Trauma theory posits an unrepresentable excess to experience, but because most studies of trauma deal with experiences that are known and named, at least in general terms (for instance, the Holocaust), there is a tendency to treat the limits of representation as objective borders determined by the inherent character of specific events rather than as subjective borders determined by the way an event is experienced. In this essay I propose a different model. Taking as my example the work of Emily Dickinson—a poet whose descriptions of psychic distress, often presumed to be autobiographical,have no known basis in the historical record—I argue that the limits of representation are best conceived as functions of the limits of intention. Further, because intention's failure—whether conceived as an inability or as an unwillingness to form meaningful utterance—is necessarily indistinguishable from the unintended or purely random utterance, I argue that representation's limits are met at precisely those moments when interpretation founders in doubt.

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