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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.