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  • Parables and PoliticsHow Benjamin and Deleuze & Guattari Read Kafka
  • Laura Penny (bio)

1. Introduction: Towards an Immanent Critique

It has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come.i

--Walter Benjamin

Art and philosophy converge at this point: the constitution of an earth and a people that are lacking at the correlate of creation.ii

--Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Walter Benjamin writes many fragments that struggle to articulate a new program for criticism. One bears a curious title: "The first form of criticism that refuses to judge." This title issues a challenge. What can criticism do if it refuses its traditional task of passing judgment on the work? What form--Benjamin includes this most aesthetic word--could such a criticism possibly take? I think that contemporary theory includes a number of critical writings that take up precisely this challenge, that attempt to refuse judgment and forge new forms of criticism. One could certainly describe deconstruction as an attempt to create a new critical form and a suspension of the thought of judgment, for example.

In this essay, I will consider the work of Deleuze and Guattari as an example of a form of criticism that refuses to judge. I will argue that Deleuze and Guattari are more adamantly resistant to judgment, and critical of it, than Benjamin is. We can see this at work in their differing interpretations of the same author, Franz Kafka. Even though Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari ultimately end up producing divergent readings of the way Kafka depicts judgment, they do share a common interest in Kafka's interminable delays, the way he dilates time to defer judgment indefinitely. Kafka's deferrals open up the space for something immanent to unfurl itself. Critics, if they refuse judgment, can also aid and abet the immanent.

As the epigraphs of this paper suggest, Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari all underline the link between creativity and futurity, or becoming. Though they ultimately conceive of this immanence differently, Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari make it central to their criticisms of criticism, and efforts to create new critical forms. Criticism can no longer be a question of deploying transcendent criteria, of passing judgment in a traditional sense. We must learn to think in a manner that aids and abets immanence, and create critical forms that extend art's ability--and thought's willingness--to call to the people to come, to issue that yet-to-be-satisfied demand.

Benjamin and Deleuze share some other affinities. Both are audaciously combinatory, a-systemic thinkers, who spent their working lives, arguably, at the periphery of the movements they are commonly associated with precisely because they refused to submit to the dictates of systems and schools. To cite just one example, consider how oddly both deploy the tropes of Marxist thought. Deleuze and Guattari depart from Marxist dogma by using his analysis of capitalism to modify and distort the Freudian/Lacanian model of the unconscious, in a gleefully Nietzschean burst of creative destruction. Similarly, Benjamin prefers his dialectics at a standstill, or in image form, and warps classical Marxism by mixing it with notions drawn from diverse sources ranging from Romantic criticism to Kabbalistic thought. Horkeimer and Adorno repeatedly reproached Benjamin for this unwillingess to think with sufficient dialectical rigor, for meandering into quasi-mystical betrayals of properly materialist analysis.

Both Deleuze and Benjamin propose new, non-hierarchical images of thought, such as the constellation and the rhizome, and often turn to philosophy's swarm of siblings as such, such as art, literature, film, economics, politics, biology, and history. For all their differences, Benjamin and Deleuze are engaged in a common project, insofar as both are critics of representation. Deleuze's critique of representation is more explicit, especially in works such as Difference and Repetition, his readings of Kant and Nietzsche, and late essays like "To Have Done With Judgment". Benjamin's critique is more implicit and convoluted, and assumes multiple forms, such as the flashing-up of the dialectical image, the idea of presentation he distils from representation, and his criticisms of representation in its new technological form...

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