On the Difference between the Critique and the Review

or The Irrelevance of Taste

IMDB rating

IMDB rating

We may say of every approach to art that any analysis which fails to uncover hidden relationships in the work, and hence those that are not contained in the work misses the point of the object under scrutiny. To see inside the work means giving a more precise account of the ways in which the work’s truth-content and material content interpenetrate. At all events, a form of criticism which at no point establishes its solidarity with the truth contained in the work and which retains a hold only on externals, has no claim to our recognition.

-Walter Benjamin, Fake Criticism

The mindless act of judgment is a rite in which we are invited to participate in daily. How many stars do we grant the latest album? With what rating do we bless or curse the latest film? What value do we attach to a work of art or fiction? We are consistently prodded to unseeingly loft up our scales and judge the artistic object whose essence we not only ignore, but with which we have no connection.

The critique, which seems at first to be an act of judgment, is in fact one of reception, and as such cannot foster within any object other than the object of desire – the text which desires us as much as we desire it. Unlike opinion, which derives its satisfaction from the quickest possible ejaculation of self upon the object (almost pornographically), critique seeks a text which will leave the critical regard incomplete, wanting in the tension of desire which to remain desire, must remain unfulfilled.

This critical regard does not stare at the blazing flames of the artistic object in the moment of its consumption, but contemplates the blackened embers it leaves behind to seek its hidden energies. Prodding the embers with its gaze leads to an active yearning that something should spring forth, something not contained in the moment of the object’s perception.

In Walter Benjamin’s thought on criticism, critique can never be based an analysis, and only purchases its right to speak when its philosophical unity corresponds to the work’s poetic unity. “What critique basically seeks to prove about a work of art is the virtual possibility of the formulation of its contents as a philosophical problem.” [1] Rather than approaching the text through a scientific separation into form and content, Benjamin uses a mystic’s methodology of seeking truth in the interpenetration of impurities which make up the whole.

This definition of criticism, although perhaps imbued with a mystic’s faith, nonetheless is defined from a negatory position. “For knowledge of every kind, and not just criticism, contains the salt of negation – as Hegel insisted. It is possible to act from a stance of unreserved affirmation, but not to think,” [2] which explains why the review is always without thought. Even when the review ‘dislikes’, it is hardly ever negatory (as goes the adage, no news is bad news), and even in passing a harmful judgment preserves the work in its actuality, as well as the entire system.

The review then, seeks to assimilate the artwork’s anomaly into the systematic thought of convention, to normalize opinion. This act of forced assimilation however prevents the review from ever entering into any intimacy with the work. “Criticism can justify its right to approach works of art only by respecting their territory and taking care not to trespass on that forbidden soil […] For the most part, critics and writers deserve each other because the average novelist does in fact use the faded stereotypes that the critic can recognize and then even praise, simply because he does recognize them.” [3] The review is in fact the ingenious, even perfect solution to allow the diffusion of the mediocre which is the fodder upon which the consumptive machine of culture gorges.

By effacing the long duration of history which grants artworks their force and links the artistic object to the world (philosophical, intellectual, material and spiritual), the review isolates its object in the immediate and fleeting duration of consumption, a consumption which like all consumptions, destroys its object

Whereas the critique enters into a dialectic with the text upon its own terms, the review disinters, dismembers, and disembowels in order to better weigh the object’s separated organs on the scales of valuation. The review presents a pretense of truth from an autopsy of artwork’s mutilated corpse to facilitate a quantitative assessment or moral judgment, thus bringing the work under the purview of a unified moral order. The current numerical inflation of the “goodness” of all works (every new album attaining 3+ stars, every new film 8+) is insignificant facing the sham of the entire system, whose purpose is the ceaseless feeding of the cultural production mill.

The review exerts its influence through the pretext of individuality, using democratic values of ‘taste,’ to never do any more than rubber-stamp accepted stereotypes. We read or write reviews about the artistic object we feel we ‘like’, and then are comforted by the confirmation of others’ opinions (of course the system works because it is only the others who will confirm our opinion who bother to participate in the system). By digesting the artwork into its own organism, the review asphyxiates the object with personal opinion, doing so under the false pretense of individuality. The review offers us the ‘opinion’ of the king’s servant upon his master’s rule, and we are kindly asked to ignore the guillotine plainly visible behind the stage.

Star- and number-rating systems such as those used by Amazon and IMDB do more than simply provide commercial benefit, (their conscious will) but comfort us in the illusion of our individuality (their unconscious will). Communicating with a ‘community of likeminded’ we are convinced of the righteousness of our opinion, where the quantitative is used to supplant a judgment that must be qualitative, if it need exist at all. With the self-congratulatory confirmation of the ‘goodness’ of our taste, greater levels of consumption of the cultural good are created as well as the mirage of our individuality which emanates from the pit of its absence.

Yet, all is not lost. By denying personal taste and sensitizing our selves to the pleasure of a text we can rediscover our individuality. “Pleasure” in Roland Barthes’s brief essay “Le Plaisir du Texte”, is not our pleasure of liking/not liking, but rather the pleasure the text finds in us. Not through any morality of sentiment, but rather from its capacity of bother, to annoy, to renew: the text causes pleasure only when it refuses.

In order for the perceptive body to enter into intimacy with a text, we must move from mere judgment into a dialectic, as Benjamin also writes (although Barthes differs from Benjamin’s mystical, kabalistic view of literature, praising the pleasure principle for its discontinuous, undefined values rather than for its unity). For both thinkers, however, the secret to pleasure or philosophy is the individual – the self not as a brutal selector of good and bad, but as a nodal point from which the work of art can be approached upon its own terms.

This pleasure which the text (any text – world, image, text proper) offers “does not depend upon a logic of comprehension or feeling; it’s a drifting away, something simultaneously revolutionary and asocial, which cannot be bore by any collectivity, any mentality, any idiolect.” The pleasure only exists individually in relation to the text when the reader is without judgment, or even analysis – for the text cannot be broken down without it no longer being text.

For Barthes, the principle of pleasure suspends the collective worth of the text, not only its quantitative values but also its qualitative ones, liberating our perception to allow us to make our first awkward flirtations towards intimacy with it. Through the pleasure a text offers, we can attempt to tune our being into text’s own frequency, to create the beginnings of mutual desire, rather than cudgeling the work into the brutish form of our preconceived ideology,

The pleasure which the text promises, beckoning to the reader erotically, frees the individual to perceive art as something more than either a utility or luxury, and to read a text of pleasure “like a housefly buzzes around the volume of a room,” is a revolutionary act which breaks apart the text’s passive rule.

If we are to ultimately to enter into intimacy with the text, we must submit our opinion and efface our taste to allow for us to perceive its pleasure, so that it is not us who chooses the text, but the text which chooses us. Only when we embrace the text into our flesh accepting to be its parasitic host, can we create this symbiotic relationship allowing us to perceive our object internally, and through it, to enter into the infinite relationship of desire between individual and text.

1. Walter Benjamin, The Theory of Criticism
2. Walter Benjamin, Stefan George
3. Walter Benjamin, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot


One comment

  1. Pingback: Walter Benjamin | Several, Four, Many

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