115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“A single image is not splendor”: The Anti-Phallogocentric, Anti-Capitalist Ecriture Feminine of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons

Brittany Starr, University of Maryland

In its oft baffling, a-logical linguistic forms, Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) defies patriarchal, phallogocentric, and even capitalist values and births an écriture feminine, “the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes and rhetorics, regulations and codes” that Cixous exhorts six decades later in “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Stein, however, invents a counter-patriarchal language that transcends gender essentialism.


Where Hélène Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa” calls for an essentially feminine use of language to take patriarchal hegemony to battle, Gertrude Stein’s radical use of language defies essentialism, and in so doing, bypasses a gender war to be waged through language. Without appealing to traditional notions of the feminine, Stein’s gender-transcendent linguistic play instead demands behaviors and values of the reader that run counter to those of a patriarchal and phallogocentric society. Stein’s writing in Tender Buttons revolts against phallogocentric hegemony in eight ways: it1.) refuses to control what signs signify, and in so doing, liberates words to speak for themselves, promoting a plurality of possible interpretations, 2.) demands creativity and imagination of its readers in every word, phrase, and section, 3.)  refuses to progress, 4.) enacts linguistic play that rebels against capitalist demands for productivity, 5.) does not objectify words, but lets them “act,” 6.) presents no narrator, which flips the power dynamic from narrator to reader, 7.) subverts the reader’s inclination to anticipate what will come next and so, commands the reader’s attention in the present, and 8.) plays with grammar conventions, exposing the reader to how grammar rules help authors control comprehension in their readers. In these ways, Stein in Tender Buttons emphasizes modes of cognition (creative, non-rational) that are subordinated in a patriarchal system of binaries.


In the preface to the new edition of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936), Jeanette Winterson endorses T.S. Eliot’s call for readers to give Nightwood two reads, but acknowledges that we live in a time where “books have turned into fast food, to be consumed in the gaps between one bout of relentless living and the next.” In what I call counter-capitalist prose, Tender Buttons is conceptual and demanding and refuses to deliver neatly packaged, instantly gratifying diversionary narratives. Challenging conceptual texts like Nightwood and Tender Buttons could even be seen to threaten the profiteers of capitalism by inspiring society’s participants to question the value of living consumption-oriented lifestyles. In the face of potential meaninglessness (the non-sense of Stein’s Tender Buttons), the reader must find a way to value and enjoy linguistic play instead. “Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men,” Stein writes early on in the “Objects” section. I argue that the entire work is an exercise in pointing readers away from the type of rational, phallogocentric reading that “hardens” one’s mind, towards a “softer,” more “present,” more playful approach that will allow “as many girls as men” to speak and be heard in the world.

Topic Area: