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SABine SieLke ”The Brain - is wider than the Sky - ” or: Re-Cognizing Emily

SABine SieLke

”The Brain - is wider than the Sky - ” or:

Re-Cognizing Emily Dickinson

D ickinson’s poem “The Brain - is wider than the Sky - ” (Fr598) not only insists on the immense scope of our mental universe, on a magnitude

that “pain” may easily reduce to “The minute Circumference / Of a single Brain” (Fr833) by resisting the term mind and privileging the word brain; the poem also insinuates that these mental spaces evolve from neurophysiologic processes. 1 Based on what Roland Hagenbüchle calls “phenomenological reduction”—a focus not so much on things and phenomena themselves, but on how they affect our body and mind—many of Dickinson’s poems are preoccupied with physiological operations and, more significantly, with their disruption and failure (34). Loss of consciousness, paralysis, pain, and the limits of perception are central to her poetry and poetics—a poetics that explores the lacunae and gaps of cognition and exposes the brain’s capacity to break down information and remember experiences and sense impressions in a highly selective and associative manner. Thus, even if “Perception of an object costs / Precise the Object’s loss - ,” as Dickinson puts it, “Perception in itself” comes out as “a Gain” and a recurrent motivation of many of her poems (Fr1103). For Dickinson, this cognitive surplus escapes science, theology, and language—all of which her texts insistently interrogate—as the riddling end of her poem “The Brain - is wider than the Sky - ” subtly suggests:

“The Brain is just the weight of God - / For - Heft them - Pound for Pound - / And they will differ - if they do - / As Syllable from Sound - ” (Fr598). 2 Our knowledge of the brain and its functions do not resound a proximity to God. For Dickinson, only poetry can do that. Does this in turn mean that poetry may also spell out cerebral processes?

© 2008 The Johns Hopkins University Press


Sabine Sielke

in part due to developments in (bio)technology, since Dickinson’s day we have been able to “weigh” the human brain with more accuracy than she could ever foresee. By now we know, for instance, that the brain constructs coherent im- ages of the world from fragments, situating content topographically in space and supplementing missing pieces. “The brain is unity” and “[t]he brain is the screen,” Gilles Deleuze famously claimed: thus underlining the interdependence of cogni- tion and our sense of the world, on the one hand, and the media that make up sig- nificant parts of that world, on the other (366). Dickinson’s work, however, seems to resist the very coherence that our brain imposes on our fragmented view of the world—a tendency that is partly due to the poet’s scepticism about the certainties and supposed plausibility of philosophy, medicine, and science. Troping cognition in hymnody, Dickinson evolves her own sense of neurophilosophy, distinguishing the (im)material worlds both brain and God are capable of producing on the basis of distinct forms of mediation (“Syllable from Sound”) and in the process evolving her own “Compound Vision” (Fr830) from “that Covered Vision - Here - ” (Fr782). 3 What, then, does it mean to “re-cognize Dickinson”? And why re-cognize the poet in the first place? Re-cognizing Dickinson can mean to approach her poems by way of the cognitive sciences, a transdisciplinary field that is itself vast (“wider than the Sky”) and can be defined broadly as “the study of the principles by which intelligent entities interact with their environment,” as eckart Scheerer summarizes (7). 4 interaction and environment are key terms here, the former implying a certain degree of mutuality, the latter encompassing what we now call media ecology. Despite the many fundamental differences in basic assumptions and terminology that separate the study of cognition from literary analysis, approaching Dickinson via cognition may be useful for our understanding of both the poet’s writing and its interaction with a cultural climate she seems to have been shielded from by the greenhouse she built around her. Moreover, re-cognizing poetry will necessarily reassess, from a new vantage point, the interrelation between the metaphoricity of our concepts and the materiality of bodies. At the same time re-cognition of Dickinson may encourage us to pay more attention to our own perception of texts and reflect on figures of cognition and their cognitive effects on processes of reading and remembering. 5 Re-cognizing Dickinson we cannot help but over-interpret and read her poems, at least in part, from a presentist position; at the same time, we need to resist reading into her poetics the insights about cognition that evolved during the second half of the twentieth century and, in particular, the 1990s, the so-called “decade of the brain.” 6 Therefore, i am hesitant to claim, as art historian Barbara Maria Stafford does, that art can teach the cognitive sciences how the brain works


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analogously, through making connections. First, we need to acknowledge that both art and science work by way of metaphor and mediation. “it is not possible,” writes zoologist Richard Lewontin, for instance,

to do the work of science without using a language that is filled with metaphors. Virtually the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain phenomena

that cannot be experienced directly by human

of “waves” and “particles” even though there is no medium in which those “waves” move and no solidity to those “particles.” Biologists speak of genes as blueprints and DnA as “information.” indeed, the entire body of modern science rests on Descartes’s metaphor of the world as a machine. (3)

