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Productive Dissonance

A dissonance

in the valence of Uranium

led to the discovery


(if you’re interested)

leads to discovery


—William Carlos Williams, Patterson IV (On the Curies)


“No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he doesn’t understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.” —Jacques Derrida, from an interview in Derrida and Différence


Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending (-obliterating? –inventing?) text, “Patriarchal Poetry,” seems primarily interested in creating what I want to call productive dissonance—that is, a dissonance that produces new cultural space or discourse. She does this by, to use Derrida’s phrasing, tampering with the language. One almost imagines she wanted it to border, in places, on the unreadable, or at least unpleasant, while in others it is quite aurally pleasing. Why would she want to do such a thing? There is no key that unlocks this text, but the long series of near-repetitions


Let her try.

Let her try.

Let her be.

Let her be shy.

Let her try. (65)


lends some insight into her project here. I count thirty-eight instances of the phrase “let her try” in this movement of the poem, by far the dominant phrase within the series of repetitions and near-repetitions; and it is quite telling that the stanzaic paragraph is completed as “let her try to be” (ibid). Stein’s text here refuses, even more than most poetic productions, any sort of clean interpretation, but it seems at least part of the text’s point that women who produce non-patriarchal poetry (especially at the time she is writing) must be allowed to try, must be allowed to try to be, as there is no poetic form in which women can be at the time she is writing.

And this is exactly what the formal dissonance of her text is trying to invent, a counter-discourse and then hopefully a new discourse beyond that counter-discourse, which is no longer tethered by that “counter-“ to the patriarchal discourse. Or perhaps it would be better to say that her text is trying to clear away and create the space for just such a new untethered and unfettered discourse, for her text itself does not quite achieve the Aufhebung stage of the dialectic of discourses I am imagining as its goal (conscious or un-). It is therefore a dialectical dissonance she has produced.

And so, since I have let Hegel into the conversation, how else might he be able to help us? I think perhaps recognition theory here plays a role in Stein’s project. If we apply Hegel’s recognition theory model, with its constant battle between subjects vying for recognition from and/or domination over other subjects, couldn’t we read Stein’s text as a bid for recognition, albeit a necessarily dissonant or destructive one (though dissonant and destructive for the purpose of creation or Aufhebung)?

We might also apply another great dialectician to the text. When Stein writes “Patriarchal poetry in regular places placed regularly as if it were placed regularly regularly placed regularly as if it were” (67), isn’t she doing a critique of ideology in the Marxian sense? The empowered normalize the place of patriarchal poetry by placing it regularly in the regular places (e.g., journals, anthologies, classrooms) where is it entirely normal (regular) to find such things. It’s that wonderfully ambiguous “as if it were” that cuts through the surface of naturalized ideology—as if it were normal or natural for this to be the order of things. But it isn’t, Stein seems to be telling us, either right or natural, but rather merely the effect of patriarchal power that ensures the placement of patriarchal poetry over competing discourses.

So far, however, I have only discussed what Stein’s poem is doing, but I haven’t answered the question I posed earlier of why she might have done this, purposely or not. I am reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s discussion, in his book Violence, of a considerably more recent event, the 2005 riots in France by Muslim French citizens. He incisively points out:

The Paris riots were not rooted in any kind of concrete socio-economic protest, still less in an assertion of Islamic fundamentalism. One of the first sites to be burned was a mosque…The riots were simply a direct effort to gain visibility. A social group which, although part of France and composed of French citizens, saw itself as excluded from the political and social space proper wanted to render its presence palpable to the general public. Their actions spoke for them: like it or not, we’re here, no matter how much you pretend not to see us…[T]heir main premise was that they wanted to be and were French citizens, but were not fully recognized. (Žižek 76-77)

Obviously the struggle for recognition in the two cases are not identical (are any such struggles?), but we can learn something here that is perhaps useful to understanding the abrasiveness of Stein’s style. She wanted to rattle cages. Writing in the dominant and accepted style, or writing in a pleasurable or easy one, would have caused the poem to go unnoticed, under the cultural radar. By creating dissonance, she announced a presence in literature heretofore largely ignored. She burnt down anything she could to register her presence and thus demand recognition (in the Hegelian sense).

Stein succeeds in demanding and thus creating the cultural space possible for a new discourse to emerge, and for that alone, she should be ranked among the foremost innovators of modern poetry.