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Demotic mathematics and modernism's shipwrecked poetics of insurance

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‘Demotic’ or vernacular mathematics names the mathematical ideas and practices that are woven into literature: counting, statistics, half-forgotten schoolroom geometry, measurement and risk. In this paper I will unpick the ideas about probability that literary modernism inherits from mathematical probability theory, statistics, accident insurance and 19th-century philosophy. Adolphe Quetelet believed that the mean values of society’s gathered facts could form the contours both of the ‘average man’ and of a refined literary method. The literary future of the average man didn’t, of course, play out quite as Quetelet expected. Nonetheless the average man, the Gaussian distribution and the ‘law of large numbers’ have had a literary history. I will sketch one version of this history through a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930–43) before looking at the grammar of probability as it is lived with, habituated and estranged by modernism’s ‘insurance men’: Leopold Bloom, Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka. The categories I will propose (‘demotic mathematics’ and the ‘poetics of insurance’) are tentative attempts to take the history and sociology of applied mathematics into account when reading literature written ‘in the landscape of the curve’.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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