One of the last things I did with my sabbatical year was write up a proposal for exactly the kind of graduate course I always fantasized about offering “post-tenure.” It was approved by my department last week!
Forms of Thought: (New) Critical Thinking and Writing
Description and objectives:
How diverse is the current ecosystem of intellectual activity? This question has recently been asked in a number of fields of literary and cultural studies scholarship, not for the first time, but with some new measures of diversity. In particular, proponents of a “new formalism” have launched a broad critique of the overwhelming dominance of historicist methodologies since the last decade of the twentieth century. In a 2000 special issue of Modern Language Quarterly calling for a “new formalism,” Susan J. Wolfson urged a new commitment to “reading for form,” meaning both a mode of reading the recognizes the work of form in literature and culture, and a mode of reading that claims political allegiance with the “conceptual agency of form.” Asking fifteen years later, “Are We Being Formalist Yet?” Sandra Macpherson answers, unequivocally, “No.” In fact, she argues, “much of the new formalism … ransoms form with history” by framing the political import of form as a matter of historical agency. What else might form do than the kinds of things we imagine ourselves doing as historical subjects?
Along similar lines, the V21 Collective recently published a “Manifesto” for 21st-century Victorian studies that asserts, “Victorian Studies has fallen prey to positivist historicism: a mode of inquiry that aims to do little more than exhaustively describe, preserve, and display the past.” In resistance to this mode of inquiry, the Collective insists that both “theory” and “form” must be retrieved as imperatives of Victorian studies, to cultivate a self-aware “presentism” in traditionally historical/historicist fields. To this end, V21 deliberately turns to digital form: as an online platform, it offers to balance “the slow and careful inquiry that takes place in monographs and articles” with “the fast, dynamic, and dialogic forms of online publishing, co-authorship, and conference panel streams.” Other collectives have opted for very different forms of politicized intellectual work. For example, the multi-authored “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University” calls for a slowing down of the patterns of institutional intellectual labor, in order to resist acclimating scholarship to the intensified rhythms of corporate “productivity.” But are these skeptical stances against hegemonic forms of thought radical enough—or, in Macpherson’s formulation, formalist enough—to disrupt the form of historical agency? Does the form of the manifesto necessarily reproduce a model of historical intervention and progress, or do its affective and rhetorical provocations—captured, for example, in the title of Kieran Healy’s article on methods of sociology, “Fuck Nuance”—have the potential to unsettle us to the point of unanticipated transformation as thinkers?
This course responds to the call for sustained and radically committed attention to form and formalisms in two ways. First, it introduces students to the problems introduced by “new formalism” and even newer formalisms, primarily the tensions between (new) formalism, (new) historicism, and (new) materialism. This aspect of the course aims to cultivate literacy not only in formal qualities of literature and culture but also in what Caroline Levine calls “the affordances of form”—the work forms do in the world. Second, it provides an opportunity for students to reflect critically on existing and potential forms of scholarship, in order to cultivate ways of recognizing and practicing a diverse range of “forms of thought.” What forms might theory and criticism take beyond the monograph or research article—lyric essay, manifesto, experimental documentary, archive, fragment, poem? What kind of reading and response do such forms invite, and what kinds do they frustrate, stave off, or discourage? What forms other than “historic period” have we used and might we use to organize literary and cultural movements—the constellation, the network, the spiral, the wave, the cloud? What other contexts for literature, culture, and ourselves as subjects beyond the “historical” or even “theoretical” are compelled by different forms of analysis or engagement—for example, what Lisa Robertson calls “the weather,” or what Eric Hayot refers to as the literary “ecosystem”? How might different intellectual practices displace the agency of thought from individuated, institutionally or ideologically endorsed human subjects, and how might this displacement reorient literary and cultural studies’ approach to its objects? Who is the thinker when, as Hilary Gravendyk puts it, “The theoretical heavy lifting is done by the poem itself”?
By diversifying the range of forms in which we recognize the work of critical thought, the course aims not merely to multiply the number of scholarly genres that receive institutional validation, but rather to teach methods of self-examination premised on recognizing intellectual subjectivity itself as a form contingent on any number of other forms. As scholars, we measure our productivity in time spent reading, writing, teaching, and “serving” the institution. But what other forms does intellectual work find, whether we acknowledge them or not? What if, as Anne Boyer says, “Not writing is working”? “There are years, days, hours, minutes, weeks, moments, and other measures of time spent in the production of ‘not writing,’” she reminds us. Is there a distinction between the work of thought and the work of living, of existing? Must a phenomenon take the form of a measurable act to be counted as meaningful or political? We have become accustomed to asking about the historical conditions of subjective experience, but what of the formal conditions of experience? What are the consequences of these kinds of questions for our work, our social and political commitments, and our participation in practices of thinking? How might we rethink our approach as scholars to the relation between thinking and what Susan Stewart calls “making”?
The course will require that students keep handwritten journals in which they record, in various forms, the work they do during the course—including but not limited to reading, writing, and “not writing.” This notebook—a “notebook on making,” as Susan Stewart calls her book The Poet’s Freedom—will be modeled, in part, on the assignments detailed in Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, and will be graded by how vigilantly it is kept rather than on the particular formal qualities of its contents. In addition, students will propose and develop a final project on some problem raised by the course. This project may take any number of forms, but must include some element of critical reflection on the work of its own form. Students will also be responsible for leading some portion of class discussion.
“Reading for Form,” ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown, special issue of MLQ 61.1 (2000)
“The Lure of the Detail: Close Reading Today,” ed. Ellen Rooney and Elizabeth Weed, special issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.3 (2003)
Marjorie Levinson, “What Is New Formalism?”
Sandra Macpherson, “A Little Formalism”
Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
The Manifesto of the V21 Collective and related forums
Renu Basu et al, “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University”
Kieran Healy, “Fuck Nuance”
Roland Barthes, “The World as Object”
D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, selections from On Growth and Form
Timothy Morton, “An Object-Oriented Defense of Poetry”
Eric Hayot, “New Theories of the Novel”
Sianne Ngai, selections from Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting
Eugenie Brinkema, selections from The Forms of the Affects
Jane Bennet, selections from The Enchantment of Modern Life and Vibrant Matter
John Durham Peters, selections from The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media
Arturo Escobar, “Culture Sits in Places: Reflections on Globalism and Subaltern Strategies of Localization”
Lisa Robertson, The Weather
Ronald Johnson, Radi Os
Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women
M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!
“On the poet-scholar,” special forum on Jacket2 (2013)
Susan Stewart, selections from The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making
Lynda Barry, Syllabus
“Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind” (dir. John Gianvito)
“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm” (dir. William Greaves)
This course examines the arguments, methods, and political stakes of “new formalisms” in literary and cultural studies. In addition to learning to “read for form,” students will be introduced to a range of formalist practices and will be asked to reflect on the affordances of different forms of intellectual work for their own scholarship and active citizenship.