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Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the British Novel

Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the British Novel

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Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the British Novel

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Jan 2, 2015


The complicated junctions negotiated by the novel during the eighteenth century reveal not only achievements but also exclusions. Misfit Forms offers a speculative reconstruction of roads less traveled. What if typographical emphasis and its associated transmission of sensuality and feeling had not lost out to “transparent” typography and its paradigms of sympathetic identification? What was truncated when cumulative narrative structures were declared primitive in relation to the unified teleological plot? What visions of the novel’s value as an arena for experience were sidelined when novel reading was linked to epistemological gain?

Reading novels by Sterne, Charlotte Bronte, Defoe, Gaskell, Hardy, and Woolf in tandem with less-known works, Nandrea illuminates the modes and techniques that did not become mainstream. Following Deleuze, Nandrea traces the “dynamic repetitions” of these junctures in the work of later writers. Far from showing the eclipse of primitive modes, such moments of convergence allow us to imagine other possibilities for the novel’s trajectory.

Jan 2, 2015

Sobre el autor

Lorri Nandrea is an independent scholar.

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Misfit Forms - Lorri G. Nandrea


Copyright © 2015 Fordham University Press

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Nandrea, Lorri G.

    Misfit forms : paths not taken by the British novel / Lorri G. Nandrea. — First edition.

        pages cm

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 978-0-8232-6343-1 (cloth : alk. paper)

    1.  English fiction—18th century—History and criticism.   2.  English fiction—19th century—History and criticism.   3.  Sensitivity (Personality trait) in literature.   4.  Sympathy in literature.   I.  Title.

    PR851.N36 2015



Printed in the United States of America

17  16  15    5  4  3  2  1

First edition

To my extraordinary sister, Wendy Nandrea

rest   in   peace



Introduction: The Novel, Education, and Experience

1.   Typing Feeling: Sympathy, Sensibility, and Sentimentality

2.   The Science of the Sensible: From Sterne to Charlotte Brontë

3.   Sense in the Middle: Teleological vs. Cumulative Plotting

4.   Verisimilitudes: Curiosity, Wonder, and Negative Capability

Conclusion: Woolf’s Fin


Works Cited



Many people have helped me along the rather circuitous paths of my personal, intellectual, and academic development, and opened vistas for me that would otherwise have remained closed. Although I’ve abandoned the hope of naming everyone to whom this book is indebted, I would particularly like to thank Michal Peled Ginsburg, my mentor and friend. Her perceptive readings of both primary sources and my arguments have shaped whatever is most cogent in these chapters. I would also like to thank the other professors with whom I was fortunate to work at Northwestern University, especially Jules Law, Scott Durham, Julia Stern, Helen Deutsch, Helmut Müller-Sievers, David Marshall, and J. Paul Hunter. I have benefited greatly from their expertise, insights, and ability to impart both complex material and curiosity about it. I am also very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Hélène Cixous, whose writing continually nourishes and inspires me.

I would also like to thank my wonderfully supportive former students and colleagues in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, especially Dejan Kuzmanovic, who patiently read and listened and offered helpful suggestions; Michael Williams, who went out of his way more than once to facilitate my progress; and all those who carved time out of busy schedules to read and comment on portions of this project: Dave Arnold, Mark Balhorn, Mary Bowman, Patricia Gott, Tomoko Kuribayashi, Sarah Pogell, Robert Sirabian, Michael Steffes, Rebecca Stephens, Jim Stokes, and Chris Williams. I am truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to write and teach in such a congenial English department. A much-appreciated sabbatical leave from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point helped me complete this book. My sister Wendy was unfailingly enthusiastic about this project, even when I was not; I am so grateful to her and so very sorry she is not here to see it finished.

