date: 14 March 2018
Form and Formalism in Western Literature and Theory
Summary and Keywords
From the Platonic ur-antiformalism, the reaction to which gave shape and purpose to classical and early modern literary theory, to the agon between form and history that dominated 20th-century literary criticism and pedagogy, the concept of form and the methodologies of its study (formalism) have at once grounded and challenged our understanding of literature. Is form an ornament or supplement to literature’s essential content, a component of literature’s meaning and function, or the very defining essence of the literary? Does form inhere in the macro-structures of literary mode and genre, the micro-structures of figure, style, and prosody, or the unique shape of the individual text? Does form stand apart and insulated from the vicissitudes of history and the pressures of ideology, is it the object (or agent) of historical and ideological determination, or does it provide us a vantage from which to understand and perhaps resist them? These questions and the variety of answers they have generated have shaped and continue to shape both the practice of literary studies and its status as an academic discipline.
Keywords: aesthetics, content, form, formalism, function, genre, history, historicism, New Criticism, Russian Formalism, structure, structuralism
The study of form has been integral to literary criticism and theory since their origins. The objects of that study have been many and varied, from literary mode (drama, narrative, lyric) to genre (comedy, tragedy, epic) and subgenre (novel of manners, detective novel), poetic form (ode, sonnet, villanelle) and prosody (meter, rhyme, alliteration), figurative language, and style, as well as the sui generis form of the individual text—a list neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. The methods by which those objects have been studied have varied as widely: “formalism” has been used by its practitioners, critics, and detractors to describe a range of theories and practices as conflictual as they are complementary. Despite—or perhaps more accurately, because of—their importance to our understanding of literature, form, and formalism are not fixed points of reference but instead are shaped and reshaped, programmatically and heuristically, by their mutual implication, as object influences method and method defines object; and both in turn are shaped by the cultural, ideological, and disciplinary imperatives that drive our understanding and use of literature.
The earliest uses, literary and otherwise, of “formalism” and its adjectival construction “formalist” were primarily derogatory: religious, literary, cultural, and other “formalists” were said to focus on “mere” form or external appearance rather than (and at the expense of) substance, meaning, and truth understood as internal, inherent, or essential.1 Yet if there is one thing upon which virtually all who might call themselves formalists would agree, one principle that unites the practice(s) of literary formalism, it is an understanding of form not as external or supplemental to, not as a container or ornament for an internal, essential content or meaning, but instead as an important constituent of content and integral to the production of meaning. Albeit by different means and to different ends, formalists reject the notion of “mere” or superficial form in favor of form as what Raymond Williams describes as “an essential shaping principle” that gives meaning and function to the “matter” or raw material of the text.2
Many formalist theorists have gone further still, treating form—however variously defined—not as a but as the constitutive feature of the literary text, the sine qua non of literature that distinguishes it from other discursive practices or epistemological projects. At the same time, however, it has proven impossible to speak of form without also discussing it in relation to a number of complementary concepts equally important to understanding literature, chief among them content, history, and function. If both formalists and anti-formalists alike have often positioned these concepts in opposition to form (as in “form vs content”), as the discussion that follows indicates, it is rather in relation to these and similar ideas that understandings of form and theories of formalism are developed and differentiated.
Classical Greek literary theory might be described as mimetic formalism: literature was understood as an imitation or representation, with certain genres or styles suited to the representation of certain types of content. The period’s first significant theoretical discussion of literature, in books II, III, and X of Plato’s Republic, reflects this formal awareness;3 yet Plato’s literary thinking must be described as antiformalist in two important senses. First, his treatment of literature is pointedly content oriented, generally at the level of incident, episode, or object, of raw “matter,” rather than the fullness of plot or developed character: a literary text is more a collection of imitations of people, things, and actions than a coherent whole. Those imitations, moreover, are of a decidedly inferior, tertiary character. When Plato speaks in praise of form, he invokes not literary form but a type of philosophical idealism: a form is the divinely created idea or informing essence of a thing or type of thing, which is imitated by the craftsman who creates its material manifestation (a haberdasher, for example, imitates the form or idea of a hat); the poet in turn imitates not the ideal form but its material imitation, a copy of a copy at a double remove from truth or knowledge.4 Plato’s primary quarrel with poetic mimesis, however, is not with the inferiority of its imitation but with its imitation of the inferior: in an effort to appeal to a popular audience, the poet imitates not only things he knows nothing about, but things—dishonorable acts, excessive emotion, vice rewarded—about which the inhabitants of Plato’s ideal Republic should know nothing, but which, having seen them imitated in literature, they will in turn be tempted to imitate themselves.5
When Plato does turn to literary form—from “matter” to “manner”6—it is to further his critique of content. Form for Plato is an attractive nuisance, an external enhancement or ornamentation that draws audiences to inappropriate content; this understanding of form as both supplemental and detrimental, which would prove highly influential, is the second sense in which Plato may be said to be antiformalist. Having considered and condemned various types of content, he calls for the prohibition of the meters and harmonies associated with their representation, rejecting all but the simplest and most moderate, best suited to noble content and least likely to arouse inappropriate passions: “we must not seek for complex rhythms or variety of metrical steps, but consider what are the rhythms of a manly and orderly life; then with this in view we must compel the foot and the melody to follow the words of such a life, not let the words follow the foot and melody.”7 Plato’s most sustained consideration of form is his discussion of the three literary modes—lyric, dramatic, and narrative—which he treats as styles of narration: “simple” narration in the voice of the poet or storyteller (exemplified by the lyric), “imitation”—in a narrower sense than the general notion of all poetry as imitation—in which the speaker takes on the voice of a character (as in drama), and the mixed mode that combines direct narration with the imitation of characters (as in the epic). It is the imitative mode, he concludes, that is the most dangerous, either on its own or mixed with narrative, and must consequently be restricted to the imitation of virtue with all else consigned to narration. The danger, however, lies less with the superior affective power of dramatic imitation on the audience than with its mimetic effect on the performer who would imitate, and thus become acclimatized to, inappropriate sentiments and actions.8 Eventually Plato abandons book III’s formal distinction between modes in favor of book X’s broader notion of all literature as imitation regardless of mode or style, equally dangerous in its appeal to emotion rather than reason, and narrowly restricts its acceptable contents to “hymns to the gods and encomiums of the good.”9
