Institution Building: On Anna Kornbluh’s “The Order of Forms”

By Victoria BaenaMarch 15, 2020

Institution Building: On Anna Kornbluh’s “The Order of Forms”

The Order of Forms by Anna Kornbluh

ANNA KORNBLUH’S The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space is an unusual polemic. Thickly erudite, as proficient in contemporary critical theory, historical materialism, and formalist geometry as in theories of the novel, the book is firmly anchored in its author’s own disciplinary terrain of Victorian criticism but envisions a much broader set of readers. Readers — but also targets. Framing a set of eloquent and insightful readings of Victorian novels is a rather inclusive attack on the current state of the field, and on critics of varied specialties and persuasions. These include Victorianists who, in Kornbluh’s view, have lingered too long in the contextualist pastures of new historicism, as well as critics who have largely dismissed the novel in theorizing about literary form. Prosy and matter-of-fact, a loose and baggy monster, a novel requires so much time for its perusal that, like the curvature of the earth, one might consider it too vast to be grasped as a whole. Kornbluh argues, all the same, that we can comprehend a novel’s structure synchronically and formally rather than as a temporally unfolding event. Like recent work by scholars such as Eric Hayot, The Order of Forms makes a case for the “world-building” nature of novels, which do not just unfold in particulars but also play in abstractions, performing and forming as well as reflecting their world.

Yet this intervention only clears the way for the book’s more central claims regarding the relationship between politics and form. The most prominent target of Kornbluh’s polemic is a heterogeneous group of what she calls “antiformalist” thinkers, from Theodor Adorno to Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Fred Moten. Faced with structures, binaries, and hierarchies, Kornbluh argues, these critics and their ilk too fervently rush to dismantle, collapse, and deconstruct. Sometimes she calls this tendency “dissolutionism”; other times “anarcho-vitalism”; elsewhere, following Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer, the “destituent paradigm.” Inheritors of Nietzsche, Agamben, Foucault, and Latour, this unwieldy antiformalist tradition scorns grand narratives, sees power at work everywhere, and diagnoses in institutions the syndromes of repression and virus of inequity. The very architecture of contemporary institutions, in their view, constructs and maintains rigid hierarchies through surveillance, abstraction, and dehumanization. If literature and art have any role in this process, it is to serve as a symptom of the workings of such disciplinary regimes — or perhaps to undercut them, at a slant, through their unruly language games. A poem can ignore or “subvert” reigning stylistic or generic conventions; novels are said to represent or refract the concrete particularities of social experience, allowing the critic to bravely counter the totalizing and increasingly automated abstractions of power.

Rather than give in to the dissolutionist impulse, The Order of Forms wagers that we need to pay better attention to how to build things up. For Kornbluh, the humanist status quo is now too far weighted on the side of particularity against abstraction, hybridity against structuration, dismantling against constitution (or, to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari, the “rhizomatic” against the “rooted”). The method that she introduces, which she calls “political formalism,” is Kornbluh’s attempt to combat the antiformalist tendency that she finds triumphant in much contemporary theory, literature, and philosophy.

Wielding an architectural vocabulary of construction, social space, and design, she marshals a set of allies from Lévi-Strauss to Freud and Lacan, describing their “structuralist” methods as means of both analyzing and building necessary, but changeable, forms. Her final chapter reads Lacanian psychoanalysis itself as a formalist project: the “form” of the clinic is meant to incite a kind of relation between analyst and analysand, one that nonetheless must be invented and reinvented anew — given a new “content” — each time one enters the space. The realist novel, then, should be understood not as mimesis but as model; its spaces — like those of architectural theory and mathematical formalism — are abstract rather than concrete. Realism, in this account, can be mined for its insights as to the inherent constructedness of social life.


Traditionally, literary formalism has been opposed to historicist methods of analysis, which view literary works not as autonomous wholes or emanations of individual genius but as texts interwoven with their political and social contexts, including many other kinds of non-literary writings. Like other recent critics from Elaine Scarry to Joseph North, Kornbluh is eager to free formalism from the taint of elitism and political conservatism often associated with the New Critics of the 1930s and 1940s. Prominent in this trend is Caroline Levine’s 2015 Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, which expands the category of formalism almost beyond recognition by borrowing the design term “affordance,” for whatever a text (or anything else) enables you to do with it. For Levine, such a vast span of possibilities involves the emancipatory potential of “refusing to join hierarchies and always escaping from enclosing shapes.” The Order of Forms is in obvious conversation with Levine (she is cited in the acknowledgments and on a back-cover blurb; citations from Forms pepper the footnotes); all the same, this citation is, for Kornbluh, yet another instance of the “dissolutionist” impulse rearing its head. Likewise, Kornbluh doesn’t spare much time for “postcritique” or “surface reading” and their proposals to engage more intimately and affectively to the text, which she sees as just another kind of “horizontal” and deconstructive work. Instead, she wants to defend formalism by redefining it, refusing to distinguish the dancer of history from the dance of form.