Physicists speak

Analogical thinking may be “what the mind does,” as Margaret H. Freeman’s work on Dickinson and cognitive stylistics underlines (259). Yet, as Dickinson’s poems foreground, the analogies our minds create do not “analogize” brain and world; they “analogize” tropes and “put pressure on our categories,” as Craig Hamilton puts it (287)—like the narrator in Jeffrey eugenides’s novel Middlesex when he bluntly remarks: “Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind” (539). Raymond Gibbs, in his study The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding goes so far as to argue that figurative language in fact echoes the poetic, rather than the literal, structure of the mind. Thought itself, he claims, is metaphoric, metonymic, and ironic. if this were indeed so, figurative language in art and poetry may possibly say more about how mind (and brain) work than we have so far assumed. it does so, however, not necessarily by way of analogy, but in a highly mediated manner. Accordingly, Dickinson’s poems may not only attempt, for instance, to reclaim eternity for this side of existence, as i have argued elsewhere; they may also employ eternity as a metaphor to grasp aspects of existence that remain unspeakable or, to be more precise, that cannot literally be spoken. 7 in addition to taking account of the materiality and the metaphoricity of mind and brain and complicating their interrelation, we need, secondly, to acknowledge that mind, brain, and world evolve interactively in mutually effecting intermedial processes. While our predominantly visual culture conceives of the brain as a screen, most of Dickinson’s poems were produced at a time when the technologies of photography had just evolved and when apparati such as the zoetrope and the stereoscope marked the early stages of film history. Re- cognizing Dickinson therefore also means situating her poetics at the threshold of fundamental transformations of our common ways of perceiving, remembering,


Sabine Sielke

and consequently creating the world; it means to interrogate how interactions between brain, mind, world, and media figure in Dickinson’s poems. in some way, we have always been—and cannot help—re-cognizing emily Dickinson. There are mountains of scholarship that capitalize on the primacy of mind and perception in Dickinson’s work. Further, several critics, including Freeman and David Morris, have taken a “cognitive approach” to the poet. 8 Unlike Freeman, though, who aims at mapping Dickinson’s “conceptual universe” (“Cognitive Approach” 269) and “cognitive intention” (“Body” 28), my project is not to explore “the principles of her cognitive grammar” (“Body” 34). nor is it to ascertain the poet’s “own individual world truth, a truth that”—as Freeman argues—“is grounded in a physically embodied universe” (“Cognitive Approach” 270). Rather, my project of re-cognizing emily Dickinson aims at re-contextualizing our readings of this paradigmatically modern poet in a way that keeps transforming our sense of both the context of her writing and of modernism|modernization. it remains striking how the poet’s reclusive life and self-marginalization keep impacting Dickinson scholarship. in the last three decades, Dickinson has been claimed by a series of critical perspectives that have contributed much to a thorough understanding of her enigmatic experimentalist aesthetics, her daring insights into various modes of human existence, and the playful postures and gender-related power positions enacted in many of her texts. This criticism also paved the way for a rereading of Dickinson as a figure fundamentally engaged with the politics and popular culture and, as becomes more evident lately, with the science of her time. At the same time, it seems to amount to a betrayal of the poet if we drag her into contexts that she tried to keep a distance from. How much Dickinson’s own single-minded work was part of intermedial cultural phenomena and processes of perceptions is underlined in a text that wholeheartedly disclaims such “connectivity”: “i marked a line in One Verse - ,” she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in August 1862, “because i met it after i made it - and never consciously touch a paint, mixed by another person - i do not let go it, because it is mine. Have you the portrait of Mrs Browning? Persons sent me three - if you had none, will you have mine?” (L271). As a passage like this one suggests, Dickinson’s texts are not only interwoven within a network of verbal and visual texts that she “met” or did not “meet.” The poet also participates in a media ecology in transition and professes the increasing importance of the emerging new visual culture. Moreover, turning to the transdisciplinary enterprise of the cognitive sciences may shift the scope of a literary and cultural studies agenda that is still dominated, as is much of cognitive stylistics, by principles of hermeneutics. even though much of our work, during the last two decades, has focused on parameters


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of difference and issues of the body, we keep interrogating forms of representation and their contexts. Yet, the concept of a culturally constructed, gendered, racialized, and class-contoured body that emerged from these debates is being challenged. evolving from neurobiology, molecular genetics, and biotechnology are new insights into our corporeality, projections of a post- or transhuman subject, and novel notions about how our bodies interrelate with the world. Accordingly, during the 1990s, concepts like consciousness, mind, will, and belief became “re- naturalized.” Perception, experience, agency, and memory, researchers insisted, are first of all physical matters. The major challenge this shift poses to literary and cultural studies is that it privileges the “compositional dimension of body- brain-culture relays” over “cultural representations,” as William Connolly suggests (xiii). Challenging constructivism, this shift highlights the fact that our readings of such representations, initially aimed at escaping the essentialisms of a “reductive biology,” have in principle remained an hermeneutic enterprise, limited to interrogating the cultural complexities of meaning-making (xiii). What happens, though, if we focus less on how and what texts and images signify and more on serial processes of transmediation from which meanings of texts and images evolve as memories that are constantly being displaced and over-written? Can neurophysiology add to our understanding of cultural practices such as poetry? And what happens to concepts of the subject if we take into account how our brains actually perceive and remember? Given the primacy of mediation, such an approach needs, firstly, to re-cognize poems not as modes of cognition but as representations of such modes and, secondly, to capitalize both on the processes of perception and experience presented in Dickinson’s poetry and on the ways our brains and minds perceive and experience her poems. As these preliminary reflections highlight, there are many potential takes to re-cognizing Dickinson, of which i can only begin to discuss three here. Take One is to read Dickinson’s poems as a way into cognitive science; that is, to focus on the ways her poems render processes of cognition which include phenomena such as perception and memory, attention, problem-solving, language, thinking, and imagery. 9 This approach raises the question, for instance, of how poems present the brain as “the setting for memory events” (nalbantian 43). Take Two aims at re-locating Dickinson at a moment in the history of media and modernization that “effected,” as Jonathan Crary puts it, “a deterritorialization and a revaluation of vision” (149). Take Three shifts gears to focus on the experience of reading Dickinson, an experience that, as Helen Vendler writes, “molds our thinking after her own” (34). 10 This shift of perspective allows us to envision an approach to poetry that, resisting hermeneutics, takes into account how reading as a cognitive act negotiates subject positions, first and foremost the position of the reader. 11


