Queer Utopianism & Edie Fake in Temporal Drag

by on Aug.06, 2010

Queer utopia, yknow: still pretty sexy, especially with the publication last year of José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. I’ll touch briefly on Muñoz here, expecting to return to him in later posts; but here and now instead of the past/future I will take up the past/present. In the meantime, may I direct you to the Gay Utopia project, especially Bert Stabler’s “Bottomless Anus of Perfected Wisdom,” my contribution to recent discussions on the ole ass/hole.

I recently interviewed Edie Fake, a Chicago-based artist:

art by edie fake

and we talked some about his developing queer cartography project. He’s mapping Chicago’s queer heritage in some rad Edie Fake way, and the project has spilled over into other smaller projects, including an installation on display Wednesday at Archie’s bar in Chicago for a joint event co-sponsored by the Swimming Pool Project Space and Queer Social Club. Regrettably, I took no pictures. There were a number of box structures decorated and labeled with the names of Chicago gay bars no longer in existence, spread out on small tables sharing space with empty beer cans and hot pink cards inviting viewers to “celebrate the phenomena of intuitive queer space.”

The night brought a turnout — lots of folks. It was like any other queer night at a normally non-queer bar, only the adjacency of this night to its historical context of under-the-radar gay venues and illicit queer sociality was announced through Fake’s structures. I’d describe the juxtaposition as a kind of temporal drag, borrowing the concept from Elizabeth Freeman, who uses it to describe a crossing of time, a temporal transitivity that carries “all of the associations that the word ‘drag’ has with retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past upon the present,” alongside its associations with crossing and performativity.

Freeman uses this idea of temporal drag to read Elisabeth Subrin’s Shulie, a 1997 experimental film that, shot by shot, remakes an unreleased 1967 documentary of the same title which feature a young Shulamith Firestone, then unknown, a student at the Art Institute of Chicago who would soon jump ship to New York to found the New York Radical Women, the Redstockings, and the New York Radical Feminists; and write the radical feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex. The 1997 film restages the original, duplicating its camerawork and adding only a beginning montage and an ending text explaining that it’s an adaptation.

Bringing in Samuel Delany’s ideas on markers from an essay in About Writing, we might say the 1997 Shulie functions as art-and-its-marker, performing temporal drag to map out space, assign value and legacy to the original (and its subject). Delany pulls from Dean McCannell’s tourist (which Delany connects to Benajmin’s flaneur) in explaining markers as those signs scattered about the landscape from brochures to signboards, conferring importance:

There is a whole set of sites–often the spots where historical events took place–that are sites only because a marker sits on them, telling of the fact… Without markers, even the most beautiful spot on the map becomes one with the baseline of unmarked social reality.

And until something thinks to emit, erect, and/or stabilize a marker indicating it, no tourist site comes into being. (341)

As a marker and as a site in itself, Subrin’s Shulie, as Freeman puts it, “engage[s] with prior time as genuinely elsewhere” (735). It re-maps Firestone’s pre-history as history. In so doing the film implicitly critiques what’s been left out of history/herstory’s charting of the past and links the past and present in complicated and dynamic ways.

Similarly, Fake’s installation on Wednesday exposed the fuzzy boundaries between the then and the now, simultaneously undermining and reinforcing divisions between what we see as distinct “generations” of queers and queer activists. Instead of lopping off the issues of old generations as anachronistic to the goal of a narrative of progress, Fake’s models of long gone venues and their attendant histories united the then and there with the here and now, implying that those issues, those moments, “are not yet past and yet are not entirely present either” (Freeman 742). His other work being so interested in alternate realities, I’m interested to see where Fake further takes his queer cartography, how he interprets and charts the ‘reality’ of the ‘past’ (with apologies for gratuitous scare quotes).

Muñoz’s critical engagement with queer utopianism shares many ideas with Freeman; interested in collectivity and the past, Muñoz employs “a backward glance that enacts a future vision” (4). With regard to Fake’s installation and the scene that surrounded it, Muñoz seems applicable especially given the leaking through of one particular future onto the present – as only hours before, Prop 8 had been ruled unconstitutional, and the implications hung in the air. Muñoz seeing marriage as an antiutopian wish, a desire that “automatically rein[s] [itself] in, never daring to see or imagine the not-yet-conscious” (21), I wonder what he’d say about this messy confrontation between past, present, and future in this moment. In a certain sense, Fake’s temporal drag worked to bring what Muñoz would call “the no-longer-conscious” to bear on the present as well as on the future society, the “not yet conscious” – here, this is our past, just how anachronistic is it, and what do we want our future to look like?

I’ll return to Muñoz in a future post, maybe connected to Acker; and considering temporal drag as temporal push.


Delany, Samuel R. “A Para*doxa Interview: Inside and Outside the Canon.” About Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

Freeman, Elizabeth. “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations.” New Literary History 31.4 (2000): 727-744.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

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5 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I like this entry
    hadnt heard of the freeman idea but i find it intriguing

  2. Leeyanne Moore

    This Temporal Drag idea sounds a lot like something I wrote about for my Modernist Class at Syracuse when I talked about Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and a Modernist Time Machine. I attached the paper below.

