The most elementary questions in the study of literature—What is literature? How does literary language differ from other kinds of language? What distinguishes the novel from the lyric? How does literature both secure and imperil the phenomenal context in which it is produced? What is the task of the critic?—have almost never been satisfactorily answered, nor even judiciously posed, in the history of the institution of literary criticism. These difficulties with the foundational questions have in turn been celebrated by literary theory as the proof of literature’s obliquity to science, philosophy, history: a special kind of writing, a special kind of knowing, literature at once shapes and evades those other epistemologies. Moreover, any given literary work recapitulates this obliquity in demanding its reader rest with its particulars while reading, resisting the generality at which the work could be synthesized with the category “literature.” There is thus something insuperably speculative in every effort to talk about reading literature, to move from the experience of absorption to the horizon in which we could say, to others who both have read and haven’t read, anything worth saying. The speculative is a consequence of there being no guarantees as to what is to be generalized about literature, what commons emerge from solitary sittings with singular scribbles, or why at all we should write about reading.
Tom Eyers is better poised than most to attend to this speculative dimension of critical reading, since he brings a philosopher’s training to the endeavor of literary theory. Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present is wonderfully ambitious in ways owing to philosophy’s project of knowing how we know, and at the same time it is wonderfully cautious in ways owing to a literary sensibility. Promising a new theory of the sites and modes by which literature and history converge and diverge, the book elaborates “formalization” as the process of making form, a process embedded in history, enduring in time, and paradoxically delimited by its own open-endedness: the work of making form never does get finished. “Incompletion” is thus elevated here as a definition of the literary, insofar as any work maps its own gaps while also gesturing at something more than self-referentiality, and incompletion also emerges as a definition of the historical material itself, since what is the past but the unfinished business of fumbling toward a present at once the same and different? As the responses to Speculative Formalism in this forum illustrate, incompletion is also a definition of that which constitutes criticism, the work of reciprocating literature’s formalizations with ongoing, situated assays.
In prioritizing formalization as process and incompletion as product, Eyers also prioritizes poetry over other modes of literature, in the tradition of formalisms before him. Addressing this exclusion, he argues for the relative ease of marking “materialist impulses” in poetry as opposed to narrative; poetic forms, in his reading, more readily disclose the very extra-referential tendencies of language that ultimately “center” not only literature as such but also, he is keen to insist, political relations and historical matter itself (32). This counterintuitive association of poetry with immediacy and narrative with mediation might leave novel theorists and formalists alike wishing for a speculative account of novel form, or that a speculative formalism purporting to theorize literature as such might have queried what difference mode and genre make to the generalizability of the theory. But it is the other prong of the claim, that political and historical forms are themselves centered by extra-referential materiality, which most importantly distinguishes Eyers’s formalism. Drawing on his rich expertise in psychoanalysis, that twin of literature in its obliquity to philosophy, Eyers points to a vision of social relations constituted by signifiers in their super-semantic function; what holds together a given social order is not its meaningfulness, but its sheer madeness, its fabrication from the linguistic medium of strange relationality. In turn, this account of the political as formed is what authorizes its interface with literary form. Literature meets history not in mimesis, but in the isomorphism of formedness, and in particular in the insuperable obstacles that prevent total form and guarantee ongoing formalizing. Opening this door (though not fully walking through it), Eyers offers critics committed to political reading—to, indeed, elaborating the non-oxymoron “political formalism”—fresh tools with which to argue for the dynamics in the political that literature intrinsically mediates.
In reaching for an idea of literary form that sidesteps mimesis but doesn’t bracket history, Eyers stakes out a path for future literary study that runs truly counter to the premises of the field-defining trends in both computational humanities and the sociology of affect. Speculative Formalism powerfully demonstrates what comes of close reading: knowing how things are put together, knowing where things fall apart, a kind of knowing irreducible to the knowledge of quantified data or the individualized phenomenology of feeling. This is literature’s political purchase, its own intrinsic theory of history.
The interventions below perform the formalizations of criticism in limning incompletions in Eyers’s text in order to project new speculations. They enact other romanticisms, other messianisms, other arts, other jokes. They are invitations to think with Eyers as he has thought with Ponge and DeMan, and I hope you will think with them.
Commentary on Speculative Formalism
I enjoyed Speculative Formalism in proportion to my struggle with it, which is to say, a great deal. In fidelity to its title, this book embarks on a kind of voyage. Meandering through terrain where motive and horizon become unclear, the text encounters and occasionally engages, with varying degrees of intensity, recursive themes across that territory once known as The Humanities. Problems like mediation, a philosophy of history, the relationship between form and content, the conditions of the subject, the event, context, continuity and rupture, etc., arise and recede like so many equally strong currents in a swirling river whose ends remain obscure. In its own words, its aim is not especially ambitious. The first paragraph wants to say that literary texts (I took the liberty to dilate this word “literary” to mean cultural at large pace Barthes) hold and mobilize a capacity that is not transparent to historical and structural determination, nor reducible to instrumentalization and capture. Having opened this minimal space away from mimesis, reflection, or transparency, Eyers quickly neutralizes his assertion by stating, “even if the result [of this capacity] may be stasis or immobility rather than contestation or critique” (1). Why the tepid humility? The stakes motivating a query this tortuous and complex—to state only for the historically nth time that a work is opaque to determination or prescription—is not always emergent within the fold of the pages, without anchorage against a particular motivated struggle; nevertheless, it is my own conviction that the [political] stakes for formalism are there whether or not the point is finally argued—and this perhaps is the book’s quiet but greater strength: it insinuates rather than argues for the political historical necessity of form as a process. Formalization (verb and noun) ascends over form (noun) as a specific modality of procedures and tactics existing in a fold between form and everyday life, toward a provisional autonomy dialectically antagonistic to business as usual. Between the lines, implicit, is the sense that the journey driven on by the pages runs on a special kind of fuel on the One Way Street of messianic time.
What Eyers introduces is an element of gentle dynamism that is in and of itself already political and, to my lights, economic by virtue of describing a metabolic known as late capital, but offering this description (and maybe latent tool kit of dismantling) by other means. (For what is “theory” is not a description of abstraction in everyday life by seemingly abstract means?) Another way I might put it is that this book could be understood to take part in, if not inaugurate, a discipline one might call “reification studies,” understood as a branch of the humanities (maybe in analogy to how the Frankfurt School understood itself to be nested within sociology). Taking as its object—vehicle would be the better word but I’ll get to the issue of dynamism in a moment—cultural production understood historically as poetry, it searches for mobile and pliant ways to totalize, however fleetingly, to talk about how moments in art and culture demonstrate new ways of sensing and thinking the relationship between so-called form, experiential time, and historical time. In nth generation Frankfurt School terms we could think this as the fraught and symbiotic dialectic between formalism and historicity. What differentiates Eyers is a dynamic relationship to tantalization, unlike the static totalities of yore (Jameson in particular, with whom Eyers capably spars on p. 187). Much as this marks a line of distinction from late generation Adorno and friends all dancing in the Grand Hotel Abyss, it is just adjacent enough to them to also differentiate Eyers’s emergent suggestion, if I understand it, from the assemblage, the rhizome, and the line of flight as Gilles Deleuze fans elaborate them.
And so, on the other side of the dialectic it summons (form and historicity), the book moves in a Deleuzian key without addressing those tropes: it is a different Deleuze, that of the fold, the baroque, and other ways of articulating dynamism. Eyers says he is striving toward a “model of totalization” (189), but model (art historians might think of Bois’s usage in Painting as Model) feels too static here; why might modeling no longer be the process and procedure in question along the lines of the book’s own inquiry?
Here, one classic problem for the erstwhile Humanities is nicely handled given its vexed status in the stormy seas of “globalization”: context. On page 189, in dialogic response to Emily Apter’s critique of “world literature” for resembling and therefore participating in a marketplace not so much of literature as of identity and difference, a kind of fusion of flavors buffet of culture for the bored cosmopolitan who wants to be entertained and told his entertainments have culture value. Eyers argues reasonably in Marxian retort to this shortsighted brittle yet cultural Marxism, that the inevitable decent ring that necessarily occurs in the expanding field of twenty-first-century culture, by tides as aleatory as causal or sequential, dissolves this rigid model of center and periphery, of interchangeable market-subsumed identity and difference, and the anxieties to which it gives rise. This structural decentering, driven by state and market imbrications that constitute and reconstitute new labor to capital relationships across time zones creates new conditions for the production of texts somehow indexical to the movement of political time itself irrespective of identity narrowly understood in the era of a world market (Marx’s “real movement of history” if you will). Time and space shift once center no longer holds a degree zero, a point of reference, around which to measure periphery, not least because the labor to capital relation that once guaranteed these markers no longer obtains. The deterritorializing effects of global markets make the matter of context obsolete long before the Internet entered the world picture (I prefer World System but Eyers seems to have some tolerance for Heidegger).1 Taking the spotlight off the politics of identity and onto the tides and limits of causality allows a way to rethink “World Literature” as neither market conspiracy nor liberal emancipation, but of a set of real conditions that will change the way we write and read—in the very grain of figure and ground, of the very conditions of significance-making.
