Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Benjamin Norris, “Meaning as Meaning is Meaning”

Benjamin Norris

Meaning as Meaning is Meaning:
Doing as Showing in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons

“There is no reason to struggle to interpret or unify either the whole of Tender Buttons or any part of it, not only because there is no consistent pattern of meaning, but because we violate the spirit of the work in trying to find one.”
--Marianne DeKoven, A Different Language

In reading Tender Buttons, one finds Gertrude Stein wresting words from their traditional associations, challenging basic structural and syntactic conventions in order to refresh an English language that she thought was suffering from a deadening habituation.  In doing so, Stein is forced to operate within the constraints of the language and literary heritage that she seeks to undermine—as Derrida explains, when one challenges a discourse, she unavoidably accepts the premises of the discourse that she is refuting (Derrida 881).  Stein uses this dependence upon linguistic and literary conventions, however, as a way of forcing readers to confront their own habituated patterns of reading.  Following Derrida’s theory that “the quality and the fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which [its] relationship…to inherited concepts is thought,” the success of Tender Buttons is precisely because of its relationship to the conventions with which it ruptures (Derrida 889).  Defying the fundamental notions of genre, Stein uses common words within a form that resists classification; by imitating the structure of a dictionary while refusing to provide stable, comprehensible ‘definitions,’ Tender Buttons functions neither as truth utterance nor fictive utterance, instead inhabiting an alternative position that is perhaps both at once.

To create a text that actively experiments with linguistic and artistic theories, Stein demonstrates her ideas rather than discussing them, using each of the prose poems in Tender Buttons as an enactment of a theoretical principle.  In a concise passage that describes the text’s function as a whole, Stein closes the “MUTTON” section by explicitly admitting the didactic quality of such an experiment, writing, “Lecture, lecture and repeat instruction” (Stein 26).  The content of her ‘lecture’—which is necessarily as much in freeplay as the words that constitute it—may be usefully considered in terms of four experimental gestures that allow Tender Buttons to enact meaning rather than provide it:

(I)                 Calling for a new form of interpretation that demands a new critical vocabulary
(II)              Defining the object in itself rather than using its sign—drawing attention to the artificiality of a linguistic ‘cover’
(III)            Creating new word combinations and contexts that allow for the perpetual freeplay of language and the constant shifting of meaning
(IV)           Using an unconventional structure that challenges grammatical principles and addresses sound as a fundamental organizing principle of language.


Although Tender Buttons demands a new way of interpreting the text, Stein reveals both the reasoning behind her method and how to approach it, explaining in “ROOMS,” “show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday. This means clearness, it means a regular notion of exercise” (Stein 51).  Stein alerts the reader that she is not providing meaning like the writers of “yesterday,” but is rather showing the choice that the writer and reader have in determining the infinite uses and meanings of words.  In this context, interpretation becomes an active process by which, according to Barthes’ theory, “the Text…asks of the reader a practical collaboration” (Barthes 904).  The “clearness” that Stein mentions is in the reevaluated means and purpose of interpretation—rather than searching for the singular, elusive conclusion of what the text means, the reader and writer treat the text as an end in itself, the meaning existing within the “exercise” of interpretation.

Prefiguring many of the arguments in Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” Stein’s work embodies Sontag’s claim that “the function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that is it what it is” (Sontag 14).  In creating sentences that resist exact explication, Stein forces the reader to locate meaning outside of explicative efforts.  She draws attention to the actual existence of an object rather than its figurative meaning; in “ROASTBEEF,” she writes, “a thing is there, it whistles, it is not narrower, why is there no obligation to stay away…” (Stein 23).  She deictically locates the existence of a “thing,” but does not provide the necessary context for the reader to be able to guess what the “thing” is or what it could mean; it is enough that it is “there.”  Rather than attempting to answer the riddle, ‘what is something that whistles but is not narrower,’ the reader is encouraged to “stay away” from explication and allow the arbitrary word, “there,” to develop an infinite number of signifying possibilities based on the little context that she does provide—doing so allows the text to exist in a constant production of meaning.  The ‘supplementarity’ generated by a form that allows for constant fluctuation allows Tender Buttons to resist what Sontag calls, “the modern style of interpretation,” which “excavates…[and] digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one” (Sontag 7).  Because of the ‘writerly’ nature of Stein’s work, there is no “sub-text” to be found and laid to rest; the reader constantly contributes to the meaning by imagining new signifier-signified relationships.

