Hannah Weiner and the limit experience of language

“Speaking subjects interact with and speak the echoes or ghosts of language’s words and sentences and these ghosts in turn possess us with their incorporeal insistence.” Above: cover of ‘Hannah Weiner’s Open House,’ mirrored.

Hannah Weiner sees words. Hannah Weiner interacts with words. “The words in CAPITALS and underlines are words I see,”[1] she claims. Even though Weiner suffered from a unique form of schizophrenia that permitted her alphabetic hallucinations, I agree with Judith Goldman when she insists that we read Weiner’s “clairvoyance other than as a symptom of schizophrenia.”[2] Apart from this initial gesture towards Weiner’s psychological experience of the world, I will not belabor her schizophrenia, because I feel that a more interesting account of her experience of language is material and extreme, and de­velops an implicit theory of the limits of a living and lively language.

In “Mostly About the Sentence,” Weiner describes the gradual evolution of her experience of language: “When the words first began to appear in August 1972, they appeared singly. The first word, WRONG, appeared about an inch long, neatly printed at a 45 degree to my pant leg. Later words appeared in two word phrases some of which, as NO-ALONE, I did not understand” (122–23). This message that emanates from language and manifests on Weiner’s person confounds her because she feels that the message in totality has been edited, excised, or obscured. Weiner explains:

In my naïve (or natural form) desire for completion I would cry “where is my T — is it the phrases ‘not alone’ that is meant” and why cannot I or it or the spirits that I then sometimes thought it was, speak English. The phrase developed but remained a phrase right up through the Clairvoyant Journal […] In April sometime I think I got down on my knees and begged or prayed, please let me see a complete sentence. On April 15th I did see one, printed in small letters along the edge of my kitchen table that had come to me from Lenny Neufield via Jerry Rothenberg. It said, “YOU WONT BE ANY HAPPIER.” (123)

Like the game show Wheel of Fortune, Weiner occasionally wants to “buy a vowel” or, in this case, a consonant. However, the message that emanates from language is intriguing because it is not devoid of meaning: is a T “missing” thus rendering the intended message “not-alone”? Or is the T intentionally excised thereby rendering the proper word “no alone,” therefore indicating that Weiner’s reality is one in which the very concept of “alone” is no longer valid (because she lives alongside language itself)?; Should we read the first “no” as an exclamatory determiner — as in “no!” you are “alone”? Also, should Barthes’s thesis regarding the death of the author be extended to language itself when it appears to be language (as a subject) that is writing? Can we afford any degree of intentionality to language? Goldman analyzes this moment in Weiner in the following way: “The word’s ‘T’ is not merely not there, but not-there, missing — the word has a whole form of which she will receive only a part. Its loss migrates to become her loss, as Weiner turns the lack within the phrase on herself: she is the one who cannot read it.”[3] Weiner’s interaction with language becomes a unique instance of cross-cultural engagement with a type of being that is traditionally coded as remaining anterior to direct human experience.

Language’s purported immateriality — i.e., the notion that the signifier itself is immaterial — renders language as an outside of the outside; as a sort of extreme or ultimate outside that can never be fully incorporated within an inside. Speaking subjects interact with and speak the echoes or ghosts of language’s words and sentences and these ghosts in turn possess us with their incorporeal insistence. Weiner has, through her phenomenal experience, recoded the human relationship with language: she has psychically torn down the semiotic screen of signifier and referent and reached an ontic experience of reality in which language exists not as an invisible or processual field, but as consisting of directly apprehended, linguistic objects. I consider the things that Weiner writes with to be word-things, which is my term for the speculative entification of words that exist when words manifest agential and vital qualities.

Beginning with her experience of a three-week fast (recounted in The Fast from 1992), Weiner begins to describe the ontogeny of language: initially, a morphogenetic field sets the stage for the further emergence of objectified language;[4] this stage is followed by the respective emergence of images and colors,[5] and finally words.[6] Instead of a morphogenetic field, I would suggest that Weiner describes a directly logogenetic field that designates the initial conditions of an emergent notion of language: on the one hand, language reveals itself to Weiner as a clairvoyant medium, but, on the other, language simultaneously reveals an intrinsic object-ness that was always present. Weiner perceives the potentiality of the logogenetic and the morphogenetic and recognizes such potentiality as ontic.

