IN A SCENE from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the titular Brian, mistaken for the messiah, tries to convince his disciples to desert him. “You’re all individuals!” he shouts to the assembled crowd. “Yes, we’re all individuals!” the congregants chant back in unison. “You’re all different!” “Yes, we are all different!” The followers are indistinguishable in their adherence to this new dogma of individualism. Then, to cap the joke, a single voice mildly interjects: “I’m not.” This anti-individualist dissenter is promptly shushed by his neighbors.
The scene, while set in ancient Judea, seems like an indictment of the modern cult of individualism: everyone is supposed to have a personal style, but that style is expressed by following the same leaders, buying the same clothes, enjoying the same media. It could also be a parable for recent trends in literary studies; in particular, for the ongoing resurgence of formalist criticism that, since the turn of the century, has waged battle against what its practitioners persist in characterizing as the dominant mode of scholarship, New Historicism.
New Historicists, from the New Formalists’ perspective, are Brian’s followers. They affirm their individualism by highlighting particulars: the telling detail, the illustrative anecdote, and the evocative milieu. In the process, however, the literary works they analyze lose their individuality, becoming a crossroads of historical discourses. And the scholarly books that engage this methodology also display a same-y quality, taking the form of an oscillation between detailed description of an incident that invokes a cultural context and the literary text that purportedly reflects this history. As Alan Liu cuttingly observed, “A New Historicist paradigm holds up to view a historical context on one side, a literary text on the other, and, in between, a connection of pure nothing.”
In the face of this homogeneous diversity, New Formalists have been the hand up in the crowd, insisting that they are the solitary anti-individualists. In our lives, politics, and language, they point out, we are shaped by collective norms and configurations that enable as well as constrain our actions. What matters is not only the discourses that make up our experiences but also the iterated forms that those discourses take. Moreover, they claim, literary critics’ expertise in formal analysis can help us identify and examine forms elsewhere. As Caroline Levine writes in her influential Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015), “Formalist analysis turns out to be as valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature. Forms are at work everywhere.” But as this example shows, the arguments of New Formalism, while corrective, have been somewhat obvious: forms matter, in life as in literature; texts are shaped by forms as much as by words; forms are both historical and aesthetic objects. At times, the field’s understanding of form can tend to the tautological: forms are what form.
Three recent books — Daniel Shore’s Cyberformalism: Histories of Linguistic Forms in the Digital Archive (2018), Anna Kornbluh’s The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (2019), and Aaron Kunin’s Character as Form (2019) — have asked, collectively and individually: how far can New Formalism go? Their answer: it can go all the way. All the way, that is, to a negation of particularity, an elevation of the abstract over the individual. For each of these authors, forms not only form, but also, and more importantly, they generalize. The crucial fact about form is that it abstracts from the actually existing world to forge second-order categories that can be instantiated in a variety of ways.
Kornbluh describes her method as “a rigorous formalism without recourse to phenomenology” and writes, “form itself affords liberation from the bounds of the actual,” while for Kunin, “formalism is a kind of abstraction, remote from the sensuous particulars of aesthetic experience.” Shore defines the linguistic forms on which he focuses, such as “X is the new Y,” as “variously abstract, complex, and idiomatic sign units, composed at least in part of lexically unfilled categories (or blanks, slots or variables).” Because forms are made of words but not any particular words, they can only be described in general terms. All three works use spatial metaphors to emphasize this variability: a form is “filled” with specific words (Shore), it is “a container that gives shape to the material it contains” (Kunin), it is “the provisionally shaped synthesis of collective interdependence” (Kornbluh). Abstract forms shape phenomenal experience.
The authors also share an orientation against hypothetical opponents who, they claim, have neglected the abstract for the actual. Kornbluh, for example, argues that scholarship is currently defined by a “particulate ethos” that prizes “formlessness,” an approach that she terms “anarcho-vitalism.” Kunin more straightforwardly calls this “antiformalist criticism,” while Shore argues that humanists have been too concerned with individual words and concepts rather than with the linguistic forms that also shape meaning and interpretation. None of the books flattens these methodological opponents into the familiar shape of the New Historicism, but neither do they acknowledge that we are now in the third decade of a subfield known as “New Formalism”; in fact, the phrase does not appear anywhere. The authors do not declare themselves members of a movement.
