Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion




Critique, Hermeneutics, Suspicion

How to Cite

Felski, R. (2011). Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion. M/C Journal, 15(1).
Vol. 15 No. 1 (2012): suspicion
Published 2011-11-26

Anyone contemplating the role of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in literary and cultural studies must concede that the phrase is rarely used—even by its most devout practitioners, who usually think of themselves engaged in something called “critique.” What, then, are the terminological differences between “critique” and “the hermeneutics of suspicion”? What intellectual worlds do these specific terms conjure up, and how do these worlds converge or diverge? And what is the rationale for preferring one term over the other?

The “hermeneutics of suspicion” is a phrase coined by Paul Ricoeur to capture a common spirit that pervades the writings of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. In spite of their obvious differences, he argued, these thinkers jointly constitute a “school of suspicion.” That is to say, they share a commitment to unmasking “the lies and illusions of consciousness;” they are the architects of a distinctively modern style of interpretation that circumvents obvious or self-evident meanings in order to draw out less visible and less flattering truths (Ricoeur 356). Ricoeur’s term has sustained an energetic after-life within religious studies, as well as in philosophy, intellectual history, and related fields, yet it never really took hold in literary studies.  Why has a field that has devoted so much of its intellectual energy to interrogating, subverting, and defamiliarising found so little use for Ricoeur’s phrase?

In general, we can note that hermeneutics remains a path not taken in Anglo-American literary theory. The tradition of hermeneutical thinking is rarely acknowledged (how often do you see Gadamer or Ricoeur taught in a theory survey?), let alone addressed, assimilated, or argued over. Thanks to a lingering aura of teutonic stodginess, not to mention its long-standing links with a tradition of biblical interpretation, hermeneutics was never able to muster the intellectual edginess and high-wattage excitement generated by various forms of poststructuralism. Even the work of Gianni Vattimo, one of the most innovative and prolific of contemporary hermeneutical thinkers, has barely registered in the mainstream of literary and cultural studies. On occasion, to be sure, hermeneutics crops up as a synonym for a discredited model of “depth” interpretation—the dogged pursuit of a hidden true meaning—that has supposedly been superseded by more sophisticated forms of thinking. Thus the ascent of poststructuralism, it is sometimes claimed, signaled a turn away from hermeneutics to deconstruction and genealogy—leading to a focus on surface rather than depth, on structure rather than meaning, on analysis rather than interpretation. 

The idea of suspicion has fared little better. While Ricoeur’s account of a hermeneutics of suspicion is respectful, even admiring, critics are understandably leery of having their lines of argument reduced to their putative state of mind. The idea of a suspicious hermeneutics can look like an unwarranted personalisation of scholarly work, one that veers uncomfortably close to Harold Bloom’s tirades against the “School of Resentment” and other conservative complaints about literary studies as a hot-bed of paranoia, kill-joy puritanism, petty-minded pique, and defensive scorn. Moreover, the anti-humanist rhetoric of much literary theory—its resolute focus on transpersonal and usually linguistic structures of determination—proved inhospitable to any serious reflections on attitude, disposition, or affective stance.

The concept of critique, by contrast, turns out to be marred by none of these disadvantages. An unusually powerful, flexible and charismatic idea, it has rendered itself ubiquitous and indispensable in literary and cultural studies. Critique is widely seen as synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo. Drawing a sense of intellectual weightiness from its connections to the canonical tradition of Kant and Marx, it has managed, nonetheless, to retain a cutting-edge sensibility, retooling itself to fit the needs of new fields ranging from postcolonial theory to disability studies. Critique is contagious and charismatic, drawing everything around it into its field of force, marking the boundaries of what counts as serious thought. For many scholars in the humanities, it is not just one good thing but the only conceivable thing. Who would want to be associated with the bad smell of the uncritical?

