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Body Language

Corporeality, Subjectivity, and Language in Johann Georg Hamann

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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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3. Origins and the Letter “h” 37

Extract

Material Traces of the Divine In a 1768 letter to his friend and critic Herder, Hamann makes the pri-macy of materiality in his thought clear: “Ich halte mich an den Buchstaben und an das Sichtbare und Materielle wie an den Zeiger einer Uhr” (ZH.II.416). This tactile encounter with what can be grasped by the senses both forms the basis for cognition and preserves the par- ticularity of the object. Hamann writes not of words but of a single let- ter, as constituting the foundation of his existential investigation. But lest this approach collapse entirely into an infinite accumulation of the par- ticular and finite, the metaphor of the clock hand indicates that there must be an assumed metaphysical beyond that which the finite and par- ticular point toward, just as the hands of a clock are the outward appear- ance of its hidden, inner workings: “-aber was hinter dem Zifferblatte ist, da findet sich die Kunst des Werkmeisters, Räder und Triebfedern” (ZH. II.416). The art of the clockmaker and his act of creation are hid- den from the senses, but their existence is taken on faith based upon their tactile manifestation as the face and hands of the clock. The inver- Chapter 3 Origins and the Letter “h” Goesser Assaiante_T4.qxd 9/1/2011 3:55 PM Page 37 sion of knowledge and faith again comes into play: the tactile knowledge of the existing world is underwritten by the belief that there is a created world to be known in the...

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