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. …