In this paper I'd like to suggest a new lens for understanding Weiner's work: the 20th-century fascination with constrained or invented languages. In particular, I'd like to link Weiner's interest in codes, signals, and the "clairvoyantly written" with the ideals and motivations behind Basic English, the simplified 850-word version of the language invented and promoted by Cambridge literary critic and Modernist "semiologist" I.A. Richards.
The continuum between the Basic vocabulary and the dense, highly abbreviated signifying of 1978's Clairvoyant Journal (parts of which resemble scrambles of the Basic English Wall Chart) point to a shared understanding of the political consequences involved in the ways we make words mean. Richards's own work to foster internationalism through "world" English, particularly in China, parallels Weiner's growing involvement with the American Indian Movement beginning in the 1970s. In both cases, a fundamental questioning of what it is we do when we signify leads to a shared fascination with the contours of the communicative loop that opens whenever we employ signs, which in turn results in a heightened sensitivity to the semantic contexts and political consequences of our language acts. Richards's and Weiner's approach to communication also raises contemporary questions about the limits of language in carrying meaning across cultural barriers.
I hope to use the parallels between Weiner's work and Basic English to offer a new way of reading her shift in the '70s from Code Poems to Clairvoyant Journal, one that reads the work as a visceral meditation on the politics of instruction.
HANNAH WEINER AND BASIC ENGLISH
National Poetry Conference: Poetry of the 1970s
University of Maine, Orono, ME June 13, 2008
August 1972 may turn out to be among the most significant dates in America's poetry history; certainly no account of what happened to our words in the 1970s can happen without it. This paper began with an intuition that the words Hannah Weiner starting seeing that month resemble the reduced, peremptory vocabulary of Basic English, an artificial language of 850 words, with just 16 verbs, invented by C.K. Ogden and I. A. Richards in Britain between the wars. I'm not aware of any evidence that shows Weiner knew about Basic, or thought of her writing as a response to it. But I'd argue that her own highly original thinking about artificial or simplified language systems, from the International Code of Signals to The Sign Language of the American Indians, pushed her work into a constellation of dreams and concerns similar to those of Richards's. What I'd like to do here is suggest some key parallels between Richards's ambitions for Basic English and Weiner's claims for her clair-style writings of the '70s, then use these connections to offer a reading of Weiner's work, in the Early and Clairvoyant Journals and beyond, as a kind of visceral meditation on the politics of language instruction.
I am interested in exploring methods of communication that will be understood face-to-face, or at any distance, regardless of language, country or planet or origin, by all sending and receiving.
That's Hannah Weiner at the twilight of the '60s, describing her recent work with code as a source of poetic invention, though it applies just as well to Richards's interwar ambitions for Basic English. I'd like to take a minute to look at Weiner's summation of her code work in this brief but important piece, "Trans-Space Communication," partly because it gives a powerful sense of the interests animating her poetics at the cusp of the clair-style writings, and partly because it connects so directly with the thinking about language that led Richards from the gleaming quadrangles of Modernist poetics into the briars of language instruction in 1930s China. What I hope to show is that Weiner's poetic progression from the Code Poems through her clairvoyantly written works of the '70s follows an arc not dissimilar to Richards's transformation from brainy Cambridge semiologist to failed apostle of simplified global English. I want to see if the similarities between Richards and Weiner's thinking about language might give us a new way to fold August 1972 into a larger history of 20th-century poetics, and at the same time expand our sense of Weiner's project as an ambivalent critique or counterpoint to the fantasy of a universal language that's shadowed modernity from the start.