I am also grateful to Deidre Lynch for her advice and support as I attempted to conceptualize this project; I learned so much about the eighteenth century from her and my fellow participants in the Tristram Shandy seminar at the National Humanities Center in 2005. For welcoming me into the community and supporting my business, Periscope Books & Tutoring LLC, I want to thank the residents of Forest Grove, Oregon, especially Alan Roth, Nancy Graham, and J. Preston Alexander. For timely acts of encouragement that meant more to me than I probably indicated, I want to thank Karin Fry and Jody Greene. I am also deeply grateful to Rachel Ablow; Sarah Kareem; Thomas Lay; the late, much-missed Helen Tartar; and the editors at Fordham University Press, whose extremely perceptive suggestions certainly improved the book’s rigorousness and readability.

Inside and outside of academia, I have been exceptionally lucky to find friends who enrich and sustain my personal life while introducing me to new idioms and perspectives. Temporal and geographical distances notwithstanding, my work is much indebted to my longtime friends, especially Kelly Wheatley, Steve Goodfriend, Tanya Hinkel, Gayle Fornataro, and Donny Lee. For supporting me in so many ways, through thick and thin, I want to thank my parents, Ann and Larry Nandrea. For bringing to the middle of my life happiness utterly unexpected and probably undeserved, I am forever grateful to Steve Sill.

An earlier version of the third section of Chapter 2, "Sympathy and Sensibility in Jane Eyre," was published in Novel as Desiring Difference: Sympathy and Sensibility in Jane Eyre (Novel 37, no. 1/2, 112–34. Copyright, 2003, Novel, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the present publisher, Duke University Press). For their helpful feedback at that stage, I would like to thank Nancy Armstrong and the readers at Novel. Portions of my article Objectless Curiosity (Narrative 15, no. 3, October 2007: 335–56) appear in revised form in the first section of Chapter 4. I would like to thank Jim Phelan for his generous and insightful suggestions on that essay, and for giving me permission to reprint. I would also like to thank Floating Island Publications for permission to reprint Cole Swenson’s poem Now the Eye (It’s Alive She Says, Point Reyes Station: Floating Island Publications, 1984), and the Laurence Sterne Trust for allowing me to use the image of the marbled page that appears on the cover.



The Novel, Education, and Experience

[B]e they good or bad, useless or necessary, [novels] circulate over the land in every possible form, and enter more or less into the education of almost every one who can read. They hold in solution a great deal of experience. It would therefore surely be a most useful thing to provide rules by which the experience might be precipitated.… We are not so vain as to suppose that we have done much towards the accomplishment of such a task.

James Fitzjames Stephen, The Relation of Novels to Life, 1855 (118)

Today’s scholars agree that the origins of the English novel were messy and heterogeneous: As a form, the novel emerged in fits and starts from a primordial soup of other textual kinds. Yet the story of the relationship between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English novels is often narrated as a more linear, sequential progress or rise: Trials and errors on the part of novelists like Fielding and Richardson gave rise to the more perfect aesthetic achievements of writers like Austen, who opened the door for the novel’s full flowering during the Victorian era. Conceptualized in this way, the history of the novel resembles narratives of biological evolution that situate the homo sapiens as a culminating triumph, a quasi-inevitable outcome that subsumes and explains a series of struggles and problems. Yet scientifically rigorous understandings of evolution challenge the inevitability of this outcome by highlighting the role of accidental variations and the perennial presence of alternative paths. Likewise, a closer look at the complicated junctions that were negotiated during the eighteenth-century development of the novel in England illuminates not just achievements but also exclusions—roads less traveled, or divergences overshadowed by dominant trends in the nineteenth-century novel. As Franco Moretti puts it, "the course selected by European audiences (… the canon) is only one of the many coexisting branches that could also have been chosen (and weren’t). Using graphs, maps, and diagrams to re-examine patterns of selection and reproduction in literary history, Moretti concludes: What the [diagram] says is that literary history could be different from what it is. Different: not necessarily better (Slaughterhouse" 303).¹

