“The hermeneutics of suspicion” does not just describe the recent history of criticism; it redescribes it, giving us a fresh slant on the state of the field. Coined several decades ago by Paul Ricoeur, the phrase has acquired a new salience for literary and cultural critics. Its presence signals a shift away from the broad philosophical or political questions associated with “theory” to a new concern with the specifics of method: how and why we read. (See, for example, the surge of interest in close reading versus distant reading, depth reading versus surface reading, and so on.)  

In the last few decades, many scholars of literature have thought of themselves as engaged in something called “critique.” The idea of critique is highly charismatic as well as powerfully normative (what scholar, after all, wants to be associated with the shame of the uncritical?) As a result, it becomes exceptionally difficult to wiggle out from under its grip and to imagine other ways of reading or reasoning.

What happens when we redescribe critique as a hermeneutics of suspicion? Ricoeur’s phrase is far more ecumenical, leaving ample room for other ways of reading. (A hermeneutics of suspicion, for example, can co-exist with a hermeneutics of trust or a hermeneutics of recollection.) It allows us to define critical and suspicious reading as one possible method among others rather than the manifest destiny and telos of literary studies. The reference to suspicion, moreover, invites us to think about the role of affect in scholarly life. We tend to think of scholarship as a matter of argument and interpretation, but it is also a matter of what I call “critical mood.” What kinds of attitudes or dispositions does criticism display? How do its affective tones shape our work? Consider literary critique’s distinctive sensibility: knowing, distrustful, self-conscious, hard-headed, tirelessly vigilant. The critic advances holding a shield, scanning the horizon for possible enemies, forever fearful of being tricked or taken in. Why has this sensibility proved so seductive and in what ways does it constrict or constrain us?

What about Ricoeur’s second word, hermeneutics? Suspicion is, I would argue, an intrinsically hermeneutic stance in its unflinching vigilance and refusal to take meanings at face value. Ricoeur’s phrase thus allows us to identify commonalities between methods that are often depicted as very different: ideology critique and postructuralist critique. The former draws on metaphors of depth and imagines the critic as digging for hidden truths (e.g., Freudian archaeology); the latter emphasizes the act of distancing rather than digging and imagines the critic standing back from discursive surfaces in order to defamiliarize them via the imperturbability of her gaze (Foucauldian genealogy). In both cases the suspicious reader retrieves non-obvious, counter-intuitive, and unflattering meanings; she engages, in other words, in acts of interpretation.

Once we face up to these rhetorical and attitudinal aspects of critique, it becomes harder to sustain any sense of its exceptionalism—its intrinsic superiority vis-à-vis other forms of thinking and writing. While critique is often hailed for puncturing or deflating schemes, it is also an identifiable scheme in its own right—a blend of figures of speech, turns of phrase, moral dramas and melodramas, affective nuances, and stylistic tics. In this light, it is no longer evident that suspicion should be the last word on either the aesthetics or the politics of interpretation. Are there other ways of thinking about the social lives of text, more compelling combinations of mood and method?