The transition in Weiner’s work is one that expands through the logogenetic emergence of a living language and also accompanies a later transition from a strictly subjective experience of language to what could be called an “intersubjective” field of relationality between signification and the phenomenal. Put differently, the words instruct Weiner and train her. They act as mentors, teachers, and friends: “The words train me: DONT CHOOSE, DONT PRETEND, DONT COMPLAIN, DONT LIE, overcome emotions” (64). This evolution moves beyond a field of energy and creates a complex social order that includes Weiner and an ecosystem of language. The aspect of training or conditioning eventually transitions into a relationship of friendly complementarity in which Weiner works with language in order to produce poetry: 

I am unusual, as far as I can discover, in having this extensive gift of SEEING language. I have met people who see words BACON occasionally. It has nitrate. It is more common to hear THANK YOU voices. What I see as words, others may experience as feeling cigarette or thought. The four years of this manuscript [The Fast] document my experiences and changes in perception I continue writing as a collaborator with WORDS I SEE. Sometimes I struggle as I do not[7] ENJOY all their interruptions. They edit the manuscript as well, and I have lately begun to edit them, for literary values. Their comment on this is Ok. (64) 

Language becomes an active collaborator in poetic composition, with the words eventually commenting on their own appearance and on Weiner’s tendency to edit. When Weiner says, “[t]heir comment on this is Ok,” the ambiguity of the pronoun “this” raises the question of whether language thinks her edits are “okay,” or if her description of this process is “okay,” or even whether “Ok” means “okay.” From a strictly lettric perspective “okay” is also two letters “O” and “K,” but why is the “k” written in superscript? Why is the “k” lowercase as opposed to uppercase? What exactly is language attempting to present to the reader (or to Weiner or to language itself) with this particular “Ok”?

Perhaps language is punning on mathematics so that “Ok” is “O” raised to the power of “k.” But then what do “O” and “k” represent? If language is lively, then would “O” and “k” remain as mimetic markers in a more traditional signifying regime? Or, do “O” and “k” function as individual objects or as kinds of noumena, effectively existing as “in-themselves” only? I do not propose to answer any of these questions, but the questions are important, especially when taking Weiner’s perception of reality at face value. For the purposes of this paper, I consider Weiner’s experience of language as a perspective that promotes a linguistic realism in which words and letters and phonemes exist in-the-world as objects.

In his seminar on The Psychoses (1955–1956), Lacan theorizes psychotic experiences of language as being indelibly linked to “the real”: “we’re dealing with something that emerges in the external world and forces itself on one as a perception, a disorder, a rupture in the text of the real. In other words, the hallucination is located in the real.”[8] Of course, what Lacan means by “the real” is not the same as saying that the hallucination exists in “reality” (or that the hallucination is actual or present in-the-world). “Reality,” for Lacan, is a matrix produced through the complicated interactions of the imaginary and symbolic orders and has very little to do with a naïve realist approximation of reality.[9] However, the real, according to Lacan, is a register of the Borromean knot that human speaking-subjects do not have direct access to after infancy (or, their access is always mediated by the other orders).[10] Lacan claims that “[t]he real is absolutely without fissure,”[11] and “[t]here is no absence in the real.”[12] This originary state of “cohesion” is ruptured by the incursions of the symbolic order through which language and signification emerge into the speaking-subject’s world.

Maria Damon reads Weiner’s poetic project through a different kind of understanding of “reality” or “the real”: her approach focuses on the way that Weiner’s poetry promotes a “graphomaniacal excrescence”[13] that renders language as an organism. This notion of reality is less subjective and more closely related to a material understanding of the real — the real as traditional material.[14] “Graphomaniacal excrescence” situates language as an organism that produces waste — as all organisms do — and this waste registers as excretion. Indeed, Weiner’s psychic experience can be considered a form of graphomaniacal excrescence: in Little Books / Indians (1980), Weiner writes that “temporarily / I SEE WORDS / ONS MY TOWEL // hear & see / I AMS SURROOM / PRISED / me (early) this morning / stupid” (78). The words appear on Weiner’s towel and occasionally the words collide and collapse into each other as linguistic incarnations of a Lucretian clinamen: the word or phrase “SURROOM / PRISED” collapses “surprised” and “room” together while also suggesting “surround” so that Weiner is, in a sense, surrounded by the language that she interacts with and records.

