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This essay argues that Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams practice description as a kind of chance operation, an encounter with the randomness of the present. Their most influential poetry explores how description captures the contingency of whatever appears. This account contributes to ongoing debates about description in the humanities and social sciences. It draws upon studies of description in a range of fields in order to develop a general account of description as chance operation. Reading for chance in the descriptive poems of Stein and Williams provides new insights into some of their most widely appreciated and most puzzling works. To recognize the play of chance in their descriptions also illuminates some broader interpretive challenges that any descriptive text can pose. Chance in description threatens the formal and allegorical reading strategies that ratify a work’s aesthetic value by assigning every last detail a place in some overarching order. What would it mean to resist the revelatory gestures that expose “mere description” as advancing a judgment or showcasing a technique? It might mean acknowledging that description opens itself to the facticity of what appears.

To approach description as a mode of chance operation clarifies how descriptive works by Stein and Williams influence more recent experimental writers, who more explicitly combine descriptive and chance-operational techniques. This approach thus identifies a tradition of experimental writers who explore the connections between descriptive and chance-based writing procedures, and it helps to explain why such writers so often claim Stein and Williams as important precursors.