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  • Stuplimity: Shock and Boredom in Twentieth-Century Aesthetics
  • Sianne Ngai

There is stupid being in every one. There is stupid being in every one in their living. Stupid being in one is often not stupid thinking or stupid acting. It very often is hard to know it in knowing any one. Sometimes one has to know of some one the whole history in them, the whole history of their living to know the stupid being of them.

—Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1906–08)

Sorry. Sorry. I’m sorry. I regret it. Please accept my apology. I’m extremely sorry. I regret my mistake. Pardon me. Pardon me. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m deeply apologetic. Do forgive me. Pardon me. Accept my apology. Do forgive me. I’m deeply apologetic. Excuse me. Excuse me. It was my own fault. Do forgive me. I’m so sorry...

—Janet Zweig, Her Recursive Apology (sculpture), 1993

“Thick” Language

“Gertrude and I are just the contrary,” writes Leo Stein in Journey Into The Self. “She’s basically stupid and I’m basically intelligent” (Schmitz 100). What Leo perceived “stupid” about Gertrude and the non-linear writing of hers he abhorred is perhaps analogous to what the character Tod finds “thick” about Homer Simpson’s use of words in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939). When Tod coaxes a sluggish, almost comatose Homer to relate his experience of abandonment following the departure of Faye, Homer’s speech at first seems incomprehensible to him. “Language leaped out of Homer in a muddy, twisting torrent. [...] The lake behind the dam replenished itself too fast. The more he talked the greater the pressure grew because the flood was circular and ran back behind the dam again” (West 143–4). Yet as Tod discovers, Homer’s “muddy, twisting torrent” in its negative insistence conveys a logic of its own—which, when acknowledged, enables his interpretation:

[A] lot of it wasn’t jumbled so much as timeless. The words went behind each other instead of after. What he had taken for long strings were really one thick word and not a sentence. In the same way sentences were simultaneous and not a paragraph. Using this key he was able to arrange a part of what he had heard so that it made the usual kind of sense.


In the case of Homer, the shock of sudden loss produces its own dense or “thickening” rhetoric—one that deceptively simulates an inability to respond or speak at all, by eroding formal distinctions between word, sentence, and paragraph: the structural units of conventional syntax. To borrow terms Deleuze adduces from philosopher Duns Scotus (whose name gives rise to current usage of the word “dunce”), these formal differences are exchanged for modal differences that are based on intense variations or individuating degrees rather than distinct attributes or qualitative forms (Deleuze 39). Modal differences, in this sense, could be described as moody ones: temperamental, unqualified, or constantly shifting. In West’s example, the encounter with language based on such differences involves a transfer of affectivity: Tod finds himself temporarily stupefied by the language generated by Homer’s stupor. Which is to say that he discovers that it challenges his own capacity to read, interpret, or critically respond to it in conventional ways.

Radically altering the temporal order dictated by normative syntax (“the words went behind each other instead of after”), and blurring the distinction between its building blocks (sentence and paragraph), West’s description of “thick” or grammatically moody language strikingly coincides with the signifying logic at work in Stein’s dense Making of Americans (1906–8), where words are deliberately presented in “long strings” rather than conventional sentences, and the repetition of particular words or clauses produces a layered or simultaneous effect—Stein’s characteristic “continuous present.” As Stein puts it in “Poetry and Grammar,”

Sentences and paragraphs. Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are.... When I wrote the Making of Americans I tried to break down this essential combination by making enormously long sentences that would be as long as the longest paragraph and so to see if there was really and truly this essential...