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Images in Crisis: Three Lives’s Vanishing Women

In 1876, Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin and the founder of eugenics, reported to the Anthropological Institute of London his newest physiognomic method for uncovering and defining human “types.”[1] Galton’s composite portraiture was an exercise in re-photography that co-opted the mechanical precision of the photograph for a pseudoscience of predetermined sociological and biological categories. Galton gathered sets of standardized quarter-length portraits of criminals and the infirm, as well as people defined by the indices of race, class, and gender, and layered them on top of one another, dividing the exposure time by the number of individual photographs. By evenly combining the images, he turned “irregularities” or inconsistencies between the faces into ghostly smudges, performing a series of erasures in the hope of isolating, capturing, and displaying “the central physiognomical type of any race or group.”[2] The subject of the composite portrait became both less and more than a subject; the portrait depicted “no man in particular,” as Galton wrote, but rather “an imaginary figure possessing the average features of any given group of men. These ideal faces have a surprising air of reality. Nobody who glanced at one of them for the first time, would doubt its being the likeness of a living person” (figs. 1–3).[3]

Francis Galton
Figs. 1-3. Francis Galton, Composite photographs of a family, 1882: two sons, two daughters, father and mother; a mother and two daughters; father and two sons, his brother and his brother’s son. © Galton Collection, University College London.

Whatever vitality Galton perceived in his photographic portraits, the swimming form of these mathematically averaged and mashed-up faces is decidedly eerie. The portraits make the photographic surface into—or rather disclose its status as—a palimpsest, a repository of mysterious remains. Far from effacing the particularities of the individual images that make up the composite whole, the shadows and tracings of those particularities are entrancingly apparent. The eye gropes for the residue of idiosyncrasy and individuality that Galton hoped to obscure. Etched in a hazy play of joinings and junctures, Galton’s photographic figurations are riven with an interpretative vagueness and instability that belies their claims to the scientific knowing and controlling of the bodies of others through photographic mechanisms. They query, rather than codify, the discursive map of congenital essences that Galton imagines and images upon bodily surfaces.

Galton boasted that his composite images were “pictorial statistics,” and more specifically “the equivalents of those large statistical tables whose total, divided by the number of cases, and entered in the bottom line, are the averages.” Intriguingly, he claims a metaphorical correspondence not between the composite portrait and the averages that line the bottom of “those large statistical tables,” but between the portrait and the statistical table itself (Inquiries, 233). Reaching to align the composite portrait with the props of scientific data, Galton’s conception of the photographic image as a tabulated series allegorizes his efforts to recover perspicacity for it. These efforts involve exceeding the physical limits of the photograph—its arrested moment, its bounded frame, its paper-thin surface—through processes of repetition and accumulation. But in calling attention to the material system of the image, its thickly embedded strata of photographic shards, he promotes a reading of the composite portraiture that dismantles or decodes it. In effectively converting a technology of layered superimposition into one of orderly, listed juxtaposition, Galton’s photograph-as-table implies both the susceptibility of the composite portrait to indexing and its status as an index. Laying bare the portrait’s semi-hidden inventory of image-fragments, it reveals the multiplicity measured in the interstices between its foliated parts. Rather than a genealogy of biological types, Galton’s composite portraiture offers a genealogy of its own mediated technology: a history of textual reproduction.

Looking at and through the faces of the composite portraits permits a new theory of literary textuality in modernism, a theory that occasions a feminist reappraisal of its ethical possibilities. Galton, of course, already occupies a fairly prominent position in the literary history of the United States. His hereditarian projects, particularly his studies of twins in the 1870s and his attempts to develop a racial index for human fingerprints in the late 1880s and early 1890s, are the central context for Mark Twain’s 1894 novella Pudd’nhead Wilson—a tale of look-alikes switched at birth that has been called “the first post-Galtonian novel.”[4] Yet there are less direct but equally pervasive lines of influence and equivalence connecting modernist writing to Galton’s experiments in composite portraiture. This is especially true when these experiments are seen to exemplify photography as “a sequential, grammatical art,” a technology defined from its beginnings by varied processes of assemblage that, by a visual syntax of spacing, do not so much compose the real as composite it.[5]

As the faces of the composite subjects dissolve and deliquesce into the edges of the photographic frame, they are relevant dialectically rather than strictly causally to modernist literary texts such as Gertrude Stein’s first literary work, Three Lives, which I take as my exemplar here. Stein can hardly be said to have kept company with Galton, in life or in labor. The author and the eugenicist were born fifty years and an ocean apart—in 1874 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States, and in 1822 in Birmingham, England, respectively—and Stein’s literary career began only two years before Galton’s death, with the North American publication of Three Lives in 1909. However, Three Lives—like many other literary texts in the early twentieth century—operates in a segmented, serialized mode of narration and characterization that constructs narrative persons reiteratively, as aggregates or assemblages.[6] It bears an intervallic formal and aesthetic schema that retains—even mines—fissures and seams that are as diverting as those that define Galton’s composite photographic portraits. More powerfully, Stein’s composite writing is shaped by the figure and activity that I conceptualize, after photography’s densely layered bodies, as the woman-in-series. The reiterated and sutured body of the serialized woman in Three Lives is coextensive with the reiterated, sutured body of the text she populates.

Gertrude Stein and Francis Galton
Figs. 4-5. Gertrude Stein posed in front of door, 1908. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Digital Collections and the Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas Estate; Francis Galton in profile, 1888. © Galton Collection, University College London.

In a theoretical move that mimes the logic of incongruous juxtaposition that defines photography as form and practice, this article brings new work in photography studies—and especially the crossdisciplinary discussions in what is known as the still/moving field—to bear on the study of modernist écriture. By interpreting composite writing in relation to the aesthetic principles and ontological disclosures of serial or sequenced photography, I revalue the function of the gap or interval in literary modernism, destabilizing oppositions of power and vulnerability as they relate to the interactions of subjects and objects in the representational realm. If, as Steve McCaffery claims, the textual fragment is “the mark of an absence previously present,” fragmentary modernist texts might well manifest in and by their interstitial format the “presence-absence that constitutes the attraction and the fascination of the Sirens” that Maurice Blanchot associates with the photographic image.[7] Roland Barthes, in his classic work on photography, Camera Lucida, glosses this formulation in terms of photography’s casting of the human face in the future anterior tense, which presents “death in the future” through the “absolute past of the pose”: the “catastrophe” and “defeat of Time: that is dead and that is going to die.”[8] But what if, in refocusing our attention away from the melancholic temporality of the photograph, it turns out that photography’s Sirens do more by their absent presence than lure and fascinate? What if their oscillation between these problematic states of being also sanctions their refusal to play the temptress—and, in the process, establishes alternative visions of female subjectivity before the camera?

