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  • Apparent CritiqueInferences from a Benjaminian Sketch
  • Paul North (bio)

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Not the critique we’re used to, not the transcendental or practical versions; closer to “transcritique” perhaps, although not exactly coincident with it1—apparent critique declines critical philosophy’s method, the proofing of foundations, ignores the judging critique of literary criticism that celebrates and damns works, operates unlike negative dialectics with its search for contradictions, and refuses mythologizing criticism with its apotheosis of genius . . .

A slight shift in Walter Benjamin’s thinking about critique, after he handed in his doctoral dissertation, leads him toward this strange mode. He draws the outlines of apparent critique in a sketch from 1919, under the title “Theory of Art Critique.”2 A few years later he sets this short text into the third section of his celebrated essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, which itself develops important distinctions between modes of critique, while practicing a very different kind of literary criticism than Goethe scholars, and indeed anyone, save perhaps Friedrich Schlegel, had practiced to that point.3 The sketch, “Theory of Art Critique,” presents the concept of apparent critique, if in a highly condensed way and without naming it expressly “apparent critique.” In the sketch, which extends over two double-sided manuscript pages, Benjamin continues the “dispute about Kant” that he inaugurated by letter with Gershom Scholem in the winter of 1917, but he drives the issue beyond the emphasis on “reflection” that marked early German romanticism’s response to Kant and Fichte.4 Benjamin seems to be more interested in a pre-Kantian idealism, namely a Platonic one. The philosophical precursor to his theory of art critique is the Symposium, which he paraphrases at a crucial moment in the sketch. As a consequence of this shift after his dissertation, it is no longer “thought” or “mind” that intensifies in and by means of critique, but philosophical problems, and one in particular, the problem of philosophy’s mode of appearance, which Benjamin will identify as Schein, the fact of being purely and only apparent, what we could call apparance.5 The new kind of critique, apparent critique, does precisely the opposite of what philosophical critique is supposed to do. Instead of identifying and banishing apparent things from philosophy, this critical activity shows how apparance is in fact philosophy’s origin, its secret, and its central problem. The reference in the sketch to Plato is, in light of this activity, understandable.

Critique . . . disappears. Apparent critique does too, but it does so explicitly, with a flourish. There is an expectation, in more traditional modes of critique, that the results of the critical work will last longer than the work itself. This expectation underlies the equivalence Karl Marx drew between critique and practice. Critique was, for the younger Marx, the practice of social change. In it a new social order was not just imagined or written about; it was also realized. Afterward there was no further need for critique, just as there was no further need for revolution. Both faded away. The critique of religion or of the German ideology comes to an end, but Germany and religion are transformed forever. This is an intoxicating idea, the production of permanence through finite, even fleeting activity. The idea of critique intoxicates us in this and other ways, without our always being able to say why. An image lights up, of a divine hand ceaselessly and perfectly sifting truth from illusion, never dallying in apparance. The sifting hand continued [End Page 71] to captivate Marx, and it certainly animated Kant’s purification of reason. In Kant’s case it was the illusion of knowledge, in Marx’s the inverted image in the camera obscura of ideology that had to be culled and jettisoned.

An ageless method for a timeless result—critique’s sifting hand—although from a certain angle it can be seen as quite historical. It maneuvers within history, or more to the point, it makes phenomena “historical” by subtracting them from the present, relegating a previously active, seemingly necessary phenomenon to a dormant past. Traditionally speaking, critique puts phenomena to sleep. It determines this or that piece of knowledge or this or that...