Category Archives: General

Composing Composition and Explaining Explanation

composition (n.)  late 14c., “action of combining,” also “manner in which a thing is composed,” from Old French composicion (13c., Modern French composition) “composition, make-up, literary work, agreement, settlement,” from Latin compositionem (nom. compositio) “a putting together, connecting, arranging,” noun of action from pp. stem ofcomponere (see composite). Meaning “art of constructing sentences” is from 1550s; that of “literary production” (often also “writing exercise for students”) is from c.1600. Printing sense is 1832; meaning “arrangement of parts in a picture” is from 1706.

explanation (n.) late 14c., from Latin explanationem (nom. explanatio), noun of action from pp. stem of explanare “to make plain or clear, explain,” literally “make level, flatten,” fromex- “out” (see ex-) + planus “flat” (see plane (n.1)).

I now put together the parts that compose Composition as Explanation by explaining how explaining composes or puts parts together. Gertrude Stein originally delivered this essay as a lecture at Cambridge and Oxford University on June 4 and 7, 1926, and it is necessary to keep this fact in mind in order to order our understanding of the essay’s order. We note the essential semantic connection linking (putting together) the Ancient Greek words taxis (order) and oikonomia (economy), and both terms gradual denotative expansion from strictly the realm of the oikos (the house, domestic sphere) to also the realm of rhetoric; as Giorgio Agamben notes in The Kingdom and the Glory, oikonomia in a rhetorical context “designates the ordered arrangement of the material of an oration or a treatise” (Agamben 2011a, 19). But this meaning is in fact a part of the “gradual analogical extension outside its original limits” of “the semantic sphere of the term oikonomia” by means of an “‘administrative’ paradigm” (18-9) characterized by “an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense”, but that instead “implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order (taxis) of the different parts of the oikos” (17-8). This functional order should be understood in conjunction with the Aristotelian doctrine (for the administrative-economic paradigm appears primarily in Aristotle) according to which each entity is endowed with a particular telos (an end, fulfillment, or reason for existing). The activity whose successful exercise results in the obtaining of this telos is that entity’s ergon (characteristic work, task, or function). An oikonomia concerns an ergon not particular to a science, but rather one related to “a non-epistemic knowledge that should be assessed only in the context of the aims that they pursue, even if, in themselves, they may appear to be inconsistent with the good” (19). We may then speak of an oikonomia of Stein’s essay, that is, the apparatus within it that ensures it achieves its goal, its telos, its reason for existing. But it is not of course not at all clear what Stein intends to accomplish reading this text to those members of the “academies” that she elliptically references (Stein 407).

It may be that Stein intends to communicate a certain compositional paradigm itself found in the lecture she delivers. I argue that composition is in fact the very oikonomia whose attainment results in a text—and more specifically a lecture—attaining its telos, that is, successfully explaining. This is the importance of the text’s educational setting—and so I have educated you by putting together (composing) what composing is with the manner in which Stein composes her Composition. Because this is what I now do. Because “[b]eginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series” (408). Because even though order must happen and it does because I have ordered and waited before unordering we can still disturb “time-sense” (407). This is after what was before but now that after is before this now. Do you see that language is anaphora I mean or a type of expression whose reference depends upon another referential element and see how my italics (and I refer to the previous italics) refer back to the word anaphora which I attempt to render not an object but a sign because every sign refers to an object and we always want to refer to signs themselves without making them objects but just pure signifying but we can’t ever do that we can only show language because “the logical form, that is, the form of reality” (Wittgenstein 2.18) which is also “the form of representation” (2.181) and as we have said:

Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the propositions.

That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot represent.

That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.

The propositions show the logical form of reality.

They exhibit it. (4.121)

Stein achieves “the time of the composition”, that is, “a continuous present a beginning again and again and again and again, it was a series it was a list it was a similarity and everything different it was a distribution and an equilibration” (Stein 411) by writing as she does by suspending the denotative function of language and letting it show itself it shows its anaphora its referential character its italics its quotation marks its time and this is her disruption of the economy her rendering it inoperative and bucking the institutional nature of the academy she is addressing and “by this I mean this” (407).

And so she has a constant beginning, a continuous present, and uses everything, for she does not exhaust language in a particular meaning that is necessary and sacred and held for all time but opens it up to change and pure power not power for a particular outcome or telos but instead she gets the telos of composition itself she explains it by just showing that words can signify and not signifying that fact but showing it because signification is forever presupposed but shows. “And now to begin as if to begin. Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here.” (409) We understand composition after the fact after we can tell a story about it and make a history of it and give it a determinate meaning and a specific use and actualize it and leave it in energeia fulfilling its historical or causal or necessary ergon but so how can we get it just in dunamis how can we write not a particular thing but writing itself how can we write writing how can we explain composition? It seems so hard because its always presupposed and we are not there yet but will be one day (and paradise is not yet) but if we live in the present by beginning again and again, having a continuous present, and using everything, then we are able to show artistic creation and how it can be anything because we just look at what just happened and continue and simply explain and that is oikonomia but it is real and not endless completed rendered inoperative and language simply is and it shows itself and it’s all and we must live in language we must live in the time of the composition of composition itself not of that composition or this composition or any particular one composition but composition all on its own.

