gertrude stein: act so there is no use in a center. further to the einsteinian elements of Roloff [SFAI], DeMarinis [Stanford], Thompson [CCA], and Lubell [independent artist-scholar], and Karen Schiff [RISD], discussed below: and further to dinner discussion with L, B, and M in Santiago Square, Merida, Mexico: [and, right, links to the series also: brief history of the voice, below]

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 2.52.07 AM

Karen Schiff – [Fields of letters and punctuation, made with rubber stamps of letters and punctuation, and annotated to highlight anomalies in the patterns. (Symbols lose their meaning, grids lose their regularity; the reliability of language dissolves into a sense of vertigo…)  KS]


[a note on notes and illustrations: MS Word notes don’t translate into the wordpress format. so the numeration is unfortunately not consecutive, and to be honest, i’m too lazy to fix this problem. it would be a pain in the ass. but the problem is easily solved: readers, should there be any, need only understand that the notes in ‘blue’ { i.e.: [i] James, (1990: }] follow immediately the paragraphs which precede them. it will make sense, i promise. as for the illustrations, they are mostly textually redundant, meaning – the text of most of the slides, except the last one, repeat what’s presented in the text, but in abbreviated form. this post is a re-presentation of a talk i gave, for which i created the slides for the audience so they could follow my read-text more easily. but i’ve also included the slides for the obvious reason that they include images which text in unable to do. so it’s possible for readers for this post to follow my talk simply by reading and looking at the slides, mostly – some of the argument may be difficult to follow that way; but then, the text itself may be difficult to follow... the images of the slides i should say, are not directly commented on in my text – they present additional, non-textual content in their own visual terms, as visual forms of epistemology, and therefore, as direct response to the text without need for textual interpretation. and that is intentional.]


In 1936, Stein published the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was a great financial success. She put some of her earnings to purchasing her first car. She always despised that book, so wrote to make up for what she perceived as its flaws, The Autobiography of Everyone.

The many reasons Stein has remained on the fringes of theoretical and aesthetic discourses may be resolved to a single one. To borrow a crucial concept from Bakhtin, the chronotopicity of her work is not ordered by metaphor or the narrative regimes of representation expected by modernist literature. Stein’s work in nothing less than a cataclysm for established literary practices, then as much as now. [Slide 2] What do we call her works if neither prose nor poetry? And what methods do we use to understand them? Assimilating her to contemporary idiom, they might be called audiovisual apparati operating on chronotopologies ordered, after 1913, by the spatializing, performative figures of “play,” “landscape,” and “geography,” that, to be navigated, require the temporalizing forensic attitudes of a detective. She used the analogy of a motor moving in a moving car to convey the relational movements of speaking and hearing simultaneously that her works embody [automobilesme]. To this end, her works literally invent the punctuation, vocabulary, and grammar of a new linguistic calculus, predicated on a syntax of analytic rather than synthetic relations.[i] Through these efforts, Stein “constructs” a nonnarrative, nonrepresentational chronotopicity in order to correct the semiological damage to “becoming through the world,” the consequence of a naïve realism – naïve because of its reliance on substantives, on nouns and adjectives, on the description of objects, rather than on facilitating experience of felt (made, done) “movements” through relations performed in-on-with-within the “stream of thought.” To accomplish this task, she reinvents language in all its dimensions and uses. As we shall see, she also frees them of unidirectional diachrony, as she reserves the right to move through any spatio-temporal dimension in any direction.


[Slide 2]ACLS_talk.002

We may use the following line from Tender Buttons (1913) as a first stepping stone on the path into Stein’s ‘use’ of language. [Slide 3]

Act so that there is no use in a center. A wide action is not a width.

