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  • Poetics of the Rule:Form, Biopolitics, Lyric
  • Ingrid Nelson (bio)

In general, this reule may nat fayle.

—Chaucer, "Fortune"

Life is messy; rules are tidy. Chaucer's refrain to this lesserknown lyric presses at the limits of this antithesis. It suggests that a "rule" of contingency is still vulnerable to an aporia between norm and situation. This is not so much contradiction or irony, however, as it is a constitutive feature of rules. Rules are guidelines to changing circumstances, not ahistorical mandates. The Chaucerian refrain seems at once to anticipate and redirect recent discussions of the so-called "new formalism" in literary studies, which explores the intersections between literary forms (the rules) and historical contingency (the situations). According to the coiner of the term, Heather Dubrow, "The interplay between texts and their cultures can best be explicated through another kind of interplay, the dialogue between some of the questions posed by the new historicism and some of the methods employed by New Criticism, linguistics, and formalism."1 Since this seminal assertion, new formalism has developed less as a coherent critical theory than as a set of approaches united by an interest in at least one of Dubrow's latter three methods. Marjorie Levinson, for instance, identifies two distinct branches of these approaches: the "activist" new formalism that seeks continuity with new historicism's attention to forms as cultural productions, and the "normative" new formalism that seeks a Kantian return to disinterested aestheticism.2 Levinson's first branch has been taken up energetically by the two fields that bear on the Chaucerian poem of my epigraph: early English literary studies and transhistorical lyric studies.3 Scholars in these disciplines in particular have explored the politics and ethics of historicizing literary form.4

In this essay I take up the question of lyric form's ethics and politics, not by integrating formalism with historicism, but rather by exploring a politics of personhood emerging from the concepts of "rule" and "life." I approach this politics by way of ancient and modern theories [End Page 65] of "life," memorably christened "biopolitics" by Michel Foucault. Biopolitical theories attribute plural meanings to "life": it is the biological fact of existence, a set of customs or practices of living ("way of life"; "Get a life!"), and a unit of political repression and/or agency. In order to put biopolitics in dialogue with literary formalism, I engage with a phrase introduced by Ludwig Wittgenstein: "form of life." Wittgenstein only vaguely defines the phrase in order to suggest lived practices that follow certain formal structures or "rules." But his intellectual heir Giorgio Agamben expands this concept by reimagining a Foucauldian biopolitics centered on the rule. For Agamben a "rule" is a particular kind of form, defined abstractly but articulated in the practices of communal life. He finds a historical model for his biopolitics in medieval monastic life, which was governed by the regula (rule) or forma vitae, or "form-of-life," Agamben's hyphenated adaptation of Wittgenstein's term. Yet in premodern as in modern usage, "rule" can also refer to political sovereignty, the very force that accounts for the repressive dimension of biopolitics.

As I explain in a more detailed discussion of these theoretical frameworks below, the category of "life" thus bridges historical specificity and ethical universality. As such, it is a category that both illuminates and is illuminated by premodern literature. Taking its cue from Agamben's exploration of the medieval regula vitae as a foundation for a biopolitics of the rule, this essay suggests that a set of Chaucer's philosophical lyrics, known as the Boethian lyrics, articulates a poetics of the rule, as sovereign rule and self rule, navigable through medieval lyric form. Further, these premodern lyrics suggest a biopolitics of form apart from certain troubling aspects of modern biopolitics.

Thinking of rule as form begs a question: is form central to formalism? The methods of literary analysis aggregated under the rubric of "formalism," old or new, don't agree on the answer. In the 1926 essay "The Formal Method," Boris Eichenbaum states, "The basic efforts of the Formalists were directed neither toward the study of so-called 'form' nor toward the construction of...


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