While heeding the caveat that different is not necessarily better, this book traces a few such divergent paths, roads less traveled by the British novel but also less mapped by the novel’s subsequent cadre of critics. My goal is to identify variant forms that have not been fully recognized as such, to bring out later re-emergences of forms or ideals that seemed to die out in the eighteenth century, and to theorize their characteristics and effects. My approach is less empirical than Moretti’s; though I work closely with a range of primary materials, this project also engages in a kind of speculative reconstruction. What if sense-based practices of typographical emphasis, and the correlated understanding of feeling as a sense-based communication, had not lost out to the idealizations of transparent typography and correlated paradigms of sympathetic identification? What was lost when process-based cumulative narrative structures were declared primitive in relation to the unified teleological plot? The latter development was closely linked to the nineteenth-century novel’s subordination of wonder, with its dynamics of attraction and passive absorption, to active curiosity as an end-oriented desire to know. What visions of the novel’s value as an arena for experience were eclipsed, or truncated, when novel reading was linked to epistemological gain?

To avoid making the alternatives sound as though they have always depended on opposition to accepted norms, I have tried to use a vocabulary of divergence, variation, and selection rather than subversion, particularly in discussing eighteenth-century texts. Once nature or culture has selected and propagated a particular form as the dominant one, the species, it becomes difficult to recognize rival forms as such, or to remember that the species originated as one variant among others.² Darwin’s model is useful in this respect. Concluding that it is impossible to draw rigorous categorical distinctions between a species, a variety, and mere individual differences (67), Darwin uses the terms heuristically. He sometimes situates varieties (less distinct and more fluctuating forms) as incipient species, though not all varieties necessarily attain the rank of species. They may whilst in this incipient state become extinct, or they may endure as varieties for very long periods.… If a variety were to flourish so as to exceed in numbers the parent species, it would then rank as the species, and the species as the variety; or it might come to supplant and exterminate the parent species; or both might co-exist, and both rank as independent species (67). Of course, literary texts are not biological organisms and the mechanisms of inheritance do not work in exactly the same way. For me, Darwin’s work provides only a model or analogy, not a direct link between literature and biology. The broad outlines of the evolutionary framework suggest an understanding of historical development that can function as a useful corrective to more teleological narratives of literary history, without subsuming literary studies to science.

In claiming that certain novelistic practices or ideals were selected over others, I mean to embrace the interaction—which is only roughly calculable—between forces exerted by individuals and broader forces that exceed the consciousness or will of any individual: language, power, cultural milieu, technology, historical circumstances, and so on. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, a book is best understood as a nodal point, a dynamic, unstable intersection of forces that includes, of course, those of readers—even generations of readers (A Thousand Plateaus 3–25). If we understand the less-favored practices and ideals as divergent alternatives whose independent possibilities have been largely eclipsed, rather than primitive stages that were absorbed into the novel’s central lines of development, studying these practices allows us to imagine other possibilities for the novel and its reception. This book explores the character and fate of four such variant forms in the history of the genre.

First, texts printed in England during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century routinely display a heavy use of typographical devices designed to create variations in emphasis. Later in the century, this practice was called into question and associated more exclusively with the literature of feeling. By the early nineteenth century, it had dropped out almost completely: Pages perceived by earlier readers as beautifully nervous came to appear confused and tiresome to the eye (Hansard 373). Far from being an incidental effect of technological progress, as is sometimes assumed, this choice rested on the question of whether or not texts ought to communicate affect through the channels of the senses. In Chapter 1, I draw on an array of printer’s manuals and printed texts, together with philosophical arguments by Adam Smith and David Hume, to trace the ways competing understandings of the production and transmission of feeling informed changes to typographical practices. Adam Smith’s influential re-theorization of sympathy, which roots our feelings for others in private, subjective acts of imaginative identification, became the dominant model of feeling and a central principle by which the moral and literary value of the novel could be asserted. Two other models of feeling, both more closely tied to physiology, simultaneously lost credibility. Though the terms are slippery, I draw a distinction between sentimentality, which relies on the repetition of familiar tropes or structures to elicit emotion, and sensibility, which centers instead on the repetition of difference, aligning affect with provocation and the production of intensities. As the texts of John Dunton and other writers demonstrate, typographical variations produce affect in the latter manner. The suppression of typographical emphasis can be understood as actively instrumental in promoting sympathetic identification, with all its consequences for the practices most widely embraced by nineteenth-century British novelists.