These questions shape some of the best new studies of photography and visual culture, and they also gesture toward critical concerns for the study of literature. Modernist literary studies, in particular, must confront the gendered and racialized logics of inclusion and exclusion that continue to define the limits of its inquiry, even after the proliferation of “new” modernisms over the last two decades.[9] We (still) need theoretical figurations of female subjectivity that, on the one hand, recognize the intersections of gender and other categories of social difference in the processes of objectification; and, on the other hand, work to exceed, diffuse, or overturn the usually hostile encounters between female subjects and those who “subjectify” them, to borrow Samira Kawash’s term.[10] Recent work by feminist and queer scholars searches out the radical potential of the absent/present female body in photography and cinema by augmenting the psychoanalytic concept of femininity as an operation of masquerade, an elaborate “mask” or “decorative layer [that] conceals a non-identity.”[11] Enfolding the viewer and viewed “in a dense intermediate viewing space,” this work substitutes a model of exchange and reciprocity between subjects and objects for the more unilateral model associated with the fetishizing Mulveyan male gaze.[12] For Karen Beckman, for instance, it is the woman who vanishes in film and photography who, in posing “elusive vanishing and reappearance as alternatives to finite disappearance,” radically questions her own status as spectacle.[13] In a similar vein, Anne Anlin Cheng, in her reading of Josephine Baker’s photographic self-fashioning, embraces Baker’s body as a motile, eroticized surface on which we might appreciate “an injunction of injured subjectivity.” Cheng locates the agency of “racialized subjects looking to free themselves from the burden of racial legibility” in the visual captivity of “the (specifically photographic) pleasure of suspension: that pause or delay before a person becomes a person and a thing a thing.”[14]

The feminist reassessment of the photographic image offers an opportunity to reconceive subject/object relations in modernist literature. Part of a vast corpus of composite or serialized photography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Galton’s portraits are an especially striking instantiation of what Régis Durand calls “images in crisis,” in which “[s]omething in them is always trying to run off, to vanish.”[15] They emblematize the dissolution of the unitary, transcendental Cartesian subject propelled, in part, by the development of technologies of mass reproduction. Hence the formal interstices that riddle Galton’s composites are lauded as the material precondition for a tabulated biological essentialism even as they form the trace evidence of its tabulation and, ultimately, its failure. These images unveil the involved, politicized processes behind—and the stark limitations of—typological conceptions of identity. Simultaneously, they suggest that these conceptions are open to revision: to being undone, pulled to pieces. Divulging the essential lack at the base of taxonomies of representation organized around gender, race, ethnicity, and class, the composite portraits also turn that lack into a locus of contingency, a metaphorical space of resistance to this representational order.

Thus, Galton’s composite portraits illustrate the doubled operation of the interstice that anchors my reading of the composite modernist text. The gap or interval in Stein’s composite text signifies at once as a mark of trauma, the wounding of typologized representation, and as a vehicle for evading or defending against such trauma: a zone of withdrawal, incompliancy, or active recalcitrance, particularly for female characters. Just as the bodies in the composite portraits seem to run off or vanish, in Durand’s terms, outstripping and confounding eugenicist imperatives, so too do the bodies of the serialized women in Stein’s text. Through the subversive tactics of silence and disappearance actuated progressively through the repetitive narratives of the “good” Anna, the “complex and desiring” Melanctha, and the “gentle” Lena, the woman-in-series stages the insurrectionary potential of the in/visible, silent/speaking subject.

In mapping the connective and disconnective tissue of Stein’s modernist narration onto the conspicuous appearances and disappearances of female bodies that are constituted in—and constituent of—that narration, I revivify the passive, silent “gentleness” of the title character of its final prose piece as an unexpected form of social power. By this recuperation, I do not mean to sentimentalize Three Lives, which stages the tragic and violent subordination of its working-class and ethnically or racially marked female characters to the institutional racism and patriarchal social order of modern life. I also do not mean to sentimentalize Stein herself or disavow her own tendencies toward essentialized racialist and nativist thought. Defined by a dialectic of domination and resistance, Three Lives shuttles between the perpetuation and the critique of systems of social power. As its women move in and out of sight (or earshot), from presence to absence and back again, they perform a series of more or less evasive maneuvers in and through the intervals of the composite text. They are images in crisis.

Writing that Still Moves

In literary studies, the cultures and technologies of photography have usually served as a context for understanding the literature and society of the nineteenth century rather than that of the twentieth century. Nancy Armstrong, for instance, claims that photographic images supplied the mimetic standard for realist fiction in the Victorian era.[16] The abandoning of positivist commitments in modernist writing would seem to entail the rejection of photography. However, as Michael North has pointed out, Armstrong’s line of inquiry disregards the “distancing and aestheticizing effect” of photography from its earliest days and its function in producing a veritable “cabinet of wonders” of hitherto-unseen sights.[17] North’s critique builds on the work of scholars such as Martin Jay and Karen Jacobs, who argue that the invention and dissemination of the photographic image served to erode the very scopic regime it seemed to validate.[18] Edgar Allan Poe may have been seduced, in 1840, by the “positively perfect mirror” of the daguerreotype, but, far from offering absolute verisimilitude, photography in its earliest forms could not reproduce color, and its long exposure times necessitated an artificial stiffness of pose in its subjects—as well as a surface multiplicity that was reconstructed, later in the century, in Galton’s composites.[19] Walter Benjamin refers to this effect when he cites Bertolt Brecht in The Arcades Project: “With the older, less light sensitive apparatus, multiple expressions would appear on the plate, which was exposed for rather long periods of time,” rendering a “livelier and more universal expression” (fig. 6).[20]

Fig. 6. Daguerreotype portrait of a woman, ca. 1850s. Image courtesy of the Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, Cornell University Library Digital Collections.

With its open discrepancies of focus, perspective, and framing in relation to the actions of the human eye, the photograph played a pivotal role in undermining the claims of monocular Cartesian perspectivalism. It did not so much “erase all obstacles separating seeing from knowing” as instigate a crisis of belief in the continuity between the two (Jacobs, Eye’s Mind, 18). In this light, Galton’s composite subjects reflect the troubling of “the truth of the body as a sight,” which resulted, paradoxically, from the proliferation of the photographic image from the mid-nineteenth century on (8). For North, accordingly, photography was a crucial resource and discursive interface for twentieth-century modernist writers and artists—and for nineteenth-century realist writers and artists—not for its fidelity to the real but for its implication of the “ignored and unexpected” aspects of the real (Camera Works, 11). What modernist writers admired in photography was its capacity to turn up to view the under-surface of the visual realm—and, in turn, the socialized physiology and slippery subjectivity of vision itself.[21]

Like Galton’s composite portraits, the composite writing of Stein and other modernist authors privileges equivocality exactly through its sequenced textual principle of assemblage and juxtaposition. In “Melanctha,” the longest and most formally innovative of the three prose pieces in Three Lives, the physician Jeff Campbell accuses his patient/lover, Melanctha Herbert, of being “too many.” A figure of black respectability and a staunch advocate of “just living regular and not having new ways all the time just to get excitements,” Jeff is frustrated by his inability to distinguish between what he sees as the two Melancthas.[22] To him, Melanctha seems to be “two kinds of girls” who are “certainly very different to each other” and who do not “seem to have much to do, to be together” (97). However, even in censuring Melanctha, Jeff underestimates her multiplicity. In Stein’s short story sequence, Melanctha is not only herself “too many” but is also made into one of many, linked to and formulated through other female bodies in the text. The “too many” woman in Three Lives is complex, taking the word as both an adjective and a noun: she is abstruse, convoluted, inscrutable, and she is multiple, compound, agglomerated.

