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“The Difference is Spreading”: Metonymy and the Ethics of Multiplicity in Gertrude Stein’s Writings
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“The Difference is Spreading”: Metonymy and the Ethics of Multiplicity in Gertrude Stein’s Writings
Gertrude Stein , lesbianism , metaphor , metonymy , ethics , repetition , difference
  • In his classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway notes his impression of Gertrude Stein’s large and earthy body by describing her as “very big but not tall and was heavily built like a peasant woman [with] her lovely, thick, alive immigrant hair” (A Moveable Feast 14). With a fundamental gesture toward the corporeal and earthly realm, this passage provides images of fertility (“peasant”), abundance (“big,” “thick”), and racial alterity (“immigrant”). An excessive body (“big,” “heavily built”), constituted by a lack of repression and inhibition (“alive), is vividly presented. What is interesting is that Stein’s figure, as observed by Hemingway, seems to correlate with her figurative use of language. Her robust bodily presence and its undismissable effect of materiality are uncannily transferred to her writings, in which the rhythmic repetition creates a specifically embodied mode of textual pleasure that gives primacy to the metonymic proximities of becoming and questions the transcendental urge typical of the dominant phallogocentric language.

    In “Composition as Explanation,” Stein used the phrase, a “continuous present,” to describe her attempts to escape chronological narrative when she wrote “Melanctha” and The Making of Americans: In these two works, “there was elaboration of the complexities of using everything and of a continuous present and of beginning again and again and again” (518). Stein’s emphasis on the “continuous present” represents her rejection of the linear structure of pastpresent‐future as well as the teleological trajectory in patriarchal thinking. Her repetitive syntax contributes to the hypnotic effects of weightiness and sedimentation; it insists on the rhythms of the body and challenges the patriarchal aspiration toward sublimation or transcendence.

    What I want to suggest is that Stein’s fixation on repetition as “beginning again and again and again” ties in with Deleuze’s concept of repetition and difference. For Deleuze, repetition is not reducible to replication: “To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent” (Difference and Repetition 1). To repeat something is to begin again, to start over, to become new again, and to refuse remaining the same. Stein shares this conviction when she writes:

    Such a way of seeing the world defies the metaphysics of being and identity ― and their representation ― foregrounding the horizontal movement of becoming, which would not situate itself in a transcendent realm removed from material becoming. Stein’s concern with “difference” is anti‐representational, given the fact that the system of representation operates by establishing an idealized, pre‐established standard as the norm, which subsumes the particulars under laws and relegates sexual and racial minorities to pariah status. There is no “difference” in this phallogocentric logic of representation, as Stein writes, “Patriarchal Poetry is the same.”2 Phallogocentrism (Derrida’s coinage, following Lacan), or “the logic of the same,” is the cornerstone of patriarchy that constitutes itself through the production of univocal meaning. If “patriarchal poetry is the same,” anti‐patriarchal poetry is different in the sense that it does not subscribe to the logic of identity that defines itself through exclusion and categorical generalizations.

    In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze traces the categorical orientation of Western philosophy back to Aristotle, who refuses to recognize “difference” and is thus responsible for the establishment of the hegemony of representation and the social and political domination that it naturalizes. Difference, in terms of the Aristotelian framework, is allowed to exist only through the mediation of something else (i.e., “resemblance” or mimesis); the ruin of difference itself becomes the result followed by this subsumption of singularities under the identity of a genus. This occurs in the process of reflection in which difference is made to submit to representation: “In the concept of reflection, mediating and mediated difference is in effect fully subject to the identity of the concept, the opposition of predicates, the analogy of judgment and the resemblance of perception. Here we rediscover the necessarily quadripartite character of representation” (Difference and Repetition 34‐5, emphases added). Deleuze characterizes this mode of representation as “organic” in the sense that it provides coherence and intelligibility through the mirrored perfection of nature.