Weiner's engagement with the semaphore language of letters, lights and flags that comprises the "INTERNATIONAL CODE OF SIGNALS for the Use of All Nations, British Editions 1859, 1899 and American Edition, post-war, 1931" (she was careful to note the full title, in all its thassalocratic glory) stemmed largely, she says, from its usefulness in "the understanding of the equivalents: [that] one kind of signal may equally be substituted for another with the exact same meaning." This sort of one-to-one signal correspondence, where all substitutions within the semantic system work out with the exactitude of math, has tantalized thinkers since at least Francis Bacon, and the 20th-century end of the rainbow lands on Modernist fantasias like Pound's pseudo-Confucian doctrine of ching ming, the "rectification of names," right word for right thing, the equivalents yoked up tight. But Weiner's interest in the clean substitutions possible within the Code of Signals isn't idealistic—another modern push for a pure, disambiguated language—so much as diagnostic. Because for Weiner, it's through the strict, linear mode of communication which the code enforces, in fact requires, that we begin to detect alternate pathways for meaning. While code enforces a rational, binary semantic circuit (a preoccupation Weiner would return to in late works like The Zero One), it also throws deviations from the circuit into high relief. The Code Poems themselves can be read as a wry, clever, and altogether serious attempt to infiltrate code's denotative pretensions—"[that] one kind of signal may equally be substituted for another with the exact same meaning"—with the connotative shadings of innuendo, ambiguity, and flirty entendre: the Romeo of "R Romeo" forced into play with the "wherefore art thou" one. The real value of code for Weiner, who would soon be receiving signals no code could ever handle, is that it sharpens our attention to what's not code; ways of meaning and thinking which Weiner calls in this piece "knight's thinking (schizophrenic thinking)," in which the communicative moves are "two up in a linear fashion, but then one jump to the side, to a conclusion or connection that may baffle the listener if he is expecting a linear-causal relationship." For Weiner, the liberating potential of an invented meaning system like the Code of Signals—or, for that matter, Basic English, where the whole word list fits on a single wall chart—is in its ability to show us the origins of our training as binary thinkers, in fact to expose binary or linear thinking as a form of training, with the corollary that another kind of training might provide us with an entirely other kind of brain.
Weiner's code experiments —her "explorations," as she put it, into "how much information can be received, and how accurately, through how little means"—are so urgent because she believes that in today's world, with its "high incidence of television, telephone, and other electronic communication" (not to mention, though Weiner does, the enhanced informational capacity of "users of LSD") we badly need differently taught brains. One of Weiner's driving concerns here at the brink of the clair-style is that our heretofore binary, linearly wired minds simply aren't equipped for the hyperactive signaling of modern life. "The amount of information available," she writes,
has more than doubled since World War II. In the next 10 years it will double again. How do we deal with it?
1. Do we use more than the 5% of the brain now in use?
2. Do we process quicker?
3. Do we decode information more and put it in another form (not language) so that the present brain can handle it?
4. Is there a change in the neural circuits of the brain?
If the last, is this a change from a binary to an analog system in the brain? Is this a mutant? Is this a quantum jump to a different energy level? Is there a new form of communication to accommodate these changes? Is it here? Has it yet to be developed? Has it any relationship to "knight's thinking"? Has it any relationship to changes in so-called "states of consciousness"? Is it an analogous, circular, field or some other non-linear system?
These questions, which immediately precede Weiner's own "quantum jump to a different energy level" in October 1970 as documented in The Fast, are uncannily close to I.A. Richards's questioning of signs and their functions in the aftermath of the First World War. Like Weiner, Richards directed his explorations of language to ends that are essentially pedagogic and therapeutic: How is it that words can train our brains to handle the new flood of information, delivered in entirely new ways? The influential "Cambridge School" of literary analysis that Richards pioneered in the '20s resembles Weiner's poetic interests in several key respects. It stressed the neurological effects of language on the brain; saw poetry in primarily instrumental terms as a medium of communication (rather than, say, an elevated aesthetic experience); framed truth—Weiner's "linear communication"—as a by-product of conventional linguistic habits; and argued for experiments in poetry as a kind of instruction in the communicative rigors of an accelerated, media-rich urban existence. Rhyming with Weiner's concern about the exponential info creep since WW II is Richards's own worry in 1924 that "human conditions and possibilities have altered more in a hundred years than they had in the previous ten thousand, and the next fifty may overwhelm us, unless we can devise a more adaptable morality." "Adapting" for Richards, as for Weiner fifty years on, hinges on our ability to pay new forms of attention to how we routinely use our signs. The theories of poet and neurophysiologist C.S. Sherrington—a neglected figure in the history of Anglo-American Modernism—persuaded Richards, in his influential, quasi-messianic books across the '20s, to see poems, especially the knotty modern kind, as a form of complex neurological rewiring that teaches our brains to harmonize the dissonant stimuli of modern life. If you can respond to a complex poem, the interwar Richards argued, you can also "reorder the impulses" (Richards's phrase) to handle the new profusion of signals generated by "the high incidence of television, telephone, and other electronic communication." (Weiner's.) (Weiner's own vexed relationship with "electronic communication" devices plays central role in The Early and Clairvoyant Journals.) So for Richards in the '20s as for Weiner circa 1970, poems are in a literal sense teachers: they educate us into new forms of communication that have a therapeutic ability to improve our lives.
