This article investigates a forgotten essay contest proposed by Gershom Scholem to Werner Kraft in the wake of Walter Benjamin’s seminal text “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” (1916). Intent on completing Benjamin’s language essay by focusing on the relationship among language, symbolism, and mathematics, the contest and conversation sparked by Benjamin explores the enigmatic proposition with which his essay leaves off: that language is both communication of the communicable and a symbol of the incommunicable. The effects of Benjamin’s “On Language” can thus be found in Scholem’s formulation of a privative structure of communication in mathematics, lament, and his translations of the Book of Lamentations that—negatively—communicates language’s own limits. That Scholem locates in mathematics such an aesthetic strategy, while Kraft’s responses remain ambivalent about mathematics, indicates a growing concern over mathematics’ supposed opposition to language and representation, which prefigure Benjamin’s and the Frankfurt School’s later polemics against mathematics.
“After Language as Such: Gershom Scholem, Werner Kraft, and the Question of Mathematics,”
in: The Germanic Review, vol. 91.3. Special Issue: Walter Benjamin: Piecework, ed. Samuel Weber. (2016): 294-311.