    The big difference is that your concept seems to carry a sort of sad or oppressive connotation. Drag as in: something to be hauled along with us unwillingly, or with burdensome sad feelings. (It never got made, the bars are all gone now) Modernists, I argue, used the idea of a Temporal Time Machine to center themselves at the heart of the art world, and gained power from the idea of using a pre-history to place/privilege themselves within their own contemporary history.

    Hmmmmmmm — it’s interesting to think about the power differences between the two. The idea of Temporal Drag seems to connote (as so much does these days) that evocative sense of our whole generation having missed out on something in some way.

    Here’s the paper:

    The Modernist Time Machine: Gertrude Stein’s Mastery of the Primitivist Aesthetic in “Melanctha” and the Public Sphere

    Leeyanne Moore
    Modernist Prose and Poetry
    Prof. Susan Edmonds
    Fall, 2006

    Leon Katz reports that after years of artistic attempts and failures in an effort to become an author through conventional approaches to literature, Stein’s increasing friendship with Picasso led to her first successful publication of Three Lives. (Fernhurst, xxi). The central story of Three Lives, “Melanctha”, Michael North sees as half of a Picasso-Stein’s collaboration. (North, Modernism, 59). The collaboration involved appropriating the Primitivist aesthetics and applying these aesthetic devices to her story “Melanctha” (Burns, Stein on Picasso,110; North 63). “Melanctha” became a literary act that had profound reverberations upon the rest of Stein’s career. Only by embracing the Primitivist aesthetic was Stein able to lift Melanctha to its linguistic and literary level of originality.
    A major part of the Primitivist agenda that resulted in the production of “Melanctha” was the attempt to formulate a critique of the present by means of calling upon an iconographic pre-historic past. Malraux said, “it was the painters who wished to be most modern, which means most committed to the future, who rummaged most furiously in the past.” (Poggioli, Theory of Avant-Garde, 56) This ‘past’ existed in the modern age not only across time, but across space as at the turn of the century African and South American art was either dug up and plundered or taken from still pre-historic tribes and shipped to Europe. According to Renato Poggioli, the Primitivist avant-garde turned their attention almost exclusively to pre-modern artifacts that represented ideas of sexuality, ambiguity, and pan-brotherhood oppositional to current values in Western civilization at that time (Poggioli, 58).

    The aesthetic aspects of Primitivism embraced by Stein and Picasso, provided a dualistic sensibility to arise in mass culture audiences. Stein, enjoying the protective Primitivist banner under which outsider artists could become–not exactly insiders, but far more thrillingly, insider-outsiders–was the one artist who continued to promote herself through this oppositional duality. Stein increased her social currency throughout the time of the Primitivist movement because she was Jewish, openly lesbian, experimental writer, as well as a wealthy, white, art collector, living amongst her pictures, dogs, and friends in comfort and elegance.

    In this paper I will examine closely how the development of the Primitivist aesthetic created a conceptual Modernist time machine, allowing artists who used primitivism to call upon pre-history as a critique of their historical moment, and thus change their historical moment.

    I will also look at the crucial development of Stein’s incorporation of Iconographic Abstraction as the means by which Stein masked her autobiographical novella Q.E.D. as the story “Melanctha” (Burns, 110, North 61). Once Stein had discovered this process it was to fundamentally change her writing for good. I will look at how Iconographic Abstraction allowed Stein to discard the more conventionally written narrative, language, characters, and themes of Q.E.D., giving Stein access to dialect invention, and new approaches to character, scene, and the development of meaning in “Melanctha” .
    In particular, Stein’s appropriation of the Primitivist aesthetic gave her the ability to contextualize antagonistic ideas in experimental language. Even today, almost a hundred years later, a quality of antagonism still exists in “Melanctha” for contemporary readers, demonstrating the timeless power of the work to challenge conventional modes of thought by straddling our culture’s race/gender/class divide.

    North’s chapter: “Modernism’s African Mask: The Stein-Picasso Collaboration” from The Dialect of Modernism, highlights the crucial connection between Stein’s writing “Melanctha” and the Primitivist influences occurring at that time that are embedded in the story. Emblematic European values for domesticity, prudishness, xenophobia, and the complacency of the highly constrained bourgeoisie pushed Stein and Picasso into“…donning the African mask to make a break with their own cultural past.” (North, 66). Primitivism represented “…the radical difference Stein and Picasso felt between themselves and those to whom they had been born.” (North, 66).

    That “ tiny tribe unified by its shared opposition to the rest of European society” embraced an aesthetic criteria in their work that included sexuality, signs and symbols, masks, ambiguity, abstraction, rebellion, and homeless isolation. (North, 67).

    North highlights “Melanctha” as a story utilizing masks both structurally and linguistically. On one hand, “Melanctha” structurally is masking an earlier more autobiographically based work Stein wrote about a failed lesbian love affair called Q.E.D.. On the other hand, Stein’s use of linguistic repetition is a mask that uses plain language to create ambiguity, thus highlighting the tensions between dialect and language in the same way that a mask highlights the tensions between the face it covers and the facsimile the mask represents (North, 72).

    In understanding the primary importance of Primitivist aesthetics to Gertrude Stein’s career one must expand North’s argument even further to see the Primitivist movement as not only influencing Stein’s work pervasively beyond just the use of masking devices, but also as a force that shaped society. It was not just formulating a brotherhood of resistance bonded by a common aesthetic language that propelled Stein and Picasso into the first Modernist moment, it was the ability of their avant-garde movement’s conceptual footwork to change notions of time and space in the public eye so as to change the rules concerning art’s place in society, the artist’s status in the culture, and the historical moment itself.