While Plato’s student Aristotle shares his teacher’s understanding of literature as imitation, where Plato is chiefly interested in content, Aristotle’s focus in his Poetics is on poetry’s “species and their respective capacities,” its “structure of plot,” and “the number and nature of [its] constituent parts”—and in this he may be said to be the first formalist critic.10 Aristotle distinguishes poetic forms based on their differing means (rhythm, language, harmony), manners (narrative, dramatic imitation, or their combination), and objects. He shares his understanding of the first two categories with Plato; but by “object” Aristotle means not Plato’s “matter” sorted by its ethical impact but rather a taxonomy of types of actions and agents whose differences constitute the genres—tragedy, for example, is about persons better than we are, while comedy is about persons worse than us.11
When Aristotle turns to the detailed treatment of tragedy that comprises the majority of the Poetics, however, it becomes clear that his formalism is not simply or primarily taxonomic, but what might be called an affective functionalism. The goal of tragedy, he explains, is the production of the tragic emotions, pity and fear; and its components—character types, plot trajectories, and specific elements like peripety and discovery—are discussed in terms of their efficacy in producing these effects in an audience. The overall aim is what Aristotle refers to as catharsis, a purification and/or purgation of the tragic emotions. What Aristotle intended by this is vexingly unclear, but it is often taken to point the way from a purely affective tragic function to a psychological, ethical, or social one—for example, the “pure” experience of pity in the safe and pleasurable confines of the theater as a means of preparing us to experience and act upon it in the “real world.”
Much of Aristotle’s account seems intended as a response to Plato, and the contrast between the two is clear. If Plato’s treatment of form is primarily proscriptive, less interested in accounting for the function of form than prohibiting its dangerous enticements, Aristotle’s is prescriptive, describing the elements of a “good poem” not in order to accord with a priori rules or concepts for their own sake but to assure the proper affective functioning of the form: where Plato would ban literature, Aristotle would optimize its use.12 Moreover, in treating content not as separate from but as both determined by and an element of form, Aristotle at once addresses Plato’s epistemological and moral concerns and offers a more nuanced and capacious account of literature. While the latter’s narrow notion of mimetic ethics condemns decontextualized elements of a poem’s content that are either incorrect or immoral, the former’s subordination of imitation to formal structure and effect requires us to consider the role of error and vice in the function of the work as a whole: where, for example, Plato condemns the depiction of erroneous judgment, Aristotle understands it to be a necessary element of the larger affective function of tragedy.
The fullest implications of Aristotle’s functionalist formalism as a response to Plato’s antiformalism would not be developed until the rediscovery and reinterpretation of both theorists’ work in the Renaissance. Perhaps the most representative—and certainly the best-known—literary thinker of this period was Sir Philip Sidney. Defending poetry against both Platonic and contemporary charges of falsehood and immorality, Sidney in his Apology for Poetry draws widely on classical and early modern European literary theory to offer an expansion of Aristotelian functionalist theory that explicitly includes a social function for form. Contrary to Plato’s denigration of literature as an imitation of an imitation, Sidney claims for literature the originary authority of the Platonic form: the essence of a work of literature is the “Idea or fore-conceit of the work” created—not copied—by the poet, who then represents or imitates it in “the work itself.”13 Because of the fictiveness of his medium, the poet is not restricted to the imitation of reality but “disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature . . .”14 Freed to improve on the example of nature, poetry is able to fulfill the Horatian mandate to both delight and teach, and in so doing moves its readers to virtuous action, “the ending end of all earthly learning.”15 In this way, Sidney claims, poetry is superior to the sciences and other disciplines—particularly history, which is bound by fact, and philosophy, whose dry precepts may teach but fail to delight and so to move. With this, Sidney responds to Plato’s critique of poetry as an inferior source of practical and ethical knowledge and offers one of the earliest fully formed examples of what would become a staple of literary, and especially formal, theory: the distinguishing of literature from the other disciplines by virtue of its function.
At the heart of this function lies form. Like his classical forebears, Sidney understands poetry to be divided by genre, “some of these being termed according to the matter they deal with, some by the sorts of verses they liked best to write in.”16 While acknowledging that verse is “but an ornament and no cause to poetry,” he notes its role, along with style and figurative language, in producing the delight that entices readers to the virtuous content they might otherwise resist. 17 More significantly, however, when Sidney speaks of “matter,” he is thinking not of the individual contents of a specific text that Plato focuses on but, like Aristotle, of the characters, plot structures, and subject matters associated with the various genres. However, Sidney adds to Aristotle’s understanding of genres having characteristic contents and corresponding emotional effects a specific social efficacy associated with each genre’s affective function: satire, for example, moves us to avoid the follies we laugh at, while the pity and fear inspired by tragedy’s depiction of the fall of great people “teacheth the uncertainty of this world” while warning both subject and ruler about the dangers of tyranny.18 By associating beneficial lessons with the genres’ formal structures, Sidney’s account of early modern social-functionalist formalism expands Aristotle’s response to the Platonic charge—echoed by the religious and social conservatives of Sidney’s time—that by depicting immoral persons and actions, literature invites their imitation. The larger affective and ideological impact of the formal structure contextualizes its individual elements so that “if evil men come to the stage, they ever go out . . . so manacled as they little animate folks to follow them.”19 In this way, Sidney presents form less as a container for than an enabler of and guide for the poetic imagination he celebrates, less an ornament than an essential element of the poet’s improvements on nature.
