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The apotheosis of superficial, deceptively clear, yet ideologically complicit language, the cliché is the ultimate “usual suspect” of symptomatic or suspicious reading. This essay recounts the trials of cliché in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a prehistory to the Marxist and psychoanalytic lineage of critique. But cliché proves a slippery object of critique. Resistant to formal analysis, obviating a hermeneutics of suspicion, yet promiscuous and ubiquitous, cliché points us toward language’s materiality: its use, frequency, heft, sound, texture, etc. A phenomenology of cliché—as modeled by Roland Barthes’s method in A Lover’s Discourse (1977)—offers an alternative to critique. The essay closes with a phenomenological reading of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), a pulp fiction work that uses cliché in ways we cannot simply dismiss as ideologically complicit or salutary. Rather, the heaping of cliché in this novel serves to index affects that are otherwise inexpressible.

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