Eyers is good at sensing spacing. And this matter of spacing is a suggestive place for where form becomes index of history while simultaneously folding that relation to history into resistant content, something at best antagonistic and at least a kind of friction in the flow of goods and services, material and otherwise. “At this juncture I’d like to formalize those different conditions for a simultaneous individuality and collectivity, aggregation and disaggregation, conditions in Andrews, Silliman, and Yeats, the better then to identify what is useful in Jean Laplace thinking of language and time to be introduced later in the chapter” (172). While Eyers skips to a conclusion by way of deferral to theory, this is where he might dilate what I’d call “formal analysis” to demonstrate his claims about form as a way to contain the specificity of the flow of time as gripped by art (172). Eyers is most distant from when he’s most adjacent to grasping the inevitability (“the real movement,” the unconscious real) of the political economic stakes of the dialectics of dispersal (poetic, formal, economic, decomposition after 1973, globalization for shorthand). Maybe the ghost of Lukacs wasn’t in the room, or the pages of reference available at the time of drafting? If the reader’s time is here and now, as Eyers reminds us via Barthes not once but twice, surely then “form” (vehicle of contested historical content received in the here and now) has a gravitas, a horizon, and a stakes? Didn’t Barthes call this “the responsibility of form,” a responsibility he attributed to even the calligraphic mark, however static and limited his own language by contrast to Eyers’s? For Eyers, history and form may be autonomous, but they weave and cross at crucial mutually determinative points, “noncorrelative point of connection between relatively autonomous processes of formalization” (188).
The singularly Hejinian negative dialectic is nicely summoned several pages before, and might have sutured the demonstration to the conclusion: “The openness that Hejinian seeks is, as I’ve shown throughout this book, only ever the effect of various kinds of formal constraint. And it is with reference to this feature of language poetry that the psychoanalytic reflections on subjective time to be found in the work of Laplace will prove useful insofar as the time of the subject, rather like that of the poem, is as structured and contained as it is open and fluid” (175). It might be of interest to remember that Laplace is understood to have coined the term “occlude” as a verb: to occlude the truth as a defense mechanism, a reaction formation.
Eyers seems to somehow relate to Barthes, insofar as Barthes is the nearest signpost each time Eyers uses language as assertive as “my position.” And this is nowhere more polemical than in a discussion of Moretti (21, 166, 176; 49) but there too the nuances move so rapidly and fleetingly that the tone borders on avowed equivocation. We hear that he identifies with Barthes, who’s take is barely explained much less demonstrated, a rather serious lapse given how precarious the “my own position is” in this sea of shimmering words. The only other (negative) explication of “Barthes” is that the author, Eyers, has challenged for its inadequacy Barthes’s claim that the text appears always, for the reader, “here and now.” But the main point of that claim is held in tact. To further nuance with nuance, that insufficiency is inattentiveness to rupture and absence. One needs to read this text the way a bull might have to move in a china shop. So it’s not surprising that Moretti, of distance reading with the help of graphs and ngrams, is no hero: “Moretti’s impatient positivism imposes a forced choice: either the testable insights of broad-brush quantificatory analysis or a muddle-headed, idealist textual solipsism that reifies the individual book over its multiple contextual histories” (49). Later we hear that Shklovsky would have hated the “straightening out of the texts formal folds . . . into neatly manageable data sets” (55). For his reticence about Moretti’s positivism, Eyers is equally reserved about what he sees as Badiou’s “unexamined romanticism” (99–100) in casting the poetic work as a process of world making, of being formative and creative in elaborating lines of flight away from this work, and his understanding of truth as a kind of fidelity to an event (art and poetry are one among four processes that carve out this query-in-fidelity, alongside science, philosophy, love, etc.) Between Moretti the social scientist who insists data has something objective to deliver, and Badiou who insists on the solipsism of the subject-in-struggle oriented to other worlds, there’s Eyers’s dynamic negative dialectic, which feels a lot like the negative dialectics of yore with this as a “value added”: greater temporal and spatial capacious, generous, dynamic, fluid without relativism (95–111). The pages on Badiou are mesmerizing insofar as the “object” (or vehicle) here is Stevens and Eyers is at his formalist best, or rather the only time he shows rather than tells us what he’s talking about is in his engagement with Stevens. While I’m personally wont to agree with Badiou on Stevens, Eyers’s own gift for demonstration and reading finally surfaces in these pages.
Against this false choice (Moretti’s positivism versus Badiou’s idealist Romanticism), Eyers wants to read in a way that sutures the phenomenological to the structural in a convincing way. He tries to carve out a roadmap for his path as he goes with subtitles like “Skepticism about Skepticism, or Surfaces and Depths” (11). On the one hand these subtitles are mildly risible for promising to solve onerous and centuries-old problems (what is mimesis, what is the limit of text, of representation, of law?), but on the other offer a freshly descriptive sense of how text and world twist on each other, each a lining to the other and mutually irreducible, both moving in mutual relation: “The Marx that emerges in Althusser as well as in Jameson and others is precisely a thinker of the heterogeneity and nontotalizability of any historical moment or conjuncture. But such thinkers are also keen to grant the object of contextualization its due, its right to be contradictory, uncanny and difficult, in dialectically reforming the “context” that is, from a certain angle, the material cause of its existence” (51). Limning the discontents of others’ positions, Eyers is often timid in stating his own. Sometimes, as in the stronger chapter on Stevens, and without an assertion of stakes, the text feels like an academic piano exercise, brain flossing as the rappers might say. Otherwise, modesty, cageyness, and nuance flicker interchangeably in the rustle and grain of Eyers’s language.
“Failed Collectivities” is a particularly tragic sign in the aforementioned roadmap.
This excess of nuance and loose ends without demonstrations only means that Eyers is moving along too swiftly for his own capacity to plumb the so-called depths (surface and depth, and its corollary in the notion of the symptom, seems to be a residue of English and comp lit and makes no sense to art history other than maybe to the support surface movement in France in the sixties spearheaded by Daniel Buren, but that’s a stretch) of what he tries to carry along with him. He misses numerous steps in the mediation of his argument. A historical horizon would help; and dialectically, for all his idealism, Badiou at least anchors his “event” to history, history recognized by a broad collective across identity. Eyers does not anchor his virtuosic flights, nor does he demonstrate what he’s trying to say, other than those virtuosic passages on Stevens. This is at its most striking when he tries to tackle the problem of “world literature,” which, at the same time, is the book’s shining moment for finally revealing the historical stakes of this modality of reading, as I sketched out briefly in the short debate with Apter’s dismissive “Marxism” of yesteryear. I evoke a yesteryear because it applies ready-made concepts (as does Harvey) without extracting them from any observation of conditions of decentering in the expanding field of world literature in which the dialectics of dispersal are as much part of the formation of communities of reading as they are conditions of the market.
But this present text was never meant to be a review much less an overview of debates in the future of the contemporary (how do we periodize?). I for one would gladly take this provisional roadmap and elaborate it. At the same time that it tries to do way too much, there are notably missing voices: Agamben’s reflections of the evacuation of content under pressure of reified form at the opening of capitalist modernity, a dialectical study of Rimbaud and Artaud in Man without Content, might have made for clarity of position finally.
And the elephant in the room summoned by the text: Time. Other than regular Hegelian time and its Benjaminian and Badiouian variant, it isn’t clear how Eyers understands time.
Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996).↩
Response to Review Essays
First, let me thank Anna Kornbluh and Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz for their interest in the book, and for their patient curatorship of this forum. Gratitude is also due to my respondents, all of whom have demonstrated the constitutive power of critical reading, at a moment when it seems especially imperiled. I am pleased that these reflections demonstrate impatience with any mere “review” of my arguments. Instead, each refines the book through the churn of their own disciplines and concerns, and it is certainly no bad thing that, as often as not, what has resulted is a discussion only tangentially related to the book I wrote. Of course every reading is, at least in part, a rewriting, as Derrida was wont to remind us, and so what I can offer here in turn is a new text only incompletely related to the “original” book in question; a new reading impacted both by the inventive imperatives to be found in the commentaries, and by the modest distance I now feel, two years or so after its completion, from the inner logic of Speculative Formalism’s web of speculations, close readings, and occasionally impetuous drawing of lines in the sand.