If Sidney offers a classically inspired theory of the function and value of form that reflects the creative innovation, formal awareness, and social engagement that characterized the flowering of early modern literature in which he was very much a participant, the Apology also embodies another classically derived aspect of the period’s literary theory: the hardening of classical precepts, originally offered in the service of poetic efficacy, into prescriptive rules based less on function than on classical authority or a “naturalness” grounded in longstanding precedent. The best known of these are the concepts of decorum and the dramatic unities. Decorum, which Horace describes as the self-consistency of the text, the appropriateness of the parts to the whole and of the whole to its circumstances, often functioned as a check on formal innovation or stylistic excess, imposing self-restraint through the cultural constraint of “good taste.” The dramatic unities, derived from Aristotle’s assertion that a play should comprise a single, whole action made up of closely connected incidents ideally confined to “a single circuit of the sun, or something near that,”20 calcified into the so-called unities of time (one day), place (one location, an idea with no Aristotelian precedent), and action (singular and unified). These and similar formal constraints coexist in the Apology, at times awkwardly, with Sidney’s celebration of creativity, so that the same author who could say of the combination of tragedy and comedy in tragicomedy that “if severed they be good, the conjunction cannot be hurtful,” could later refer to “mongrel tragi-comedy,” which in “mingling kings and clowns” achieves neither proper tragic nor comic effect.21 If Sidney’s prescriptivism is at least in part in the service of his functionalist theory of genre, by the height of the aptly designated neoclassical period, some 125 years later, these and similar formal rules had become “laws” derived from nature (“nature methodized,” as Alexander Pope put it in his Essay on Criticism, in the service of self-imposed restraint) and from a classical literary and critical canon that embodied these “natural” laws.22 However much some neoclassical critics—particularly those who, like John Dryden and Pope, were poets as well—acknowledged the necessity to at times break the rules, those violations were justified by the same overall goals as the rules themselves: a verisimilitude of content served by a decorous style whose social origins and function were mystified by their naturalization.
A sea change in the nature of formal criticism was instigated by the philosophical project of Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century. In seeking to distinguish pure (or epistemological) reason, practical (or ethical) reason, and aesthetic judgment, Kant proposes a radical separation of the latter from the criteria and purposes that govern the other two. Aesthetic judgment—the identification of the beautiful—cannot be based on criteria extrinsic to the aesthetic object itself, as such a judgment is not aesthetic but logical, a measurement of correspondence or conformity. This differentiation of the aesthetic precludes at once two of the heretofore essential categories of literary criticism: imitation and function. Aesthetic value does not lie in the mimetic reproduction of content, which requires comparison with an external object according to an extrinsic standard of accuracy; nor does it reside in the aesthetic object’s function, which relies on a purpose beyond the object itself and a judgment based on the fulfillment of that purpose. This leaves, as the source of the beauty that is the proper object of aesthetic judgement, form. It is an understanding of form, however, stripped not only of function (whether Aristotelian/affective or Sidneian/socio-ethical, both of which have emotional or ideological goals extrinsic to the aesthetic) but also of the generic, prosodic, and stylistic conventions that are the basis of virtually all prior formal theory, the adherence to which, Kant argues, subject the art object not to aesthetic judgment but to logical evaluation by an extrinsic standard. Aesthetic form is, in Kant’s construction, “purposiveness without purpose”: it aims for or answers to no external, objective goal or standard, yet is purposive in that it gives an impression of being more than a collection of elements, an impression of unity, harmony, or coherence not with reference to an objective standard, but intrinsic to the aesthetic object itself.23 One might characterize this fundamental shift in the focus of formalist thought as one from extrinsic forms to which the work of art conforms, to intrinsic form proper to the singular work that it informs. The result is, depending on one’s perspective, either a purification of form as the defining characteristic of the aesthetic object, one that elevates the work of art by freeing it from subservience to external considerations; or a deracination of form that strips it of its social meaning and function. The influence, direct and indirect, of Kant’s work has been extensive, from the Romantic poets’ privileging of organic form over mechanical form (Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a predetermined form . . . The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes, as it develops, from within”24), which they used to escape from the perceived straitjacket of neoclassicism’s very different understanding of “natural” form; to the late 19th-century notion of “art for art’s sake” that asserted the freedom of art from any social or moral function or obligation. More generally, Kant’s case for the autonomy of the aesthetic meant that no subsequent theory of form could take for granted the fact or nature of form’s relationship to external causation and function.
