This text, occasioned by a critical reading of Tony Brown’s new book Mathematics Education and Subjectivity, aims at contributing to the building of a sociopolitical approach to mathematics education based on Lacanian psychoanalysis and Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy. Brown has been bringing into the field of mathematics education the work of these two scholars, and his work has been important in understanding the cultural dynamics of school mathematics. This article highlights the limitations of Brown’s use of Lacanian theory and outlines a framework to understand students’ learning not in terms of the inherent properties of mathematics but in terms of the role this school subject plays within political economy.
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Elsewhere (Pais, 2015), I engage in a discussion that extends the debate between sociocultural theories (based on the recent articles of Presmeg and Radford 2008; Radford and Roth 2011; Roth 2012) and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Namely, I discuss the dialectic involved in the way researchers conceive the relation between person and culture or between psychology and sociology. My purpose here is not to enter into this debate but provide instead a different interpretation of Lacan’s work from the one emerging from Brown’s theorizations around mathematics education and subjectivity.
As Lacan (2008a, p. 74) said, in his own style, “if you want to do logic, or anything else to do with modern science, you have to start before you have been completely cretinized, by culture of course”, and he adds, “obviously, we are always a little cretinized because there is no escaping secondary school”.
Lacan, seminar of 10 May 1967, in Le séminaire, Livre XIV: La logique du fantasme (unpublished). Quoted in Žižek (2012, p. 551).
That is, a minimum of sociopolitical significance as articulated in the field of the Other: “jouissance [enjoyment] is questioned, evoked, tracked, and elaborated only on the basis of a semblance” (Lacan, 1999, p. 92). This is true even for something apparently enjoyable in its own right: sex. As Žižek (2005) explores, even for the sexual act to take place, there has to be some kind of fantasy support. We cannot just “do it”; we have to narrativize it, “seeing” ourselves doing it through the Other’s gaze.
Žižek’s more precise here: these “structures” that determine teachers’ work are the structures of capitalist economics. Throughout the book, Brown never poses capital itself as the determining force colouring our action in the world. Although he discusses the commoditization of mathematics, the restrictions imposed on teachers and students by the need for accountability, and the administrative control imposed by governments, he never posits capital as the “concrete universal” of our historical époque, that is, as something that “while it remains a particular formation, it overdetermines all alternative formations, as well as all noneconomic strata of social life” (Žižek, 2004, p. 3). The sense I get from reading Brown’s book is that capital gets watered down into a set of obstacles—administrative, bureaucratic, governmental—and personalised into groups of people—controlling the curriculum, seeking for accountability—that are then seen as malfunctions, contingent occurrences of an otherwise good system.
This is a case of what Judith Butler calls a “passionate attachment” (Butler, 1997), where the very submission of oneself to discipline also produces libidinal activity. That is, the subject actually enjoys being submitted to disciplinary mechanisms. As phrased by Butler (1997), “the repressive law is not external to the libido that it represses, but the repressive law represses to the extent that repression becomes a libidinal activity” (p. 49, quoted in Žižek, 2008b, p. 300, my emphasis). This explains why people continue to be attached to discursive or ideological forms of submission, even after becoming completely aware of them. What binds us to explicit ideologies or discursive practices of subjectification is not a rational decision to do so, but an unconscious mode of enjoyment.
Jouissance is a complicated term in Lacanian theory, and it is used in different ways to signify different things. Here, I am referring to the jouissance of the signifier, the one that is attained through the symbolic disposition of language. I am not referring to the phallic jouissance, the raw flow of pleasure of the primordial father which relates with the signifier in a different way. See Lacan (1999, 2007).
The basic feature uniting Marx’s theory of political economy and Freud’s psychoanalysis is the idea that there is something that overdetermines an individual’s acting in the world. Marx situated this overdetermination in what he called the infrastructure, that is, the economic mode of production, while in Freud this overdetermination takes place at the level of the unconscious. Lacan’s reading of Marx in Seminar XVII brings together economy and unconscious into a unitary theoretical discourse.
Imagining, for instance, an entire exam industry developing tests capable of evaluating students’ capacity for generalising, “counting-as-one” inasmuch as PISA has become the ultimate examination designed to evaluate students’ use of mathematics in everyday activities. Such a “commoditization” has been happening with ideas coming from ethnomathematics (Pais, 2011) and critical mathematics education (Pais et al., 2012), two fields that are highly critical towards existing school mathematics. When ideas from these fields came into schools, instead of changing the current state of affairs, they ended up being completely co-opted by the logic of school accreditation. That happens because capitalism is in our days the place of enunciation, the place where the ultimate meaning of our enunciated intentions is determined.
Some parts of Brown’s text evince a contradiction in the way he understands the concept of ideology. On the one hand, when he analyses the case of Brenda, he is well aware that ideology is not in the hands of a group of people, orchestrating our lives as if we were puppets, but is inherently dependent on the subjects who, while not really believing in it, keep acting as if they do. However, in others parts of the text, he seems to conceive ideology as an attribute of a group of people who use it in a conscious way to exert power over others (see, for instance, p. 167). I suggest that we should stick to Althusser’s idea that ideology has no outside, we are always in it, not by a conscious decision to do so, but by the way we enjoy being in it. Capital exerts its power not by means of a conscious decision by the ones in power but through the distribution of simple pleasures that keep people captive.
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