There are five facets of critique (enumerated and briefly discussed below) that characterise its current role in literary and cultural studies and that have rendered critique an exceptionally successful rhetorical-cultural actor. Critique, that is to say, inspires intense attachments, serves as a mediator in numerous networks, permeates disciplines and institutional structures, spawns conferences, essays, courses, and book proposals, and triggers countless imitations, translations, reflections, revisions, and rebuttals (including the present essay). While nurturing a sense of its own marginality, iconoclasm, and outsiderdom, it is also exceptionally effective at attracting disciples, forging alliances, inspiring mimicry, and ensuring its own survival. In “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Bruno Latour remarks that critique has been so successful because it assures us that we are always right—unlike those naïve believers whose fetishes we strive to expose (225–48). At the same time, thanks to its self-reflexivity, the rhetoric of critique is more tormented and self-divided than such a description would suggest; it broods constantly over the shame of its own success, striving to detect signs of its own complicity and to root out all possible evidence of collusion with the status quo.

Critique is negative. Critique retains the adversarial force of a suspicious hermeneutics, while purifying it of affective associations by treating negativity as an essentially philosophical or political matter. To engage in critique is to grapple with the oversights, omissions, contradictions, insufficiencies, or evasions in the object one is analysing. Robert Koch writes that “critical discourse, as critical discourse, must never formulate positive statements: it is always ‘negative’ in relation to its object” (531). Critique is characterised by its “againstness,” by its desire to take a hammer, as Latour would say, to the beliefs of others. Faith is to be countered with vigilant skepticism, illusion yields to a sobering disenchantment, the fetish must be defetishised, the dream world stripped of its befuddling powers. However, the negativity of critique is not just a matter of fault-finding, scolding, and censuring. The nay-saying critic all too easily calls to mind the Victorian patriarch, the thin-lipped schoolmarm, the glaring policeman. Negating is tangled up with a long history of legislation, prohibition and interdiction—it can come across as punitive, arrogant, authoritarian, or vitriolic. 

In consequence, defenders of critique often downplay its associations with outright condemnation. It is less a matter of refuting particular truths than of scrutinising the presumptions and procedures through which truths are established. A preferred idiom is that of “problematising,” of demonstrating the ungroundedness of beliefs rather than denouncing errors.  The role of critique is not to castigate, but to complicate, not to engage in ideas’ destruction but to expose their cultural construction. Barbara Johnson, for example, contends that a critique of a theoretical system “is not an examination of its flaws and imperfections” (xv). Rather, “the critique reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal in order to show that these things have their history” and to show that the “start point is not a (natural) given, but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself” (Johnson xv–xvi). Yet it seems a tad disingenuous to describe such critique as free of negative judgment and the examination of flaws. Isn’t an implicit criticism being transmitted in Johnson’s claim that a cultural construct is “usually blind to itself”? And the adjectival chain “natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal” strings together some of the most negatively weighted words in contemporary criticism. A posture of detachment, in other words, can readily convey a tacit or implicit judgment, especially when it is used to probe the deep-seated convictions, primordial passions, and heart-felt attachments of others. In this respect, the ongoing skirmishes between ideology critique and poststructuralist critique do not over-ride their commitment to a common ethos: a sharply honed suspicion that goes behind the backs of its interlocutors to retrieve counter-intuitive and uncomplimentary meanings. “You do not know that you are ideologically-driven, historically determined, or culturally constructed,” declares the subject of critique to the object of critique, “but I do!” As Marcelo Dascal points out, the supposedly non-evaluative stance of historical or genealogical argument nevertheless retains a negative or demystifying force in tracing ideas back to causes invisible to the actors themselves (39–62).

Critique is secondary. A critique is always a critique of something, a commentary on another argument, idea, or object. Critique does not vaunt its self-sufficiency, independence, and autotelic splendor; it makes no pretense of standing alone. It could not function without something to critique, without another entity to which it reacts. Critique is symbiotic; it does its thinking by responding to the thinking of others. But while secondary, critique is far from subservient. It seeks to wrest from a text a different account than it gives of itself. In doing so, it assumes that it will meet with, and overcome, a resistance. If there were no resistance, if the truth were self-evident and available for all to see, the act of critique would be superfluous. Its goal is not the slavish reconstruction of an original or true meaning but a counter-reading that brings previously unfathomed insights to light.