    It is clear that the Aristotelian model of representation ― organized around identity, opposition, analogy, and resemblance ― dominates the full range of human practice and knowledge production. If difference were to show itself at all as a thinkable concept and a livable reality, it could do so in this model only as a fissure, a gap, a catastrophe, a break in resemblance, or as the impossibility of claiming identity, opposition, analogy, or resemblance where the logic of representation demands that they should occur. Stein’s rejection of the categories of identity, opposition, analogy, and resemblance comes to vitalize her linguistic experiment in her pursuit of rhythm and refrain, her love of repetition of words and phrases, her dislike of punctuation, and her dismissal of the conventional significance of words. Although this linguistic experimentation risks nonsense and provokes consternation, it suggests an ethics that foregoes the homogenizing power of resemblance (“metaphor” and its implied representational structure) and inaugurates a poetics of metonymy, which is a feminist ethics of difference as well. This paper investigates how the metonymic style in Stein’s writings undoes the binary oppositional logic and how the idea of difference can be conceived in this linguistic wandering upon a surface unattached to ideal meaning as the prescription for an intelligible, “proper,” or even heterosexist writing. “Melanctha,” a story about an intelligent, reckless mulatto girl who is addicted to wanderings and seeks fervently an outlet for her sexuality, characterizes the predominance of metonymy that privileges selfreferentiality and deferral. Before going to the story itself, we will take a detour to Lacan’s account of metaphor and metonymy, which will shed light on the ethics of embodiment and the question of “difference,” issues central to my discussion of Stein.

    1Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” Selected Writings, 519, emphases added.  2Gertrude Stein, “Patriarchal Poetry,” Writings 1903‐1932, 587.

    “Melanctha” ― metonymy and the nomadic wanderings

    In “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan uses two types of figures of speech ― metaphor and metonymy ― to outline his analysis of unconscious production. He identifies the Jakobsonian distinction between metaphor and metonymy with Freud’s categories of condensation and displacement, respectively. Recurring to Ferdinand de Saussure’s formula “Signifier over signified,” Lacan claims that the topography of the unconscious can be visually represented as a capital S and a small s, separated by a bar: S/s. Operating on the vertical axis of language, metaphor is produced by the submersion of one term underneath another, providing the general model for the unconscious symptom. It requires two hierarchically distinguished orders; in breaching the bar of censorship, metaphor makes what was once a signifier into a signified, restricting its normally unlimited freedom of connecting with other signifiers. Therefore, metaphor is modeled after the relationship between a latent, repressed content (a signifier acting in the position of the signified) and the manifest symptomatic behavior engendered by repression. Metaphor freezes repressed signifiers and prohibits their association with other signifiers. It has an authoritative, repressive quality and has been theorized as violent, because in the act of condensation, metaphors privilege similarity and elide difference. As a result, Lacan claims that metaphor is linked to the question of being and identity.3

    In metonymy, unlike the hierarchical and repressive structure of metaphor, the displacement from signifier to signifier along the horizontal axis of language, according to Lacan, testifies to the movement of desire. While metaphor traverses the S/s bar to engender the signified, metonymy revels in an incessant sliding of signifiers above the barrier of censorship. In metonymy, Lacan recognizes the enactment of desire: The subject seeks to reach the object of desire; the object of desire, however, is elusive and forever unreachable. The impossibility of realizing the desire triggers the metonymic chain of displacement, which ensures that each signifier has the infinite freedom of connections and associations that is denied to metaphor. Unlike metaphor, the meaning produced by metonymy cannot be fixed; it can only be approached as an aftereffect of the comparison between two or more contiguous terms along the chain of signifiers. This produces a self‐referential effect, whereby language ceases its search for the transcendental signified and appears as incapable of escaping its own tautological, iterative nature.

    In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein, at the risk of being self‐congratulatorily smug, usurps her lover Toklas’s voice to mark the groundbreaking vanguardism of the story of “Melanctha,” which she herself calls: “the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature” (50). It was based on Stein’s 1903 autobiographical novella, Q.E.D., a book about Stein’s painful lesbian affair with May Bookstaver, a fellow student at Johns Hopkins. In “Melanctha,” Stein recasts her old story in the dramatically different social and racial world of a southern black community, transforming her upper middle‐class white lesbian characters into a heterosexual love affair between a black doctor and a mulatto woman. Changes also include language style and temporal structure: Q.E.D. is apparently conventional narrative with a linear storyline, while “Melanctha,” with its repetitive narrative rhythms and fluid and indeterminate language, marks Stein’s journey into an experimental writing of modernism. May Bookstaver is recast as Melanctha Herbert, and Stein becomes Jeff Campbell, a “negro” doctor. As Melanctha’s mentor who “drank a great deal” and “wandered widely” (100), Jane Harden initiates Melanctha into the “wisdom” of sexuality; however, Jane betrays Melanctha when she later tells Jeff about Melanctha’s prior sexual experience with different people. After her relationship with Jeff is over, Melanctha’s affections are dominated by Jem Richards, a dashing and reckless man “who was more game even than Melanctha” (175), and Rose Johnson, a bisexual woman who “had worked in to be the deepest of all Melanctha’s emotions” (186). After being betrayed by Rose and abandoned by Jem, Melanctha deteriorates rapidly. The story ends with her death from tuberculosis.