Weiner’s clairvoyant relationship with language shares much in common with shamanistic and drug-induced experiences of language. Jay Stevens points out, in his introduction to Terence and Dennis McKenna’s The Invisible Landscape (1975), that: “They [the McKenna brothers] focused their work on the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. They were curious about DMT’s apparent stimulation of the language centers of the brain. Not only was glossolalia (speaking in tongues) common, but sometimes one encountered dancing molecular forms that seemed to be made out of visible language.”[15] Weiner’s poetry describes a world in which language is visible — it is a visible and active inhabitant of the world. Such a hallucinogenic reality is similar to both psychotic and narcotic experiences. Weiner describes her own experience with LSD as one in which a sort of telepathy occurred, but she remains unhappy that some level of poetic appropriation did not: 

Telepathically we receive from each other the spoken sentence. In a house where everyone took a lot of LSD twice I heard people’s thoughts as if they had been spoken out loud. Both thoughts were silently directed to me. One woman thought, almost a shout, ‘get out of my kitchen’ and one man said something about helping me with a house if I bought it, and verified the thought out loud, asking me if I’d heard his thought. I heard their natural speaking voices. Differently, Mitch Highfill told me he once heard a whole conversation on LSD that he heard in reality later the next morning. I have never heard a ‘written’ line from someone — or anything they are reading or studying. I never heard any poetry lines I could steal! Only answers to thoughts. Once I saw two people have a silent conversation which they confirmed. (128) 

The notion that, if you are attuned to language’s vital and agential nature, you could “steal” or appropriate the poetic lines of others is notable because in Weiner’s experience of linguistic realism there is a lack of theft; i.e., Weiner can hear comments and thoughts, but not poetry: the poetry that she produces is a type of ethnographic report on the lifestyles and habits of words and language. Lacan asks: “Who is speaking? Since there is a hallucination it’s reality that is speaking.”[16] The “reality” that speaks may not be noumena-in-themselves, but the (re)presentations of the noumena — which is to say, the symbolic order itself — which manifests acoustically or visually and “presents” itself to the hallucinating subject. Put differently, and extending beyond Lacan’s understanding of reality as a product of signification, the hallucinations produced by psychosis or psychedelic experiences achieve a peeling away of the German Idealist screen of real and representation so that — at least partially — noumena appear.

The symptom therefore speaks through the symbol; or the fanged or rainbow-colored noumena leak through the partially ripped partition of real and representation: something gets through and something is witnessed. This “something” is language itself — language made manifest or language temporarily made objectal as a thing made up of things. Lacan describes this moment as an experience of profound rupture: “this language that has suddenly been thrust into the foreground, that speaks all by itself, out loud, in its noise and furor, as well as in its neutrality? If the neurotic inhabits language, the psychotic is inhabited, possessed, by language.”[17] In terms of linguistic materialization, both experiences of neurosis and psychosis present to the analyst as presentations of language; however, the presentation of language is different in each case: on the one hand, the neurotic maintains a certain agency over language so that language remains somewhere on the outside of the subject, but on the other hand, in the experience of psychosis, language enters the subject like an interruptive poltergeist or spirit and displaces any remnant of the subject. In this psychoanalytical dynamic, the only way that the symptom materializes within the world is through language — whether this linguistic vector is constituted as exterior or interior effectively structures the symptom as being either “neurotic” or “psychotic.”

Charles Bernstein insists that Weiner “understood that if the heart of poetry were a radical foregrounding of the medium of writing, then this would also mean that the writing, and possibly the writer, became a medium.”[18] Writing as medium is recast through the now-dead author who has, in the face of her or his death, become a medium. Weiner’s poetic approach is not confined to traditional practices or definitions of authorship; her praxis is one in which she occupies a position that is closer to shamanism or clairvoyance — in other words, Hannah Weiner is a mystic (she herself calls her poetic method “clair-style” after “clairvoyance”).[19] Any form of literary mysticism should dramatically efface the poet or author: Damon argues that Weiner’s “gift is non-exploitable, monstrous in that it reduces people, herself included, into surfaces for writing — someone else’s writing. And what they write is not grand prophecy, nor even in the Yeatsian sense, ‘metaphors for poetry,’ though it is poetic; it’s the fragmented detritus of everyday conversation, memory, news reports, fantasy scenes involving friends.”[20] Damon is correct in her assessment of Weiner’s work because, as Goldman points out, “[f]rom the moment she took up writing, as Weiner related to Bernstein in a 1995 interview, it was never a matter of self-expression, but a means of displacing the self.”[21] Weiner’s purpose is then to displace the self in the service of liberating language and situating language in the position of author.

