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Humanities Honors Program

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“Dance a Clean Dream”: Agency In Language In Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

In the words of Gertrude Stein: "Composition is the difference." Tender Buttons, her poetry collection published in 1914, is one of the most compositionally daring and misunderstood works within the modernist canon. Stein's composition brings into existence a way of seeing words: she forms her own use of language, both interpreting the rules of grammar and showing clear linguistic choices. In Tender Buttons, the word becomes the microcosm for larger philosophical issues embedded within language: identity, the body, being and knowing, and power. My thesis will closely observe how Stein's poems lend themselves to productive dialogs and/or cross fertilization with the linguistic theories of 20th century language philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and Valentin Voloshinov. In placing Stein in conversation with these philosophers, I hope to draw Stein in closer proximity to popular language theory and introduce new lenses to help perceive her work. More importantly, I hope to show how uniquely Stein challenges and pushes the boundaries of language, demonstrating to her readers the practice of choice and intent in the language of the everyday.

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