The intuitive and structural affinities between Galton’s composite portraiture and the women-in-series in Three Lives expose their common generalized logic, namely, a tensile relation between the singular and the multiple that extends into a dynamic interplay between coherence and incoherence, continuity and discontinuity. My formulation of this logic draws on the insights of the still/moving field, named for the double dialectical relation from which a slew of studies published in the last decade derive their key terms of reference.[23] This field of study offers an affirmative critique of the interactions and relays between the photographic and the cinematographic that has significant but as-yet underappreciated implications for the understanding of modernist literature. The interdependence and reciprocity of photography and cinema is derived, in the first instance, from their shared technological basis: the use of chemical processes for recording images of reality on a translucent negative medium and the use of machineries of light projection and enlargement in reproduction. Much as with my own theoretical pulling apart of the photographic pieces that comprise Galton’s swampy composite subjects, scholars in the still/moving field disarrange the photograph in conceiving of it as torn “between narrativity and stasis,” as George Baker writes.[24] Barthes wanted to distinguish the temporality of the “simple photograph” from that of the film still according to what he described as the photograph’s lack of a “diegetic horizon, the possibility of configuration” that corresponds to the cinema’s “permutational unfolding.”[25] But for Baker and others, what is most suggestive about Barthes’s attempts to keep the photographic and the cinematic apart is his difficulty in doing so. This is evidenced, first, in his location of the filmic in an analysis of film stills from Sergei Eisenstein, and second, in his location of the photographic in a quality of movement onward and away from the image: the punctum, the “sting, speck, cut, little hole” that tears open the photographic studium (27).

Baker finds the “unfolding of an unavoidable discursivity” that Barthes seeks to reserve for the cinematic embedded in the social and artistic uses of photography by the early part of the twentieth century, including those entailing the photograph’s “aesthetic organization into sequence and series” (“Photography’s Expanded Field,” 179). In fact, the irrepressible movement of photography toward seriality might well be understood as its elemental property. For the photographer and painter László Moholy-Nagy, writing in 1936, the photographic sequence, which transforms an individual image into “a detail of assembly” within a “concatenation of . . . separate but inseparable parts,” is the “logical culmination” of the technology, securing its dual function as “the most potent weapon and the tenderest lyric.”[26] As the art historian Joel Smith has explained, an overemphasis on the individual, isolated image and its moment of exposure in photography studies has “diverted attention from the longer-term modes of thoughtful effort that go into making photographs,” the “acts of attention and accumulation” that compose photography’s “editorial phases” (“More than One,” 9, 14, 9). In recent years, however, as the “discourse networks” of modern technology have come into focus, scholars increasingly examine photography in its many serialized incarnations: subject to combinatory processes for scientific or artistic purposes, adapted to social practices such as portrait photography, enrolled in larger, integral bodies of imagery, and so on.[27]

“High-class” and “low-class” Maoris, c. 1879.
Fig. 7. “High-class” and “low-class” Maoris, c. 1879. © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, following the introduction of negative/positive printing processes and collodion-coated glass negatives, a host of photographic experiments in the sciences and the arts sought to defy the conceptual deficiency embodied in the basic singularity of the photograph. Anthropologists, for example, distributed photographic images into spatial maps or grids in sociological storyboards that tracked narratives of racialized evolutionary development (fig. 7).[28] Similarly, in the few decades prior to the invention of the cinema, the chronophotographic movement studies of Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, and Ottomar Anschütz worked to expand photography’s revelatory powers by recording multiple images of a moving object or body on one or more photographic plates. These images were regularly published or projected as long, juxtaposed bands of images (fig. 8).

Eadweard Muybridge, Woman walking, right hand at chin
Fig. 8. Eadweard Muybridge, Woman walking, right hand at chin, plate 14 in Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, 1872-1885 (1887). Image courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library.

In phrasing the instant as a kind of incarceration from which the photograph must be liberated, Galton’s composite portraits, his “equivalents of those large statistical tables,” share a strong resemblance to these more straightforwardly tabulated photographic forms. “If many photographs of a person were taken at different times, perhaps even years apart,” Galton once surmised, “their composite would possess that in which a single photograph is deficient” (“Composite Portraits,” 140). The same principle of temporal and spatial compression that animated the chronophotographers’ racing pursuit of the technicalities of human and animal locomotion also defined Galton’s (far slower) push against the representational limits of the photographic portrait itself. This formal consistency is nowhere more evident than in the case of single-plate chronophotography, such as that produced by Marey during the 1880s at the Station Physiologique in Paris, which presented in a single image the phases of gestural movements as marked intervals within a layered series or a blurry arc (fig. 9). In each instance, dynamism, relationality, and depth are solicited through the compilation or collision of moments in time and space.

Étienne-Jules Marey, Fixed plate chronophotograph of a long jump from a standing still position, c. 1882
Fig. 9. Étienne-Jules Marey, Fixed plate chronophotograph of a long jump from a standing still position, c. 1882. Image courtesy of Collège de France Archives.

The still/moving field provides new points of reference for the historicized understanding of modernist writing in relation to the technologies of modern life. Cinema remains a privileged trope in discussions of literary modernism, and it has become a critical commonplace to assert an analogous relation between modernist literary strategies of episodic fragmentation and the montage effects of avant-garde film in the early twentieth century.[29] But in identifying a historical precursor, conceptual stimulus, and aesthetic correspondent for modernist writing in the pioneering work of Soviet filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, such scholarship tends to elide mainstream cinema, whether the early attractions projected in the nickelodeons and on the vaudeville stage or the distinctive forms of narrative film that filled theater bills in the silent era and in classical Hollywood. By contrast, an awareness of cinematographic and photographic technologies as deeply imbricated in their development and mutually interfering and migratory in their practice augments an understanding of the phenomenological and formal dynamics of modernist writing. In the still/moving field, the recovery of motion in still images is the theoretical counterpoint to the presence of stasis in moving ones. While film theory has tended to play photography and cinema against one another by relegating them to one or the other side of the still/moving dyad, scholars have shown that the slippages in this dyad inhere as “a material attribute and a founding myth” within the cinematic medium.[30] At the first public unveiling of the Lumière Cinématographe in 1895, a still image of a factory entrance appeared for a time on the surface of the projection screen before being set in motion. With the cranking of the apparatus, a crowd of workers suddenly spilled onto the busy street; “all at once,” according to one enthralled spectator of an early cinematographic screening, “the image stirred itself and came alive.”[31]

Fig. 10. La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon), 1895.

Still/moving scholarship recalibrates film’s range of significations as an artistic analogue to modernist writing, bringing to the surface, in Garrett Stewart’s terms, the “jagged seriality” of photogrammatic gaps, joins, and seams that conduces “the unruffled flow” of cinema screen action (Between Film and Screen, 8). It not only widens the definition of cinema’s interstitial properties to include mainstream film alongside the avant-garde, but also offers a vantage point for spying the photographic element that this received account of aesthetic convergence between film and writing surreptitiously includes. This photographic element affords spaces for equivocation and critical thought. For Siegfried Kracauer, writing in the 1930s, one of photography’s most compelling characteristics is its capacity to “reveal things normally unseen,” including not only “the transient,” “the small and the big,” but also the “blind spots of the mind” that “habit and prejudice prevent us from seeing.”[32] In this view, as Miriam Hansen notes, “photographic representation has the perplexing ability not only to resemble the world it depicts but also to render it strange, to destroy habitual fictions of self-identity and familiarity.”[33] Recalling Kracauer’s remarks, Blake Stimson has argued that it is specifically serial photography, in its “performative unfolding,” that allows for the analysis of the “hidden structures” of history and culture. In conserving the instant that is displaced through the mechanization of the film strip, sequenced uses of photography—from chronophotography onwards—leave open “the moment of science,” “the space between subject and object, between hypothesis and empirical investigation, between theory and praxis.”[34] This is the territory occupied by the virgule in still/moving concepts of the photograph as a “suspended thing” that complies by a neither/nor logical conjunction, conceived by Baker, after Rosalind Krauss, as a “hiccup of indecision” between not-narrative and not-stasis (“Photography’s Expanded Field,” 177–81).[35]

