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Objection to Dalke’s methodology for “Lifting Belly”

skumar's picture

Objection to Dalke’s methodology for “Lifting Belly”

Abstract: There has been a claim, notably one made by Feminist professor Anne Dalke, that Gertrude’s Stein’s incomprehensible text, “Lifting Belly”— a conversational, lesbian love poem addressed to Alice B. Toklas— can be better understood by ignoring individual meanings and appreciating overall sexuality of sound. Dalke’s claim has contributed significant controversy in psychobiological and philosophical interpretations of language comprehension. As a budding cognitive scientist primarily interested in fusing empirical studies of psychology and philosophy of mind, I seek to explore various claims regarding the human brain and, more specifically, conscious experiences. Therefore, Dalke’s argument is one that particularly interests me. I say this because reading is, after all, a conscious cognitive experience. The unintended integration of philosophical and psychological facets of comprehension in Dalke’s suggestion makes the Feminist professor’s claim a highly debatable one. This paper serves to challenge the suggestion made by Dalke. The paper will not, however, introduce an alternate proposal to read “Lifting Belly” due to page limitation.


Sections: The format of my paper will be organized in a way that is clearly and distinctly recognized by philosophers. However, the paper will also introduce psychological studies of human language comprehension. Thus, my paper, too, is an attempt to mingle psycho- philosophical inquires so to explain one larger concern, namely the comprehension of language. The paper will be divided in a series of objections and replies. In this way, the paper can be deemed as a “conversation” between Dalke and me. It must be noted, though, that the replies I will arise on behalf of Dalke are ones I only presume will made; they are not responses she has previously articulated. In this way, the pseudo-conversational paper will reinforce my argument that conversations require the mutual engagement of two agents. Therefore, to say there exists a conversation between two agents in a single text is entirely illogical (for more on this, see Section 3).


Section 1: An Objection to Dalke’s Claim

In her Critical Feminist Studies course, English Professor Anne Dalke presents her students with a text: “Lifting Belly” by Gertrude Stein. After finding that her students were in a state of excruciating confusion and distress after reading Stein, Dalke prefaces a discussion by indicating that she would suggest a way Stein’s poem can be understood at the end of class. In general, Dalke’s claim conflicted with her plans for the 1.5-hour class period. Dalke made the assertion that Stein’s poem cannot be understood by searching for meaning of words as we ordinarily do for literature. Instead, Dalke says, we must appreciate the “word sex” occurring in the text to understand the poem by overhearing the conversation between Alice B and Gertrude. Dalke instructed students to form groups and encourages them to extrapolate meaning of passages from pages that she selects for them. This pre-planned structure, I think, was counter productive. Firstly, it was obvious to me that the “discussion” was inherently leading up to Anne’s conclusion; class that day posited a constricted analysis of the text at hand. Neither did Dalke present the students with multiple methodologies to decode Stein’s poem, nor did she ask students to explore her methodology in the form of a large group discussion. The set-up implied that there was one way in which Stein’s poem made sense and that way, of course, was Dalke’s way. Additionally, the class period was spent searching for meaning only to hear from Dalke that searching for meaning in the poem was useless.

For more productive and interactive classroom discussion, Dalke could have presented her personal methodology for comprehending the text at the beginning of class and spent the rest of the time exploring this claim with the students. Instead of directing the students to search for meaning in the allotted passages, it would have made more sense for Dalke to request students to explore which ways, if any, the student’s reading of the text supported or challenged her claim. Although it may seem that I am objecting to Dalke’s classroom instruction, I am actually interested in the assertion Dalke makes at the end of class about understand “Lifting Belly.” In the following paragraphs, I work to challenge her claim.

Contrary to Dalke, I believe that meanings of words are always more beneficial, more successful in providing the reader with a significant interpretation of what the author is saying in his or her work. In the picture-word debate with rchauhan on Serendip Exchange, I claim that words are entirely more personable than pictures or images—more ambiguous forms of expression. In the same way, sounds act like images. I say this because both do not provide the listener or the viewer with foundational interpretation. In our conversation, Chauhan averred that “[words] are limiting… [they have definitions] and all the memories that one could associate with the word is linked to the definition[1].” While Chauhan finds definitions associated with words an inhibitor of intellectual exploration, I find the “limitation” broadening. A reader’s tendency to associate a meaning with word provides an introductory enlightenment, a way to begin analyzing the text. The definition does in no way limit a reader’s understanding; instead, it instigates a reader’s creative and exploratory impetus to discover subliminal messages or covert rhetoric used by the author of the text.

On the other hand, analyzing sounds of words is less useful. Sounds are entirely more restricting; especially since there are fewer ways to describe a sound. Some examples of sound analysis or linguistic analysis may include: the pitch of sounds, the tone that ensues from sounds, emphasis of sounds, and silence of sounds. I am sure there are a few more, but the point is that sounds are more securely fastened with a single word. The secure attachment of sounds and words does not leave the reader with subjectivity and exploration that is essential to conscious perceptual experience. Simply put, one cannot express a multiplicity of interpretations for the sound of a word as easily as one can express a multiplicity of interpretations for the meaning of the word. Two people analyzing the sound of a single word will come up with fairly similar explanations, yet people looking at a single word will introduce numerous meanings. Consequently, we cannot understand an entire text like “Lifting Belly” by listening to sounds. Ultimately, we can use the sound of a word so to explain the meaning of a text; as a result, the linguistic lens that Dalke implied does nothing more than tries to explain the meaning of words in “Lifting Belly.” In class, Dalke did not say that the sounds of words in “Lifting Belly” would be another way (instead of applying definitions to each word) to find meaning of the words and so Dalke’s insistence to separate the sound of the word from its’ meaning seems even the more confounding. What can a sound of a word provide other than an additional tactic to understand meaning? Nothing, I think.