The book was written in response to two broad, converging, but distinct sources of inspiration. The first was my intuition that much of the French philosophy of science and high structuralism explored in my second book, Post-Rationalism, framed its debates about structure, form and concept in a manner comparable to both recent and historical debates in literary theory. How, I wondered, might reading the rationalist account of scientific concept-production pursued by the mid-twentieth-century French philosopher Jean Cavaillès alongside the immanent poetics of objects produced by the poet Francis Ponge, say, alter our sense of the age-old tussle between philosophy and literature? How might such a transdisciplinary, transhistorical, but historically attentive, practice of reading place in relief the empirical-historicist consensus that governs much work in the contemporary literary humanities, to say nothing of the positivisms attached barnacle-like to the “digital humanities”? In the event, I found it unnecessary to delve too deeply into the archive of recent Continental philosophical writing on science and literature, if only because, over time, my interest centered on developing an account of literary reference out of the cross-grain and envelopes of literary language itself, the better to avoid the common philosophical mistake of overzealously mapping philosophical concepts onto literary forms, rendering the latter immobile and passive in the process.
The second provocation came from recent debates in literary theory around the status of form and formalism. Insofar as I have previously been concerned to defend a revised structuralism,1 so in Speculative Formalism I try to define the possibilities and limits of a post-deconstructive formalist literary criticism, one that would seek in literary negativity the very wellspring of positive, if non-mimetic, literary reference. The principle claim of the book is that the particular mode of reference or sense-making proper to literary form is to be found in moments where literature seems most sealed upon itself, in moments of self-cancellation or semantic paradox. Where deconstruction tended, as often as not, to revel in the latter, treating such paradoxes as intertextual phenomena generating ever-multiplying fields of ironic defamiliarization, a speculative formalism instead attaches to their constructive potential, to the particular fashion in which they open literature up to the world. Different chapters treat different instances of this peculiar kind of non-mimetic, anti-historicist reference, with the cut of the poetic line break featured just as much as the formal presumptions underlying various constructions of the “world” in “world literature.”
If the above variables that helped incite the book’s composition are ultimately positive, the book can also be understood as emerging through qualified opposition to two intimately related trends in the contemporary literary academy. The first is the assumption that critical reading, and especially critique that engages modernist literary and philosophical texts, must claim as its consequence a thoroughgoing radicality, must identify in advance, in both the objects and outcomes of its analysis, an impeccably sharp-edge of resistance. The second, forming something of the disavowed obverse of the latter, is the suspiciously congenial emergence of so-called post-critique, those calls for a turn to the literal, to the surface. The book frustrates the first demand for the simple reason that the literary phenomena that I focus on are not always, in fact are only rarely, contestatory, in and of themselves—a conclusion I reached by actually reading them. It was a curiously unexamined feature of much high theory that instances of dislocation, of self-differing, were so often assumed to lead to something like that storied and rarely glimpsed state of “relative autonomy,” or at least to the flashy separating-off of literary culture from the commonplace, the neutral, or the enervating continuum of historical time.
This presumption, haunting politicized variants of deconstruction and spilling out into multiple versions of cultural studies and post-Benjaminian art theory, appears from a disabused present as the incomplete and somewhat shamefaced sublimation of a previous Marxist criticism, one that was rather more comfortable with its political-economic commitments. In an unfortunate jag of desublimation, one now finds a resurgence in what used to be called vulgar Marxist economisms, whereby the content (rarely the form) of, say, the contemporary Anglophone novel is revealed to be seamlessly of a part with financial neoliberalism. Being a fairly unreconstructed Marxist myself, I would have been thrilled were the semantic and syntactical slippages, the traces of formation and deformation, that I trace in Speculative Formalism evidence of a distinctly poetic radicalism, but they very often resolve into something rather different, rather more uncanny and elusive, less easy to position relative to the gestural political nostalgia that pulses in certain corners of the academy. That they don’t necessarily conclude in a radical distancing from capital’s ever more incessant drive does not mean that they have nothing to tell us about historical time as it is filtered through or created by literature, or about the definitionally strange ways in which literary language reproduces the formative zones of incompletion also to be found in the world’s asymmetric, nested, agonistic material processes. In this connection, the book commits itself to close or rhetorical reading, as a process that would foreground rather than avoid incalculability, and that would allow the (dis)figurations of literary language, constructive as they may be, to trouble as much as to confirm one’s political commitments.
The second rejected imperative, the call of the surface, of “post-critique,” is the mere negative inverse of critique’s late-modernist-political moment, of the now often-nostalgic belief that literary culture might, in itself, offer immanent resources for the loosening of capital’s deathly grip. The book is dissatisfied with the paucity of this false opposition, and its second pole is indicted in particular not least because post-critique has seemed blind to the much more consequential logic of the surface to be found in the very theory that it precipitously seeks to usurp.2 Lacan, for instance, proposed a concept of the unconscious entirely foreign to the depth psychology that even Freud had moved decisively beyond by the end of his career. Althusser, for his part, advanced a spatially complex account of the imbrication of art in the social, an account that emphatically rejected any simplistic rendition of the symptom as signal of buried truth. Indeed, the best of high theory, and so for Derrida as much as for Althusser or Lacan, metaphors of surface and depth become redundant when the full (anti-)systematicity of material being as much as literary signification is confronted.
I address the first demand, that of the politicization of form by nostalgic-modernist fiat, because both Julia Ng and Jaleh Mansoor, in their differing ways, seem to wish that I had written a different, more emphatically political book. Both of their responses, in turn, can be understood as late instances of what I fear is an (over)-compensatory (over)-attachment to scenes of theoretical revolt now long past. So, for instance, Mansoor comments that the aim of the book is “not especially ambitious.” (This is a book, recall, that proposes a new way of thinking literary form tout court—one would think the danger is over-ambition, not a lack of it!) It is the absence of political ambition that Mansoor laments, however; apparently, I “neutralize” my thesis as to form’s constructive possibilities by noting that the result of such processes may well be stasis and immobility as much as contestation and critique. Why such “tepid humility,” Mansoor asks? The faith evinced here in the political efficacy of scholarly writing, I would reply, is endearing, but it is not a faith I unequivocally share, at least not in advance of the risk of reading. To read critically, on my account, is to accept that what results may well not conform to whatever political conclusion one would hope for in advance. That is true for a number of the readings in the book, where, for example, the logic of political-historical time induced by the Language poets is shown to be irreducible either to the high-modernist political elitism that many contemporary readers accuse it of, or the countercultural oppositional ethos that the poets themselves often hoped to advance. I have myself argued in the past for the potential reactualization of radical theory in the present, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this is inherently impossible, but a pro forma and performative radicality imposed prior to the task of reading strikes me as a regression.
Julia Ng’s reflection is at its most compelling, which is to say very compelling indeed, when it burrows insistently into the aforementioned, vexed question of history. That it is a contested theme in the literary humanities today is, in part, a result of the recent hegemony of more or less empiricist historicisms, these in fidelity to the old, pre-theoretical period classifications—Medieval, Romantic, Victorian, Modernist and so on—and all of this inadequately filling the void left by the decline of transdisciplinary “high” theory in the 1990s. The following from Ng is crucial:
But surely the shift of action’s ground from historical predetermination (or predetermination by a doctrinal or confessional idea of history) to a worldly political strategy of constructive nihilism would imply that “history” has itself to be conceived from the outset as more than just a reference, or as a yoke of language to externalization, however much this ends up being “logically” effaced.
The stakes of my position are recognized with a usefully jolting clarity here, even if, once again, a direct political “strategy” (for “action,” no less) is illegitimately read into a book that insists that no such thing can directly result from the speculative opacities and materialities uncovered therein. Any such short-circuit would be wishful at best, and politically regressive at worst.
To be clear, I am certainly not claiming that there is no political relevance to my arguments; needless to say, all arguments in the Humanities have an at least indirect political valence, and the uncertain political status of literary form is a recurrent theme across every chapter of the book. There are, indeed, political consequences to the fact that literary form just as often neutralizes, banalizes, or tempers the urgencies of historical time as it clarifies or sharpens them. But the partial but formative indecision or ambiguity that results is very far from the outright nihilism that troubles Ng. Were one to wish to reorient constructions of literary historicity in an explicitly revolutionary direction, whatever that might look like in 2017, there is nothing in principle in Speculative Formalism that holds this to be an impossibility. To adopt such a strategy would be to operate at a level of theorized but engaged praxis not unrelated to the theoretical dialectic that the book performs, but distinct from it nonetheless. To confuse these levels is, frankly, to avoid the sometimes-anxious task of reading without prior guarantees, revealingly disdained also in Mansoor’s response as “academic finger exercises.”
