The Making of Americans and Binary Code

Below is the earliest version of a piece I plan to write about The Making of Americans and information.  This is part of my larger project on code and programming in modernist literature.  I’m still working through these ideas and developing a vocabulary for discussing them.  

Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans is almost certainly one of the least read modernist texts.  Alongside Pound’s Cantos, Proust’s Recherche, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, TMoA is hardly alone as a massive and difficult early twentieth century book, but it is singular in many ways.  The vast majority of TMoA hardly recommends itself in terms of entertainment value, aesthetic pleasure, or even the traditional bildung a narrative of over 920 pages would typically aspire to.  The ostensible subject of the text–the history of two families bound by marriage–is quite familiar in the novel genre and in this sense the text is an aesthetic and conceptual commentary on the nineteenth century marriage plot.[1]. But this narrative never reaches a conclusion, and the final section, beginning on page 905 and entitled, “History of a Family’s Progress,” makes no mention of the characters it had been following to that point.  Instead it shifts to exclusively pronominal language to discuss trends and patterns arising in the lives of individuals and across populations.

Though individuals in both the Hersland and Dehning families are the primary subjects leading up to that final section, it is easy to lose track of them.  The narrator often pauses from the relation of their story to consider the particular versus the general, the nature of totality, the individual versus the population, and the strain of recording and representing these perspectives simultaneously.  These interpolations are made more noticeable because the language itself is so repetitive.  Not only does the narrator restate the themes and ideas very often, but the sentences themselves are deformed by the repetition of pronouns, an unnecessarily precise expression of the connections between subjects and predicates, and an inability to persist with a subject (such as an individual) without telescoping out to consider how the particulars being discussed exemplify patterns across larger populations and modes of being.  These narrative pauses signal a disintegration of the coherence of the novel and narrative forms which were no longer suited to a project that, by its end, sought to describe every person who had ever lived.  In a broader context, these ambitions of universality functions in parallel with twentieth century culture beginning to conceptualize society in terms of populations, networks, and large-scale patterns, perspectives made possible by coinciding revolutions in bureaucratic, archival, and industrial data management and collection [2].   Stein could no longer confine herself to thinking of two families, the Herslands and Dehnings, but was constantly preoccupied with the patterns they fit into within the larger social grid.  The various failures and disappointments the narrator experiences during these experiments culminate in the final section in which the particular characters and the narrator disappear and are replaced by impersonal and generalized statements about individuals and groups.

Here I am arguing the abstraction of the final section is essentially a language technology Stein developed to use information to amplify human powers of representation as an attempt to capture a complete picture of human experience.  Though this solution is not successful, it does reveal that Stein, with a group of other modernists, was manipulating information in order to capitalize on its capacity to operate automatically [3].  In place of a human author (a hugely important detail according to my definition of code) manually recording and representing every individual, the patterns, once formalized, aim to capture every possible variation of human experience, new individuals fitting into the patterns the narrator has discovered and laid out in the final section.

More specifically, Stein’s use of extreme abstraction is an information technology that resembles binary code’s ability to encode nearly any other body of information.  Like the pronominal final section of TMoA, binary code is effective because it reduces specificity (to its absolute minimum: yes/no, on/off, 0/1) in order to increase its capacity for translating other types of information into its language.  The extreme repetition of binary code means that it carries very little information, but also that every possible particularity can be encoded into binary.  The same is true for the language of TMoA [4].  The narrator could never hope to describe everyone who has ever or will ever live one person at a time.  By using more general terms of description–some people, many people, all people–Stein has developed the same conceptual approach to information operating at the heart of all digital media.  The use of this general language operates as code because it attempts to describe all human experience without the moment to moment intervention of the human.

In the rest of this post, I’ll present a few representative passages which exemplify the progression I outlined above.  Early on, the narrator addresses the reader directly, and foregrounds the practical and material realities of the project they propose:

Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel it that there ever can be for me any such creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver,–but anyhow reader, bear it in your mind–will there before me ever any such a creature,–what I have said always before to you, that this that I write down a little each day here on my scraps of paper for you is not just an ordinary kind of novel with a plot and conversations to amuse you, but a record of a decent family progress respectably lived by us are our fathers and our mothers, and our grand-fathers, and grand-mothers, and this is by me carefully a little each day to be written down here; and so my reader arm yourself in every kind of way to be patient, and to be eager, for you must always have it now before you to hear much more of these many kinds of decent ordinary people, of old, grown, grand-fathers and grand-mothers, of growing old fathers and growing old mothers, of ourselves who are always to be others and we must wait and see the younger fathers and young mothers bear them for us, these younger fathers and young mothers who always are ourselves inside us, who are to be to be always young grown men and women to us.  And so listen while I tell you all about us, and wait while I hasten slowly forwards, and love, please, this history of this decent family’s progress. (34)

