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Oren Izenberg on Emily Dickinson and the 'Cosmoscope'

Venue: Building 240, Room 111

Host: The Philosophy + Literature Initiative

Speaker: Oren Izenberg is Associate Professor of English at UC-Irvine. He is the author of the acclaimed Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life, published by Princeton University Press in 2011, as well as several essays published in Critical Inquiry, Modernism/Modernity, Modern Philology, and PMLA.

Description: Emily Dickinson’s notorious difficulties—her impacted language, idiosyncratic metrics, and elaborate scoring of the page—have been read as expressions of an epistemic problem with metaphysical implications. The barriers her poems discover between experience and its expression—like the barriers they erect for readers between representation and comprehension—are so extreme as to raise the question of whether (by her lights) a mind has access even to its own experience, much less to the world.

I take up a speculative genre of Dickinson poems—poems about experiences for which we have no shared name or coherent concept as an entry point into a consideration of (some) lyric poetry’s epistemic ambitions and capacities. I consider her characteristic emphases (thematic and performative) in relation to David Chalmers’s recent 'experiments' with an imaginary tool (the Cosmoscope) that—if it existed—would place its user in a position to know anything and everything. The slant rhyme of Dickinson’s poetry with this most extreme form of epistemic optimism suggests that (her) poetry need not be hived off from other forms of thinking and reasoning, and points more generally to the role imagination might play in the work of knowing.