Formalist Theory and the Discipline of Literary Studies
Following the spread of Kant’s ideas, the next significant event in the history of formalism was not theoretical but disciplinary. Around the turn of the 20th century, literary criticism began to develop as a discipline or professional field of study both inside and outside the academy, and like-minded groups or “schools” of critics—self-identified and otherwise—emerged. This professionalization of literary study affected not only how literary criticism was practiced, but also how its object, literature, was conceptualized and theorized. Among the first of these groups was Russian Formalism, which flourished between 1915 and 1930 in Moscow and Petrograd; its leading members included Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Tomashevsky, and Roman Jakobson. The Formalists rejected Kantian aesthetics and other evaluative theories of beauty and value, as well as prescriptive theories of function, in favor of a descriptive study of the nature of the literary object itself—a science of literature. Their foundational premise was disciplinary: they sought to establish literary criticism as an autonomous field with its own object of study, not—as they perceived to be the case in the established critical methodologies of the time—indebted to or a subset of other disciplines.25 The study of literary content, authorial motivation, and social effect were the provinces of fields like history and psychology; the proper object of literary study was not then these areas but “literariness”—that which makes literature uniquely itself.26 To at once establish and distinguish their emergent method, the Formalists turned not to history or philosophy but to linguistics, as the two fields share a common raw material, language, which they approach very differently. Drawing a distinction between “practical” language (the domain of linguistics) and “poetic” language (the sphere of literary science), the Formalists claimed that while the goal of the former is effective communication, the function of the latter is to call attention to the medium itself, impeding or disrupting transparent referentiality through a use of language that exceeds the requirements of the communication of content. The vehicle for this disruption and excess, and thus the proper focus of literary criticism, is form, conceived as a set of devices or techniques employed not—as past formalisms held—to enhance meaning but to slow the reader and arrest his attention. No particular form or type of form is requisite—Formalist criticism ranges from poetry to prose, from sound to rhythm to figurative language to narrative structure—nor is the mere presence of formal devices enough to qualify a work as literary; the essential feature of literariness is the disruptive effect of those devices. In contrast to neoclassical decorum, Romantic organicism, and Kantian beauty alike, for the Russian Formalists form is not a vehicle for harmony, ease, or unity but a means of impeding, roughening, and making difficult. Theirs is, moreover, not a concept of form as a container or even a shaper of content, but of form as content, as the substance or significance of the work of literature; content in the conventional sense of story or subject matter becomes a vehicle of or excuse for the formal devices that constitute the text’s literary efficacy.27
In this sense, the Russian Formalist understanding of form might be called a species of functionalism, albeit one that, in theory, is proper to the literary realm itself rather than subordinate to social or even affective concerns. Shklovsky describes this effect as ostraneniye or “making strange,” usually translated as defamiliarization: form disrupts our habituated, unthinking habits of perception by troubling and slowing the process and in so doing engaging our awareness of it. The focus of that defamiliarized awareness is not, however, the object depicted, but the process or nature of its depiction, its form: “Art,” writes Shklovsky, “is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”28 Put another way, the goal of formal defamiliarization is not the communication of meaning, not an enhanced or altered knowledge of the object, but an altered way of seeing: “it creates a ‘vision’ of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it.”29 Shklovsky’s examples, however, often belie this purity of function, pointing the way toward a connection between defamiliarization and social critique: the attention demanded by a defamiliarized depiction of a flogging, for example, “is typical of Tolstoy’s way of pricking the conscience.”30 For the most part, however, Formalist readings focus on form and style to the at-times perverse exclusion of social or other content, often to strikingly original effect.
This stance on the relationship between literature and society informs the Russian Formalists’ approach to the causes as well as the effects of literature, as evidenced by their treatment of literary history. The Formalists acknowledge the potential role of historical events and social forces in the development and succession of literary forms, but set such causation aside as extrinsic to literariness: the “historical-genetic” approach, Eichenbaum asserts, “can elucidate only origin and nothing more, while for poetics the elucidation of literary function is vital.”31 Instead, they treat the history of form as intrinsic, self-contained and self-motivated, as dominant forms and formal techniques lose their defamiliarizing effect over time and are replaced by newer forms—sometimes drawn from outside the literary sphere—better able to seize the reader’s attention: “New form comes about not in order to express new content but in order to replace an old form that has already lost its artistic viability.”32 If these new forms have roots in extraliterary culture, or consequent extraliterary effects on readers, those concerns are by and large left to the historians.
Russian Formalism’s principled exclusion of form’s historical sources and functions would eventually contribute to its demise. In an essay written in the 1920s, while praising the Formalists for turning literature in the direction of science, Marxist theorist and polemicist Leon Trotsky argued that in refusing to consider the “objective social dependence and social utility of art,” the Formalist method was “necessary, but insufficient” to an understanding of literature—that formal analysis was an important first step but without a subsequent turn to the social “[t]he effort to set art free from life, to declare it a craft self-sufficient unto itself, devitalizes and kills art.”33 By 1930, as Soviet Marxism hardened into orthodoxy, Trotsky’s theoretical refutation was replaced by state repression of the Formalists, who either abandoned criticism or adapted their methodology to meet the state’s demands. But Trotsky’s argument for a historically informed formalism, if not the ideological impetus behind it, would become a recurring element in the ongoing critical debate about form, history, and politics.
Shortly after the death of the Formalist movement in Russia, the United States saw the birth of the most enduring and influential school of formalism to date, the New Criticism. Developing out of the socially conservative Agrarian movement in the 1930s American South, New Criticism’s chief exponents included Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. Like the Russian Formalists, the New Critics sought to define literary criticism as a separate, independent discipline with its own autonomous object of study—though unlike the Formalists, who were dismissive of the academic criticism of their time, the New Critics were primarily university professors with an interest in academic disciplinarity. This insistence on the autonomy of literary criticism and its object is at the heart of two of New Criticism’s best-known doctrines. The intentional fallacy—or the error of devoting critical attention to authorial intent—dismisses the value of psychology and biography to literary study, arguing that the only intent relevant to criticism is that realized by—and thus discernable in—the work itself. Included in this exclusion is any historical circumstance or political intent that might have influenced the author, which—unless manifest in the text—belongs to the historian or political scientist rather than the literary critic. Only that evidence that is internal to the work itself through its use of language is relevant to the critic.34 Similarly, the affective fallacy—or the mistake of exploring the text’s emotional, imaginative, ethical, or other effects on the reader—dismisses these concerns as proper to psychology or history, perhaps related to but beyond the bounds of the meaning of the text that is the critic’s true object. As with intention, affect is relevant to criticism only as a correlative to the fixed and stable objects of the poem itself, not when dependent on the historically variable vagaries of audience response: “though cultures have changed and will change, poems remain and explain: and there is no legitimate reason why criticism, losing sight of its durable and peculiar objects, poems themselves, should become a dependent of social history or of anthropology.”35
Like the Russian Formalists, then, the New Critics’ severing of literature from historical cause and effect is a theoretical principle driven by disciplinary distinction. Yet while the New Critics might claim that criticism “must become more scientific” to claim its proper and independent place among the academic disciplines and university departments,36 unlike the Russian Formalists they describe their critical practice and its goal not as, but in opposition to, science. Where science is abstract and analytic, breaking down and simplifying in order to clarify its object, literary criticism focuses on the concrete, inclusive, unified nature of the text; its goal is less a reductive analysis or description than a full experience of the text, acknowledging and exploring rather than simplifying or resolving its complexity. If the goal of science is a version of paraphrase—an abstractive simplification of complexity—to the New Critics paraphrase is heresy, a misrepresentation and a betrayal of the literariness of literature.37 In this way the New Criticism self-consciously offers an epistemological alternative to what they perceived as the hegemonic spread of scientific thought in the mid-20th century.