Damon describes Weiner’s project as “heroic autoethnography,” further asserting that: 

Weiner is the historian specializing in the words of everyday life; no phoneme or letter is too insignificant to record as poetic. Her avant-gardism could be construed as the foresight (sight in to the avenir, voir avant la lettre) to preserve (garde) words for a future in which they are endangered. For words are not only phonemes and letters but bear inscribed in them, and function as, traces of history.[22]

Damon positions Weiner as the historian and preservationist of language so that language — as if it were an endangered species — could somehow be contained and protected for future poetries and future generations.

But what does language say? What is this language that Weiner is working so hard to record ethnographically, transmit, or elicit clairvoyantly? In Clairvoyant Journal (1978), language (via Weiner) writes that “NOTHING IS SURE OF ITSELF,” warning that “it calls it GO BREAKDOWN      B R E A K D O W N” (72). If language is, in some ways, a logogenetic organism, then it must develop its own internal rules of entropy/negentropy or morphogenesis/eventual heat death: language would evolve and circulate around rules of grammar, syntax, semantics, and punctuation, but it would also devolve elsewhere through various avant-garde ruptures and linguistic breakdowns.

Apparently, language — seemingly mirroring the status of the barred subject in twentieth and now twenty-first century modernity — is also not “SURE OF ITSELF.” Elsewhere in the Journal we read: “YOU GET ANGRIER YOIU COULD BE ANGRY HAPPY YOU COULD BE APRIL” (73). An intriguing nonce word or neologism emerges here — YOIU — a word that appears to be a mixture of “I” and “YOU” or “I” and “U” which, in either sense, registers a psychoanalytical and phenomenological model of selves and others. The experience of consciousness and subjectivity resides inside the complicated relationship between “self” (as interior or “I”) and “you” (as exterior or the Other). Weiner’s (or language’s) nonce word captures this complicated dynamic within the collapsed portmanteau, effectively expressing linguistic and phenomenological complexity within a relatively simplistic poetic invention. At the very least, language (or Weiner’s language), appears to be playful and mischievous: “NOW ITS APOSTROPHE” (73), we read, suggesting that the time of apostrophe — as either punctuation mark or as rhetorical and poetic exclamation — is temporally “now.”

Apostrophe, as a rhetorical strategy dedicated to the personification of a person or thing, is extended to reflect Weiner’s larger project that can be considered an apostrophe of language itself. If Weiner’s clairvoyance is an apostrophic process, then language becomes a punning-machine, occasionally writing: “SHE’S A GENIUS STOMACH PUMP,” “YOU GET THIN C H I L D R E N,” or “SEE DANGER PRONOUN GET DRUNK it” (73), which are each an amusing moment selected from the same page. Pronouns are dangerous objects or things that can occasionally be consumed like liquid — you can drink a pronoun — and if you drink too many pronouns you can become, according to Weiner, drunk. If the reading-subject drinks too many pronouns, then she may need her stomach pumped. Another important neologistic moment from “Skies” is the invention or appearance of the word “andiquote” (98). “Andiquote” collapses “and,” “I,” and “quote” together while sonically referencing “antidote” so that every quotation becomes its own potential curative to a much larger graphomaniacal excess or infection.