Ng associates my position with a certain impatience, with an overhasty desire to override the ever-to-come messianism of Benjaminian and Derridian cultural theory, and it is true that I think such theories often fall into the mere negative reverse position of the determinisms they reject, silently bolstering them in the process. But where does an immobilizing impatience in contemporary theory truly lie? Is it to be found in a position such as mine that insists on the opening to the world contained in apparently hermetic significatory structures, in the formal counting of literary signifiers at the level of the line as much as in their planetary circulation, or is it sustained in methodologies that evince exasperation at just such a practice of careful reading, dismissed, as in Mansoor’s response and as mentioned above, as so many “finger exercises”? (And, as a point of information, there is much rhetorical force, even polemic, to be found in chapter 1, where I carefully if decisively reject the underlying ontology of the text to be found in Moretti’s version of the “digital humanities.” The tone returns, when appropriate, in the discussion of “world literature” found in the conclusion, and politics, in various guises, courses through every chapter.) Ng and Mansoor ultimately pursue opposite accusations, each, revealingly, the symmetrical counter of the other: the first concerns a precipitous impatience (Ng), the second a humble cageyness (Mansoor). My modest suggestion is that neither hits the mark, and the dichotomy that results rather wilts when run up against the central claims of the book I wrote, not the least of which is that seeming hesitation and modesty in literature very often marks an unexpected movement outward to the world, and that literary or rhetorical stridency, to say nothing of gestures of political radicality, very often mask a debilitating lack of traction. It is telling, I think, that these two reflections, as insightful as they are, entirely neglect the details of the literary close readings that make up the core of Speculative Formalism, as if demonstrations of a theory were irrelevant to the adjudication of its merit.
For all that, I found myself smiling in delight at Jaleh Mansoor’s description of my method as one defined by a “dynamic relationship to tantalization,” even as she, ever the dialectician, also decries my “excess of nuance and loose ends without demonstrations.” (Without demonstrations? This is a book packed with close readings of literature; if those are not “demonstrations,” I am not entirely sure what Mansoor means.) I wonder whether Mansoor sees equivocation at every turn because the only alternative that her commitments allow, at least as revealed in her reflection here, is something full-throated, performatively and gesturally decisive? In the face of the peculiar modes of reference adduced in the book, often somehow loud and quiet at the same time, producing movement at moments of seeming stillness, such an inert dualism isn’t especially helpful. Nonetheless, Mansoor is quite right that one can too easily make a critical fetish of ambiguity, a temptation that I address forthrightly in the critique of deconstruction distributed across multiple chapters, but concentrated especially in my reading of de Man in chapter 4. Finding something to celebrate in indecision per se would seem an especially anachronistic commitment, an ersatz, caricatured-in-advance modernism of little consequence, but no more so, after all, than the fetishization of history that Mansoor and Ng in different ways presuppose. On that note, and somewhat strangely, Mansoor feels a “historical horizon” is missing from Speculative Formalism. It is true that I avoid what I take to be the persistent errors of multiple historicisms, both empiricist and of the messianic variety, but the question of history animates much of the book, as Ng amply recognizes in her contribution. Even if my rejoinder here has pushed back at some of the criticisms made by Ng and Mansoor, I found their contributions bracing, and I will have them by my side as I return to, and no doubt revise, the positions of Speculative Formalism in future writing.
See my Lacan and the Concept of the “Real” (New York: Palgrave, 2012), and Post-Rationalism: Psychoanalysis, Epistemology and Marxism in Post-War France (London: Bloomsbury, 2013/2015).↩
I am aware that some associated with this movement have insisted that their aim is not to replace critique, but to complement it, but the critical crimes adduced by such thinkers would suggest, at the least, a pronounced distaste for large swathes of twentieth-century critical theory.↩
Figure and Formula
Speculative Formalism promises nothing less than a new theory of literary form. The magnitude of this gesture and the focus on form are what I find most exciting about this book; and even if there are moments where it falls short of its ambitions, it falls short in an interesting way, which means there is still work to be done within the innovative frame that Eyers sets up.
One of the most compelling things about the book for me is that it reveals the question what is form? to be a contemporary and pressing one. Critics ignore the question at their own peril, for without a proper theory of form, “new formalists” risk recycling old formalisms, practitioners of “surface reading” remain stuck in a crude metaphorics, and new historicists and digital humanists veer into empiricism and positivism. Eyers uses the latter terms—drawing respectively from Althusserian Marxism and the philosophy of science of Canguilhem and Bachelard—to impugn forms of knowledge that lack critical purchase on the development of their own concepts, that treat concepts as if they were given unproblematically in their object of study. In place of such approaches, which Eyers argues tend to fall back on the language of the market and the forms dictated by global capital, Speculative Formalism advocates for a theory of literature as well as a theory of history that can take account of the “dynamic interpenetration of subjective and objective forms” (56).
The payoff is on display in Eyers’s readings of specific poems. The discussion of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” stands out, as do the readings of works by Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews. The latter are the most sustained and give the best sense of what Eyers can do as a critic. He is as sensitive to details concerning Bay Area protests and stock tickers as he is to the structure of the poetic sentence; and he deftly shows how problems of organization belong as much to verse as they do to lived experiences of collective action, and how each can amplify and shed light on the other.
Underlying the double call for a theory of literature and a theory of history is Eyers’s treatment of form as “a general logic,” one operative not only in texts but also in history, in the social, and in the material world (8). The goal is to consider processes of literary form as conjoined with these other processes rather than as constituting the work’s closure, where the only relationship between work and world would be one of reflection. On Eyers’s account, form is precisely what opens the work to what other critics call “context” or “content.” The term guiding Eyers’s account is “formalization,” which he defines as “the necessary incompletion that is produced whenever a form overextends itself, contracts itself to a vision of wholeness or totality without contradiction . . . the name for the aspiration to totality that must nonetheless result in various different kinds of incompletion” (186).
Eyers intends for his definition of form to be capacious; but the result is that it can be somewhat hard to grasp. It is clear he wants to think form in processual terms rather than static ones, and according to a constitutive incompleteness. But it is not clear whether he views form as the plastic shape of things, as an image or figure (in the sense of eidos, morphe, or even schema), or, on the contrary, whether he views it as a kind of logos without image, as in the case of mathematical notation or symbolic logic. The former seems to be the case when Eyers links “formalization” to a poem’s ability to conjure, or be frustrated in conjuring, an image—the image of an orange, an oyster, or a jar, for example. Yet the latter is also likely given Eyers’s previous work on formal writing in Lacan, Badiou, and the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, and given his repeated claim, in the present book, that literature does not work “through any kind of reflection or mimesis” but should be thought along the lines of any formal language, whether “natural” or mathematical, so that Derrida, Russell, and Gödel all contribute insights into the impossibility of totalization (1–2; 198). I will come back to this difference between image and logos, or between figure and formula, because I think it is a crucial one. It sheds a particular light on the problems that attach to attempts to elude the specular (the reflective, the mimetic) while preserving the speculative.
For the rest of my response, I’d like to focus on chapter 2, subtitled “The Vexed Relation between Word and World,” because the way Eyers understands this relation remains vexed, for me. He writes that “objects resist their incorporation into the neat folds of the poem” while at the same time he refuses “to grant the object-world an absolute autonomy” (66, 64). It is clear he aspires to a critical position that is neither “idealist” (in Badiou’s sense) nor “empiricist” (in Althusser’s sense), that neither reduces reality to a linguistic effect, on the one hand, nor identifies it with the givenness of the empirical world, on the other. I agree this is an eminently desirable critical position. I’m not sure, though, that Eyers succeeds in demonstrating how, exactly, it can be occupied for a reader of literature. For at those moments where the question of the relation between word and world seems most pressing, Eyers tends to eschew technical-philosophical explanation and opt instead for metaphors like “impurity” and “spark.” So: “At stake is a noncorrelational spark that becomes possible when both poetic language and the material world are imagined as necessarily shot through with impurities” (62); “impurely crisscrossed structures . . . spark in affinity even as they appear to shrink from one another” (98–99); and “language and materiality . . . withdraw from and yet spark across to one another in unexpected ways” (118).
In any case, Eyers states that language makes “its fullest contact with the world” when, paradoxically, it draws our attention to its own workings (58). His main examples in this chapter, Ponge’s “The Oyster,” Crane’s “A Name for All,” and Stevens’s “Anecdote of a Jar,” are all poems that can be read as reflections on the poetic process itself, and on the impasses therein. Of “The Oyster,” for example, Eyers asserts: “Ponge invokes a pearl lodged in the oyster’s throat” which “images the failure of either the oyster or the poet . . . to keep themselves pure of interference” (62).1 And of “Anecdote of a Jar,” he says Stevens “allegorize[s] . . . the relationship between history and poetic form,” where “the landscape as a figure of history rhythmically folds upon its object in such a way that the latter, in turn, incites and provokes its historical ‘outsides’” (78). In this way, each of these poems is made to figure not only the impasses of poetic reference, but also Eyers’s own claims about the parallels between language and the material world. Thus: “one understands the pearl as the figurative concentration of the impasses of both language and the material, of the internal inability of the material world to close upon itself, and in the anxious failure of poetic language to break out of its own tendency toward self-reference” (62). Each poem Eyers reads, he claims, “actively comments on its own formal strategies as they unfold” and “contains a metatext, explanatory of its own ruses” (64).