The vehicle for New Critical complexity and its unification or resolution is not the text’s paraphraseable content but its irreducible form. But while New Criticism is acutely alert to the conventional formal devices that lend themselves to producing the sort of complexity and eliciting the sort of perception it is interested in—chiefly paradox, irony, ambiguity, and metaphor—unlike Russian Formalism its focus is less on the specific formal elements that make up a text than on the singular intrinsic form of the individual poem (and given their interests, poetry was generally the preferred textual form for the New Critics’ analysis). Form, in this sense, is that which unifies the poem, reconciling the conflicts and contradictions of its figurative devices not through adjudication or scientific reason but through a process of acknowledgment and accommodation inseparable from the experience of the poem itself: “The characteristic unity of a poem . . . lies in the unification of attitudes into a hierarchy subordinated to a total and governing attitude . . . The unity is achieved by a dramatic process, not a logical; it represents an equilibrium of forces, not a formula.”38 Understood in this way, form is not a container for a paraphraseable content; instead content in the conventional sense is the material upon which form works to produce the unity that is at once the poem’s true content and its meaning.39 The New Critical notion of form has been described, not inappropriately, as neo-Kantian: not rooted in adherence to external conventions but rather intrinsic and autonomous, purposive in its coherence but beholden to no purpose but its own unity, which assumes the status of Kant’s “beauty” as the criterion of artistic success.
Like the Russian Formalists’ defamiliarization, New Critical unity has implications for our understanding of the literary object that its practitioners were reluctant to explore because they pointed toward a function beyond the literary effect itself. But while defamiliarization seemed to invite a potentially radical reappraisal of the object that it casts in a new light, New Criticism’s emphasis on the unification of conflict and contradiction in a stable, hierarchical whole might be taken, as many critics have noted, to imply a sociopolitical quietism. Yet while the Russian Formalists’ unwillingness to take up the historical and political sources and functions of formal analysis may have contributed to their suppression by the Soviet state, New Criticism’s refusal of historical engagement and political relevance, coupled with the conservative implications of its methodology, undoubtedly helped it thrive in its own historical circumstances. At a time of rapid expansion in American higher education, New Criticism offered an uncontroversial and accessible critical practice that did not require, and indeed seemed to discourage, prior training in other disciplines or knowledge of established canons of taste; the self-contained New Critical “close reading,” unpacking the complexities of literary texts and revealing (or producing) their internal coherence without reference to historical implication or ideological effect, came to dominate the teaching of English, especially in the United States, to the extent that in the middle decades of the 20th century it became synonymous not merely with formalism but with literary criticism itself. If New Critical formalism contributed to the opening of doors for those previously excluded from higher education, it may at the same time have circumscribed their ability to use that education as a means of sociopolitical engagement.
While New Criticism was dominating American academic literary criticism, the seeds of Russian Formalism were taking root in Europe in the form of Structuralism. Like the Formalists, the Structuralists found their inspiration in linguistics, and particularly the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure’s theory is based on the distinction between langue (language system) and parole (individual utterance), and his focus is on the former: the elements of language, the relations between them, and the rules for their combination that govern the construction of individual utterances and make them meaningful to others functioning within the same system.40 This structure/instance distinction has proven to be an extremely powerful critical tool, applicable not only to language but to virtually any discourse, cultural formation, or signifying system, and the influence of Structuralist methodology was felt widely in the human sciences, from myth-criticism to anthropology to the analysis of fashion. In literary studies, structuralism took a variety of forms.41 One important version, championed by Roman Jakobson, whose post-Formalist role in the Prague School of linguistics provides a direct link between Russian Formalism and Structuralism, understands literary language to be a species of language in general, characterized by its foregrounding of one of language’s functions, its self-referentiality or “focus on the message for its own sake” rather than (or at the expense of) its denotative or communicative function.42 Jakobson’s description of the “poetic function” is obviously similar to the Formalists’ account of the function of literary form, but while the latter use that function to distinguish literature as a separate entity and area of study, Jakobson emphasizes literature’s continuity with other types of language. Though literature foregrounds self-reference, the function is nonetheless present in all language, a part of its overall structure; and the other parts of that structure are also present, to lesser degrees, in literature: the difference is one of degree, not kind. Consequently, “the linguistic study of the poetic function must overstep the limits of poetry, and, on the other hand, the linguistic scrutiny of poetry cannot limit itself to the poetic function.”43
Other versions of Structuralism treat the literature–language relationship not as synecdochal but as analogical, approaching literature not as a subset of language but as a discourse that, like language, could be analyzed to determine the elements, rules, and structures that constitute its “grammar.” Some, like A. J. Greimas, very nearly literalize the metaphor, treating narratives as complex sentences in which characters, actions, and characteristics function like nouns, verbs, and adjectives, whose combinatory rules govern the possibilities of narrative form and meaning.44 Other literary structuralists treat the familiar formal conventions of literature or its genres—prosody, figurative language, plot trajectory—as the elements that make up the structure of a literary work and give it meaning, with an emphasis on the role of difference (between, for example, verse forms or narrative resolutions) in the creation of that meaning.45 In this way, a Structuralist treatment of genre can look much like Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy, though without the latter’s emphasis on affective function. Still others, like Roland Barthes, propose sui generis sets of elements, functions, and codes that constitute the layers of a text’s significations.46 Regardless of the methods or elements involved, the goal of Structuralist theory is what Barthes calls “the science of literature”: “It cannot be a science of the content of works (over which only the most rigorous historical science can have a hold), but a science of the conditions of content, that is to say of forms . . .”47 Its aim is to describe the ways in which forms make meaning possible by activating and combining rules and conventions known to readers. Because the forms that structure a given text are multiple and interact in complex ways, the “science of literature” does not offer a reading or specify the meaning of a text or even provide a method for its analysis; instead, it describes the conditions of the possibility of meaning, much like grammar and syntax provide the communicative possibility of a sentence but not the meaning it communicates: “there must always be certain rules to explain certain results. The science of literature will thus have as its object of investigation not the reason why such and such a meaning must be accepted nor even why it was accepted . . . but rather the reason why it is acceptable . . .”48 Determining the meaning of an individual text is the function of a separate domain that Barthes designates “criticism”; and given the multiplicity of meanings made possible by a text’s structures, this critical act is one less of discovery or revelation than of creativity or creation on the part of the critic or reader.
