Talk · In Memoriam: Werner Hamacher · With Giorgio Agamben, Yves-Alain Bois, Jean-Luc Nancy and Avital Ronell, among others · New York City · November 11, 2017 · Text in English and German in: Triëdere, 2022, No. 23, pp. 160–173

CLOV: Wer?
HAMM: Was?
CLOV: Wer, er?1

AGAINST THE FIRM forms of physiognomy, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg pitted what he regarded as the transient traits of “pathognomy.” Quoted at least once by Werner Hamacher, in an essay inviting us to consider philology as a “pathology,”2 the best-known hunchback in and of German literature described the discipline of pathognomy as a “semiotics of affects or the knowledge of the natural signs of the mind’s movements.”3 In contrast to his contemporary Johann Caspar Lavater, for whom the permanent physical makeup of a person — the shape of the skull, the jaw line, etc. — indicated the qualities of her soul, thus securing a “stable character”4 (and, as a consequence, suggesting “this absolute readability of all in all about which nobody doubts”),5 Lichtenberg was drawn to signs and actions liable to change; to gestures, dress codes, comportment — in short: to what we would call, today, body language. Pathognomy read man as a creature of volatile passions.

I shudder to think of what Werner Hamacher, a passionate creature, would have said if, following Lichtenberg, we should have submitted him to pathognomical examination. As you know, he was not one to hide his views, least of all concerning the manner in which others might understand his self-understanding. Acutely aware about the ways in which language forms, informs, and deforms understanding — already I hear him ask, with that benign gruffness of his, what, pray, do I understand by “language,” “deformation,” and, yes, “understanding” — keenly aware, that is, of the materiality of language, its “sharper sense of detail, outline, structure, [and] color, but also of ‘tremors’ and ‘hints,’” as Paul Celan once called them6 — the person who we commemorate today always also pondered the fleeting shape and finite gesturing of words, the barely legible “hints” concealed in names or phrases, the “tremors” of the many things left unsaid.

Still, commemorating the loss of a dear friend, it seems nigh impossible not to wonder — no, not who Werner was, that would be an exercise in physiognomy, as questionable as it were futile, but rather how he was, pathognomically.

ERRING, I HOPE, on the side of discretion, I submit only three traits — two hints and some tremors — for your scrutiny.

First hint. Although a tall person, striding with confidence and erect posture, especially whenever he had problems with his back, Werner took surprisingly short steps. For someone of his stature, his manner of walking seemed at times even balletic. Not that he ever tiptoed, much less was he prone to stumble. But the distance between the leg carrying his weight and the one just hovering in the air — between the foot stressed, if you will, and the one unstressed — certainly could have been longer. Why, then, walk with such care?

Because of his attention to detail, I think, because of his love for all matters this-worldly. Werner’s gait, his pace and bearing, always took their immediate surroundings into careful consideration. In his writings, too, he cherished the minutiae of an argument, the nitty-gritty of a contention, and never proceeded before he had surveyed everything in its proximity — hovering over the shifting terrain while at the same time making his way through it, part eagle and part mole.7 This ability to think simultaneously in terms large and minimal, teasing insights of general consequence out of ever-so-small particulars — at times a single syllable or even a sole letter — made reading Werner such an adventure. It also meant learning how to move at a measured pace through a text. One had the impression that, at every twist and turn of an argument, he wished to think through the variants before continuing — celebrating, as it were, the plethora of potentialities at each point.

This, I believe, is what Werner referred to, in his introduction to the German edition of (half of) Paul de Man’s Allegories of Reading, as a “process of continued uncertainty.”8 By extending doubt, indeed, by making it productive, thus teaching us how to hover between what had just been established (the stressed foot, if you will) and what might still come (the unstressed foot), finality was postponed, the process kept open in its multi-dimensionality.

