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.