Werner Hamacher (1948 – 2017)


When Werner Hamacher died this year, there was an outpouring of grief that surprised many: Hamacher’s name is not as widely known as that of many of his peers, although he had a significant impact on philosophy and literary criticism. As an editor Stanford’s Millennium Crossing: Aesthetics series of translations, which introduced anglophone readers to Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy and others, his influence went beyond his own work and teaching. Despite knowing multiple students of his, it had taken me years to pick up and seriously engage with Hamacher’s work.

My interest in Hamacher is, in part, due to a personal preoccupation with a specific kind of thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by – and working on – the connection between the various ideas about close reading coming from the German tradition (Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Szondi) and the French deconstruction, so often maligned by critics, with Derrida and De Man as their most notable examples. Schleiermacher, one of the inventors of modern hermeneutics, laid the groundwork for a tradition, in which simple assumptions about the author, the text and its reader are destabilized. There is no sense of dogmatism as to what a text is and how it should be read.

In his description of the vagaries of literary criticism, Szondi’s declarations share a frame of mind with Derrida and especially Paul De Man, whose literary criticism often considers reading a text for its faultlines. There are other similarities, as well. Take autobiography: Dilthey posited a relational understanding of autobiography and suggested that plain autobiographical declarations are part of the textual situation. At the same time, there is a complex discourse about the subject of the text (das Innewerden) between the author and the reader. Dilthey’s comments are similar to Derrida’s conception of autobiography as well as De Man’s declaration that “the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life.” And yet, despite all the similarities, critics often associate one school of thinking with an inherent seriousness and the other with textual frivolity. I have always felt there to be an unacknowledged link between these traditions. Only last year have I encountered the work of Werner Hamacher, who worked exactly in the area that I am so interested in. Hamacher focused both on Szondi’s concept that literary criticism means perpetual work on the text, as well as on Dilthey’s complex ideas about the subject and how it is both alienated from and still connected to the symbolic forms. There is an almost Levinasian sense of ethics in the way Hamacher writes about how people relate to each other through and despite language. In his opus magnum, he refers to language as a long goodbye to sense and the subject, but in other places he’s written about the consequences of language for human rights, for example.

I keep mentioning his work, but as it turns out, Werner Hamacher has written a sizeable number of articles, but not much in the way of books 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. The sequence of publication reflects the fact that he taught at American universities for years. Unlike Hannah Arendt, who also published in English first, he didn’t write the English version himself, but instead was translated (very well, incidentally). Indeed, Hamacher wasn’t, first and foremost, a writer, but primarily a passionate thinker and speaker who developed his ideas in the lectures themselves. He would come to the lectern with rough outlines and then talk and think his way through the material.

As Alexandru Bulucz, poet, scholar and translator, wrote in his own personal appreciation, Hamacher was a teacher who allowed students to see them think through a text or a problem rather than a teacher who turned up with a finished product that merely needed to be presented. He challenged students in class, maintaining a personal distance, but asked for his thinking to be critiqued as he critiqued others. Thinking was his prime objective. Then again, this reflects Werner Hamacher’s attitude to the institution of the university. In a flaming appeal, published in 2010 as “Freistätte,” Hamacher discusses universities as a place of absolute intellectual freedom, or at least that’s the way he thought they should be. Free of not just economic pressures, but also free of expectations and the tyranny of tradition. In a true place of free science, scientific pursuit has to be free of everything that is not itself and that includes its own traditional forms (Formtradition). For Hamacher, the pursuit of science is sacred, and that includes teaching.What must be clarified here is that the German tradition Hamacher works in sees the humanities as a science. This is more than just a question of terms. Yes, it is true that the German term for humanities is Geisteswissenschaften – and what the anglophone world calls science, we call Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences. But Hamacher works from a specific tradition that stresses the scientific aspect of the humanities way beyond the bare bones meaning of the term itself. There is a line leading from Wilhelm Dilthey, 19th century hermeneutics scholar, to Peter Szondi, teacher, holocaust survivor and academic literary critic and finally to Werner Hamacher. They all shared an absolute seriousness about the task of teaching and writing about language and literature.

Never having heard Werner Hamacher teach myself, never having known him in a university context, I can only resort his book, which shows him to be a refulgent thinker and writer. His work on Kant, Kleist, Celan and others is insightful and is carried, at the same time, by an exceptional talent for synthesis. In Hamacher’s thinking, several traditions connect in sometimes startling and surprising ways. He opened clear, new paths to already well-known texts. 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 building a theory of how to understand not just the world – but the structure of understanding itself. At a time when the subject has slowly crept back into serious criticism, Hamacher’s careful work on the way language and understanding interact with each other, and dispossess the subject of its assumed powers, seems particularly timely.
Hamacher was important in other ways as well. His international stature rests not just on English translations of his work or his teaching at Stanford, NYU, and other American universities. He has had a significant impact even on people who have not read him or his students, as the force behind (and series editor of) Stanford UP’s Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, which is maybe best known for being the main English-language publisher of Giorgio Agamben, another thinker whose work synthesizes different traditions. Hamacher also translated poetry and criticism into German, most notably, Paul De Man’s Allegories of Reading.

For many, 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. That’s certainly true for me –I hadn’t seriously considered Hamacher’s work until last year and hadn’t directly engaged with it until this year – so his death represents the sudden loss of a great writer I was looking forward to discovering in-depth in the months and years to come. I did not know him personally, but from his former students on Facebook, a clear picture of another Hamacher emerges: a teacher, kind mentor and friend. His bridge-building exceeded his work as editor and translator, and reading personal tributes to him this past week has been lovely and moving. I’m sure we – not just those who know him, but we as readers and intellectuals – will grapple with his death for years. For now, all we have is the texts, and his greatest legacy, his thinking and his teaching. At any rate, I urge you to read Premises, which I have been carrying around in my bag for months now. It is an enormous achievement by an enormous mind. He will be sorely missed.