Neoliberalism, the marketisation of everything, including ourselves, runs through our data. Indeed we’ve encountered several of examples of ‘extreme neoliberalism’ where celebrities find ever more excessive and expressive ways to convince us that their wealth and success derive not from luck or privilege but from superhuman levels of hard work and self-transformation. In a recent example, US actor Matthew McConaughey used his Oscars speech to tell us that his hero is himself in ten years, writing his success as the result of endless striving. However, it is the actor, musician and celebrity dad Will Smith who continues to provide the most compelling examples of extreme neoliberalism. Memorably, he once assured us that his commitment to sickening hard work is such that he would rather die than get off a treadmill before someone else. In this post Heather focuses on her favourite example from Will Smith in which he claims that he can choose the answer to two plus two.
In a much-watched interview extract, Will Smith positions himself not as an icon but an idea. This idea is possibility and self-creation. He uses mathematics to explain this. You can watch the interview in full below but I’ve transcribed the key section:
I don’t want to be an icon, um, I want to be an idea … I want to represent possibilities, um, I want to represent magic, right, that you’re in a universe and two plus two equals four. Two plus two only equals four if you accept that two plus ewo equals four. Two plus two’s gonna be what I want it to be, you know. And there’s a, there’s a redemptive power that making a choice has, you know, rather than feeling like you’re an affect to all the things that are happening. Like make a choice. You just decide what it’s gonna be, who you’re gonna be, how you’re gonna do it. You just decide. And then from that point the universe is going to get out your way. It’s water. It wants to move and go around stuff. So for me, I want to represent possibilities … You really can make what you want.
This example probably fascinates me because of my former life as a mathematics teacher and my ongoing sideline in maths education research specialising in the uses of maths in popular culture.
Here and elsewhere, mathematics and the iconic statement ‘two plus two equals four’, represents a hard objectivity, the antithesis to freedom and creativity. One of the things which constrain us. Will’s rejection of this, stands for his rejection of all the things that (are said to) constrain us. In place of this we have “the redemptive power that making a choice has”. When you decide there are no constraints “the universe is going to get out of your way”. This is extreme neoliberalism because it elevates the individual above all else. Those, like me, who find the universe getting in their way, have failed: failed to exercise our power of choice, failed to just decide, failed to see the possibilities. All of us are equal within Will’s universe: there are no systematic inequalities that offer some people more choices and possibilities than others.
As Paul Ernest reminded me, two plus two recurs in popular culture, and it’s instructive to compare Will’s use of it with its most iconic instance in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The novel’s protagonist, Winston, lives within a totalitarian regime in which all aspects of his life are controlled by the Party. He writes in his diary:
In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?
When tortured, as in the film version below, Winston is compelled to deny what he knows to be true and to count five fingers when only four are held up.
In the world of 1984, “freedom is the freedom to say two and two make four”. Once again mathematics represents certainty but here it is a familiar, even friendly, certainty – a welcome external constraint – that can be used to gauge how far the lies and deceptions of the Party have penetrated. For Winston, holding onto mathematical absolutes means holding onto beauty, truth and humanity, against an oppressive system. For Will, holding onto mathematical absolutes means holding onto constraint, compulsion and rigidity, against possibilities and redemption.
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