Thomas Howard, Department of English and American Literature, Washington University in St. Louis
Title: “Functional Ambiguity: Centrifugal Aphorisms in Emily Dickinson’s Letters”
Abstract: The nineteenth century was a unique time in American literary and scientific history: with intellectual journals publishing a wide diversity of work and the “two cultures” of the humanities and the sciences having not yet solidified, it was common for these fields to engage with each other. Henry David Thoreau was thus called the “poet naturalist” of Concord; Emily Dickinson combined scientific discoveries into her experimentation in verse, and in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois merged sociology with literary narrative to great effect. I trace this stream of thinking and writing through the form of the aphorism—not as a short, pithy statement of universal truth, but as an open-ended, ambiguous form that relies on readers to interpret the meaning actively. Drawing on a transatlantic aphoristic tradition, especially in German, I identify the “functional ambiguity” of the aphorism as its ability to force the reader outward in new, creative directions. Thus, I describe this form as the “centrifugal aphorism.” In this presentation, I focus on Dickinson’s functional ambiguity in her letters, where semi-poetic lines encourage creative reinterpretations of the text, forcing readers to become co-producers of meaning. Ultimately, I connect this style of reading to my pedagogical method, suggesting that the ambiguity of the aphorism provides a path through the uncertainty of artificial intelligence and other disruptive trends in higher education.
Wednesday, March 15th at 17:30 in G-160 Seminar Room.