Volume 61, Issue 1 | March 2000

Special Issue: Reading for Form

Author Title
Susan J. Wolfson Reading for Form  
This article shares its title with the special issue of MLQ that it introduces. In the last decades of the twentieth century, formalist criticism, the privileged mode of mid-century New Criticism and its insistence on "close reading" of literary texts, confronted a disparagement or, at best, merely marginalization and neglect, by various critiques or new critical movements, especially those concerned with contextual issues. Yet to set formalist interests against contextual ones is to obscure the way formal choices and actions are enmeshed in, and even exercise agency within, networks of social and historical conditions. The essays in this issue of MLQ engage the challenges of historicist criticism, but it is also revealing that none tries to justify or rehabilitate formalist criticism by pleading for it on this basis alone. From different angles of interest, the essays in "Reading for Form" also advance a sustained and scrupulous interest in formal dynamics on behalf of a sophisticated yet unembarrassed sense of literary value and literary pleasure.
Author Title
Ellen Rooney Form and Contentment
Virgil Nemoianu Hating and Loving Aesthetic Formalism: Some Reasons  
The article begins by insistently questioning the wide-spread current critical hostility against literary humanism and against literature as a whole. The first approach to an answer is a historical one. Persecutionary tendencies against literature are pointed out in the two great totalitarian movements of the 20th century (Nazism and Communism), but perhaps even more consistently in "normal commonwealths" (in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and particularly the modern and democratic ages). The next sections of the essay deal with a number of foci of this situation. Among those mentioned the preferential choice of Nietzsche over Dilthey by the ideological communities of the West is discussed in great detail. Part of the conclusion of the essay is explanatory. Thus the political theories of Michael Oakeshott with their resolute opposition to reductionism are show to be transferable from sociopolitical to the cultural-literary. There is also a brief discussion of the modes of contribution of the science/literature and religion/literature interfaces to an improved appreciation of aesthetic formalism. Nemoianu concludes by enumerating the reasons why aesthetic form is needed nowadays.
Heather Dubrow Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Reinterpreting Formalism and the Country House Poem  
The suspicion attending the study of form in many academic circles is overdetermined: that enterprise, often regarded as ostensibly apolitical but in fact complicitly political, appears to violate many of the principles of contemporary methodologies. Another source and symptom of the rejection of aesthetic analysis is the tendency to gender it female. In addition, such analysis has been demonized because of its connection to the Enlightenment in general and Kant in particular; but a closer examination of Kant demonstrates that his conception of beauty is more complex than literary critics generally assume; arguably, for example, he does not invariably associated beauty with autonomy and disinterestedness. In the instance of the country house poem, aesthetic issues are closely connected to the problems of politics and gender, demonstrating the relevance of aesthetic analysis to contemporary critical approaches; we should not, however, see formal strategies in these and other texts merely as the obedient servants of political concerns.
Ronald Levao "Among Unequals What Society": Paradise Lost and the Forms of Intimacy
J.Paul Hunter Formalism and History: Binarism and the Anglophone Couplet
Robert Kaufman Everybody Hates Kant: Blakean Formalism and the Symmetries of Laura Moriarty
Frances Ferguson Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form
Garrett Stewart The Foreign Offices of British Fiction  
This essay fuses a close-grained stylistics of fictional prose with the broader dimensions of cultural critique. Aligning the deep-structural formalism of Michael Riffaterre (especially in Fictional Truth) with the marxist semiotics of Fredric Jameson (in both The Political Unconscious and his later position paper "Modernism and Imperialism"), the article attempts a newly political understanding of the intertext in Riffaterre's system alongside a rehistoricizing of Jameson's critique regarding a tacitly imperial bias in the rhetorical obfuscations of the modernist sublime. It does so by backdating Jameson's insights about early twentieth-century British prose to the colonial imaginary of Dickens's Dombey and Son while pursuing the semiotic mastertrope of syllepsis as an actualized stylistic function rather than just an abstract paradigm (as it remains in Riffaterre). What results is the comparison of a divisive or two-tiered grammatical structure in Dickens, by turns slapstick and metaphysical, with the figural equivocations of Forster's Howards End, chief exhibit for Jameson of the colonialist mystifications and occlusions of British modernist style.
Franco Moretti The Slaughterhouse of Literature
Catherine Gallagher Formalism and Time

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