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Notes Towards Day 12: Tasting the Book of Salt

Notes towards Day 12 of

What his tongue can do:
Tasting The Book of Salt


"She wants to see the stretch marks on my tongue..."


Mid-semester course evaluations:
What is working? What needs working on?

I. Further Coursekeeping
Naming ("Emily=Kendalyn," "Hope=Holly")
Papers leftover for Laura, Melissa, Sarah, Sonal
Hold on to these/put in folder to re-submit w/
Paper # 2 in mid-November (=being in conversation w/ yourself & me)

Finish The Book of Salt over break...
read ahead: graphic novel Persepolis
think about picking a "last" text?

II. Key question of first 1/3 of course: what logic/use-value does the gender binary serve?

jzarate: I’m completely bummed that we did not discuss the article about sexual reassignment in Iran.... In the Islamic faith, there is an important division of the sexes...based on the idea that Allah creates in pairs and binary opposites. Therefore deviation from the binary is seen as dangerous and potentially leading to sexual transgression....In order to maintain order and avoid “sexual transgressions” people are encouraged to change their physical gender traits....This leads me to consider cultural and societal definitions of sex....How have different religious and cultural standards shaped our views and definitions of licit and illicit sex?

kscire: The article Truth of sex makes me re-consider the relationship between biology and gender/sex. At least in Iran, "one's gender is rooted in one's biological make-up which may have not adjusted well with socializing norms, thus producing abnormality and gender disorder." This would lead me to believe that there is not fault in biology that results in gender disorder; but that whatever sex a person is born as is not at all unnatural...because at least coming from a scientific standpoint there are no "gender identity" disorders. These "disorders" are only social.

jlustick: social reform is poorely suited to areas of society
where pleasing people is of the utmost importance.

Old Gender Roles with your Dinner?
Although the goal in many public places and in much of public life is to treat
men and women equally, most upscale restaurants haven’t reached that point.

Why Women Should Vote

"Race, Gender and Age in the 2008 Presidential Campaign"
12:45-2, Monday, October 20, 2008, Campus Center 200
The Social Science Center luncheon series on Understanding the 2008 Election
Michael X. Delli Carpini, Professor of Political Science &
Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at Penn

III. (Not unrelatedly:) a few more words about GertrudeStein's poetry...

"Steinian texts produce in all readers bewilderment...."

sarina: I am not a fan of Gertrude Stein’s writing style. I like punctuation, and knowing what the writer is saying.

egliechm: ambiguity of subjects, objects, nouns and banter in "Lifting Belly" was likely the culprit of the distaste that some of us voiced in class...when we can't make sense of concrete things, we get bored or annoyed; we find the work personally inaccessable or meaningless

anorton:  It seems reasonable that most readers enter texts expecting them to communicate something from the writer to them....Certainly, we never fully understand what another person is trying to convey....Perhaps I put too much trust in the power of words....What are the experiences that can't be described, and how are they best expressed?

Susan Holbrook's 1999 American Literature article on "Lifting Bellies":
--decoding seems to miss the mark: the one-to-one equivalence that encryption presumes
would deny the polysemnic, indeterminate trajectories of Stein's vocabulary

--"insistence" draws our attention to the material of language,
which is generally rendered a silent ferry to the signified....
iteration invites us to engage sound and shape in a more intimate way--to enjoy close reading.

--the word can be erotic on two opposing conditions, both excessive:
if it is extravagantly repeated, or on the contrary, if it is unexpected, succulent in its newness

Some implications

*Stein's ambivalence about naming resonants with more
contemporary concerns about the limitations of identity politics...
the simultaneous exigency and liability of naming abjected sexuality.

justlick: language interferes with a certain modern feminist agenda,
for it forces us to create labels and names and differentiate outsider from insider.

The Book of Salt, p. 117: "Words...are a handy shortcut to meaing.
But too often, words limit and deny."

p. 63: "there is no good sex"

BUT REALLY: can words be non-referential?
Can they NOT signify?


Abstract Paintings Masterpiece Series

(Thought experiment: how would you translate Stein?)

hope: while reading the Book of Salt i was thinking that it would be interesting to have Stein's poem read outloud to people who do not speak english and ask about their reactions to it. perhaps they could apreciate the rythem or flow or general sound of the words better since they would not be focused on attaching meaning to them.