In most important ways, Structuralism as a formal theory is the diametric opposite of New Criticism. For the former, literature is neither epistemologically unique nor ontologically autonomous, but instead one of many signifying systems subject to structural analysis. A literary text’s form is not intrinsic to the text itself but reliant upon an array of preexisting structures, a distinction that both shifts critical attention from “form” to “forms” and reintroduces the issue of external causation, not in the form of authorial intention but of what Barthes calls “a literature faculty . . . made up not of inspiration or personal will-power but of rules built up by many people besides the author” that provide the grounds of the text’s possibility.49 Structuralism also revivifies the role of the reader: in this case neither the responsive reader of Aristotelian/Sidneian functionalism nor the implied ideal New Critical reader capable of discerning the text’s unity, but the creative reader who is responsible for the meaning of the text within the parameters defined by its structures—if the text is unified, this unity is not, as in New Criticism, an intrinsic quality of the text, but rather a creation of the reader. Finally, while New Criticism excelled at generating “close readings” of individual texts based on a relatively thin theoretical apparatus, Structuralism’s most compelling contributions lay in its elaborations of complex transtextual forms and codes rather than the few idiosyncratic if compelling readings they produced. Perhaps for this reason, Structuralism had little impact on New Criticism’s hold on literary pedagogy.
If Structuralism’s insistent awareness of the literary text’s reliance on a larger cultural context for the conditions of its meaning might suggest a return to a theory of the social function of form, this was not necessarily the case. While Structuralism, more than Russian Formalism, acknowledged the role of historical content in the meaning of the text (or of historical reference as one of the text’s enabling codes) and historical causation in the rise and fall of forms and their efficacy, the methodology’s focus on meaning often left little room for consideration of emotional or ideological effect, though it did not in principle preclude it. The most significant impact of Structuralism’s attention to literature’s extraliterary involvement was on our understanding not of history but, not surprisingly, of language. If literary language’s supra-denotative self-reference, its complex and plural structuration, and its demand for the reader’s participation in the creation of meaning all highlight its irreducible ambiguity and multivocality, its status not as a separate, autonomous discourse but as one among many reminds us that all language partakes to some extent of these same features: in foregrounding its own ambiguity, literature also insists that no language is unambiguously singular, transparent, or purely referential. If literary structuralism began as an effort to include the study of literature among the human sciences as a “science of literature,” its true value, as Barthes provocatively asserts in his 1967 essay “Science versus Literature,” may be to remind the sciences that they too depend upon a system of discourse that is neither transparent, neutral, nor objective—to insist upon a mode of reading in which “science will become literature.”50
Form and History
If Structuralism did little directly to challenge the history-averse critical premises of the New Criticism, it is not the case that historically engaged formalism was entirely absent; on the contrary, the 1960s and 1970s saw a flowering of what might be called “materialist formalism,” a Marxist-influenced set of critical practices that emphasized the historical and ideological causes and effects of literary form. Though it never coalesced into a “school,” materialist formalism can be divided into three versions. The first, much of which predated and laid the groundwork for the other two, is indebted to the traditional Marxist account of culture as a superstructural reflection of the economic base. Like Trotsky, it sees literary forms as shaped by and reinforcing the dominant socioeconomic formation and its ideologies with, for example, particular genres (the novel) or styles (realism) reflecting and naturalizing conceptions of the self and society appropriate to the needs of a particular stage of capitalist development, or certain plot trajectories (the marriage plot) and the pleasure we take in their closure providing ideological resolutions of socioeconomic tensions and conflicts.51 While this reflectionist model subordinates literature to historical forces and social functions in a way deplored by the Russian Formalists and New Critics alike, a second version of materialist formalism takes as its foundation if not the literary autonomy asserted by the New Critics then what Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser described as “relative autonomy,” an understanding of literature (and other ideological social structures and cultural formations) not as independent of the forces of history but also not directly or fully determined by the dominant economic structure.52 In treatments of literature, this distance from ideological determinism is often attributed to form and the way that it does not simply contain but instead works upon ideological content; in consequence, this version of materialist formalism frequently assigns to literary form a resistant or demystificatory function. An early example is playwright Bertolt Brecht’s notion of Verfremdungseffekt or “alienation effect,” which holds that avant-garde forms or styles could command a reader or viewer’s attention, awakening them from their familiar habits of perception into a self-consciousness and critical distance capable of casting the content of the work in a new, potentially demystificatory light—a claim often seen as realizing the radical political potential of Russian Formalism’s theory of defamiliarization.53 A different treatment of this version of form’s political function, found in the works of Althusser’s colleague Pierre Macherey and Frankfort School theorist Theodor Adorno among others, assigns to form not a deliberate but a structural demystificatory effect, by which the specific requirements of form disrupt, deform, or transform the text’s historically given ideological content, distancing it from itself and in so doing revealing the tensions, flaws, and contradictions usually papered over by ideological representations.54 Yet, while avoiding the prescriptivism of Brecht’s recipe for avant-garde literary function, by assigning to literary form a single, historically invariable effect by which one can distinguish “authentic” literature from its debased or inauthentic versions, this type of materialist formalism flirts with its own form of idealism.
