Peter Hare's response to Lori Emerson

Peter Hare's response to Lori Emerson

2005-12-18

Peter Hare responds to Lori Emerson’s review of Walter Benn Michaels.

Although Michaels can doubtless find a passage or two in which Howe - in her zeal to correct R.W. Franklin, et al.- overstates her case in way that makes her stress on materiality appear reductive, her work as a whole makes it clear that she wants to argue that taking account of materiality is helpful in understanding Dickinson’s or Shepard’s intentions. Also, contrary to Michaels, she doesn’t wish to leave the reader free to understand the writer’s intentions in any way at all. Her plan is to lay before the reader as much evidence relevant to the writer’s intentions as possible (including the materiality, but much else besides), and then to ask readers to reach conclusions about the author’s intentions as reasonably as they can. A legal analogy is helpful. Consider the notorious OJ trials, a criminal trial and a civil trial. Many types of evidence were presented to the jury, much of it “circumstantial.” On the basis of that heterogeneous mass of evidence the jury was supposed to try to reach reasonable conclusions about exactly what OJ did and what his intentions were. In the criminal trial the standard of evidence was “beyond a reasonable doubt”; in the civil trial the standard of evidence was lower, “a preponderance of evidence.” Suppose that the defense had completely ignored the DNA evidence. The prosecution would then have argued that the case looks quite different if the DNA evidence is figured in. In arguing for serious consideration of materiality, Howe is not arguing that materiality is a substitute for intention or that intention can be determined solely on the basis of materiality. She is arguing that to ignore the materiality in trying to determine the intentions of Dickinson and Shepard is something like ignoring the DNA evidence in the OJ trial; it is trying to understand the writer’s intentions on the basis of seriously incomplete evidence. Let me continue my analogy. Howe is not claiming that, if materiality is taken into account along with all the other sorts of evidence, we can reach conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt about what Dickinson’s or Shepard’s intentions were. However, she is making a weaker but still highly significant claim that, if materality is taken into account, along with all the other evidence, we will have a preponderance of evidence in favor of Howe’s account of the author’s intentions.

It is also important to point out that Michaels appears not to recognize that the accidental and the intentional are interdependent in complex ways. A writer with certain intentions puts ink marks on the surface of some material. The intentional act has a lot of unintended (material and other) consequences. The writer notices the unintended consequences and decides whether, all things considered,  they contribute to the overall value of her work or do not. If she decides that they do, she incorporates them in her overall intentional project. If they do not, she tries again with somewhat modified intentions and different ink marks on the page. So the the intentional affects the accidental, and the accidental affects the intentional.  To separate the accidental and the intentional in the way that Michaels seems to want to do is to indulge in “vicious abstractions.” In my view, a lot of Howe’s work is an attempt to show the importance of this interdependence in trying to understand the meaning of a text, and this interdendence cannot be fully appreciated without taking into account materiality - but not only materiality.