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Chapter 2. Keeping in Breath – Schleiermacher and OOO

There are many ways to encounter doing hermeneutics. What is the praxeology of dark hermeneutics? What do you do? Do you follow a dark circle to the core of the text, the meaning, truth? Or do you try to melt down your own horizon to the one the text is offering? 

Remember: inhale, hold, exhale – what does this exercise do to your hermeneutic practice? It is all questions, I know, so let’s deep dive into the method: deep dive, sink in, hermeneutic circle. Even language itself drags me into modes of understanding within gravitational force. 

Now I will write about a few possible ways of breaking through the cycle of understanding, reframing what understanding is (or is not) by asking: what is understanding, what is the understanding of understanding.  

Luckily Werner Hamacher tackled the “Imperativ des Verstehens” (The Imperativ of Understanding)1, and what it means, that hermeneutics have the need almost the fetish to understand no matter what is to understand. And it is a helpful coincidence that Hamacher talks of “in Atem halten” (keeping in breath), that this what is withdrawn from understanding keeps understanding in breath.2 It is Schleiermacher’s project that is on stake: “weil jede [Seele] in ihrem einzelnen Sein, das Nichtsein der anderen ist und darum das Nichtverstehen sich niemals gänzlich auflösen wird.“3 What is at stake is first the individuality of everything that could be understood, secondly that everything is the negative to every other thing, and third that such a negativity leads to an unsolvable misunderstanding. Schleiermacher here echoes in Tristan Garcia’s argument relating “nothing”. He writes: “But nothing is not the opposite of something; nothing is the absence of something, the empty place left by something. Nothing is what remains when one has removed something. However, if there is something, then there is also the opposite of something: what surrounds it, its negative. In other words, nothing is the negative form of something without this something. Nothing is therefore not the opposite of something, but rather the opposite of something added to the absence of this something. Nothing is the addition of the opposite and absence of something.”4

Schleiermacher does not remove something. He understands the world in a constant existence, in which every being has in everything else its nonbeing equally to Garcia’s argument. But Garcia points out that beings can go missing. Therefore, Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics points towards what Garcia calls “negative”. Pinpointing that nothing and “Nichtverstehen” what was poorly and wrongly translated by me into misunderstanding, is more likely “incomprehension”, and seemingly synonymous, one gets closer to what dark hermeneutics is all about. There are two different fields of understanding: on the one hand hermeneutics deals with something and that “what surrounds [that something], its negative”2. On the other hand, misunderstanding is not only not fully grasping something, but actually it concerns the nothing, as “the addition of the opposite and absence of something”. If one misunderstands, one understands nothing. So to speak one understands that what one misunderstood was not something but one understood the opposite of what one wanted to understand as the absence of that something: so there is something and its form. The withdrawal of the object from its negative, as Garcia argues, is an event.5 Coming back to Schleiermacher and unsolvable incomprehension, what is the Status between “einzelnes Sein” and “Nichtsein der anderen”? It seems it is comparable to Garcia’s argument, that opposite and absence are not the same.2 Hermeneutics is all about the confusion, Garcia is talking about and Schleiermacher is calling “Nichtverstehen”. So, hermeneutics jumps to conclusions similar to Garcia’s analysis resulting in: “I think that the absence of the thing is the form of the thing, its opposite, it’s very condition. For this reason, I believe that the world exists on the grounds of its nonexistence, that the mould of the world is the world’s primitive absence. I think that my existence is opposed to my nonexistence. I think that something exists rather than nothing. I imagine that a thing exists rather than a thing’s absence. I collapse trying to understand how nothing was, and how something emerged in its place.”6

One can understand Schleiermacher here as someone, who understood that absence is an event, and “einzelnes Sein” needs the opposite “Nichtsein des anderen”. And “Nichtverstehen” is also the “collapse” which Garcia is talking about. But for me, and dark hermeneutics, this is not the case. First every thing (einzelnes Sein) comes always with something else (das Andere), which does not have to be necessarily “Nichtsein”. This “Nichtsein” is not simultaneously to the “Sein”, because the “Nichtsein” is an “Anders-Sein”, the negative. The “Nichtsein” is a result of “Sein” and “Anders-Sein” being synchronous. Three lessons one have to keep in mind while re-reading Schleiermacher: “First lesson: nothing pre-exists something except another thing. Second lesson: the negative of a thing can neither precede the thing nor follow the thing but is inseparable from its existence. Third lesson: the absence of a thing can only follow the thing.”7 

Keeping these lessons in mind, keeping the mind in breath by these lessons one comes back to the question: what is the understanding of understanding? It seems that this question keeps Hamacher in breath, as he points out, that the solution to Schleiermacher’s “Nichtverstehen” is problematic8. Because there is incomprehension between something and something else, hermeneutics generate the need to understand.2 With Garcia I proposed a different approach to Schleiermacher’s and more generally hermeneutics’ need to understand: First understanding (“Verstehen”) and misunderstanding (“Missverstehen” or negative understanding) are always concurrent. Second, incomprehension (“Nichtverstehen”) is only an event following understanding and misunderstanding. Therefore, “Nichtverstehen” is either understanding or negative understanding (“misunderstanding”) as the opposite of understanding the thing, or incomprehension as absence of understanding (“Nichtverstehen”). As Garcia argues in relation to “nothing” “Nicht-Verstehen” leads always to “understanding” (or in the case of nothing to something). 

The problem as well as its solution Hamacher identified has nothing to do with the ability of understanding something or the need of understanding something because of incomprehension (the absence of understanding). It is interesting that Schleiermacher (as Harmacher explains) finds the solution in the gap between two poles. It seems that hermeneutics always focus on the clinamen, the gap between inhale and exhale, or in the case of Schleiermacher “divination”.

Is understanding an eternal project because language itself cannot express what someone wants to say? Is it a problem of semiotics?9 While hermeneutics is fired up to command one to understand what is not understandable, deconstructivism tends to emphasis the difference. While hermeneutics try to bring everything together, deconstructivism hold on to the differences. 

Keeping this in mind or even keeping this keeping us in breath I will discuss a few methodological approaches giving both perspectives a new use: Deconstruction becomes diffraction and divination becomes “misfitting together”.

  1. Hamacher Entferntes Verstehen 1997, 49 []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] []
  3. Schleiermacher quoted after Hamacher 1997, 49 []
  4. Tristan Garcia Form and Object 2014, 46 []
  5. Ibid., 47 []
  6. Ibid., 48 []
  7. Ibid. 49 []
  8. Hamacher 1997, 50 []
  9. Ibid. 51 []

By Martin Bartelmus

Martin Bartelmus is a Postdoctoral Scholar of German Literary, Media, and Cultural Theory at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He studied German Literature, Philosophy, Political and Social Studies at Julius Maximilians University Würzburg and received his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies as part of the DFG graduate program “Materiality and Production” from Heinrich Heine University. His PhD-Thesis is entitled Cultural Born Killer: Poetics of Killing around 1900. Before joining the department of German Literature at Heinrich Heine University for his current postdoctoral position, he worked as a curator for the Museum of Natural History of the Benrath Palace and Park Foundation and as a freelancer for the Julia Stoschek Collection. He is interested in Animal and Plant Studies, killing in literature and film, French theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and literature without humans.

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