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  • Intensive Languages
  • Werner Hamacher (bio)
    Translated by Ira Allen (bio) and Steven Tester

Cognition is a relation.1 In this relation, something is apprehended and it is apprehended in its cognizability.2 Cognizability, for its part, is not an object but the medium in which cognition relates to what is apprehended and in which the two are together constituted—the one as cognition, the other as cognized. Cognizability is neither a subject's capacity to cognize, given as a transcendental structure independent of any object to be cognized, nor a property of objects, a capacity to be known that awaits the opportunity to actualize itself in cognition. Cognizability is not an atemporal, and in that sense transcendental, condition of cognition. Equally, it does not present itself belatedly as a tie between an already constituted subject and a pre-given object. Much more, it is that in which cognition grasps an object and is thus for the first time cognition, and that in which an object imparts itself to a cognition and is thereby cognized. Cognizability is impartibility: the medium common to cognition and the cognized; the medium thanks to which they are able to be what they are; the medium in which they touch, affect, and impart themselves to one another. But if cognizability is the go-between—the medium—through which cognition and cognized impart or convey one another, then the essence of cognition itself is imparting. It is, in an as-yet indeterminately broad sense of "language," linguistically constituted. Whoever would present [End Page 485] "the linguistic essence of cognition" (GS II: 168) must do as Benjamin does, basing the possibility of cognition, cognizability, in language as the medium of impartibility. This means, however, that the subject-object relation is secondary for cognition and that it is a distorting derivative of that relation that precedes every propositional cognition of things and every imparting of cognitions between subjects, and that precedes them, to be precise, as the immediacy of mediality.

Hence, in "On the Program for the Coming Philosophy," Benjamin's critique of Kant and of neo-Kantianism concentrates itself first of all on the insufficiency of "the notion of cognition as a relationship between some subjects and objects or some subject and object," and, further, on the reduction of "cognition and experience to an empirical human consciousness." He writes:

These two problems are closely connected, and even where Kant and the neo-Kantians see beyond the object-nature of the thing in itself as cause of sensations, the subject-nature of a cognizing consciousness remains still to be eliminated. [. . .] It is, indeed, not to be doubted that some idea—however sublimated—of an individual, corporeal-spiritual I plays a great role in the Kantian concept of cognition, with such an I receiving impressions through the senses and on this basis constructing its ideas

(GS II: 161).

This "epistemological mythology" of subjectivism and of a closely bound psychologism, as Benjamin has it in the "Program," is to be dispelled by a theory of "pure cognition-theoretical (transcendental) consciousness, so long as this term remains useable once stripped of all characteristics of a subject" (162-63). Such a theory of pure transcendental consciousness may be thought, still imprecisely but less unclearly, as a theory of pure transcendental language, the contours of which are to be found in Benjamin's treatise "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man."

Such a theory can no longer address a relation between "any and all subjects and objects," and just as little a relation between empirical human subjects or between merely human languages and objects. Rather, it must begin from relationships within languages and from relationships between languages, including those of things themselves: that is, relationships of impartibility and translatability. In the view of a theory of pure transcendental language, languages—human and nonhuman alike; enunciated and silent; artistically, technologically, or institutionally constructed; idioms and the languages of nations—all relate first and foremost not to one another, but to their translatability, their impartibility, their linguisticality. That is, this theory never considers languages as relating solely in the way that subjects orient [End Page 486] themselves to objects, but rather addresses each...


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