Yet unlike biological forms, which may go extinct once and for all, literary forms remain physically and culturally accessible to later generations, and may be regenerated. In Chapter 2, I trace re-emergences of one losing model of feeling: sensibility. Through readings of Tristram Shandy, A Sentimental Journey and Jane Eyre, I analyze the patterns of desire, sexuality, and narration that correspond to this understanding of feeling. Sterne was able to exploit the aesthetic, erotic, and ethical implications of sensibility in a uniquely forceful and overt manner that was not reproduced by later writers. However, applying Gilles Deleuze’s understanding of dynamic repetition to literary history helps us glimpse and analyze relationships between historically disparate works that repeat not each other, but the same virtual problem under different sets of historical conditions. This perspective makes it possible to understand the peculiar tensions in Jane Eyre as products of a conflict between the dynamics of sympathy, which had become mainstream, and those of sensibility, which had become subversive.

In Chapters 3 and 4, I take up questions of plot and structure, focusing on eclipsed alternatives to the teleological understandings of plot so closely associated with the nineteenth-century English novel. First, I examine the eighteenth-century roots of the nineteenth-century value on closed, unified forms and the teleological structures that produce closure. One context in which we find detailed discussion of these structures is the work of eighteenth-century philologists, or grammarians. The grammarians praised periodic sentences because they withhold the main idea, cultivating a sense of incompleteness that is finally erased by the closing provision of suspended information. The final clause retroactively completes the sense and unifies the whole. By contrast, the grammarians discouraged the use of cumulative sentences, which begin with the main idea and then add information. Cumulative structures operate via conjunction; because they lack principles of hierarchy and closure, the grammarians viewed them as, specifically, formless.

These value judgments are closely paralleled in Victorian discussions of novelistic plots. Historians of the novel have often identified the maturation of the genre with the development of a unifying plot that resembles a periodic sentence writ large. In recent decades, this style of plotting, together with the very premises of teleological thought, have been deconstructed and variously critiqued.³ However, the enormous aesthetic and epistemological power of teleological patterns has made it difficult to recognize alternative structures as independent alternatives—variant forms—rather than failures, primitive precursors, or deliberate subversions. As I try to demonstrate in Chapter 3, the grammatical distinction between periodic and cumulative sentence structures provides a useful tool for recognizing and analyzing a strategy of cumulative plotting. Cumulative structures work as formal analogues of processes whose ends are immanent rather than deferred. Motored by interest (as theorized by Silvan Tompkins) rather than desire or suspense, they encourage readers to associate pleasure with process itself—activity—rather than activity’s deferred aim. Through readings of Robinson Crusoe and Mary Barton, I analyze the specific capacities of this alternative style of plotting, and suggest the special relevance of cumulative structures to representations of work and the working class.

Teleological plots engineer a reader’s desire to know, whether this desire is oriented toward the future (suspense: what will happen next?) or the past (curiosity: what has happened here?).⁴ Because the answers to both questions are located in the pages yet to be read, both suspense and curiosity, thus defined, drive the reader’s desire to reach the end. In the taxonomies of the passions still central to eighteenth-century discourse, curiosity was opposed not to suspense but to wonder: a passive state of absorbed attraction associated with the marvelous. In Samuel Johnson’s analysis, the incredibilities of romance—giants and dryads—might provoke wonder, but not the prosaic world of everyday life that newer, more realistic novels sought to depict. From this perspective, the transition from romance to realism is marked by an affective shift from wonder to curiosity. However, in Chapter 4 I argue that it is possible to trace in Victorian realist novels an intermittent interest in the project of representing the ordinary world in the key of wonder. These moments suggest the novel’s capacity to achieve a special kind of verisimilitude: to provide for readers the simulacrum of sensory experience by representing the particular as such—that is, by representing the phenomenal world as something that cannot be simply assimilated to the novel’s economies of meaning or the subject’s economies of desire. As I will show, such moments occur with some regularity in scenes that trace a character’s recovery from a faint or fever—moments at which the ego is too depleted to interpret everything in terms of its own interests. Yet Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge provides more extended exploration of the relationships between desire’s teleologies and pleasurable sensory apprehension, both within the diegesis and on the level of narrative structure. Hardy’s novel suggests that such experience requires a passive openness akin to wonder, made possible for characters and readers by the failure or derailment of teleological patterns and the end-oriented desires with which they are associated.