But Kornbluh’s spirited defense of the normative value of form sometimes seems to risk merely swapping the signifiers, exchanging an unquestioning championing of formlessness for an unquestioning championing of form. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s concept of the “undercommons,” for instance, is cited as an example of pernicious “anarcho-vitalism,” continuous with the contemporary critical hegemony and lumped together with “Nietzschean genealogy, Benjaminian materialism, Foucauldian historicism, feminism, and deconstruction.” In that sense, Kornbluh’s critique risks obscuring the specificity of interventions by women and gender studies, black and critical ethnic studies, all of which have mounted powerful critiques of the constitutive violence of existing institutions and disciplinary formations. With such models in mind, have institutional and ideology critique really run their course?

Once the prose descends from the rhetorical heights of polemic, however, a more nuanced version of Kornbluh’s argument comes into view. The idea is that structuring forms and formations of some kind are necessary; any particular forms are contingent — and thus open to change. Take Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, a late-19th-century novel that traces Jude’s often disastrous encounters with education, marriage, and the Church. While the novel is often read as a critique of institutionality as such, Kornbluh shows that as Jude and Sue, both divorced and living together as unmarried partners, attempt to refashion a life “outside” the law, their struggles necessitate the constant reworking of “the laws of their union.” These are processes of modeling and shaping that bear no relation to horizontal, formless freedom. Life outside any social formation, that is, is an impossible dream — a dream that neutralizes the battle for new, better, more just institutions, which the novel’s world-building forms are uniquely suited to help us imagine.

The Order of Forms counters the hoary form-history distinction in another way, too: by tracing a history of formalism itself. In Kornbluh’s telling, this history stretches back not to Viktor Shklovsky or I. A. Richards in the 20th century, but to the onset of mathematical formalism in the 19th — a revolution to which she returns in nearly every chapter, tracing a history adjacent and coeval to that of the Victorian novel in discoveries by Victorian mathematicians like George Boole and Augustus De Morgan. In mathematical formalism, all statements are a set of abstract, conventional, and arbitrary tools for ever-more-complex procedures. The break with Euclidean geometry, for instance, allowed a circle to be conceived not as indexical to actually existing shapes and forms but as a formal signifier, defined by, say, its area, a function of its radius and pi. Infinity, to take another example, is not an empirical category but an abstract one: one that is useful because mathematicians can do things with it even if we cannot grasp in any concrete, particular way what the infinite means.

Non-Euclidean mathematical laws provide a model for Kornbluh’s method of political formalism. The former “usefully inscribe schemas of relationships and introduce ways of organizing thought that then in turn put new schemas and new organizations within grasp,” just as political formalism aims to present and re-describe certain social formations in order to imagine new constructions, new forms. A chapter on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House reads the eponymous house itself, packed with metonymic descriptions and proliferating domestic spaces, as a mathematical “limit” toward which the narrative strains, a metainstitution gathering under its purview various systems of law, real estate, family, and class. In Kornbluh’s reading, the uneven and even awkward shuffle between Bleak House’s first- and third-person narrators does not construe them as “opposites,” as other critics have argued; rather, the narrators “approach each other” throughout, projecting each other’s limitations, and suggesting that, in the end, “there is no total scheme for the relation of the world; no narration without limits; no art of the social unmarked by its own artifice.”

Kornbluh may eschew the method of reading “texts in context” alone, but one of the book’s insights is that formalist math was just as “revolutionary” as the contemporary political revolutions whose impact on 19th-century literature has long been fertile ground for literary critics. (For Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, the non-Euclidean break entailed a crisis of modernity and faith: God may have created the earth according to Euclidean geometry, but what if it turns out that, somewhere in infinity, two parallel lines might meet?) Though Kornbluh insists that she is not reading novels in the “historical context” of mathematical developments, there is a kind of loose historicity here: sometimes mathematical formalism “forecasts” political theory; sometimes it parallels literary readings; sometimes, in the book, it functions rather more broadly, as metaphor.

Lewis Carroll was also (as Charles Dodgson) the author of a book on symbolic logic, implicitly justifying a dazzling reading of Alice in Wonderland via logical formalism; Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, was contemporaneous with new insights in set theory. Dodging the humdrum causalities and relations to which historicist critics duly hew, however, allows Kornbluh to begin to sketch out her own vision of a 19th-century paradigm shift. The book’s title nods, of course, to the English translation of Foucault’s The Order of Things, a work also interested in the synchronic repercussions of epistemological shifts. “Archaeology” rather than history, his method provides a blueprint for Kornbluh’s reading of mathematical insights, less as a context for than as a contemporaneous model of the realist novel’s abstract, enabling formalism. As the Alice in Wonderland section puts it, the “theory of the political is not an origin story […] but a synchronic formula” that functions through “invented, unfounded sovereignty” and improvised rule-making.