“Now that is all.” (411)

But while it is for Gertrude it is not for us for we must attach ourselves to language and risk ourselves in it and indulge in that experience of language that we might label oath but reappropriate it, we can engage in philosophy which is “constitutively a critique of the oath: that is, it puts in question the sacramental bond that links the human being to language, without for that reason simply speaking haphazardly, falling into the vanity of speech” (Agamben 2011b, 72). But this is the danger of Gertrude for while we cannot know all that happened we can say that absent who she was the fact that she did what she did during World War II is something with which we must reckon for although she gives us a paradigm for that messianic time characterized by the as not (that Agamben describes in The Time That Remains) in which something like zoē aiōnios could inhere at the center, eternal life as a glorious ineffable life that says nothing but language itself in which dogmas are ridden of and history is experienced and made to flash before our eyes but we must rid ourselves of past oaths past paradigms and create new ones by creating and beginning everywhere and using everything and this constant present.


*Note: “Agamben 2011a” refers to The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, while “Agamben 2011b” refers to The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath.


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Welcome: Introductions

Please add a sentence or two or three about your hopes and expectations for this course.  Which texts or issues do you most look forward to?

 Stanford students: please choose pseudonym and add your text right in this box below the last post; online visitors: please leave us a comment in the Comments section underneath!

-Hi everyone, I’m petradt (the teacher of this course).  I’ve been teaching at Stanford for three years, and my main interests are fin-de-siecle and modernist literature and cultural studies, as well as feminist and queer studies. I don’t really have a favorite text or topic in this course, but one unit I’m always delighted to teach is the Sexology/Uranianism/Inversion one (in Week 3).  We’ll be reading medical texts from the late 19th century, and although they feel dated to us today in some ways, they also contain outreageous ideas and arguments that are, astonishingly, still around in our own time.  You can’t understand queer issues in society today if you don’t know this history, and so this “blast from the past” will prove very instructive, I hope.

Hi everyone,

I am excited to read all the text we have ahead of us and learn about how they influence queer literature. I am also excited to learn about the responses to those books at the time they were published! Should be great!

– A.C.T.

Hey everyone,

I am really excited to explore these texts with you all and think about what “makes” a text “queer.” I was really excited to learn about Oscar Wilde because I haven’t been exposed to his work and life until now and I really enjoyed our discussions about him. Looking forward to Monsieur Venus!


Hi everyone,

I’m looking forward to the rest of this class, and thinking about how the “queer” identity intersects with other identities — and I’ve heard good things about M. Butterfly so I’m particularly excited about that.


Hey everyone!

I am really looking forward to reading our texts with a focus on the importance (or lack of importance) of the author’s identity, politics, and purpose on our understandings of the texts and their meaning and historical significance.


Hello everybody!
I’m am looking forward to exploring how we as readers can recontextualize literature to make it personally significant or relevant to modern social topics (like queerness). I really enjoyed our discussion on Dorian Gray and am excited to explore issues of gender and sexuality in a variety of works with such a great group of people.

I’m excited to see these texts in conversation and see if there are any recurring themes that the authors continually bring up, or that the readers continually identify in the texts.


I focus on intersections of sexuality and political resistance in twentieth-century prose, so I’m interested in exploring the queer canon—or whether there is such a thing as canonicity. I also think that queer theory is a useful lens for challenging any range of master narratives, so I look forward to further fruitful discussions about how such theories impact approaches to literature, history, criticism, and beyond.


Hi All!

I’m really interested in expanding my knowledge of queer authors and queer oriented texts, and hope to see where that intersects with other aspects of literature.



My primary academic interest is “contemporary continental” philosophical thought. I have recently concerned myself with radical cultural critique (e.g. the work of Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek) as a paradigm for a type of ‘gestural’ political maneuver aimed at jump-starting large-scale social reinvention through dialogue and the imagination (regardless of the ‘concrete proposals’ offered therein). I look forward to exploring “queer” texts as public acts with the potential to destabilize dominant conceptions of identity, opening up new social spaces for ethical action that might assist us in moving past the catastrophes of the twentieth century.


Hi all,

I am coming into this class with hardly any background in reading queer texts aside from a high school venture into Virginia Woolf, but I am looking forward to exploring the importance of the author’s identity and how that affects our interpretations of their texts and the texts’ place in history.



With little background in queer literature (or comparative literature in general), I look forward to examining the nuances that make a text “queer.” Specifically, I’m eager to continue viewing these texts through the Butler lens, examining gender and sexuality as a subconscious performance, since I spend many a day cloistered in the darkness of theatres. Perhaps “M. Butterfly” will continue the conversation of performativity. I also hope to use this blog to challenge myself by adding some creative responses along with my analytical ones.


Hello! I really love that we began the course with a discussion of how and where one can locate queerness within a text. That question is what I most look forward to exploring within these works: where does queerness originate within cultural products, and what ought we to do with it? Besides my interest in queerness, French culture (French-ness?) is another fascination of mine, so I’m especially looking forward to our discussion of Monsieur Vénus as well as Giovanni’s Room to try to better understand Paris as fertile ground for the production of queer texts by authors from all backgrounds and time periods. – EE

Hi all! I sadly have had very little exposure to literature since starting at Stanford and so I’m looking to rekindle my former passion for reading and analyzing great books. I’m particularly interested in analyzing how thoughts towards queerness in modern society were foreshadowed in classical texts and how many of the same debates we are having today similarly materialized centuries ago.

– Martina Navratilova

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