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  • Fear of Formalism: Kant, Twain, and Cultural Studies in American Literature
  • Elizabeth Maddock Dillon (bio)

I begin with what we might call a bipolar disturbance in literary criticism. Caught between the materialism of cultural studies and the formalism of philosophy, literary criticism is construed, on the one hand, as useless—struck dumb by its lack of purpose in the face of real politics and real bodies—and, on the other hand, as singularly efficacious, the only tool through which to reveal the essentially discursive character of all forms of culture, including bodies and politics. While this rhetorical model of criticism is regularly posited as politically bankrupt, as having no purchase on the facticity of the world, the model of materialist cultural criticism is just as regularly unmasked as, at base, rhetorically constructed and thus guilty of concealing its own formalist dimensions. 1 This “disturbance,” as I’ve described it, tends to be acted out as a debilitating dialectic: caught between formalism and materialism, literary criticism is left without any ground to stand on. Yet this peculiar bipolarity within literary criticism is intimately linked to the strange status of literature itself. Language becomes recognizably literary at the moment it assumes a rhetorical or formal dimension rather than serving as the invisible conduit of mimetic representation. 2 Whence, evidently, the allure of formalism for literary criticism: form would seem to be exactly what demarcates the literary from the nonliterary, what defines the exclusive territory of literature. Yet formalism, as has been widely and persuasively argued, tends to turn literature into precisely the kind of artifact that means little in relation to the world and tends to obscure the worldly relations that inform the text and its production. Indeed, in the field of Cultural Studies—a field whose defining gesture is political engagement—“formalist” is a term whose meaning often comes to approximate “apolitical.” “Formalist,” fashioned as opprobium, speaks chidingly of hermeticism or more acerbically of the insidious erasures enacted by universalism.

In contemporary criticism, formalism has thus come to occupy an important antipodal position which encompasses far more than the New Critical practices of the 1940s and ‘50s. In emphasizing the formal, intrinsic qualities of the literary work, New [End Page 46] Critics closeted the text away from the world and from the possibility of social action: their agenda has thus been construed as politically quietist and inherently conservative. 3 Yet the term “formalism,” used as a charge of conservatism, has been applied more broadly to poststructuralist criticism as well. Paul Lauter, for instance, uses the term “formalist” to describe deconstruction as an avatar of New Criticism: both emphasize textual relations to the exclusion of extratextual considerations. Poststructuralism, Lauter and others have argued, continues an aestheticization of literature which turns literary criticism over to an elitist and ultimately irrelevant “priesthood.” ‘“Formalist,’” writes Lauter, “suggests that the whole enterprise of literary theorizing subsists behind dense academic walls, where de Man speaks only to Heidegger, and Heidegger speaks only to God” [138]. While Lauter bases his analogy between poststructuralism and New Criticism on the charge of hermeticism as well as a lack of historical engagement, the notion of “form” as it appears in poststructuralism is nonetheless significantly different than the “form” that animated New Critical endeavors. Where New Critical “form” concerns specifically literary structures—irony, metaphor, tension, unity—the poststructural referent for these rhetorical terms is often the “form” of language or subjectivity itself. Accordingly, the meaning of “form” (and, indeed, “formalism”) undergoes a marked shift from specific rhetorical articulations to larger theoretical claims about language and identity.

This second, broader articulation of form has been critiqued less for hermeticism or quietism than for its implied universalism—that is, for fashioning subjects and discursive forces in uniform shapes without regard for political and historical specificity. Stuart Hall, for example, whilst defining the practice of Cultural Studies, warns against theories of the subject (in this case psychoanalysis) that tend toward universalism: “The manner in which this ‘subject’ of culture is conceptualized is of a trans-historical and ‘universal’ character: it addresses the subject-in-general, not an historically-determinate social subject, or socially determinate particular language” [Hall 70]. On this reading, formalist theories of poststructuralism...

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