Sabine Sielke

Take One. “The Brain - is wider than the Sky - ”: Materiality and Mediations of Mind

The Brain - is wider than the Sky - For - put them side by side - The one the other will contain With ease - and You - beside -

The Brain is deeper than the sea - For - hold them - Blue to Blue - The one the other will absorb - As Sponges - Buckets - do -

The Brain is just the weight of God - For - Heft them - Pound for Pound - And they will differ - if they do - As Syllable from Sound -


in this poem, Dickinson appears to subscribe to some of the “firm beliefs” on mind/brain relationships held by twentieth-century neurologists like Antonio R. Damasio. Setting brain, sky, and sea next to each other and projecting the former as a “container” for the latter two entities, Dickinson, like Damasio, affirms “the existence of an external reality that our nervous systems do their best to represent” and acknowledges that “[b]rain activity is responsible for the generation of the mental phenomena which we collectively designate as the mind” (80, 73). 12 Yet, leaving the relationship between brain and sky indefinite, Dickinson’s poem remains ambiguous: just as the sky projected here fits into our mental landscape, the brain is part of the material world that encompasses the sky. Moreover, poet and neurologist part when it comes to the potency of science. While in 1986 Damasio confidently claimed that “relations between brain and mind can, to a large extent, be elucidated by scientific inquiry” (73), Dickinson remains sceptical:

“Split the Lark - and you’ll find the Music - ,” she sarcastically suggests in another poem (Fr905). 13 For her, instruments that measure width, depth, and weight are as fallible as the scientific inquirer. 14 ironically positioned “beside” the experimental set-up (“and You - beside -”), outside of the system that the subject aims to account for “objectively,” that subject, for Dickinson, is science’s central flaw— brittle, unreliable, prone to interferences from within and without. The whole precariousness of this subject’s position gets pinpointed, for instance, in the final


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two stanzas of her poem “Crisis is a Hair,” a text that seems to anticipate chaos theory:

Let an instant push Or an Atom press Or a Circle hesitate in Circumference

it may jolt the Hand That adjusts the Hair That secures eternity From presenting - Here -


A brief acceleration or slowing down of the bodily system, this poem suggests,

can mark the razor-thin line between living substance or dead material. Poems like this one not only manifest Dickinson’s deep interest in science and her many

attempts to adapt its registers to her poetry, but they also put forth new concepts

of self and soul. Poems like “A Single Screw of Flesh” (Fr293), for instance, are

informed by the mechanics and physics that monitor the functions of our bod- ies, concepts that may cater to our desire to read into Dickinson’s poetics insights that science only evolved much later. Scanning a line like “nerves sit ceremoni- ous, like Tombs - ” (Fr372), contemporary readers may well envision both a fu- neral procession and the malfunction of what Joseph LeDoux has coined as the “synaptic self.” 15 Moreover, Dickinson’s many disintegrating speakers, embedded in discontinuous, fragmented texts, reaffirm the relevance of the continuity, se- quence, and seriality of neurophysiologic processes for subjectivity. 16 Moments of severance, rupture, disconnection, oftentimes delineated in texts that mimic the subject’s need for cohesion by way of parataxis, knock Dickinson’s speakers off their feet. “The brain is endowed,” as Damasio has it, “with innate systems that are concerned with the maintenance of the organism’s integrity and with the continuation of the species” (74). Dickinson’s poems resonate a clear sense of the capital function the nervous system has for the sustenance of the subject. Damasio’s emphasis on the importance of cerebral structures for the evolution of homo sapiens, though, also maps the distance between Damasio and Darwin, on the one hand, and Damasio and Dickinson, on the other. Dickinson, who was well aware of Darwin’s work, cared little about the persistence of the species yet much about the interference liability of the singular subject . 17 As she writes:


Sabine Sielke

The Brain, within it’s Groove Runs evenly - and true - But let a Splinter swerve - ’Twere easier for You -

To put a Current back - When Floods have slit the Hills - And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves -

