I dwell in possibility

Emily Dickinson PortraitI dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–

Last night I had the good fortune to sit in on a lecture about Emily Dickinson at UMW delivered by Claudia Emerson. The talk was part of the Great Lives series -the title and theme of such a lecture series on the biographical history of genius (or “greatness”) is not necessarily the most appealing to my sensibilities. Intellectual history can often be misappropriated as a “great man” theory of the past as well as a rationale for problematic vanguard, elite politics. That being said, the talk last night opened up some amazing possibilities for framing some of the ideas on that have been emerging through the edtech blogosphere as of late.

To begin, Chris Lotte posted an amazing bit here about the “resurgence of the humanities” and philosophy into the discussion of educational technology. Granted my own background as a humanities-phile biases me, I have to say that his sentiments really resonate with my own intense attraction to this field:

I also enjoyed the resurgence of the humanities– and philosophy– into the discussion. I believe more than ever that we are in the middle of a culture-change that is on par with the emergence of science and rationalist thinking and then the industrial revolution and mechanical apparatus. Orienting ourselves to this radically changing environment in which we will have ubiquitous smart objects, ambient networking, promiscuous presence demands rethinking the very foundation of our thought and approach to the divide and connections between us and the world.

The idea of orienting ourselves within a radically changing moment frames the importance, if not necessity, of capturing and reflecting upon the poetry of the medium. The short, lyrical ideas that are born from sharing and thinking about these concerns together. Prof Emerson did a masterful job of dispelling the myth of insanity surrounding the figure of Dickinson and her work, while simultaneously examining her particular space (literally and figuratively) as a woman within late nineteenth-century New England.

An extremely generative conceit Emerson used to describe Dickinson’s isolation was the idea of “removes.” Mary Rowlandson’s foundational The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) is framed by twenty removes at the hands of the Native Americans that place her, to quote the Narrative, “into the vast and desolate wilderness.” This powerful metaphor of a simultaneously physical and psychological journey into the space of the vast unknown seems entirely appropriate to Dickinson. Dickinson intense meditations on the simultaneously “vast and desolate wilderness” of consciousness that frame the relationship amongst her own removes (being “motherless,” husbandless, childless, and godless), the historical moment she lived in, and the immensely powerful legacy of her artistic vision.

Nonetheless, despite the best attempts to explain her life through the poetry or the poetry through her life -the words are on the pages within the fascicles as a relational sequence of lyrical poetry that simultaneously fosters, conceals, and agitates the possibility of meanings. Poetry is something akin to, and more than, philosophy -as “my special lady friend” Antonella points out beautifully- for before the aristotelian focus on logic and reason there was a space amongst the pre-Socratic poets for an alternative vision for the possibility of language -and by extension reason, logic, and laws (sometimes there’s nothing like a classical education at an Italian Lyceo!).

All this to say, Stephen Downes frames what he is working on through the lens of Wittgenstein (that is my reading -he may very well disagree with my emphasis) and Brian Lamb soulfully muses on the “Disintegrated thoughts on content integration and remix” -I echo Chris Lotte’s celebration of the resurgence of the humanities in the conversation about edtech. The problems of language (specifically the complex and ambiguous space of accurately relating words to meaning) we face when approaching eduglu can learn much from the precise and economical lyrical poem of Dickinson that is both shrouded and illuminated by uncertainty, discomfort, and ambiguity. Our greatest asset is sustaining the creative and imaginative energy that enables us all to continually “dwell in possibility.” Poetry may very well be that manna!

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6 Responses to I dwell in possibility

  1. Tell all the Truth
    But tell it Slant
    Success in Circuit lies

    A good liberal arts/humanities education yields the tools for approaching Dickinson’s advice here, and that’s also true of the technologies we’re using/learning/creating.

  2. gardo says:

    Jim,

    “Intellectual history can often be misappropriated as a “great man” theory of the past as well as a rationale for problematic vanguard, elite politics.”

    That’s entirely true. But if to avoid these problems we eliminate the idea of greatness, we end up far worse off, at least in my view. Emily Dickinson’s greatness is real, will endure, and matters–especially as an example for all of us as lifelong learners and creators.

    Nor is there singing school but
    Studying monuments of its own magnificence

    I think I have most of that right. Anyway, it’s from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” a poem I think Dickinson would have admired.

    Magnificence is real, and magnificence matters.

  3. jimgroom says:

    Gardner,

    You make an entirely valid point and I certainly savor the magnificence that is Dickinson’s poetic legacy. In fact, I was doing my best not to give the impression that intellectual history is without value.

