“I am always wanting to collaborate with someone,” wrote Gertrude Stein in Everybody’s Autobiography, and even if she never did become a great collaborator in her own time, there are important reasons for taking this claim of hers seriously.
The collaborative impulse in Gertrude Stein’s written works is grounded in the many ways in which the interface of reading and writing (Lori Emerson, 2014) is kept open in her work – making all reading of her work a relational process – often taking the form of rewriting, restaging, recycling or remediation as is witnessed by the multiple artistic recyclings and remediations of Stein’s work that has appeared from 1950s until today. As has been shown by Barbara Will, the relational impulse in Stein’s poetics not only shakes the presumed autonomy of her writing, but also shakes the autonomy implied in the figure of the modernist genius, that Stein made strong claims upon (Will, 2000).
When in 1933, at the age of 59, Gertrude Stein wrote her best seller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she suddenly entered the scene of the rising modern celebrity cult, touring the US, lecturing, speaking on the radio and talking to newspapers, magazines and people all over the country.
She thus became renown for her character, appearance and cultural performance, and perhaps less for her writing. Yet the experimental writing remains the essential quality of this public persona. It remains a sine qua non for Stein’s fame. Stein’s public persona was constituted through her “popular” writings in interaction with her more experimental ones as the later work appropriates, contextualizes and restages the earlier and invites readers to revisit it. But as Gertrude Stein became a literary star her public persona also became an integrated part of her work, and highly commodified, a fact she experienced at high personal costs.
What I would like to zoom in on in this paper is not foremost how Stein’s poetry has been recycled in avant-garde art and high culture, but how a more popular dimension of Stein’s appropriation in contemporary culture has developed.
Artists such as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp are renown for recycling their own persona and reversioning themselves in their art. The persona of Gertrude Stein is being subjected to a similar reversioning after her death. Thus, the early American avant-garde theatrical reception of Stein (i.e. The Judson Poets Theatre, The Living Theatre) had the biographical persona of Stein incorporated into their work from the beginning, following from the way Stein’s persona was already crucial in the conception, staging and marketing of her first opera Four Saints In Three Acts. This course is continued today in a much broader appropriation of Stein’s poetry and oral catchphrases as well her photographic image and overall persona, creating a biographical kitsch cult around memorabilia and collector’s items, popular biographical representations in main stream theatre and film and cartoons – as well as an industry of pure Stein-commodities like mugs and buttons, paper dolls, stamps and tattoos etc.
In this paper I want to ask what happens to our configurations of authorial autonomy when the author is being transformed into a commodity that is distributed into a range of cultural fields. Also, I wish to investigate how the presumed autonomy of Stein’s poetry responds when subjected to popular appropriation along with the Stein-persona and spread out into a diverse media ecological network (Fuller, 2005) that is transgressing beyond the strictly literary.
Presumed Autonomy’, Stockholms Universitet, 10.-13. maj 2016