Frontispiece to Treasury of Human Inheritance
Fig. 11. Sir Francis Galton and some of his Noteworthy Ancestors, Frontispiece to Treasury of Human Inheritance, vol. 1, ed. Karl Pearson (1912). Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

In the essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Michel Foucault argues that the search for descent “is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself.”[36] Foucault’s account of genealogy is illustrated by the disruption of Galton’s positivist dream of demarcated cultural norms and regulated social deviance, by the volume of the photographic archive and the contingency of the photographic image that he sought to harness. Intrinsically elliptical, in that it both contains ellipses and is compiled elliptically, the photograph in sequence is primed not for the articulation but the disarticulation of teleological formulations and narrative syllogisms. It finds its pleasures in substitutionary play, in conceptual reversals and inversions, and in ghostly apparitions that are always about to slip away. These ghostly figures circumvent the objectifying attentions of those whose gaze is most fervent, most ideologically loaded. “Because the eye of the camera cannot overlook what the mind’s eye chooses not to see,” writes Elizabeth Abel, “it opens up a more democratic signifying field in which the repressed can have its say (or see).”[37] This is the kind of signifying field that finds its coordinates in the structuring intervals of literary modernism—spaces in which the secret histories of the vacillations, exchanges, and fusions between subjects and objects are shared.

Bodies Bad and Gentle

In the wake of several powerful critiques of white feminist accounts of Three Lives in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars have struggled to reconcile the importance of the text’s formal experimentation with the racism of its narratorial “slurs.”[38] Indeed, in a letter to an old college friend in early 1906, Stein blithely deployed racist and classist epithets and performed a joking ventriloquy of minstrelsy:

I am afraid that I can never write the Great American Novel. I don’t know how to sell on a margin or do anything with shorts and longs, so I have to content myself with niggers and servant girls and the foreign population generally. . . . Dey is werry simple and werry wulgar and I don’t think they will interest the great American publia.[39]

Offensive as it is, Stein’s letter is not so much evidence of her straightforward racism and classism as of its convolutions, its knotty twists and turns. It reflects the complexity of her attitudes toward racial or social types in relation to her own literary—and racial—marginality. As Paul Peppis points out, Stein’s letter “protests against discrimination even as it discriminates,” but it simultaneously reflects her identification “with the peripheral types she portrays.”[40] For Priscilla Wald, Stein’s words, along with Three Lives, the text toward which they gesture, amount to “a conscious and defiant” rejection of “the speculation of the market for her observation of the margins from and about which she writes; instead of selling on a margin, she offers the margins themselves” (Constituting Americans, 240). The letter takes aim not merely at the “werry simple and werry wulgar” but at the literary and cultural establishment that derides them as such, the “great” “publia” of the United States.

Gertrude Stein in her salon, 1910
Fig. 12. Gertrude Stein in her salon, 1910. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Digital Collections and the Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas Estate.

Interpreting Three Lives in relation to the intervallic form and denaturalizing function of serial photography gives definition to the uneven operations of race in Stein’s text—as well as of ethnicity, class, and gender.[41] To place the “too many” Melanctha in a text that is likewise “too many” is to work against the majority of the scholarship of Three Lives, which still tends to analyze “Melanctha” apart from and in distinction to the prose pieces that precede and follow it, “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena.” In transforming one of Stein’s lives into the “metonymic equivalent of all three,” scholars have redoubled the fixation of Jeff Campbell in “Melanctha” with singular, “regular” stories and bodies. Instead of doctoring Melanctha as Jeff does, performing a kind of curative patchwork that effaces and ameliorates wounds, recesses, and fissures, reading Three Lives in sequence allows these lesions and holes to come to view—and with them, the damages and the deficiency of the typological diagnostics of both Jeff Campbell and Stein’s narrator/s.[42]

By its interstitial construction, which enlists the interstice as both joining and cleft, Three Lives self-reflexively exposes the action of realist representation not so much to allow women to speak as to silence them, not so much to picture women as to make them vanish. But the blank spaces that separate and bridge the serialized lives and deaths of Anna, Melanctha, and Lena are more than just the abandoned graves of Stein’s devastated, discarded women-in-series. They represent, at once, a productive ground in which deathly disappearance is metaphorically recuperated as a means of resistance. Three Lives constructs and deconstructs racial, social, and gendered typologies through the charged correspondence of its fractured form and the epistemological fractiousness of its female characters—what I call, following Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz’s “bad modernism,” its bad form and its bad bodies.[43] If Three Lives is bad in the racialist and nativist oscillations of its discourse, it is also bad in a converse way. Emily Dickinson once described herself as one of the “lingering bad ones” at the foyers of religious orthodoxy, slinking away to “pause, and ponder, and ponder, and pause.”[44] In Dickinson’s poetics, the lexicon of this pondering pause is the variable range of long and short, horizontal and vertical dashes that notate the circumnavigatory telling of indefinite, unutterable, “slant” truths: the dash as both a stroke of thought and a chasm of thought.[45] Three Lives, too, slinks in and out of liminal spaces—Baker’s “hiccup of indecision,” Stimson’s “moment of science”—to pause and ponder over the destructive and imprisoning frames of the represented real. With its interstices given as signposts to the limits of the eye and of language and by extension to the limits of visual and discursive objectification itself, Stein’s text signifies not only the violence of typologized representation, but also the radical potential of those who seem most irreparably impaired by it. This is exemplified, finally, in the silently dissenting descent of Stein’s last serialized woman, the gentle Lena, into the white space in which she—and Three Lives—terminates.

“Sometimes the thought of how all her world was made filled the complex, desiring Melanctha with despair,” the narrator tells us near the end of “Melanctha.” “She wondered often how she could go on living when she was so blue. Sometimes Melanctha thought she would just kill herself, for sometimes she thought this would be really the best thing to do” (Stein, Three Lives, 149). Described repeatedly, Melanctha’s “blue” state of mind is implicated in a chain of female talk in the fictional town of Bridgepoint. According to the narrator at the beginning of “Melanctha,” the suicidal thoughts of the title character are culled from another woman’s thoughts: “Melanctha told Rose one day how a woman whom she knew had killed herself because she was so blue. Melanctha said, sometimes, she thought this was the best thing for her herself to do.” Blue utterance is passed from Melanctha’s friend to Melanctha, and then from Melanctha to Rose Johnson, who co-opts and quarrels with its terms:

I don’t see Melanctha why you should talk like you would kill yourself just because you’re blue. I’d never kill myself Melanctha just ’cause I was blue. I’d maybe kill somebody else Melanctha ’cause I was blue, but I’d never kill myself. If I ever killed myself Melanctha it’d be by accident, and if I ever killed myself by accident Melanctha, I’d be awful sorry. (60)

The comedy of Rose’s response to her friend not only expresses her terrific lack of empathy but also trivializes the phraseology “being blue” and “killing yourself” so as to call attention to it as a construction of language—which is already implied by the inscription of Melanctha’s blue affect as rumor, as story. As Rose’s little speech obliquely detects and enacts the operation of blue utterance as echo or citation, it amplifies the larger procedures of silencing throughout the story. Where Rose’s speech is given as a direct first-person speech act, Melanctha’s blue thoughts are couched in and as narration—as they are in all of the mirroring passages in the story.

