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Article

The future of literary studies will be shaped by new and emerging trends in scholarly, critical, and theoretical work, by changes in the material conditions that enable that work, and, perhaps most importantly, by how the institutions within which it functions respond to recent changes in higher education that increasingly threaten the viability of almost all humanities disciplines. The material conditions that shape work in literary studies have changed dramatically in recent decades. The impact of digital technology has been nothing short of transformative, and the changes it has introduced are bound to continue to reshape the field. At the same time, the expansion of the canon, the transnationalizing of literary studies, the revitalization of narratological, formalist, and aesthetic criticism, the emergence of new interdisciplinary fields including the study of sexuality and gender, ecocriticism, affect theory, and disability studies, promise to continue to exert influence in the coming decades. The future from these perspectives looks promising. At the same time, however, the institutional sustainability of literary studies has come under threat as the liberal arts model of higher education has increasingly given way to a stress in higher education on vocational training in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines, which has worked to undercut the value and the attraction of literary studies. How the field responds to these changes in the coming decade will be crucial to determining its future viability.

Article

Stephen Cohen

From the Platonic ur-antiformalism, the reaction to which gave shape and purpose to classical and early modern literary theory, to the agon between form and history that dominated 20th-century literary criticism and pedagogy, the concept of form and the methodologies of its study (formalism) have at once grounded and challenged our understanding of literature. Is form an ornament or supplement to literature’s essential content, a component of literature’s meaning and function, or the very defining essence of the literary? Does form inhere in the macro-structures of literary mode and genre, the micro-structures of figure, style, and prosody, or the unique shape of the individual text? Does form stand apart and insulated from the vicissitudes of history and the pressures of ideology, is it the object (or agent) of historical and ideological determination, or does it provide us a vantage from which to understand and perhaps resist them? These questions and the variety of answers they have generated have shaped and continue to shape both the practice of literary studies and its status as an academic discipline.

Article

Stephanie Nelson and Barry Spence

Time is an inherent, constitutive aspect of narrative, whether the narrative concerns fiction or fact. To speak of narrative is to invoke time and multiple temporalities. Aristotle’s emphasis on action as a primary component of narrative implicitly acknowledges time as fundamental, since any action requires time. Whether narrative is seen as a series of connected events or as primarily the creation of a storyworld, the functional and structural roles of time stand. As a result of this, time has been one of the most analyzed, researched, and theorized subjects in the field of narrative theory. Discussions concerning such narrative concepts as story, plot, character, or point of view can hardly avoid considering temporal dynamics. And the elemental nature of time in narrative remains constant whether narrative is conceived more narrowly as depending on the presence of a narrator or is defined as the conjunction of a story and its representation. To consider the ways in which narratives involve the interrelationships of different temporalities is also to be reminded of the disjunction between so-called “real” or clock time and time as it is experienced. In contrast to the uniform directionality of clock time, time as it is experienced is constantly intertwined with memory and anticipation: that is, any experienced present is also interwoven with multiple pasts and futures. Narrative time captures this experience. Since a narrative is always a representation, a particular and subjective presentation of a story, the chronological sequence of events in a narrative may be represented in an infinite variety of ways. A given story can be told from its beginning moving through to its conclusion, or it can start with the end and build the story by revisiting earlier events, or it may start in the middle and proceed toward its end and at various points tack backward to earlier points, or it can do any combination of these. A representation of a story can create two storylines in parallel, the narrative crosscutting between the concurrent storylines, just as individuals can participate in one spatial-temporal setting while also immersed in another, whether technologically (as on the telephone or Internet) or mentally. In this way narrative time is in many ways truer to human experience than what is conventionally thought of as real time, namely the uniform absolute time undermined by Einstein’s discovery of relativity. What seems indisputable is that humans are hardwired to create and communicate with narrative; they habitually generate and trade in narratives as a way of making meaning of experience and of building connections with fellow humans. As a result, humans also constantly manipulate time, making sense of past, present, and future experiences through narrative. Just as anticipation of the future relies on the sense one makes of the present, the act of remembering has more to do with making narrative meaning than with accessing some fixed or stable mental recording of an event. Time is something an audience actively creates rather than something it passively experiences, and this may be borne out most vividly in the continuous activity of making narratives.

