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Thompson, Aidan Patricia: "Affect, Language, and Identity: Emily Dickinson’s Embodied Performative"

Affect, Language, and Identity: Emily Dickinson’s Embodied Performative

Aidan Patricia Thompson, University at Albany, SUNY

In this paper I explore Dickinson’s use of language as a performative that becomes vitally engaged in the world through its affect and effect on readers. I link Branka Arsic’s discussion of Emersonian subjectivity (in On Leaving) that highlights how he unsettles habituated practices that support the illusion of stable reality to Dickinson’s use of the lyric and ideas of identity.

Dickinson resists conventions of the lyric that underline harmony and mimetic truth by exploiting an inherent contradiction embedded the lyric’s tradition. The contradiction is created by the oppositional tension between the lyric’s gesture toward readers (private thoughts of speaker overheard in soliloquy)—which invites and opens the text to readerly interpretation—versus the lyric’s claims of mimetic truth, which place expectations of fixity on the text. Dickinson exposes this incongruity by evoking a desire for closure through maintaining aspects of the traditional lyric while drawing attention to the impossibility of completion. Susan Howe and others have suggested that discontinuities or a refusal of syntactic and ideational completion in Dickinson distances her from the world of time and space. However, I argue that this resistance to completion was part of her adaptation of Emersonian subjectivity making her aware of how “Suspense—does not conclude” (Fr 775)—that uncertainty and unsatisfied longings place readers in a position to think, imagine, and participate in the immediacy of the moment without relying on habituated patterns that tend to think for them. Dickinson’s poetry creates an embodied performative in which readers are provided a practice that can develop the ability to actively think beyond entrenched routines, such as those associated to social structures. In this way Dickinson’s linguistic discontinuities are crucially connected to the world. In Judith Butler’s terms, Dickinson’s lyrics demonstrate how the uncontainable nature of language can provide a scene of agency as subjects think and act without an over-determined dependency on normativity.