Put differently: Werner had an aversion against ending too soon. As far as he was concerned, there was always something more to say, add, and reflect on; thus ends had the vexing gall to come earlier than necessary, ending, as it were, before time. His two-hour-plus lecture marathons are legendary, as are his confessions that he had been up all night writing, but had still not been able to finish the talk he was about to give. What Werner could not achieve in life, he did in his work. He managed to avoid the full stop, the final point, that distinguished thing — or as he wrote in a text unusual even by his own standards, published in a journal edited by his friend Jean Daive (whose W he translated),9 where he cited and interspersed mural graffiti collected over the years with lines of his own, among them the following: “APRÈS TOUT. APRÈS LE TOUT. LE POINT10 Werner ignored the last full stop, keen to keep matters open. In his eyes, whatever came after it all — perhaps death — was, quite literally, pointless.

Second hint. As a person similarly afflicted, I dare say Werner’s nose was big. Still, what made it prominent was not its size, its elongation, or even its lower width; it was the way in which it seemed to emanate straight from his forehead. There was no indention between the eyebrows, no slight bump to mark the transition from one facial region to another. Rather, Werner’s nose prolonged the inclination of the forehead in such a manner that it seemed a necessary, indeed native part of his brow. Was it Greek, this nose? Being only of half-Greek extraction, I am loath to tell. But the most protruding part of Werner’s face definitely shared traits with that of Pallas Athena.

More important than a more-than-passing similarity with the marble deity of wisdom, however, was the manner in which he treated his nose. You will recall Werner’s peculiar way of pulling and tugging at it, even going so far as to massage it, whenever he was ruminating — or rather, whenever he found himself in-between thoughts, still preoccupied with one or the other, but also already onto the next. When he tugged at his nose, pensively humming hm, in a manner of speaking, he was treading water — without the water, and without using his legs. The gesture told you there was something that sat not quite right in whatever you had just proposed. Before Werner had worked it out, he was not prepared to let go of his nose, much less ready to move on.

Examined pathognomically, the gesture indicated neither affirmation nor dissent, but rather the state of affairs for which the German tongue has reserved the word Jein — signifying both “yes” and “no,” yet neither wholly the one, nor completely the other. Whenever Werner pulled and tugged, humming his hm, while not buying your argument, he demonstrated that he was on your side. But also, saliently, that he was about to show you in what ways your argument contained contradictions not yet worked out, thoughts only half-baked, lines of reasoning still tangled, which implied that, although you might not be aware of it, as he himself was, being on your side, you were not yet on your side.

Werner massaging his nose was deconstruction in pathognomical action. Seeing him do so, you knew he was presently collecting the various elements of your argument, in order to reconsider, refine, and rearrange them, recreating in the process your line of reasoning in a manner less wayward and lazy, more acute, more astute, after which he would return the argument to you, as a gift, accompanied by something like mischievous amusement.

Which brings me to my last trait.

The tremors. When it came, Werner’s laughter came wholesomely, winningly, at times even roaringly. At first there was but a short blast, a brief not hm but ha that created a certain distance, to his interlocutor as well as to himself, or rather: to what he was about to say. Thus a minimal space opened up, merry and predatory alike, during which Werner seemed already to be cherishing what was to come. In the span of that brief ha, the future, though yet to happen, made a cameo appearance. Then came another ha, and yet another, until laughter proper came rolling, booming and crashing in that liberating way of his, with but a tinge of malice to it, as if the cloud into which language had momentarily erupted contained the distant possibility of thunder. If Werner’s laughter had been able to carry a legend, the way a picture in a museum can, it would have been Nietzsche’s definition: “Laughter means: taking mischievous delight in someone else’s uneasiness, but with a good conscience.”11

Yes, laughter, in the conscientious case of Werner, meant enchantment and defiance and ever-so-faint mischief. It widened the circumference of what thenceforth was possible to say, while at the same time narrowing things down to their salient point; it was an intake of fresh air, expanding the lungs, then discharged as delight. Werner’s laughter meant no longer deliberation but liberation. In short: freedom.

FOR LICHTENBERG, WHO considered pathognomical expressions “a language for the eyes,”12 names constituted a particular challenge. Did you look like a punch doll because “Casper” happened to be your name? Were your virtues akin to those of great Christian scholars since you had been baptized “Abraham” or “Isaac” or “Jacob”?13 Or did your name say less about your person than about those who, furrowing their brows, tried to interpret what might be in it?