While each writer may position him- or herself as the sole anti-individualist, à la Brian’s dissenting disciple, their argument is still cogent: scholars should pay more explicit attention to the literary categories that mediate between author and audience and that, furthermore, mark a text as literary. The methodological debate between historicism and formalism is key to another impulse that the books share, which is to use a claim for form as a jumping-off point to promote the vitality of literary studies. Each author is aware that he or she is writing against a background of declining funding for the humanities, cratering job openings for PhDs, and attacks on the utility of an English degree. Rather than rehash the past, they address the future of the discipline; in fact, they contend, formalism distinctively can address it. As Kornbluh writes, “formalism not only comprises the central proficiency of literary critics, but also funds their unique worldly purchase: ideas about making, about making relations, about making spaces and orders deliberately and justly.” Forms exist across registers, but literary texts make particularly clear how crucial they are to the construction of a shared world. Rather than borrowing from historical or sociological methods, literary critics should affirm the literary, and formalism, she repeats, is our “core proficiency.”
I find this argument persuasive, and it is one I have come around to especially through teaching. As I face 200 largely indifferent undergraduates in a required survey, I must articulate why they need to learn about, say, the heroic couplet. My answer is that the couplet form enables a kind of thinking that simultaneously assembles and undercuts binaries in a way that is characteristic of Enlightenment thought. The literary texts we study, particularly the epic and mock epic poetry of the period, put the form to work and allow us to generalize about why it would have such purchase at the time. I do not believe students need to learn about the heroic couplet simply because of its frequency or its association with canonical authors, but because it shows how a form can create a baseline of meaning for those who encounter it. Formalist criticism explains the precise kind of knowledge about the past and present that we can derive from literary texts.
This, then, is how far New Formalism can go: to a defense of literary studies that does not rely on appeals to a supposedly shared cultural heritage, value judgment and canonicity, or treating literary works as collections of historical data. When we are faced with the urgent need for new forms of political, social, and ecological life — as I write this, a global pandemic has cancelled office life, school, and childcare while the air outside is dangerous to breathe due to drifting smoke from wildfires — the allure of this approach is palpable. Embracing formalism is political: “Formalist close readers […] pay such careful attention to how things are composed that we realize lots of practical knowledge about how to make different and new things — new forms, new arrangements, new institutions, new relations,” Kornbluh writes. In a deft move, formalist criticism is not divorced from the real world but, rather, becomes a practical skill.
In pushing the field this far, however, Shore, Kornbluh, and Kunin bump up against its limitations. Despite their shared “enthusiasm for abstraction,” in Kornbluh’s words, each employs the standard methodology of illustrating his or her arguments with readings of exemplary passages of literary texts. This is to be expected; readings are what count as evidence in our field, and theoretical arguments need concrete examples to be comprehensible. But in the case of these books, the larger arguments about form’s abstractness underscore the arbitrariness of the particular works under analysis. This is almost always true — in an academic study, the specific text discussed could often be replaced with another — but it is especially apparent here, and each author directly addresses the issue.
Shore, for example, notes that he was trained as an early modernist, so even though he is making an argument about linguistic forms in general, he draws his evidence from the early modern period. He writes, “Only with a base camp set up in my field of expertise have I dared to pursue linguistic forms across the varied landscapes of the longue durée.” Kunin, a specialist in the same field, works in the other direction: the majority of his examples are not from the early modern period, but his “book is, at heart, a work of Renaissance studies in that it champions what character meant in the Renaissance.” Renaissance poets, he argues, understood character in the same way he does, as “a device that collects every example of a kind.” Kornbluh’s argument is more directly about a particular literary period — in her case, the Victorian — than the other two, as she contends that the mid-19th century is key to the history of formalism because of the simultaneous development of literary realism, historical materialism, and mathematical formalism: “Common to math, Marxism, and the novel in the nineteenth century is an extraordinary promotion of form as the construction of possible relations.” Still, her readings can likewise feel somewhat arbitrarily chosen as she has to argue, for example, that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fits into the realist tradition. At times, she defends her selection of readings with an evaluative language that critics (wrongly or rightly) generally shun, for example when introducing her discussion of “Emily Brontë’s astonishing Wuthering Heights” and Heathcliff, “this most engrossing of all novelistic protagonists ever.” Given that form is an abstraction from specifics, the move from the abstract to the specific can create challenges.
But what seem like limitations of the formalist method may in fact be revealing the limits of literary periods and our usual way of doing scholarship. Each of these scholars was trained in the traditional way, acquiring narrow-but-deep knowledge in a historical period and its literature, but is now writing a book that doesn’t fit with usual periodization. This marks another way they are pointing forward for the discipline, away from historical periods and toward different structures of expertise.
