restricted access Language and Democracy: Meaning Making as Existing in the Work of Gertrude Stein
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Language and Democracy:
Meaning Making as Existing in the Work of Gertrude Stein

No matter how often what happened had happened any time any one told anything there was no repetition. This is what William James calls the Will to Live. If not nobody would live.

Gertrude Stein, "Portraits and Repetition"

In 'Portraits and Repetition,' an essay in Lectures in America, written for her 1934 American tour, Stein speaks about how she came to understand the link between her writing and identity. The first time she had a sense of James's idea that repetition is impossible (in any exacting manner) was as an adolescent when she moved from California to live with "a whole group of very lively little aunts" in Baltimore. These aunts evidently had many stories to tell, and since there were "ten and eleven" of them, the stories were repeated frequently.1 However, in the retelling of those stories, Stein heard difference, making her realize that as human beings, we always, even slightly, alter what we see or hear. She recognized that one cannot repeat in any strict sense, and that to live entails an engagement in a process of ongoing repetition with a difference. At seventeen she had not yet made the connection between this idea and her concept of writing;2 however, as she narrates in "Portraits and Repetition," the awareness played a crucial role in her developing conviction that writing alive and present to reality, not a copy or representation, functions through a continual repetition with a difference or what she calls "insistence" (2:290). This leads her, with the help of James, her teacher at Radcliffe (1893-1897), to comprehend an inextricable [End Page 129] connection between the dynamic processes of meaning making and human existence.

To claim that Stein's writing is tied to subjects in the world puts into question the long line of criticism that understands her work to be hermetic, a-historical, and alienated from issues of the body.3 In particular, the notion of Stein's embodied poetics resists the assumption that "experimental" or avant-garde writing dissipates subjectivity. This assertion is based, in part, on second-wave feminist notions that underscore the importance of a stable "I"—reinforced by referential language—as necessary for political agency, and assumes that fragmentation in language cannot provide for the body's physicality in the temporal world.4 Reading Stein through James offers an alternative to a polarized thinking that situates the stable body in opposition to linguistic freedom. She provides a middle ground that reveals her to be particularly useful to literary feminism and issues relating to the body. Part of what Stein rethinks between 1923 and 1935 is the notion of narrative and this rethinking has to do with how conventions of identity (like conventions of writing) are yoked to habituated practices that supply us with a "language" from which we narrate ourselves. In The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind (1935) she identifies writing as "romance"—the play between the reader's ability to read (to apply habits of communicative systems) and the reader's inability to read (to think without a dependency on referential memory in the passing moment). Similarly, Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter posits that there is always a chiasmic relation between an ability and inability to read the terms involved in the construction of gender. One cannot escape societal norms; however, "strict obedience" to those norms is impossible because, as human beings with individual particularities who are affected by environmental stimuli, we will necessarily repeat with a difference (124). Both Stein and Butler draw attention to the insurrectional moment available in the ambivalence created by the inherent failure in reading (language or constructions of gender).5 Becoming aware of the impossibility of repeating exactly opens a space not determined by automatic ingrained routine, allowing one choice and agency. In this sense, Stein offers a praxis that helps one to resist conventions, such as constructions of gender or sexuality, that are based on habituated practices and rank some subjects over others. She provides a valuable practice—one that is democratic in its...