ONE WAY OF TALKING about the death of the humanities and of literary studies in particular is to say everyone else reads differently than we do — we academics, we critical thinkers, we close readers. We’ve been left behind by a culture of digital speed. In the age of Twitter feeds and TV shows you binge on demand and on too many screens, everyone else reads too quickly or reads too reductively, looking for a single takeaway — or, we fear most likely, reads not at all. Who slows down to relish the sound of an essay, the rhythm of an argument, its pleasant whiplashes? Who would read Twitter for form?
Yet Twitter is, in fact, full of formalists. Any user who manipulates a meme must first recognize the outlines of the form they will fill in with new text and images. Indeed, the popularity of memes shows that people aren’t just reading for content, but reading for shape: for how something is said, for the kinds of sentences it might appear in, for how the parts relate to the whole, and how the container for a thought changes the thought itself.
For many literary critics, myself included, the container is often more important — politically, socially, historically — than what’s inside. We want to know if something is packaged in simple sentences or complicated ones; in one genre, like melodrama, or in another, like horror. The point is you can tell the same tale in lots of different ways. In its first act, Get Out tells the same story as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Yet even in those early scenes, the form Peele’s story takes, the genre in which it unfolds, the strange omens and jump scares, warn us that this is a very different story indeed — and one that reflects a different moment in American history.
An influential generation of Marxist critics said form responds to our collective unconscious more directly, more urgently than the story told within it. Deciding whether to tell a story in the simplicity of Dick and Jane sentences probably happens at a lower level of awareness than the decision to have Dick and Jane run up the hill, which is also to say that form responds to something deeper than consciousness, some crucial need or desire that could not be expressed in the content of the story itself. And when form repeats and becomes patterned — when there isn’t just this horror, but a lot of them; when many writers from a certain period start writing in a certain way — then we’re in the presence of an urgent need that is social or political. Form, in this light, is a cultural fixer of problems so fundamental to the functioning of a society that they have been collectively repressed; social contradictions so pervasive that people may not even be aware they are talking about them.
This understanding of formalism has shaped academic literary criticism in fundamental ways, but a newer generation of formalists have taken a different path. Rita Felski, Nathan Hensley, Anna Kornbluh, Caroline Levine, and Aarthi Vadde, among others, have resisted the urge to read form as merely a veil over some underlying problem. Form doesn’t just wallpaper its social environment with enough optical illusions to make it bearable, they argue. And we should perhaps resist the pleasure of ripping off the wallpaper — laying bare the ugly scars, the termites, the water damage. Instead, the misfit between form and its social context might provide resources for imagining the social world differently, for building it anew. The political urgency of form remains the same. Now, however, its study produces not just critique but worldbuilding.
Like everyone else, especially those of us on Twitter, formalists have fallen in love with memes in the past few years. One of the most popular memes last year, the so-called “Distracted Boyfriend Meme,” produced its own literary versions, filled in with the content of such works as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. One user took the form and posted its “18th century equivalent,” a painting from the portraitist Joshua Reynolds. And the American Chopper meme, also beloved by academics perhaps for its dialogical nature, was even adapted to explain formalism itself.
But even memes bearing no explicit relationship to literary criticism mark their remixers as nascent formalists. Consider the American Chopper meme as an example. It takes stills from a scene on the reality show of the same name, which followed a father and son company that made custom motorcycles. In a climactic argument immortalized in the meme, the father and son argue violently, eventually parting ways professionally. Of course, you may not have known all that when you saw the memes, especially if you were not one of the devotees of the show when it ran on Discovery Channel, and then TLC. In fact, memes tend to work best when the source is a little old or a little niche, making it freer to take on a wide range of content.
That isn’t to say the meme doesn’t have conditions that have to be met by whatever is written into the speech bubbles. It’s an escalating argument, and there have to be two sides. But most importantly, the stakes of that argument have to be a lot lower than the visual imagery of the male hysterics suggests. For the meme to work, the debates can’t be life-or-death.
It’s this constraint that explains the meme’s rise more than five years after American Chopper left the air. News in the year leading up to the meme’s explosion often featured imagery of white male anger that did become fatal, most publicly at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Others have pointed out how the iconography of the meme, invoking the style of “white trash” who are actually rich, resonates with a Trumpian moment in Republican politics, but it’s the white anger more than the class politics that sticks out if you have never watched the show. And anger, too, is something we’ve learned to become afraid of on social media. Gamergate, for instance, has shown us that in the anonymous vacuum of the internet, a trivial argument can quickly escalate into death threats.
The meme negotiates this minefield of anger. It pacifies white male anger. It’s “safe” anger. It’s anger that’s funny, that isn’t going to kill you. It also provides an avenue for the academic or trivial or niche debate that aspires to be taken as seriously as white men are, in a time when major news organizations have often spent their resources asking white men why they are racist instead of providing a platform for the women of color their anger harms.
When users post their versions of the meme, their decisions of what fits and what doesn’t, what satisfies the conditions of the joke and what goes too far, make up unspoken theories of that meme. To know that an argument is required, but one that does not plainly speak the language of racial and political polarization in our contemporary American moment, is to understand what must be collectively repressed for a joke to work and what is opened up — new collectives who are “in” on the joke, who recognize their belonging in some niche that may even transcend the demographics of race, class, and gender — in its place. Those who revise the American Chopper meme thus demonstrate an astute, if not always explicit or conscious, understanding of form and its dynamic relation to its social context. What the popularity of memes suggests, then, is that formalism may be alive and well where we least expect it. It’s less that we English professors are being left behind and more that we might be looking in the wrong places.
To be sure, the aims of meme production and of scholarly formalism may be different. For one, memes are supposed to make us laugh. As Lauren Michele Jackson reminds us, “a phrase or set of text, often coupled with an image, that follows a certain format within which user adjustments can be made before being redistributed to amuse others” is more commonly “known as: a joke.” But this only means that the formalists on Twitter have gotten better than the formalists of the classroom in reminding themselves how fun reading can be.
What memes get at is the pleasure of formalism. One of my favorites on Twitter this past spring was thread after thread in the form of “Rihanna as X”: photographs where Rihanna’s perfect fashion looks like Berlin Public Transport or places in El Salvador of even lab equipment. The kind of pattern recognition we teach in the introductory literary classroom is mainstream. It’s not just reading for content, but reading for the shape in which content is delivered, reading for the relation of parts and whole, reading for syntax and structure, and even reading for punctuation.
In her book Paraliterary, English professor Merve Emre argues that “attending to reading requires expanding the institutions we consider beyond the college classroom, the graduate seminar, and the rapidly shrinking field of professional literary study.” Today, those nonacademic institutions would have to include social media. And the point is that a form of reading is happening on Twitter that is one professional literary critics practice, at least in embryo.
What the ordinariness of a kind of formalism should teach us is that the problem is not a desire for our preferred modes of reading. It’s not that people aren’t interested in form. It’s that they lack a larger structural support for reading for form more often. As Sarah Brouillette puts it in a recent essay, “To conclude that individuals are morally culpable for failing to read literature — lazy, unable to focus, and addicted to their digital devices — is to misunderstand how tightly literary culture is tied to underlying economic conditions.”
Cuts to public education, defunding of the humanities, and soaring tuition costs are partly to blame for the continued assault on space and time for reading. So does a 24/7 work schedule under the regime of flexible labor, when you’re expected to answer emails on weekends, at the bar, and, yes, while reading a novel.
Which is why a place like Twitter might be where you’ll find formalism, when you do. Because it’s where you might be in those in-between moments, when you’re on your phone between meetings or waiting for the bus.
In her recent book on books, Leah Price warns against the “myth of exceptionalism” that tells us we are unique today in our culture of distraction or our allergy to literary reading. There has never been an “ideal reader,” and we are wrong to blame (new) technology for not having ideal readers today. But we would still be right to blame a larger economic system for failing to provide the conditions for people to frequently read formally unless they are among the lucky few of us surviving long enough in the academic world to be paid to do so. We don’t need to tell people to become formalists. We need to advocate for the conditions under which they have more time to become better formalists — and this advocacy is the same as the fight for our jobs, for our universities.
At the same time, because we are fighting for our jobs, we should think about what that means, to be a “better” formalist. To recognize that there are openings in everyday practices where people are reading and writing with our methods implicitly at heart means saying our relation to other reading practices is not one of difference but of quality. As an English professor, I admit I am a bit committed to saying that I do not always read very differently from my students, but that I read, in our shared way, better.
We should learn from our colleagues in the sciences how to say something like this more often. In the humanities, we shy away from doing so for good reasons like our commitment to democratic ideals and not wanting to reinforce elitism or structures of privilege through a non-inclusive canon. But we can be accessible without having to abandon specialized knowledge altogether. I can’t follow what’s going on in peer-reviewed journals of chemistry, and I wouldn’t always expect chemists or non-academics to understand everything that is going on in our journals. But scientists are often pretty good at making their areas of study still seem sexy. Think of the backyard experiment where a mix of chemicals makes something explode or foam or calcify in spectacularly weird ways. They say to the audience, whether a middle schooler or an awed user scrolling through YouTube: yes, it’s cool something exploded, but it’s even cooler that you could transcribe and notate that explosion, let me teach you how to read it as a series of symbols.
We can say to the Twitter formalists: Let me show you what you can do with these patterns. We can see the ordinary and the amateur as sites of formalist generativity. And in our sense of belonging with, as opposed to being threatened by, the Twitter formalists, we can understand a more expanded classroom of people who are under common threat from an economic system in which the pleasures and politics of form are being evacuated.