The necessary betrayal of abstraction

I have a graduate degree in Literature, and part of obtaining that degree meant taking poetry seminars. In one of those seminars, we did a section on Gertrude Stein.

I’m not sure what to do with Gertrude Stein. We had to read Tender Buttons, and I recall dreading going to class because I just wasn’t sure what to say. Luckily I had a classmate who did engage well with Stein’s work, and carried us a bit – I recall talking about Stein’s poetic formlessness as a type of resistance.

Here’s a snippet from Tender Buttons:


It’s been nearly 12 years since I read this for the first time, and I still have no idea what to do with it.

On one level I believe that it doesn’t much matter if people don’t understand or connect with Stein’s work. It’s fine to not understand something; the fact that I don’t like Tender Buttons doesn’t in any way undermine its value.

I came back around to Stein in the past two weeks as I’ve been working on a project for my Arts-Based Research class. ABR is a form of qualitative research that involves pulling artistic elements into the presentation of the data – that could mean in the form of poetry, visual arts, interpretive dance, music, etc. To me, this is a nice marriage of what I love about studying literature and indulging in creative arts, and what I love about research and the presentation of data.

ABR is, theoretically, a form of knowledge-sharing that is more accessible. It engages people in both cerebral and non-cerebral ways, and has a lot of potential for being used to enhance social justice research. That’s what draws me so strongly – the ability to get outside of methodological conservatism, to use a phrase from a Nana Osei-Kofi article I recently read. Osei-Kofi talks about how the academy overvalues hard sciences methodologies, to the point that social sciences and even humanities attempt to emulate the structure, processes and language used in hard sciences fields.

I saw that in my time as a Lit grad – it was constantly drilled into us that when writing a paper, we must present textual evidence. We must have a thesis statement, which is the humanities version of a hypothesis. Literary scholarship must be presented in a certain format. It was definitely the antithesis to the experience of experiencing a story – something about it felt disconnected, because it was all cerebral and no feeling.

I had a lot of feelings about Gertrude Stein in 2005 – most of them culminating in, What am I doing here?

I began thinking about Stein because last week, I began really thinking about some of the drawbacks of ABR. One of the things that worries me is that ABR can get pretty out there. People are doing some pretty radical stuff, which I think is great. What’s not so great for me is when artistic interpretations veer too far into the abstract. Of course, what does too far mean? Stein is too abstract for me, but to others, she’s accessible.

When I say too far, I mean that I like abstract art and writing to a point, but when it’s so abstract that it becomes difficult to extract meaning without an explanation, I start to get a bit disengaged. I don’t mean to in any way devalue the time and work and thought and feelings that go into creating great abstract works, because I appreciate the effort and energy. My concern is about accessibility – I like ABR because it’s more accessible, so I worry about veering into territory that begins to feel inaccessible.

Of course, there will be those who disagree with me, and I welcome it. Maybe I’m being too hard on abstract art forms. Maybe I require too much context and familiarity; maybe my discomfort level is too high. Maybe it’s my internal bias showing – i.e., I find abstract modern art aesthetically pleasing at times, but struggle to find deeper meaning in it without being given some sort of context to work with.

Time will tell, I suppose. But to quote Stein, “Practice measurement, practice the sign that means that really means a necessary betrayal, in showing that there is wearing.”

Perhaps these abstractions are necessary betrayals. Perhaps that’s the only way we ever really stretch.


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