A first reading of the first “sentence” suggests that we act as though there were no center. But this is not what it says. We are to act so that there is “no use” in a center, not that there isn’t one. More, our dismissal of the center is not a conceptual negation; we are to act in a way that makes no use of a center. But this is not quite correct either; her imperative requires a great deal of intentionality; act “so that” the center has no use. And what of the second sentence? Are we to imagine that our act is the antecedent for the comparison? How do we answer this riddle? What does it mean for an action to have or not to have width? I’ll return to these questions in a moment.

[Slide 3]ACLS_talk.003

Stein follows William James, with whom she studied, quite closely, while also departing from him. [Slide 4] James comments: “the moment we get beyond the first crude sensation all our consciousness is a matter of suggestion, and the various suggestions shade gradually into each other, being one and all products of the same psychological machinery of association.”[i] Stein’s lines are themselves “enactments,” performances intended not as representations or illustrations of James’s psychological tenets, but as instantiations of them in language. To elucidate further how Stein’s work is performative, James’ elaboration of his previous comment is helpful: “Reproduced sights and contacts tied together with the present sensation in the unity of a thing with a name, these are the complex objective stuff out of which my actually perceived table is made. Infants must go through a long education of the eye and ear before they can perceive the realities which adults perceive. Every perception is an acquired perception.”[ii] Stein sets out to create text-machines for the literal alteration of the way we perceive. Through them, we may acquire new forms of consciousness.

[i] James, (1990: ). My emphasis. Reference here and throughout this essay is to the edition published by Encyclopaedia Britannica,Volume 53, Chicago: 1990. The more standard edition is: The principles of psychology / William James ; [Frederick H. Burkhardt, general editor ; Fredson Bowers, textual editor ; Ignas K. Skrupskelis, associate editor].

[ii] Ibid.: James’ emphasis.

[Slide 4]


Stein’s equivalent, Jamesian proposition found in Tender Buttons is as follows: [Slide 5]



            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.

Stein’s point is that the observation of the carafe is no less systemic or ordered when perceived/conceived in difference than when reduced to categorical likenesses that result from metaphor and simile. Metaphor is of no ‘use’ when the production of perceptual acquisition through difference, and not likeness, is the aim. Her work is not a gathering together, but a separating, of producing sensations while maintaining their unique dissimilarities even while associating them in the ‘act’ of decentering, specifically decentering resemblances in the unities of names. Thus the answer to the riddle – What does it mean for a wide action to not have width? – is simply that such actions are not measureable, cannot be reduced to spatial dimensions, because, perception is as much temporal as it is spatial.

[Slide 5]ACLS_talk.005

We’re on the verge here of demonstrating that Stein’s work sought to realize a non-dualist mode of consciousness in which space and time are unified. Before pursuing my demonstration through her work, I will first present the documentary evidence for this claim. [Slide 6] A reference to it appears in Ulla Dydo’s introduction to her excellent A Stein Reader:

On the inside cover of a notebook for Sentences (1929), Stein played with two words, two names – or perhaps it is one:

Caesar Onestone

Mr.       Einsteine

Imperial singularity? Einstein Englished? Stein herself, an Einstein with a feminine –e added to the masculine Mister (half-rhyming with Caesar)? A stoneware stein for beer? A stone’s weight? And in the year of the formulation of the unified field theory, Einstein’s thought in relations to Newton’s, “where before, if all things were emptied from the world, time and space were left – time and space would now disappear with the things” (Louis Zukofsky, Bottom: On Shakespeare [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963], 163).[i]

Dydo goes on to point out that “Stein wrote in a world changed by Einstein and even more by Heisenberg and Schrödinger. She knew she was one of them, constructing for words what they had constructed for quantum mechanics.” Dydo claims here both too much and too little. Stein no doubt imagined her self-ascribed genius inhabiting the same episteme as these scientific celebrities. That Stein has more in common with the founders and concepts of quantum mechanics is very unlikely, and has the unfortunate consequence of reducing her work to scientific prescriptions that tend to erase the specificity of her literary methods for the production of a unique, non-logocentric chronotopicity. The disunity of the two-line play on names is far more the point. The inability to unify the referent of a name, and the play that scatters it over the associations that produce non-identities, defeat the conditions that would produce unity and identity. The two lines demark a field that no one can rule, neither Caesar nor Einstein, neither politics nor science. There is another problem with Dydo’s account. The lines were not written on the inside of the cover of the notebook for Sentences; only the words Caesar Onestone were written there.