In attempting to articulate a literary history that takes into account the futures of forms that did not win the struggle for acceptance, I have found Deleuze’s model of dynamic repetition and the virtual most useful. Deleuze’s work suggests that unrealized outcomes of virtual problems make up a past that has never been present, and therefore remains charged with potential to return, to become the new. His paradigm helpfully stresses the non-linear, dialogic relationships between pasts, presents, and futures, facilitating studies that cross the boundaries of literary periods.⁵ I have also drawn on Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of sexuality, which has helped me delineate one of two underlying distinctions that factored into each of the divergences just outlined and into the processes of selection that favored certain forms over others. This first distinction lies between oedipal and anti-oedipal (or simply non-oedipal) patterns of desire. Following Deleuze and Guattari, I use the term oedipal to signify not just the Oedipal crisis, but a model that roots desire in lack, loss, or want. Positing lack as the origin of desire grants it a teleological trajectory aimed at an object (thing, person, sensation …) that will fill the lack and hence put an end to desire, itself experienced as a state of tension. Nineteenth-century British literature and culture strongly favored forms and styles that work to reproduce oedipal patterns of desire. Yet many eighteenth-century forms and styles did not reproduce oedipal patterns, as the much-maligned novel of sensibility demonstrates quite vividly; these came to constitute roads less traveled in the nineteenth century. In ways that are not always obvious, the historical preference for forms that reproduce oedipal desire, and the rejection of those that do not, shaped the course of the British novel in the nineteenth century. However, as I have suggested, one can locate particular cases in which nineteenth-century writers take up the rejected alternatives and use them subversively in relation to oedipal patterns that had become powerfully normative.

The same is true of the second distinction, which concerns the relationship between knowledge and experience (including feeling and sensation). As Richard Eldridge puts it,

Within modernity, the stresses that force themselves into consciousness ... come increasingly from the late eighteenth century on to involve conflict between the claims of the sensible (what we discern and attach ourselves to through embodied feeling) and the intelligible (what we discern and attach ourselves to via distantiation and the controlled measurement of what there is). Claims of intimacy, solidarity, and cathexis to daily routine jostle against claims to knowledge, objectivity, and clear-sightedness.… Feeling is itself internalized, by being cast as something subjective with measurable intensities and durations, and its claims to being a mode of responsive knowledge are challenged. (7–8)

Eldridge’s formulation indirectly reflects his Hegelian orientation (which I do not share), a point of view that values literature for its ability to mediate between the sensible and the intelligible, or form and content, or the particular and the universal. Bracketing dialectics, however, the conflict Eldridge indicates between the claims of the sensible (feeling, duration, embodied experience) and the intelligible (knowledge, understanding) played a crucial role in the competitions between structures and values that underwrite the junctions outlined previously.

In particular, during the early nineteenth century, the novel came under increasing pressure to justify itself by subordinating the sensory and affective experience of reading to the gain of knowledge—including the learning of moral lessons.⁶ For both readers and characters, experience was increasingly situated as a means to such ends, not an end in itself. To put it otherwise, embodied, time-bound, or process-based experience was subordinated to knowledge understood as outcome or discrete product, something that completes and negates the process that led to its acquisition. The nineteenth-century subordination of experience to knowledge or instruction worked together with the preference for oedipal patterns: Both emphasize a deferred end as a moment of closure that subsumes the process and relieves the tension of anticipation or uncertainty. By contrast, the less favored forms—the roads least traveled out of the eighteenth century—situate experience (feeling, sensation, process) either as something fundamentally inseparable from knowing (not just necessary precursors), or as something that has moral or ontological value in itself. These texts privilege the claims of the sensible by conducting—in both musical and thermodynamic senses—experiences that resist translation into epistemological gain.

