Say what you will about his politics – although it’s probably best to say as little as possible – but Paul de Man was an extraordinary writer. And he formulated some of his most powerful sentences in his 1979 volume Allegories of Reading. “Faced with the truth of its nonexistence, the self” implicated in language “would be consumed as an insect is consumed by the flame that attracts it” (111). “[A]ll being, as the ground for entities, may be linguistically … a correlative of speech acts” (123). Or this one, a kind of summation of so much of his thought: “Rhetoric is a text in that it allows for two incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view, and therefore puts an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any reading or understanding” (131).
De Man’s point is actually a familiar one in his critical archive. Texts operate simultaneously in mutually exclusive registers. They do things and they are things, and we either suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to be transported by poems, narratives, legal contracts, news reports, and all the myriad forms through which we communicate – we either allow texts to do things, to move us – or else we step back and evaluate, analyze, and criticize the mechanisms through which such movement occurs. That is, we either find ourselves swept along by the force of language or else we reflect on the mechanisms of that force, and thereby break the textual spell. It is a product of our mortal condition that we cannot simultaneously feel and know the effects of language. And for that reason, language is never truthful. Or rather, it tells contradictory truths.
This grand peroration in de Man’s 1979 volume needed the force he summoned for it, for the idea he was articulating was not in itself worthy of much attention. I say this not only because de Man had (in books like Blindness and Insight) already been there and done that, but also because Paul Ricoeur, more than a decade earlier (in 1965), had published a major book, Freud and Philosophy, in which he characterized ideas like de Man’s as belonging to a deep-seated and, by that point, utterly conventional school of skepticism. Ricoeur called this body of work the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and he argued that it emerged in the nineteenth century with Marx and Nietzsche before arriving at theoretical maturity with Freud’s concept of the unconscious.
Of course, this story is well known. And by this point, so is the story of what came “after” suspicion. Modes of reading and interpretation predicated on very different principles – reading for surface effects, or for whimsy, or for empathy, or for healing – have become widespread. This year’s Humanities Center theme was even the title of an excellent 2009 essay by Rita Felski. There, Felski writes of inculcating among her students a mode of interpretive attention based on “the willingness to be patient” in registering the effects of a particular text, “to describe rather than prescribe, to look carefully at rather than through appearances,” and to attend, in every way, to “the irreducible complexity of everyday structures of experience” that express themselves in literature. Texts do so much more than play games of truth and lie.
But that raises new grounds of suspicion, does it not? Because one of the driving motivators of the post-suspicious (or neo-credulous?) school of thought has been postsecular criticism – more specifically, the “return to religion,” to faith, to belief. And that’s problematic, argues Gregg Lambert, for “return statements” – to religion, to the text, to history, and myriad other iterations – have been common since Heidegger’s famous Kehre (his “turn”) in the 1930s. And such returns rarely (only) do what they say they’re doing.
Felski and Lambert are the guests this year for our Humanities Center Annual Symposium and Annual Lecture, respectively. Along with their visits, we will hold other events (around language, media, area studies, literature, and the religious imagination – yes, including the “return to religion”) that pose questions of whether the humanities actually have moved, or should move, beyond suspicion. And, if so, what does that mean several years after “After Suspicion,” now that humanists have had time to think and live otherwise – that is, to reflect on something other than, as de Man put it, the “insurmountable obstacle[s] in the way of any reading or understanding”?