And trodden out the Mills -


Significant here are two things. First, Dickinson’s presents the brain—“humming merrily along in its underground railroad of daily custom” (Paglia 624)—in terms of mechanics and electrical currents, foregrounding the physical materiality of our mental existence. Secondly, this brain seems, as Paglia also aptly observes, as “detached as emerson’s eyeball” and as the many eyes severed from their sockets populating Dickinson’s own poems (624). 18 Living a life of its own, such an organ seems to withstand willpower—be it human or godly—and fails to be an adequate host for faculties of volition. Such splintered, if not splattered, brains and “cleaving” minds (Fr867) are reminiscent of “horror films,” indeed (Paglia 624). And Paglia’s comparison is by no means as far-fetched as it seems, when we take it not as a depiction of what Dickinson had in mind when writing but as a hint at how our brain—having turned into a Deleuzian “screen”—has come to work, associate, and remember. Paglia poignantly observes the tendency of Dickinson’s poetry to dissect the perceiving subject into separate organs, limbs, and body parts and to roam in “cleaving” minds and “split” brains whose “Sequence ravelled out of Sound - / Like Balls - opon a Floor - ” (Fr867). 19 While for the self-proclaimed “amazon feminist” Paglia these preferences designate Dickinson as a “frightening” “Amherst Madame de Sade,” such interpretations shock or bemuse more than convince readers, because Paglia’s readings tend to dissociate singular parts, fractions, and limbs of Dickinson’s poems surgically from both the textual tissues in which they are embedded and the cultural contexts from which they evolved (637). Paglia’s revisionary reading remains suggestive, though, as the poems in question can be related both to the texts of de Sade and to a rise, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, of empirical studies of subjective experience and mental life and to “the division and fragmentation of the physical subject into increasingly specific organic and mechanical systems” (Crary 81). By the


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1840s, physiologist Xavier Bichat, for instance, had located memory and intelligence in the brain and situated emotions in various internal organs; Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim situated the mind and emotions exclusively in the brain and engaged in mental mapping using experiments instead of relying on the previously common “scientific” practice of introspection (Crary 81). By the mid-1820s, Pierre Flourens was able to specify different parts of the brain, above all distinguishing the cerebellum (motor center) from the cerebrum (perception center). Particularly significant in this context may be the work in physiological optics—most importantly on the subdivision and specialization of the human sensory apparatus—evolved by Johannes Müller from 1833 on. Distinguishing five types of sensory nerves in 1826, Müller mapped the perceiving subject in great detail. introducing into physiology “the doctrine of specific nerve energies” (Crary 89), Müller showed that the same stimulus—for example, electricity—applied to different nerves provokes different effects (such as the experience of light in an optic nerve and the sensation of touch on the skin) while different stimuli may also produce the same sensation in a given sensory nerve. Describing a fundamentally arbitrary relation between stimulus and sensation, Müller gives “an account,” as Crary underlines, “of a body with an innate capacity, one might even say a transcendental capacity, to misperceive,” and of a sense apparatus “that renders differences equivalent” (90). As eric Wilson reasons, Dickinson was probably not aware of these findings. Yet her disjunctive poetics bespeaks an increasing general awareness of the fact that “the body itself produces phenomena that have no external correlate” and no discursive conception (Crary 71). Dickinson’s poetry may thus not so much attest to the restrictions and limits of representation of physical experience posed by the medium of language in general, but, more specifically, to the metaphors we employ to account for such experience. For Damasio the body-mind dualism persists in part

due to “our limited ability to describe processes that are not mechanical or electronic.

in a way, the problem is that of finding adequate, powerful

in essence,

our problem is the discovery and narration of the physics of the mind” (87). even if Damasio privileges the trope of narration, implying that the physics of the mind reads like a story rather than a poem; even if Dickinson’s poem offers us a narrative; and even if the “cognitive paradigm” has come to mark a major shift in narratology rather than the study of poetry, “finding adequate, powerful metaphors” remains a problem for scientists and poets alike, since metaphors are bound by history and tend to constrain our thinking. 20 Accordingly, the computer—the master trope of communication and information systems, of the development of living organisms and the work of the human mind since the 1990s—has made way for the trope of the network and connectionism that displaces notions of linearity with a sense of synchronicity,


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connectivity, and reversibility. 21 Like Dickinson who “continually defines and redefines her terms,” cognitive science keeps interrogating its analogies (Hamilton 290). This conceptual irresolution hints that, despite the high prestige surrounding cognitive science, so far “little is firmly known about how the brain works overall,” as Jeanne Fahnestock underlines; “there are fundamental disagreements on the mental processes that enable basic human abilities such as memory and language,” she concludes (160). At the same time, lack of conceptual terminology does not disprove a phenomenon’s existence. Quite the contrary, “widening the gaps between her words” and practicing what Susan Manning calls a “defiant linguistic minimalism,” “[Dickinson’s] writing emphasizes the experiential realities of the entities that have no name” (313). More than that, her poems pinpoint the very problem all explorations of human consciousness face: their inescapable self-referentiality. How can we be “aware of Death,” that “most profound experiment / Appointed unto Men - ,” she asks in her poem “This Consciousness that is aware” (Fr817). “How adequate unto itself / it’s properties shall be,” the poet wonders. “itself unto itself and none / Shall make discovery - .” This innate self-referentiality characterizes cognitive science as well. “The Mind is so near itself - ,” Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, “it cannot see, distinctly - ” (L260). Or as Fahnestock puts it: all our enquiries “come down to human brains acting on human brains” (175).