For someone who surely must have asked himself, as we are all wont to do at one point or another in our lives, who — or Wer — he was, Werner’s own name, with its well-balanced initial, contains not only that query, but also the repetition of the syllable er, or “he” in German, an assertion and echo alike, in which the first and second instance are kept apart by the (perhaps negating) n(e). Rescrambled into near-perfect anagrammatical form, Werner turns out to contain also words such as Newer, Renewer, and even — if the w is pronounced in German fashion, as a hard vNever.

Among many other things, this Werner, who renewed the study of literary and philosophical texts in ways we may never see again, wrote about the Walten and Gewalt (the “workings” and the “violence”) in Walter Benjamin; he ruminated on the Lanze (“lance”) and also the C-shaped élan in Paul Ancel’s name, a.k.a. Paul Celan; and he examined, in great detail, the names of Franz Kafka, Josef K., and Odradek, their shapes and relations to one another, especially by way of that prominent letter k, which he, in another but connected context, related to the figure of Keuner oder Keiner, “Keuner or Nobody,” in Brecht.14 Werner entitled the essay in which he discussed the importance of the letter k in Kafka’s work “The Gesture in the Name,” indicating that his interest lay not in the physiognomical correlation of name and character, but rather, as was the case with Lichtenberg, in the movements within the name itself. Hence he treated persons not as if they were the embodiment of whatever happened to be found in their name, but, on the contrary, he read names as if they contained their own hints and idiosyncrasies, displaying tics and tremors, thus making them available for pathognomical examination.

In conclusion, allow me to scrutinize only one such gesture — not in Werner’s first, but in his last name. Save for his master’s thesis and, at the distance of some thirty-odd years, a late essay on rapture and temporality, Werner barely wrote about the works of Friedrich Hölderlin. Not known for his puns, Hölderlin allowed himself one in his meditation on communion, “Brod und Wein” (“Bread and Wine”), about which Werner was keenly aware. In the fourth stanza, Hölderlin apostrophized Vater Äther!, “Father Aether!,” and then, four lines later, spoke of Vater! heiter!, “Father! joyful!”15 The difference at play, merely a gust of air, was the very one wrought by the poem: that of aspiration, signalling life and marked by the letter h that German speakers pronounce ha.

As few others, Werner demonstrated, time and again, how to breathe life into texts — he was quite literally ein Ha-macher, an “H-maker” (and, granted, at times even a “Ha-ha-maker”). Henceforth, and in his place, we should address his own work with the same joyous and critical, unswerving and unending scrutiny he devoted to those of others. Saddened by his death, which came much too early, I am nonetheless certain he would like nothing more than that we, friends and readers alike, cultivate Hölderlin’s joyfulness. After all, as both Nietzsche and Werner knew, laughter is “the art of this-worldy comfort.”16

Taking comfort in what remains to be done, let us mourn by celebrating the Werner who, ever so refined in his pathos, ever so unrelenting when it came to matters finite and fleeting and miniscule, refused to put a full stop “APRÈS TOUT. APRÈS LE TOUT,” thus wrenching from death all that he could, arguing, as it were, death to the ground — the point being to render that which, after all, comes after it all just that: moot


1. Samuel Beckett, Endspiel (1957), in: Warten auf Godot. Endspiel. Glückliche Tage. Drei Stücke, German translation by Elmar und Erika Tophoven (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005), 145. It is difficult to believe that Werner Hamacher would not have noted the inscription of his name in this exchange.

2. Für die Philologie (Frankfurt am Main: Roughbooks, 2009), 29: Die Philologie ist eine Pathologie. For the reference to Lichtenberg, see ibid., 59, footnote 15.

3. “Über Physiognomik,” in: Schriften und Briefe, edited by Wolfgang Promies (Frankfurt am Main: Zweitausendundeins, 1994), III:264: Semiotik der Affekten oder die Kenntnis der natürlichen Zeichen der Gemütsbewegungen.

