Amy Wiley – Bhabha’s “problematic enunciation” and Gertrude Stein

As Johanna Frank hinted at in “Resonating Bodies”, Gertrude Stein’s writing disrupts the traditional paradigm of reading wherein the writer’s thoughts are transmitted to the reader via the medium of text.  Instead, the reader is implicated in the production of meaning and signification of the text; that is, reading Stein’s work requires active authorial creativity on the part of the reader.  Maybe this is a leap, but I think Stein’s experimental (and experiential) mode of writing lines up nicely with Bhabha’s thoughts on “colonial non-sense” and “the problematic enunciation of cultural difference” (125).  Bhabha highlights the difficulty (and maybe impossibility) of inter-cultural communication using the recurring “ouboum” of the Marabar Caves as a case in point:

“[the ‘ouboums’] are not naturalized or primitivistic descriptions of colonial ‘otherness’, they are the inscriptions of an uncertain colonial silence that mocks the social performance of language with their non-sense; that baffles the communicable verities of culture with their refusal to translate…The articulation of nonsense is the recognition of an anxious contradictory place between the human and the not-human, between sense and non-sense” (124-125).

Rather than using Bhabha’s article to analyze colonialism’s inherent linguistic contradictions and muddles, I think we can use it as an entrée into understanding how Stein’s prose works.  Instead of looking at the problems of reconciling meaning across disparate cultures, I want to explore the production of linguistically ambiguous “sense and non-sense” in terms of different individual people.  Stein illuminates this point in “Composition as Explanation”:  “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.”   Stein seems to be saying that writing, or “enunciation” to borrow Bhabha’s term, is necessarily a reiterative act that’s made new only by the subjective experience of the writer.  There’s nothing new to write about, only new experiences to project onto the text in the process of meaning-making.  I think Bhabha’s discussion of the “ambivalence of the on-going colonial present” (128) consequent with “culturally unassimilable words and scenes of nonsense” (128) sheds light on Stein’s description of “groping for a continuous present and there was an inevitable beginning of beginning again and again and again.”  Stein’s ostensible word salad in “Four Saints” (e.g. “When. Then. When. Then. Then. Men. When Ten. Then. When. Ten. When then. Then. Then. Ten. Then. Ten. Then then. Saints when. Saints when ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten. Ten.”) could be seen to be the kind of “articulation of nonsense” Bhabha discusses.  That is, “When. Then.” seems to acknowledge the contradictions and anxieties of expressing experience via language.

Bhabha writes, “Marshall Sahlins’s ‘symbolic synapses’ produce homologous differentiations in the conjunction of oppositions from different cultural planes” (128).   In terms of Stein’s work, I see the “homologous differentiations” as words themselves.  Individual words can signify approximately the same thing to different people, but can never capture exactly the same thing for everyone.  Stein’s obsession with “beginning again” seems to say something about how the objective denotations of words will always be secondary to their subjective connotations.  Bhabha discusses the “synapse” or “between” or Lacanian “entre” as the site of uncertainty in cross cultural communication, the point where meaning collapses into “enunciatory ambivalence.”  This gap between expression and reception is where signification breaks down in Stein’s work as well.  For example, the construction of the sentence “Pigeons on the grass alas” in “Four Saints” makes it seem matter of fact and descriptive.  The phrase makes grammatical sense and that lends it authority and invites the reader to ascribe meaning to it rather than dismiss it as total nonsense.

I think I want to explore Stein’s musicality in my final paper.  I’ll probably focus on Tender Buttons and how Stein uses sound to propel the reader forward even in the face of the interpretive morass created by the non-referential words of the text.  I love Tender Buttons because it seems to offer islands of fathomability – phrases and sentences that actually seem to make grammatical and referential sense – at exactly the right moments so I never drown in the sea of nonsense.  For example, the book’s first poem (if that’s the right word), “A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS,” begins with seemingly indecipherable nonsense, but ends with a sentence that, for me, instinctively rings true:

“A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.”

I think it’s the musicality of the first two sentences that make this poem readable and pave the way for the payoff of “The difference is spreading” at the very end.  The sing-songiness of “A kind in glass and a cousin” makes up for the sentence’s lack of logical reference and enable the poem’s momentum.  Without sentences like “The difference is spreading,” I’d probably give up on Tender Buttons by the end of page one.

I’ll probably use “Composition as Explanation” and a few of Stein’s many lectures to explore my theory.  I also plan to draw from Ulla Dydo’s book Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises and Daniel Albright’s book Untwisting the Serpent, in which he proposes Stein as a “figure of dissonance” in the Modernist movement.