The material act of placing words on a page delimits language’s apparent ontological dynamism and concretizes both textual agency and materiality so that a word is fixed as either portmanteau collision or as a more traditional or hegemonic “word.” In a sense, the act of fixing words on a page mirrors a Kantian model of noumena and phenomena: if language is a chaotic and nonlinear — perhaps virtual — object or organism, then human subjects have no (or very limited) access to it. Language’s ontology is therefore similar to theorizing the presence of noumena. The only access speaking-subjects have to language’s dynamism would be through its appearance (Vorstellung) or re-presentation on the page or within any medium — therefore the poem or text mimics the simulated “presence” of phenomena.[23]

The importance of engaging with Weiner’s poetic practice is that her work as an ethnographer or zoologist of language allows her to capture the words’ presence in a phenomenal presentation that apprehends the ontological flux and play of language-in-itself. To that extent, the silences or white spaces register as ontologically important as the printed letters or words because the totality of the presented text mirrors the uncertainty and nonlinearity of what could be called language’s being. This textuality mimics the German Idealist model of real and representation. Interpretations of textuality — assuming that language is Language or incarnational in any way — should consider the distancing procedures of the printed page (of its appearance as Vorstellungen) and of the vital and agential language that lies hidden at a “noumenal” realm beyond the printed medium. 

1. Hannah Weiner, Hannah Weiner’s Open House, ed. Patrick F. Durgin (Berkeley, CA: Kenning Editions, 2007), 63. Every citation, even when I specify the source text, is taken from this excellent collection of Weiner’s poetry. Further references to Hannah Weiner’s Open House will be cited parenthetically in the text.

2. Judith Goldman, “Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 121–68, 122.

3. Goldman, 134.

4. Weiner writes that: “The manuscript begins in the fall of 1970, describing a 3 week fast. The early material contains much information on the nature of the kundalini energy and electro magnetic sensitivity that I have never seen elsewhere. KNOWLEDGE. I was receiving FORCE / messages through FEELING energy at that time” (63).

5. Weiner continues: “Later pictures developed, and colors” (63).

6. Finally, Weiner concludes: “Then in Aug. 1972 words developed” (63).

7. OMIT appears above “I do not.”

8. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses 1955–1956, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 136.

9. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), 161. It should also be mentioned that Lacan is not always strict in his use of his own terms and some slippage exists.

10. There are numerous definitions of the real and Lacan’s own definitions of the real repeatedly change throughout his career. However, the real is always, strictly speaking, separate from what folk phenomenologists would call “reality.” Lacan does argue that “the real is that which always comes back to the same place” in Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1998), 49. Lacan also insists that that “the real […] is what resists symbolization absolutely” in: Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953–1954, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. John Forrester (New York: Norton, 1991), 66. The real is therefore forever apart from the cognizance of the barred subject. The real is unsymbolized and unintegrated by the symbolic order. The real achieves a unique position in Lacan’s Borromean schema because, in stricto sensu, it rejects any and all definitions. Part of the importance of the real for Lacan is that it cannot be symbolized (or defined). If the real is to exist apart from the symbolic order (in its insistent or ex-sistent totality), then it cannot ever be defined through language or sign systems. Lacan situates this same idea in the following way: “the real, whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always and in every case in its place; it carries its place stuck to the sole of its shoe, there being nothing that can exile it from it” from: Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg (New York: Norton, 2006), 17.

11. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954–1955, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: Norton, 1991), 97.

12. Lacan, The Ego, 313.

13. Maria Damon, “Hannah Weiner Beside Herself: Clairvoyance After Shock or The Nice Jewish Girl Who Knew Too Much,” East Village Web, March 5, 2004.

14. I mean “traditional” here in a pre-Socratic, atomist, and Aristotelian sense.

15. Jay Stevens, foreword to The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching, by Terence McKenna and Dennis McKenna (New York: HarperOne, 1994), xii.

16. Lacan, The Psychoses, 50.

17. Lacan, The Psychoses, 250.

18. Charles Bernstein, “Hannah Weiner,” Jacket 12, July 2000.

19. Qtd. in Patrick F. Durgin, introduction to Hannah Weiner’s Open House, by Hannah Weiner (Berkeley, CA: Kenning Editions, 2007), 16.

20. Damon, “Hannah Weiner Beside Herself.”

21. Goldman, 124.

22. Damon, “Hannah Weiner Beside Herself.”

23. William Paulson in The Noise of Culture (1988) considers a poem or text as a concretization or presencing of chaotic processes: for example, Paulson considers the text “as a locus of self-organization from noise” (133), and this process is essential to considering “literature’s strangeness.” According to Paulson, the “text appears to us as a kind of singularity, as an object that undermines but does not abolish its own status as object” (139). See: William R. Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).