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Reading/viewing the texts for Week 4, I felt compelled to revisit the role of “intention” in Harman’s model of vicarious causation, a model which many of us—myself included—were quick to dismiss as one based in ill-defined, anthropocentric language. While I think this criticism is still valid in many instances (I still refuse to accept a marble can be “sincere,” even if I do understand what Harman means by the word), I have somewhat less of a problem with Harman’s framing of “intention” as a ubiquitous quality of the universe after reconsidering his argument through this week’s texts.

Every student interested in literary criticism will learn very early in their education to distrust the “intentional fallacy”: There is no way to recover an author’s intention from their text, and thus the critic should focus exclusively on their own intention and the text’s demonstrable effects. But when faced with Emily Dickinson’s meticulously refigured envelopes, the squeezed-in words seeming to float between her verses, and the erasures and stains which obscure her already difficult handwriting, I found it impossible not to consider her intentions. As the introduction to “The Gorgeous Nothings” makes clear, one intention she certainly did not have was to provide material for university students to dissect 130 years after her death. But we can hardly detach ourselves entirely from her intentions when we see the raw material of a poem like “A202,” where the words “thats’” and “‘tis” hover indeterminately between two lines that begin with “He’s” and “Had.” These four words seem to switch places with one another even as we look at them, with significant implications for the poem’s meaning. While the current arrangement suggests that she settled on “He’s liable with them/Had we the eyes,” it seems that she considered “Thats’ liable with them/‘Tis we the eyes” to serve her purpose equally or almost as well.

The potential differences this change would make for our reading of the poem as a whole are too vast to enumerate here, but I’ll single out the importance of whether or not “‘Tis we the eyes/within our Head-s-,” simply because it offers a nice thematic linkage with the tension between the “real” and the “sensual” in Harman’s depiction of an “intentional” world. Harman describes our perception of a tree as an “intention” which encapsulates us, “the real I,” and the tree as we see it, “the sensual tree”; he defines this type of “confrontation…between a real object and a sensual one” as “asymmetrical.” My question, then, is what would it mean for our “confrontations” with Dickinson’s envelope writings if we were to consider texts as “intentions” in and of themselves? Or, perhaps more accurately, our encounters with texts as “intentions”? I don’t want to try to address this question fully in a blog post, but I think Susan Howe gestures toward an answer when she declares: “each collected object or manuscript is a pre-articulate empty theater where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing. Where a thought may hear itself see.” Negotiating the aporias in Dickinson’s manuscripts felt to me very much like my thoughts were “hearing themselves see.” I saw very clearly the asymmetry between the certainty I had in my “real” existence as a reader and the “sensual” uncertainty brought about by such an indeterminate object entering my vision. Moreover, if I, like Howe, were to hold challenging archival artifacts in my hands, the “intention” of this encounter would come to encapsulate a reciprocal confrontation between “the real text” and “the sensual reader” who holds it.

I could go on for a while, but I will keep this somewhat brief by finishing with the suggestion that Harman’s notion of “intention” might be a productive lens through which to look at the other sensual encounters described in this week’s texts, such as Hayward’s experiments with “fingeryeyes” and Jen Bervin’s textualizing of silk. ~Graham

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