But what guarantees the legibility of the metatext? What allows Eyers to argue that poetic reference is thwarted at the same time that he claims that these poems refer, without a hitch, to a theory of failed reference? The answer, it seems to me, is the reintroduction of a specular structure between poem and critical commentary, the very same structure Eyers wants to eliminate in the relationship between the poem and its referent. Put another way: the very moment Eyers complicates the ability of the poem to refer to the phenomenal world, he takes for granted the ability of the critic to refer to the poem. Through the critic, the poem is able to say exactly what it means.
I am not trying to catch Eyers in a performative contradiction; but I do want to point out that the mirror logic he assiduously avoids in the relation between word and world resurfaces in the relation between word and critic. To guard against this resurfacing, I would suggest, Eyers needs a theory of the transformative or “formalizing” capacities of critical discourse itself, of the non-neutrality of criticism with regard to the poem that serves as its object. In other words, he needs a theory of formalization that can apply to the work of literary criticism. This cannot be a matter of simply adding a third formalization to the two that are theorized in this book, or of expanding the existing theory of poetry to include a theory of criticism. Rather, Eyers needs to explain how various formalizations relate to one another such that they can also be distinguished from one another. So: If formalizations are not all incomplete in the same way, how does one differentiate one kind of incompletion from another? How, for example, does one distinguish the incompleteness of poetic form as it is given in a poem from the failure of a reader’s understanding?
In the absence of such an explanation—that is, in the absence of an account of the differential relations between formalizations (of the world, of the poem, and of criticism) it is too easy, I think, to read Eyers’s references to “a shared incompletion across both literary language and its various outsides,” or a “shared linguistic and material dehiscence” as a retreat to analogy (1, 59). In that case, “formalization” may be at stake rather than form—and hence, process rather than product, open-endedness rather than closure—but closure returns at another level, and we remain within the confines of a mimetic economy.
Let me approach this problem from another angle, that of subject-object relations. As I mentioned earlier, Eyers argues for the “interpenetration” of subject and object, which for him means the interpenetration of forms of language and objects of reference. And he wants this interpenetration both in lieu of an all-encompassing subjectivity, where everything would be absorbed into the interiority of language, and in lieu of a neutral objectivity, where the object of poetic reference would be granted—here Eyers quotes de Man—“quasi-divine powers which, in turn, reduce the subject to the awestruck bafflement of a will entirely alienated from its works” (62).2 Eyers glosses this passage as being concerned with “a kind of alienation,” by which I assume he means the separation of a productive agency (that of the poet, the reader, or language itself) from what it produces.
We’ve taken a bit of a detour into de Man’s reading of the sublime, but it is a helpful one insofar as it sheds light on Eyers’s own arguments. For the recuperation of subjectivity at stake in de Man’s account gives us some understanding of the structures governing Eyers’s own. Just as for Kant the imagination fails in its attempt to grasp the whole and is referred to the demands of reason, so for Eyers form fails in every attempt to totalize and is referred to a process of formalization. The “mimetic ambitions” of poetry are repeatedly defeated, on Eyers’s account, not so that we might lament poetry’s inability to figure the world with images, but so that we might attain to thinking the “constitutive incompleteness” of form and what can be grasped only as a “general logic.” The Kantian drama between imagination and reason is thus played out as a confrontation between form and formalization, as well as between what I referred to earlier as two ways of thinking about form—between form as image and form as logos. There is no problem with the Kantian drama per se, except that restaging it here returns us to the closure of the subject that Eyers has worked to break open. For the drama does not just concern any two faculties such that it could be transferred from one arena (the mind) to another (the world); it concerns the identification of the arena itself with the victorious faculty. The sublime “is judged purposive for the whole vocation of the mind”; and the subject grasps itself—an imageless analogon of itself—in this infinite vocation of reason which goes beyond every sensible form.3 De Man underscores precisely this point in the passage Eyers quotes.
In sum, what we saw earlier as the success of criticism at grasping the impasses of poetry here plays out as the triumph of formalization over the impasses of form. And we might well wonder whether such impasses—like the impasses of the imagination in the Kantian doctrine of the sublime—are really objectively given or whether they are, rather, staged for the benefit of the critic.4 At any rate, we keep finding ourselves in specular—or closed—structures: the closure of system in the form of analogy, the closure of the subject in the form of self-identification. All of this raises for me, a more general question: are a non-specular (but speculative) rationalism, and a non-specular (but speculative) materialism, compatible with what we habitually view as the “reflective” work of literary criticism? The originality of Eyers’s excellent book is that it shakes us out of our habitual views and forces us to struggle with this worthwhile question.
De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Hertz, Neil. Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
Here Eyers focuses on the final lines of the poem, on the phrase “a globule pearls in its nacre throat” (une formule perle à leur gosier de nacre), which he says figures both the oyster’s encrusted irritant and the human’s impediment to swallowing. In his reading, Eyers substantializes the verb “to pearl” (perler)—that is, he refers to “a pearl”—while omitting from his analysis the already-substantial term “globule” (formule). But the French term is particularly interesting, for it belongs to two lexical fields at once: to the field of the oyster where it describes “a little shape,” and to the field of speech and writing where it refers to a “set phrase” (as in une formule de politesse) or a “formula” (as in a mathematical or a magic formula). In other words, the polyvalent term formule, can be read as marking an ambiguity in the notion of “form” itself, one in which form is divided, as we saw earlier, between its figurative and its rational capacities.↩
Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 178.↩
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), §27, italics in original.↩
Hertz, Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime, 48–49.↩
Heirs to Form
In Speculative Formalism Tom Eyers argues that literature’s self-reference, its apparent closure from, even disinterest in, the world is “an opening to the only kind of reference available to literature” (2). And in this way Eyers pursues a sensitive and timely rereading of literary reference at a moment when historical, political, social, and ethical concerns have taken priority over formal ones in literary study. For Eyers the limitations of form “open the door, even if only slightly, to the very hermeneutic freedom that they may superficially seem to ward against” (17). As for Adorno and his own theory of the lyric, formal questions are not opposed to political ones; instead, for Eyers, form provokes speculation. Speculative Formalism attempts to account for and celebrate the rich speculations literature, most especially poetry, makes possible. Though Eyers bounces between a number of different (and sometimes competing) metaphors in Speculative Formalism, the dialectical logic of the argument is clear and compelling: constraint is freedom (of a sort), closure is openness (of a sort), obstacles are opportunities (of a sort), failure is success (“in productive and enlightening ways” ). Eyers draws on his literary examples for inspiration, as when Wallace Stevens, the subject of the third chapter, writes: “barrenness becomes a thousand things” (103).
From the first paragraph, Eyers foregrounds the power of metaphor. He argues that literature “break[s] free” from prior determinants, is never fully absorbed or neutralized by prior determinants, and puts impasses to “creative use.” A key metaphor in the middle of the paragraph is “transport”: literary texts embody a formal speculative capacity that “enables a transport outward from literature’s seemingly sealed bounds” (1). Transport is of course a metaphor for metaphor, the word metaphor coming from the Greek for to “carry over.” The capacity of formal speculation to transport is also a capacity for and of metaphor. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of Eyers’s style is his felicity with metaphor, as he, in a manner sometimes reminiscent of the English Romantic poet P. B. Shelley, weaves metaphors together in striking ways. In an early paragraph in which Eyers offers up examples of the ways the seeming closure of literary language (its self-reference and self-reflexivity) is also a provocation, an opening, Eyers describes the ways impasses push one “in search of pastures new” (3). “Such attempts,” continues Eyers in the next sentence, “are never entirely generalizable; rather, they are always routed through . . . texts that are put in their service” (3). Ever attentive to the play of signifiers, Eyers moves from the search for pastures new to routes through texts, as one metaphor gives way to another, and yet in “routed” one also hears “rooted.” The material sound of the word “routed” extends the natural imagery of the preceding metaphor, pastures, through the formal properties of a pun.