    The tension between rational reflection and emotional spontaneity is the major theme of the story. While “wandering” seems to be the term that is often used to describe Melanctha, “thinking” is the word that most characterizes Jeff. “Wandering” involves an alternative system of knowledge or “wisdom,” which can only be obtained through a liminal, sensual, meandering path; it is always implicated with unpredictable events rather than given things. In the story, it suggests an impropriety or a transgression, whether a libidinal or an epistemological one. By contrast, “thinking” follows a rigorous, rational, and teleological path to wisdom; it implies an ontology of disembodiment and is associated with the working of the scientific, detached mind. We cannot help but conjure up de Certeau’s famous distinction between the “voyeur” and the “walker.”4 The former is associated with an intellectualized, calculating self, while the latter emphasizes the importance of spontaneity, corporeality, and expressive imagination. Certainly, on the conceptual or philosophical level, “Melanctha” can also be described as a sustained debate between the corporeal and the cerebral, immanence and transcendence, or metonymy and metaphor.

    The conversations between Melanctha and Jeff are punctured by the repeated words, “feeling” and “thinking,” which symbolize a binary category for classifying their different modes of experiencing and assimilating the world. The following passage exemplifies the relentless battle between “feeling” and “thinking”:

    Trapped in his rationalist mode of thinking, Jeff is “slow with his feeling” (139) and is incapable of responding to Melanctha with equally sensual spontaneity. He always needs to “think” before arriving at a moment of “feeling.” In saying, “Don’t you ever stop with your thinking long enough ever to have any feeling Jeff Campbell,” Melanctha draws attention to this problem, which becomes the crisis of their relationship. The more he thinks, the more he becomes alienated from himself and Melanctha: “And Jeff tried to begin again with his thinking, and he could not make it come clear to himself, with all his thinking, and he felt everything all thick and heavy and bad, now inside him, everything that he could not understand right, with all the hard work he made, with his thinking” (144). As a person who espouses the Protestant work ethic (“I am always so busy with my thinking about my work I am doing and so I don’t have time for just fooling,” 154), Jeff defers to the paternal authority of the symbolic order, which valorizes the name of the father and repudiates the desire of the (m)other. This is how “metaphor” comes into the picture, for the symbolic order, characterized by a metaphorical vein, is designated by Lacan as “paternal metaphor.” For Lacan, the child’s renunciation of the (m)other positions it as a speaking subject in the symbolic order that authorizes the Father’s Name. In other words, the paternal metaphor is an enactment of stability that ensures a cohesive, unified speaking subject and a coherent, meaningful text.

    However, in “Melanctha,” Jeff’s epistemological certainty guaranteed by his espousal of paternal metaphor is undermined by his contact with Melanctha, a sensual being who is shaped by a logic of metonymy (i.e., desire) instead of metaphor (i.e., repression). For a person like Jeff, who embodies instrumental thinking, the “complex, desiring” Melanctha “was too many for him” (147). She distinguishes herself as a Deleuzian deterritorialization, which literally frustrates Jeff in his desire for a stance and for a boundedness that would keep him steady and shored up, shattering his reliance on binary categories to classify his perception of the world and to make moral judgment. Besides, Stein’s linguistic style champions metonymy, which does not encompass anything in the way a metaphor would, but iterates contiguities that have no conceptual relation to one another. As Michael North notes, the more Stein’s narrator reiterates the few words (“certainly,” “really,” “right,” “good,” “bad”), the more unreliable these words become (74‐5). This metonymic style of linguistic wandering has the propensity to undo the grammatical categories of words and to detach language from referential meaning. For Jeff, working hard is “good”; “always wanting new things just to get excited” is “bad” (110). However, as the story goes on, these words that are conventionally thought to be univocal are gradually deprived of their authority and begin to register in a metonymic slide, pregnant with multivalent meanings. Jeff does not think that Melanctha “would ever come to any good” because she always wants to “have a good time.” By contrast, Jeff likes to have “a good quiet feeling in a family” and to be “always living good and being regular.” The repetition of the simple word “good” has the effect of unmooring it from a stable referent. If having “a good time” is not good at all and has the possibility of slipping into its opposite side, “then it seems that very little is stable in the system of language or in the morality it supports” (North 74). Such moments occur frequently in the story, and Stein aims at using her repetitive style of metonymy to highlight language’s endemic unreliability and slipperiness. Moreover, this textual style has the tendency to reverse the polarity of such common binary oppositions as male and female, good and bad, mind and body, and so on, such that the first term is dethroned from its privileged status, and the second term has a chance to be regarded as the more desirable. This unmasking of the unconscious dimension within language is where Stein’s ethics lies.

