The origin of this essay is a sense of disappointment at what had seemed to me at first one of the most interesting of recent developments in literary studies. I mean here the reemergence, on a critical scene dominated since the alleged death of "high theory" by historicism, of a self-conscious formalism, a "new formalism" to borrow the term employed by Marjorie Levinson in her 2007 PMLA review—"What Is New Formalism?"—which looks back to the March 2000 issue of MLQ—Reading for Form—and which anticipates the topics of some of the most recent meetings of the English Institute: "Form" (2013), "Medium" (2014), and "Figure" (2015). If, despite its having unsettled some critical commonplaces, and despite its having given rise to some interesting metacritical work, this reemergence of formalism (or this emergence of "new formalism") has been disappointing, the reason is that, while the ascendancy of the old formalisms—of the Yale School (minus the antiformalist Harold Bloom), or of the New Critics (expanded to include René Wellek and Austin Warren), or even of Aristotle—tended to coincide with an increased attention to or anxiety around the question of literature as such, the rise of the new formalism has not. It has, rather, affirmed some older formalist methodology once denigrated for its apolitical or ahistorical leanings all the while insisting on this methodology's real political or historical significance. I am thinking, for example, of the flourishing Adorno industry, and there is the somewhat different rehabilitation of Clement Greenberg in the criticism of visual art. Or, the new formalism has sought to innovate through the application to literature of ever more ingenious metaphors drawn from other fields—so the literary work is no longer an "organism" but a "machine" or a "network"; literary form is not "static" but "dynamic," "processual." The tendency of formalism to move in this direction was already noted by Fredric Jameson in 1972, in The Prison House of Language, where he writes that, with structuralism, "we find ourselves ultimately before the conclusion that the attempt to see the literary work as a linguistic system is in reality the application of a metaphor." And it was noted a year later by Paul de Man in "Semiology and Rhetoric," where, having discussed the prevailing model of literature as "a kind of box that separates an inside from an outside," de Man concludes that "metaphors are more tenacious than facts."
In any event, the new formalism has done nothing to answer the question: what is literature? As far as I can tell, it has not even tried. And if it did try, it would fail. It would fail because it begins with a set of assumptions about its object, and about its relation to its object, that are more than two hundred years out of date—two hundred twenty-seven years out of date, to be exact. For it was the publication in 1790 of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment that demonstrated, once and for all, the impossibility of deriving a theory of the art object from a reflection on that object's formal properties. Somewhat counterintuitively, this impossibility is what Kant's discussion of "mere form" (in the sense that a judgment of taste, according to Kant, is "pure" when it is a judgment of the "mere form" of a thing) should help us to understand. And it should help us to see the limitations not only of the new formalism, which I shall stop discussing presently, but also of any formalist critical practice that attempts to move from the formal properties of its object to a characterization of that object as literature or as art.