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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 848-850
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Steven Meyer. Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001. xxiii + 450 pp.
Meyer's complex, ambitious, and wide-ranging study makes a valuable contribution to Stein scholarship, to modernism studies, and to science studies more generally (it is a volume in Stanford's Writing Science series). In it, he reads Stein's poetics through the prism of early twentieth-century scientific-philosophical investigations—particularly those of William James—in order to demonstrate that Stein's radical literary experiments are intimately linked with her early neuroanatomical [End Page 848] training rather than distinct from it. Indeed, works such as Tender Buttons constitute a form of experimental laboratory science in which Stein substitutes writing for psychology—"reconfigur[ing] science as writing and perform[ing] scientific experiments in writing" (xvii). Meyer also situates Stein's writing in relation to literary texts "that form the contours of her compositional practice" (xvi)—by Sterne, Wordsworth, George Eliot, Pater—so as to illuminate the active, complex transformations she makes with these writers. Finally, Meyer attempts to place Stein within a lineage of Romantic poet-scientists (including Wordsworth, Goethe, Shelley) and in "a line of speculative thinkers that extends from Emerson to James and Whitehead," and "emerg[es] today in figures as disparate as the bioaesthetician Susanne Langer, neuroscientists like Varela and Edelman, and [Donna] Haraway" (xviii). All of these thinkers, whatever their other differences, share a perspective called radical empiricism, Meyer argues.
As this brief overview suggests, the book casts a very wide net, and inevitably some topics are more extensively and more convincingly developed than others. Part 1, "The Neurophysiological Imagination," introduces many of the central concepts that Meyer elaborates throughout the book: knowledge of acquaintance, knowledge of description, poetic science, and radical empiricism. He characterizes Stein's development as a movement from adherence to the principles of positivism and mechanistic science (as in The Making of Americans), which produces knowledge about, to the invention of her ecstatic science—advanced through compositional methods designed to produce knowledge ofacquaintance. Recognition of the co-implication of these two kinds of (and approaches to) knowledge results in a radical empiricist stance. As Meyer puts it, "Radical empiricism is empiricism divorced from the idea of the primacy of sense-data; instead it stresses the decisive role of processes and procedures, of conjunctive as well as disjunctive relations, in the composition of experience" (13). Importantly, Meyer argues, (here and in part 3, "Stein and William James") that Stein develops a more radical empiricism than James because, unlike him, she concentrates self-consciously on the composing process itself in the process of enacting it: "Stein in her writing attempts to do what James says can't be done: impart acquaintance to someone who hasn't already experienced it. In order to do this she replaces acquaintance without description with 'an acquaintance with description' 'achieving recognition of the thing while the thing is achieving expression'" (6).
While Meyer's aim in Irresistible Dictation is to characterize Stein's poetics as a whole rather than to produce readings of individual works, he does illuminate fascinating aspects of some major [End Page 849] Stein texts in advancing a description of her general neuropsychological poetics. For example, he analyzes Tender Buttons as Stein's engagement with shifting scientific understandings of how nerve cells communicate (through contiguity rather than organic connection as previously supposed). In Tender Buttons, Stein produces "[s]tudies of exchanges at word junctions and across word membranes, designed to show the ways in which words join together into functional multi-word units. . . . She conceived of words like cells" (80-81).
These readings are most provocative and convincing when they remain suggestive or metaphoric. On other occasions, Meyer has a tendency to overstate his case—as when he claims that Stein saw a poem as "every bit as much a living organism as a living organism is," speaks about "the nervous system of language," or argues that James's work after 1890...