    Given that our culture valorizes conceptual knowledge at the expense of somatic knowledge, Stein’s creation of Melanctha reverses the asymmetrical relationship between body/mind. Her repetition of words brings us into more intense immediate contact with the affective materiality of the words themselves, which impinge upon one’s psyche and body rhythmically and evocatively. As Bryony Randall remarks, the proliferating “‐ing” endings in Stein’s text create an aural effect, which augments and revitalizes the static or one‐dimensional meaning in standard cognitive verbal interpretation. She writes: “The reader of Stein learns about the sensuality of the text just as Jeff has learnt through Melanctha a sensual communication of feeling, or everyday way of knowing” (106). This kind of writing debunks the mind/body dualism insofar as it is able to intensify the sense that one’s experience is meaningful in a fully somatic sense of the word. Additionally, it is because of the way the unconscious slips into the gap provoked by the failure to stick to the letter of conventional meaning that the encounter with the Other takes place. The response to aporetic suspensions of habitual meaning can evoke corporeal responses that go beyond the conceptual patterns of response. Such responses can unsettle our minds as well as our bodies. This is what Jeff has undergone when he speaks of a “new feeling” that Melanctha has given him, a brave new world that Melanctha has unfolded in front of him, “just like a new religion to me” (136). The way Jeff describes Melanctha’s teaching as “religion” indicates that Melanctha’s corporeal wisdom has spiritual quality as well. This is a kind of wisdom that entails integrating corporeal and conceptual logics, thereby breaking down the traditional mind/body opposition.

    3Lacan uses Victor Hugo’s line (“His sheaf was neither miserly nor spiteful”) to exemplify his concept of the function of metaphor. In Hugo’s metaphor, “his sheaf” comes to represent “Booz”; the idea that Booz is a sheaf suggests a form of self‐enclosure or a stable identity. The substitution of “sheaf” for “Booz” ensures a fixed connection between these two signifiers, freezes and privileges the repressed signifier (“Booz”), which becomes the signified occupying a position “below the bar” within signification. We may also add the fact that one of the meanings of “sheaf” is phallus. As the representative of the symbolic order, phallus presents itself as neutral Law (the sheaf is “neither miserly nor spiteful”) and masks the violence (the prohibition of incest and the establishment of paternal authority that Freud discussed in Totem and Taboo) that it does when it establishes itself as a paternal metaphor (or Lacan’s Nameof‐ the‐Father) to initiate a child’s entry into language as a speaking subject. In Reading Lacan, feminist theorist Jane Gallop draws our attention to Luce Irigaray’s feminist reading of Lacan, in which metaphor’s verticality is associated by Irigaray with “the solidity of the phallus,” while metonymy’s horizontality suggests femininity and fluidity (126‐7).  4De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 92‐5.

    Dynamic becomings ― “Lifting Belly” and “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story”

    As Lisa Ruddick points out, patriarchal language cannot tolerate the fact of semantic ambiguity or multivalence and tends to “displace attention from the fleshy feel of a word to its bodiless meaning.” However, Stein’s texts, focusing on “ambiguity and punning,” “redirect attention to the ‘body’ of utterance” (207). Body, particularly lesbian body, as the unsymbolic, unprogrammed, and de‐Oedipalized matter, looms large in Stein’s “Lifting Belly” and “As a Wife Has a Cow,” two love poems that attempt to fuse lesbian eroticism with a specifically embodied mode of textual pleasure. In these two texts, Stein asks repeatedly the following questions: How can such loving find its way into language? What words and what phrases are suitable for conveying the tactile eroticism of the flesh? How can lesbian eroticism be represented without having recourse to “patriarchal poetry”?

    In identifying the points of exit from the phallogocentric modes of thought, Stein stresses the importance of metonymy (not metaphor) as the primary gesture of differentiation that, instead of culminating in a totalizing endpoint, proceeds according to associational contiguities and is suspended upon its own becoming and potentiality. Stein uses metonymy as a particular device to allow writing to enact events rather than represent them. To the extent that metonymic writing stands as a break with metaphor and its implied representational, ideational, and coherence‐oriented structure, it disrupts that which would traditionally be seen as “proper,” linguistically and libidinally speaking.

