Math Research Institute, Art, Politics, Transgressive Sex and Geometric Langlands

I learned from a colleague last night about recent events bringing together the topics of the title of this posting, something that one wouldn’t have thought was possible. Last Wednesday there was a showing in Berkeley of Edward Frenkel’s short film Rites of Love and Math, together with the Yukio Mishima film Rites of Love and Death that inspired it. Frenkel is a math professor at Berkeley, and one of the leading figures in geometric Langlands research (which he describes as a “grand unified theory of mathematics”). He’s also a wonderful expositor, almost single-handedly making the beauty of a subject initially renowned for its obscurity accessible to a much wider audience. Recently he has worked with Witten on relations of geometric Langlands to quantum field theory, and with Langlands and Ngo on relations to number theory. At the same time, while a visiting professor in Paris, he co-directed (with Reine Graves) and acted in this new film.

MSRI was one of the two sponsors of the showing of the film, but pulled out of this role recently, for reasons explained here by MSRI director Robert Bryant. He had found that some people in the math community were upset by the film and MSRI’s involvement with it, feeling that it glamorized an objectionable view of the relationship of women to mathematics. There’s a plan to organize some sort of event at MSRI to discuss the issues brought up by the film and the decision to withdraw sponsorship.

I still haven’t seen the film, although I gather that a DVD will soon be available. Congratulations to all involved in this for finding a unique way to make mathematics and mathematicians look interesting and worthy of media coverage. I had no idea it was still possible to stir up controversy in the Bay area with art involving transgressive sex, and would never have thought that using research mathematics was the way to do it.

Update: Andrew Ranicki has written a review of the film for the London Math Society newsletter, available here. He identifies the notorious equation in question (5.7 of, and makes the comment that, sartorially, this film is a breakthrough, since, in other films:

By and large, male mathematicians are portrayed as crazies who are smart and lovable, but badly dressed. Likewise for female mathematicians, although they tend to be better dressed. This said, in the film under review, the actors are either very well dressed, or not dressed at all.

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25 Responses to Math Research Institute, Art, Politics, Transgressive Sex and Geometric Langlands

  1. feministisch says:

    I didn’t see the movie. But what I read about it was more than enough to make me disgusted. There’s enough (barely) hidden misoginy in mathematics as is. I’m glad the MSRI has withdrawn support.

  2. Pingback: Forgive Us Our Transgressions « Log24

  3. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    From the trailer, the film looks like a standard “high art” pornography flick to me. I’m not surprised that people objected to the MSRI being associated with it.

    Does this mean that mathematics isn’t an art after all?

  4. Bugsy says:

    Between the right and left-wing thought police it seems there is no place left for art, expression or intellect in the US of A. For MSRI to cow under to uninformed anti-art politics is disgraceful. Not one of the critics seems to have seen more than the trailer, and no one accusing the film of “sexism” seems to have noticed that the director is, apparently, a woman.

  5. Chris W. says:

    I notice that NEW mentioned this film (and quoted from IMDB) in a post from last April — the day after April Fools Day.

    I guess that’s why I didn’t remember it. (Cough…)

  6. MathPhys says:

    He writes on her belly, pucturing her soft flesh with a sharp pen. She screams in pain. He continues to write.

    Since when is doing mathematics meant be physically painful to another person? I thought the whole point and main attraction of pure mathematics as well as all of pure science is that it’s harmless. You don’t abuse, exploit or hurt another person.

    And I didn’t enjoy the sight of his backside. I only want to read his papers. I don’t want to see his backside. But it was in the very first frame of the trailer, so it was forced on me. Maybe that’s another reason why so many people were disgusted by the trailer. He made us see his backside.

  7. tulpoeid says:

    Impressive how people think that every single image in a movie is about conveying the maker’s intention, without any reference to the overall plot or the symbolism or the hidden ideas. Also, impressive how people think that a woman can’t direct sexist movies (ahem, just have a look at the number of women editors in glossy sexist magazines). Ok, has anyone watched the whole of it?

  8. Aki says:

    “Bodily violence is a displeasure done with the intention of giving pleasure”

    –John von Neumann

  9. andreask says:

    I think, at least judging by the trailer, one has to contextualize the film, without contextualizing it, it is mainly an aesthetically appealing example of what germans would call erotic/exotic ‘edel kitsch’, by contextualizing, as it was already mentioned it does indeed tell the audience something about how women are represented my male mathematicians, also about how women of color are represented by white male americans. I suppose the rest of the film, granted its title, supports these views. Certainly one has to consider Yukio Mishima’s original in the context of his biography, saying this, there is certainly a non-vanishing amount of narcissism and homo-eroticism also involved and that is of course also reflecting ‘something’ in (mathematical) this seems interesting in many ways.

  10. ahmed says:

    “You don’t abuse, exploit or hurt another person.”

    Some poor grad students would disagree

  11. Chris Oakley says:

    From UC Berkeley News:

    In Frenkel’s film, the mathematician faces a quandary familiar to theoretical scientists. He has found, at long last, the mathematical formula of love. But then he realizes that others could use his formula to cause harm — and that he must die to safeguard the world. He saves the formula by etching it into his lover’s body.

    Familiar to theoretical scientists? In my research years I do not remember having to confront this particular issue (although I thought that Lie groups were kind-of neat). But if another reader of this blog has discovered the mathematical formula of love and then realised that since it could be used to cause harm the only decent thing to do is to die having etched the formula into their lover’s body, then I would be interested to hear. Oh – wait – you may be already dead!

  12. GeorgeDorn says:

    Offtopic but FYI: “The results may also allow experimental tests of string theory in the future.” —

    Something for you to debunk perhaps.

    Enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the good work.