The narrative dubbing of Melanctha’s feelings is further signaled through the contrivance of the overt rhyme “so blue” / “to do” and the stuttering diction of “her herself.” The repetitive formulation of pronouns measures the distance between the narrator and Melanctha even as it emphatically asserts the intimate closeness to her that occasions the narrating of her thoughts. In addition, the use of Melanctha’s name as the pivot about which Rose’s speech turns serves to unveil the intrusions of the representational by making a show of speaking of Melanctha. Through her naming and renaming, Melanctha is affiliated with and made equivalent to “being blue” and “killing yourself.” She is transformed into an object and function of discourse.

“Melanctha” stages itself as an act of hearsay through the writing of its blue chain of utterance. Melanctha’s last words in the prose piece come out of the mouth of Rose, who, having shrugged off Melanctha’s friendship, tells “anybody” who asks her that she “certainly do think [Melanctha] will most kill herself some time, the way she always say it would be easy for her to do. I never see nobody ever could be so awful blue.” From the beginning to the end of the prose piece, the “way” Melanctha “always say it” is, in point of fact, the way Rose always says it. But it is the incessant “saying” of the narrator that is made most palpable through the translation of an anonymous woman’s blue thoughts into the rumor of Melanctha’s blue thoughts. The narrator propagates Rose’s gossip: “But Melanctha Herbert never really killed herself because she was so blue, though often she thought this would be really the best way for her to do” (167). The short description of Melanctha’s hospital death that follows a scant two paragraphs later is dominated and diminished by the blue talk of the narrator and Rose—talk that is problematized by the fact that Melanctha does not actually kill herself. As Daylanne English notes, there is a great deal of ambiguity about what actually kills the three women in Three Lives.[46] Yet the way in which the reverberations of blue gossip hang over the scene of Melanctha’s death implicitly connect the two: Melanctha dies in and through her being-spoken, her being-written; her death is a variation on and a logical extension of her being made to sound and look blue.

The ending of “Melanctha” largely repeats that of “The Good Anna,” the first prose piece in Three Lives, which concludes with the “word” of Anna’s death—and of Anna’s last words—passed from one woman to another: “‘Dear Miss Mathilda,’ wrote Mrs. Drehten, “Miss Annie died in the hospital yesterday after a hard operation. She was talking about you and Doctor and Miss Mary Wadsmith all the time. . . . Miss Annie died easy, Miss Mathilda, and sent you her love’” (Stein, Three Lives, 56). The mysterious, “easy” deaths of Anna and Melanctha at the conclusion of the first two prose pieces in Three Lives are commensurate to their deformation into discourse, their devolution into “objects that can be symbolically possessed.” This is Susan Sontag’s phrase, describing what she calls the “predatory” act of taking a photograph, a “soft murder” entailing a participation in “another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”[47] Along with Barthes’s experience of a “micro-version of death” in the instant of being photographed—“I am neither subject nor object,” he writes, “but a subject who feels he is becoming an object” —Sontag’s notion of the photograph as always memento mori is figured in the death-by-representation in “The Good Anna” and “Melanctha” (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 14). At the end of the prose pieces, Stein’s women become the dead things they always were: objects, not subjects; absent, not present; still, not moving.

Or do they? When “Melanctha” is excised from Three Lives, the fate of its titular character more than justifies the lament of Aldon Lynn Nielsen, among that of other scholars, that “Melanctha sings her blues and then simply dies away, fading from the white view behind the narrative veil, unable to answer for herself.”[48] But although the white space that separates and bridges “Melanctha” and “The Gentle Lena” is a symbol of the death that yields (to) it, it is also a blankness that tersely represents—that represents by not representing—the catastrophe of Melanctha’s typing. At the same time, since Three Lives as a composite text is by no means done with awful blue women, the white space that is the outgrowth of the “FINIS” at the end of “Melanctha” draws together the characters of Melanctha and Lena so as to complicate the notion of Melanctha’s death as her “simple” ruination under the deadly force of the “white view.” The subversive threat of the vanished woman, Beckman suggests, consists in the possibility that she might not remain vanished, instead moving “between the worlds of presence and absence” (Vanishing Women, 7). As death repeatedly cedes to life across the threshold of the prose pieces in Three Lives, undercutting the apparent vulnerability of its typologized women, Stein dramatizes an essentially incomplete eradication of the female body and so offers up “potential moments of feminist resistance” and survival (158). Slipping in and out of its textual gaps, Anna, Melanctha, and Lena—objects and subjects, still and moving, present and absent—bear the threat of redevivus, the woman returned. This is three lives phrased, structurally and narratively, as a series of reincarnations.

In one of the only readings to analyze Three Lives as a composite text, Nancy Glazener argues that “The Gentle Lena” hinges on an “implicit opposition between orderly living and desire.”[49] This opposition is developed in “The Good Anna” through Anna’s efforts to police the transgressive behavior of underservants and dogs alike, and in “Melanctha” through the confrontation between Jeff’s preference for “regular” living and Melanctha’s insistence on “excitement,” especially in her “wanderings after wisdom” and “real experience,” which take her all over Bridgepoint in the company of many different men (Stein, Three Lives, 68). The characterization of Lena is calibrated through Stein’s serial renditions of the propre, which, Glazener notes, progressively enlarge the notion of “its capacity to set female subjectivity at odds with the female body” (“Dialogic Subversion,” 170). The stillness of Melanctha’s dead body, reifying the damages of blue talk, is transposed into Lena’s supremely diminished subjectivity. Lena is patterned after the dead Melanctha as she becomes a “pale” figure of insentience. When she falls ill on the boat to America, she “just staid where she had been put . . . sure that she was going to die”; later, pregnant with her first child, she is overcome by this same fear: “She was scared and still and lifeless, and sure that every minute she would die” (Stein, Three Lives, 177, 198). After she gives birth to three children, her husband Herman Kreder, much taken with his new role as father, simply stops thinking of her as she becomes “always . . . more and more lifeless” (199).

“The Gentle Lena” ends with a death scene that, in Jayne Walker’s terms, discursively blurs the “moment of passage from figurative to literal lifelessness.”[50] “When the baby was come out at last, it was like its mother lifeless. While it was coming, Lena had grown very pale and sicker. When it was all over Lena had died, too, and nobody knew just how it had happened to her” (Stein, Three Lives, 200). The conceptual holes that pull at this description, through its past tense, passive voice construction, work appositely to the death scene in “Melanctha.” They are obfuscations testifying to the failure of realist narrative acts. For Lena, even more than Melanctha, is silenced and spoken for. Her interiority is witnessed through a relay of speech acts, primarily between the “good german cook” and the narrator—the former, like Rose in “Melanctha,” serving as a confidante of and model for the latter.

