- Reviving Formalism in the 21st CenturyA review of Tom Eyers, Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present
Some ninety years ago, C.D. Broad argues in “Critical and Speculative Philosophy” that “the discursive form of cognition by means of general concepts” can never “be completely adequate to the concrete Reality which it seeks to describe.” According to Broad, “thought must always be ‘about’ its objects; to speak metaphorically, it is a transcription of the whole of Reality into a medium which is itself one aspect of Reality.” Speaking of F.H. Bradley, Broad opines that he cannot agree with the conviction that “this scheme involves internal contradictions.” Broad thus imagines a scheme of Reality and a process of thought that is “about” its objects as free of internal contradictions.
Central to Tom Eyers’s brilliant Speculative Formalism is an interrogation of the correspondence of formalized thought in the form of imaginative writing and what Broad calls Reality. Contrary to Broad, Eyers maintains that there are internal contradictions within discursive forms of cognition, and further, that such contradictions exist as well in the material life world, something that has been made clear by Marx and Engels and many others. Eyers writes, “Form, as it will be understood in what follows, becomes the conflicted, multiply distributed, and plastic site where truths specific to literature are rendered contingent but also given their only opening to the world, and from which other formal logics in other domains may be better understood” (6). In this context, the speculative refers to the conviction that we can only apprehend the Real by means of the mediation of forms: imaginative, logical, paradigmatic, and so forth. The speculative must necessarily recognize, therefore, that it is determined by interfaces in conflict that enable a “creative capacity of impasses” (8), a view not so different from the New Critics’, who saw literary writing as a medium for speculation that opened on significance in terms of ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies.
Along these lines, Eyers writes: “Literature stages better than most phenomena the manner in which, far from shutting down the possibility of meaning, the impossibility of any final, formal integration of a structure and its component parts is the very condition of possibility of that structure” (8). The possibility of structure and meaning, we’re told, is predicated upon its incompletion (the impossibility of integration): “central to my argument will be the claim that form resists meaning as much as it enables it” (9). Again, he tells us, “it is [the] very resistance to semantic recuperation that, paradoxically enough, lies at the root of literature’s capacity to refer, even to transfigure, annul, boost or remain strikingly indifferent to, its historical and political conditions” (9–10). This idea of indifference likely would not be accepted by traditional historians who place considerable emphasis on historical contextualization, about which, they would claim, by definition the work cannot be indifferent.
Speculative formalism, as may already be evident, makes claims for literary readings that cannot be verified by means of naïve, direct reference to the things themselves, including the facticity of historical context. For the speculative is defined in terms of a thinking that recognizes and works through the strictures of formal systems or logics, which, according to Eyers, may be internally contradictory. Not only literature, but history, politics, economics, and culture may also be considered as formal contradictory logics, as posited by French theory of the 1960s that invalidated totalizing programs of literary and cultural study (Derrida), along with the invalidation of a naïve Cartesianism whereby subject and object (observer and observed) are thought to be self-evidently given as intelligible, congruent substitutes for one another (Foucault).
As we can see, although Eyers makes a case for returning to formal literary analysis, his speculative formalism is by no means a return to the kind of formalism that pits the work as a static artificial construct against the teleological historical givens of the life world. This work/world distinction, of course, is endemic to long discredited traditional historicist practices of scholarship wherein researchers simplistically attempt to...