- On Political Formalism
Rarely does a work of criticism come along that has the potential to transform existing fields or to establish novel modes of inquiry within the literary humanities, but I believe that The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space by Anna Kornbluh has the capacity to do so. It strikes me as the kind of book that could have an effect somewhat like that of Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negotiations, Eve Kofovsky Sedgwick's Between Men, or Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, texts that helped to inaugurate new approaches to literature. Of course, the times have changed, as has academe itself over the past 40 years, and it is unlikely that a single critical study can have the sort of lasting and field-altering effects that some of these older landmarks of criticism enjoyed. Nevertheless, The Order of Forms is both ambitious and insightful enough to set into motion a major rethinking of literary studies in our time.
Nominally, The Order of Forms offers a spirited defense of the value of formalism against historicist and empiricist tendencies that have predominated literary studies in recent decades. But Kornbluh goes far beyond this defense to posit what she calls "political formalism," which would insist upon the value of forms and insist that forming is itself a value. Along with her positive argument about the value of formalism, Kornbluh takes a polemical stance against a wide array of literary critical and theoretical practices that would celebrate the dismantling of structures, formlessness, or deconstruction, which is to say, an ethos animated by such critical traditions as "Nietzschean genealogy, Benjaminian materialism, Foucauldian historicism, feminism, and deconstruction," traditions that "exalt unmaking and unbuilding" (1). Borrowing the term from Giorgio Agamben, who uses it as the opposite of "constituent," Kornbluh refers to this as the "destituent paradigm," and she connects its overall philosophy of formlessness, "this beatific fantasy of formless life," to what she aptly names "anarcho-vitalism" (2). To borrow a cliché, one might say that such critics have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in their eagerness to condemn institutional forms or power structures as uniformly repressive, without acknowledging the [End Page 501] degree to which social forms are both necessary and desirable for any truly liberatory political program.
Given Kornbluh's objections to "anarcho-vitalism" and "deconstruction," one might expect find her sympathetic to various postcritical approaches, including surface reading and thin description, which have achieved notoriety in recent years. However, Kornbluh explicitly denounces these approaches as well, noting that they frequently turn out to be simply another means for taking things apart and resisting constructive projects. Indeed, Kornbluh's argument will draw upon the very fonts of that "hermeneutics of suspicion" so reviled by those who embrace postcritique, namely, Marxism and psychoanalysis, along with structuralism. In Kornbluh's view, these discourses recognize the critical vitality of forms in the organization of our social and psychic lives, which in turn makes them essential to any political formalism that aims to build up other, more equitable structures in the world. Marx's sense that human life is always and already organized into social forms is a key starting point for this Marxist critical study.
The argument in The Order of Forms follows from Kornbluh's earlier book, Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies of Victorian Form (2014), and Kornbluh's expertise in Victorian literature, as well as in the rich traditions of Marxist and Freudian critical theory, make her singularly well qualified to elaborate and theory and practice of political formalism. Given the profound issues facing us in our social lives in the twenty-first century, one might ask—as skeptics often do when facing innovative works of literary or cultural studies—what critical readings of nineteenth-century novels have to do with our political struggles in the "real world." But Kornbluh magisterially connects the social and political program she envisions to a formalist approach to literature, noting that
[t]he study of literary form is at root the analysis of how language...