Worry Dolls

Worry Dolls

When I was 8, my mom bought me worry dolls on a trip through Arizona. They are tiny dolls made out of some embroidery floss and other mystery materials in a little yellow box that are sold throughout the Southwest in souvenir shops. You’re supposed to set them out at night to take care of your “worries.” (They came with instructions).

When I was little I took them very seriously. Most nights I would lay them out on my nightstand and tell each of them very specific things to fix. I was raised a pretty strict Catholic, so now looking back, it may have been some kind of silent rebellion against Catholic  prayer, which I didn’t believe was working for me.

Even when I was little I knew they weren’t actually going to solve my problems, just like I knew praying wasn’t actually going to solve my problems or larger problems in the world. But despite all that, I always had a small hope somewhere deep down that maybe it would work but I wasn’t supposed to know that it would. How easy would life be if we could tell our problems to some tiny little dolls who would fix them overnight for us?

I stopped talking to the worry dolls except when I was having a really hard time with something – even in high school, I’m sure I pulled them out of the drawer in my nightstand a couple of times. I definitely never prayed outside of school or church except when I felt desperate, and even then it felt more like personal meditation rather than feeling like I was talking to someone. I wonder why those dolls always felt like more of a comfort that something so abstract as God. I think it was because they were so far removed from my own life and the things I was supposed to believe in that, in a way, I trusted them more. It was a higher power that wasn’t attached to a big church with gold statues, or mandatory days you had to believe in God, or mandatory prayers you had to recite. In that way, Catholicism eventually lost all mystery and all spirituality for me, even if subconsciously at first. It wasn’t something I could believe in at all.

I have always felt like it is something we don’t know and can’t describe and can’t pray to that will save us.

On Failure


My new favorite cartoon via lucyinnovation.wordpress.com

At a recent lecture with prominent DHer and computational historian William Turkel , he mentioned a few very eye-opening things that point to major differences between the sciences and the humanities.  Humanities students are not taught to work collaboratively. Humanities students, he said, are not taught to fail. He didn’t mean either of these things in a negative way, but rather as a matter of fact.

It’s true, but to some extent the grading system puts a damper on learning things for the sake of learning. This is nothing new. In a similar vein, it would seem that humanities students are taught that their failure is all their own. When there are less group projects, working with others  is daunting–if someone sips up, you could all fail. This puts pressure on the power of your own brain and equates an “ick” feeling to collaboration. I know when I was paired with a bunch of lazies and ended up taking over the entire project I sure felt that way. I think this feeling often lasts through adulthood, and I can’t imagine that all students in the sciences dream of the day their next group project will come. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from group collaboration, even when it’s outside of a school setting.

With Digital Humanities, collaboration can be a necessity. If you want to employ data mining techniques in relation to Jane Austen’s texts, but have no experience with data mining, well, you better find someone who can show you. In my opinion, these kinds of projects start to move into a more scientific realm than one that’s purely 18th-century literary theory. But that’s another discussion.

What Turkel said is that he encourages his students to aim for big (do-able) projects. If your hypothesis or objective “fails” in the end, that doesn’t mean that you fail the class. You are forced to try new things and work out solutions – very much like how it goes in real life.

In an essay, your thesis doesn’t “fail.” You wouldn’t write a poetry analysis that admits to its own failure or shortcomings. It’s just a difference in the disciplines. But by the nature of the grading system, an ‘A’ is a success, and anything less than that may as well mean you’ve fallen short of succeeding.

When I was a writing tutor, many of my students came from a science background and were very concerned about their grades because of graduate school.

“OK, but how do I get an ‘A’?” was a common concern. This isn’t unique to the humanities, but rather, points to a larger problem that academics have bickered over for decades.

At UC Santa Cruz,  I was fortunate enough to be able to take some classes pass/fail. I did this when I took classes that were out of my field (Astronomy, for one), and for classes where I didn’t want to be limited by grades (Creative Writing). When I took classes pass/fail, there was  less pressure riding on the outcome and I enjoyed the learning process more.  Of course, teachers would warn you that if you were applying to graduate school, you should take all of your classes for a grade and that you should definitely get A’s. But we had lengthy written evaluations by the teachers and TA’s, which should have been worth more than the grade anyway, right?

Is this why I was rejected from certain graduate programs? Because I looked like a lazy California hippie? Maybe. But I’ve found that I’m right where I need to be. In the end it all works out, no matter how many classes you have “failed” or lessons that you find you need to learn over and over again. you won’t really get it until you start graduate school anyway.

Understanding Cubism

Woman With A Mandoin

Girl With A Mandolin, 1910

Adapted from a presentation on 10/23/13

Much research has gone into this idea of the connection between Stein’s obscure writing style and Picasso’s Cubism. Picasso and Stein were good friends most of their lives, so it makes sense that they would influence each other somewhat, or at least have similar views on the art object. I think it’s helpful to look at Gertrude Stein’s writing and Pablo Picasso’s cubist paintings in tandem in order to gain a greater understanding of both.

While many modernist writers were experimenting with new forms, Gertrude Stein was experimenting in more abstract terms. While reading Picasso  (which is one of her less abstract books) you probably noticed long sentences, odd use of punctuation, and repetition that seems to draw out the present tense. These are a few of Stein’s hallmarks that come at you with more force in her other books.