The secondariness of critique is not just a logical matter—critique presumes the existence of a prior object—but also a temporal one. Critique comes after another text; it follows or succeeds another piece of writing. Critique, then, looks backward and, in doing so, it presumes to understand the past better than the past understands itself. Hindsight becomes insight; from our later vantage point, we feel ourselves primed to see better, deeper, further. The belatedness of critique is transformed into a source of iconoclastic strength. Scholars of Greek tragedy or Romantic poetry may mourn their inability to inhabit a vanished world, yet this historical distance is also felt as a productive estrangement that allows critical knowledge to unfold. Whatever the limitations of our perspective, how can we not know more than those who have come before? We moderns leave behind us a trail of errors, finally corrected, like a cloud of ink from a squid, remarks Michel Serres (48). There is, in short, a quality of historical chauvinism built into critique, making it difficult to relinquish a sense of in-built advantage over those lost souls stranded in the past. Critique likes to have the last word.

Critique is intellectual. Critique often insists on its difference from everyday practices of criticism and judgment. While criticism evaluates a specific object, according to one definition, “critique is concerned to identify the conditions of possibility under which a domain of objects appears” (Butler 109). Critique is interested in big pictures, cultural frameworks, underlying schema. It is a mode of thought well matched to the library and seminar room, to a rhythm of painstaking inquiry rather than short-term problem-solving. It “slows matters down, requires analysis and reflection, and often raises questions rather than providing answers” (Ruitenberg 348). Critique is thus irresistibly drawn toward self-reflexive thinking. Its domain is that of second-level observation, in which we reflect on the frames, paradigms, and perspectives that form and inform our understanding. Even if objectivity is an illusion, how can critical self-consciousness not trump the available alternatives?

This questioning of common sense is also a questioning of common language: self-reflexivity is a matter of form as well as content, requiring the deployment of what Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb call “difficult language” that can undermine or “un-write” the discourses that make up our world (1–14). Along similar lines, Paul Bove allies himself with a “tradition that insists upon difficulty, slowness, complex, often dialectical and highly ironic styles,” as an essential antidote to the “prejudices of the current regime of truth: speed, slogans, transparency, and reproducibility” (167). Critique, in short, demands an arduous working over of language, a stoic refusal of the facile phrase and ready-made formula. Yet such programmatic divisions between critique and common sense have the effect of relegating ordinary language to a state of automatic servitude, while condescending to those unschooled in the patois of literary and critical theory. Perhaps it is time to reassess the dog-in-the-manger attitude of a certain style of academic argument—one that assigns to scholars the vantage point of the lucid and vigilant thinker, while refusing to extend this same capacity to those naïve and unreflecting souls of whom they speak.

Critique comes from below. Politics and critique are often equated and conflated in literary studies and elsewhere. Critique is iconoclastic in spirit; it rails against authority; it seeks to lay bare the injustices of the law. It is, writes Foucault, the “art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability” (194). This vision of critique can be traced back to Marx and is cemented in the tradition of critical theory associated with the Frankfurt School. Critique conceives of itself as coming from below, or being situated at the margins; it is the natural ally of excluded groups and subjugated knowledges; it is not just a form of knowledge but a call to action.

But who gets to claim the mantle of opposition, and on what grounds? In a well-known essay, Nancy Fraser remarks that critical theory possesses a “partisan though not uncritical identification” with oppositional social movements (97). As underscored by Fraser’s judicious insertion of the phrase “not uncritical,” critique guards its independence and reserves the right to query the actions and attitudes of the oppressed as well as the oppressors. Thus the intellectual’s affiliation with a larger community may collide with a commitment to the ethos of critique, as the object of a more heartfelt attachment. A separation occurs, as Francois Cusset puts it, “between academics questioning the very methods of questioning” and the more immediate concerns of the minority groups with which they are allied (157).

One possible strategy for negotiating this tension is to flag one’s solidarity with a general principle of otherness or alterity—often identified with the utopian or disruptive energies of the literary text. This strategy gives critique a shot in the arm, infusing it with a dose of positive energy and ethical substance, yet without being pinned down to the ordinariness of a real-world referent. This deliberate vagueness permits critique to nurture its mistrust of the routines and practices through which the everyday business of the world is conducted, while remaining open to the possibility of a radically different future. Critique in its positive aspects thus remains effectively without content, gesturing toward a horizon that must remain unspecified if it is not to lapse into the same fallen state as the modes of thought that surround it (Fish 446).

Critique does not tolerate rivals. Declaring itself uniquely equipped to diagnose the perils and pitfalls of representation, critique often chafes at the presence of other forms of thought. Ruling out the possibility of peaceful co-existence or even mutual indifference, it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them. In this manner, whatever is different from critique is turned into the photographic negative of critique—evidence of an irrefutable lack or culpable absence. To refuse to be critical is to be uncritical; a judgment whose overtones of naiveté, apathy, complacency, submissiveness, and sheer stupidity seem impossible to shrug off. In short, critique thinks of itself as exceptional. It is not one path, but the only conceivable path. Drew Milne pulls no punches in his programmatic riff on Kant: “to be postcritical is to be uncritical: the critical path alone remains open” (18).

The exceptionalist aura of critique often thwarts attempts to get outside its orbit. Sociologist Michael Billig, for example, notes that critique thinks of itself as battling orthodoxy, yet is now the reigning orthodoxy—no longer oppositional, but obligatory, not defamiliarising, but oppressively familiar: “For an increasing number of younger academics,” he remarks, “the critical paradigm is the major paradigm in their academic world” (Billig 292). And in a hard-hitting argument, Talal Asad points out that critique is now a quasi-automatic stance for Western intellectuals, promoting a smugness of tone that can be cruelly dismissive of the deeply felt beliefs and attachments of others. Yet both scholars conclude their arguments by calling for a critique of critique, reinstating the very concept they have so meticulously dismantled. Critique, it seems, is not to be abandoned but intensified; critique is to be replaced by critique squared. The problem with critique, it turns out, is that it is not yet critical enough. The objections to critique are still very much part and parcel of the critique-world; the value of the critical is questioned only to be emphatically reinstated.

Why do these protestations against critique end up worshipping at the altar of critique? Why does it seem so exceptionally difficult to conceive of other ways of arguing, reading, and thinking? We may be reminded of Eve Sedgwick’s comments on the mimetic aspect of critical interpretation: its remarkable ability to encourage imitation, repetition, and mimicry, thereby ensuring its own reproduction. It is an efficiently running form of intellectual machinery, modeling a style of thought that is immediately recognisable, widely applicable, and easily teachable. Casting the work of the scholar as a never-ending labour of distancing, deflating, and diagnosing, it rules out the possibility of a different relationship to one’s object. It seems to grow, as Sedgwick puts it, “like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand” (131).

In this context, a change in vocabulary—a redescription, if you will—may turn out to be therapeutic. It will come as no great surprise if I urge a second look at the hermeneutics of suspicion. Ricoeur’s phrase, I suggest, can help guide us through the interpretative tangle of contemporary literary studies. It seizes on two crucial parts of critical argument—its sensibility and its interpretative method—that deserve more careful scrutiny. At the same time, it offers a much-needed antidote to the charisma of critique: the aura of ethical and political exemplarity that burnishes its negativity with a normative glow. Thanks to this halo effect, I’ve suggested, we are encouraged to assume that the only alternative to critique is a full-scale surrender to complacency, quietism, and—in literary studies—the intellectual fluff of aesthetic appreciation.  

Critique, moreover, presents itself as an essentially disembodied intellectual exercise, an austere, even abstemious practice of unsettling, unmaking, and undermining. Yet contemporary styles of critical argument are affective as well as analytical, conjuring up distinctive dispositions and relations to their object. As Amanda Anderson has pointed out in The Way We Argue Now, literary and cultural theory is saturated with what rhetoricians call ethos—that is to say, imputations of motive, character, or attitude. We need only think of the insouciance associated with Rortyan pragmatism, the bad-boy iconoclasm embraced by some queer theorists, or the fastidious aestheticism that characterises a certain kind of deconstructive reading. Critical languages, in other words, are also orientations, encouraging readers to adopt an affectively tinged stance toward their object. Acknowledging the role of such orientations in critical debate does not invalidate its intellectual components, nor does it presume to peer into, or diagnose, an individual scholar’s state of mind.