4. Lavater, Physiognomische Fragmente, in: Ausgewählte Werke, edited by Ernst Stähelin (Zurich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1943), IV:1: stehenden Charakter.

5. Lichtenberg, “Über Physiognomik,” 265: An dieser absoluten Lesbarkeit von allem in allem zweifelt niemand.

6. Der Meridian, in: Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden, edited by Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert, in collaboration with Rolf Bücher (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2000), III:198: sein schärferer Sinn für das Detail, für Umriß, für Struktur, für Farbe, aber auch für die “Zuckungen” und die “Andeutungen”.

7. Thus in effect combining the two perspectives pinpointed by Lichtenberg in the passage quoted in Für die Philologie, 59: “If perspicacity is a magnifying glass, then wit is a diminution glass.” (Wenn Scharfsinn ein Vegrößerungs-Glas ist, so ist der Witz ein Verkleinerungs-Glas.)

8. “Unlesbarkeit,” in: Paul de Man, Allegorien des Lesens, translated by Werner Hamacher and Peter Krumme (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987), 9: Prozeß einer fortgesetzten Verunsicherung.

9. Erzählung des Gleichgewichts 4: W, translated and with an essay by Werner Hamacher (Basel and Weil am Rhein: Urs Engeler Editor, 2006). Here is not the place to tease out the far-reaching implications of Werner’s musings, in his essay, on the well-balanced letter W, with which he obviously was personally familiar. Suffice it to note only two of his remarks: “W is an affect” (W ist ein Affekt), and “W is the letter holding the balance between knowledge und the unknown, in that it contradicts what it means” (W ist die Letter, die die Balanche zwischen Wissen und Unwißbarem hält, indem sie dem widerspricht, was sie bedeutet) (both quotes at 140).

10. “10Ø1 RUSHES,” in: K.O.S.H.K.O.N.O.N.G. (Marseille), 2013, no. 3, 11.

11. Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, in: Werke, edited by Karl Schlechta (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein Verlag, 1969), II:148: Lachen heißt: schadenfroh sein, aber mit gutem Gewissen.

12. “Über Physiognomik,” 283: eine Sprache für die Augen.

13. Cf. ibid., 285.

14. “Ich soll Delamarche sein,” in: Babel: Für Werner Hamacher, edited by Aris Fioretos (Basel and Weil am Rhein: Urs Engeler Editor, 2009), 416. In this partial transcription of a scene in Hanns Zischler’s 1978 film “America” vor Augen – Kafka in 43´, 30,” Werner plays the role of the drifter Delamarche, finishing his comments on Celan and Kafka by noting the proximity, in Kafka’s unfinished novel Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared), between Negro and nekro and nec ego — the “corpse as whom K is resurrected in the blessed life of theater” (Leichnahm als der K im seligen Leben des Theaters aufersteht). Given the context of this talk, I prefer to bury Werner’s comments here, in a footnote, and not pursue them further. — For Brecht, see: Geschichten von Herrn Keuner (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1972).

15. Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, edited by Günter Mieth (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1970), I:311. As for the question of ether, or Äther, there could be few places better suited to pursuing the matter than Hamacher’s discussion of the concept of Muta in Paul Celan’s oeuvre, which he associates with Äther in the poem “Erratisch,” which in its first draft was called “Muta cum Liquida” (Die Niemandsrose, Tübinger Ausgabe, edited by Jürgen Wertheimer, in collaboration with Heino Schmull and Michael Schwarzkopf [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1996], 50–51). See Werner Hamacher, “Häm: Ein Gedicht Celans mit Motiven Benjamins,” in: Jüdisches Denken in einer Welt ohne Gott: Festschrift für Stéphane Mosès, edited by Jens Mattern, Gabriel Motzkin and Shimon Sandbank (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8, 2000), esp. 177, footnote 5.

16. Die Geburt der Tragödie, in: Werke, I:18 (die Kunst des diesseitigen Trostes). Therefore, as he remarked in Also sprach Zarathustra, “all good things laugh.” Werke, II:529 (alle guten Dinge lachen).

Babel. Festschrift für Werner Hamacher