In a 2007 issue of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, Bruce Robbins proposed a “conceptual experiment” of hiring by genre rather than historical period. “Literary study,” he wrote, “would very soon cease to exist in its present form,” a perhaps salutary development that could reveal “the ambitiously wide-ranging and unpredictable sorts of metanarrative that might be encouraged by period-bridging continuities of genre.” This ambition and unpredictability are on full display in Shore’s and Kunin’s works especially, with Shore, for example, tracking the use of the conditional to describe Jesus Christ from 16th-century sermons to the present-day form “What would X Do?,” and Kunin repeatedly drawing from a set of key works for his study of character that includes Tartuffe, Bridget Jones’s Diary, the Fred Astaire movie Blue Skies, and the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business. Kunin’s readings look to moments where performance is revealed as performance, thus demonstrating the formal character of character, which, far from individuating, he argues, can be defined by something as simple as a hat or catchphrase (say “I’ll be back” in a vaguely European accent and you are Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the Terminator). He argues that his nonintuitive understanding of character is generally applicable: “My examples might sound like special cases. I don’t think so. I think they are examples of what art usually does.” Together, the three books may illustrate a transitional moment in scholarship in which the force of literary period is active but waning. Perhaps without quite meaning to — certainly without explicitly making this argument — they raise the question of why we have literary periods and whether training in a particular period is the best way to organize our discipline now.
The books also feel transitional in the way they play with the form of the monograph itself — not surprising, but still elucidating, for three works about form. Both Shore and Kornbluh have somewhere between two and three introductions followed by a series of readings; Shore also has two to three conclusions. This is because each author has multiple sets of general points to make — for Shore, defining linguistic forms and then arguing for the use of advanced search as a digital humanities technique; for Kornbluh, arguing for the political potential of formalism and then establishing architecture as a key formalist trope — before illustrating those points with examples. This attention to the form of the monograph dovetails with their arguments for the interpretive power of form.
Kunin, meanwhile, uses the style of his writing to prove a claim about the difference between form and style. He follows Frances Ferguson (whom he half-jokingly calls “the only true formalist critic”) in arguing that many critics conflate form and style, treating the use of a particular form as a stylistic trait. But style, Kunin writes, is the whole, “the relationship between the elements, whatever they are,” while form is the part, which could be swapped out without transforming the style. His own book features a distinctive style while adhering to the form of the first monograph: an introduction plus four body chapters. He notes in the introduction that he has been “trying to improve [his] style” by writing in a less academic, more conversational manner. “This means giving up some of the precise diction and dense cross-references of academic criticism and replacing them with a personal idiom that may be more vague but should also be more clear and energetic,” he writes. “I intend to talk to you in this book like an unreliable narrator, casually revealing personal information in arguments about literary history.” During a discussion of the character of the misanthrope, he mentions a date that ended with his partner accusing him of being a misanthrope; he doesn’t answer the question of whether he is one, in a deliberately misanthropic way. The book is strange and occasionally off-putting, but it ably enacts its own argument about the distinction between form and style and the formal nature of character. The book has the form of an academic work, but reads very little like one.
The vagueness that Kunin identifies in his own style is also present, if less pervasively, in Shore’s and Kornbluh’s books. For one thing, all three deflect from the task of defining “form” itself, focusing instead, as Kornbluh writes, on “what forms do.” For her, forms “inscribe,” while for Kunin they “translate.” Shore defines form most directly, albeit in a subordinate clause, as “a conventionalized unit distinct from others.” In bringing the books together, I have also been somewhat vague in describing them; in addition to their contributions to New Formalism, Shore makes important interventions in the reigning methodologies of the digital humanities, and Kornbluh should revolutionize our understanding of literary realism and its relationship to representation. Vagueness, however, is part of the project: if we are committed to describing not just what forms have done in the past but also what they might do in the future, then we have to accept a certain lack of definitiveness.
Formalism had been consigned to the scholarly past; now it pitches itself as the only — or at least the correct — path forward. But in pushing the boundaries of New Formalism into this undefined terrain, the works raise the prospect of a literary criticism untethered from individual works of literature while claiming almost unlimited political and social knowledge based on the understanding of form. New Formalists argue that formalism is the only truly literary critical skill, but, operating from induction rather than deduction, their own readings can feel arbitrary. Even as these three authors make the case for the genuinely “new” of “New Formalism,” they defer the question of what form this disciplinary future will take.
Rachael Scarborough King is associate professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Writing to the World: Letters and the Origins of Modern Print Genres and editor of After Print: Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures.