Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Reading at It": Gertrude Stein, Information Overload, and the Makings of Americanitis

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Reading at It": Gertrude Stein, Information Overload, and the Makings of Americanitis

Article excerpt

There is no grammar in opposition but there is if there is omnipresent successful intermediation. --Stein, How to Write There are so many things to say at one time and this is one of them. --Stein, Narration: Four Lectures 

In the final paragraph of her last completed composition, "Reflection on the Atomic Bomb," Gertrude Stein wrote: "Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story" (1) (II 823). It is difficult to see how in 1946 the atomic bomb could have been "a nice story," and "Reflection on the Atomic Bomb" has typically been considered a peripheral work. But despite its brevity and its opacity, I argue, it is an important final statement of Stein's thinking about technology, information, and epistemology For Stein, the bomb "is not at all interesting, not any more interesting than any other machine, and machines are only interesting in being invented or in what they do, so why be interested. ... That it has to be secret makes it dull and meaningless." Stein's response to the bomb is quiescent, but it is also skeptical, suspending judgment (and consequently fear) in the face of a multiplicity of unforeseeable outcomes. In the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Holocaust, Stein refrains from apocalyptic pronouncements. Rather than make a direct proclamation on the nature of the bomb, she instead offers a reflection on how saturated the world is not only with information, but also with fear: "There is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared." Though it may now sound like something of a truism, Stein's statement "Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense" bears a complex relation to her life and work. After exploring Stein's thinking about information overload at length, I return to "Reflection on the Atomic Bomb" at the conclusion of this essay. (2)

It is tempting to imagine Stein having read in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Vannevar Bush's influential "As We May Think," the most significant and widely read article on the growing problem of information saturation in the immediate postwar period. (3) "As We May Think" explores the role of scientists in the war, and suggests "it is the physicists who have been thrown most violently off stride" by "the making of strange destructive gadgets" (101). The last sentence of Bush's introduction in The Atlantic had originally read "Now, as peace approaches, one asks where [scientists] will find objectives worthy of their best" (1O8). (4) What preoccupies Bush most centrally are the new requirements and possibilities for information storage and retrieval that emerged from the war effort. He proposed the "Memex," a proto-computer filing system, as a means by which scientific and practical knowledge might be indexed in order to address the problem of information overload.5The central problem facing researchers is that

   There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased   evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization   extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and   conclusions of thousands of other workers--conclusions which   he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they   appear. (101) 

Though there is no evidence that Stein was aware of the emergence of modern computing within the military projects supervised by Bush, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, and others. "Reflection on the Atomic Bomb" suggests that Stein too recognized the increasing difficulty in the immediate postwar period of sorting through vast amounts of information.

"Information" is an uncharacteristic word in Stein's earlier writing, occuring only three times in The Making of Americans, and rarely thereafter. More typically, she speaks of "knowledge" or of "knowing." Stein's use of "information" in "Reflection" prefigures slightly the changing nature of the word in the late 1940s. …

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