Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Quick Note on Form: Forget the invisible, trust your eyes

While it’s not all I think about these days, I do think about it a lot. By “it” I mean literary form, and why, despite how important the concept of “form” is to literary criticism, the discipline seems all but blind to form itself. “Form itself”, that’s the kicker. Just what IS form anyhow?

What I’ve realized, in the wake of Nicholas Gaskill’s excellent “The Close and the Concrete” [1] is the concept was invented, more or less, to account for the invisible, for what you can’t see. And that, I fear, has made literary criticism resistant to what you can see, which is what I’m interested in describing. Late in his essay Gaskill gives us this paragraph:
Others have made similar efforts to retool formalism to an action-oriented perspective. In addition to Kenneth Burke’s philosophy of “symbolic action” and Louise Rosenblatt’s “transactional theory of the literary work” (both affiliated with the philosophical tradition that includes Whitehead, Langer, and Dewey), there’s Derek Attridge’s definition of literature as “an act-event, as a process that is essentially temporal taking place in the performance of a reader.” Within this framework, form names the “staging” of the literary performance. Yet despite his shift from “static object” to action, Attridge maintains many of the essential features of New Critical aesthetic form: most notably, he insists that the form of a work consists of “this specific sequence of words” and that to engage with literature as literature means to focus on every aspect of the performance, not some extractable lesson or concept—in other words, not a paraphrase. “Responding to the work as literary means responding to the singularity of its meaningful, affective movement, occurring in the renewable act of my performance; what it does not mean is carrying away from the text some conceptual substance for my further use or entertainment”: the words are Attridge’s, but the sentiment isn’t far from Brooks. Such modifications give us a more porous and open literary work; yet when it comes time to close read, the insistence on a particular mode of attention, addressed to a particular notion of form, remains in place. (519)
The problem, alas, is that the performance Attridge is talking about is largely invisible. It happens in the reader’s mind. Introspection not-withstanding – to the extent that we stand on it, we’re in danger, as introspection is misleading – what happens in the mind cannot be observed. We can observe the words, “this specific sequence of words” as Attridge says.

So why not examine that specific sequence? That’s what I’m interested in. When I talk of describing form, that’s what I want to describe. That specific sequence.

But we must realize that, while words come to us (and retreat from us) one word at a time, the sequence has structure above and beyond one thing after another. The fact that we think of and organize written language into sentences is obvious testimony to that. Sentences have “internal” structure reflecting the structure and processes of the largely invisible language system.

But sentence-level grammar is not the only thing going on. There are other things. Ring-composition for example. Why am I interested in ring-composition? Because, as I’ve said here and there before, it is something specific to look for. It is a way to begin investigating a specific sequence in terms of something we can actually see, rather than in terms of a nebulous mental process which is largely inaccessible.

Is that mental process real? Of course it is. Am I interested in it? Of course I am. What doesn’t interest me are the largely fanciful accounts of that process given by literary critics who are only approximately and loosely interested in the actual words on the page. The closeness they claim for their reading is largely an ideological fiction.

It’s time to give it up.

[1] Nicholas Gaskill, The Close and the Concrete: Aesthetic Formalism in Context, New Literary History, 2016, 47: 505–524.

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