The novel is a famously capacious, polymorphic genre that encompasses numerous species, variations, and individual differences. I certainly do not want to claim that I have enumerated all of the variations, not even just for the English novel in the eighteenth century. Likewise, I do not want to claim the variations I do identify can only be found in the small set of texts presented here as examples. Yet the selection of texts is not arbitrary, if arbitrary means that every text could be read in the same way. These novels, particularly when read together, stood out to me as vivid instances that might help us recognize similar forms elsewhere. My pairings of writers that may seem odd bedfellows (Sterne and Charlotte Brontë, Defoe and Gaskell) is not mere whimsy. If we take seriously the Deleuzian proposition that virtual problems haunt literary history, returning to be re-articulated by different writers under different historical circumstances, we can use the resonances between historically disparate texts to discern forms that are difficult to apprehend, precisely because they diverge from the novel’s central lines of development. Conversely, this perspective may help us recognize neglected aspects of even widely studied, solidly canonical Victorian novels. Indeed, what has been neglected in these widely studied novels are dynamics that require non-canonical practices of reading. In this respect, my project aligns with the recent work of scholars such as Amy King, Elaine Freedgood, and Amanpal Garcha, all of whom bring out the ways that late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century critical interests and instruments have reduced or distorted the diverse appeals of Victorian novels.

When Victorian writers were called upon to defend the novel, they often did so by situating it as an instrument of education. Today, the link between literature and the gain of knowledge (whether historical, psychological, social, political, cultural, or linguistic) more often functions as a rationale for the study of the novel, or of literature more generally. In classroom settings, reading for epistemological gain, or to acquire skills in analysis and critical thinking, is sometimes contrasted to reading for pleasure (a more experience-based motive). Reading for pleasure is often associated with passivity—allowing oneself to be swept up in the fiction—as opposed to the active critical reading that is more productive (of readings, learning, searching discussions). Perhaps literary study in the twenty-first century is characterized by too much production and too little pleasure, and perhaps we are too quick to dismiss the value of pleasure, especially the complex, absorbed pleasures of reading literary texts. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine how the pleasure of reading literature could possibly work to justify the existence of literature courses in today’s academy. On the contrary, the increasing pressure to implement empirical measurements of educational achievement (outcomes-based assessment) is likely to further reinforce the situation of literature as an epistemological instrument: a means to acquire pre-defined, empirically demonstrable knowledge or skills, which are positioned as educational ends.

This situation forms a context for my project not only because it is happening as I write, but also because it is the actual outcome, in direct and indirect ways, of the history I trace. The trend toward assessment can be understood as one manifestation of two broader historical developments: the ascendency of the social sciences and the growing dominance of instrumentalization or means-end reasoning in the culture at large, both of which are squeezing out other understandings of value and legitimacy.⁸ As instrumental reasoning permeates the culture, elements and relationships traditionally exempted on an aesthetic or ethical basis (other people, for example, are not supposed to be treated as merely a means to one’s own end) become vulnerable to it. More locally, the instrumentalization of education that assessment practices reflect, together with the strong orientation of recent literary scholarship toward cultural critique, risks occluding something we might loosely call literature’s experiential dimension: the positive value of the experience of reading literary texts, in contradistinction to both the skills one gains from literary study and the negative ways texts construct readers as ideologically desirable subjects.