[i] Dydo (1993: ) I have underlined particular phrases in anticipation of the analysis that follows.

[Slide 6]ACLS_talk.006

[Slide 7] The lines do occur together, but on the front of the “Avia” notebook, along with several other lines. As Dydo sets them out in her text, they are her own construction. As this figure clearly shows, the actual context is far more complicated. The full text reads:

Caesar Onestone

Mr        Einesteine

Mr Einesteine


A sentence

With a welcome



We should not make too much of these lines as they are found only in/on notebooks and not in typescripts, nor were they published. However, these lines reveal how central to Stein’s epistemological and aesthetic methods is Einstein’s relativism. Their importance may be put succinctly by James in this way:

If we could say in English “it thinks,” as we say “it rains” or “it blows,” we should be stating the fact most simply and with the minimum of assumption. As we cannot, we must simply say that thought goes on.[i]

When the foundation of the atomic subject, the metaphysic of the pronoun “I” as a ground for perception and thought, is denied, so is ‘one-point-perspective,’ so to speak. We must act as if there is no center because there is none; there are only multiple frames of references in spacetime, only a relativistic assemblage of a multiplicity of perspectives, determined as we shall see next, through a primacy of feeling, not rational thought.

[i] James (1990: 146), from the chapter, “The Stream of Thought.”

[Slide 7]ACLS_talk.007


[Slide 8]


[Slide 8] I now turn to an early Stein portrait, “Orta or One Dancing,” (1911-12) which takes Isadora Duncan as it’s subject, in order to show Mr. Einesteine at work.

She went on being one. She was one. She was then resembling some one, one who was not dancing, one who was writing, she was then resembling some all of whom were ones believing in thinking, believing in meaning being existing, believing in worrying, believing in not worrying, believing in not needing remembering that some meaning has been existing, believing in moving in any direction, feeling in thinking in meaning being existing, feeling in believing in thinking being existing, feeling in moving in every direction, believing in being one thinking, believing in being one moving in a direction, feeling in being any one, feeling in being that one the one the one is being, believing in feeling in being that one the one each one has been and is being.[i]

“Resemblance” has a technical, philosophic significance in Stein’s work. In this context its gerundive form makes it an act set in motion. Dancing and writing, Duncan and Stein, are not visual or formal resemblances or thematic resemblances, but epistemological resemblances. Duncan is one of several who “went on being one:” she was then resembling some all of whom were ones believing in thinking.”[ii] She resembled these others also in not requiring memory, recollection: “not needing remembering that some meaning has been existing.” The rejection of memory is a very complex theme in Stein’s work; suffice it here to say that both Stein and Duncan deny the relevance of comparisons of different moments in the flow of spacetime for the “meaning” of their works; it is not a modernist rejection of history, but exactly the opposite, a rejection of modernism’s historiographical model, which is fundamentally linear. Stein’s model is summed up in the epigram I began with: “Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing.”

Duncan and Stein “move” similarly. Stein ascribes to them both the same motive, the same orientation “in being that one the one the one is being;” because they both have the capacity of “feeling in being any one.” As already noted, Stein believes that “I” of “I think” is without reference, and assumes the Jamesian and Nietzschean epistemological perspective, “it thinks.”[iii] Stein has however degraded “thinking” to a tertiary epistemological rank, after “feeling,” first order of rank, and “believing,” second order of rank. Stein’s text choreographs its movement around the following pair of sentences:

