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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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1. Hamann’s Infinite Inter-Connectedness, or, Where To Begin? 11


The Secret Life of Language In his essay, “Über die Unverständlichkeit,” Friedrich Schlegel lays thegroundwork for a rethinking of language predicated upon the discon- nect between language and the intentions of its user: “ich wollte zeigen, dass die Worte sich selbst oft besser verstehen, als diejenigen, von denen sie gebraucht werden.”10 Unsurprisingly, the scholar Karl Heinz Bohrer identifies the idea that language possesses a self-understanding exceed- ing its communicative and intended use as the fundamental idea under- pinning a turn toward rhetorical modes of discourse in late-eighteenth-century German thought.11 In contrast to the “ernsten Männer,”12 Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, who remain dedicated to the ideal of language expressing, or at least approximating, a remainderless intention, Bohrer argues that thinkers such as Jean Paul, Karl Solger, and Schlegel usher in an understanding of language focusing on its unin- tended effects. Among his contemporaries, perhaps no other thinker was more at home traversing the zones of language’s unintended effects than Chapter 1 Hamann’s Infinite Inter- Connectedness, or, Where To Begin? Goesser Assaiante_T4.qxd 9/1/2011 3:55 PM Page 11 Hamann. Through their unsystematic structure and vehement polemics against abstract rationality, his texts quickly garnered a reputation for “darkness” and inaccessibility. It is perhaps a small comfort to the mod- ern reader that one of Hamann’s most astute contemporaries, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found his own struggle with the Magus of the North to be a source of mirth for their mutual friend, Johann Gottfried Herder: So machte er...

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