Indeed, the narrator in “The Gentle Lena” frequently assures us that Lena has unconscious desires by naming what Lena does not know that she feels. This strategy of negation rather than explication of Lena’s thoughts prompts Glazener to question whether the narrator’s “stabilising knowledge of Lena’s feelings [has] sinister implications in a culture in which women are too often spoken for” (“Dialogic Subversion,” 172). However, Three Lives works against this valid concern through the silent un-becoming of Lena and in the sequence of the text. From the perspective of her aunt, Lena’s chief virtue is her passivity, the fact that “she would never want to do things her own way” (Stein, Three Lives, 176). The subtitle to “Melanctha,” “Each One As She May,” echoes in this phrase, which is repeated in relation to Lena by several different characters. When Herman’s sister describes her as “never wanting her own way at all like some girls are always all the time to have it,” it is Melanctha, with her failure to “learn, what was the right way she should do,” who dwells in this description (189, 167). By the same token, Anna’s badly behaved underservants stand behind the cook’s description of Lena as a “good girl” under her management. As the cook says, “I never had no trouble with her like I got with so many young girls nowadays, Mrs. Aldrich, and I never see any girl better to work right than our Lena” (196).

Even though the narration wants to set Lena’s not-wanting at odds with Melanctha’s wanting and her working right against the underservants’ working wrong, Three Lives suggests that Lena is far closer to Melanctha and Anna’s underservants—far more bad—than those around her imagine. The photograph, as I have argued in relation to Galton’s composite images, evinces the great vanishing act performed by visual technologies in modernity: the search that came up empty for essentialized racial and cultural truths upon the epidermal layers of human bodies. Likewise, Lena treats her sociocultural otherness as a role that can be discarded, a covering that can be disrobed, in and by her increasing slovenliness.[51] When the cook bemoans the fact that Lena has “let [herself] go” after giving birth, she endows Lena with a metaphor of mobility in describing what she sees as her woeful stagnation (Stein, Three Lives, 195). The narrator, moreover, implies that Lena’s passivity might be a kind of masquerade: “She just dragged around and was careless with her clothes and all lifeless, and she acted always and lived on just as if she had no feeling” (198).

If Lena’s inaction is action in disguise, an act, then her becoming “more and more lifeless” amounts to an intensification of her pantomime. As Victoria Rosner notes, the servant “mov[es] between zones of cleanliness and filth, visibility and invisibility, with a power and responsibility to purge the house of dirt.”[52] Refusing to purge either her house or her body of the muck of domestic life, Lena’s changing comportment and dress is a form of protest: a refusal to perform, sartorially or otherwise, to type. Where Melanctha rejects the precepts of regular living by wandering the streets of Bridgepoint, Lena infuses the act of just staying where she has been put with a dissenting energy. She approximates the moving stasis of Galton’s images in crisis, as their subjects, with their milky gazes, seem to run off, to vanish.

While Lena’s “dragging around” is coded as a still/moving act of resistance, her demise still reinforces the oppressive dominations of the realist marriage plot and of ethnic and cultural taxonomies alike. The obvious difficulty with reading the death-defying (or at least death-agitating) motility of Anna, Melanctha, and Lena is, of course, that Stein’s lives end with Lena’s. And, if anything, Lena’s dead body is buried more deeply than Anna’s or Melanctha’s in the narration of Three Lives. Where the final lines of “The Good Anna” and “Melanctha” are given over to the “word” of the women’s deaths, “The Gentle Lena” ends with two paragraphs about how the cook is “the only one who ever missed” Lena and how “content” Herman is without her.

Yet if we take Lena’s passivity as a resistant inactivity and her deathly absence as a kind of defensive cloak, the fact that there is so little talk or “remembering” of her after her death—combined with the fact that, for once, Stein’s narrator actually falls silent—signals the text’s capitulation to her protest (200). While up until this point in Stein’s text narrative conclusions do not hold, returning us over and over again to the traumas of realist typologies, the finality of Stein’s final FINIS implies not the failure but the success of Lena’s resistance to the normative injunctions of the textual world of Bridgepoint. The ending of “The Gentle Lena” might even represent a coming-to-terms between narrator and narrated, between subject and object. For Lennard Davis, the conventional novel form is complicit in structures of normalcy. Plot is “a form of pain control,” its closure shoring up bourgeois identity by neutralizing the threat of “abnormal” identities that are shaped by the cultural markers of disability, race, class, ethnicity, and gender.[53] But Three Lives plays up its own irresolution even as it resolves in silence. The effectiveness of Lena’s still/moving protest is that it generates the silence of the text itself, curtailing the curative work of its characters and its narrators by drawing the latter into a resounding, sonorous aphasia.

At its close, Stein’s text bears witness to the latent power of the silenced, the traumatized, to circumvent their own representational closure. It enters into the intermediary space described in new feminist work on photography and film. While scholars have long considered the photograph’s “absence of language” to constitute its ethical failure, Beckman has recently called for a theoretical “unleashing” of photography’s “illegibility” in order to formulate “new, less bloodthirsty forms of responsibility” around the medium. In Stein’s composite text, the failure to speak that is thematized in the white space swallowing up Lena and the narrator/s is, in Beckman’s sense, like the “silent madness” of photography.[54] Precisely by not carrying the same threat of return as the earlier prose pieces, the conclusion of “The Gentle Lena” harmonizes Lena’s spectral voice with that of the narrator/s. “When it was all over” and “Lena had died, too,” Three Lives depicts the extreme endpoint of Lena’s shuffling, disheveled withdrawal from the social and political order of Bridgepoint and marks the moment of her incorporation into a new, unexpected form of community—in which narrator and narrated merge in the mute communion of narrative unclosure.

Eugenics, etymologically, is derived from the Greek for wellborn. While Galton’s composite portraiture seeks to privilege the well over the unwell, Stein’s composite imaging of her bad, gentle women declines to make the unwholesome whole. The standardizing logic of typological thought wreaks havoc with Stein’s women-in-series, killing them off one by one. But in sequence, these women are not rehabilitated into this logic. Nor, indeed, is Three Lives. Within the orbit of serial photography, the fractured bridgework, formal lacunae, and representational equivocality of Stein’s composite writing yields conceptual crevasses that are generative openings as well as traps or snares.

Touching Images

At its first publication in the United States in 1909, Three Lives served as an ideological map for the popular notion of type. The book’s markedly negative early reviews disdain the difficulties of Stein’s repetitive and fragmentary composition to the extent that her writing is imagined to trace the intellectual crudity and moral depravity of its characters.[55] “The literary style, if it may be dignified by that phrase,” wrote the reviewer for the Pittsburgh Post in January 1910, “is suggestive of the speech of the German immigrant after he has acquired a partial knowledge of the English language. The thought is exceedingly rudimentary, and therein it may be regarded as typical of the brain processes of the characters.”[56] A month earlier, the reviewer for the Rochester, New York Post Express despaired of the “pages devoted a description of the habits of dogs and of maid-servants” as “both tedious and distasteful” (December 24, 1909). Bored and disgusted, the first American readers of Stein’s text bond the eccentricities of its style to the kinds of bodies that it depicts. Along with the slightness of the difference, for the Post Express, between the “habits” of animals and underservants in Three Lives, the classification of the “rudimentary” cognitive function of Stein’s characters in the Pittsburgh Post works euphemistically to inscribe racial and social taxonomies. It denies literary subjecthood to female, working-class, immigrant, and African-American characters.

