Extreme neoliberalism: Will Smith and mathematics

Written by Heather. Posted in News

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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Comments (7)

  • Michael Harris


    Will Smith seems to be identifying himself with God as seen by Descartes but not by Leibniz. Here is a discussion from (an early draft of a chapter in) Ian Hacking’s new book of the distinction between the two.

    “I think it helpful to see that the outlines of the distinction are there from the beginning of recognizably modern mathematics, but it would be wrong to say that Descartes or even Leibniz saw matters clearly and distinctly. One of many things that divided the two philosophers was the nature and characteristics of truths known or established in mathematics. It was an old debate that much exercised anyone who believed, as mediaeval Christian and Muslim philosophers did, in an omnipotent and omniscient God. A square always has four sides, and 2+2 will always make four: those are eternal truths. But could God, if he so chose, make a five sided square, or make 2+2 make five? If not, then there is something he cannot do, so he is not omnipotent.

    “This debate was remembered even in the Tractatus (3.031), where Wittgenstein wrote: ‘It used to be said that God could create anything except what would be contrary to the laws of logic.’ Well, what would stop him? Wittgenstein’s answer at that time was that ‘we could not say of an “unlogical” world how it would look’. (I have used the first, Ogden, translation (1922). The Pears and McGuinness translation (1961): ‘We could not say of an “illogical” world what it would look like.’)”

    Hacking expands (briefly) on the distinction in his paper

    Count on Will Smith to play God in a future feature film.


  • Michael Barany


    Thanks for raising this provocative contrast, Heather!
    Your post and Michael’s comment made me think of a debate from about two decades ago between Michael Lynch and David Bloor, over the interpretation of a parable that Wittgenstein uses. In the parable, a child counts correctly up to 1000 by twos, then continues “1004, 1008, 1012″ and is immediately corrected by the teacher.
    Wittgenstein points out that, on the basis of the child’s experience counting to 1000 by twos, there was nothing that formally ruled out his continuing as he did. There are many possible rules to tell the child how to continue, and the teacher’s choice, as with the child’s (and as with Smith or Winston’s continuation of “2+2=“), will always be arbitrary. Who is the child, or the teacher, or Wittgenstein, or we the readers to say which is right, or (and this is Wittgenstein’s key point) which is _necessarily true_?
    And yet, we _know_ what the right answer is. We side with the teacher and not the child. Lynch and Bloor ask why.
    For Bloor, it is all about interests and power. Because there is fundamentally a choice about how to continue, that choice will be determined by the social institutions, political values, and other sources of power that make it possible for the teacher to correct the child and necessary for the child to obey, and make the child’s assent a condition of participating in a particular society. We don’t say that the child was _wrong_, but that the child had yet to be _disciplined_.
    For Lynch, by contrast, it is all about the small repeated and learned routines of counting. It is wrong, for Lynch, to claim that the teacher and child were free to choose from a number of logical possibilities, not because there is an eternally true right way to continue but because each individual’s existence is built out of these small repeated ways of knowing and doing. It is not necessary to imagine big swirling interests and power structures to explain the process of trying to count, being corrected, and learning the “right” way to continue.
    Lynch thus suggests Bloor is naive, that he buys into the idea of grand theoretical and social principles when all there really is is everyday experience. Bloor suggests Lynch lacks a politics and a recognition of how power on a large scale really does affect our day to day actions.
    For me, this takes us to the line at the very end of the 1984 clip you shared: “you must try harder.” Here, getting “2+2” wrong is not about the underlying truth of mathematics or even about the power of the party to change that truth. It is about the personal, embodied failure of Winston to get with the program. What does that tell us about Will Smith, whose personal embodied (especially on the treadmill) success has given him the power to claim what Winston denies?


  • Heather


    Tim Johnson has blogged a response to this on the mathematical cultures site: It begins with this perceptive point: “Smith is clearly talking rubbish, I have no idea whether he thought about what he was saying but I see an opportunity to advise film producers who offer to pay Will $5 million to appear in a film, and offer it in two instalments of $2 million, Will would quickly revise his beliefs.” You can read the full post here: https://sites.google.com/site/mathematicalcultures/blog/willsmithsmathematics


  • Paul Ernest


    Picking out 2+2 as a symbolic icon for mathematics is very interesting, and as you say 2+2=4 and 2+2=5 can play iconic roles representing different things. 2+2=4 can represent truth or even self-evident truth, while 2+2=5 can represent falsehood, error or even sin. For there is an elision of meaning between incorrect = error = wrong (not right) = sin (not good). Traditional answer-centred school mathematics demonizes errors and sometimes slips into such elsions of meaning punishing children’s error as sins. However you point out that 2+2=5 can signify freedom from contraining authority, logic, and represents a creative redefining of meaning – in the case of Will Smith. This is not as ridiculous as it seems for we know in maths 1+1=0, 1+1=1, 1+1=2 and 1+1=10 are all true in different arithmetic systems, and 1+1=2 plays an iconic role similar to 2+2=4. Part of the creativity of mathematics is that one can redefine operations and functions and explore new systems. (Note that to the nearest cm 2.4cm + 2.3cm = 5cm represents the erroneous sum). 2+2=5 signifies the opposite for Winston and 1984 where truth is forced the bend, yield and is vanquished by naked authoritarian power. There are many popular cartoons and jokes based on some of these contrasts which I would have liked to include but this margin is too narrow to contain them.


  • Tim Johnson


    Having a five year old and a three year old I am very familiar with the soundtrack to “Frozen” and picked up the following verse:

    It’s funny how some distance,
    makes everything seem small.
    And the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all
    It’s time to see what I can do,
    to test the limits and break through.
    No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
    I’m free!

    While I go past Scottish Referendum posters that “simply says CAN – the image having been amended from CAN’T” (http://www.yesscotland.net/news/new-poster-shows-we-can-be-thriving-independent-country)


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