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I bristle at the facsimile, even as it lures me. Reading the Howe/Bervin after the Sedgwick/Bora/Hayward, I couldn’t help but read the fetish gleam onto the reproductions of archival materials in Spontaneous Particulars and The Gorgeous Nothings. In her prefatory comments, Susan Howe describes Spontaneous Particulars as a “collaged swan song to the old ways” (9), to some time before electronic technologies transformed the encounter between observer and object in the archive. Yet the codex is a slightly older technology that makes its own corruption of the physical encounter. Texture flattens. Howe approaches the textural difference between the paper of Dickinson’s envelopes, the “singular whispering skeletons” (41) of Williams’ prescription pad paper, and the alluring center spread of Edwards’ Efficacious Grace—made from “discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters used for making fans” (46)—through description, facsimile, and historical contextualization. A facsimile suggests a similar make, but something about the cleanness of the image reproduction (of what amounts to only a facet of the object) obscures what’s lost from tactile experience of the material form. It seems I’m bemoaning the impossibility of a full representation of these objects’ textural variance. And really how else could Howe possibly mark her study of these objects, and the compelling resonance they have with one another, except by subjecting them to the smoothness of the page? [Though I, too, am interested in thinking about these reproductions originating as slides projected into a lecture room, before they occupied the book form.] A textural engagement would require a visit to each of the special collections, and even then (hoping access would be permitted), perhaps the archival glove* would be enforced, for unlike Hayward’s entangled/reciprocal laboratory experience, the archive prohibits any impress from observer onto object. Touch here means accelerated obsolescence. I’m curious, too, about how Howe’s figuring of the archive as “an ordinary room” (63) distracts from its actually very unordinary protocol. Jen Bervin notes how Dickinson’s envelope writings have been referred to as “scraps” in scholarship, and though I agree with the urge to engage with the fullness of Dickinson’s praxis, the use of the word “scrap” (small piece; from skrapa “to scrape, scratch, cut”) seems to maintain more of the at-hand-ness, or “in-pocket-ness” of these works as Dickinson herself worked them. Their scrappiness invites the question, How did they get that way? And their getting that way causes us to encounter more deeply Dickinson’s physical mark-making.

*A bizarre and probably unnecessary detour, here, but a shallow glance into archival gloves and their rules of use vary based on the material composition of the gloves in a way that’s so compelling to me: For metal objects, cotton gloves. For handling objects “with a high probability of slipping through a cotton gloved hand,” latex or nitrile gloves are preferred. For handling paper, though, “any glove reduces tactile sensitivity in the fingers, and with that loss of sensitivity the risk of damaging paper is increased.” [A gloved touch might mean, then, immediate destruction.] “Cotton has a tendency to snag on sharp edges and will tear brittle pages which have angular protrusions.” [All quotes by Glenn T. Johnson, archivist]. Even the archival glove has variable material configurations that shape its encounter with human hand, with “nonhuman” object.  

-Carolyn

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