    How was all this accomplished? By calling upon pre-history to formulate a critique of the modern age and an acceptance of the contradictory dualities of the time, the Primitivist’s performed a conceptual back flip I shall call the Modernist Time Machine.

    As North commented, Stein and Picasso had an actively antagonistic relationship with cultural history in their formulation of the Primitivist aesthetic. Yet we must see that their rebellion took on more complexity than just a preoccupation with an exotic ‘other’ as some critics of Primitivism suggest (Torgovnick,105). Stein and Picasso’s interest in Primitivism involved concepts of time and space as well. Malraux generalized that painters preoccupied with the future perversely were fixated upon objects of the past, but Poggioli states more specifically that the Primitivists “turned…toward cultures remote in space and time, almost to pre-history itself.” (Poggioli, 55).

    David Harvey suggests that this was inescapable because as the modern world began to recognize global markets and the ties of finance and innovation which affected them, people became anxious over the way time and space seemed to be conflating with each passing year. Along with the changing notions of time, Harvey notes that it became clear how realism’s presentation of linear progression was artificial. Harvey comments that this linear aesthetic could no longer represent the modern world adequately. People now recognized “…a reality in which two events in quite different places occurring at the same time could so intersect as to change how the world worked.” (Harvey, Condition of Postmodernity, 265) Harvey then goes on to say, “It was in the midst of this rapid phase of time-space compression that the second great wave of modernist innovation in the aesthetic realm began. To what degree, then, can modernism be interpreted as a response to a crisis in the experience of space and time?” (Harvey, 265).

    In answering Harvey, we can say that yes, modernism was to a great degree a response to this crisis of representation. However, every crisis can also be seen as an opportunity. Never before had cultural outsiders faced such permeable culture in such dynamic flux. Modernism arose as an exploitative response to cultural anxieties about time and space that people were feeling. Playing upon these anxieties was one way of appropriating power and attention from the public by a bunch of outsiders.

    Poggioli outlines the process that turn of the century avant-garde movements went through. First there is a period of activism, in which not only artwork is made, but also new approaches of attacking the current cultural conventions are attempted. (Poggioli, 27). North speaks of Stein and Picasso playing with public masks of race in just such a way—Picasso at one point spreading rumors that he was of African descent (North, 65-66). These actions play upon the culture’s anxieties about race and paternity in an antagonistic way by trading upon the suspended state of disbelief that a quickly changing society must employ as a defense mechanism (Poggioli 53). The attempt to do so reveals the nature of seeking dominance and power on the part of the artists involved. Harvey’s essay provides evidence for awareness on the part of Stein of the issue at the time. “Gertrude Stein certainly interpreted cultural events, such as the advent of Cubism, [the art movement immediately following Cubism] as a response to the time-space compression to which everyone was exposed and sensitized.” (Harvey, 271 –brackets mine). Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that having noted the sensitivity to time and space, why would the Primitivists with their time and space obsessions not attempt to utilize these notions to their benefit? This is not to say that the Primitivists were bad or morally wrong to do so. In almost any society the avant-garde artists has so few tools at her disposal in attempting to affect change and overcome the static conventions of the privileged elite that almost any tactic seems fair game.

    Once the social conditions were right in terms of an emerging anxiety on the part of the culture, Primitivists set about attempting to use time and space to effect cultural change. It is easier to understand how they did this by looking at a similar art strategy employed by the futurists.

    As an avant-garde art movement at the turn of the century, the Primitivists were not the only group to perform a conceptual time-flux. Poggioli relates how Russian and Italian futurists, invested in a vision of the future with more than just one standard approach to theatre or art or poetry, would create new conventional approaches. Having envisioned a future with more than one approach, they had created a present with two approaches and thus claimed that they had hauled the future into the present, thereby destroying the present (Poggioli, 74).

    The Primitivists basically ran the same kind of conceptual game, only backwards into the past. They hauled an aesthetic sensibility out of the past that–when accepted by the public–changed the present.

    Like the film the Planet of the Apes, the Primitivists, having reached out across time changed their present. Reaching for a sense of pre-history and space—to Africa or South America—brought these aesthetic qualities into their world to give themselves a sense of belonging and inspiration in the face of the opposing cultural values they resisted. (North, 67). By translating these Primitivistic aesthetic concepts into art and literature, Stein and the others were insisting on a duality based understanding of their historic moment as encompassing the past and the present together. They were modeling an understanding of the world that embraced the seeming contradictions resulting from spanking new traits in modern life existing adjacent to the still solid corpse of the older world all around them.

    Poggioli notes the effective art movement enters a new period when society begins to accept and renegotiate their rejection of the new concepts and works of art, and absorb them. Signs of this appear in North’s essay as he mentions a new vernacular entering the language, with the Primitivist artists spoken of as “The Wild Men of Paris,” “the heirs of the witch doctor and the voodoo.” (North, 67) The rapid phase of time-space compression offered Primitivists an opportunity to control the perceptions of the historic moment, renaming the moment as a time of accepted contradictions. Thus the machine had changed the present moment, redrawing the lines of reality to incorporate unreality and abstraction under its fold. As the Primitivists were affected by this, so too was the culture around them, which in turn again affected the Primitivists by changing their status.

    Stein quickly developed her own revisionist history style in writing later about that period, there is no mention of her exceptionally long apprenticeship as a writer, no mention of how drastic a revision Q.E.D. went through to become “Melanctha”. Instead she speaks as if she and Picasso had pre-knowledge of their future success. “Picasso passed…into the intensive struggle which was to end in cubism. Gertrude Stein had written the story of Melanctha…which was the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.” (Stein, Autobiography 66). Yet such was the force of Primitivism, that Stein spoke accurately, neither painting nor literature were the same ever again.

    So successful was the Primitivist Time Machine upon Stein’s own reputation and so long and full was her career that it is hard to incorporate into her biography her erratic beginning endeavors as a writer. As a unique intellectual trying to find her place in a deeply hegemonic time period, Stein’s early precarious social status both hindered her writing and eventually became incorporated into “Melanctha”. Having struggled in solitude with little to nothing in common with other writers, Stein wrote in her memories of Picasso words about him that could just as easily applied to herself: “He needed ideas, anybody does, but not ideas for painting, no he had to know those who were interested in ideas…” (Stein, Picasso, 5). She also said, again, with a first hand knowledge and sympathy about Picasso’s early days, “It is difficult to exist alone and not being able to remain alone with things, Picasso first took as a crutch African art and later other things.” (Stein, Picasso, 28.)

    Leo Katz’s introduction to Q.E.D. provides a context for North’s essay, essentially delivering a biography of Stein that illustrated Stein’s social and artistic isolation in the U.S. before she left for Europe. Stein played a tenuous role in three distinct social circles in Baltimore before becoming entangled in her unhappy love affair and relocating to Paris. Having abandoned medical school and it’s social environs, Stein occupied the fringe of Leo Stein’s social circle which was comprised of his diagnosing sycophants about their “moral torpor” and need for finding an authentic way of living. The theme of moral authenticity resurfaces in Q.E.D. and becomes the central topic in “Melanctha” but at the time, Leo Stein’s leadership in a circle of disciples left little room for Stein. When Leo left for Europe, Stein attempted entrée into an exclusive group of Smith College lesbians going to Johns Hopkins, but was unable to successfully navigate their upper crust Byzantine social codes, due to her own sexual naïveté and lack of understanding of their upper crust codes. (Katz, Fernhurst, xi-xiii) This inability to communicate clearly affected her affair with a member of the group, May Bookhaver. Katz says, “Stein neither understood neither the language of sign and significance that May was using nor the precise moral significance of what either of them was doing. Not talking the same language, neither could begin to understand what the other’s genuine feeling was.”(Katz, xiv).

    After suffering from a failed love affair, Stein, more unhappy than ever, moved to Europe and met Picasso. Writing about Picasso years later she depicts his artistic needs and impulses at the time they began Modernism. We can see from her descriptions that here was a person she could understand like she understood herself. Declaring that he needed writers (presumable herself) as friends instead of painters, she states that this was because “He needed ideas…he had to know those who were interested in ideas…” (Stein, Picasso, 5) Picasso and Stein seemed to share the same concerns about unconventional expression. “He commenced the long struggle not to express what he could see, but not to express the things he did not see, that is to say the things everybody is certain of seeing but which they do not really see.” (28) — Picasso did not want to reproduce artistic conventions, but to produce originality of vision instead. “It is difficult to exist alone and not being able to remain alone with thing, Picasso first took as a crutch African art, and later other things.” (28). Stein’s desire for artistic originality was so great, it was comprised of a vision of killing the nineteenth century. She followed the artists of the day, and “remained in close rapport with a succession of Paris painters–as collector and connoisseur, somewhat as friend, and most importantly as an artist whose own art paralleled and was influenced by theirs.” (110).

    Meanwhile, “Without knowing it, in the years before 1908,” according to Burns, “Stein’s work was moving in precisely the same direction of Picasso’s painting.” Both Picasso and Stein found African art playing role of catalyst as a way of allowing their artistic needs to find expression and flourish by showing them the way through iconic abstraction.

    In becoming the essence of the cultural zeitgeist of the times, part of the renegotiation that tends to happen with an art movement is granting the artist social currency and access to the artistic/literary infrastructure.
    The benefit of Primitivism and it’s contradictions is that without having to kow-tow to traditional conventions as they became more well known, or obliged in any way to alter their devotion to complete originality, Stein and Picasso were soon at the core of the artistic world and avant-garde literary society. Stein was able to continue her contradictory role-playing for the rest of her career, her biggest coup perhaps being her lecture tour to America where she became known as the extremely lucid lecturer who wrote terribly incomprehensible stories.