Anticipating that most of her contemporaries would not be prepared to undergo the radical shift in reading that Tender Buttons demands, Stein claims in “ROASTBEEF,” “The whole thing is not understood and this is not strange considering there is no education” (Stein 22).  During the time of its publication in 1914, experimental texts like Tender Buttons were in extremely small circulation, often only read by other artists, writers, or patrons.  Thus, most readers had received “no education” in how to deal with aggressively Modernist texts, and for the uninitiated reader, “the whole thing is not understood” because of the alienating language and form.  At certain points in the text, Stein explicitly tells the reader how to approach her interactive instruction; in the beginning of “Rooms”—which DeKoven argues was actually the first section written—Stein declares, “Act so that there is no use in a centre” (Stein 43).  Without the critical discourse of Derrida and other post-modern theorists, however, many readers undoubtedly did not know how to act as though there was no center, much less what that center was.  As Jayne Walker argues in The Making of a Modernist, Stein not only decenters language, she “unseat[s] both the subject and Western logic as privileged centers and guarantors of truth” (Walker 141).  For readers in 1914—as is still the case nearly a century later—this ‘unseating’ has an unsettling effect on the comfort of habituated interpretation.  To this hesitancy, however, Stein affirms the interpretive liberation that results from a multiplicity of meaning, asking, “And why complain of more, why complain of very much more” (Stein 51).  Such an aberration in reading should not frustrate the reader; the infinite multiplicity empowers readers, granting them an active role in the production of meaning.


As a writer invested in issues of representation—like her Cubist and Dadaist contemporaries—Stein questions the ways in which verbal representation deceptively covers the actual qualities of the thing being described.  In her lecture, “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein addresses the inability of a noun to represent and contain the elements of the thing that it identifies; she writes, “things once they are named the name does not go on doing anything to them and so why write in nouns…as I say the noun is the name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside the thing you do not call it by the name which it is known” (Stein 14).  Attempting to make apparent the divergence between identification and representation, Stein applies her theory in Tender Buttons by describing the “objects” and “food” not by their names, but by how she perceives what is “inside the thing.”  Arguing that such a representation actually focuses the text’s attention on the individual’s perception, Michael Kaufmann argues, “she is not attempting to see the inside of objects but rather to see the inside of the human mind, of language” (Kaufmann 452).  Because such a radical shift in representation necessitates a new awareness of human perception, Stein does indeed confront the “inside of the human mind.”  She does so, however, as a way of understanding the interconnectedness between the active human mind and the “inside of objects”—each of which is dependent upon the other’s existence.  In order to allow the reader to recognize the signified concept rather than the signifier used to identify it, Stein’s process of definition involves two methods:  revealing the artificiality of a linguistic ‘cover,’ and showing how words’ meanings are constantly unstable because of their contingency upon contexts of difference and similarity.

