From Suspicion to Solidarity?

by Stephen Squibb

The prefix ‘post-’ has, for some time, served as an intellectual gesture of enclosure, demarcating the limits of something in an effort to think around or beyond it. Post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, or post-Newtonianism, to name but four such formulations, each operate by defining what modernism, structuralism, Marxism, or Newtonianim consists in, respectively, in order to better locate its limits and effects. The post-critical is no different: as the conversation has developed, it has become necessary to specify a working definition of the critical, and no one has done more to advance such a definition than Rita Felski, who, in a series of bracingly clear essays, links the current paradigm of criticality to what Paul Ricoeur has called ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion.’ In what follows, I examine some of Felski’s claims and return briefly to Ricoeur, before laying out one possible alternative to ‘suspicious reading,’ which I call allied reading, or reading in solidarity.

A suspicious reading, as Felski describes it, is a symptomatic one, whereby the text is taken to be an expression of some deeper process that it falls to the critic to diagnose. Whether physician or prosecutor, the suspicious critic is understood to be working against the articulated agency of the text in order to reveal what it conceals, consciously or otherwise. In an essay from 2012, “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Felski makes the case for thinking suspicion and critique in close proximity. This is necessary, she avers, first of all because the partisans of suspicion don’t see themselves as such:

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. (Felski 2012)

In another essay, “Suspicious Minds,” Felski offers the detective story as the implicit model for suspicious reading: wherein the critic, alone in unjust world, pursues the guilt of the text not out of any misguided belief in the possibility of justice, but strictly for its own sake. But since this pulp fantasy is hardly a respectable position for a scholar, the concept of critique, which is “marred by none of these disadvantages,” circulates in place of suspicion:

An unusually powerful, flexible and charismatic idea, [critique] has rendered itself ubiquitous and indispensable in literary and cultural studies. [It] is widely seen as synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo. (Felski 2011)

This is not only true in literary and cultural studies, I would argue, but also in the discourse surrounding contemporary art, where critique’s effects, both enervating and not, are even more apparent. Critique is the dominant regulative ideal for what Bourdieu calls ‘the restricted field of cultural production,’ or the body of art and literature produced primarily for consumption within elite institutional frameworks, by other cultural producers. Indeed, the teaching of critical theory is increasingly limited to private institutions of education. The more exclusive the educational trajectory, the earlier a student is taught critical theory. Anecdotally: nobody taught critical theory at my public high school, but my friends who went to Horace Mann in New York or Crossroads in LA (arguably the two most elite private schools in the country) had all read Foucault by their third year.

While I take Felski’s suspicions—ha!about the centrality of suspicion to critique to be extremely well-founded, nevertheless, it is worth turning to Ricoeur to flesh out, a little, the background to this discussion. Ricoeur introduces suspicion in the opening of Freud & Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, where he writes: “A general theory of interpretation would have two account for… two interpretations of interpretation, the one as recollection of meaning, the other as the reduction of illusions and lies of consciousness… Three masters, seemingly mutually exclusive, dominate the [second] school of suspicion: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.” The intention all three had in common, he claims, is the “decision to look on all of consciousness primarily as ‘false’ consciousness.” Crucially, howeverand lest this contribute too perfectly to the momentum of our seminar in post-critical interpretation!Ricoeur goes on to say that:

All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a ‘destructive’ critique but by the invention of an art of interpreting…. What must be faced, therefore, is not only a threefold suspicion, but a threefold guile. If consciousness is not what it thinks it is, a new relation must be instituted between the patent and the latent… For Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, the fundamental category of consciousness is the relation hidden-shown or, if you prefer, simulated-manifested. (first emphasis mine) (33)

Thus it would appear that our masters of suspicion, at least according to the original articulation of them as such, are not anti-interpretive critics at all; on the contrary. Indeed, the suspicious object for the masters is not a text, literary or otherwise, but consciousnessan essential difference, the full discussion of which would take us to the heart of the genre-distinction, as Habermas once put it, between philosophy and literature, and the role ‘critique’ plays in each. This cannot be done here, but suffice it to say, the attitude of each thinker towards literature is very different than their orientation towards consciousness. In fact, it was the opposite, and if I may anticipate my conclusion, I would argue that it would be difficult to find three greater allies of literature than Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. Consider. It is not from social science that Freud borrows the name of his celebrated complex! Nor is it from philosophy that Nietzsche borrows the contrast between the Dionysian and the Apollonian! And Marx had no greater companion throughout his life and work than Shakespeare, whom he cited constantly and carried with him, as it were, everywhere. In each case it is literatureactually drama, really, which is a discussion for another timethat supports, enables, even launches the project of suspicion. On the question of the libido, money and morality respectively, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche stand with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Euripides against the ideological currents of the time. Far from being an expression of false consciousness, for the masters of suspicion, literature is the only thing that tells the truth, at least until they showed up on the scene.