Feeling in thinking in meaning…

Feeling in believing in thinking…

Feeling is the ground for both believing and thinking, and believing is required for thinking, in Stein’s epistemological scheme. Meaning is deferred to the end of this sequence, and its importance relegated to contingency and accident. Far from denoting something “sentimental,” the term “feeling” is of Jamesian origin,[iv] though given its most Steinian sense in Whitehead’s philosophical definition: [Slide 9] “Feeling is the agent which reduces the universe to its perspective for fact.”[v] Elaborating, he says:

…good literature avoids the large philosophic generality which the quality exhibits. It fastens upon the accidental precision which inevitably clothes the qualitative generality. Literature is a curious mixture of tacitly presupposing analysis, and conversely of returning to emphasize explicitly the fundamental emotional importance of our naïve general intuitions.[vi]

[i] Dydo (1993: )

[ii] My emphasis. Conventional editorial standards would place a comma after “some.”

[iii] Nietzsche (1998: section 20)

[iv] James (1990: 88), from “The Automation-Theory.

The desire on the part of men educated in laboratories not to have their physical reasonings mixed up with such incommensurable factors as feelings is certainly very strong….In a word, feeling constitutes the “unscientific” half of existence, and anyone who enjoys calling himself a “scientist” will be too happy to purchase an untrammeled homogeneity of terms in the studies of his predilection, at the slight cost of admitting a dualism which, in the same breath that it allows to mind an independent status of being, banishes it to a limbo of causal inertness, from whence no intrusion or interruption on its part need ever be feared.

[v] Whitehead (1938: 10)

[vi] Ibid.: 5. My emphasis. Stein and Toklas spent almost 3 months with the Whiteheads in 1914, when the war broke out. Stein thought of Whitehead as one of the three geniuses she had met. Whitehead no doubt has Stein in mind in these passages.

[Slide 9]


With it’s reorientation of “scientific” importance,[i] Whitehead’s statement makes him one of the some all of whom were believing that thinking derives its importance first through the filter of emotion, which gives thought its empirical “matter-of-factness.” Stein’s phrase can now be seen as the philosophical dictum it is; “some” precedes “all,” the particular precedes the universal, the “fact” before the “thought,” emotional importance is restored to naïve general intuition. Stein’s identification with Duncan is an identification with epistemological movement, the movement of feeling-for-fact toward belief until it arrives at thought. She reiterates with variation the pattern of this motion in the following three phrase-sentences:

Believing in moving in any direction

Feeling moving in every direction

Believing in being one moving in a direction

Stein’s use of what in analytic logic are called quantifiers [ any, every, a] are choreographed with the rigor of analytic proofs, but derive their sense not from deductive sequences, but from their serial grouping with other qualifying phrase-sentences. Each quantifier designates a spatial range: any, every, a direction. Movement is possible in all of these dimensions, but lead to different “knowledges.” [Slide 10] This section of the dance-portrait is elaborated in three separate but continuous sub-movements:

Believing in moving in any direction

Feeling in thinking in meaning being existing

Feeling in believing in thinking being existing


Feeling moving in every direction

Believing in being one thinking


Believing in being one moving in a direction

Feeling in being any one

[i] It is important to note that Whitehead’s statement is not a statement of naïve realism or a naïve empiricism. Emotion is of “fundamental importance.” Literature presupposes analysis. Generalized intuitions (abstract thought, ideas, concepts) have value only if they are embodied. Whitehead is clear that knowledge is a complex assemblage of knowledge-sources, all of which are necessary to the epistemological scene.