Participating in a general return to considerations of form and formalism, as announced, for instance, by Marjorie Levinson’s 2007 article “What Is New Formalism?” and further developed by Caroline Levine’s recent Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Eyers also carefully distinguishes his own method from others. In contrast to many new formalists, digital humanists, and speculative realists, Eyers is committed to developing a theory of form from direct engagement with deconstruction, or “high theory,” showing, along the way, how readers like Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man attended to literary form. But Eyers is not out to reproduce deconstructive readings. He gives over an entire chapter to distinguishing his speculative formalism from de Man’s rhetorical reading, as he finds de Man in conflict with himself and advocates for one de Man (the de Man collected in Aesthetic Ideology) over another (the de Man collected in The Rhetoric of Romanticism), even though, as Eyers notes, many of these essays were in fact written around the same time. Eyers’s chapters on literary texts by Francis Ponge, Wallace Stevens, and Ron Silliman are rich and provocative, but I found particularly illuminating his response to de Man, for it is in chapter 4, “Paul de Man’s Poetic Materialism,” that Eyers pushes a contrast between de Man’s commitment to “failure” and his own “more positive path for critical-theoretical study” (6). In an essay like “The Resistance to Theory,” de Man worries the ways reading hardens into method. Deconstruction’s success in the 1980s is also, potentially, its greatest failure.1 Writing in 2017 and no longer burdened by the weight of deconstruction’s success, Eyers is attuned to the ways failure can still provoke future successes. Eyers’s speculative formalism is “sustained by the success in failure that de Man too often mistook for the failure in success” (137), and Eyers aims to put de Man’s “impasses” to creative use. It is worth saying, I think, that de Man was careful never to embrace failure absolutely, for as he argues in the preface to The Rhetoric of Romanticism, any absolute embrace of failure, any absolute resignation to fragment and parataxis (which he associates with Adorno and Auerbach), is nothing other than an attempt to recuperate aesthetically through style and mood what is lost to history.2 But such quibbling grows tedious quickly.
Instead, I want to draw attention to Eyers’s metaphors. While Eyers is not writing against de Man in any simple sense, his effort to develop key differences between speculative formalism and rhetorical reading results in a fascinating series of metaphors. At key moments in his reading of “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” an essay with which Eyers takes issue, Eyers repeatedly turns to metaphors of war to describe de Man’s reading, and in this way Eyers extends de Man’s opening reading of Nietzsche’s famous statement that truth is a mobile army of metaphors to the whole of de Man’s essay. “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric” is an interesting choice for Eyers to focus on because de Man’s readings of Baudelaire’s poems are some of his most maddeningly speculative and farfetched. But though de Man employs various metaphors throughout the essay, battle metaphors are not overly prominent. To describe de Man’s reading, though, Eyers relies repeatedly on such metaphors. Eyers remarks on “de Man’s wars between analogy and enumeration” (139), and in contrast to de Man, who leaves antagonists “starkly opposed,” Eyers sees history and poetry “intertwined”:
[EXT]There are other means of reading history into and against a text, methods that may locate poetic figurality itself as the meridian for a constructive battle between opposed forces, poetry in one corner, historical time in another. On closer inspection, such apparently reified agents are revealed to be always partial mixes of the one and the other; purified distillates of each only tend to be produced when a critic, very much like de Man, seeks to dramatically range antagonists against one another who may, in fact, be mutually polluting. . . . This interreliance . . . is what moves them both to war, motivating them in turn to try and wrench free from the other’s clasp and gain a measure of autonomy. Where de Man ends his reading with such starkly opposed forces, I will conclude mine with . . . logics . . . intertwined” (144).[/EXT]
Eyers uses a series of battle metaphors as he moves from one sort of conflict (war) to another (the aestheticized violence of wrestling). But given his interest in a more “positive path,” the use of battle metaphors can only get Eyers so far, even as he pushes a de Man committed to binary oppositions. What is a constructive battle? Is war a good? Perhaps because these are such complicated questions, Eyers quickly turns from battle metaphors to, for lack of a better term, sex metaphors.
If de Man’s readings too often end in an “icy détente” (139), Eyers finds future possibility in admixture, drawing attention to the ways oppositions slip and slide together a few pages later: “Such slipping and sliding,” writes Eyers, “is . . . more constructive . . . than de Man would wish to believe, encompassing as it does a fertile nonplace . . . conducive to the agonized cries of the newly libidonized lyric voice as it roars” (147). Very quickly metaphors of biological reproduction replace metaphors of war: a “fertile nonplace” produces “agonized cries” from new voices. Poets for centuries have worried the difference between war and “courtship.” The tropological logic of Eyers’s argument centers around metaphors of fecundity, which he associates with form: “form will be understood to be as fervid and as fecund” (13), and he warns that “a convenient forgetting of . . . fecundity should hardly serve us well” (7). He returns to similar, though less blatant, metaphors in conclusion: “the sliding of theory into method, history into its objects, is always the beginning of the generation of sense out of form, of history out of temporality, never its end” (187, emphasis mine). Speculative Formalism is a book about generation, even the generation of future generations. But metaphors have an awkward pull. Does the sliding of theory into method always begin generation? Given form’s fecundity, are there no forms of birth control (accidental or intentional, natural or technological)? Or to employ a slightly more technical vocabulary, does anything resist the seemingly endless play of metaphorical transport that form generates? This is no easy question but it goes to a key difference between Eyers’s speculative formalism and de Man’s rhetorical reading, for de Man calls “unreadable” or “material” that which resists, in however minimal a way, the endless generation of tropological substitution. It may not be significant that Tom Eyers teaches at one of the country’s top Catholic universities, though the Catholic Church’s position on contraceptive use has remained constant for centuries, but, given that de Man was born in Belgium, I do find it interesting that listeners to Flemish Radio 1 recently voted the contraceptive pill the Best Belgian Invention.3
Speculative Formalism is a key text for theory today as it explores the potential for literature (even metaphors and proper names) to surprise. Eyers positions the book most straightforwardly against any too-easy retreat into failure, paradox and error, and in this way the book is welcome relief from an all-too-common elegiac mode in criticism. What interests Eyers most are the ways failures, let’s say errors, sometimes (always?) have heirs. Francis Ponge, an important poet to Speculative Formalism’s larger project, knew well the ways speculation begins with proper names. Eyers makes a small error on page 127 when he quotes from de Man’s “The Resistance of Theory,” even though, as Eyers knows, de Man never wrote an essay so titled. De Man wrote “The Resistance to Theory.” It’s an interesting slip from “to” to “of” in what is otherwise an extremely polished published text. Can anything be made of it? In some ways “The Resistance of Theory” is a better title for Eyers’s argument, given that Eyers is interested in the ways texts “resist” the world but by resisting find themselves all the more open to it, as resistance (friction, slipping, sliding, etc.) generates speculation. For de Man, the question is how and when and why do readers avoid reading; and in conclusion one of his primary “resisters” is rhetorical reading itself, his own critical practice, especially as it becomes responsive to systematization (that is, becomes reproducible). Every critical practice (even his own) avoids reading, for, as he famously proclaims, theory is the resistance to theory. In this way speculation, however important and necessary, is also, perhaps unavoidably, a strategy for avoiding reading. Are these two sides to the same idea? Eyers errs in substituting “The Resistance of Theory” for “The Resistance to Theory,” but one thing both texts can agree on is that one can never anticipate the ways errors err, have heirs and are aired. I’ve made my fair share of errors here. Speculative Formalism reminds us that, thankfully, language posits and language means but it cannot posit its own meaning, and, oh, the difference this makes.
See also Barbara Johnson’s “Nothing Fails Like Success,” where she argues that for deconstruction to retain any vital force we must become ignorant of it again and again. The World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 16.↩
Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), ix.↩
Alan Hope, “Birth Control Pill Is Voted Best Belgian Invention,” Flanders Today, April 7, 2014, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.flanderstoday.eu/current-affairs/birth-control-pill-voted-best-belgian-invention.↩
Response to Review Essays
There is so much to admire in Audrey Wasser’s reflection “Figure and Formula,” and its combination of generosity and rigor is something to aspire to.1 She grasps some of the central aporia that motivated the book’s composition, even as she claims, not unreasonably, that the book produces aporia of its own. This, in a sense, is an ineluctable consequence of the formal processes that the book analyzes. If the account of literary formalization developed in Speculative Formalism is even halfway accurate, then the theory that results, as necessarily figural as it is formal (and I am less convinced than Wasser that we can keep these things separate), will be shot through with constructive impasses, gaps through which further formalizations may advance. This may strike the reader as a high-minded way to justify one’s inconsistencies in advance, but the problem is a real one: in part, the governing question of Wasser’s contribution is “how do we generate an account of constructive inconsistency that is, itself, consistent?” As she writes, “what guarantees the legibility of [Speculative Formalism’s] metatext,” namely my own, apparently self-sure, account of the constitutive lack of surety to be found in literary language.
My response has to be—well, ultimately, nothing. But to recognize (admit?) this is certainly not to irreparably undermine the surefootedness of the book’s claims. In everyday terms, after all, one can be certain that one is uncertain of something without falling into performative contradiction. Indeed, one may be certain that an uncertainty exists, and that, for all that it remains uncertain or undecidable, it produces certain effects, effects that one can transcribe. In more theoretical terms, Speculative Formalism exhibits less certainty than Wasser as to the possibility of cleanly separating text from metatext, text from reader, text from critic. The question as to how one can achieve conceptual certainty about the positive uses of literary uncertainty only has final force if one can hive off the critical or metatextual act from the text itself. This is not to say that, in the course of making a critical argument, one doesn’t often act as if such a separation inheres, and there are all sorts of ways in which “doing theory” requires such passing, performative suspensions of knowledge. (This being one of the necessary blindnesses required for insight, in de Man’s terms, or an instance of practical reason found to be internally necessary for the exercise of theoretical reason, in Kant’s.) This is another way of saying that, in actuality (or, if you like, in theory), Speculative Formalism finds the rational and figurative instances of form that Wasser distinguishes from one another to be always co-implicated, to be mutually if problematically formative. The critic is as subject to the effects of that impure admixture as anyone or anything else; at any rate, no final stabilization of the relation of figure and formula seems to me possible. This is just as well, for it is, I claim, the very undecidable play of that relation that generates the productive impasses in text and world analyzed across the length of Speculative Formalism.
