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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001) 121-168

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Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner

Judith Goldman


In August of 1972, Hannah Weiner, an accomplished and highly politicized performance artist and poet, began to receive a remarkable form of "dictation."1 Printed words of all sizes bombarded Weiner; she saw these words in the air, on every available surface, on people, on the page before she wrote them, and on her forehead from within. Weiner called her "psychic" ability to see words "clairvoyance." She developed a mode of poetic writing, "clair-style," that incorporated words and phrases clairvoyantly seen, eventually composing through these seen elements exclusively. In such groundbreaking works as Clairvoyant Journal (1978), LITTLE BOOKS/INDIANS (1980), Sixteen (1983), Spoke (1984), and silent teachers remembered sequel (1994), Weiner did not so much experiment with existing literary models to document the experience of clairvoyance as she created a number of startlingly raw and enormously complex poetic forms, becoming a heroic figure at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in Manhattan and in the bicoastal school of Language writing.

Weiner let no representation of herself circulate that did not take her status as a clairvoyant into account, as, for instance, her introduction [End Page 121] to Nijole's House (1981) demonstrates: "ALL WORDS BELIEVE IT SEEN / I ams a clairvoyant" (3).2 To read Weiner's poetry is thus to confront her claim to clairvoyance, which makes the critical reception of her work an incredibly complicated matter: her emphatic experiential claims and the terms on which she makes them at once legitimate her poetry a priori as testimony and overtly perform as a persuasive strategy within what are extremely self-consciously literary works. Either set of terms requires that we read clairvoyance other than as a symptom of schizophrenia, an illness with which Weiner had been diagnosed.3

I want to suggest, however, that in naming the phenomena by which words were given to her to be seen "clairvoyance," Weiner alerts us to the peculiar status of her texts without allowing us to medicalize and dismiss them. For her poetry, arriving from elsewhere in ordinary language, can only become deviant if we decide to make it so from the outset. Indeed, Weiner creates not only an enabling, but a strikingly innovative and important position from which to write: she engages the occultations entailed by linguistic abstraction and signals that she is enabled to do so through a banalized version of the occult. However nonvolitional, clairvoyance is a technique for estranging the normalcy that mystifies us. And Weiner's tactic of reverse discourse, one that appears to trade the blindness of a delegitimized epistemological position for the insight of an idealized and rarefied psychic state, also opens onto paradoxes of reading and writing that her radical, language-centered poetics confronts.

As testimony, clairvoyance does not avow the transparency of its medium, but rather makes the coercion of mediation evident. Openly declaring her solicitation of belief through a trope only figuratively removed beyond belief, Weiner exposes belief itself as the strange but mundane sine qua non of reading. Her strategy illuminates writing's demands on us as it gainsays a credibility it has already hooked in the very act of soliciting credibility. Straining against the transcendental quality of language even as she points to it as a foregone conclusion, Weiner not only disrupts the normative transparency of what is to be read but also erodes the normative rationality of the figure who reads.

For Weiner emphasized that she was not the frictionless vehicle for messages from another scene, but rather the recipient of language that formally and thematically implicated its resistance to meaning. This seen language also revealed that the very recognition of language as such subjects us to a meaning that can neither be averred nor denied. An exteriorized, nonintentional form of writing, the seen words not only [End Page 122] provided a unique means of encountering language as an...


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pp. 121-168
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Archived 2004
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