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Body Language

Corporeality, Subjectivity, and Language in Johann Georg Hamann


Julia Goesser Assaiante

Body Language: Corporeality, Subjectivity, and Language in Johann Georg Hamann addresses the centrality of sensual perception to the constitution of subjectivity and the resulting relationship between subjectivity and language in the work of Johann Georg Hamann. In positing the body as the entity that conditions a subject’s encounter with the world, Hamann, it is argued, prefigures a notion of finite subjectivity that not only runs counter to the Enlightenment tradition but also reemerges in nineteenth- (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) and twentieth-century (Benjamin) discourses on the tension between subjectivity and the abstraction of language. The paradox at the heart of this investigation is Hamann’s radical circumscription of reason as expressed through language, which nevertheless attempts to recuperate the concept of universal meaning through faith. Language is wrested away from abstraction and, therefore, any universality, and becomes the expression of the finite, corporeal subjectivity, a state of limitation that is at once granted and resolved by a divine creator.


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Preface vii


Even a cursory glance at Hamann’s writings quickly reveals the chal-lenge his works pose to a reader. Their idiosyncratic style, composed of endless allusions, historical minutae, multiple languages, and a stream of metaphors, succeeds in simultaneously engaging, confusing, and confounding. This disruption of understanding is not a mere byproduct of Hamann’s infamously difficult style, rather, it is its pur- pose and, at least according to Hamann, the source of his oeuvre’s longevity. As he remarks in a 1788 letter to his friend, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi: “Ein Schriftsteller, der eilt heute und morgen zu verstanden werden, läuft Gefahr übermorgen vergessen zu werden.”1 Certainly Hamann’s wish not to be forgotten has been fulfilled: his notion of faith proved influential for Søren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century, and Walter Benjamin added to his work on language in the twentieth cen- tury. However, the intervening two hundred and thirty years since his death have not served to make a hermeneutic approach to his thought any easier. Given the task of describing Hamann’s works in his 1880 lec- tures on Goethe, the German art historian Herman Grimm offers this piece of cautionary advice: Preface Goesser Assaiante_T4.qxd 9/1/2011 3:55 PM Page vii Es ist schwer über Hamann zu reden. Er steht zu sehr ausserhalb der grossen Linien, in denen man die Männer der Vergangenheit aufmarschieren lässt, um sie zu überblicken. Hamann muss studiert werden, es lässt sich wenig Vorläufiges, Allgemeines, Andeutendes über ihn sagen.2 Hamann undoubtedly stands...

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