    Although we are less aware of Stein’s incorporation of Primitivist techniques as a permanent process that enabled her to tackle completing her opus, The Making of Americans, (Katz, Furnhurst, xxxv) celebrating Stein’s success in writing “Melanctha” which helped form a foundation for all her following successes, is, appropriately, a contradictory pleasure. Primitivism as an art movement has fallen out of favor since the 80’s with the beginning of a new appreciation for political correctness. Critics of Primitivism lay claim to arguments that the Primitivist aesthetic gave permission for colonial powers to go out and subordinate vulnerable cultures and racial ‘others’. (Torgovnick, 13) However, Michael North notes Stein’s quote, “I believe in reality as Cezanne [sic] or Caliban believe in it.” He then goes on to comment, “But how are critics to understand this mixture of aesthetic experimentation and racist crudity?…it becomes impossible to account for the effect of racial difference on the representational schemes of modern art.” (North, 64) In turning to the final part of my paper, I will examine how Stein’s transformation from a writer of realism to a writer of modernism occurred through the technical innovations of Primitivism. I will in the end assess how Stein’s story can be read as a temperature gage for our societies racial issues, instead of Stein’s.

    Before arguing that Stein became wedded to the technique of Iconographic Abstraction through her collaboration with Pablo Picasso and the Primitivist Movement it would help to define what iconographic abstraction is.
    Pictorial iconographic abstraction, like literary iconographic abstraction is the opposite of pictorial realism. A subject—say, of a nude descending a staircase–can be represented, but representational methods such as a cubist style may almost entirely overwhelm the subject of the painting, i.e. the nude and the staircase. However, since we understand concepts, even if we’ve never seen a nude descending a staircase, if we understand ‘staircase’, ‘nude’ and ‘descending’ we will scan the picture to look through the style to recognize the subject that is the basis for the abstraction. In fact, we may still be able to discern the nude despite the stylistic rendering.

    As Burns puts it: “This movement was towards describing reality in terms of an iconography of such pervasive force that it commands aesthetically a position in composition equal to the object it describes.” (Burns, Picasso,110).

    The use of this device can be illustrated through African art, and the prominence of fertility fetishes from culture to culture. A fertility fetish can provide the abstract representation of breasts or a penis that do not actually look like a realistic penis or breast, even accounting for the scale of the fetish. However, once we are familiar with such an abstraction, and know to look for it as well as how to look for it, we can find it in other environments. For instance, we can probably find and identify sexual organs in fetishes from Yoruba, even though we may have only previously seen fetishes from Mali.
    Burns mentions that the Primitivist painters influenced Stein and that they were absorbed in the incorporation of iconographic abstraction in their work. Without saying exactly that Stein was absorbing the techniques of iconographic abstraction in so many words, according to Burns Stein did see herself and Picasso involved in the same struggle: to represent the object without merely representing it—but to express something through composition, through the means of expression. (Burns, 115) – i.e. through the means of iconographic abstraction.

    North argues that Stein’s work “Melanctha” was part of the Primitivist effort through the use of masking devices. This is true, but even more importantly, once Stein began approaching writing through literary techniques of iconographic abstraction in “Melanctha”, she was able to pare away all the conventional literary devices that had hampered the story in its Q.E.D. form, and ‘step into the twentieth century.’ The result of Stein’s use of Iconographic abstraction is a higher level of literary complexity in “Melanctha” than that offered in Q.E.D. I shall go on to explain why. Though she still continued occasionally to utilize masking devices in her later fiction, iconographic abstraction as a technique folds into itself masking devices as well as other important techniques. Stein developed a more linguistically clever way to convey meaning through using iconographic abstraction as a constructed dialect device, as well as a more fragmentary way of efficiently conveying character through context. She was to utilize both devices for the rest of her career.
    While North comes to focus the end of his chapter on the gendered sensibility people ascribed to dialect, it is more crucial to examine the larger rules that all dialect usage subscribes to, especially since the use of linguistic iconographic abstraction is wedded to the stylistic rules of authentic dialect. People understand a dialect when they understand the efficient short cuts dialect takes to establish meaning, or a greater specificity of meaning. Their understanding is usually based on their awareness of the context—the codes or cultural rules surrounding the situation of the people living in the area where the dialect is spoken. Therefore, dialect itself may manage to convey meaning about a subject through the style of the language with only the barest of references or no reference at all to the subject. The speaker, like the person identifying sex organs on a fetish, already has a general idea of what should be there, and knows how to spot an indication of the subject, without an actual representation of it.

    Even though North says that the dialect used by Stein in “Melanctha” is not exactly authentic to the urban blacks in Baltimore, Stein’s use of linguistic iconographic abstraction still conveys the sense of a buried subtext in her invented dialect language.

    North contends that Stein uses a “mask of dialect” in “Melanctha”. “What Stein does instead is to create a dialect in which conventions of verbal verisimilitude are played against themselves so that the speech seems simultaneously concrete and highly artificial.” (North, pg 73). In other words, Stein uses the rules of her own dialect creation to reflect that in the real world these two characters would be speaking in some kind of dialect. Her dialect is an abstraction through which we get something approximating a representation the stylistic effect of a dialect they would be speaking if she knew how blacks spoke privately without white listeners around. At the same time, even though the approximation of dialect is an abstraction, as readers, we engage more closely to perceive the rules of efficiency from Stein’s created dialect and scan them to vacuum out any meanings not directly presented in the text.

    For instance, North admits, “Stein wedges an entire argument into the minute space between the adjective and its adverbial qualification.” (73). Then he goes on to question, “What does it mean, for example, that Rose Johnson is “married really” to her husband? Why is it necessary for her to assure her friends that she is not married ‘falsely’?…In such cases it seems that the very effort to nail language to a single unequivocal reality defeats itself…” (73).