In “OBJECTS,” Stein’s definitions repeatedly draw attention to the distinction between the actual existence of the object and the word that represents it.  Directly addressing the ‘cover’ of language, she writes in “GLAZED GLITTER,” “Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover” (Stein 3).  She begins the entry by questioning the possibility of defining an object, asking, ‘what is nickel, aside from the noun used to identify it?’  To begin looking “inside” of the object, she must acknowledge that it “is originally rid of a cover”—that is, that the metal exists apart from the designated linguistic sign that identifies it.  The remainder of the passage, however, becomes more an interrogation of language than a definition of nickel.  Stein treats the conventional use of linguistic signs as an attempt to contain meaning—a sanitizing effort to ensure singular interpretation.  While she states that the organizing act of “cleansing” a word’s multiplicity may appear “charming very charming,” she challenges the appearance of a word’s inherent, natural meaning, claiming,  “It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving” (Stein 3).  Though “giving” could refer to the reader and writer assigning meaning to objects, it is impossible to determine exactly what the phrase is suggesting; instead, we may interpret how it is suggesting.  It is unclear whether or not the pronoun “it” has an antecedent, the verbs “borrowing” and “giving” do not have an explicit subject, and there is “certainly” something that has “showed no obligation.”  By withholding from the reader the essential parts of a sentence that help define each of its constituent parts, Stein forces the reader to recognize the way in which the linguistic ‘cover’ of an object is contingent upon on its context and is perpetually in flux.

In “A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION,” Stein plays off of the multiple meanings of “cover,” addressing both the literal cloth “cover” that the cushion has, as well as its figurative linguistic “cover.”  Probably addressing a reader reluctant to accept the freeplay of her language, Stein says, “Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange” (Stein 3-4).  The “regularity” and “costume” of an organized system are again described in sanitary terms—it is “very clean” because the meaning is contained—but she points to its artificiality, calling it an “appearance” and a “costume.”  In comparing the conventional ‘cover’ of words with her own use of them, she enacts the theory that she is discussing, offering readers an “oyster and an exchange” once they “Come to season”—“season” demonstrating the possible fluctuations in meaning as it at once signifies the conventional divisions of the year, while also carrying the associations of “see” based on the idiomatic phrase ‘come to see.’  Using the same image of language as a ‘cover,’ in “A METHOD OF A CLOAK” Stein says, “all this which is a system...makes an attractive black silver” (Stein 6).  The “system” here is an attempt to paint over the actual object, making everything appear to be the same “attractive” color.  Throughout the text, however, Stein demonstrates how words are dependent upon contexts of similarity and difference, making it impossible for language to conform to the singularity suggested by such an artificial “system.”

To show how words are dependent upon their relation to other words—and how our perception of objects is dependent upon the context in which we perceive them—Stein both states and demonstrates how words’ meanings are constantly fluid.  In the more didactic moments that Stein states her theories, she explicitly addresses the relativity of perception.  For example, in “A RED HAT,” Stein explains, “If red is in everything it is not necessary,” meaning that a color cannot exist if there is nothing in opposition to define it (Stein 8).  Because an object’s difference essentially affirms its own distinction, she writes in “CRANBERRIES,” “see the way the kinds are best seen from the rest, from that and untidy” (Stein 29).  Seeing things “from the rest” makes the context as important in defining the object as the object itself; by creating a text that presents various contexts that are in a state of flux, Stein shows how this dependence upon difference allows words to signify an infinite number of possibilities.  As important as the dependence on difference, though, is the ability of words to change based on contexts of likeness or similarity—by placing words next to one another they may draw unlikely comparisons that elicit new signification.  As Stein says in “A CHAIR,” “a spectacle is the resemblance between the circular side place and nothing else,” indicating that unlike the color red—which she defines in opposition of other colors—a spectacle may be defined in its similarity to the “circular side place” and an ordinary event (“nothing else”).  But rather than merely stating the contingency of a word’s meaning, she demonstrates it within her prose—as she says in “ROOMS,” “it shows more likeness than anything else…it means a unison between use and exercise” (Stein 46).  Enacting her artistic principles provides her with a way of prying beneath the words’ ‘covers,’ forcing the reader to recognize that the words are constantly at play, and the meaning is constantly shifting.


