This is an experiment. Can a conversation about form, about its aesthetics and politics, its shapes and effects, its formations and transformations foster research practices that are dialogical? Can we begin from an understanding of form as process rather than product, ecology rather than self-sufficiency, in order to renew our processes of knowledge production as dynamic dialogue, an interlacing and interrelation of perspectives, which engage with and rub against each other? This website is one of the spaces in which this experiment finds expression.
What we aim to do
The network takes its title ‘Form in Dialogue’ both as a thematic and methodological focus. Over the course of three years, its members will engage in a sustained dialogue about the epistemological, political and pedagogical potential of a sustained engagement with aesthetic form, but also critically experiment with the form of dialogue as collaborative academic practice. The result will be a collaborative volume publication, which innovatively contributes to the growing interest in new formalist approaches, both with a view to its results and in the dialectical method the participants will employ.
Over recent decades anglophone literary studies have seen a surge of interest in questions of aesthetic form. Several factors contribute to this development, some of them contradictory. In the US-American academic context in particular, a self-styled new formalism often responds to and reacts against a perceived dominance of cultural studies approaches, which are (with some justification) accused of neglecting the formal singularity of works of literature. Such new formalisms herald a return to formal analysis as a revaluation of the core competence of literary studies, and at the same time respond to the challenge the humanities more generally face to justify their relevance. The analysis of forms, argues Caroline Levine (2015) in a seminal contribution, has implications beyond literature, since it provides tools to identify and criticise both aesthetic as well as more broadly cultural and political forms.
What many recent formal approaches share is their emphasis on the power, indeed even the agency, of form as well as their insistence on form as culturally and historically contingent. Form is understood not as a finished product, but as a process of taking form, which brings into play the reader or audience, cultural and historical contexts, as well as other competing or corresponding literary forms, just as much as the signs on the page. Form, in this sense, is not a stable container which can be filled with meaning, but it is dynamically established in numerous emergent interrelations.
Productive as these approaches are, they encounter four problems:
1. The problem of definition: ‘Form’ is such a protean term that it can be employed in countless, sometimes even incompatible ways. ‘Form’ can mean the outward shape, or the (platonic) inner essence; in a literary context it can refer to elements so substantially different as a visual aspect of the typescript and the allegiances of a text to a genre tradition; it can be employed on the scale of individual punctuation, or the macro-structuring of a multi-volume plot.
2. The problem of controversy: New formalist discourse has often been dominated by the need to justify the adjective ‘new’ in its designation and therefore both to distinguish itself from preceding formalisms (especially early 20th-century New Criticism) and to define its practice negatively against the foil of whatever specific disciplinary practise it sets up as its counterpoint (critical theory and the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, new historicism, cultural studies, etc.). Such polemics tend to simplify the theoretical commitments and interpretive practices of their respective adversaries and have little relevance outside of specific disciplinary contexts. Moreover, such controversies artificially construct boundaries between acceptable and inacceptable research within a formalist paradigm, as if one could not productively combine formalism and critical theory, formalism and historicism, formalism and deconstruction.
3. The problem of method: Beyond a shared consensus that it is important to pay detailed attention to matters of form, there is no sense of coherence as to what constitutes a new formalist method. Arguably, this is not particularly problematical, as a multiplicity of methods may offer a broader understanding of the matter at hand. However, there is a potential conflict between new formalist commitments towards the dynamic agency of form as open process and the temptation inherent to scholarly discourse to produce meaning and closure, in which form ends up being stabilised in an effort to render individual interpretative practices as more broadly valid than others.
4. The problem of politics: In one way or another, most new formalism(s) are a response to the crisis of the humanities. A return to form is heralded as a return to core skills of literary analysis, while at the same time, the reach of this skill is extended over a whole range of fields, from science, to economics, to politics. Yet formalism must engage closely with its own specificity, its uniqueness. The work form does in each individual case, as well as the effect of this particular process of forming, cannot be abstracted and generally applied. Formalism is necessarily individual rather than all-purpose in its conclusions. How, then, can it be effectively political?
The proposed network sets out to provide answers to these problems. It does so by proposing a close collaboration between the members of the network, all of which have previously engaged with questions of form, conceptually and practically, in their research and their teaching. Yet, all members address the issue of ‘form’ from a different perspective, ensuring a heterogeneity which is the necessary basis for a productive dialogue. Conducted over the course of three years, this dialogue will aim at establishing a common ground for understanding and working on form, while at the same time leaving room for a range of diverging opinions and practices. Peter Womack suggests that our work, as scholars in the humanities, is “haunted by the idea of dialogue”, as we claim in our work to discuss, inquire, or question, but that such a ‘promise of dialogue’ as a rule turns out to be ‘a false prospectus, or a metaphor, or something in between’ (2011: 9). With this website as well as the collaborative volume we propose as the outcome of the network, we want to turn this metaphor into literal practise, both in terms of productively exchanging ideas and academic practices and with regards to potential implications this collaborative approach can have for conveying such ideas and practices in the university classroom as well as the socio-political sphere beyond.
Inaugural Workshop, 17.-18.11.2023, Konstanz