Monday, June 8, 2009

2009-2010 Topic: "Politics, Ethics, and the New Formalisms"

In spring of 2000, Modern Language Quarterly devoted its entire issue to the topic of New Formalism. New Formalism is a recent trend—a “movement,” according to Marjorie Levinson’s 2007 essay “What is New Formalism?”—in critical theory, cultural studies, and literary scholarship that challenges some of academia’s established methods and critical approaches. Although New Formalism first drew attention as a trend in contemporary American poetry, its genealogy can be traced back to the Russian Formalism and Anglo-American New Criticism of the early and mid- 20th century, or even earlier, to German philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Immanuel Kant. The New Critics argued that a work of art should be studied on the basis of its formal qualities alone, without resorting to contextual details of authorial biography or historical period. Likewise, the Russian Formalists argued that “literary language” was distinct from everyday language and produced a "scientific" system of analysis that they used to distinguish between the two. Central to this system of analysis was attention to form. For example, in one of his early works Victor Shklovsky compared “literary language” to dance. Just as the form of a dance makes one conscious of the way steps are put together, he claimed, so the form of poetic language makes one aware of the way that words are put together. The rise of New Historicism in the 1980s worked to reverse that methodology, arguing instead that the recognition of a work’s historical and cultural context is central to any act of interpretation. New Historicist scholarship criticized New Criticism for its tendency to disregard its own conservative or reactionary ideologies, for unreflexively privileging cultural elitism and intellectual isolationism, and for ignoring the dangers of universalizing or totalizing principles of form and aesthetics.

The term “New Formalism” seemingly implies a “return” to formal qualities such as genre or aesthetics in approaching literary studies, despite the entrenchment of New Historicism in many college literary departments. Yet one crucial question that our reading group hopes to study is the degree to which such a “return” to formalism implies a corresponding political and/or ethical judgment. As the title of our topic indicates, we wish to explore how New Formalism reflects an attentiveness to political and ethical issues that the New Criticism tended to neglect.

New Formalism itself is hardly a unitary concept, hence the plural reference in our title. According to Levinson, it can be divided into at least two different (but not mutually exclusive) strands: Scholars of the first strand, such as Elaine Scarry, George Levine, and Charles Altieri, call attention to the aestheticism of works of art, particularly as it pertains to the processes of cognition and embodiment as well as emotional and sensory experiences. On the other hand, scholars such as Richard Strier and Susan Wolfson investigate more closely the interrelatedness of formalism and New Historicism, seeking not only to re-discover the formalist elements of New Historicism (and vice versa) in the work of earlier theorists like Frederic Jameson, but also to ask, as Jim Hansen does in “Formalism and Its Malcontents,” why such a division was felt to be necessary. This latter strand also suggests that the increasing prominence of New Formalism forces scholars to re-think the relationship of deconstruction and postmodernism to both New Historicism and New Formalism.

“Politics, Ethics, and the New Formalisms,” our Reading Group for the 2009-2010 academic year, will allow scholars from diverse backgrounds to explore the consequences of this movement in a variety of contexts: political, ethical, disciplinary, and even pedagogical. The New Formalism movement crosses the boundaries of various disciplines, including English and Comparative Literature as well as historiography, political science, philosophy, and art history. In “New Formalisms,” the group will examine both primary and secondary readings in British Studies. We will begin with fundamental questions, such as defining “form” and “formalism,” and the different uses of those words across disciplinary boundaries. We will encounter the theories of writers such as Kant, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno, who engage issues of form in their work. Likewise, we will look at how recent scholars have turned to new formalism as a means of intervening in British studies. Essays such as J. Paul Hunter’s “Formalism and History: Binarism and the Anglophone Couplet” (2000) and Robert Kaufman’s “Everybody Hates Kant: Blakean Formalism and the Symmetries of Laura Moriarty” (2000) imagine new ways of reading British authors in two different historical periods. One of the main goals of the reading group will also be to understand the differences and the commonalities between the various strands of New Formalism, and to consider the political implications of each. Finally, this movement also forces us to confront the pedagogy of literary studies, asking us to reflect on how—and why—we teach literature to beginning and advanced students.

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