To create the “unison between use and exercise”—a way of doing rather than showing—Stein places words in unfamiliar contexts, allowing their meaning to fluctuate based on their surroundings.  Beginning with the title of the text itself, Stein chooses words with multiple meanings whose context does not reveal which meaning she intends for the word to signify.  By providing her readers with the interpretive freedom of deciding the words’ meaning(s), Stein avoids the appeal to authorial intention by which the author becomes, as Foucault explains, “the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning” (Foucault 780).  Instead, Stein becomes the provider of proliferation, offering from her word combinations a multitude of possibilities that the reader must help to provide.  While Markus Poetzsch suggests that her deictic language and extra-textual references implicate Stein within the text, she resists authoritative presence in Tender Buttons (Poetzsch 948).  Discussing the author’s authority over interpretation, Barthes explains, “The author is reputed the father and the owner of his work: literary science therefore teaches respect for the manuscript and the author’s declared intentions” (Barthes 903).  Although Stein asserts various ways in which she would instruct a reader to read her text, the constant shift of meaning requires that she relinquish her authority over interpretation.  Neil Schmitz, another critic engaged in this debate, argues, “the power struggle of interpretation ceases when everything to be said is said at once” (Schmitz 1215).  For Tender Buttons, however, the “power struggle of interpretation” is deferred because she relocates the meaning of her text—“everything” that is said is not necessarily the most important thing; the way in which it is said is instead more important.  While the mere construction of the sentences inevitably points toward an authorial origin, the signifying abilities of the imaginative word combinations suggest a self-referential space, granting Tender Buttons the appearance of autonomy.

Showing the ability for words’ conventional meaning to change entirely when removed from their habituated context, Stein writes in “A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION,”  “dirt is clean when there is a volume” (Stein 3).  Because of the associations of dirtiness that “dirt” carries, the phrase initially appears either paradoxical or nonsensical.  But by understanding that Stein is removing words from their conventional associations, the reader may consider “dirt” as the naturally occurring substance that it is, as “clean” as the grass or soil around it.  Recognizing the “dirt” itself rather than the connotative meanings that arise from its signifier, the reader is able to see that the linguistic ‘cover’ actually lends itself to a freeplay in which the word may constantly develop new associations.  Experimenting with the ability of connotations and associations to alter a word’s meaning based on an unfamiliar context, Stein writes in “BREAKFAST,” “A white cup means a wedding. A wet cup means a vacation. A strong cup means an especial regulation. A single cup means a capital arrangement between the drawer and the place that is open” (Stein 27).  While any attempt at explication seems futile, one notices that the associations within the phrase become increasingly complex (and obscured) as the sentences progress.  While the connection between “white” and “wedding” is not difficult to recognize, the connection between “wet” and “vacation” becomes harder to parse (“wet” possibly as a body of water traveled over), and the connection between “strong” and “especial regulation” seems impossible to determine.  The explication of the associations, however, is less important than the imaginative connection formed between seemingly arbitrary concepts.  As Walker states,
“concrete nouns and adjectives call things to mind, and syntax can bind them together in startling new combinations… [the] sentences are systematically patterned to foreground the most fundamental logical operations of syntax. But the freeplay of substitution and combination that these grammatical structures contain defies their inherent logical order” (Walker 128, 142).

Considering that Stein presents readers with familiar words in familiar sentence structures, there seems to be nothing logistically challenging about Tender Buttons.  But it is because of Stein’s refusal to abide by habituated rules of context that make conventional methods of interpretation so difficult.  In a simple list like, “A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit,” Stein presents common nouns that denote multiple meanings—by not providing her readers the necessary context, they cannot decide which meaning to choose, and the sentence develops a multitude of signified possibilities (Stein 4).  Likewise, she crafts many sentences that do not allow for the reader to assign parts of speech to the individual words.  In one such example—“it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again”—it is unclear whether “green” is a noun and “point” is a verb, or if “green” is an adjective and “point” is a noun (Stein 4).  Stein generates this confusion with the indefinite article “a” and the adverb “not”— parts of speech generally skimmed over and considered insignificant.  The word “green” is conventionally preceded by an article only when it is an adjective, but the sentence resists such a reading because the adverb “not” suggests that “point” is a verb.  By conventional grammatical rules, the sentence is impossible to untangle, and thus exists in a constant tension between the multiple readings.  While it forces readers to question the rules of grammar and structure, it also forces them to recognize the function of every word, even those that are generally seen as inconsequential to the meaning of the sentence.  In drawing attention to the act of reading itself, Tender Buttons asks readers to confront the ways in which the structure of language systematizes patterns of reading and prompts us to skim through language rather than understanding and interrogating it.