The following question from Wasser strikes me as pressing: “If formalizations are not all incomplete in the same way, how does one differentiate one kind of incompletion from another?” In the absence, she says, of an explanation as to the “differential relations between formalizations (of the world, of the poem, and of criticism),” one is, potentially, left only with analogy. I should say that I am not a priori opposed to analogical explanation. Analogy, at base, is simply a form of comparison, and one can compare, say, the textual contradictions revealed in a Baudelaire sonnet with the modes of incompletion that inhere in material things without claiming that they are mimetically or absolutely equivalent. But I agree with Wasser that there is more work to do on specifying the particular figures that govern specific kinds of formalization. It may be possible, for instance, to describe metaphorical, metonymical, analogical, and chiasmic modes of formalization—there are no doubt many more—and the focus of Speculative Formalism, it is true, is rather more on specifying what such differing modes of formal generation have in common. (In the conclusion, in the course of an analysis of the tropes underpinning “World Literature,” I write of “scales of analysis,” a notion that I intend to develop in future work.) I am less convinced that this will require a distinct “theory of the transformative or ‘formalizing’ capacities of critical discourse itself,” for I suspect that criticism, as one site of formalization among many, is not especially unique in the formalizing processes it deploys. In any case, and as I’ve signaled above, I’m less sure than Wasser seems to be that we can ever truly distinguish critical metatext from text; formalization on my account is, among other things, what results from the very failure to do so.
There is much more that one could say in response to Wasser’s perceptive remarks—her shrewd comments on Ponge deserve a response all to themselves—but let me conclude with an appreciation of Brian McGrath, the relative brevity of which will in no way do justice to the force of his remarks. Of the many things to like in his response, I especially enjoyed his attention to my metaphors. It may ultimately be the prerogative of my analyst to decide why I make such insistent recourse to battle metaphors chapter 3, although it is true that the account of formalization developed in the book is a resolutely agonistic one. This question cuts to the quick: “Given form’s fecundity, are there no forms of birth control (accidental or intentional, natural or technological)? Or to employ a slightly more technical vocabulary, does anything resist the endless play of metaphorical transport that form generates?” The answer is, I think, given in the book itself, in the repeated emphasis I place on the power of formal constraint, one that cannot be said to settle into something definitionally positive or negative. In the interruption of sense instigated, say, by the line break, or in the denial of mimesis performed by Ponge’s faltering poetical phenomenology, a kind of sense-generation distinct from positive metaphorical transport results, one that would find in disjunction a peculiar kind of asymmetric connection. Following de Man, we can say that this kind of reference produces its own, necessary impediments or blindnesses, this last usefully recast by McGrath toward the end of his commentary, also in a de Manian key, as an unavoidable avoidance of reading. What McGrath rather revels in, Wasser locates as a sticking point. Needless to say, this is an avoided reading different in kind from the mere lack of reading that afflicts much historicist, empiricist or “digital” literary criticism. For all that I have sometimes disagreed with their disagreements, my responders read exquisitely well, even when, as is after all inevitable, their blindnesses loom just as large as their insights.
Wasser’s exceptional critical intelligence is amply demonstrated in her recent book The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016). I wrote an appreciative, if somewhat critical, review in Novel: A Forum on Fiction 50.2 (2017) 307–11.↩
Coffee and Donuts
A Response to Tom Eyers’s Speculative Formalism
Towards the end of Tom Eyers’s Speculative Formalism—and thus at the close of its appraisal of the “Critical Present” that its subtitle announces—and after a final volley at the trace of messianism he detects in what for him is Paul Livingston’s otherwise salutarily formalist account of the conditions for “thinking political novelty”—as Eyers writes, in the idea that paradoxes are the “truth” of a structure that therefore open up to the recognition of an as-yet-unrecognizable form of life, there remains “nonetheless a little of the late Derrida’s insistence on a politics ‘to come’ in the notion of a ‘site’ where a new life is”—one reads, with the urgency of someone who has been frustrated by all available options on hand, the following exhortation: “One impatiently wishes to know what such a life and such a politics might look like” (199). In spite of the apparent impersonality of the third person singular pronoun “one”—though in line with the irony with which the sovereign speaker is thus invoked—the entreaty to unveil the next act, so to speak, begs to be read as a battle cry whose refrain operates as the structural core of the book. If it is to be possible at all, so the book argues, “thinking political novelty” has to take place as an interruption, an act of “refraindre” in the Old French sense, so to speak, of “capital’s relentless drive outward and onward” and the “reifications of the contemporary” that result from it (200). Taking literature to “stage better than most phenomena the manner in which . . . the impossibility of any final, formal integration of a structure and its component parts is the very condition of possibility of that structure” (8), Eyers locates the potential to disrupt capitalism’s formative drive in literature as well, specifically in those literary forms that can be shown to deform and reform, and thus not merely let themselves be informed by the vicissitudes of its possible determinants. Given that literature’s “speculative” potential resides in its formal characteristics, the onus thus falls upon literary criticism to catch up with literary form’s “creative capacity” to impact the world.
Hence the subtitle of the book: “speculative formalism” announces itself as a diagnosis of and a strategy-in-waiting at the end of the “critical present,” which is cast both as the end of the relevance of “critique’s” disassembling impulse for formulating agency in the present, and as the presentist logic of all manner of positivisms that have rushed to fill the void. Both speculation and formalism are necessary, Eyers argues, in order to mobilize textuality (later: materiality) against the digi-bio-scientistic methodology seen everywhere subsuming not only literary theory but also academic life at large on multiple levels, as the intellectual analog to the operations of global capital seemingly dominating over all possible forms of life. Hence, also, the impatience with which the strategy-in-waiting demands to be recognized, formally, as meaningful in the “now,” and therefore as a strategy that does not in fact wait at all. The strategy, in this sense, is but a description of poetic form that already exists, and the form demands a world in response. Ponge, Baudelaire, Stevens, and the language poets, all “formalize” the relation of poetic form to the world of objects (and experience, and history) in terms of the impurity or ineluctable incompleteness of that very relation, which is to say their verse illustrates how poetic form can produce worlds through “failing” to reproduce the world as a form of refusal. Formal features such as sheer repetition, punctuation, and other “asemantic” (137) elements ensure that their poetry falls into neither solipsism (qua aesthetic self-reflexivity) nor sublimity (whereby nature is graspable on the imagination’s failure to apprehend it), and instead captures something of the world in its sheer physicality. With such examples Eyers demonstrates the possibility, if not the necessity, of diverting literary criticism away from the veritable obsession he finds, even in the most adamant of existentialisms and materialisms, with “mythologies of the origin” (83) that constrain poetic meaning to belaboring the ultimately theological question of “which came first, the word or the world” (86). Eyers also makes a move against Badiou’s “secularized Pauline streak,” as evidenced in the latter’s affirmation of art’s creative self-sufficiency as the condition of truth and of an authentic existence to come (99). By contrast, Eyers is suspicious of attempts to think the disjunction of word and world in anything but radically atheistic terms: the poem’s agency should not be understood as world-negating and therefore redemptive, its powerlessness vis-à-vis material life paradoxically an imitation of the fallenness of things and an attitude of waiting for their messianic overcoming qua restoration of a prelapsarian whole, but rather, to paraphrase a certain historical materialist, as the transformation of the world, in the world as such.
It seems, then, that speculative formalism is a formalization of impatience: a fundamentally anti-messianic position that militates against the onto-theological assumption that there might be an absolute to restore, or that such restoration is at all desirable. In literary terms, poetry does not merely present the unpresentable, thereby resacralizing the world in ruins, but rather “enacts the presentable” on, indeed “only on the foundations of a formal [and] contradictory ground” (113). As Eyers writes, “threatening the lack of tomorrow” (121) is only the “radical finitude proper to the human experience” (130), in which responsibility for the world cannot be ceded even to the arrival of the unrecognizable or the unexpected: for these categories also yoke the “being” of action, as it were, to a horizon of fulfilment, thus evacuating action of any sense other than that which has made or will make it onto the plane of “history” after its own time. Against such Paulinian (read: melancholic) triumphalism, which constricts possible classifications of action to either failure in history or a messianic-transcendental “leap” into the completion of history, Eyers wants to see reality and (historical) being linked in some way other than through transcendence. The argument in respect to “history” is mainly fleshed out in chapter 5, on the example of the language poets: what their verse shows, Eyers suggests, is that history is not just reference and exteriority relative to language, but reference and exteriority as they can be rendered legible. That is, literary form is not a symptom of history; rather, history, or exteriority, is one of many surface logics (162) making an appearance as it is simultaneously effaced by the independent and singular movement of language, or to be more precise, in the interior of language.