    Although North is beginning to raise questions in the pursuit of his own argument over the ultimate limitations of this oblique language, North does not seem to realize that Stein understands that the characters already know what has happened or has likely happened, and that there are some things that they cannot say, but can only allude to under the rules of dialect. Yet to think that there is no unequivocal reality the reader can assign to the words is false. As North understands, to say something is, when others understand the context of the world of the speaker, is often to assert that it is not, or at least not for others. The characters that Rose speaks to already have a familiarity with the societal codes or similar society codes – and can understand how what is said can indicate what has not been said.

    “Married for real,” “Married, really,” “real married,” for example, can express to the presumed listener familiar with the societal norms of the speaker three possible realities by virtue of adverbial placement:
    A) When people say they’re married, they often aren’t, but we really are.
    B) We’re not legally married, but in our hearts, where it counts, we really are.
    C) We’re not married at all, really, but I know that it’s proper to be married in our situation and I want you to know that I know what’s proper.

    Obviously the placement marker of ‘really’ is much more verbally efficient to the listeners, and is the kind of efficiency that marks an authentic sounding dialect. It also provides a deeper kind of insight into the character’s social and economical context. That they must over qualify their status as if automatically facing doubt can indicate habitual positions of abuse in which they are doubted on a regular basis. Or that they live in a place where there is such poverty that it’s understood they can only approximate through language social conventions others have access to. Or they live in a place of poverty and pride, and thus lies are used as social props to create a public façade in an effort to create social status. Though Stein’s dialect is invented, the very use of these modifiers gives the reader a sense of the class, gender, and concerns of the reader that renders the characters more fully fleshed, not cloaked in obscurity.

    As Stein primarily writes about women, and women are often subjected to cultural conditioning that represses certain conversational subjects, Stein’s device for conveying the subversive ways in which women managed to communicate despite restrictions on their free speech replicates the content of the women’s situations in this linguistic technique.

    This literary abstract iconography derived from Primitivism became a stylistic hallmark of Stein’s writerly voice when combined with her preference for short words used in repetitive assertion. All of Stein’s later works are infused with this sound. Compare the use of language in Q.E.D. which does not sound like the Stein, “The last month of Adele’s life in Baltimore had been such a succession of wearing experiences that she rather regretted that she was not to have the steamer to herself after all.” Only the second ‘that’ gives us a hint of Stein’s voice. Whereas in “Melanctha”, Stein’s distinctive sound rings out with the first set of repetitions of ‘always’ and ‘all’.

    “John’s wife always liked Melanctha and she always did all she could to make things pleasant. And Melanctha all her life loved and respected kind and good and considerate people. Melanctha always loved and wanted peace and gentleness and goodness and all her life for herself poor Melanctha could only find ways to be in trouble.” (Stein, Three Lives, 93)

    Hear how the iconographic abstraction technique works for Stein in addition to establishing an original voice. The repetitions of the phrases efficiently conveys the tone of the speech and syntax of John’s wife in a general way, such as John’s wife would use were she to talk, while efficiently conveying expositional plot without slowing down for actual dialogue.

    Moreover, the segment of “Melanctha” above demonstrates plot tensions and depth of character portraiture through iconography. Tensions raised by words that should be there but are missing are explained through the context of the next sentence, “That evening after John and Herbert had drunk awhile together, the good John began to tell the father what a fine girl he had for a daughter.” (93).

    The ear is expecting to hear that John’s wife did all she could to make things pleasant for Melanctha, or even for everyone–a set that would include Melanctha, but instead the sentence is chopped off without an object and left hanging in the air. In the next paragraph it becomes clear that when John is drinking he is overcome with desire for Melanctha. With the use of iconography, we can gather that John’s wife perhaps knows or suspects that he is like this, and it crimps her ability to act kindly towards Melanctha, but she is trying to put a good face on it for all three of them. Meanwhile, Melanctha’s response to John’s wife’s assertion that she ‘always liked Melanctha’ is to return that she highly esteems good people, but again, John’s wife is not specified in the class of “good people”. Moreover, Melanctha does not reference John in terms of “trouble” but the context of her speech seems to indicate both her indirect acknowledgement of, and her defensive, half resigned, martyrdom over John’s lust.

    Stein in this way is able to give us with great efficiency voice, how a new character sounds, how two characters sound when they talk together, what kind of verbal games these characters play on the surface of things and what they really mean underneath. We understand all of this, and yet neither Melanctha nor John’s wife directly reference the subject of John’s lust. In fact, there is no scene represented at all, and yet, through iconographic abstraction we know as much about how a scene would happen as if it actually had happened, while Stein does not have to take the time to represent the scene, which is but one of many instances of Melanctha’s woeful life.