Stein’s efforts to create a continuous presence draw attention the paradoxical idea of structure that Barthes calls, “a system without end or center” (Barthes 902).  By manipulating conventional rules of structure, Stein shows how structure—on the level of both the sentence and the text as a whole—actively assists Tender Buttons in the constant production of meaning.  From punctuation to syntax, Stein undermines the essential elements of structure in order to show the ways in which they help shape meaning.  Demonstrating how comma usage—or lack thereof—influences verb attributions and can change how a sentence is read, Stein writes, “eating a grand old man said roof and never never re soluble burst…” (Stein 36).  Without the rhythm of pauses that commas provide, the syntax of her sentence initially (and comically) suggests that someone or something is eating a “grand old man.”  Only after the reader recognizes the “grand old man” as the subject rather than object may she may insert the necessary pauses in the sentence.  In a more extreme example of how commas effect the way we perceive sentences and organize thoughts, Stein asks, “Is it so, is it so, is it so, is it so is it so is it so” (Stein 37). While the beginning three clauses are visually and perceptively easy to read because they are demarcated with commas, the final three “is it so” clauses are slower to read because they become less rhythmic and visually difficult to distinguish from one another.  The sentence does not so much say anything as it does demonstrate something; for this reason, many early reviewers and critics saw such sentences as complete nonsense.[1]  But rather than nonsense, it was one of Stein’s tasks to reconsider notions of ‘meaning’ within literature, prefiguring Woolf’s idea of placing the emphasis in a different place.

Generally overlooked as an organizing principle of language and structure, sound plays an important role in generating meaning throughout Tender Buttons.  In experimenting with the meaning of sound, Stein focuses on three aspects of the aural function of language:  the ability of sound and repetition to free a word from its semantic qualities, the sound of words versus their appearance, and words’ ability to evoke concepts or qualities based on their sound.  Demonstrating the ability of sound to overshadow semantic meaning, Stein uses traditional literary devices like assonance, consonance, and alliteration, but in new contexts.  In “A PIECE OF COFFEE,” she writes, “The sight of a reason, the same sight slighter, the sight of a simpler negative answer, the same sore sounder…” (Stein 5).  By choosing words whose vowels and consonants imitate each other, the phrase develops a rhythmic quality that allows the reader to focus her attention purely on the sounds of the language instead of the signified concepts.

As the sounds of the words become extremely important, Stein plays with the distinction between words’ visual appearance and their aural quality, manipulating words to appear one way and sound another.  She often does this by presenting an article and a noun on the page that when read aloud combine to form a different noun.  For example, in “TAILS” and “LUNCH,” she uses the phrases “A rest,” “silk under wear,” and “a corn,” each of which signify different concepts on the page than when read aloud as “arrest,” “silk underwear,” and “acorn” (Stein 31).  Furthermore, by pointing out the distinction between appearance and sound, she shows how our perception of words’ sounds may change based on the context in which we encounter them.  In “SAUCE,” Stein writes what initially appears to be a nonsensical sentence: “Sauce sam in” (Stein 37).  After approaching the next section, “SALMON,” however, the reader may reinterpret the sound of “sam in” to form one word, “salmon.”  Such experiments force the reader to recognize the ability for language to suggest various meanings at once, depending on how the words are approached.  She shows that despite the apparent order of written language, sound is just as much of an organizing principle of language’s meaning.  Furthermore, she shows how a speech rhythm alone may evoke meaning regardless of the words contained within the rhythm.  In “ROASTBEEF” she writes, “Lovely snipe and tender turn, excellent vapor and slender butter, all the splinter and the trunk, all the poisonous darkening drunk,” evoking William Blake’s “The Tyger” merely by imitating its recognizable poetic meter (Stein 22).  As she claims in “ROOMS,” “Harmony is so essential,” not only as a supplement to a text’s meaning, but as a foundation for the meaning itself (Stein 44).  Later in “ROOMS,” she writes, “No breath is shadowed, no breath is painstaking and yet certainly what could be the use of paper, paper shows no disorder” (Stein 47). In her phrase, “breath” acts metonymically for speech, suggesting that the sounds of words are necessary because they show the inherent disorder of language, whereas “paper”—a metonym for written words—attempts to conceal the “disorder” of language.