  13. Kea says:

    George, so that would be something like the 1/4pi universal value. And no theory but string theory is capable of deriving a number like 4pi?

  14. Peter woit says:


    I guess I do need to keep up on these things, so done. Glad you enjoy the blog!


  15. Thomas Larsson says:

    A very inspiring trailer!

  16. Chris Oakley says:


    I see that you too are getting into this whole etch-your-equations-into-your-lover’s-body-and-then-kill-yourself thing. All I can say is, don’t do it! After all (i) if your equations turn out not to be harmful to mankind anyway, you will have died for nothing; (ii) thinking that one’s equations are that important is in any case pretty arrogant; (iii) your wife/lover is entitled to an opinion on all of this <aside>interesting moral point: would a wife have cause to be angry if her husband killed himself after etching his equations into another woman’s body?</aside>

  17. elsie says:

    Ok, so this is another movie about a non-white woman being subjugated and perhaps arguably tortured by a white man? *Yawn*. Oh please. I do not see this being a big hit outside of Berkeley and some mathematics circles, if only for the controversy. Now what really would have been interesting: the submissive woman gets her moxie, the tides turn, she subjugates the man, steals the formula, and…. could be a variety of more interesting endings.

  18. Kea2 says:

    Mishima’s film is generally seen as an extreme expression of his narcissism and ultra-romanticism; in other words, Mishima at his worst. It is a little odd that someone would want to emulate this.

  19. andreask says:

    elsie, indeed from an exterior-mathematical perspective this event bears nothing new at all, what I meant above saying the discourse around the film would be interesting in ‘many ways’ is mainly that it possibly sheds light on a certain degree of (again, in traits narcissistic) ignorance that the mathematical community would treat such subjects as ‘gender’ or ‘critical whiteness studies’, in fact Frenkel’s remark, that he couldn’t deal ‘with any problem of the world at the same time’ is quite a typical example of the manifestation of the ‘white privilege’, the unspoken racist discourse creates the pictures the audience has in mind when watching and the ‘other’ need to manifest an explicit counter-discourse to oppose the image. I actually wonder if the bare fact that the subjugated women in the film is non-white made any appearance in the mathematical discourse on the film yet and certainly the possible argument that Frenkel is just ‘replacing’ the male character in Mishima’s original by himself without further consequences is quite misleading.

  20. Oh well... says:

    Most of those who have posted comments above have not seen “Rites of love and math”. But apparently this is not considered as a serious impediment to expressing “expert opinion” and passing judgement.

    I think many of these “experts” would be surprised, and perhaps even embarrassed, by their comments if and when they watch the film in its entirety.

    For example, consider this from ‘elsie’:

    “Ok, so this is another movie about a non-white woman being subjugated and perhaps arguably tortured by a white man?”

    No, it’s not. But ‘elsie’ is not really asking a question. He/she already “knows” what this film is about and in particular offers this brilliant suggestion:

    “Now what really would have been interesting: the submissive woman gets her moxie, the tides turn, she subjugates the man, steals the formula, and….”

    Well, ‘elsie’ might be surprised to find out that this is pretty close to what happens in this film.

    ***SPOILER ALERT!***

    At the end of the film, the Mathematician kills himself and Mariko, the female character, walks away with his formula, leaving him dying on the floor.

    The description of Mariko as “subjugated woman” is concocted by those who feel perfectly comfortable judging a film after watching a two-minute trailer.

    It seems that these comments tell us more about the writers and their prejudices than about the film itself.

    Another interesting comment from ‘elsie’:

    “I do not see this being a big hit outside of Berkeley and some mathematics circles, if only for the controversy.”

    Interesting… Looking at the film Web site, we find that the movie had a successful premiere in Paris last Spring and was selected at international film festivals, including a presigious festival in Spain in October. It has also been reviewed favorably in Le Monde, on (a popular Web site about movies), and in other publications…

    Finally, about Kea2’s comment:

    “Mishima’s film is generally seen as an extreme expression of his narcissism and ultra-romanticism; in other words, Mishima at his worst.”

    Really? I would be interested in seeing this claim backed up by something other than the Kea2’s apparent self-confidence. In fact, Mishima’s film was released on DVD in the United States by the Criterion Collection, which is a very important DVD series. And a cursory search on Google produces a large number of admiring reviews of his film.

  21. andreask says:

    so the questions remain a) why was the film thought to be advertised ‘sufficiently well’ by a trailer which conveys the impression that it contains at least to a certain degree misogynic content if it allegedly does not b) does commercial success or at least a ‘succès d’estime’ on european film festivals imply that the criticism presented above is wrong.

  22. Kea2 says:

    @Oh Well. My comment was based on my knowledge and understanding of Mishima’s oeuvre, not on a google search for the film.

  23. Oh well... says:

    @Kea2: Thanks for the clarification. In your original comment you wrote: “Mishima’s film is generally seen as…” suggesting that you are not expressing your own opinion (to which you are certainly entitled), but rather a consensus view of the film. My point was that what you wrote is NOT the concensus view of Mishima’s film.

  24. ak says:

    possibly Frenkel’s remark

    “(..)the film is an allegory in which the female character represents the truth and mathematics(..)”

    exemplifies already the problematic traits in the general conception, the film is intensely absorbed in ‘traditional’ gender roles, the woman in ‘patriarchal’ societies representing the passive ‘truth’, ‘nature’ and the ‘unexplained’, and while this is obviously in perfect accordance to the film mainstream and good parts of its non-mainstream in Europe or the US, a mathematical environment still characterized by a grotesque under-representation of females has indeed reasons to oppose further amplification of what can clearly be understood as the ‘archaic truths’ of males and females in our societies.

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