Take Two. Perception at the Dawning of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Twice removed from our own universe of perception, separated by the visual spaces opened up by the “mimetic capacities of film, photography, and television” and the virtual realities created by computer graphics (Crary 1), Dickinson wrote when a substantial “reorganization of vision” had been underway for only a few decades (Christ and Jordan xix). Yet, the devices of optical illusion that emerged in the first part of the nineteenth century and the technologies of photography and microscopy that enhanced scientific observation reassured Dickinson that the eye does not qualify as “the pre-eminent organ of truth” (Christ and Jordan xx). in fact, for her, the new technologies ascertained the truths that remain hidden from our gaze: “not ‘Revelation’ - ’tis - that waits, / But our unfurnished eyes - ” (L280). While this resistance to the new “faith in seeing” and to the realist impulse of her age manifests both Dickinson’s modern disposition and an “increasingly subjective organization of vision,” this modernity can only be understood as being inextricably intertwined with the rise of realism (Christ and Jordan xx, xxi-xxii). As she mistrusts what Martin Jay calls the emergent “scopic regimes of modernity” (qtd. in Christ and Jordan xxii), Dickinson still capitalizes on tropes of visual perception, thereby acknowledging both the significance and the limitations of


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the increasingly visual cultures that were emerging. 22 As she opts for a “Covered Vision” (Fr782), the poet exposes the impediment of our philosophically and technologically enlightened views. Practicing a “Compound Vision” (Fr830), and throwing threshold glances into eternity, her poems seem to take their cues from insect morphology and turn subjectivity into what Crary calls “a precarious condition of interface” (2). 23 By the early nineteenth century, Crary explains, vision “had been taken out of the incorporeal relations of the camera obscura and relocated in the human body,” thereby shifting notions of perception “from the geometrical optics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” for which the sense of touch had been integral, “to physiological optics, which dominated both scientific and philosophical discussion of vision in the nineteenth century” (16). 24 Once vision became relocated in the subjectivity of the observer, Crary concludes, “two intertwined paths opened up”: one that affirmed the autonomy of vision, deriving from a newly empowered body, and one that led toward an increasing standardization and regulation of the observer and an abstraction and formalization of vision (150), both being interdependent effects of modernism and modernization. While Dickinson’s poetry resists such regulation, it nonetheless relates an increasing knowledge about “the constitutive role of the body in the apprehension of a visible world” and “the capacities of the human eye” (Crary 150)—such as retinal afterimages, peripheral vision, binocular vision, and the thresholds of attention. 25 Thus the many eyes “put out” in her poetry function not merely as a “formula,” as Paglia has it, for blinding and disembodied vision (631); they also enact what Crary describes as the contemporaneous “automatization of sight” and “the unloosening of the eye from the network of referentiality incarnated in tactility and subjective relation to perceived space” (19). They make the act of perception itself a new object of vision, “sundered from any relation of the observer’s position within a cognitively unified field” (19). Dickinson thus presents us with after-images, a “presence of sensation in the absence of a stimulus” and a subjective, “autonomous vision” with its own temporality, “an optical experience that was produced by and within the subject,” while at the same time exposing the precariousness of a perception produced by bodies that are vulnerable, mutable, and transitory (Crary 98). Quite frequently, “[c]onsciousness in Dickinson,” as Paglia puts it, “takes the form of a body tormented in every limb” (652). Dickinson’s modernity can thus be clearly distinguished from that of her contemporary Walt Whitman as well as that of a paradigmatically modernist figure like Gertrude Stein. Stein, taking off from William James’ work, never lost a belief in wholeness or “completed portraiture,” as she called it, trying to achieve


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identity by an insistently processual writing practice. 26 She could not, as she wrote in “Portraits and Repetition,” “repeat this too often any one is of one’s period and this our period was undoubtedly the period of the cinema and series production” (177). Dickinson, by contrast, projected identity into eternal, unmediated space—a space where “One and One - are One - ” (Fr497), which she attempted to claim for this side of eternity in her poetic texts. 27 Similarly, unlike Whitman, who was fascinated by the multiplicity and seriality of his photographic images, Dickinson had no “portrait,” as she famously claimed in one of her letters to Higginson in July of 1862:

Could you believe me - without? i had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur - and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves - Would this do just as well? it often alarms Father - He says Death might occur, and he has Molds of all the rest - but has no Mold of me, but i noticed the Quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor - You will think no caprice of me - (L268)

Dickinson’s “distrust of photography” as a technology closely associated with death is counterbalanced by her faith in language. “Dickinson gives us,” as David Graham puts it, “in the guise of physical description, a portrait of her agile mind at work.” The agility of Dickinson’s mind has its own modernity. Unlike James, with whom she shares “a preoccupation,” as Manning argues, “with charting the movements of consciousness” (309), Dickinson has no interest in the continuity of those movements, in “streams of consciousness,” but instead she “constantly essays the impossible adventure of fixing perpetual motion” (308). The method of her poems is, as Manning has it, “to cut a thought across in the middle” (308)—a method of capturing single moments of cognition that cannot “be bounded by the decorum of the sentence” (309). While James claims thought to be “sensibly continuous, without breach, crack, or division,” Dickinson exposes its cracks and thus the limits, not of consciousness and thought, but of our conceptual universe (Manning 319). More than that: once the body became the locus of cognition and memory in modern science as in modernist poetry, loss of cognitive functions in turn were figured not merely as missing syntactic links but as mutilation, missing limbs and cut-out eyes. They were figured as losses that prefigure the ultimate loss of knowing that cannot be known.