In a related essay, I scrutinise some of the qualities of a suspicious or critical reading practice: distance rather than closeness; guardedness rather than openness; aggression rather than submission; superiority rather than reverence; attentiveness rather than distraction; exposure rather than tact (215–34). Suspicion, in this sense, constitutes a muted affective state—a curiously non-emotional emotion of morally inflected mistrust—that overlaps with, and builds upon, the stance of detachment that characterises the stance of the professional or expert. That this style of reading proves so alluring has much to do with the gratifications and satisfactions that it offers. Beyond the usual political or philosophical justifications of critique, it also promises the engrossing pleasure of a game-like sparring with the text in which critics deploy inventive skills and innovative strategies to test their wits, best their opponents, and become sharper, shrewder, and more sophisticated players.

In this context, the claim that contemporary criticism has moved “beyond” hermeneutics should be treated with a grain of salt, given that, as Stanley Fish points out, “interpretation is the only game in town” (446). To be sure, some critics have backed away from the model of what they call “depth interpretation” associated with Marx and Freud, in which reading is conceived as an act of digging and the critic, like a valiant archaeologist, excavates a resistant terrain in order to retrieve the treasure of hidden meaning. In this model, the text is envisaged as possessing qualities of interiority, concealment, penetrability, and depth; it is an object to be plundered, a puzzle to be solved, a secret message to be deciphered. Instead, poststructuralist critics are drawn to the language of defamiliarising rather than discovery. The text is no longer composed of strata and the critic does not burrow down but stands back. Instead of brushing past surface meanings in pursuit of hidden truth, she dwells in ironic wonder on these surface meanings, seeking to “denaturalise” them through the mercilessness of her gaze. Insight, we might say, is achieved by distancing rather than by digging.

Recent surveys of criticism often highlight the rift between these camps, underscoring the differences between the diligent seeker after buried truth and the surface-dwelling ironist. From a Ricoeur-inflected point of view, however, it is their shared investment in a particular ethos—a stance of knowingness, guardedness, suspicion and vigilance—that turns out to be more salient and more striking. Moreover, these approaches are variously engaged in the dance of interpretation, seeking to go beyond the backs of texts or fellow-actors in order to articulate non-obvious and often counter-intuitive truths. In the case of poststructuralism, we can speak of a second-order hermeneutics that is less interested in probing the individual object than the larger frameworks and conditions in which it is embedded. What the critic interprets is no longer a self-contained poem or novel, but a broader logic of discursive structures, reading formations, or power relations.

Ricoeur’s phrase, moreover, has the singular advantage of allowing us to by-pass the exceptionalist tendencies of critique: its presumption that whatever is not critique can only be assigned to the ignominious state of the uncritical. As a less prejudicial term, it opens up a larger history of suspicious reading, including traditions of religious questioning and self-scrutiny that bear on current forms of interpretation, but that are occluded by the aggressively secular connotations of critique (Hunter). In this context, Ricoeur’s own account needs to be supplemented and modified to acknowledge this larger cultural history; the hermeneutics of suspicion is not just the brain-child of a few exceptional thinkers, as his argument implies, but a widespread practice of interpretation embedded in more mundane, diffuse and variegated forms of life (Felski 220).

Finally, the idea of a suspicious hermeneutics does not invalidate or rule out other interpretative possibilities—ranging from Ricoeur’s own notion of a hermeneutics of trust to more recent coinages such as Sedgwick’s “restorative reading,” Sharon Marcus’s “just reading” or Timothy Bewes’s “generous reading.” Literary studies in France, for example, is currently experiencing a new surge of interest in hermeneutics (redefined as a practice of reinvention rather than exhumation) as well as a reinvigorated phenomenology of reading that elucidates, in rich and fascinating detail, its immersive and affective dimensions (see Citton; Macé). This growing interest in the ethos, aesthetics, and ethics of reading is long overdue. Such an orientation by no means rules out attention to the sociopolitical resonances of texts and their interpretations. It is, however, no longer willing to subordinate such attention to the seductive but sterile dichotomy of the critical versus the uncritical.


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Author Biography

Rita Felski, University of Virginia

Rita Felski is William R. Kenan, Jr, Professor of English, University of Virginia, and Editor of New Literary History.