And so perhaps we can say that it is precisely the severing of the alliance between suspicion and literature that has left us with the pernicious pattern of reading that Felski so effectively diagnoses. Why did this breakdown come about? The answer could and should be a book, but perhaps it becomes a little clearer when we examine the three models of suspicion, the psychoanalytic, the economic, and the genealogical, all of which share certain morphological similarities:





Master Figure




Dominant Style




Final Analyses 

The Unconscious

Mode of Production

Power Relations

Symptomatic Contradiction





One could, I think, write a very effective intellectual history of the twentieth century by charting the many affairs each strain of critique has had with the others; as in many such relations, there is usually a dominant partner. This is as true for Ricoeur as for any, who confesses, later in his book on Freud, his own attachment:

In the beginning (of the book) Freud is one combatant among many, in the end, he shall have become the privileged witness of the total combat… the issues raised by Marx and Nietzsche will gradually be seen to rise to the heart of the Freudian question as questions of language, culture and ethics. (60)

Language, culture and ethics: one could do worse for a final vocabulary of ‘the critical,’ as we are here considering it. For if one really wants to understand the end of the alliance between suspicion and literature, one has to recognize the triumph of language as the fundamental object of scholarship, not only for economic and psychoanalytic models of literary-critical suspicion, but for social science more generally. As Jonathan Culler has it in The Literary In Theory, “Theory” probably began when Jakobson introduced Levi-Strauss to the phonological model that led, more or less directly, to the creation of structural anthropology, which led, in turn, to the hegemony of this ‘new science’ of language. And, as language became the skeleton key for the social writ large, the discourse of suspicion adjusted accordingly, rethinking its traditional ends in linguistic terms. This is clear enough with Lacanfor whom the unconscious is ‘structured like a language’but also for Derrida, whose differance, he is everywhere keen to stress, is an ‘economic concept.’[1] It is Foucault, oddly enough, coming from within the tradition most naturally suspicious of language, whose equation of power with knowledge actually succeeded in breaking with linguistic fundamentalism. And this is why it was Foucault who lit the road out of High Theory and into the New Historicism, not by limiting suspicion, crucially, but by perfecting it, as every moment of resistance was found to serve the total institutional equilibrium called power. This underlying continuity of suspicion is what links the New Historicism and what came before it despite, as Felski points out, otherwise profound differences in tone and style. In either case, the centrality of structural linguistics to twentieth-century social thought was the condition of possibility for suspicious reading, as any given instance of language is as good as any other for demonstrating how its coercive properties disrupt its existence as a stable object for transparent science. 

It its perhaps not surprising then that now as linguistic fundamentalism (as initially consolidated by Levi-Strauss) has been replaced with network fundamentalism (as initially consolidated by Bruno Latour) the contours of critique have come up for reexamination.[2] 

And so this returns us to the question of the regulative ideal: what comes after suspicion? My answer, already indicated, is solidarityor allied reading. I prefer this to ‘surface reading,’ ‘generous reading,’ or the ‘hermeneutics of trust’ which Ricoeur originally intended to discipline with suspicion, chiefly because solidarity is strategic, rather than simply charitable, virtuous, or advisable (though it may be these as well). We do not practice solidarity out of some elevated, unsustainable commitment, but out of necessity. Following Latour, some of the first steps in this direction have dwelt on the conception of the text as an agent within a network. It is important to point out, however, that the agency of the text was never in question: the text reconciles for Jameson, overflows for Derrida, disciplines for Foucault. The difference between suspicion and solidarity would then concern less the agency of the textwhich if anything has been excessiveand more the existence of other agents, outside the text, which confront it as interpreters, ideologists, moralists and quacks and which serve as checks or lubricants for its freedom. The text is within a network, certainly, but within this network it has allies and antagonists that it encounters at different times and in different ways. It is not simply that Balzac’s text reconciles the contradictions at work in the mode of production, for example. It also participates in their articulation as contradictions. Who or what is the source for the conflict rendered as contradiction? Who or what is allied with the text in the larger project of social articulation? The solidarity in ‘solidarity reading’ would not then refer to the political identity of the author, but rather to the frame in which multiple and conflicting struggles solidify around, through and within a text. In contrast to treating the text like a defendant or a patient, we might treat it like a witness, or like an anesthesiologist, whose contribution is to a process in which both text and interpreter are participants. Marx demonstrates as much in the Manuscripts when he writes: “Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money. To understand him, let us begin, first of all, by expounding the passage from Goethe.”[3] Clearly, for Marx, it is not Shakespeare or Goethe that deserves our suspicion, but money, whose real nature they help us to understand. The truth of money is not buried in Shakespeare and in need of excavation, but is, on the contrary, buried in money, and revealed only in an alliance with the text (Timon of Athens, in this case). 

Behind this idea of reading for solidarity lies the idea that identity of whatever kind is neither primordial and stable nor infinitely proliferating, but instead freezes or melts in response to particular alliances and enmities. It is precisely because the text is not one, in other words, that it is necessary now to read for the ways in which it accounts for one-ness, and is, itself, so counted.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. The Literary in Theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

---. “Politics and Friendship.” Interview with Michael Sprinker in The Althusserian Legacy London: Verso, 1992.

Felski, Rita. “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” M/C Journal 15:1 (March 2012).

---. “Suspicious Minds.” Poetics Today 32:2 (Summer 2011).

---. “After Suspicion.” Profession 8 (2009): 28–35.

Galloway, Alexander R. “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism” Critical Inquiry 39 (Winter 2013).

Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

[1] See Grammatology,  page 23; also note the phrase ‘in the last instance,’ in the essay Differance, which recalls Engels description of the role of ‘the economic’ in his letters.  And if we compare Althusser’s critique of Levi-Strauss to Derrida’s, we find the most explicit equation, as ‘mode of production’ defeats Levi-Strauss transparent science of language in Althusser’s account in precisely the same way as differance does in Derrida’s, written four months later. I find this equation: differance = mode of production useful. Derrida almost admits as much in his interview on Althusser with Michael Sprinker, where he claims to be ‘More Marxist than [the Marxists]”

[2] I borrow ‘network fundamentalism’ from Alexander R. Galloway.


Stephen Squibb's picture
Stephen Squibb is a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University, where he works on the intersection of drama and the philosophy of social science.

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