Speaking of attaching meaning to words...

kgbrown: perhaps...we are getting bogged down by how we should catagorize the poems...If a poem really is "sexy," can't we catagorize it as just that and leave the hetero- and homo- out of it?

skumar: If lesbianism is nothing more than sexual pull towards women, well, then I guess it reduces humanity to physical, biological frameworks. This insists that we are nothing but our bodies.

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll: I am not my body. My body is nothing without me.

ebock: I don't think...that Stein image of lesbian intimacy that becomes...spectacle....Of course physical important.


Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence":
If the first erotic bond is to the mother...could not the "natural"
sexual orientation of both men and women be toward women?


...her conception of a "lesbian continuum" sparked especially intense debate. Does lesbianism incorporate all support systems and intense interactions among women, or is it a specifically erotic choice? What is gained and what is lost with the second, narrower definition?

IV. Turning now to The Book of Salt
(to test some of these ideas about how words work)

Write a paragraph describing this image:


Here is Truong/Binh's description:

"I am...enthralled by her upper lip with its black hairs twitching gently as she speaks. Her moustache, I think, would be the envy of all three of my brothers, who could only aspire to such definition after weeks' worth of unfettered growth. The arc of hair, like a descended third eyebrow, is topped by a solemn monument to the god of smells. Protruding from her forehead, abruptly billowing out as it reaches her eye sockets, it is not so much a nose as an alterpiece that segregates the left side of her face from her right. Moving northward, her facial features disappear underneath a skullcap of hair, dark, absorbing the late-afternoon light. I am overwhelmed by the intrusiveness of it all until I look into her eyes. They live apart from their housing. Chasing the light that gilds this city in early autumn, her irides are two nets gently swooping over a band of butterflies. Catching the light, the circles erupt, bright with movement, the flapping and fanning of many colored wings" (The Book of Salt, p. 25).

Cf. her/his description and our own...
How are they like-and-different?
How do they comment on one another?

What do they tell us about the relationship between
the visual and the written?

Jan Clausen, "The Cook's Tale." Women's Review of Books 20, 10-11 (July 2003):
like a documentary film technique, the camara imparts its
own sense of motion to still photographs--
a swooped, focusing, animating effect...

"bloodless": heavy reliance on images and repetition
(overwritten? inviting of interpretation?)

lacks fleshed-out people...
Binh flexible and mercurial,
but static, suspended between eventful memory
and present, w/ few choices

sexual & linguistic homelessness
feminized stereotypes of Asian men

"flat": appropriate both to their iconic status and
cook's need to know them as behavioral probabilities


V. The novel begins and ends with a photograph....
why and what's that accomplish?

"Of that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories...." (p. 1)

"GertrudeStein, unflappable, unrepentant, unbowed, starts back at me and smiles. This photograph of her and Miss Toklas, the second of two that I have of that day, was taken on the desk of the SS Champlain. It captures my Mesdames perfectly. I am over there, the one with my back turned to the camera...alongside the photograph taken at the Gare du Nord...I am partial to the one of them at the train station.

GertrudeStein and Miss Toklas are perched on the bench ahead of me. My Madame and Madame are posing for a small group of photographers who have gathered for the occasion. GertrudeSein looks almost girlish. The folds of a smile are tucked into her ample cheeks. Miss Toklas looks pleased but as always somewhat irritated, an an oyster with sand in its lips, a woman whose corset bites into her hips...."

The Accessibility and Assailability of Pictures:
are words more "assailable,"
more subject to common testing?

...and tasting?


and write a paragraph about what you are experiencing

The novel is filled with tastes....
how is that accomplished?

What is the relationship between the sensation of a taste,
and the words with which it is described?

Between sensations (more generally),
and the words which represent them?

Kathy Neustadt, "The Folkloristics of Licking,"
Journal of American Folklore
107 (423), 1994: 181-196.

VII. What role does the representation of taste--and
sensation more generally--play in feminism?

aaclh: I was surprised to see that Truong's Book of Salt used taste so heavily.
I don't think I've thought about taste much before, let alone saw taste as
a useful way to describe other human emotions.

sarina: The idea of associating taste with feminism threw me off...
Can you see and feel in a feminist way? I don’t really think so, not in the
literal seeing things in front of you way. While feminism is a state of mind,
it is mostly a set of actions and you behave in the world.

jlustick: is it a problem if food arouses us?...What if literature arouses us?
What about someone of the same sex? Opposite sex?
Why does the means of arousal matter more than the resultant state?

lrperry: I hope that we spend...time discussing the
limits of Truong’s representation of a gay male.