Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion
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for a discredited model of “depth” interpretation—the dogged pursuit of a hidden true meaning—that has supposedly been superseded by more sophisticated forms of thinking.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.