Thursday, January 13, 2011

Research Note: Modernism and Radio (Gertrude Stein)

"Gertrude Stein returned to the United States in 1934, a year of fierce debate over the Federal Communications Act and the regulation of American radio. As she explored the nation that figures so prominently in her writings, she could not have missed the fact that radio broadcasting had captured the imaginations of Americans. Stein had long been an avid reader and critic of popular culture and the media—her relationship with American newspapers predated her late romance with the radio. However, the influence of mass-media forms upon her writing has yet to be fully explored. In what follows I will demonstrate that radio in particular acted as a powerful formal model for Stein's late writing.

"Radio's influence can be traced in Stein's political and aesthetic strategies during her American tour, and it emerges as a dominant note in her World War II texts. Broadcasting provides a suggestive means of connecting Stein's early aural experimentalism (as in the multiple, echoing voices of 'Bon Marche Weather') with her later, more popular, idiom. Resolutely oral, dialogic, and changeable, Stein's artistic project finally finds its formal corollary in mid-century radio. Tracing the influence of the radio in Stein's late writing also makes it possible to extend our analysis of Stein's use of indeterminacy in language to her more audience-focused texts, with the effect of complicating our readings of her investment in communication and communal meaning-making. Through the 1930s and 1940s, Stein wrestles with the idea of radio as a kind of public sphere—a forum in which self, other, and community can be constituted through talk. Her aurality must thus be understood as being as profoundly public in its orientations as it is private.

"Finally, hearing the radio in Stein's late writing advances our understanding of the [End Page 261] cross-fertilizations of 'high' and 'low' modernist cultures, while beginning to acknowledge radio's own distinct thematic and stylistic contributions to mid-century modernism.

Stein was not alone in responding powerfully to radio. By the time Stein returned to the United States for her lecture tour of the mid-1930s, radio had been the subject of a powerful discourse of technological utopianism for more than a decade. Radio had promised, according to its very earliest boosters, to bring together the geographically and culturally scattered nation. Respected thinkers such as John Dewey, Herbert Cooley, and Robert Park believed that radio offered the means to create a new public united by channels of communication. In an extreme version of such claims, the League of Political Education asserted (somewhat ominously) in 1938 that the broadening 'psychological gaps' between Americans could be overcome through the radio, which fostered a 'simultaneous process of thinking.' In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 'Fireside Chats' were just one way in which radio was used to call a national community into being. As Lizabeth Cohen has shown in her study of Depression-era workers in Chicago, the claims of radio boosters were not spurious: by facilitating alliances between disparate ethnic groups during the 1930s, radio helped to bring about a self-conscious community of American working people. Broadcasting seemed to be unstoppable in its promotion of social connection."

Sarah Wilson. "Gertrude Stein and the Radio," Modernism/Modernity, Volume 11, Number 2, April 2004, pp. 261-262.