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  • Suspicious Minds
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo (bio)

We can't go on togetherWith suspicious mindsAnd we can't build our dreamsOn suspicious minds

—from Mark James's "Suspicious Minds" (1968) which in 1969 became Elvis Presley's last US number one single

Suspicion might be prime fodder for songwriters, but is it the proper way for students to read books? There has been a heated debate of late over this very question with the fate of the humanities appearing to hang in the balance.

Back in the early 1970s, the philosopher Paul Ricouer provided what has become the classic formulation of suspicious reading. In his book, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1970), Ricouer proposed two general directions for interpretation. One direction seeks to "purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all." The other direction "use[s] the most 'nihilistic,' destructive, iconoclastic movement so as to let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was its fullest." For Ricouer, hermeneutics, the art and technique of interpretting texts, is "animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience," a "tension" and "extreme polarity" that is the "truest expression of our 'modernity.'"

One direction he calls the "school of reminiscence" and the other the "school of suspicion." If the aim of the school of reminiscence is the restoration of meaning, then the aim of its opposite, the school of suspicion, is the demystification of meaning. For Ricouer, the three "masters" that dominate the school of suspicion are Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. Though their lines of thought are "seemingly mutually exclusive," "[a]ll three begin with suspicion concerning the illusions of consciousness, and then proceed to employ the stratagem of deciphering." Thus, for Ricouer, "the Genealogy of Morals in Nietzsche's sense, the theory of ideologies in the Marxist sense, and the theory of ideals and illusions in Freud's sense represent three convergent procedures of demystification."

Now, fifty years after Ricouer dubbed Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as the masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion, some scholars are arguing that these masters and their theoreticial legacies are at the root of the problems facing the humanities today. The shorthand way of terming their approach to interpretating texts and documents is the word critique—which is widely regarded as the modus operandi of the humanities. But if the humanities are indeed in peril, is it possible then to save them by simply rejecting critique, their modus operandi ? This "conviction," writes Rita Felski in her book The Limits of Critique (2015), is one that is "shared by a growing number of scholars." For these "postcritique" scholars, continues Felski, rejecting critique and its "rhetoric of suspicious reading in literary studies and in the humanities and interpretive sciences generally" is the solution to the woes facing the humanities.

While Felski, who currently holds the William R. Kenan Jr. Professorship of English at the University of Virginia and is also Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, recognizes the criticism that rejecting critique is tantamount to becoming a "pawn of neoliberal interests," she nonetheless tries to distance herself from the neoliberal agenda for the humanities by saying that her real motivation is elsewhere. Namely, it is "a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value." But in spite of her claims to articulate a "positive vision" for the humanities, Felski does the opposite. The postcritique that she promotes has produced a virulent and highly destructive form of antitheory, if not also, anti-humanities.

In a relatively short period of time, Felski has become the poster professor for attempting to unpopularize theory and its use in the humanities. Her high profile and higher funded postcritique movement, initiated just a few years ago, is an effort to move beyond the critique not only of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, but also a discernable though complex line of thought that runs from Immanuel Kant to Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, and contemporary thinkers such...


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