Symposium Introduction

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.

Julia Ng


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.

Jaleh Mansoor


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.

  1. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996).

Tom Eyers


Response to Review Essays

Part I

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.

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

Audrey Wasser


February 27, 2018, 1:00 am

Brian McGrath


March 6, 2018, 1:00 am

Tom Eyers


March 6, 2018, 1:30 am