It’s important to note a few things about this passage.  First, this is an unusual form of address for this text.  The narrator is in control until page 904, but almost never speaks directly to the reader.  This is part of an overall attenuation of the human element in the text.  Second, here on page 34, the narrator’s ambition is only to provide the “history” of this family, a goal that will change dramatically as the text progresses.  Third, the narrator references the painstaking process of recording the details of this family.  Thus the text is not a standard novel “with a plot and conversations to amuse you”, but the “record” of a particular family, a conceptual and generic shift inviting us to interpret it as information as much as art.  Finally, and most importantly, this direct address is immediately undermined by the narrator.  The first sentence says, “Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel it that there ever can be for me any such creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver.”  From the very beginning, the narrator acknowledges the temporal, spatial, and material division that inevitably emerges between the writer and the reader.  (The narrator’s awareness of this fact of writing is an essential detail of understanding print as media, and language as material and inhuman, a fact which I’ve discussed is one of the necessary conditions for comparing print to digital media and discussing language as code.)  The narrator goes on to emphasize the material features of the paper, the messiness of writing, and the reality that there is no direct interaction between the mind of the author and the mind of the reader.  The text, once written, operates independently from the author like a machine. [4]

From here, the narrator gradually expands the text’s ambitions.  On page 34, the narrator plans to provide a history of these families.  By page 166, the narrator introduces “types” of people, and suggests the history of the family fits into these larger patterns: “There are many kinds of women then and many kinds of men and this then will be a history of some of the many kinds of them” (166).  Here, the narrator remains committed to the two families while incrementally broadening from the particular to the general, but shortly thereafter, further widens the focus by introducing the idea of representing the totality of humanity:

Soon then there will be a history of every kind of men and women and of all the mixtures in them, sometime there will be a history of every man and every woman who ever were or are or will be living and of the kind of nature in them and the way it comes out from them from their beginning nature in them and the way it comes out from them from their beginning to their ending, sometime then there will be a history of each one of them and of the many millions always being made just like them, there will be sometime a history of all of them, there will be a history of them and now there is here a beginning. (176)

The final clause in this passage is an early example of the narrator’s ambition to connect the history of this family to the description of every person who has ever lived.  The narrator continually oscillates between the particular and general in this fashion, and while the text does focus on the Herslands and Dehnings, these universal concerns become and increasing preoccupation.  However, doubt starts to creep in as the narrator senses the magnitude of representing every human who has ever lived.  Near the book’s exact center, the narrator loses faith in the enterprise:

Perhaps no one ever will know the complete history of every one.  This is a sad thing.  Perhaps no one will ever have as a complete thing the history of any one.  This is a very sad thing.  Sometime each one will have made a complete history of them in the repeating always coming out of them.  Sometime perhaps some one will really know it of someone, that will be a very contenting thing to some.  … Perhaps no one ever gets a complete history of any one.  This is very discouraging thinking.  I am very sad now in this feeling.  Always, hearing something, gives to some a sad feeling of realising everything they have not been hearing and that they are not knowing and perhaps they can never have really in them the complete history of any one, no one ever can have in them the complete history of any one and that is then a very melancholy feeling in them. (454)

Passages of this kind are rare in the text, but betray the strain between the narrator’s more modest project of depicting the Hersland and Dehning families (though the narrator also feels overwhelmed by the complete and accurate representation of individuals as well), and the prospect of universality. [5]  These moments soon pass, however, and the narrator ups the ante, taking on the task on their own:

I have been giving the history of a very great many men and women.  Sometime I will give a history of every kind of men and women, every kind there is of men and women.  Already I have given a history of many of them.  … Sometime then I will give a history of all of them and that will be a long book and when I am finished with this one then I will begin that one. (479)

This is one of the first instances in which the narrator suggests they will attempt to represent the totality of human experience.  It’s important to note that the universal history is at this stage separate from the history of the two families.  As the text progresses, the distinct projects will merge into one.  It’s also interesting in this passage that the narrator mentions the magnitude of the book itself, a strangely practical concern alongside a patently impossible plan.  The realities of the book itself and perhaps the labor of writing sentences, prompt the narrator to consider other formats for a project of this kind.  The first model is a diagram:

More and more in living I come to know enough of each kind of them to make groups of them.  Sometime I will be able to make a diagram.  I have already made several diagrams.  I will sometime make a complete diagram and that will be a very long book that will tell all about each kind there is of men and women. (580)

Next, the narrator suggests lists as a way to represent individuals and their relationships:

It would be a very complete thing in my feeling to be having complete lists of every body ever living and to be realising each one and to be making diagrams of them and lists of them and explaining the being of each one and the relation of that one to other beings in other men and other women and to go on then explaining and realising and knowing the complete being in each one and all the kinds there are in men and women.  (594-5)

The narrator never adopts any of these alternative models for representing their subject, but the consideration of them does demonstrate that TMoA is in some sense a metacommentary on how to record, organize, and present information.