[Slide 10]ACLS_talk.010

The first sub-movement begins with indefinite finitude, because,[i] feeling is the feeling-of-thinking-in-meaning, a type of thought philosophically acceptable because it is existing thought, thought that the agency of feeling has given factual perspective. But this in turn relies on the third phrase-sentence; the factualizing knowledge of feeling-in-believing-in-thinking. Belief must be felt in order to “be existing”, to be factualized; just as thought is meaningful only if feeling has made it existing. The second and third sub-movements widen the range of these knowledge types. Feeling necessarily moves in every direction, in a generalizing direction, through thought, when one believes in one’s thinking; and, in a (singular) direction when the focus of feeling is on one’s own, subjective spacetime performance of existing. For Stein, these three sub-movements have a fundamental epistemological status that determine knowledge at the intersection of language and embodied movement; they determine, in philosophical terminology, the conditions of existence, or rather, the conditions of existing, of four dimensional feeling. Stein’s epistemology insists that feeling, believing and thinking are separable yet continuous, articulated moments in the wholeness or unity of a particular performance of knowing.[ii]

I want to end with a brief reflection on how Stein’s love of logic is expressed in her philosophy of grammar. Here too she’s been influenced by James.

James believed that relations “in the world” were reflected in relations in language. The following passage is remarkable on its own terms, and because of its enormous impact on Stein: [Slide 11]

If there be such things as feelings at all, then so surely as relations between objects exist in rerum natura, so surely, and more surely, do feelings exist to which these relations are known. There is not a conjunction or a preposition, and hardly an adverbial phrase, syntactic form, or inflection of voice, in human speech, that does not express some shading or other of relation which we at some moment actually feel to exist between the larger objects of our thought…

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.[iii]

[i] Whitehead (1938:10) “Thus perspective is the outcome of feeling: and feeling is graded by the sense of interest as to the variety of its differentiations.”

[ii] It is the epistemology of this type of “continuous, articulate,” time in a unified “given performance of knowing,” that defines the much misunderstood Steinian term, “continuous present.”

[iii] ibid.: 159

[Slide 11]ACLS_talk.011

A comparison to Stein’s comments about the elements of grammar, shows that she sought to overcome such inveterate habits and to put language to a very different affective, syntactical use:

Beside being able to be mistaken and to make mistakes verbs can change to look like themselves or to look like something else, they are, so to speak on the move and adverbs move with them and each of them find themselves not at all annoying but very often very much mistaken. That is the reason any one can like what verbs can do. Then comes the thing that can of all things be most mistaken and they are prepositions. Prepositions can live one long life being really being nothing but absolutely nothing but mistaken and that makes them irritating if you feel that way about mistakes but certainly something that you can be continuously using and everlastingly enjoying. I like prepositions the best of all…[i]

Stein’s grammar and syntax are completely predicated upon this relationality between material world and material subjectivity as mediated by language. She constructs a language to embody “thought” in spacetime continua in which language “dissolves,” or “cross-fades,” coevally, in opposite directions: first toward language and “signification,” and secondly, toward its negation, through an emphasis on its performative transitivity, to its re-embodiment and restoration of knowledge of the “vague” corporeal fringe. Her language is a language of, a language and, a language if, a language of but and by; it is a language on the move as much as a language of movement. It is a language of overtones that attempts to reduce the mediation of language to its diminishing, ever evanescing limit. It is a language of transitive consciousness, in which the transitivity moves is both directions. Her methodological moving through literature is a philosophical rejection of the dualism between epistemology and ontology. Stein’s Einsteineian epistemology emerges from her rejection of dualism in all of its manifestations, by refusing to act as though the mind and body were dichotomies, and thereby rejecting both as ‘centers.’

[i] Stein (1957: 212) from “Poetry and Grammar.” For another view of the Stein/James relationship, see Lyn Hejinian (2003: 159)

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 4.41.46 AMKaren SchiffScreen Shot 2018-03-25 at 4.45.00 AM

gertrude stein: act so there is no use in a center. further to the einsteinian elements of Roloff [SFAI], DeMarinis [Stanford], Thompson [CCA], and Lubell [independent artist-scholar], and Karen Schiff [RISD], discussed below: and further to dinner discussion with L, B, and M in Santiago Square, Merida, Mexico: [and, right, links to the series also: brief history of the voice, below]

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