12 April 2010

On Hyperbolic Crochet and Lacan

I love the Science Gallery, its a great place that never fails to surprise and delight with the exhibitions it puts on. A few weeks ago The Very Understanding Girlfriend took part in a crocheting workshop there, but not just any crocheting workshop. This was part of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, a global exhibition that travels from country to country crocheting coral reefs.

"And why?", I hear you ask. Well, Hyperbolic Space is non-Euclidian Geometry in action. According to Wikipedia:
"In mathematics, hyperbolic n-space, denoted Hn, is the maximally symmetric, simply connected, n-dimensional Riemannian manifold with constant sectional curvature −1. Hyperbolic space is the principal example of a space exhibiting hyperbolic geometry. It can be thought of as the negative-curvature analogue of the n-sphere. Although hyperbolic space Hn is diffeomorphic to Rn its negative-curvature metric gives it very different geometric properties."
which makes no sense at all to me either, I'm afraid. As far as I can tell its a structure where parallel lines can be folded upon themselves so that two points on separate parallel lines can actually be in contact with each other, which is impossible in standard Euclidian geometry.

Growing up on a diet of SciFi, tesseracts and wormholes, this all seems perfectly plausible to me, but to a whole raft of mathematicians the idea that this type of space could ever actually be physically modelled in the really real world was ludicrous. Or more specifically to a whole raft of male mathematicians it seemed impossible, and then one fine day in 1997, Dr Daina Taimina of Cornell University realised that you could actually model hyperbolic space through crochet.

Her work was then picked up by Margaret and Christine Wertheim, two US-based Australians, who saw parallels between the hyperbolic shapes crocheted by Taimina and naturally occurring coral structures, and so a project to highlight the destruction of the coral reefs and showcase the role of women in mathematics was born, and touched down here in Dublin at the Science Gallery just over three weeks ago.

As part of the preparation for the exhibition an open workshop was held, where folks could go along and crochet their own contributions to an Irish reef that would become part of the permanent travelling exhibition. According to The Very Understanding Girlfriend between 30 and 40 people attended, none of whom were men. In fact according to the Wertheims over 3,000 people have contributed pieces to the exhibition over the last few years, 3 of whom were men.

This lack of male participation in crocheting and the over-representation of men in positions of academic authority in the mathematics world might have had something to do with the fact that it took so long for someone to realise that hyperbolic spaces could be modeled in the really real world. For the male-dominated Academy such modeling was impossible, meaning that if they couldn't understand it, it couldn't possible exist.

I am a man. I have never experienced gender discrimination, and would like to think that I have never knowingly participated in it. I have rarely witnessed it, but increasingly I have come to think that this is because I am not attuned to seeing it, believing that gender struggles in Western/Northern societies are largely a thing of the past, a battle fought in the twenties and seventies, and gender inequality is largely something for the history books.

I am, of course, very, very wrong about this, but it still manages to shock me when I witness it in an otherwise 'enlightened' environment.

I've been reading a lot of Badiou and Žižek over the last few months, and both draw on the psychoanalysis of Lacan, Žižek especially, as the basis of many of their sociological and political theories. Lacan, who seems relatively unknown in the mainstream society of the English speaking world, is passionately followed by roughly half of the 20,000 or so practicing psychoanalysts in the world, the others being more traditional Freudians. I finally got round to reading a bit of Lacan directly, and was happily working through his theory of the Real, and thoughts on language, nodding my head along as I do when I think I understand something, but almost certainly don't, and then suddenly came to a crashing halt when he started to expound upon the nature of women.

Men, you see, have a phallus. Women, as you may have noticed, do not. For Lacan the Phallus is not just the penis, but the penis is a Phallus, the Phallus being an externalized representation of male sexuality. It is easy therefore to define what a man is, a man is that which has a Phallus. But women, as we have already noted, do not have a Phallus, therefore it is impossible to define what a woman is except in terms of the absence of something, and defining a woman as that which does not have a Phallus is a pretty poor definition indeed for Lacan. Women are thus undefinable mysteries.