    Having understood the usage of linguistic devices employed by Stein through the use of iconographic abstraction, let us now turn to Stein’s use of character. Stein’s method of literary Iconographic Abstraction first achieved in “Melanctha” soon became her primary process for presenting character. With John’s wife – who is a very minor character–we can understand to a fine degree that she has nice impulses, and wants to be nice, but under the circumstances cannot find it in herself to be that nice. Stein gives us a three dimensional sense of character in one small stylistic swipe. With Melanctha, the title character, Stein presents us with a series of snapshots recording event and Melanctha’s reaction to the event, yet not showing Melanctha’s character as an accumulation of these events, like photos organized into a scrap book. Instead, Stein lets the snapshots remain scattered and unorganized. “…her fragmentary recognitions of her subjects’ fundamental traits polarize into sets of discreet and often contradictory ‘selves’; then, after a regimen on Stein’s part of intense listening and watching, the ‘separate’ persons are observed to reintegrate. The drama of discovery is endlessly the same: character is opaque, then abstracted into an unrelated series of separate entities, then abstracted once again by an intuitive grasp of the unifying principle of the weird assortment of entities.” (Katz, xv). Jeff Campbell, in entering Melanctha’s world, soon comes to enjoy the same disintegration of character. Over and over again he suffers from a recurring bout of moral anxiety, and yet once the event is over, it’s effect quickly disseminates, and while it may add force to the second event like it, does not add force to the third or fourth or fifth or sixth event. He too begins to experience his crisis as singular contained events, only experiencing a mild uneasy déjà vu over and over again when the same variously of moral crisis pop up again, while we see that he is trapped and unable to help himself out of the sinking quagmire of a relationship that he’s entered. However, Stein has engaged the reader in this detective work, almost in the same way that a graphic artist shows us the frame of a comic and then another frame, relying upon us to fill in the events that happened in the gutter separating the two images.

    Having demonstrated Stein’s use of abstraction as a force for character depiction, Stein demonstrates characters “Melanctha” saying the same things but not meaning the same thing. “ ‘You sure do believe what I am saying to you Miss Melanctha.’ ‘Yes, I believe it when you say it to me, Jeff Campbell,’ said Melanctha. (Stein, Three Lives 133). These sentences actually translate to: “Are you doubting me? Please don’t.” And: “Not when you’re actually speaking to me, but later on, when I’m alone, yes, I doubt you.” We understand this through the iconography of how lovers do—they doubt each other and they plead not to be doubted at the same time. Also we understand through Melanctha’s specific time marker of “when you say it to me,” to indicate that there is a set of time that she doesn’t believe him that corresponds to the time that he is not speaking to her. Why does Stein do this? The mirroring of conversation is an abstraction of linguistic style that corresponds to the mirroring of body language. It shows us that these people are together as a unit, though at the same time it shows us that they are not destined to stay a unit because his call garners a response that is really an anti-response. She does not believe him. Again, Stein garnishes two for the price of one.

    Finally there is the use of repetition in Stein’s work. Here North that seems to produce a grievous misreading of Stein’s work. Though North himself provides Stein’s quote saying, “It was all so nearly alike, it must be different and it is different.” (North, 73) North believes that Stein’s subtle word shadings are indeterminate, unfixed and ambiguous. I would have to strongly disagree. Though Stein expects a reader to bring to the story an understanding of codes and contexts, she does have a complex layer of meaning in the flow of her words. Just as has been demonstrated above, Melanctha and Jeff seem to say the same exact thing, and yet because one or two words are different, there must be a difference in what they are saying; when we tune our ear down to these tiny shifts, we hear the difference. North however, hears things differently. He discusses the difference between being ‘good’ and having a ‘good time’, which Stein equates with being bad. North says “If ‘good’ can mean both bad and good, then it seems that very little is stable in the system of language or in the morality it supports.” (North, 74).
    North has made a simple mistake. He is conflating “being good” and the hell raising behavior signified in certain vernacular speech by the idiomatic phrase “having a good time”. If we look below, we can see that there is no contradiction, even in the examples that North has used himself:

    Good ≠ Bad
    To be good = good
    Having “a good time” = having fun = executing immoral behavior
    “To have a good time” = having fun = executing immoral behavior
    “Never come to no good” = bad

    The work good is sandwiched into phrases, which as Stein’s already pointed out, are nearly alike, but nearly is not exactly and there must be a difference between the two. There is never a point where Stein gets into the territory of flat contradiction. The contradictions are only implied. The kind of contradiction North discusses would involve saying:
    A) To have a good time =being good = to execute bad behavior.
    This is not, however, what Stein’s characters are saying. More upsetting further still is the accusation that the system of language is so unstable that therefore the language of the users cannot adequately express morality. The relationship between Melanctha and Jeff flounders through the problem of their abilities to reconcile differing concepts of morality. Melanctha advocates for following a sense of personal authenticity as situations arise. Although Jeff originally believes in a more fixed moral code, his relationship with Melanctha is an unjustifiable break with his code, so Jeff attempts to adapt himself to her theory. He is then beset by anxiety about his moral situation. At best he finds his internal compass of personal authenticity either vacillates back and forth or shuts down entirely and he frets over this. (Stein, Three Lives, 166, 173). The inability of the pair to find an ethical middle ground as a monogamous non-marital relationship suffers from a lack of tropes in their society. As Jeff talks and ponders and talks until Melanctha begs him not to any more, it is clear that the language holds his moral concerns, but only as those moral intuitions arise in him. His attempt to weave a net of morality over time is an anathema to Melanctha who wants to pick up morality only as needed and then discard it again. When Jeff wishes to confront her about the immorality of her past, she sees it as irrelevant. “He was silent, and this struggle lay between them. It was a struggle, sure to be going on always between them. It was a struggle that was as sure always to be going on between them, as their minds and hearts always were going to have different ways of working.” (153).