Article

Julian Murphet

Character is a property of narrative and discursive textuality, even as it is also a moral and ethical category referring to individual and collective norms of behavior and motive. This double valence has affected the concept since Aristotle and Plato first began the unfinished, centuries-long project of literary theory. On the one hand, stemming from Aristotle, there has been a tradition of formalist conceptions of character, understanding it as a device used by writers to drive narrative momentum and effect transformations within the discourse. The domain of action, and its variously entailed reactions and consequences, was thought to belong to the agents of narrative discourse by rights, while what was generally called their “character” typically concerned the incidental qualifications and explanations of their actions in speech and thought. Once that distinction is made, however, there are smaller and smaller units into which agency can logically be subdivided, and more and more arbitrary and capricious qualities of character used to flesh out an abstract narratological principle. The histories of formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism attest to this labor of specialization and fissiparous subdivision of the bound concepts of agent and character. On the other hand, stemming from Plato, we see a centuries-long interest in the mutually interactive relations between imaginary persons, or fictional selves, and the fashioning of public or social selves in regimes of education and discipline. The question of the role of literary characters in the formation of good citizens, or indeed delinquent ones, is one that refuses to go away, since it has proven impossible to separate fiction from reality in the complex processes of self-fashioning through which every subject must go. One last matter of interest has exerted more theoretical influence over the concept in recent years, and that is the topic of affects: the qualities and intensities of human feelings can be seen to have had a major bearing on the writing and elaboration of fictional beings, and vice versa, at least since the late 19th century.

Article

Mark Vareschi

Literary criticism has long wavered in its attitude toward intention, sometimes considering it inaccessible and undesirable, and at other times, the source and arbiter of meaning. Much of this debate hinges on whether intention is understood as a mental event in the mind of a human or not. While some influential scholars of literature have tended to approach intention with the view that intention is a mental state, philosophers of action have long held that intention is a description of action that occurs in the world. This latter view promises to reinvigorate intention as a useful concept in literary study as scholars continue to expand the notion of text, beyond its purely verbal component, to text understood as the literary artifact comprising, and shaped by, human and nonhuman agency alike.

Article

Graham Harman

Speculation does not refer to anything like a unified school of literary criticism; nor is it one of the terms commonly employed by critics. Nonetheless, there have already been at least two important appeals to speculation in early 21st-century philosophical approaches to literature. One of them is speculative realism, including the variant of this school propounded by Quentin Meillassoux and known as speculative materialism. Another is Tom Eyers’s speculative formalism, as developed in his book of the same title. Whereas Meillassoux is concerned with the mathematizability of literary texts, Eyers is focused on moments of self-reflexive paradox.

Article

Object-oriented ontology (OOO) is an intellectual movement in the arts and humanities sharing certain affinities with both phenomenology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). It is a philosophically realist position often at odds with existing currents in postmodernism and critical theory. The best-known idea of OOO is that objects “withdraw” from all direct human and non-human contact, so that relations between things are always indirect and must be accounted for rather than taken for granted. More broadly speaking, however, OOO is a theory of two kinds of objects (real, sensual) and two kinds of qualities (real, sensual). Real objects and qualities are not directly accessible to thought, perception, practical use, or even causal relation, and must be approached by more allusive means. Sensual objects and qualities, by contrast, exist only for some other entity, human or otherwise. Each type of object has troubled relations with each of the two forms of qualities, resulting in four basic tensions, the analysis of which is the heart of object-oriented method in every field and not just literature. OOO literary theory has a special fondness for the weird: especially the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose work is taken to exemplify two of the key ontological tensions. Dante and Edgar Allan Poe are also key OOO figures, due to their manner of theatrically investing their characters and readers in sincere relations with objects. OOO’s relation with the formalist aesthetics of Immanuel Kant is ambivalent, since Kant is admired for cutting off the aesthetic object from its surroundings but challenged for his modernist assumption that the human and non-human must never be mixed.