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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

"'Till Algebra is Easier —': Elements of Computation in the Poems of Emily Dickinson

Angus Forbes (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Panel: Visualizing Electronic Literature
Thursday, August 6 • 09:00 - 10:30 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium R)

In this paper, I present close readings of a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems that I propose might be best explained through an understanding of her awareness of the current scientific topics of the time. These include, for example, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, Faraday’s and Maxwell’s numerous investigations into electromagnetism in the early to mid 1800s, and the production of Babbage’s Difference Engine in 1847. Specifically, in regards to Babbage’s computing machine, I demonstrate a connection between some of the innovations first formulated by the mathematician and proto-programmer Ada Lovelace in 1842 and 1843, including concepts of looping, modeling, and isomorphism, and Dickinson’s poems, written more than one decade later, which include references to cycles, recursion, and branching. Additionally, I show that there are clear stylistic similarities between Lovelace’s philosophical inquiries into the nascent discipline of computation and some of Dickinson’s poems that might be said to contain algorithmic structures or images. While I do not believe that Dickinson necessarily had any direct awareness of Lovelace’s writing (which she termed “poetical science”), these computational concepts enable new readings that provide insight into some of the more puzzling aspects of Dickinson’s work. Moreover, through exploring these similarities in poetry and programming at the dawn of the age of computation, I articulate relationships between the lyrical and logical that are more evidently realized in the contemporary genre of electronic literature.

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