Where in the late nineteenth century Galton equated the composite photographic portrait with the statistical series, Stein’s first readers interpreted Three Lives as a transcription of the real. Given Stein’s close engagement with a host of prominent modern visual artists who frequented her Paris salon during the period when she was writing the short story sequence, scholars have usually understood the text’s experimental diction and form with reference to the cubist fragmentation of the subject and foregrounding of perspectival surfaces. But Three Lives’s first readers conceive its visual aspect less in line with modern art traditions and more in terms of its purported documentary effects. When on January 8, 1910, a reviewer for the Philadelphia North American claimed that Three Lives offers “the picture of real life,” or when on December 18, 1909, a reviewer for the Boston Evening Globe read the text “not as a story, but as a serious picture of life,” Stein’s Three Lives was conceived commensurately to, for example, Jacob Riis’s photographs of urban poverty in New York City’s Lower East Side slums. Publicized in newspaper reports and lantern slide lectures in the late 1880s and in his book How the Other Half Lives (1890), Riis’s reform images helped to embroil photographic technologies in discourses of social scientific “fact” (figs. 13–15).[57]

Jacob Riis, In the home of an Italian rag-picker, Jersey Street, New York City, c. 1890.
Fig. 13. Jacob Riis, In the home of an Italian rag-picker, Jersey Street, New York City, c. 1890. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Jacob Riis, Children sleeping in Mulberry Street, New York City, 1890
Fig. 14. Jacob Riis, Children sleeping in Mulberry Street, New York City, 1890. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement
Fig. 15. Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement (“Five Cents a Spot”), New York City, 1889. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Emerging in the United States in the context of these discourses, Three Lives appeared to various readers as “accurately reproductive studies of actual persons” and “verbatim transcripts from life” or as “human documents” portraying “painstakingly, conscientiously, exactly what happened” (Springfield Union, August 14, 1910; Jewish Comment, c. 1909). It was, in short, received as a kind of photographic sequence, a series of snapshots of racially and ethnically defined working-class subjects. The interface between Three Lives and the documentary real was presumed to be so total that Stein’s fiction must represent nonfiction or even memoir. According to the Jewish Comment reviewer, “The reader feels that Miss Stein had an intimate personal acquaintance with the ‘good Anna,’ ‘Melanctha’ and the ‘gentle Lena.’” The reviewer for the Boston Evening Globe goes so far as to assert that Three Lives gives “expression to [Stein’s] own temperament, to her own way of seeing the world.” Imagining Stein as the body double of her characters, and specifically aligning her eyes, her “way of seeing,” to theirs, Stein’s early readers construed her geographical, sociocultural, and racial otherness as constitutive of that of her characters.

In the apparent lucidity of its realist expression, Three Lives establishes a communion of bodies in which one person’s embodied vision is transplanted by another’s. This communion was deeply troubling for Stein’s early readers. In a review published in the Nation and the New York Evening Post, Stein’s text is said to bring its readers “very near real people. Too near, possibly. The present writer had an uncomfortable sense of being immured with a girl wife, a spinster, and a woman who is neither, between imprisoning walls which echoed exactly all thoughts and feelings” (Nation, January 20, 1910; New York Evening Post, January 22, 1910). Producing effects of intimacy and propinquity with bodies and experiences that are socially other to its readers, Three Lives catalyzes interaffective encounters that are seen as nothing less than felonious. Confined in this realist echo chamber, Stein’s readers find themselves squeamishly proximate to immigrant, working-class bodies.

Yet as with Galton’s conceit of the photograph-as-table, the transmedial envisioning of writing-as-photography in the early reviews calls attention to its own contradictions. In ascribing an “extraordinary vitality” of representational effect to Three Lives, the review from the Nation and New York Evening Post initiates a problem between insides and outsides, blurring the lines between fictional and real worlds as well as the limits of individual human bodies, narrated or otherwise. This is a problem that refers back to the unsolvable puzzle of visual surfaces and ontological depths at the heart of efforts to uncover sociobiological typologies in this period. More significantly, in the vitality of its realist imperatives, Three Lives mimes the intense, irrefutable presence of the photographed subject that fascinated and repulsed Barthes. “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here,” he writes in Camera Lucida. “A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed” (80–81). This filial image follows Barthes’s reading of a photograph of a slave market that he cut from a magazine as a child. What shocks Barthes about the image, as Shawn Michelle Smith observes, is not just that it bears witness to the institution of slavery, but also that the institution of slavery touches Barthes. By instigating a “provocative shared corporeality” in which Barthes shares the “skin” of the enslaved, the photograph disrupts his status “as a free, white, self-possessed European viewer . . . for his ‘shared skin’ metonymically links him with slavery, blackness, and objectification under a white gaze.”[58]

The imaginative contact between the white skin of Barthes and the black skin of enslaved women and men unsettles the categories of white and black, self and other, and subject and object. Contrary to the physiognomic fantasies of Galton and others, photographic indexicality—what Barthes calls the what-has-been of the photographic subject—does not incontrovertibly differentiate between types of people. It evokes their radical non-difference. In the event of its first publication, Three Lives doubles the effects of its narrative register, which divulges the interactions of narrator to narrated person as mechanisms of social power that might be subverted or revolutionized. As the umbilical cord stretches out from Stein’s series of photographically imaged women—those “accurately reproductive studies” and “verbatim transcripts from life”—to its readers, Three Lives emerges as a site of transgressive mediation and contiguity. It is this vexation of subject and object that comes to view in composite modernist writing and serial photography, as their textual openings serve as instruments of, and instruments against, psychosocial and physical domination.


[1] I would like to thank Sarah Gleeson-White and Lucas Thompson for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. In its final stages, work on this essay was supported by a Senior Research Fellowship from Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Australia.

[2] Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1907), 10.

[3] Francis Galton, “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure,” Journal of the Anthropological Institute 8 (1879): 132–44, 132–33.

[4] Ronald R. Thomas, Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 240.

[5] Joel Smith, “More than One: Sources of Serialism,” in More than One: Photographs in Sequence, ed. Smith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2008), 9–29, 10.

[6] For discussion of another modernist literary text that participates in this mode, see my article “A ‘leg show dance’ in a Skyscraper: The Sequenced Mechanics of John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer,” PMLA 131, no. 3 (2016): 636–51.

[7] Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 207; Maurice Blanchot, “The Song of the Sirens: The Experience of Proust,” in The Book to Come, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 11–25, 14.

[8] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000), 96.

[9] On these limits, see Anne E. Fernald, “Women’s Fiction, New Modernist Studies, and Feminism,” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 59, no. 2 (2013): 229–40; Michael Bibby, “The Disinterested and Fine: New Negro Renaissance Poetry and the Racial Formation of Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 20, no. 3 (2013): 485–501.

[10] Samira Kawash, Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 213.

[11] Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,” Screen 23, nos. 3–4 (1982): 74–88, 81.

[12] Elizabeth Abel, “Skin, Flesh, and the Affective Wrinkles of Civil Rights Photography,” in Feeling Photography, ed. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 93–123, 99.

[13] Karen Beckman, Vanishing Women: Magic, Film, and Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 158.

[14] Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 121.

[15] Régis Durand, “How to See (Photographically),” in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 141–51, 147.

[16] See Nancy Armstrong, Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). Other works considering photography and nineteenth-century writing include Daniel A. Novak, Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989); and Susan S. Williams, Confounding Images: Photography and Portraiture in Antebellum American Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

[17] Michael North, Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 25.

[18] Martin Jay, “Photo-unrealism: The Contribution of the Camera to the Crisis of Ocularcentrism,” in Vision and Textuality, ed. Stephen Melville and Bill Readings (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 344–62. Karen Jacobs, The Eye’s Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[19] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Daguerreotype,” in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 37–38, 38.

