- Formalism and the Return to the Body: Stein’s and Fornes’s Aesthetic of Significant Form
“To open the question,” as Shoshana Felman once prefaced a famous volume, let me begin with a modernist text on form. In The Meaning of Art, the art critic Herbert Read writes: “Form, though it can be analyzed into intellectual terms like measure, balance, rhythm and harmony, is really intuitive in origin; it is not an intellectual product. It is rather emotion directed and defined, and when we describe art as ‘the will to form’ we are not imagining an exclusively intellectual activity, but rather an exclusively instinctive one. . . . Frankly, I do not know how we are to judge form except by the same instinct that creates it.” 1 It is the thinking, reading, and judgment of form that will concern me in the following pages, in an inquiry with a specific as well as a more general motivation. Generally (and schematically) speaking, it appears that current critical approaches to form run the risk of falling into either of two traps: the modernist trap of mysticism/metaphysics, or the postmodernist trap of the empty gesture, the attention to form which has exhausted, or is about to exhaust, its potential for significance. Specifically, such limitations of critical discourse seem to apply with particular relevance to the work of Gertrude Stein and Maria Irene Fornes, two writers for the theater whose aesthetic projects are in many ways related, and who appear to me to be somewhat awkwardly positioned in current critical discourse, between a politicized postmodernist project and a formalism generally held to be deficient. Examining these writers together may bring out more clearly the nature of their attention to form as well as serve to reopen more generally the question of form, its significance and its possible “reading effects.”
This pairing off of Stein and Fornes may come as a surprise to some, especially in view of the critical tradition of considering Fornes (as opposed to Stein) a directly political writer, whose realism, if stylized, is always unquestionably referential, concerned with the world “out there.” As commentators before me have noted, however, Fornes’s consistent attention (whether as writer or director) to the stage as visual and auditive field defines her as formalist at least in that sense of the word, and sets up the connection to Stein. Another less noted connection [End Page 791] arises from certain ideas about what we may call “significant form” which the two hold in common. It will be the objective of the argument below to show that these ideas, fully attended to, may serve to renew ruling critical perceptions about form and its meanings. Finally, let me remark that considering Stein and Fornes as formalists is not to depoliticize them. In fact, it will be a central point in the argument below that much of the unsettling effect of the plays in question (what we may refer to as their enunciative and performative force) precisely resides in and emanates from form, most fundamentally because it is the “mark of form” which sets up a viewing capable of invalidating the controlling, masterful gaze: the look that returns to the body.
With these objectives in view, my discussion will take the following route: I. A review of certain modernist and postmodernist approaches to form and their limitations. II. The specificity of Stein’s and Fornes’s formalist projects as approached through their aesthetics and through some of the insights of phenomenology. III. An attempt to meet some of the challenges posed to current critical thinking on form by drawing on the resources of psychoanalysis.
Herbert Read’s statement above arises from a modernist aesthetic which opposes art forms to discursive language, where art, as Anne Fernihough expertly shows in a recent essay, “communicates a state of being,” somehow “reaches beyond itself as discourse to a deeper, non-conceptual level of apprehension.” 2 It is the same rationale which informs the Bloomsbury art critic Clive Bell’s distinction between “significant form” and “labels” and Roger Fry’s “imaginative vision”: “The ‘imaginative’ (or non-discursive) vision is that which transforms any fragment of ‘life’ into a work of...