I'd like to quickly outline where this kind of thinking led Richards, then turn to Weiner's own progression from code to clairvoyance to silent teaching to suggest how Weiner's different answers to some of Richards's same questions lead to a poetry that might be read as a profound interrogation of the nature of pedagogy itself. In 1929, Richards accepted a visiting professorship at Tsing Hua College, outside Beijing. China quickly became for Richards what Native Americans and the A.I.M. would later be for Weiner—a cherished Otherness through which he articulated a wide-ranging critique of Western rationalism, violence, and political injustice. His shift from literary criticism to a kind of international linguistic activism developed directly out of his Chinese experience in ways that recall Weiner's own move from "trans-space communication" to clairvoyance. In Mencius on the Mind, published in 1932 just after his first stay in China, Richards laments the erosion of classical Chinese modes of thinking in the country's rush to modernize. His fear is that the Chinese will lose access to their own history and traditions by adopting new forms of communication which fail to account for the differently structured modes of classical Chinese thought. By the standards of Western philosophy, Mencius's way of thinking is analogous to Weiner's "knight's thinking": jumping off to a "conclusion or connection that may baffle the listener if he is expecting a linear-causal relationship." "Those with a taste for clear, precise views," Richards argues
(itself a result of special training) will accuse [Mencius] of not knowing what he wants to say, or of having really no thought yet to utter. But there is another possibility—that a thought is present whose structure and content are not suited to available formulations.
” It is a possible suggestion that we perhaps Think and Feel and Will because we have for so long been talking as though we did and that if language and tradition professed a different set of psychic functions we might be conducting our minds otherwise.
Just as Weiner's code work calls attention to the silent pedagogy at the heart of all language use, which implicitly instructs us in the "available formulations" for legitimate communication, Richards's engagement with the "off-code" thinking of Mencius led him to question the normative way we conduct our minds in language as "itself a result of special training" that cuts us off from alternate modes of communication. If thought-forms like Mencius's are going to survive in a rapidly Westernizing world, we need to teach ourselves new methods for detecting "[thoughts] whose structure and content are not suited to available formulations."
Enter Basic English. Critics of Basic, which simplified the English vocabulary to a bare 850 words for the suspiciously imperial purpose of teaching non-native speakers how to pick up the rudiments of Western thought more quickly, accused it alternately of dumbing down the language; stripping English of its connotative richness; and, especially during the Cold War, which essentially killed it, of acting as an insidious Fifth Column for Anglo-American hegemony. But in Richards's eyes, Basic was meant to work much like the International Code of Signals did for Weiner—as instruction in "conducting our minds otherwise," a way to expose our habitual communicative moves as "a result of special training" rather than "[belonging] unconditionally to the constitution of things." The limits on what we're able to express with the constrained vocabulary of Basic was supposed to sensitize us to other pathways of communication that take shape within a different set of constraints. The intention was not so much to rationalize or purify our language use as to make language visible as language, pushing us up against its limits to bring into light other structures of thought. You master the code so as to grasp the value of the "off-code": hence "methods of communication that will be understood face-to-face, or at any distance, regardless of language, country or planet or origin, by all sending and receiving."