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Spivak’s Echo/Forster’s echo

A Passage to India fits quite snugly into the structure of narcissism that Gayatri Spivak, via Ovid and Freud, establishes in “Echo”. The characters that represent imperial ideology treat their Indian counterparts as auxiliaries of self-definition. The colonized must follow the colonial imperative in order to embody a subordinated position that satisfies the ideal European image of its imperial domain—its self as object of knowledge. Ronnie and Adela maintain this “cultural narcissism” through a privileged position that allows the former to hierarchize by race and class and provides the grounds on which the latter may request to see “the real India” (Spivak 27 and Forster 22). Adela’s request mirrors the empiricism that constitutes Freud’s truth-claim in his study of narcissism in non-Europeans, as detailed by Spivak. Adela’s “real India” too derives from a notion of India as a unified entity, transparent to European field study and invoked only when useful. Indeed, Adela desires the “real India” selectively: “India was certainly dim this morning, though seen under the auspices of Indians. Her wish had been granted, but too late” (147). What’s more, this version of India enacts something like the definitional violence produced by Freud’s terminal study, that “the declaration of its expectation is offered as its finding” (Spivak 21). In other words, the “real India” Adela seeks is the confirmation of her expectations. As she and Mrs. Moore skirt the Kawa Dol, “[t]hey did not feel that it was an attractive place or quite worth visiting, and wished it could have turned into some Mohammedan object, such as a mosque, which their host would have appreciated and explained” (Forster 156). An India that doesn’t confirm European expectation or can’t be explained by their Europeanized guide is not worth seeing, so it is displaced by an imagined expectation, a mosque or a deadly snake. Adela, Mrs. Moore and even the auxiliary Aziz seek to regain the prefigured definitional control desired by the narcissistic structure of imperial Europe. Instead, the persistent truth presented outside of the narcissistic imperative—the actual “real,” Spivak’s Echo—inevitably and forcefully transgresses the enclosed dialectic of self as object of knowledge. This Echo materializes as an assault on Mrs. Moore and Adela, accompanied by the literal echo of the Marabar Caves, described as follows:

“The echo in a Marabar cave…is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum,’ or ‘ou-boum,’—utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce ‘boum.’” (163).

The echo empties noise of its “distinction,” including its intent (“Hope, politeness”). Like Spivak’s Echo, that of the Marabar Caves alters and returns intended communication, so as to say, “I cannot answer you or I am not your proper respondent: a deferment independent of, indeed the opposite of, the sender’s intention” (Spivak 26). In doing so, it embodies a possibility outside of the narcissistic speech of intent, acting as Spivak’s Echo, a différance with the capacity to deconstruct the narcissistic structure. Specifically for Mrs. Moore, the echo deconstructs the imperialist’s ability to see colonized space and people as an extension of self through ideological control, by revealing the self as an illusive construct:

“But suddenly, at the end of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from ‘Let there be Light’ to ‘It is finished’ only amounted to ‘boum.’ Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect.” (166).

By emptying her religious construct of its meaning within the narcissistic structure, the echo presents the incomprehensible beyond that structure. What Mrs. Moore previously took for transcendental meaning is revealed to be subjective, one point in a network of cultural relativity. Her place of European privilege has been emptied and, appropriately, she’s no longer interested in carrying out communication at all: “she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even God” (Forster 166). She can no longer communicate, because her self as object of knowledge is gone. All she can do is perpetually defer all meaningful communication until her death.

Adela reacts differently to the echo. Exposed to the possibility of an unintentional voice, Adela balks, retreats into the narcissistic structure and immediately works to repair the hole opened by the echo. She reinscribes the Indian as auxiliary of self, at its highest possible stakes, indicting Aziz as the European image of its racial Other as uncivilized. She effaces the echo’s deconstructive property, concealing it with an image familiar to cultural narcissism. Adela’s move represents the foreclosure of critique, an automatic concealment through the transformation of a deconstructive element into a term of and for the imperial system.1 Though Adela later recants, her initial concealment has done its job. She has closed off the possibility of deconstruction for another day, and imperial narcissism has been reinforced.

I hoped to discuss Forster’s frame and femininity within Spivak’s narcissistic structure, but I haven’t quite thought through it yet. Perhaps in my final paper!

1 The appropriation of imperialized culture at the moment of culture sharing, à la “African” music and dialect, offers another example.

Grad bloggy day

There are no blogs due for undergrads today–you’re working on your midterms.

Our grad students will be getting involved by posting either about the postcolonial readings they did (Bhabha, Spivak), or about their final paper projects. I encourage undergrad students to keep up on what their graduate classmates are up to.

We’ll resume regular undergrad blogging next week, with Cunard’s Negro Anthology. I’m hoping that Joshua’s presentation on Michael North’s Dialect of Modernism will help us engage with the tricky issues of imitation, appropriation, mask and dialect, authenticity and abstraction, etc., and how these are/aren’t core elements of modernist writing.

Bon courage!