“The difference is spreading.” So concludes the first short entry of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s work of poetic and linguistic experimentation. The statement remains a thoroughly understated, though altogether accurate, assessment of the social upheaval and artistic innovation common to the period during which Stein composed Buttons, originally published in 1914. The muddled syntax, confused components of speech, lack of punctuation, and use of repetition confuse a probable narrative while they also present numerous examples of both the arbitrary nature of, as well as the mysterious and as yet untapped powers of, a language readers may have thought unassailable and static.
The introduction to the 1997 edition includes some invaluable commentary by the author on why she wrote the way she did, and offers some insight into what she sought to accomplish:
…I listened and talked but…I was also looking, and that could not be entirely left out. The trouble with including looking…was that in regard to human beings looking inevitably carried in its train realizing movements and expression and as such forced me into recognizing resemblances, and so forced remembering and in forcing remembering caused confusion of present with past and future time…That is why painters paint still lives. (v-vi)
That is a description of automatic writing, a practice of delivering thoughts unhindered by the brain’s self-corrections, unadorned by the refinements required by society of its inhabitants. To avoid the tendencies she associated with the act of looking at people, Stein wrote about “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms,” which are also the titles to the book’s three sections. The point Stein hammers at – and she does repeatedly strike at some words with the relentlessness required of scientific experiment – is that language is an enterprise compromised by the influence of human psychology, which seeks to order the world according to kind, according to resemblances. This, indeed, is the method of the scientific catalog, and also the process by which objects accrue meaning. Stein intends to demonstrate how each capitulation to an accumulated sense of resemblance, to memory, is in effect a surrender of the moment to something that has already elapsed and changed: the “confusion of present with past and future time.”
To keep to the present, Stein employs only the most immediate responses to sensible stimuli without regard for sentence structure, and effects a kind of shotgun Rorschach. So while she might not confuse the present with past or future – time and movement are in any case irrelevant to her pieces – she only does so as she confuses sense of linear progression altogether. Nouns replace verbs, as in the imperative “Sugar any sugar” (50), and words repeat themselves into uttered oblivion:
A no, a no since, a no since when, a no since when since, a no since when since a no since when since, a no since, a no since when since, a no since, a no, a no since a no since, a no since, a no since. (38)
The playground trick of repeating a word over and over until it loses all relative meaning is a perfectly viable analogy for that particular eructation, which is really an assault on comprehension. Stein seems to describe just such an attack earlier in the book:
A sentence of a vagueness that is violence is authority and a mission and stumbling and also certainly also a prison. (24)
There is power in the nebulousness of a vague statement, and the violence she mentions is that of unintelligibility to neutralize opposition: consider spies, and their cryptic codes.
Stein’s embrace of the vague becomes problematic, though, because she voids all common understanding essential to communication; her vagueness is “also certainly also a prison.” Words are no longer useful tools as they had been before. Only in the form of the writing, the idea behind it, is anything of design apparent in Stein’s composition.
When one person addresses a group of people in a language they do not speak, the speaker is the difference; when one of that group then visits the country of the speaker and cannot understand anyone there, that one listener becomes in turn the difference. Unintelligibility is reliant on context, just as intelligibility is. So too, when Stein claims that “dirt is clean when there is a volume” (3), she points to the phenomenon that something is different until there is more of what is different than there is of what is not different, or of what used to be not different. This fundamental change in kind – from different to not different – represents a change in perception. Of course to notice a shift in perception, to notice a difference, is to admit to a distant resemblance and also therefore to a link via memory between “dirty” and “clean.”
The trouble with such an admission is that it threatens to undermine Stein’s entire project. The flaw lies in the very fact that words themselves will carry in their train their loaded meanings, which have accumulated over generations of use, and which include meanings not intended by their author. This technicality aside, what this text really says is irrelevant. The systematic breakdown of language at the level of the word obstructs the proper function of the sentence – through which a complete and linear thought might travel from one mind into another – and that is the real mission. As an example, and to close, the last sentence of the book:
The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain. (52)
 Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. 1914. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997.