Werner Hamacher (1948 – 2017)

I can’t believe how long it had taken me to get around to reading Werner Hamacher’s work. No, I suppose that’s the wrong expression. Until last year, to my great embarrassment and shame, I hadn’t actively heard of him despite having come across his name here and there.

My interest in Hamacher is, in part, due to some personal preoccupation with a specific kind of thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by – and working on (though unpublished)- the connection between the various ideas about close reading coming from the German tradition and the French deconstruction, so often maligned by critics, with Derrida and De Man as their most notable examples. I have always felt there tro be a gap in serious scholarship. Only last year have I encountered the work of Werner Hamacher who has died this week. Hamacher work exactly in the area that I am so interested in.

Werner Hamacher hasn’t written much in terms of books (the full list of publications is quite long though). A forthcoming publication next year will be only the third major monograph to appear in German. The previous one was Premises. Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, which appeared in English in 1996 and in German in 1998 (though unlike Hannah Arendt, who also published in English first, he didn’t write the English version himself). Hamacher wasn’t, first and foremost, a writer – instead, by all accounts, he was primarily a passionate thinker and speaker who developed his ideas in his talks for which he brought only rough outlines. I have always preferred teachers who allowed me to see them think through a text or a problem rather than teachers who turned up with a finished product that merely needed to be presented.

Never having heard Werner Hamacher teach, I only have his book, in which he proves himself to be a refulgent thinker and writer. His work on Kant, Kleist, Celan and others is both insightful and is carried, at the same time, by a broad talent for synthesis. In Hamacher’s thinking, several traditions connect in sometimes startling and surprising ways. He opend clear, new paths to texts we already know very well. Hamacher’s is that rare and lovely brilliance – the kind you admire even as you may occasionally disagree – and he brought to bear his immense mind on just this gap, building a theory of how to understand not just the world – language. At a time when the subject has slowly returned to criticism, Hamacher’s careful work on examining the way language and understanding interact with each other seems particularly timely.

Hamacher, whose work has appeared in English translation, and who has taught in Stanford, New York and other American universities, has had a significant impact even on people who have not read him or his students. He was the force behind (and series editor of) Stanford UP’s Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, which is maybe best known for being the main publisher of Agamben’s work in English. He himself translated poetry (Jorie Graham, for example) and literary criticism (De Man, Lacan) into German.

For many of us, he was the kind of philosopher whose name is not as well known as it could be, but whose impact has been felt for a while. Or maybe it’s just me – shamefully unread as I am. I hadn’t seriously considered Hamacher’s work until last year and hadn’t directly engaged with it until this year – so this loss to me is the sudden loss of a great writer who I was looking forward to discovering in depth in the months and years to come. Ah, I hardly knew ye!

But from this former students on Facebook another Hamacher emerges: a teacher, kind mentor and friend. His bridge-building exceeded his work as editor and translator, and reading the personal tributes has been lovely and moving. I’m sure we will grapple with his death in the next few years. For now, all we have is the texts – and his greatest legacy: his thinking and his students. Personally, I urge you to read Premises, which I have been carrying around in my bag for months now, the book is an enormous achievement.

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