    I guess my own concerns about the notion of greatness in relationship to intellectual history has everything to do with the implicit assumptions it makes about the magnificence you refer to above. More specifically, greatness as a frame for a series of lectures at UMW already assumes the object of study -usually a literary author or historical/political figure and even more often white and male- is, indeed, great given the long shadow of history and scholarship.

    I have no intention of suggesting that many of those figures profiled have not necessarily led “great lives,” but rather re-examining (a faculty that is arguably just as important for lifelong learners and creators) the terms of greatness that have been heretofore established. Most of these lectures focus strictly upon the biographical details of an individual’s life in order to divine, as if by alchemy, the nature of that particular figure’s magnificence.

    In fact, it struck me during Claudia’s talk that the greatness lie in the poems -not necessarily the person. For example, if it could be argued that Emily Dickinson led a “great life” (which is a deeply ethical judgment that none of us alive are in position to make) might the facts we have suggest otherwise? She lived what many might understand as an uneventful life. The lecture came alive for me when Claudia began closely reading several of the poems in order to imagine a space beyond the confines of the sepulcher of the past. She opened up the possibility for creative criticism that can re-invigorate a tradition of intellectual biography that more often than not is premised on reinforcing greatness rather than reexamining and re-imagining it.

  4. gardo says:

    Hmmm. I’m all for reexamining and re-imagining greatness, so long as those activities don’t erase the idea of greatness altogether. (Similarly, for example, I’m all for a critical examination of the way reason is used to justify unethical behavior, so long as reason itself isn’t written off as a white male invention.)

    As for divining, as if by alchemy, the nature of a particular figure’s magnificence by examining the biographical details of that person’s life–well, I’m aware of Foucault’s “author-function,” but am wary of the superficial Freudianism behind his critique. Instead, I say viva alchemy, viva divination. And I feel we are all called to make the best ethical judgments we can, however deep they may be. Indeed, are not the re-examination and re-imagination of greatness you rightly advocate themselves a response to a deeply ethical judgment?

    For me, the beauty of Claudia’s talk was that it made abundantly clear that Dickinson had indeed lived a great life by anyone’s standards, and that the events defining that greatness were lasting and sublime, for they were acts of creation.

  5. jimgroom says:

    I love that you responded Gardner! Now in “good faith” (a loaded term, I know) here are some responses to your comment…

    And I feel we are all called to make the best ethical judgments we can, however deep they may be.

    About the work or about the imagined person?

    Indeed, are not the re-examination and re-imagination of greatness you rightly advocate themselves a response to a deeply ethical judgment?

    Yes, but that ethical judgment has much more to do with how we read and appropriate the texts than how we finally “assess” the life of greatness.

    For me, the beauty of Claudia’s talk was that it made abundantly clear that Dickinson had indeed lived a great life by anyone’s standards, and that the events defining that greatness were lasting and sublime, for they were acts of creation.

    By anyone’s standards when? Is there no particularity here? Are we to assume that greatness is a static, consistent space through which we understand the past and our own relationship to it? Literature is appropriated as most things are for different reasons at different times- this by no means elides its beauty and power altogether- but it certainly informs how we interpret and highlight its relevance and produce meaning.

  6. Gardner says:

    Quick answers in good faith–a loaded but necessary concept, n’est pas? (Try living without it. :))

    I’m not sure what your first question is asking, but I’ll give it a try. My working hypothesis is that all persons should enjoy certain inalienable rights, just because they’re human beings. But it doesn’t follow from that hypothesis that all persons deserve to be called great, or that all accomplishments are equally valuable. And I don’t think that all critical judgments are completely bound or explained by historical, cultural, or personal context. If they are, then we have no trans-personal basis for any ethical argument at all. In other words, I don’t believe that all interest is self-interest.

    The ethical judgment you propose has everything to do with human beings as well as texts. The human beings create texts. And if there are no personal consequences behind how we read texts, then why do texts matter at all? (I’m not responding to “appropriate,” as that’s a word whose meaning shifts dramatically depending on what point’s being argued.)

    I’m indeed claiming that Dickinson’s life is great because her work is great, and that her greatness transcends her historical, cultural, and immediate personal contexts. I agree wholeheartedly that the contexts “inform how we interpret and highlight its relevance,” but that doesn’t mean that there are no trans-personal standards of judgment that apply. There is particularity, but not JUST particularity. Otherwise, in my view, no ethical arguments remain, for ethical arguments always (already) assume transpersonal standards of judgment.

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