    There are quite a few passages where Jeff sets out his examples of moral behavior and forms a critique of the behavior Melanctha admires a brave or courageous. (174, 168) Set meanings are reinforced by the use of “certainly” as a dialogue cue that someone is expressing anger or attempting hurtful language while in a self-righteous mood. For instance:

    “…and then Melanctha you certainly never did say anything to me why you never came to meet me, as you certainly did promise me you would that day I never saw you!” “Jeff don’t you really know for certain, I always love you?” “No Melanctha, deed I don’t know it in me. Deed and certain sure Melanctha, if I only know that in me, I certainly never would give you any bother.” “Jeff, I certainly do love you more seem to me always, you certainly had ought to feel that in you.” (197).

    Being unable to miss the excessively repeated use of ‘certainly’ Stein trains the reader to understand that the word signals anger, and in an exchange when the word is picked up or dropped, we correspond this abstract word choice with the arrival and departure of a character’s angry emotions. Honest moral inquiry by either character is devoid of ‘certainly’. In this way, Stein creates a great contrast to the tone of dialogue and character voice when Melanctha and Jeff are invested in sincere moral exploration and when they are merely angry.

    It is when we see the positive and non-racist contributions of Primitivism to Stein’s work that we can understand Primitivism as a collective of complicated morally charged traits. Having unresolved racial difficulties still embedded in our culture today, our antagonistic response to Primitivism in “Melanctha” is a temperature gage of our own culture as much as it is a response to Stein’s work. Stein as an author walks boldly into the gender/race/class divide in creating “Melanctha” although the result involves, as North mentions, a perplexing racist crudity.

    In Stein’s time a certain level of antagonism–the same kind that would have resulted from the racial identity game playing North mentions in relation to Picasso and Stein—might have been ascribed to Stein for devoting the central literary work in her first published novel to the members of a black community struggling with unconventional sexual relationships. Although the themes of the story are fresh today as we begin to see marriage slowly decline in our culture and devote vast resources to the muddle of relationship issues that we have not yet overcome, in our time a great level of antagonism arises from a wealthy, white woman representing the poor, black, male and female experience.

    The level of antagonism “Melanctha” has achieved without completely dropping out of the canon all together is indicative of the story’s positioning along the race/gender/class divide. We have a long way to go before the crisis of representation of race, class, and gender is resolved and until then, our response to “Melanctha” involves a sense of antagonism, but has a different basis from the source in Stein’s time. What is to be learned from this is that notions of race taken from depictions of race in art help to serve as a temperature gage to our own feverish anxieties over this issue, as much as it is signifying objective matters about race.

    Stein’s ability to translate the painterly aesthetics of the Primitivist movement into literary techniques allowed her to reaped many rewards from the collaboration. For all that Primitivism is a bad word these days, to be swaddled in sensitive quotes if used at all, it was an absolute necessity for Stein’s emergence as the literary genius of her time.

    Poggioli’s thesis indicates that the singularities marking the avant-garde movements like Primitivism were a phenomenon never to be seen again. Certainly an unwillingness to engage in race/class/gender literary experiments for fear of politically incorrect missteps is a hampering burden to any art movement attempting to break though our contemporary apathy over the all too pervasive contradictions of our own even more tangled historical moment. Yet as North notes: “Modernism could not escape the contradictions of European colonialism; indeed it was only because it pushed to these to extremes that it could exist as a movement at all.” (North, 76).

    Although the Primitivistic movement did not have the moral agenda of making the world a better place, its influence in allowing seeming contradiction a more established sphere has given us conceptual skills to better and more accurately recognize complexity and injustice in our society.

    Works Cited

    1. Burns, Edward. “Stein on Picasso” Conclusionary essay. Gertrude Stein on Picasso.

    Ed. Burns. NY: Liveright, 1970. ix-xlii.

    2. Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry Into the Origins of
    Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.
    3. Katz, Leon. Introduction. Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings by Gertrude

    Stein. Ed. Katz. NY: Liveright, 1971.

    4. North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language & Twentieth Century

    Literature. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    5. Poggioli, Rennato. The Theory of the Avant-Garde. Cambridge, MA: Belnap Press,


    6. Stein, Gertrude. Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings by Gertrude Stein. Ed.

    Leon Katz. NY: Liveright, 1971.

    7. Stein, Gertrude. Gertrude Stein on Picasso. Ed. Edward Burns. NY: Liveright, 1970.

    8. Stein, Gertrude. Three Lives. NY: Vintage, 1909, 1936.

    9. Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago:

    University of Chicago Press, c1990.

  3. megan m.

    hi leeyanne,
    thanks for this comment. i wouldn’t say temporal drag is necessarily, or limited to being, awash in nostalgia or the desire for what we/the present didn’t experience, although the idea can certainly be stretched that way. i think of it more about rejecting the notion/assumption of progress, that history’s done and over, that the past is merely anachronism, don’t look back, etc.
    your argument about the modernists re-animating the past to critique the present is i think really aligned with the kinds of moves Muñoz makes in Cruising Utopia – although he is interested more in returning to the past to produce hope for an anticipated future. yeah. lots to think about – thanks!

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