The naarrator repeatedly gestures in the direction of completion, but never actually embarking on the project itself.  The narrator  expresses confidence that they have accumulated enough knowledge and wisdom to eventually write the complete history of every person who has ever lived:

I am hoping sometime to write a complete history of men and women, I am beginning to be hoping this thing again, I am filled up now so much with learning so much about men and women and feel so much wisdom in me now inside me completely organising that I am coming again to be almost certain that I can sometime be writing the complete history of every one who ever was or is or will be living. (665)

Despite this optimism, however, the text proceeds for over two hundred more pages, until finally, after 904 pages and the exhaustive investigation of the Hersland and Dehning families, The Making of Americans makes an abrupt transition.  The final section, “History of a Family’s Progress,” and though this basic topic about the family is familiar to anyone who had read the preceding pages, the style, content, and most importantly, the rhetoric have changed in significant ways.  The section begins,

Any one has come to be a dead one.  Any one has not come to be such a one to be a dead one.  Many who are living have not come yet to be a dead one.  Many who were living have come to be a dead one.  Any one has come not to be a dead one.  Any one has come to be a dead one. (907)

All the essential features of the roughly 20 page final section are contained in the above passage.  No individual person is mentioned.  The narrator, having relating every detail of the text to this point, is completely absent from the text, signalling a significant rhetorical shift.  The narrative that began with a conventional story about two families joined by marriage began to disintegrate gradually and the narrator became preoccupied with how this particular story fit into the overarching social grid.  The sections in which the narrator considered these larger patterns interrupted the description of the families, until, in this final section, they disappear altogether.

This final section signals a certain type of trade off.  The ambitions to universality, the description of every person who has ever lived, requires the elision of the individual human from the text altogether.  It’s important to note that Stein’s experiment does not even approach the goal of universality.  However, the literal success of the experiment is less important than the conceptual opening it creates, and the approach to information it anticipates.  Across a selection of major modernist works of literature it’s possible to see several different approaches to this same dilemma.  Stein, with William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Joyce, e. e. cummings, and a host of others, began to eliminate the human being from their texts.  The absence of the human is a rhetorical approach that is a definitional characteristic of code.  This widespread move is part of a larger reconsideration  of the relationship between human beings, media, and language taking place in the early twentieth century.  These changes produced experimental texts, and these experiments coincided with and resembled innovations in information technology that directly lead to the code and programming running contemporary digital technology.  These early efforts by the high modernist authors are part of a long history of twentieth century information and media innovation.


[1] Genre is also an interesting question in this regard, but I won’t be discussing it in this piece because genre analysis takes so up so much space.  TMoA is interested in language itself, but also in the novel’s ability to depict experience.  The fact that the narrator is continually getting distracted from the “story” of the novel to discuss information reveals that there is a tension between the novel form and the concerns the information continues to introduce.  TMoA can’t focus on the usual business of the novel, character development, narrative arcs, etc., because the question of the fitness of the form itself keeps coming up.  Thus the text shows the strain the nineteenth century novel was under in the early twentieth century, and that avant-garde authors like Stein sought to interrogate the forms they inherited from past eras.

[2] Another way to approach these characteristics of the text is as an early model of big data in social contexts.  In this sense, TMoA bears similarity to Leopold Bloom from Ulysses, who is constantly distracted from his surroundings by thoughts of populations, aggregated data, and the chilling effects that has on the intervention in any particular event, good or bad.  In other words, Bloom’s attention, like the narrator of TMoA, is constantly interrupted by thoughts of larger social networks and patterns.

[3] Beyond the obvious failure to describe everyone who has ever lived in under twenty pages, the project is unsuccessful because the presupposition of universality is based on normative ideas of human experience.  Stein has been justifiably accused of holding Eurocentric ideas about world history and humanity and her model of universality in TMoA is consistent with those narrow views on culture and race.

[4] A more complete version of this piece will use Shannon’s information theory to better formalize this polarity between the specific and the abstract in information.  Binary code is so effective at encoding everything because it carries the smallest possible amount of information or is the least specific.

[5] Derrida’s work is the most explicit on the necessary separation taking place in the act of writing.  In Signature/Event/Context he argues that the type of separation Stein’s narrator acknowledges makes language into a machine: “To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten.”

[6] The narrator occasionally expresses the desire not only to represent everyone but also to be accurate.  Thus the narrator is concerned about their ability to describe everyone, but also about the accuracy of that description:

Sometime I want to be right about every one, I want to realise every one.  Sometime I want to write a history of every one. … I want sometime to write a history of every one, of every kind there is in men and women.  It would be such a satisfaction always to be right about every one, such a certain, active feeling in me. (574)

“Realising every one” also introduces its own dilemma of totality.  Knowing a person completely signifies its own kind of completeness that is impossible to achieve, a further problem for the narrator:

As I was saying every on always is repeating the whole of them.  Every one is repeating the whole of them, such repeating is then always in them and so sometime some one who sees them will have a complete understanding of the whole of each one of then, will have a completed history of every man and every woman they ever came to know in  their living, every man and every woman who were or are or will be living, every man and every woman in each one’s beginning, middle and ending , every man and every woman then who were or are or will be living whom such a one can come to know in living. (319)

In this sense, the representational dilemma confronts the narrator on both the smallest and largest scale.  Not only is it impossible to record, express, or capture all of humanity, but inevitably, details from individuals’ lives will escape collection.



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