The Form of Formlessness

By DiPiero, Thomas | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Form of Formlessness


DiPiero, Thomas, Philological Quarterly


Virtually every discussion of the new formalism, whether remonstration or encomium, mentions some variant or synonym of the word "return," which should cause us to wonder what the "new" in the "new formalism" is. Advocates of the new formalism scrutinize the language, genre, structure, and aesthetic nature of the literary text, and they encourage readers to discern textual patterns and repetitions, as well as to acknowledge the aesthetic pleasure that form can induce. Many proponents of the new formalism champion the autonomy of the work of art. Some of them have always devoted the greater portion of their critical energies to these issues; still others have joined ranks with the new formalists because they believe either that literary criticism has overstepped the bounds of its discipline, that it has become too politicized, and/or that it has simply lost use of some of the most fundamental tools at its disposal for the analysis of literary works.

Two questions arise in conjunction with the new formalism, and both are somewhat polemical. The first is whether one can make abstraction of a work's formal features. Doing that would depend not only on knowing in advance or in a manner peripheral to the work what those features are; it would also depend on a form of structural and semantic immutability, that is, on the supposition that form and meaning remain in a fixed and constant relationship. The formal features of a work, by virtue of the simple fact that we can distinguish them in the first place, express difference from and opposition to a field that is either implicitly or explicitly named in the work itself. Moreover, identifiable formal features link the work in which they appear--the work they constitute--to the histories of those features. That means that works that deploy recognizable formal or generic conventions necessarily enter into dialog with literary and cultural history by virtue of their resemblances to and differences from convention. Difference and opposition in a work of art are expressive of meaning, of something that matters. To attempt to remove meaning from difference and opposition--say, for example, to devote one's critical attention only to meter or rhyme without regard to how or why those things signify--is tantamount to arguing that red is simply better than blue.

The second question that arises when we consider the new formalism is one of ownership: what criteria determine whether a given critical camp is formalist enough, and what sorts of methodologies go too far beyond structural, generic, and textual considerations? In short, are some readers "reading too much into" the text? And are others insufficiently critical? If the new formalism is asking us to pay attention to the formal details of a text, then it is not new. If, however, the new formalism is calling for a return to a time when critics did not interrogate how or why texts mattered to people, then it is advocating an extirpation, a strategic ignoring, or even outright rejection of the critical work that has developed since the heyday of formalism. In that case, despite claims for a disinterested investment in art for art's sake, what we have is a politicized claim passing itself off as natural common sense.

I will be looking at the means by which a text's formal features encode the social circumstances surrounding the systematization of those features into convention or genre, and I will argue that any formal investigation of a work or genre necessarily invokes a set of social circumstances implicitly associated with form. To do that, I will examine an earlier new formalism, one never explicitly identified as such, but one which is nevertheless marked by a similar call for a return to traditional literary forms as well as by a politics that many tried either to refute or to obfuscate. The new formalism I will be analyzing was an aesthetic movement begun in seventeenth-century France, and it arose specifically in response to the burgeoning literary form of the novel.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Form of Formlessness
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?