    In “White Mythology,” Derrida interrogates the law of the proper by analyzing the multiple meanings of the French word propre, which include “literal meaning,” “proper,” “propriety,” “decent,” “clarity,” and “property.” According to the Aristotelian ideal, “univocity is the essence, or better, the telos of language” (247). In this metaphysical framework of language that aims to produce truth and propriety, metaphor plays an important role in its transition from the physical meaning to the spiritual one by means of the detour of figures. Therefore, the concept of metaphor is closely linked to the separation of the immanent and the transcendental, the sensory and the non‐sensory, the physical and the metaphysical ― characteristics of Western metaphysics. Derrida makes it clear that the concept of metaphor is not a concept alien to metaphysics. It is a metaphysical concept (219). Thus, in Aristotle, we start with the visible sun and arrive at the Idea of the morally good, the “light of reason” (257). The sun serves as a metaphor by which to conceive of reason or thought as light, the natural light of our soul. Metaphor becomes the engine that starts up propagating the law of the proper and shoring up an “I” or self‐identity constituted by the acquisitive desire of self‐enclosed, sovereign, or completely separable entities. What Derrida means by “white mythology” is his denunciation of metaphor and its progressive diminution or rarefaction of the “primitive” meaning ― the sensuous, the bodily, or the concrete (211). The metaphor is taken for the “proper” meaning and this abstraction is exposed by Derrida as an “anemic mythology” or a Eurocentric “white mythology” (213).

    If we include gender in this discussion of the metaphysical project of metaphorization and the production/construction of the proper, we can begin to question and even undo the normative conceptions of gender and sexuality, which take heterosexuality to be an invariant a priori, and work to produce a differential sense of what kind of desire is proper and what kind of desire is not, which gendered lives are “normal” and “authentic,” and which are abnormal and derivative.5 Taking a cue from Judith Butler, what is important is the need to quit thinking of gender as a “being” and to start thinking of gender as a kind of a “doing” or “becoming.”

    Centering on the theme of lesbianism and its irreverent deconstruction of the categorizing tendencies implicit in heterocentric thinking, “Lifting Belly” interrogates the regime of the proper by transgressing the normative boundaries of identification and desire. The eroticism that triggers the repetitive compulsion of “Lifting Belly” is not the desire to “be” a certain essence, but rather a desire that is not concerned with the polarities of “being” at all, but with that which is “otherwise than being,” to borrow the phrase from Emmanuel Levinas.6 The text is driven by a metonymic desire that stands opposed to the acquisitive desire of the positively stated linguistic entity, the ultimate finality, or the idea of ownership (“property,” the proper) that cuts itself off from the Other. The result is a “disruptive poetics of intersubjectivity,” rather than a writing that aims to excavate or to represent something that is considered to be originary or anterior. The title phrase, “lifting belly,” is a coded term of lesbian lovemaking. However, “lifting belly” is more than that; it has multiple incarnations as language experiment, creativity, orgasm, verbal joke, everyday becoming, and so on. “Lifting belly is a repetition,” Stein writes (422); it is a repetition that embraces rather than attempts to arrest the metonymic movement of desire and difference:

    In fact, the reader’s search for the poem’s referentiality is doomed because Stein refuses to pin down the title phrase, “lifting belly,” into a fixed meaning. In the lengthy chain of repetitions, “lifting belly” is “so erroneous,” “so accurate” (413), “delightful” (415), “anxious” (415), “so sweet” (417, 455), “so cold” (414), “so warm” (419), “famous” (421), “notorious” (424), “so droll” (421), “so bold” (443), “arrogant” (446), “precious” (447), and “so high” (415, 457) (this list is not exhaustive). Lifting belly intimates the possibility of iteration without specifying any particular one; it can even embrace competing and contradictory sets of relations (“warm” and “cold”; “erroneous” and “accurate”; “famous” and “notorious”). Besides, Stein’s techniques of destabilizing meanings are shown in her playful manipulation of grammar and syntax: The phrase “lifting belly” is followed by the addition of an adverb, for example (lifting belly “splendidly” [427], “phlegmatically” [430], “sublimely” [432], “hungrily” [436], and so forth); by the addition of a verb (lifting belly “means me” [422], “adjoins more prizes” [425], “connects” [428], “captures” [429], “squeezes” [433], and so forth); or by the addition of an indeterminate part of speech (“lifting belly pencils to me” [432]). Defying traditional grammatical regulations, lifting belly can be followed by a period and takes a paragraph all by itself: “Lifting belly.” Period. This occurs twenty‐one times in the poem. The fluidity thus achieved undermines our habitual way of searching for clarity and proper meaning. Repetition diversifies and renders ordinary language into a state of constant permutation and redefinition. Lifting belly is not a state of being; it embodies pure difference and joy.

    With rhythmic reverberations and verbal echoes, the text produces ripples of intoxicating effect that immerse the reader in the hypnotically and erotically charged rises and falls: “Lifting belly is so strong. I love cherish idolize adore and worship you. You are so sweet so tender and so perfect” (424). Written during Stein and Toklas’s residence in Mallorca during the First World War, “Lifting Belly” was seen by many commentators as a product of their “honeymoon period.” Mary Galvin names this work to be Stein’s “most lesbian” poem (45). The compulsion to repeat and to proliferate presents a positive affirmation of difference, not a subordination of otherness. Lifting belly creates multiplicity and unleashes an open series of “becomings.” One of these becomings even includes a nonhuman agency (the “cow”). This “becoming animal” no doubt bears Deleuzian resonances:

    Stein plays upon the word “Caesar,” which not only stands for Stein’s private nickname, but enacts a coming to orgasm as well (“seize her” [427] as in a passionate embrace or seizure of orgasm). The potential meanings are further multiplied by the fact that both Stein and Toklas were very fond of Caesar salads and that Toklas often made Caesar salads for her lover. Eating, loving, and cooking constitute a rhizomatic body of unregulated and deterritorialized desires that implicate in a process of making connections. This metonymic chain of becomings opens out to conditions of possibilities that do not exclude the potential for “becoming‐animal” ― “How fast. What. How fast the cow comes out” (442). This becoming‐cow transports us beyond the prison of anthropocentrism and into a desiring world that is enriched by a multiplicity of nonhuman agencies.

    In books such as Anti‐Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe a kind of desire that goes beyond any coding or organization (the subject, ideology, institutions). The desire of which they speak is opposed to the desire discussed in psychoanalysis; for them, desire is not confined to the Oedipal drama of lack and loss. Instead, desire should be thought of as desiring production, an ongoing production that is not a homogenous mass but a “pure multiplicity, that is to say, an affirmation that is irreducible to any sort of unity” (Anti‐Oedipus 42). This desire does not follow the transcendental principle or the teleological rule of metaphor; it favors an immanent process of life that always operates in the middle and is defined by zones of intensity. Deleuze and Guattari have another name for this uninterrupted continuum of desire: the BwO (body without organs): “The BwO is the field of immanence of desire, the plane of consistency specific to desire (with desire defined as a process of production without reference to any exterior agency, whether it be a lack that hollows it out or a pleasure that fills it)” (A Thousand Plateaus 154, emphases original). Deleuze and Guattari associate this “middle” with the principle of proximity or approximation (e.g., metonymy) that involves linking heterogeneous, disparate elements rather than ordering them according to a principle of organization. This gives rise to a regime of pure multiplicities, “an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states . . . all manner of ‘becomings’” (A Thousand Plateaus 21).

    Informed by Deleuze’s anti‐Oedipal reading of “desire” and its possibility of entering into circulation with different zones of proximity, we can say that Stein’s “becoming‐animal” bears witness to sexuality’s variegated becomings: “Sexuality is the production of a thousand sexes, which are so many uncontrollable becomings. Sexuality proceeds by way of the becoming‐woman of the man and the becoming‐animal of the human: an emission of particles” (A Thousand Plateaus 278‐9, emphases original). “Cow” as the becoming‐animal reappears in “As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story,” which was published in 1926 and with lithographic illustrations by Juan Gris. The text is usually interpreted as Stein’s exploration and celebration of lesbian desire, building up its intensity by using rhymes, rhythms, associations, and repetitions to achieve a linguistic and sexual climax that is the “cow” or orgasm of Stein’s “wife,” Alice:

    Throughout the text, the repetitions and variations produce a movement in and out of an unbounded (lesbian) bodily experience that generates thresholds‐crossing: “In came in there, came in there come out of there. In came in come out of there” (543). The word “cow” is used twenty‐four times in the text and rhymes with “out” and “now” throughout the text; this delirious and repetitive having of a “cow” marks an emphasis on the possibility for continuous difference in repetition. Stein’s incremental repetition creates a dramatic and breathless present‐tense vision, which can be read in a Deleuzian vein as “the plane of consistency” or “the field of immanence”: “Just as soon just now just now just as soon just as soon as now. Just as soon as now” (544).

    Saturated with jouissance, however, “As a Wife Has a Cow” is not just about a coded account of lesbian sex; it needs to be understood as a potential of a becoming‐animal:

    This “cow” should be read as a marker of creative excess and as a site of intensive relations and proximities. It stands in opposition to a desire for proper names and meanings, which would reify and hierarchize the meaning of “cow,” “wife,” “woman,” “desire,” and so forth. The reader, who participates in the heady whirl of becomings, cannot resist the charm and pungency of Stein’s experimental language.

    5In the late 20th century, feminists and queer theorists joined poststructuralists to interrogate phallogocentric propriety and property, proper names, and objects, as manifested in works such as Mary Poovey’s The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, Jane Gallop’s The Daughter’s Seduction, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Naomi Schor’s Bad Objects.  6Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence.

    “The difference is spreading” ― Tender Buttons

    Tender Buttons, another experimental work (written in 1912, published in 1914), explores the full range of the domestic realm (a traditionally feminine sphere), the objects, people, activities, and forces that inhabit, permeate, and traverse this space. The “tender buttons” of the title refer not only to the clothing or sewing buttons, but also contain an implicit reference to the erotic “buttons” of the female body, such as nipples and the clitoris. In other words, the everyday domesticity of Stein and Toklas’s relationship is the theme of Tender Buttons. In “Poetry and Grammar,” one of her lectures in America, Stein claims that Tender Buttons was her attempt at coming to terms with nouns. As with adjectives, she once thought that nouns were inactive and uninteresting: “nouns as I say even by definition are completely not interesting, the same thing is true of adjectives” (Lectures 211). Nouns stabilized meaning, chaining a subject and its effects to a grammatical hierarchy in a way that did not challenge conventional thinking: “a noun has been the name of something for such a very long time” (Lectures 214). Other parts of speech were more able to evoke the “continuous present” and the antireferentiality that she sought in her linguistic experimentation: “I have told you that I recognize verbs and adverbs aided by prepositions and conjunctions with pronouns as possessing the whole of the active life of writing” (Lectures 220). However, Stein found that she could not avoid nouns: “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns” (Lectures 231). As Harriet Scott Chessman observes, “Stein’s foregrounding of nouns as caressed objects in their own right, without any necessary reference to objects, marks her effort to avoid any rigidity of distinction between the ‘me’ and the ‘not me’” (87). Her determination for vitalizing her poetry is demonstrated by reimagining the placement of the noun within poetic grammar. In Tender Buttons, Stein explores the thematic proximities that produce “caressed objects,” highlights the sensuous materiality of the nouns, and explores a way to destabilize or multiply the meanings of each of these nouns, so that their potentiality is released by intersecting with the visual, aural, and tactile resonances they preserve. The “caressed objects” in the “Objects” section of Tender Buttons encompass a seltzer bottle, a blue coat, shoes, a dog, a shawl, and so forth, while the section entitled “Food” contains roast beef, mutton, cranberries, potatoes, and asparagus, among much else. The poems are antirepresentational and anti‐mimetic; they do not describe things in an apparent way, but are bent on creating a vibrantly unbounded world of permeant energies and drives in which objects are not separate from their users and the effects of their use.

    The first poem of the “Objects” section, entitled ”A Carafe, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS,” gives us a perfect example of this nonrepresentational verbal experiment:

    In this poem, we are not told that a carafe “is” cousin to something else or “resembles” anything. Stein is careful not to use metaphorical or mimetic language to describe this object. Instead, she uses metonymy to pursue the idea of contiguous relatedness. With “an arrangement in a system to pointing,” a phrase that resists the closure of totality but suggests instead a promise of further possibilities (“a system to pointing”), Stein’s advocacy of the metonymic relatedness becomes apparent. The next sentence continues this emphasis: “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling.” If the phrase “nothing strange” in the first line indicates the “ordinariness” of this object, then “all this and not ordinary” points to the possibility of difference in itself when its unique ordinariness as an object is emphasized. Besides, the phrase “not resembling” points out the fact that Stein’s observation of this carafe does not operate on an ideational backdrop or, as Aristotle attributes to metaphor, in reference to a common concept in which both the “ordinary” and “metaphorical” names for a thing partake. The relationship between one metonymic element and another is not that of identity or essence and therefore not that of absolute authority but one of proximities of becomings in which “the difference is spreading.”