Here Eyers foregoes an interrogation of the complex and deeply problematic history of the concept of history that emerges precisely from the interstices of critical theory, political theology, and Jewish and Christian biblical hermeneutics viz. theories of language, not all of which can be readily dismissed as “onto-theological” obsessions with the restoration of prior plenitude, if only because the question of which came first, word or world, became a problem generative of wide-ranging debates on the transformations of the very idea of history on the agonistic plane of world politics (see Taubes contra Scholem, for instance)—but perhaps there isn’t time enough for such formal histories of the concept of history. Instead, he rather hastily (in my opinion) identifies history with reference, exteriority, and the “backstory” (158), in order to characterize history as a “formal logic,” here perhaps even more accurately to be understood as a “form of logos”: “history” appears just as words formally efface it, when sentences follow upon one another non-sequentially, with each full stop marking the end of the “primary temporal building block of the paragraph” also fully stopping the ineluctable movement forward—the “historical narrative,” the fully fleshed out “backstory”—that it announces (159). As a “formal logic,” “history” should be comprehended as the “constitutive absence” of historical action, so the argument goes, because history’s withering is (itself) fraught with political contestation (161). Certainly, by pitching the time of the poem against historical time Eyers is able to circumvent the problem of historical determinism that will inevitably accompany the notion of reference: cuts and ends of actions that are instituted on a formal level are just as likely to undermine as to amplify historical action. But surely the shift of action’s ground from historical predetermination (or predetermination by a doctrinal or confessional idea of history) to a worldly political strategy of constructive nihilism would imply that “history” has itself to be conceived from the outset as more than just a reference, or as a yoke of language to externalization, however much this ends up being “logically” effaced—since the conception of political action as being initially indissociable from an external event implies an event horizon in orientation to which the event then has to remain strictly anticipated if all attempts to verify its claim to eventfulness (that is, to being legible as history) are ultimately rendered illegitimate on the formal level. In other words, what, if not a trace of messianism, remains to link reality to a historical being that is mortgaged out to a political strategy premised on the insuperable nullity of worldly institutions?
Of course, earlier parts of the book do temper the impatience to formalize the work of logos with something of a formal account of the “radically minimal historical logic” (172) that Eyers sees staging “the promise of dynamic collective possibilities” (175) by evidencing the repeated senselessness of its erasure. This formal account is given a name, though only a handful of times before subsiding to interpretive verbal descriptions, and this name is “topology”: topology replaces transcendence to link reality with historical being. It is worth noting at this juncture that, contrary to the way in which the term has sometimes been used outside of mathematics, which is the field from which it is borrowed, topology generally refers to the study of qualitative properties of geometric figures which remain invariant even as these figures undergo what’s known as continuous transformations, such as bending and stretching. That is, topology refers to a set of analytic tools developed to address problems in geometry that depend not on the exact shape of the objects involved, but on the way they are put together: a square and a circle, for instance, are both one-dimensional objects that divide the plane into a part inside and a part outside; it is impossible to cross each of the seven bridges of Königsberg exactly once due to the way they are connected to islands and riverbanks, not their lengths or distances from one another. Topology defines those properties on which such problems do rely with the idea of homeomorphism, or “invertible” transformation: the Königsberg bridge problem applies to any arrangement of bridges that is “homeomorphic” to it, that is, can be deformed into it without cutting or gluing, just as a donut is homeomorphic to a coffee mug by virtue of one’s continuous deformation into the other, as illustrated here:
From a topological point of view, the coffee mug and donut are the “same”; their “sameness” is evidently not based on a mimetic relation or a correlation between name and description, but instead ceaselessly oscillates as a constitutive deformation of one another. Topology per se, however, does not refer to a particular set of points, their subsets, and relations between them that satisfy a set of axioms—that is, a topological space, though “topology” can with qualification designate one. Topology, rather, is a branch of mathematics in which the principle of this “sameness,” their equivalence, can be studied, and as such is not in the same class as transcendence, which seems more analogous to a particular type of equivalence over another. Replacing transcendence in relating reality to historical being, then, and designating how the interior and exterior of language enter into relation such that “thinking political novelty” might be possible, must be a particular topological space. Such a “topology” would be governed, in literary terms, by an equivalence defined by those “non-mimetic, non-correlational but nonetheless shared moments of incompletion that define text and materiality, literature and history, such moments being conditions of possibility as much as of impossibility, and being as likely to register as indifference as they are to impinge in a radical or disruptive register” (14).
What, however, is the “topology” of the poem? While topological figures are distributed throughout the book in the form of its highly figurative language, co-implicating literature and its criticism—for instance, the relation of history to poetic form is described at one point as the “curling back of language on itself” (78), Stevens’s jar and the wilderness in which it embeds itself “both twist around in a dialectical dance” (79), or, in regard to Baudelaire’s “Correspondances,” “at one and the same time, there is no way of cleanly wrenching poem from ‘context,’ word from world, outside from inside . . . word and world awkwardly intercalate in a manner irreducible to any priority of context over text, text over context” (141)—there is one statement in particular in which Eyers lets emerge what he means by topology. Of Ponge and Cavaillès he writes that “the speculative generativity of form . . . helps incite an ever expanding topological complexity, one that refuses in advance any clean inner/outer distinction. Instead, the language that serves to capture its object . . . is, from the perspective of a more distant, encompassing scale, somehow a part of the object that it is otherwise assumed to merely represent” (73). There is unfortunately not enough space here to unfold what regrettably only remains implicit in the book itself, but one can say this: first, the poem aspires to a “topological complexity” that is “ever expanding,” going beyond the non-complex, everyman homeomorphism of coffee mug and donut—one imagines as the familiar construction of such topological complexity the Klein bottle, a bounded two-dimensional manifold with one side which makes it impossible to distinguish between inside and outside. “Thinking political novelty,” then, is qualified by its being, in mathematical terms, “non-orientable,” the traveller along the entire side of the bottle being eventually, and inevitably, turned upside-down. Second, the paradox or impasse that is supposed to possibly “impinge in a radical or disruptive gesture” (14) is predicated on language’s being “somehow a part of the object that it is otherwise assumed to merely represent” (73), which, far from being reducible to (neo-)romantic aesthetic self-referentiality, might be better comprehended as self-reference or reflexiveness in the formal sense: self-reference is what Russell, in his 1908 paper “Mathematical Logic as Based On the Theory of Types,” calls the common characteristic shared by the subject of the statement “all Cretans are liars,” and the speaker of that statement, Epimenides. The liar’s paradox ensues from the need to include Epimenides’s remark in its own scope, which results from the attempt to say something about “all statements” uttered by Cretans, a set of which Epimenides is a member. With its own predilection to refer to itself, poetic language seems the perfect analog to logical self-reference.
Were the attempt to talk about “all statements” abandoned as meaningless—perhaps the liar does not lie every time he opens his mouth, or not all Cretans are liars—the contradictions would fall away. Eyers wants to maintain self-reference as a meaningful if paradoxical element of poetry, however, and it’s worthwhile considering what this implies for the project of “thinking political novelty” without transcendence. Logical self-reference implies failure of the sort Eyers is after: poetry’s failure to mimetically reproduce nature or history demonstrates, through its repetitive and asemantic moments of self-reference, the possibility of a dynamic collective politics in absentia. Would this new collective politics then not entail the total non-orientability of the individual towards any horizon whatsoever, including towards collective action? At the very least, if it is to be in any way meaningful, staging the erasure of politics in order to let emerge the promise of that which is erased would seem to involve an impossible subject: that of the ontologically privileged position of a speaker who, in denouncing her own communication as deceitful, pushes the very possibility of truth to the radical and impersonal exterior to logic, and to a heterogeneity to truth lent objective weight. (Incidentally, Walter Benjamin had a word for this: objektiver Schein.) That this may be a prospect more terrifying than salubrious might be seen, indeed, if we adopt what Eyers calls “the perspective of a more distant, encompassing scale” and consider the transformability of forms on the level of its principle, which ensures even the “sameness” of apparently simple forms such as the mug of coffee and the donut. For this, abstracting from all content, is ultimately what a politics instituted on the inevitable end of the poem may amount to: self-superseding series of actions and cuts, just as likely to undermine as to amplify historical action, and, to use US American parlance, as potentially devastating as the “main street” politics over a cup o’ joe.