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Take Three. The Experience of Reading Dickinson in her essay “emily Dickinson Thinking,” Helen Vendler claims that Dickinson

invents “structures that mimic the structure of life at any moment she conceives it”

channels our reactions, adjusts our pace to hers, and

molds our thinking after her own” (34). 28 To me, this claim is both full of insight and flawed. it is flawed because, of course, Dickinson’s poems do not present to us

the poet conceiving life or thinking, but rather offer poetic, that is highly mediated, explorations of the processes of cognition, which, as cognitive poetics assumes, entail thought as well as emotional processes (Tsur 279). it is suggestive because

it underlines the way that Dickinson’s disjunctive poetics produces what i would

like to call “experience effects” that turn our experience of reading her poems into

a cognitive process that affects us emotionally, intellectually, and physically. i myself remember reading Dickinson for the first time as a highly physical experience. Although it did not, as Dickinson famously phrased it in one of her letters to Higginson, “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off” (L342a), it did send many shivers down my spine (and still does.) How, then, are emotional qualities conveyed by her poems? How can “‘altered states of consciousness,’” Reuven Tsur asks, be “displayed by a string of words”? According to Tsur, the reading of poetry involves the modification, at times even the “drastic interference with, or at least delay of, the regular course of cognitive processes.” 29 Poetry thus also disorients the reader, plays with his or her emotions, which usually serve as “efficient orientation devices” (281). After the reception of Dickinson’s poems has moved from efforts to straighten her discontinuous lines to the celebration of their disruptiveness, we may start accounting for the disorienting effects her poetry has on us and this can be done in various ways. We may re-focus our attention, for instance, on the “graphocentricity” and visual effects of her texts (Smith 839), or re-cognize the importance of sound patterns for “the affective content of a text, spoken or written” (Fahnestock 175). We may also pay closer attention to the dimensions of Dickinson’s poetry that re-mediations tease out and bring to the fore—be they music inspired by her work or computer games that stage interactive encounters with “emily.” 30 Meeting Dickinson in virtual space or making her into an avatar is one way of re-experiencing and thus re-cognizing the poet as well as of re-cognizing literary and cultural studies. if we take acts of reading as processes of cognition—including cognitive operations of rhetoric that underlie figures like simile, metaphor, and analogy and modes of perception, with the “theoretical pluralism” they require— we become aware of the fact that mind, thought, and vision are physiological processes fundamental to literary and cultural analysis (Scheerer 17). in addition,

and “[b]y those structures


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a focus on cognition complicates notions of self and mind, privileging a sense of the subject that is based on materiality, and is neither self-willed nor reducible to an effect of cultural discourses or to a “synaptic self.” Rather we may re-cognize writer and reader as intermediaries, interagents, or intersubjects who relate to

alterities in highly channelled, buffered, selectively processed, and patterned ways. This subject is by definition unique not only insofar as cognition is individual, but

also because, as Paul Churchland reminds us, “every mind [is]

distinctive and individual learning history” (qtd. in Turner 151). At the same time, each person is part of a collective of minds that is unreliable because it depends on the structures of its individual subjects’ materiality, a materiality from which perceptions of reality necessarily emerge as “body-brain-culture relays” or what might be called mixed media (Connolly xiii). Thus, only if we consider cognition as both individually “embodied” and embedded in an history of metaphor and mediation, may we re-cognize Dickinson. 31 And, of course, such re-cognition offers new ways of seeing Dickinson’s work, not vistas into the poet’s mind and brain.

the product of a


i thank Ottilie Schmauss and Patrick Stärke for indispensable research assistance and David Schumacher for final touches to the form of this essay.


Camille Paglia notes that Dickinson “prefers the word ‘brain’ to ‘mind’” (625). Like Dickinson, neurophysiologists emphasize the scope of neurophysiological processes in the brain that activate and coordinate what Antonio Damasio calls “the vast expanse of the cerebral cortex,” its “myriad units,” and “billions of neurons” (86).


For work on the role of science in Dickinson’s writing see Hiroko Uno as well as Fred White who provides us with a list of “Dickinson’s Science Poems.”


Dickinson studied “Mental Philosophy,” as she shared with Abiah Root in 1845 (L6).


As Scheerer notes, the term was introduced by Longuet-Higgins in 1973 and “gained a wider currency only in the late 1970s” (7). Drawing on the neurosciences, psychology, philosophy, computer science, artificial intelligence, and linguistics, among other disciplines, the cognitive sciences now constitute a large field of inquiry in constant flux. The complexities of cognition—many of which are far from being understood in their entirety—make up only a small portion of its research agenda.


Jeanne Fahnestock elaborates these differences, highlighting the fact that cognitive science seeks neural substrates of sensation, attention categorization, and learning— mental processes that do not necessarily involve language and are far from the rhetorical lexicon (161). Still, “[m]any of the formal devices identified in rhetorical stylistics have been given psychological reality in brain research, providing mutual ratification” (174).


it was President George Bush, Sr., as Fahnestock recalls, who declared the 1990s the “decade of the brain” in his Presidential Proclamation of 17 July 1990 (159).


See Sielke, Fashioning the Female Subject (43-60).


The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XVII, No. 1


elena Semino and Jonathan Culpiter define cognitive stylistics as “a rapidly expanding

field at the interface between linguistics, literary studies and cognitive science” (ix).

While “[t]raditional stylistic analysis

tends to make use of linguistic theories or

frameworks in order to explain or predict interpretation,” what is “new about cogni- tive stylistics,” they explain, “is the way in which linguistic analysis is systematically based on theories that relate linguistic choices to cognitive structures and processes” (ix).


Reuven Tsur defines cognition as referring to “all information-processing activities of the brain, ranging from the analysis of immediate stimuli to the organisation of subjective experience” (280-81).


Thought processes are also at the forefront of Jed Deppman’s work. See, for example, his essay, “Trying to think with emily Dickinson.”


