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Can the mad mathematical woman speak?

I just watched Proof, a 2005 Gwyneth Paltrow movie, after an elder mathematician recommended it as a film that gets math and math culture right. He rightly recommended it because gender, voice, conviviality, and time anxiety are at the center of the film.

A famous mathematician is mentally ill and spends years in his house writing in notebooks as his daughter, also a mathematician working her way through an undergraduate degree, drops out to take care of him. During these times, she labors in her room on her own mathematical work but when the work is discovered, she meets only with others’ disbelief that she could have done it. She claims authorship; her sister wonders if she is lying; another friend wonders if she is mad like her just passed father; neither the sister nor the friend (nor the audience, in many cases) can quite believe that a young woman could have done much work. I say the audience doesn’t believe it because the suspense of the film is about the question of who really wrote the proof. The movie editors themselves assume that the woman’s claims to authorship are not really claims at all.

Like in Helene Mialet’s Hawking Incorporated, Proof depicts the social milieus and distributed labors by which mathematicians live and sustain who they are. The film, like Mialet, offers an “anthropology of the knowing subject.” Proof goes more in the direction of books like Lawrence Cohen’s No Aging In India, in that it looks at how social location mediates one’s ability to become a knowing and self-possessing subject.

Like for Mialet, authorship is an accomplishment achieved by creating networks around oneself. But unlike Mialet, the film also brings into plain sight the way authorship is a claim that must be accepted — an attribution by others. Some people seem like more plausible authors than others. This process of attribution is shaped by discourses of gender and mental illness, and mediated through the ethos and everyday practices of a culture of mathematical guys.

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