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Diacritics 29.3 (1999) 22-39

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Review Article

Language, or No Language

Daniel Heller-Roazen

Werner Hamacher. Maser: Bemerkungen im Hinblick auf Hinrich Weidemanns Bilder. Berlin: Gallerie Max Hetzler, 1998. All translations from this text are my own. [M]

________. pleroma--Reading in Hegel. Trans. Nicholas Walker and Simon Jarvis. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. [pl]

________. Premises: Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan. Trans. Peter Fenves. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996. [P] Trans. of Entferntes Verstehen: Studien zu Philosophie und Literatur von Kant bis Celan. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998. [EV]

1. The Rest of Language

When Aristotle, at the opening of his treatise on interpretation, defines the nature and function of language, he does so by referring "the things in the voice [ta en tei phonei]" to impressions on the soul (pathe¯mata), which, in turn, he refers to "things [pragmata]" [De interpretatione 16a4 ff.]. Aristotle's text establishes, in this way, that vocal utterances are signs of things. The philosophical significance of this gesture could not be more decisive. Once De interpretatione determines the canonical form of the statement as a "meaningful sentence [logos se¯mantikos]" and, more precisely, as a "proposition [logos apophantikos]" bearing truth or falsity, and once it asserts that truth and falsity reside in the composition (synthesis) of elements [16a10-15], 1 the consequence is inevitable: the paradigmatic form of true speech must be that of the "statement of one thing concerning another thing [legein ti kata tinos]" [17a25]. 2 Here it matters little whether the relation of speech to things is grasped as one of imitation or constitution, reproduction or production; it matters little, moreover, whether the things at issue--that which language means--are understood as sensible objects or supersensuous entities, material beings or logical idealities. In every utterance, speech, by virtue of its very form, is necessarily capable of being dissolved into those things of which it speaks. Indeed, the Aristotelian principle of analysis (literally, "loosening up") demands this [End Page 22] dissolution as the end toward which all speech, insofar as it is both assertive and predicative, ultimately tends. Language is thus posited only in order to be effaced; its specific constituents are identified only to be returned, in the end, to the world of things. When Augustine writes, in a lapidary formula at the start of his De doctrina christiana, that "things are learned by signs [res per signa discuntur]" [], he simply summarizes what is already stated in the Aristotelian locus classicus: words, the elements of language, function in the service of things; when words show what exists, their task is accomplished.

Werner Hamacher's works constitute perhaps the most powerful contemporary attempt to delineate and interrogate this aporetic structure, by which language, in its classical philosophical and theoretical elaboration, is simultaneously constructed and effaced, identified as such and destituted of all propriety. The implications of this structure, which are both logical and metaphysical, extend not only to the Aristotelian, but even to the most modern theories of language and its operation. "At the end of every semantic theory of language and its truth," Hamacher thus writes in Premises: Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, "stands the aporetic verdict: language does not speak; it has nothing to say" [P 338; EV 325]. When language is determined by its "semantic and referential functions," we read, it follows that at "the end and thus the site of its destination, it no longer means anything and no longer refers to anything" [P 338; EV 325]. If Hamacher's texts often take as their point of departure contemporary doctrines of literary production and language, it is because, in the field of literary studies, the invocation of the semantic determination of language thus leads thought to eliminate the very element that might have been its subject of examination: language. The one discipline that might have resisted the apophantic dissolution of language proves itself not to be, as the German term has it, a "science of literature [Literaturwissenschaft]" but, rather, "more or less clandestinely a science against literature" [P...