A third species of materialist formalism points the way beyond this idealism by insisting on the historical implication and ideological function of both form and content, and the unpredictability of their interaction in the individual literary text. This argument, found in different forms in the 1970s and early 1980s work of Marxist literary theorists including Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Raymond Williams, holds that literary forms are historically specific and historically variable, rising to and fading from prominence not by their own internal logic but in response to changing historical circumstances and their concomitant ideological requirements.55 In this way one can speak of the ideological content of form, and thus of form as part of the ideological content of the text. At the same time, the text’s individual contents—its characters and situations, its cultural reference and relevance—are equally ideologically freighted. Given the complexity, multiplicity, and constant evolution of a culture’s ideological system, however, as well as the relative autonomy of its elements, the functions of a text’s ideologies of form and content may or may not be congruent, and their interaction is consequently unpredictable, potentially ranging from mutual reinforcement to contradiction, with effects from endorsement of the dominant ideology to its subversion or demystification. When one factors in the multiple forms and contents in an individual text, it becomes clear that no single function may be designated a priori for either form in general or for any specific form in an individual text, but that a complete analysis of a literary text’s meaning and function must include a historically specific understanding of the sources and effects of its form(s).
The materialist formalists were primarily theorists, producing few readings to exemplify a critical practice; and the methodological invitation they offered went largely unanswered. This was in part because of the institutional resistance to Marxism in the American academy, but more a consequence of two important developments in the critical thought of the 1980s. The first was the rise, from the ground prepared by structuralism, of poststructuralism and especially deconstruction. A central tenet of the latter is the textuality of all discourse—a linguistics-based claim that, like Barthes’ late-structuralist assertion of the “literariness” of all language, argues for multivocality and ambiguity as universal features of discourse. Along with its predilection for breaking down the sorts of binary distinctions and other differences that much formalist and structuralist thought is based on, deconstruction’s emphasis on textuality contributed to a decline in attention to the specificity of literary form in favor of a broader understanding of the complexities of language in general.
The second, perhaps more significant, development was the rise of New Historicism. In large part a reaction to the perceived anti-historicism of the New Critical methodology still dominating the academy (as well as to the reflectionism of older methods of historical criticism, including those derived from the base-superstructure Marxist model, which it replaced with a more multivalent Foucauldian notion of “power”), New Historicism seemed at first prepared to introduce history into the study of form, and vice versa. In the introductory essay to a special issue of Genre entitled “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance” in which he coined the term “new historicism,” Stephen Greenblatt argues for an approach to literature that understands its forms and conventions neither as intrinsic to a concept of “literariness” nor as independent of history but instead as both produced by and a productive force in history: “[distinctions] between artistic production and other kinds of social production . . . do in fact exist, but they are not intrinsic to the texts; rather they are made up and redrawn by artists, audiences, and readers. These collective social constructions on the one hand define the range of aesthetic possibilities within a given representational mode and, on the other, link that mode to the complex network of institutions, practices, and beliefs that constitute the culture as a whole. In this light, the study of genre is an exploration of the poetics of culture.”56 But the association between form and New Criticism’s literary exceptionalism proved difficult to sever, and New Historicism’s rejection of the latter soon entailed a marginalization of the former as the methodology’s insistence on literature as one historically situated and socially productive discourse among others shifted its focus from historicizing the forms and conventions that distinguish literature from other discourses (“the power of forms”) to establishing links between literature and those other discourses within a particular historical context (“the forms of power”). Freed both from New Critical close reading and its insistence on “unity” and from a reflectionist or determinist historical model that saw literature as an epiphenomenon of larger social forces, New Historicism was able to draw multiple, bidirectional connections between telling moments in literary and other texts and the cultural “text” as a whole, and this powerful critical practice’s ability to produce original “readings” soon led to its displacing New Criticism as the dominant methodology in the American academy.57 It came at the cost, however, of a concomitant neglect of the historicity and social productivity of the forms that link literary texts to each other and to a historically specific concept of the literary.