Stein and Picasso were close friends most of their lives and looking at their works in tandem is one way to demystify Stein’s writing style and Cubism. As Stein says herself in Picasso, “I was alone at this time in understanding him, perhaps because I was expressing the same thing in literature” (Picasso 16). She meant this literally.

Stein had a few styles of writing, two of which are grouped into “prose” and “poetry.” Cubism also had two styles: Analytic and Synthetic. Analytic cubism, developed by Picasso and Georges Braque, lasted for only about two years—from 1910-1912— and is characterized by flat colors and repetitive shapes to form a subject. Scale and perspective are pretty much nonexistent, because the viewer was meant to see all the angles at once. What we see is some semblance of a subject that is flat and distorted.

Synthetic cubism, which was much more decorative and colorful, began in 1912 and lasted much longer. For this presentation, I’m just going to discuss analytic cubism in relation to Stein’s work, because we can also find traces of this in her book Picasso. From this vantage point, we can later come to our own conclusions about Synthetic Cubism and Stein’s poetry with some ease.

Gertrude Stein did not use question marks, as you may have noticed in Picasso. She says: “A question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when it is already there when the question is already in the writing” (Lectures in America 215). Without question marks or things like quotations (which she also does not use), the reader is forced engage with Stein’s writing and read sentences deliberately. Just like Stein’s lack of punctuation forces her reader to be more active, so does Cubism force the viewer to take a more active role in viewing the painting.

In refusing to represent a face as we think we all see it, Picasso also takes away commas and question marks for us. Rather than a classically depicted subject, we are forced to engage with the painting and see it for what it is (painting) as we must engage with Stein’s writing and see it for what it is (words). Stein says of Picasso and Braque: “They were really cubism, that is to say a thing that existed in itself without the aid of association or emotion”  (Picasso 38). Both Picasso and Stein attempted to remove the signifier and upend the traditional ways we were taught to read and understand art.

In The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language and Cubism, Randa Dubnick argues that Stein (just like Picasso), “was interested in the essential reality of her subject. She eliminated narrative and physical description to achieve a perception of the “bottom nature” of a person” (Dubnick 26). By reducing her use of nouns and adjectives, Stein tries to eliminate traditional signifiers from her writing and get to the core of language itself.

In The Making of Americans, Stein’s novel that traces the histories of two families in her obscure prosaic style for about 1000 pages, you get a vague portrayal of subject matter. This work is full of repetition, long sentences, and syntactical play. Stein is clearly more fascinated by the building blocks of language than with its signifiers (nouns and adjectives, and even pronouns). At least in her earlier work, she does not like to use words that recreate common images we already have in our minds.

Similarly, Picasso was playing with this idea of subject and how it is traditionally represented in painting. As Stein says of Picasso, his “tomato was not everybody’s tomato, not at all and his effort was not to express in his way the things seen as everyone sees them, but to express the thing as he was seeing it” (Picasso, 17). Both artists showed us that there was not just one way of looking or expressing the traditional subject.

It’s important to note that it’s much easier to be abstract with lines, shapes and paint than it is with words. Words inevitably draw up associations no matter how hard you may try to remove them from their meanings: “Of course, words can’t be divorced from heir meanings. Each word (signifier) calls up a mental image or idea (signified)” (Dubnick 37). You could make an argument that painting presents this same problem. With works by artists such as Rothko and Pollock, no matter how abstract the lines or color combinations, they often conjure up what may be some kind of emotion or “inner tone,” to borrow from William James, or Benjamin’s “aura.” Nevertheless, the Cubists were never completely abstract, nor was Stein’s writing.


Analytic Cubism and Stein’s Prose: In comparing the two, note that 1.) Both are harder to “read” than a classic painting or a paragraph with lots of nouns. The subject isn’t laid out for us. 2.) Both include a subject that takes active participation in infer from what you’re presented with 3.) Both are “flat” in the sense that there are minimal descriptors. Rather than just paint a portrait of a man, Picasso limits himself to dark colors and a collage of shapes. 4.) In both we need to relax from trying to “figure it out” and just see the portraits for what they are: lines and shapes on a canvas, and lines and shapes on a piece of paper.


Portrait of Henry Kahnweiler, 1910

Excerpt from The Making of Americans (1911)

As I could be saying there are some living to be ones being good for living, there are some living to be ones making themselves and others good for living, there are some living because they are certain that there is some good to some one in their being living, there are some living certain that each one has some good in living, there are some living needing to be certain that sometime some one will be a good one (700).

Synthetic Cubism and Stein’s Poetry: In comparing these later works below, note 1.) The respective nouns, colors and shapes, which create a more obvious, albeit abstract subject. 2.) Conventional description of the subject is abandoned, but there is still an obvious “subject” 3.) Conventional titles play with readers and viewers interpretations and expectations 4.) An interest in the sensory.

Picasso_Guitar_Sheet_Music_and_Wine_Glass_1912 - Copy

 Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass, 1912

Excerpts from Tender Buttons, 1914


A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.


Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless reckless rats, this is this.

A change, a final change includes potatoes. This is no authority for the abuse of cheese. What language can instruct any fellow.

A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.

A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.