Attempt to eliminate all connotation eliminate still quoting page DO THAT PRONOUN THIS AFTER eliminate the message GOOD WORK talk about word as message, information story La Monte word as order just command unit of speech Word as instruction YOU MUST REPEAT SAY NOW
That's Hannah Weiner in Clairvoyant Journal, 3/1/74, talking back to Basic, or talking through Basic, almost in Basic, or maybe just pushing Basic out to its limit case. Because at the heart of the Basic project was the hope of teaching users to regard language, any language, with a kind of triple consciousness not so unlike Weiner's here: the brain moving through the code while recognizing the moves it's permitted as code and at the same time acknowledging the possibility of an entirely different code as a viable means of thought. I'd like to close by pointing out three features of Weiner's clair-style in the '70s that both extend and critique Richards's original aims for Basic: abbreviation, visuality, and instruction.
First abbreviation. Weiner's poems in Clairvoyant Journal can be read as a kind of hyper-diary, an intricate recording of brain circuits moving to process language and the mundane signals of everyday time (shopping, phone calls, parties, dietary regimes, etc.) (It seems to me that one of the great virtues of the clair-style is the way it heightens our attention to this restless processing activity—and effectively replicates it—in our own reading minds, just as code throws into high relief our non-code ways of sense-making.) But the prolix, often quotidian nature of the journal's content, which refuses any meaningful distinction between the everyday and the poetic, shouldn't eclipse the remarkably condensed and economical quality of Weiner's formal maneuvers. In a world where anything carries a potential to signal—colors, body parts, commodities, etc.—abbreviation becomes an urgent pre-condition of transcription. The Journals of the '70s are themselves reduced from much longer manuscripts—Caroline Bergvall reminds us that the 40 typed pages of The Fast were reduced from a 100 notebooks. But beyond that savage redaction, abbreviation—Weiner's ongoing experiment with "how much information can be received, and how accurately, through how little means"—deepens with the turn to the clair-style into one of the primary tools of semantic possibility. Think of Weiner's "Wis-DO," for instance, where dropping the 'm' from Wisdom both condenses and doubles the word. Is it one shortened word now, "wisdom" shorn of its last letter, or two joined together—"wis" stripped of "dom" and fused with a second, "do"? Either way, the effect is to "verb" the noun—with all the philosophical rewiring that implies, "wisdom" as something we do rather than something that is—while at the same time it preserves like a phantom limb its original nounness. Too, "Wis-DO" evokes the unspoken binary opposition of "Wis-DON'T," another instance of the yeas and nays always at issue in the clair-style, a "don't do this, don't do that" type of writing that reflexively reminds the reader at all times of the moves that aren't being allowed—the code not taken. Like the abbreviated word list of Basic, or Weiner's earlier experiments with the constraints of code, the clair-style achieves its particular teaching about language largely via "don'ts"—limitations, excisions, compressions, and erasures ("eliminate the message GOOD WORK") that work to train the attention on the rules that govern "word as message, information story." It's worth pointing out in this context that one of most important features of Weiner's clair-style, its use of different typography for different voices, was itself born of a code-like constraint:
"I bought a typewriter, and I looked at the words all over the place, and said: "You have three choices: caps, italics, and regular type." And that settled it, that's all. The words settled down to three voices."
The semantic power of abbreviation that Weiner opens up in the clair-style points back to the experiments with a tightly controlled language system in the '60s, and beyond that to language systems like Basic English, where limiting the word list was meant to break down the communicative limits of the world. Silence is a teacher; constraint and abbreviation are lessons in the primer that makes it visible.
