance policy for old age?  That we support our local team out of an assessment of imputed returns?  While the economic discourse is all-encompassing, closed and internally (probably) consistent, it is also manifest nonsense as a description of how real people actually live their lives.  And the failure to challenge it has led to a deep impoverishment of public speech and imagination, most evident in responses to the current economic crisis.

There is of course another popular discourse in public speech and thought, almost equally totalising.  That sees everything in terms of politics.  All interactions are about power, and the alliances and factions that accrete power.  Those with power secure their desired outcomes, and those without power are compelled to acquiesce in those outcomes.  Money buys power, of course, but the power discourse recognises other sources of power as well – status, strength, skilful speech, even height and good looks bring power in one form or another.  Yet all relationships are fields of power play, and no interaction takes place without the exercise of power and its manipulation to get the powerful his (or sometimes her) desire.

This vision was even embedded in the familiar phrase that “the personal is political”.  And of course, like the economic discourse with its valid recognition of the power of exchange and the way we discount uncertain futures, so the political discourse contains important insights.

It is all too easy for the powerful to dominate the language of public policy.  However, power operates in the reverse way to economics.  While economics seeks to capture all interactions overtly, the powerful often seek to cloak their power.  As a result, the political discourse contributes greatly to our understanding when it unmasks the power relations that underlie our most familiar friendships and modes of speech.

And yet … and yet … there is more to us than power, too.  While bringing power asymmetries into the light is important, the assumption that it must always be so, that power will always be the determining factor in relationships, can be as pernicious as the picture of all life as a cash cow.  For we need not see power as something to exercise, nor need we helplessly submit to power in others.  We learn that classes and nations do not give up power, but rather have it wrested from them; yet in saints and in ordinary families we see the evidence of voluntary surrender of power.  And of course in Christ we see omnipotence – total power – taking powerlessness, even to the point of death by torture, as a choice lovingly embraced.

So both economic and political discourses bring valuable insights, but fundamentally distort when they are applied outside their proper realm.  I’ve spent a lot of time recently with a third totalising discourse, that of force.  The military deal in an ineluctable reality: that there are people out there who seek to impose their will on a community by force.  If their will is not forcefully – indeed forcibly – contested, then they will dominate and despoil.  The only way to hold that back is by opposing force.

The discourse of force is close to that of power, but sees everything through narrower spectacles.  The dominant mode is compulsion, the calculus is weight of fire.  Whoever can bring greater force to bear at a point will win, and whoever brings insufficient force to bear will be defeated.  The loser loses all, often including her or his life.  The currencies of courage, discipline, planning and foresight are essential resources for the use of force, and the virtues of self-sacrifice, comradeship, resolution and bravery may be part and parcel of both winner and loser.  But in the end it is all about winning, being the last one standing.

In a war it is hard to see beyond the fight.  When you are being shot at from several directions, it can be hard – it may not be sensible – to debate the rights and wrongs of an assailant’s understanding of the history of the area, their motivation for shooting you or setting fire to a girls’ school, or the complexities of ethnic politics and agricultural livelihoods in the area.  War is all-encompassing and all-consuming.  And those who see the world through the lens of force feel that anything less stark is unreal, masking the cold reality of life in soft wrappings.  In the end, nations – and classes – survive if they are strong enough, and disappear if they are not.  War is the Darwinian selection process for societies.

Again, within its own frame of reference this is compelling.  There are rules for war – jus ad bellum, jus in bello – which set proper limits on how war may morally be waged.  But within those limits the cold hard logic of reality strips away much sentimental deception from the skin of society.  Trotsky saw this clearly in his account of the Russian Revolution, and his dispassionate analysis, if not his lively rhetoric, holds true in many ways today.

And yet … and yet …  We have seen the cost of war, and in a nuclear age we know that we must set limits on it.  We know that the classic case for just warfare has all too often been fudged by the politics, driven by the economics, for the interests of the rich and powerful.  And we also know that people have resisted force, that the tanks and guns of the Egyptian Army did not hold back the popular tide in Tahrir, that the tide of people power has swept over the barricades from Benghazi to Manila, that we have alternatives to violence as a lever for social and political change.

So all three totalising discourses fail.  They fail, not necessarily because they are wrong in their own realms, but because they extend beyond those realms into areas of life where they do not apply.  They can bring insights, of course, but they can also blind and confuse.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.  While Jesus’ response to the coin of tribute was subtle (his question “whose image is this” invited devout Jews to identify idolatry in the coin, and hence “the things that are Caesar’s” do not endorse submission to Rome but recognition of its idolatry) Jesus’ words remind us that there is a realm where Caesar has no power.  Caesar, of course, embodied all three discourses – economic, political and forceful – for a Jew in Jesus’ day.  His words remind us that Caesar’s realm – whatever it may be, if anywhere – is bounded.

Jesus’ life also reminds us that God’s realm is not.  In his life and death Jesus demonstrated the absolute demand that God makes on us.  “A condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything”, as TS Elliott wrote.  Jesus calls us to, offers to us, a life that is complete in the Tri-une God.  That call is more satisfyingly total than the siren song of wealth, the cold iron of force, the pervasive pressures of power.  Instead it sketches out a world in which all of those are brought into submission to the single flame of God’s love.

Now that is a totalising discourse that terrifies me, intrigues me, entrances me.  That is a language worth learning.


POSTED 12.12.12 BY: ianmobsby | Comments (1)

One Response to “Totalising discourses. How do you tell a mathematician from an engineer?”

  1. On December 18th, 2012 at 2:15 pm artbizness said:

    Hi Peter.

    That’s a fantastic blog. Very thought provoking and stirs a lot of my experience.

    What we find is that the call of the triune God is really difficult to both hear and act in a world that is both dominated by and founded on politics, economics and force (and I have been convinced for some time now that those things are all dependent on each other for existence) to the extent that it is almost impossible for people to envision a world without them.

    The good thing is that something about the powerlessness of poverty that can, if we let it, throw us back on the triune nature of God (in the sense that, for many, there is nothing else left to turn to).

    However, I have also seen in poverty that “mini-versions” of what you describe can take place too – domination by force, politics and economics all exist at a local level where I live, where the state has all but withdrawn it’s responsibilities to its citizens (it’s so much easier to fall back on your skills instead of taking the harder route).

    I’m not sure how we live “in submission to the single flame of God’s love” in such situations. I’ve made a start, and I’ve done the best I can, but I’m also aware of the painful limitations of what I have been able to be, and the possibility of political, economic and forceful domination to “leak” into my own experience.

    Answers on a postcard. Do you see any examples of hope in your work situations, Peter?