By informing us that Gertrude Stein’s poem does not have an extractable meaning, Dalke made clear that everything cannot be explained and that we can never arrive at “any certainty, any fixedness[2].” The notion opposes our biological tendency to explain everything, including those things—such as issues of identity and of sexual orientation–that are hardest to explicate in simple, explicit terms. Accordingly, to say that Stein’s poem was too ambiguous to be explained and analyzed as an ordinary piece of literature was accurate; “Lifting Belly” shows is that ambiguity is inherent, that ambiguity is normality[3]. What Dalke and I strongly disagree with is the methodology by which we can come to a consensus that uncertainty is normal. Linguistic interpretations are nothing more than advancements towards meaning.


Section 2- Hypothetical reply by Dalke

I agree that humans possess a biological disposition to categorize, to title, to search for definitions as a means to explain things that have no explanation. More than biological beings, though, we are social beings. Thus, our social tendencies encourage us to engage in conversations or some form of dialogue with others. What else is a conversation but verbalized text? What else is text but a printed conversation? Text, then, is a written conversation between reader of the text and the author of a text. Even if while reading we are not verbally discussing the text with the author, we are still engaging in a conversation with ourselves when we are thinking about the texts; the notes we jot down in the margins of a text reinforce the conversation we have with ourselves in regards to a text.


Sections 3- A reply to Dalke’s reply

I agree that human beings are social beings and that we have inclinations to converse and to engage in dialogue with another being. That is exactly my point: we need to search for meanings of words to engage in a conversation. Given our ideas, it seems our understandings of conversation are different. On the one hand, conversations exist externally between two agents. On the other hand, you claim that conversations exist internally in the case of reading a text. Language in text and language in speech are entirely different types of language. It is true that we read a text so to grapple with the ideas put forward by the author. We do not, however, have a conversation with the author or with ourselves while we read. I say this because the content the author writes about in his or her work is nonnegotiable to the writer. Generally, the author writes about something that he or she has substantial amount of experience or knowledge, so there is little to be gained from additional conversation. Furthermore, writers— especially the writers we have read thus far in Critical Feminist Studies— are entirely confident in his or her arguments. Again, this fact reveals that few external forces (i.e. conversations with others) can adjust or revise the thoughts of the writer. There seems to be no point in engaging in conversation if there is no benefit for both parties. What is the point of talking if we are not learning new things? The job of the reader of a text, then, is to decode the author’s intent not to converse with the author or raise additional concerns. Reading, then, is a one-sided exchange.

Moreover, to say conversations exist internally would imply individualism[4], a theory in philosophy that states our beliefs and thoughts[5] are internal states independent of external forces. I, contrarily, argue here for externalism, or anti-individualism: a theory in philosophy that objects to individualism and states that beliefs and thoughts are dictated by our community, by social environment. In other words, individual thoughts and beliefs (analysis of “Lifting Belly”) are not intrinsic because they depend on the community (previous critics/analysis of “Lifting Belly,” or additional analysis done by peers, professor, etc). As previously stated, searching for meaning in words and in sentences enables the reader to start with a dictionary definition, which can be single elucidation of a word. One interpretation may lead to another one and yet another one after that. From this, we see that searching for the meaning of words is a positive domino effect. In contrast, sounds of words cannot easily be argued as having alternate implications. For instance, there are fewer ways to challenge someone’s interpretation that “bliss” has soft and sinuous sounds. All things considered, Dalke’s proposal seems counterproductive.

[1] Serendip Exchange. Saturday 10/11/2008. 8:27 am. Post by rchauhan.

[2] Serendip Exchange. Post by Anne Dalke. Sunday, 10/05/2008. 5:44 pm.

[3] “I saw it as a vital thing to think about in a society where the word "feminism" is becoming more and more obsolete and associated with negative schema.” (Post by SarahK. Serendip Exchange. Thursday, 10/9/2008, 3:28 pm).

[4] Chalmers, David J. “Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings.” Chapter 55: Individualism and the Mental by Tyler Burge (597-607). Oxford University Press. New York: New York. 2002.

[5] For the sake of continuity in paper, let us regard beliefs and thoughts to mean analysis and interpretations of “Lifting Belly.”


Anne Dalke's picture


I'm laughing all the way to the bank, skumar...drawn in by your provocation, intrigued by your description, engaged by your analysis, certainly provoked by "my own" short and inadequate response, and wanting to talk further....

Perhaps for your next (or final) project, we should run the experiment of a real conversation, a dialogue which is not "pseudo-," but actual, in the way that you have challenged me to make my classes: not a scripted activity designed to lead students to my conclusion, but a real interactive engagement in which all parties participate. I'm game....

I also invite you to post as an addendum to this paper the out-of-class experiment you ran regarding the insignificance of sounds in comprehending the meaning of a text.

So much to respond to! I hardly know where to start. Let me try just a few forays, with the help of a good dead friend:

  • my claim was actually an invitation into a different sort of reading than the one you are pursuing: not the conscious cognitive experience that is the construction of meaning, but the unconscious sensuous experience that is feeling the thingness of a text
  • Susan Sontag has written powerfully about this in her classic essay, "Against Interpretation": Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable...[but what really matters] is the pure, untranslatable, sensous immediacy....interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.
  • I'd also like to think outloud some more with you about your final claims--that authors are not interested in "conversing" with their readers. Since their content, once recorded, is "nonnegotiable," "reading is a one-sided exchange." There's a whole school of literary theory known as reader-response criticism that argues otherwise.

    To discuss....