Along with abbreviation, Weiner uses the visual field of the clair-style page as a semantic unit equal to—and often in tension with—the words themselves. The varied typography offers the reader a number of various but always equally available ways of moving through the text: Read just all the CAPS, only the italics, the interstitials on their own, or wander among the primarily "visual" words and marginalia that curlicue or drop precipitously down the page against the grid of conventional linear reading. What Weiner does with the space of the page in Clairvoyant Journal creates the conditions for "knight's reading," to match the "knight's thinking" of "Trans-Space Communication." The knight moves in an utterly unique fashion, but still depends on the grid for its semantic definition: in other word, the knight's making different moves, but within the same set of shared rules that everyone else uses. Weiner's visual use of the page enacts an identical tension, straying off the line of standard "linear communication"—here represented by our normal left to right, top to bottom reading habits—while at the same time relying on the grid to make the alternate syntax of other potential reading patterns visible.
The visual element in Weiner's work of the '70s parallels Richards's growing interest in teaching Basic through pictures as the Cold War progressed, and the politics that drove Richards to visual language instruction points to my final thought about the clair-style: that it enacts a complex critique of the teacher/student relationship. As Basic English went south during the Cold War, crushed by Third World colonial resistance and First World ideological elbow throwing, Richards increasingly came to rely on pictures as the primary means of Basic instruction, eliminating the need for politically messy media like teachers and classrooms and Westerners by making the vocabulary entirely self-taught. In the '40s he began to work with Disney Studios on a series of instructional films for Basic, and soon developed a series called English Through Pictures, a very early-Weineresque sort of endeavor, which he saw as the last best hope for Basic, as governments like China's increasingly shut their doors to Western meddling. This turn to visual self-instruction was only a Band-Aid though over what was always the Achilles's heel of Basic: that for all its echt international intentions, it was finally a version of English, dragging in its train a long history of domination, expansion and, above all, instruction that rendered most of the globe allergic to any kind of teaching through that medium.
I want to end here by suggesting that Weiner's own clair-style might be read simultaneously as a primer for and a "missing" critique of Basic, or at least of the presumptions about language and pedagogy that sustained it. The governing "doubleness" of the clair-style, I'd argue, is in its embrace of teachers on the one hand—the ALL CAPS visionary deliverers of guidance and daily instruction—and its sensitive questioning of their power to teach on the other. Weiner had a life-long affinity for teachers, and regularly described her own poetic development in student/teacher terms. Kenneth Koch, Jackson Mac Low, Satchidananda, the typewriter, the spirit-teacher Paw: all melded into a lineage of wisdom transmission that found its formal expression in the clair-style CAPS. One of Weiner's most powerful claims for clairvoyance was that "The words in CAPITALS and underlines" are "forces," a "guide to better living," ” always suggesting a course that is to the most benefit of all concerned." In a late interview with Charles Bernstein, Weiner even places herself inside the tradition, as an ancestor of the Levis and Cohans, the "hidden teachers" among the Jews. Why, though, should teachers be hidden? Why must instruction be silent? Why clair-style and not Richards's English through Pictures?
I think part of the answer lies in the very first word Weiner says she ever saw: WRONG. The emphasis in Clairvoyant Journals on negative instances of instruction—the parade of "nos," "don'ts," "nots" "can't do that's," and "shut ups" that appear so frequently in the CAP script—invite a sharpened awareness to the power imbalance involved in teaching. Clairvoyance as Weiner employed it was in part a humane sensitivity to the fact that methods of instruction can also be forms of control and intrusion, and that the "guides to better living" avail themselves of an unconscionable amount of bullying, hectoring, and manipulation. "OBEY CHARLEMAGNE." What if this were the basic message at the root of all teaching? What if Charlemagne's instruction boiled down in the end to OBEY? If so, best teach silent.
To conclude: one way of understanding Hannah Weiner's work in the '70s—and one the comparison with Basic English helps us to see more clearly—is as a dramatization of the student/teacher dynamic: the best pupils follow the instructions, while also (often silently) resenting the authority of the instructor. "The words tell you to do/things you don't feel certain about doing." It's with this statement that instruction, all instruction, meets its limit, and it's part of the gift of the clair-style to us to deliver that message so sharply.