As New Historicism evolved from theoretical challenge to methodological orthodoxy, the limitations imposed by its eschewal of form became clear from the perspective of critical method, even as enthusiasm for its interdisciplinarity began to cool in the face of concerns about the eroding institutional prestige of literary studies in an era of straitened economic resources. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a renewed interest in form and the literary began to develop, and its various methods and foci were gathered under the umbrella designation “new formalism,” a term coined by Heather Dubrow in 1990 and institutionalized by Marjorie Levinson’s 2007 PMLA review article “What Is New Formalism?”58 New formalism is less a new formal methodology in the vein of Russian Formalism or New Criticism than a return to various older formalisms in light of the lessons, positive and negative, learned from two decades of New Historicism. The movement can be loosely divided into four camps. One takes its cue from the successes as well as the shortcomings of deconstructive textualism, calling for the application not just of a generalized textuality but of the more specific methods of literary formalism to the analysis of nonliterary discourses and disciplines, usually with the goal of revealing their historical implication and ideological function—a formalist reinterpretation, one might say, of New Historicism’s interest in “the forms of power.” Some critics in this group would bring (back) formalist close reading techniques not only to literary texts but to nonliterary texts as well, revealing their complexities in order to disrupt or complicate the preordained conclusions and easy certainties of the thematic or ideological readings to which New Historicism is prone.59 Others look less to New Criticism than to structuralism, applying formal analysis to literary and nonliterary discourses and other social formations in order to expose the presence of multiple structures in a given context and explore the complex and unpredictable ideological impact of their interaction.60
A second version of new formalism, a species of what Levinson dubs “normative formalism” (or “backlash new formalism”), tries in effect to reverse the New Historicist movement from form to history by returning to a neo-Kantian or New Critical aestheticist formalism that rejects or deemphasizes the historically specific sources and functions of literary form in favor of an autonomous, transhistorical understanding of the literary that by virtue of its unique formal properties speaks to our aesthetic pleasure, our common humanity, or similar normative constructs independent of historical contingency.61 A third, more progressive type of new formalism, sometimes designated “new aestheticism,” draws less on New Critical literary exceptionalism than on Althusserian or Adornian materialist formalism for its understanding of literature’s form-based independence from historical determination. It takes as its starting point Kant’s differentiation of the aesthetic from other forms of knowledge or practice by virtue of its formal properties, not in order to isolate it from the spheres of politics and ideology but to place it at a critical distance from which disinterest and functional independence can reframe, denaturalize, or otherwise disrupt the forces and structures of socioeconomic hegemony and ideological domination. As the introduction to a 2003 collection of essays on the subject frames it, “Although not telling the truth or being just in itself, art opens a space to question and challenge the ‘first-order’ formulations of epistemology and ethics that hold sway in the lifeworld. In other words, it is art’s very ‘alienation’ and ‘isolation’ that provides the grounds for its political and philosophical potential in modernity.”62
The most direct and detailed response to New Historicism on the part of the new formalists comes from a development sometimes known as “historical formalism,” defined less by a common critical method than by a commitment to remedying the oversights and excesses of formalism and historicism by bringing both together and each to bear on the other.63 In doing so, historical formalism pursues the directions taken by materialist formalists like Eagleton, Jameson, and Williams, as well as the early formalist commitments of New Historicism. Its premises include an insistence on the historical origins and functions of literary form and on a form-based understanding of “literariness” that at once differentiates literature from other discourses and situates it in the historical context it shares with them. In this understanding, forms are not fixed or static but are responsive to historical change; not merely reflective of historical imperatives, but active historical agents. Consequently, even as no understanding of form can be complete without historicizing, no historicist reading of a literary text can be complete without taking into account not only the historical content or “matter” made available by New Historicism’s interdisciplinary reach but also a discipline-specific, historically situated, ideologically sensitive account of its form. Finally, freed by New Historicism from the last vestiges of Marxist economic determinism even “in the last instance,” historical formalism recognizes the multiple, potentially conflictual, diachronically out-of-sync (as emerging and residual ideologies overlap with the dominant) historical forces at play at a given time or in a given text; as a result, the interaction of what one might call the ideologies of form and ideologies of content cannot be reduced to a single, predictable effect, whether hegemonic, subversive, or demystificatory. Only a close, formally informed reading of the text can fully reveal its historical efficacy.
If this coming together of form, content, and function, of close reading, literary specificity, and historical engagement, lends an aura of teleological closure, we must not mistake the current state of affairs for the end of the history of form or formalism. Already, critical developments like cognitive poetics, distant reading, and digital humanities are beginning to reshape the way we conceptualize form and deploy it as a critical tool, and unforeseeable theoretical, disciplinary, and cultural pressures to come will do so as well.64 If anything may be said with confidence, however, it is that form, however defined, will remain integral to our evolving understandings both of the nature and function of literature and of the nature and value of literary study as a discipline.
Review of the Literature
As attention to form has, with the professionalization of literary studies, developed into successive, at times competing, schools of formal criticism and formalist theory, the literature on form and formalism has expanded exponentially, its provenance shifting from literary practitioners like Sidney, Dryden, and Coleridge, to professional or academic critics like the Russian Formalists and New Critics, to the theoretical movements that shape and sustain literary studies as a discipline. Moreover, because the development of formalist thought has not been linear but rather divergent, recursive, and multiply and complexly responsive to both its own competing manifestations and its historical and disciplinary circumstances, the interested reader is advised to look beyond the current state of critical discourse for a thorough understanding of the subject.
While most introductory volumes on literary criticism and theory intended for the university classroom offer an overview of form and formalism and/or introductions to individual formalist theorists and schools, a definitive history or comparative study of formalism has yet to be written. Readers will have better luck with primary-source collections and critical accounts devoted to specific formalist theories, movements, or moments. While readers of English may find some of the primary documents of Russian Formalism difficult to locate in translation, useful collections include Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis’ Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays and Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska’s Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. The definitive critical work is Victor Erlich’s Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine
The Russian formalists emerged from the Russian Revolution with ideas about the independence of literature. They enjoyed that independence until Stalin shut them down. By then, however, they had produced essays that remain among the best defenses ever written for both literature and its theory.
Included here are four essays representing key points in the formalists’ short history. Victor Shklovsky’s pioneering “Art as Technique” (1917) defines the literary as a way to make us see familiar things as if for the first time. His 1921 essay on Tristram Shandy makes that eccentric novel the centerpiece for a theory of narrative. A section from Boris Tomashevsky’s “Thematics” (1925) inventories the elements of stories. In “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’” (1927), Boris Eichenbaum defends Russian Formalism against various attacks. An able champion, he describes Formalism’s evolution, notes its major figures and works, clears away decayed axioms, and rescues literature from “primitive historicism” and other dangers.
These essays set a course for literary studies that led to Prague structuralism, French semiotics, and postmodern poetics. Russian Formalist Criticism has been honored as a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of the Year by the American Library Association.