Chris Stroffolino's response to Lori Emerson
Your essay is brilliant, I think, in that it offers both a respectful summary of Michaels’ book and central arguments while also pointing out what you see as his inconsistencies, especially as regards the questions of authorial intention in the emphasis on the materiality of the text, more particularly the conclusion he comes to in this passage you quote: Indeed, despite the fact that our interest in the text’s materiality was provoked first by an interest in Dickinson’s intention, we can no longer have any principled interest in Dickinson at all ...
I find myself in general agreement with your critique of this central point of Michaels’, yet I am also sympathetic to his argument, if seen in the larger context of developments in theory in the last thirty-five or so years. For, like many writers who straddle the line between literary criticism and theory, Michaels is justifiably worried about the theoretical implications of taking the newly-legimitimized Dickinsonian material text as a paradigm that could be consistently applied to every text the critic/theorist confronts. If one accepts the theoretical need for this kind of consistency, in which the way one reads Dickinson would thus have to be in line with the way one reads other texts, such as the text of American Imperialism, then Michaels’ conclusion is quite logical, and his distrust of what he sees as postmodern (or what Theresa Ebert would call ludic postmodernism) readings of Dickinson, on the grounds that it limits the possibility of a materialist (in a Marxist sense) critique, makes sense. Yet, do we truly need to accept the urge for a consistent theory that is able to explain both globalization and readings of Dickinson and others that emphasize the material text? Michaels provides a valuable service by questioning whether those who embrace the material text at the expense of authorial intention (and in this sense his concern is not primarily with Dickinson - since Dickinson was already read as an author BEFORE the more recent emphasis on the materiality of her text - but with other writers who may follow in the wake of the rise of such an emphasis on materiality) may, unwittingly (or even wittingly) be ultimately pulling the ground (of any effective political critique) out from under themselves in their denial of authorial intention. However, he still bases this assumption on the misguided notion that the emphasis on the text’s materiality, in and of itself, cannot be reconciled with a reading that allows for authorial intention.
Perhaps my own position is in many ways even more post-theory than Michaels’ position in that I question the usefulness of attempting a consistent theory that manages to encompass both a responsible reading of the Dickinsonian Text and the text of American Empire. And while I appreciate the attempts to understand developments in literary criticism as reflective of, analogous to, socio-cultural stances (especially when the theory, no less than the art, often claims an oppositional status for itself), I often find a large APORIA between the personal and the political or between the literary text and the cultural context that most theory attempts to smooth over, however ingenuously (as in, for example, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and its attempt to negotiate post-Freudian - as representative of one side of the equation - and Marxist - as representative of the other side of the equation - to the present). The literary text’s complexities cannot be exactly analogous to the (political) world’s complexities, and vice versa. Both require different responses, but unfortunately in the current theoretical climate one is still considered a sloppy thinker if one emphasizes the material text over authorial intention in one’s literary criticism, but not necessarily in one’s cultural criticism. Granted, the separate spheres are themselves largely discredited these days, in theory, and certainly I would be hard pressed to draw a clear line separating them - nor do I believe one has to. But I do believe that more than one theory becomes necessary, or at least should be permitted, as yes one may very well wear a Derrida hat (to speak in shorthand) while engaging in the complexities of a literary text, and yet still wear a Marxist hat while considering the issues that seem to be ultimately more important to Michaels than whether or not future anthologies will publish Dickinson’s work in standard typeset or in her handwritten form (or perhaps both).