My reflections here represent the first stages toward a chapter of a book on “Memory, intermediality, and the (Cognitive) Sciences: Re-Cognizing Literary and Cultural Studies, Re-membering the Subject.”


“The phenomena of the mind,” writes Damasio, “are as physical as is the activity within a microchip, or the transmission of radio waves, or the movement of physical particles we have never seen” (86).


More specifically, Damasio underlines the importance for “scientific inquiry” of a transdisciplinary interplay between neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology.


in Dickinson’s lifetime, this fallibility was perhaps most evidently exemplified by the fate of phrenology: “By 1843,” writes Samuel H. Greenblatt, “the entire Western scien- tific community rejected organology and phrenology,” a science that was previously popular and respectable (790).


Synapses became visible in the 1950s with the use of the electron microscope (Cum- mins and Cummins 322).


Such speakers are featured, for instance, in “i felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (Fr340), “i read my sentence - steadily - ” (Fr432), “i’ll clutch - and clutch - ” (Fr385), “Behind Me - dips eternity - ”(Fr743), “i felt a Cleaving in my Mind - ” (Fr867), and “A Pit - but Heaven over it - ” (Fr508), among many other texts.


As Uno points out, Dickinson mentions the name “Darwin” in a letter addressed to elizabeth Holland in early January 1971 (108; L359).


See, for instance, her poems “Before i got my eye put out - ” (Fr336), “i’ve seen a Dying eye” (Fr648), and “Renunciation - is a piercing Virtue” (Fr782).


no one comes close to Paglia in making us aware of the fact that Dickinson’s poetry is replete with separated limbs and body parts.


For the proximity of narratology and cognitive science, see Herman, for instance. Raymond W. Gibbs argues that “the constraints on how we speak and write are not imposed by the limits of language but by the way we actually think of our ordinary Metaphor constitutes much of our experience and helps constrain the way we think about our ordinary lives” (8-9).


Whereas earlier information-processing and artificial intelligence (Ai) approaches trace mental processes as information progressing through a system in a series of stages, PeD—also called connectionism or neural networks approach—frames cogni- tive processes “in terms of networks that link together neuron-like units” and proceed simultaneously rather than step by step or linearly (Matlin 20). This happens at the same time that, as Martha nell Smith convincingly argues, computing has gained an increasing relevance for literary studies and, most particularly, i may add, for literary studies engaging cognition.


Sabine Sielke


Paglia calls her a “decadent voyeur” (664).


See Sielke, “Threshold Glances.”


Crary writes, “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the camera obscura was without question the most widely used model for explaining human vision, and for representing the relation of a perceiver and the position of a knowing subject to an external world” (27).



1833 Sir Charles Wheatstone claimed that the human organism “had the capac-

ity under most conditions to synthesize retinal disparity into a single unitary image” (Crary 119).


The subtitle of Stein’s “if i Told Him” (1924), for instance, reads “A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”


in her essay “Dickinson and Mathematics,” Seo-Young Jennie Chu convincingly shows that Dickinson “uses specific mathematical principles to account for mysteries like

death, wonder, the relation of self to God, and the limits of human language” (1). For Michael Theune, Dickinson’s poems not only “raise the problems of mathematics and


relation to metaphysical questions (of definition, identity, unity, and otherness) by

thematizing it” “as collages which employ the signs of mathematics,” they also may “be understood as embodying the problems of the shifting values of mathematics and metaphysics” (113).


Compare to Deppman who argues that “[s]uch trying poetry [try-to-think poetry] in- vites us to join and repeat her thinking about and beyond thinking” (100).


Tsur clearly differentiates cognitive poetics from cognitive linguistics: “Cognitive lin- guistics shows very successfully how a wide range of quite different metaphors can be reduced to the same underlying conceptual metaphor, whereas cognitive poetics makes significant distinctions between very similar metaphors, claiming that these dif- ferences make poetic expression unique. it accounts for the perceived effects of poetic texts, and relates perceived effects to poetic texts in a principled manner” (314). in “As- pects of Cognitive Poetics,” Tsur focuses on poetry and emotional qualities, rapid and delayed categorization, sensuous metaphors and the grotesque, decision style, poetry and altered states of consciousness, alternative mental performances, symbol and alle- gory, ambiguity and soft focus, meter and rhythm, and conflicting prosodic patterns.


Work by nicole Panizza on Dickinson’s “musicality” and Brad J. Ricca on Dickinson and video games, presented at the 2007 eDiS conference in kyoto is highly suggestive in this context.


Andy Clark talks of “the embodied, embedded perspective” as a recent paradigm of cognitive science that calls for “a wider view—one that incorporates a multiplicity of ecological and cultural approaches as well as the traditional core of neuroscience, linguistics, and artificial intelligence” (221).

Works Cited

The following abbreviations are used to refer to the writings of emily Dickinson:


The Poems of Emily Dickinson. ed. R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Citation by poem number.


The Letters of Emily Dickinson. ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958. Citation by letter number.

Chu, Seo-Young Jennie. “Dickinson and Mathematics.” Emily Dickinson Journal 15.1 (2006):



The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XVII, No. 1

Clark, Andy. Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: MiT Press, 1997.