Architectural blueprints offer another model/metaphor/intertext for political formalism and its mapping of social space — from the careful attention to blueprints in Bleak House, to a reading of Henry James’s abstracted “house of fiction” with “not one window, but a million.” Yet “social space” in this book is, again, highly abstract, employed in the way that Marxist geographer Henri Lefebvre uses it, as a matrix of economic production and reproduction as well as the relations and representations these involve. In fact, political formalism diverges most sharply from other contemporary formalisms in one crucial aspect: its Marxism. It is in Marx that Kornbluh finds a model for the “decisive affirmation of the structuration of social life,” one that, she argues, is shared by political formalism, elements of structuralism, and even the psychoanalytic method. This “joint vision of the symbolic structuration of social life as real” emerges from a compelling reading of the politics of form in The German Ideology. In that text, Marx’s notion of “sociality” intervenes decisively against a classical liberal view of the individual, whose natural rights precede any social contract into which he enters. Instead, Marx emphasizes, human beings are always already “organized.” We do not step into relations with others from a place of autonomy or freedom; relationality precedes and structures us from the start. “Being,” Kornbluh writes, glossing Marx, “is not tragically ensnared in organizations; being is organization.” Throughout The Order of Forms, Kornbluh’s readings return to this conviction in the ineluctable relationality of social life — a necessary relationality that, as for institutions, only highlights the possible reform and reimagining of certain kinds of relations.

More sophisticated variants of Marxist literary criticism have long found nuanced ways around the formalist/historicist division through the concept of mediation, understanding literary texts not as unadulterated evidence of historical experience but as functioning in the interstices between history and text. A novel does not just reflect but also intervenes in and interacts with other kinds of social forces: rather than insisting on the horizontal ubiquity of forms, then, a Marxist formalism would show how “some forms reveal, theorize, or mediate others.” The role of the critic is to grasp these vectors of determination and causality and to analyze what Theodor Adorno called the “semi-autonomy” of the literary text — its inextricable links to, say, market forces, and its relative distance from the same.

Working within this tradition, a critic might analyze how a novel like Balzac’s Père Goriot seems to both celebrate the capitalist aspirations of its striving provincial protagonist and — despite Balzac’s own monarchical leanings, despite his savvy ability to market his own writings as commodities — serve in its form and structure as a damning critique of that very society. The realist novel, indeed, has often been accused of playing handmaiden to bourgeois capitalism, its detailed, carefully delineated presentation of this world so lifelike and convincing as to naturalize it, rendering any vision of an alternative form of social life unimaginable.

A number of variants of Marxist criticism have interpreted realism in just such a way, drawing on Louis Althusser’s definition of aesthetics as the “false resolution of contradiction.” Terry Eagleton, for instance, has argued that “[t]he realist novel is the form par excellence of settlement and stability, gathering individual lives into an integrated whole.” Kornbluh’s critical map of relations and affiliations is certainly unorthodox. Yet The Order of Forms offers a different approach to a Marxist-formalist theory of the novel, one that retheorizes the politics of the realist novel on distinct terrain from the old Lukácsian-Brechtian realism-modernism debates. Modeling new ways of uniting Marxism, novel theory, and structuralism with theoretical rigor, it reimagines literary realism as “a speculative projection of hypothetical social space, where ‘social space’ signals the medium of collective life,” and charts one possible, productive path between the Scylla and Charybdis of “critique” and “postcritique.”


In focusing its intense polemic against the “anarcho-vitalist” strain of contemporary criticism, however, the book at times neglects its Marxist scaffolding and so misses an opportunity to explore another angle of the quarrel between construction and dissolution, between formlessness and form. These are debates, after all, that have long absorbed radical politics: anarchism or democratic socialism? Occupy Wall Street or the Sanders campaign? Are the two poles ineluctably distinct? In Jude the Obscure, Sue reflects at one point, “The social moulds civilization fits us into have no more relation to our actual shapes than the conventional shapes of the constellations have to the real star-patterns.” In discussing this and other passages, Kornbluh reads Sue as the “anarcho-vitalist,” Jude as the “political formalist,” and the novel (by centering Jude over Sue) as a powerful piece of evidence in favor of the latter. In this context, the dismissal of Sue’s revolutionary anger might seem to tilt the politics of the novel (and presumably of political formalism) closer to liberal reformism. Yet if Sue and Jude play out the “anarcho-vitalist” and “political formalist” vectors of Kornbluh’s argument, they also enact the anarchist/institutionalist debate within Marxist theory and history. Sue might be the anarchist; Jude the dues-paying joiner.

In a context of (not unjustified) institutional fatigue and suspicion, Kornbluh asks for a different, more optimistic perspective. Toward the end of The Order of Forms, Jodi Dean’s recent Crowds and Party is offered as another document of political formalism, in which the party is a necessary “infrastructure to sustain the libidinal energies that surge in moments of crowds.” Yet Dean never condemns the anarchism of the crowd (in fact, as she puts it, the crowd has no politics but is rather an “opportunity” for politics). Instead she views the relationship between crowd and party — one centrifugal, one centripetal — as dialectical rather than simply antagonistic. Kornbluh’s approving citation of Jodi Dean suggests that she may well share this view. But The Order of Forms rather sidesteps its own reckoning with the power and force of the crowd — even as it makes a compelling plea for new parties, for different institutions, and for the novel’s place in modeling what these might look like.


Victoria Baena is a graduate student of comparative literature at Yale.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Baena is a research fellow in English and modern languages at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge.


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