In her “Descriptions of Literature,” Stein reveals the exploratory nature of her texts, saying, “A book naturally explains what has been the result of investigation” (Stein 472).  Reducing Tender Buttons to the status of an experiment, however, trivializes the accomplishments of a text that never ends, that is never finished meaning and signifying.  While critics like Christopher Knight consider her work a “failed quest,” such thinking assumes (and imposes on Stein’s work) a linearity that Stein herself does not propose (Knight). Whereas a “quest” presupposes an eventual, sought-for destination, Stein’s texts are not meant to find and rest at a final answer.  Describing the function of such a form, she states in “A PLATE,” “A splendid address a really splendid address is not shown by giving a flower freely” (Stein 7).  Rather than creating a readerly text that provides meaning (“giving a flower freely”) and disengages the reader, Stein constructs a “splendid address” that is constantly addressing through its continuous shifting of meaning.  The value of such an endeavor is apparent, for as Stein states in “A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION,” “there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense” (Stein 4).  While she may be suggesting that readers should find meaning within her own work and refuse to believe that it is nonsense, the phrase also suggests that readers should refuse to believe in the conventional idea that literature has the ability to restrictively contain meaning (for Stein, such a notion is ‘nonsense’).  Whichever meaning the reader finds more convincing, though, is not important:  the multiplicity, the simultaneous existence of contradictory meaning, the venturing are all important.


1. See, for example, Michael Gold’s review, “Gertrude Stein: A Literary Idiot” from The New Masses, in which he states that her texts “resemble the monotonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums.”

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David Richter.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007: 901-904.
DeKoven, Marianne. A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David Richter.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007: 878-888.
Kaufman, Michael Edward. “Gertrude Stein’s Re-Vision of Language and Print in ‘Tender Buttons.’” Journal of Modern Literature, 15.4 (1989): 447-460.
Knight, Christopher J. “Gertrude Stein, “Tender Buttons,” and the Premises of Classicalism.” Modern Language Studies 21.3 (1991): 35-47.
Poetzsch, Markus. “Presence, Deixis, and the Making of Meaning in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.”  University of Toronto Quarterly, 75.4 (2006): 946-956.
Schmitz, Neil. “Gertrude Stein as Post-Modernist:  The Rhetoric of ‘Tender Buttons.’” Journal of Modern Literature, 3.5 (1974): 1203-1218.
Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, 1990: 3-15.
Stein, Gertrude. “Descriptions of Literature.” A Gertrude Stein Reader. Ed. Ulla Dydo. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993: 471-475.
Stein, Gertrude. "Poetry and Grammer." Toward the Open Field Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Melissa Kwasny. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2004. 288-311.
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997.
Walker, Jayne L. The Making of a Modernist: Gertrude Stein. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.


Benjamin Norris is a recent graduate of the College of William and Mary, where he received a Ted Dintersmith / W&M Honors Fellowship and earned highest honors for his undergraduate thesis on Alfred Kreymborg.  He now lives in New York City, working in the music industry while continuing his scholarly and creative writing.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume 5 (2011): Disappearance

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