Connolly, William e. Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,


Christ, Carol T., and John O. Jordan. introduction. Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. xix-xxviii. Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MiT Press, 1990. Cummins, Robert, and Denise Dellarosa Cummins, ed. Minds, Brains, and Computers: The Foundations of Cognitive Science. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. Damasio, Antonio R. “Modelling the Mind/Brain Relationships.” Exploring the Concept of Mind. ed. Richard M. Caplan. iowa City: U of iowa P, 1986. 73-87. Deleuze, Gilles.“The Brain is the Screen: An interview with Gilles Deleuze.” The Brain Is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema. ed. Gregory Flaxman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. 365-72. Deppman, Jed. “Trying to Think with emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.1 (2005):


eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. 2002. new York, nY: Picador, 2003. Fahnestock, Jeanne. “Rhetoric in the Age of Cognitive Science.” The Viability of the Rhetorical Tradition. ed. Richard Graff, Arthur e. Walzer, and Janet M. Atwill. Albany: State U of new York P, 2005. 159-79. Freeman, Margaret H. “The Body in the Word: A Cognitive Approach to the Shape of a Poetic Text.” Cognitive Stylistics: Language and Cognition in Text Analysis. ed. elena Semino and Jonathan Culpeper. Amsterdam, neth.: Benjamins, 2002. 23-47. .”A Cognitive Approach to Dickinson’s Metaphors.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. ed. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998. 258-72. “Momentary Stays, exploding Forces: A Cognitive Linguistic Approach to the Poetics of emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.” Journal of English Linguistics 30.1 (2002): 73-90. Gibbs, Raymond W. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge, eng.: Cambridge UP, 1994. Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, eds. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998. Graham, David. “Why emily Dickinson Would not Smile for the Camera.” Eclectica Magazine 9.3 (2005) 25 July 2007. <http://www.eclectica.org/ v9n3 /graham_ david.html>. Greenblatt, Samuel H. “Phrenology in the Science and Culture of the 19th Century.” Neurosurgery 37 (1995): 790-805. Hagenbüchle, Roland. “Precision and indeterminacy in the Poetry of emily Dickinson.” Emerson Society Quarterly 20 (1974): 33-56. Hamilton, Craig. “A Cognitive Rhetoric of Poetry and emily Dickinson.” Language and Literature 14.3 (2005): 279-94. Herman, David, ed. Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford, CA: CSLi Publications, 2003. LeDoux, Joseph. The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. new York, nY:

Penguin, 2002. Lewontin, Richard C. The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard UP, 2000. Manning, Susan. “How Conscious Could Consciousness Grow? emily Dickinson and William James.” Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition. ed. karen L. kilcup. iowa City: U of iowa P, 1999. 306-31. Matlin, Margaret W. Cognition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2002. Morris, David B. “The Languages of Pain.” Exploring the Concept of Mind. ed. Richard M. Caplan. iowa City: U of iowa P, 1986. 89-99.


Sabine Sielke

nalbantian, Suzanne. Memory in Literature: From Rousseau to Neuroscience. Houndsmill, eng.:

Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. new York, nY: Vintage, 1991.

Scheerer, eckart. “Toward a History of Cognitive Science.” International Social Science Journal 40.1 (1988): 7-19. Semino, elena, and Jonathan Culpeper. Foreword. Cognitive Stylistics: Language and Cognition in Text Analysis. Amsterdam, neth.: Benjamins, 2002. ix-xvi Sielke, Sabine. “Dickinson’s Threshold Glances, or: Putting the Subject on edge.” Emily Dickinson Journal 5.2 (1996): 93-99. Fashioning the Female Subject: The Intertextual Networking of Dickinson, Moore and Rich. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Smith, Martha nell. “Computing: What’s American Literary Study Got to Do With it?” American Literature 74.4 (2002): 834-57. Stafford, Barbara Maria. “Towards a new Analogics: Cognition as Collage.” Video Ergo Sum:

Repräsentation nach innen und außen zwischen Kunst- und Naturwissenschaften. ed. Olaf Breidbach and karl Clausberg. Hamburg, Ger.: Hans-Bredow-institut, 1999. 201-18. Stein, Gertrude. “if i Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” A Stein Reader. ed. Ulla e. Dydo. evanston, iL: northwestern UP, 1993. 464-66. “Portraits and Repetition.” Lectures in America. 1935. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1985. 165-


Theune, Michael. “‘One and One are One’ And Two: An inquiry into Dickinson’s Use of Mathematical Signs.” Emily Dickinson Journal 10.1 (2001): 99-116. Tsur, Reuven. “Metaphor and Figure-Ground Relationship: Comparisons from Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts.” PSYART 4 (2000). 25 January 2007. < http://www.clas.ufl. edu /ipsa /journal/2000_tsur03.shtml#tsur03>. Turner, Stephen. Brains/Practices/Relativism: Social Theory after Cognitive Science. Chicago, iL:

U of Chicago P, 2002. Uno, Hiroko. “‘Chemical Conviction‘: Dickinson, Hitchcock and the Poetry of Science.“ Emily Dickinson Journal 7.2 (1998): 95-111. Vendler, Helen. “emily Dickinson Thinking.” Parnassus 26.1 (2001): 34-56. White, Fred D. “’Sweet Skepticism of the Heart’: Science in the Poetry of emily Dickinson.” College Literature 19.1 (1992) 3 Mar. 2008. < http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/delivery?vi


Wilson, eric. “Dickinson’s Chemistry of Death.” American Transcendental Quarterly 12.1 (1998): 27-43.