This, to my uneducated mind, is complete rubbish; that in the opening years of the 21st Century any widely held academic belief could be based on such an androcentric model, that men are the baseline and women can only be defined in terms of their lack of an essential male-ness, beggars belief. While it is easy for me to dismiss this notion from my worldview as antediluvian, what are the implications for my acceptance of Lacan's other theories? If his central understanding of masculinity and femininity strikes me as ludicrous, then must I also hold his theories of Language and the Real as suspect? And if Lacan is suspect then must I also hold all of Badiou's and Žižek's theories as erroneous, built as they are on fundamentally flawed foundations?

The Academy itself must therefore be suspect, particularly in disciplines dominated by a specific gender, for male psychoanalysts, political philosophers and mathematicians alike all suffer from a singular monoculture of the mind, a gender-based myopia that seems incapable of allowing for the existence of experience outside their own masculine world-view, and even though they may believe themselves to be open and egalitarian their inherent myopia prevents them from seeing the ways in which their thought-models actually discriminate.

Their belief system prevents them from accepting the possibility of their discrimination until someone comes along and crochets them a new model.

Oops! (but a good 'oops') Dr Daina Taimina replied this afternoon via the comments below to say:
"Hi, Unkie Dave - sorry to disappoint you -but it was a man who came with the idea to have this model - see the history of a model here:
so I stand suitably and happily corrected!

Her book 'Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes' recently won The Diagram prize for the Oddest Named Book of the Year, and is available from Amazon in the UK, and the US, and you can see and read more of her work on her blog, Hyperbolic Crochet.


I'm still skeptical about Lacan and the rest of the Academy though...

The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is on display until June at the Science Gallery.
The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef at the Science Gallery
Interview with Dr Daina Taimina at Cabinet Magazine
More of my photos from the launch event
lusciousblopster's photos from the launch

A number of friends are exceptionally creative in the fields of knitting and crocheting, and have the good sense to blog about it extensively. For inspiration and encouragement check out the kaleidoscopic Caroline at An Snag Breac, the fabulous Felix at The Domestic Soundscape and the indomitable Lean at The String Revolution . I, alas, barely qualify as having opposable thumbs and possess the manual dexterity of a manatee, so it is highly unlikely that you will see the knitted productions of Unkie Dave on this blog, but you never know...

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At 4:41 pm, Blogger Daina Taimina said...

Hi, Unkie Dave - sorry to disappoint you -but it was a man who came with the idea to have this model - see the history of a model here:

and check out my book - they said it will be in Science Gallery by April 17.

At 5:04 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

wow, I stand corrected by the absolute bestest source in the world! Wahoo! Thank you so much for posting!

I was delighted to see that your book won the Diagram prize for oddest named book (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/26/oddest-book-title-award), and we are definitely looking forward to getting our own copy later in the month.

It must be pointed out that while the original idea may not have come from a woman, I would never have been aware of this subject if it weren't for my Very Understanding Girlfriend, so maybe this blog post is an admission of my own gender myopia!

I'm still pretty positive that Lacan needs to be treated with healthy skepticism though...

At 9:15 am, Blogger Kate said...

Crocheting is a previously unrecognised ninja skill I have come to realise. Mr RocknRoll's mother is a case in point - she crochets the most wonderful creations and late at night, if she falls asleep on the sofa while crocheting... her hands keep going! Obviously the rhythms and movements are so attuned to biorhythms...or the creative process is so directly controlled by the subconcious that the body recognises crocheting as a natural state and continues. Mind Boggling.

At 5:29 pm, Blogger Snag Breac said...

How great is that as a response!

Nice post Dave. Knitting has always been something so linked with maths for me - making in general is - but its so rare to hear it talked of as such. I think there are so many links in everyday living to theoretical concepts that aren't really recognised as such. Thinking one thing is "science" and one is "craft" or "art" or "feminine handicrafts" whatever, can be so limiting and you forget to see the links.


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