    The refusal of representational principle and the pursuit of semantic play continue in the next section, “Food.” One of the poems, entitled “Milk,” reads as follows: “Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging” (487). Again, the milk in this poem is not a coherent or static entity; it is put in the mobile “system to pointing” intimated in “A Carafe” and is able to associate in different ways and becomes “other than itself.” Like Gulliver in the world of Brobdingnag, readers enter into the transformative process of becoming‐molecular. Reduced to a baby‐like status, readers are confronted by the mother’s gigantic breast, or the udder, into which they now make efforts to “climb up.”7 The two “whole’s” in this passage express the aural (the “o” sound) and the visual effect of roundness (the shape of the breast). The word “needles” conveys a tactile feeling; as Ruddick argues, it “has the feel of needles in the mouth” (239). The breasts represent a superfluity of nature; the pre‐symbolic mother is envisioned as strong and threatening. Insofar as the milk is understood as an inextricable part of a web of dynamic forces engaged in a continuous process of becomings, it is impossible to detach the associative flow of milk from its surrounding intensities: mother, breast, mouth, intestine, and so on.

    In “Roastbeef,” a particularly lengthy poem, Stein once again puts the noun central to her interplay of forces. Refusing the phallogocentric idea of propriety or property and in favor of the process of difference, Stein writes: “Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming, all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession” (480). Stein makes clear that this irreverence to identity, essence, and fixity is tabooed by patriarchy as a dirty, obscene, improper matter: “The change the dirt, not to change dirt means that there is no beefsteak.” She conceives of “roastbeef” as becoming, as difference:

    In this passage, there is no outside referent beyond difference itself, and yet, it is upon this sort of sheer difference that linguistic meaning depends. The multiple dimensions of the meat (thickness, cutting, meadow, cow) are mentioned in sentences that epitomize Stein’s anti‐mimetic style. Therefore, the noun “roastbeef” cannot monopolize meaning since it is product of a surrounding field of forces and affects (“a meadow is useful and a cow absurd”) that enter into composition with one another. This entire assemblage also includes the eater, whose body enters into composition with the cowmeadow‐roastbeef. In this mode of individuation, the “cutting” of the meat is not a violence to be grieved (“it does not mean that there are tears”). It is “no more than” a pre‐symbolic “memory” of the proximities between self and non‐self, a “choice” to participate in a becoming beyond the strict boundaries of subjectification. All of this is more significant than any aspiration toward transcendence that yearns to escape from the corporeal immanence of becoming: “it means more than any escape from a surrounding extra.”

    7As Lisa Ruddick argues, “the title, ‘Milk,’ and the references to something ‘hanging’ help to make us hear ‘utter’ as ‘udder’” (238).


    The undoing of the self and an emphasis on desire are effectuated through metonymy. Stein’s use of metonymy works to undo a series of phallogocentric ideas, such as identity, linear progress, purity, coherence, and intelligibility ― concepts that are normative and exclusionary and are impediments to multiplicity and creativity. Attributing to the figure of metonymy a sort of extralinguistic function, Stein endows it with philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic layers of significance. For her, metonymy diversifies, while metaphor totalizes. Stein’s attempt at deploying metonymy to open up the constraints of a commonsense perspective to a reality that lies beyond phallogocentric frames of reference resonates in a remarkable way with Deleuze’s theme of breaking free from the representational model of traditional philosophy in order for us to think the unthinkable. This entails an ethics of the Other, since one can no longer take identity (i.e., a self‐identical self) at face value, but needs to rethink the subject’s relationship with the Other. In her metonymically constructed texts, readers are constantly forced to lose the ground for knowing. In her foregrounding of relationality and contextualization, it is impossible to pigeonhole the subject (or even the object) into a stable, concrete, synthesized category. In her disruption of the previous configuration of word, body, and object, Stein releases new possibilities from existing power structures and explores multiplicities in their pure potentialities. She helps us understand that all life (including inanimate and animate objects) is a ceaseless flux of forces and affects that become organized into various forms that could always have been “otherwise.” Stein’s avant‐gardism, therefore, lies in her focus on the repetitiveness of the everyday, which is blown open to include an exciting, rich, and beautiful range of possibilities in multiple proximities of becomings.

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