Within English studies, we see the ascendency of social science methodologies reflected in the recent popularity of cognitive approaches (including, for example, the use of MRI machines to measure reader responses). Scholars who have embraced cognitive approaches express diverse aims,⁹ but have in common an attempt to substitute empirical evidentiary standards for longstanding protocols of literary argumentation (such as the use of reasoning and literary evidence to support an interpretive claim). Yet as the early theorists of new historicism were at pains to point out, when another discipline or topos (history, science) is taken to provide a ground for literary study, the other discipline’s own riven ontology and epistemological circularities have to be suppressed or ignored. In other words, one mistakes for ground what is itself an unstable and fundamentally discursive figure. At the same time, adopting scientific evidence, methods, and objectives entails relinquishing, at least in part, the critical perspective on the discourses of science (including the discourse of assessment) that literary studies—and literature itself—might otherwise provide.

New historicist critics have been careful not to position history as a stable ground against which literature can be read, yet this approach carries its own risk, which is to exaggerate the time-boundedness of literary texts. From a Deleuzian perspective, novels define a set of potentials—concretely, a set of potential readings—but the set is not limited by the context of origin. A reading depends on the relation between a text and the forces with which it comes in contact: an individual reader, other texts that resonate or form a constellation with this one, a set of historical circumstances that select from the set of potential readings a set of possible readings—readings that can be actualized in a particular place and time. Because the accidents of history cannot be known in advance, the set of potential readings remains indefinitely expandable. From this perspective, a literary text is neither timeless nor altogether and forever bound for its sense to its moment of production. Where the former neglects the impact of historical context, the latter posits the moment of origin as a center that grounds and limits possible interpretations—limits what Derrida calls play. Such an approach marginalizes questions about the serial reception of a text over time and suppresses consideration of what we might call the literary present: the manner in which the present of a literary text—the event of the text—is repeated each time we read it. To suggest that a text is fully circumscribed by its moment of origin also mutes or denies the limited autonomy of the literary imagination. Yet this autonomy might be said to make the difference between history and the literary. It renders the literary text not timeless (i.e., located in a realm of the ideal that transcends history, culture, and ideology), but to some degree untimely: capable of being placed into communication with the specific dynamics of an indefinite series of future presents.

Finally, in their less nuanced versions, both cognitive and historicist approaches illustrate an observation made by Paul de Man:

In a manner that is more acute for theoreticians of literature than for theoreticians of the natural or the social world, it can be said that they do not quite know what it is they are talking about, not only in the sense that the whatness, the ontology of literature is hard to fathom, but also in the more elusive sense that, whenever one is supposed to speak of literature, one speaks of anything under the sun (including, of course, oneself) except literature. (Hypogram and Inscription 30)

In one sense, formalism signifies a resistance to this impulse to speak about anything else instead: It is an attempt to address the literary per se. If the great difficulty of locating or defining the literary makes formalism always a gamble, it also makes the impulse to talk about anything else instead a kind of abdication. Cognitive, new historicist, and the wide array of cultural and socio-political approaches to literature do not necessarily exclude formal analysis, but they do compete with it for limited time, space, and attention. If we take form to be a locus of specificity in the literary text, the eclipse of formal analysis basically flattens literary discourse into information or polemic. Diminished attention to form (which has prompted recent calls for a new formalism¹⁰) has traveled hand in hand with a pedagogical emphasis on teaching critical thinking and social awareness (as opposed to, for example, poetics). Because critical thinking skills can be learned and practiced in relation to a wide range of materials, this goal really does not justify asking students to read long, difficult literary texts. Also, to the extent that the literary text is situated as an appendage of damaging ideological forces, and the critical analysis as a kind of prophylactic (protecting the reader from falling prey to oppressive re-inscriptions), the question logically arises: Why read literature in the first place? As Mark Roche puts it,

Culture studies often operates with a negative model of culture, seeking to uncover and expose the mistaken ideologies that drive the production and reception of cultural artifacts.… [W]hen we do not introduce a relationship to culture that is at least partially positive, we are at a loss in justifying the study of culture to students who aren’t already invested in it.… This negative approach ignores the

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