[20] Bertolt Brecht, “The Threepenny Lawsuit” (1932), cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 687.

[21] North’s reappraisal of the objective status of the photograph contradicts the belief in an absolute split between nineteenth-century realism and twentieth-century modernism. The continuities between realism and modernism are implied by the consonance between two recent studies on writing and photography. Daniel Novak argues that the abstracting properties of photography shape the fictional bodies and narratives of nineteenth-century realist fiction. What he conceptualizes as realism’s “novel bodies,” bodies that are “merely a combination of interchangeable pieces or who are composite, abstract, and spectral types,” is compatible with what Stuart Burrows identifies as the trope of “marvelous twins” in modernist American writing (Novak, Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 5–6; Burrows, A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1839–1945 [Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008], 11). For Burrows, the world depicted in texts by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, William Faulkner, and Zora Neale Hurston is one of radical equivalence and “strangely indistinguishable subjects” where every person is a reproducible type of every other person (4). In both studies, the unreality of photography produces a dilemma of resemblance and typicality.

[22] Gertrude Stein, Three Lives (New York: Penguin, 2000), 118.

[23] See especially Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006); Karen Beckman and Jean Ma, eds., Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Eivind Røssaak, ed., Between Stillness and Motion: Film, Photography, Algorithms (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011); and Laurent Guido and Olivier Lugon, eds., Between Still and Moving Images (New Barnet, UK: John Libbey, 2012).

[24] George Baker, “Photography’s Expanded Field,” in Still Moving, 175–86, 179.

[25] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills,” in Image—Music—Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), 52–68, 66–67.

[26] László Moholy-Nagy, “From Pigment to Light,” in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988), 339–48, 348.

[27] See Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992). The forms of serialized photography I mention are derived from Smith (“More than One,” 14–28). The essays in Smith’s edited collection are exemplary of new work on serial photography. See also Andrew Roth, ed., The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1978 to the Present (Gothenburg, Sweden: Hasselblad Center, 2004); Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, eds., The Photobook: A History, 2 vols. (London: Phaidon, 2004, 2006); and Carol M. Armstrong, Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843–1875 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).

[28] Christopher Pinney, Photography and Anthropology (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 86.

[29] The most significant recent examples are Susan McCabe, Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); David Seed, Cinematic Fictions: The Impact of Cinema on the American Novel up to World War II (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009).

[30] Beckman and Ma, introduction to Still Moving, 1–22, 6.

[31] Bernard Chardère, Le Roman des Lumières (Paris: Gallimard, 1995); cited in Tom Gunning, “New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumière,” in Impossible Presence: Surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era, ed. Terry Smith (Sydney: Power Publications, 2001), 71–100, 95.

[32] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, with an introduction by Miriam Bratu Hansen (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 46–59.

[33] Miriam Bratu Hansen, introduction to Theory of Film, vii–xlv, xxv.

[34] Blake Stimson, The Pivot of the World: Photography and its Nation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 37–38.

[35] See Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 276–90.

[36] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 76–100, 82.

[37] Elizabeth Abel, Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 79.

[38] This is Laura Doyle’s term in “The Flat, the Round, and Gertrude Stein: Race and the Shape of Modern(ist) History,” Modernism/modernity 7, no. 2 (2000): 249–71, 262–63. The critiques include Sonia Saldívar-Hull, “Wrestling Your Ally: Stein, Racism, and Feminist Critical Practice,” in Women’s Writing in Exile, ed. Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 181–98; Milton A. Cohen, “Black Brutes and Mulatto Saints: The Racial Hierarchy of Stein’s ‘Melanctha,’” Black America Literature Forum 18, no. 3 (1984): 119–21; and Karin Cope, “‘Moral Deviancy’ and Contemporary Feminism: The Judgment of Gertrude Stein,” in Feminism Beside Itself, ed. Diane Elam and Robyn Wiegman (New York: Routledge, 1995), 155–78.

[39] Stein to Mabel Weeks, c. 1906, Yale Collection of American Literature; cited in Priscilla Wald, Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 239–40.

[40] Paul Peppis, “Thinking Race in the Avant Guerre: Typological Negotiations in Ford and Stein,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 10, no. 2 (1997): 371–90, 382.

[41] This line of thought is at odds with conventional readings of the painterly effects of Three Lives, which follows Stein’s claim that the book was written in “looking and looking” at “a big Cézanne” (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [London: Zephyr Books, 1947], 42–43). Without disputing the relevance of modern art to Three Lives, it seems to me that Stein’s description of her “looking” at Cézanne’s work screens other kinds of looking in and around the 1909 text. It is, to borrow John Whittier-Ferguson’s terms, one of the “obstacles” that Stein “deliberately [places] in the paths of our remembrances” of her (“Stein in Time: History, Manuscripts, and Memory,” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 1 [1999]: 115–51, 116).

[42] Mary Wilson, The Labors of Modernism: Domesticity, Servants, and Authorship in Modernist Fiction (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013), 62.

[43] See Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “Introduction: Modernisms Bad and New,” in Bad Modernisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 1–18; and “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48.

[44] Emily Dickinson, Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 39.

[45] This reading of Dickinson’s dashes follows Deirdre Fagan, “Emily Dickinson’s Unutterable Word,” Emily Dickinson Journal 14, no. 2 (2005): 70–75.

[46] Daylanne K. English, Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 113.

[47] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 2002), 14, 15.

[48] Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Reading Race: White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 28.

[49] Nancy Glazener, “Dialogic Subversion: Bahktin, the Novel and Gertrude Stein,” in Bahktin and Cultural Theory, 2nd ed., ed. Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001), 155–76, 169.

[50] Jayne L. Walker, The Making of a Modernist: Gertrude Stein from Three Lives to Tender Buttons (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 27.

[51] My reading of Lena’s performance of passivity is compatible with the explanations of the subversive effects of the trope of masking in Three Lives in Corinne E. Blackmer, “African Masks and the Arts of Passing in Gertrude Stein’s ‘Melanctha’ and Nella Larsen’s Passing,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 4, no. 2 (1993): 230–63; and Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59–76.

[52] Victoria Rosner, Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 68.

[53] Lennard J. Davis, Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 100, 98.

[54] Karen Beckman, “Nothing to Say: The War on Terror and the Mad Photography of Roland Barthes,” in On Writing with Photography, ed. Beckman and Liliane Weissberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 297–330, 300, 314.

[55] The reviewers’ dismissal of Stein’s narrative style resonates with Maria Damon’s sense of the racialist dimension of Stein’s repetitive, imprecise, and fragmentary verbal forms. Central to Stein’s racial and religious “minority discourse,” these forms were “despised as primitive, and . . . literally thought to mark the speaker or writer as less than fully human” (Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011], 81; see also Damon, The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry [Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1993], 202–35).

[56] Review of Three Lives by Gertrude Stein, Pittsburgh Post, January 17, 1910, in Clipping Book, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers 1837-1961, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library I/77/1408. All of the reviews of Three Lives I cite are sourced from this book, which Stein and Toklas kept during the period 1909–14.

[57] On Riis’s contribution to these discourses, see Luc Sante, introduction to Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (London: Penguin, 1997), ix–xxv; Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York (New York: New Press, 2007), xiii–xx; and Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1–46.

[58] Shawn Michelle Smith, At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 29–30.