- Stein and Cultural Criticism in the Nineties
This special issue on Stein brings into relief transformations in the field of modernist studies in the last decade. Looking back, I have a sense that the “French feminisms” which helped to ground much of the work on Stein in the eighties, including my own, now look (to borrow a word from Marianne DeKoven’s introduction to this special issue) utopian, in both the good and the bad senses of the term. Modernism as a literary phenomenon may have amounted to what Julia Kristeva termed a “revolution in poetic language,” but revolutions in human life do not happen apart from larger historical force fields.
A word that crystallizes what was inspiring but also limiting about the psychoanalytic poststructuralisms of the eighties and early nineties [End Page 647]is “antipatriarchal.” Stein’s experimental texts are, I would still say (and on the same grounds), antipatriarchal in their potential effects; for their actualideological effects, however, they depend on something beyond their explosive stylistic innovations, namely, the social and institutional frameworks that mediate the experience of readers. Does Stein’s linguistic jouissancereally pulverize the mental processes that structure patriarchal thinking? Those of us who raised this question in the heyday of poststructuralist psychoanalytic theory tended to ask it in isolation from the kinds of historical questions that would have extended the analysis of patriarchy beyond a purely linguistic focus—questions such as, for example, how Stein’s readers, original or current, have been taught to read poetry and fiction; who does the teaching and of whom; what assumptions prevail socially about language and sexual difference; whether the reading takes place in an intellectual climate in which aesthetic “transgression” is unexpected or thoroughly familiar and institutionalized; and so on.
The three critical works under review here situate Stein’s experimental writing within various larger cultural fields—fields defined by discourses of race and ethnicity. These treatments of Stein reflect the ways in which recent work in a cultural studies mode has moved the conversation about Stein’s artistic innovations beyond a sense of her offering a challenge to patriarchy in the abstract (though this is not at all to say that there are not still things to be said about patriarchy in the abstract). These scholars ground their interpretations in a belief that Stein’s writing, to the extent that it had an oppositional force, intervened in discursive struggles specific to its moment, struggles that were shaped by identifiable institutions and populations. I think that this is, overall, highly energetic and imaginative scholarship that both clinches a recent reorientation of Stein studies and suggests directions for future work. At the same time, I take some space at the end of the essay to reflect on the experiential dimension of the encounter with Stein which has been more or less subordinated within the current historicist climate, although it is coming newly into play in some lesbian and gay approaches to Stein.
Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literaturefocuses on modernist literary projects that were shaped in reaction to movements to standardize English beginning in the 1880s. The expansion of empire in England and the mass [End Page 648]immigration of the 1880s in the United States gave rise to anxieties about the purity of language, anxieties that were handled by language specialists and intellectuals who patrolled the borders of correct English. This preoccupation with the language was a screen for racism and notions of national purity. Robert Bridges expressed a common view when he described the United States as a place where standard English was encountering “‘communities of other-speaking races who, maintaining among themselves their native speech, learn yet enough of ours to mutilate it’” (qtd. in North 16...