Benjamin Pickford, “Context Mediated: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Political Economy of Plagiarism” (pp. 35–63)
Context has long been a critical determiner of methodologies for literary studies, granting scholars the tools to make objective claims about a text’s political or economic relation to the situation of its genesis. This essay argues that Ralph Waldo Emerson anticipatively criticizes our commitment to such practices through his use of plagiarism—a literary mode that exemplifies the denial of the sovereignty of context. I focus on two core principles that underlie Emerson’s conception of literature’s civic role in Essays: Second Series (1844): first, that literature is driven by an impulse to decontextualize; second, that this means that it has a deep affinity with the deterritorializing logic of capital. Provocatively proposing Emerson as a theorist of the relation between literature and economics, I argue that Essays: Second Series shows how the literary text can negotiate its ineluctable culpability with capitalism, but this does not mean that it can presume to possess a privileged point of vantage that might deny such culpability. Given that this is precisely what much historicizing or contextualizing scholarship implies, I contend that Emerson gives us a case study in the limits of literature and criticism’s economic agency.