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Abstracts: Volume 86, Number 3 (2007)

Special Issue: Rethinking New Formalism
Edited by Rajani Sudan

The Form of Formlessness by Thomas DiPiero

The recent call for a return to formalism maintains that the study of a work's purely textual features can and should exclude political concerns. Identification of formal features, however, is a process that engages the history of genres and the attendant social dynamics giving rise to them, making such apolitical textual analysis impossible. Investigation of an earlier new formalism reveals that similar calls for apolitical literary analysis and production were themselves highly politicized gestures barely concealing a conservative agenda. When seventeenth-century political and aesthetic authorities condemned the new literary genre of prose fiction they claimed to be doing so on purely formal bases, but analysis shows they were concerned with controlling prose fiction's power to deliver an apparently formless form of truth.

Formalist Cultural Criticism and the Post-Restoration Periodical by Anthony Pollock

Examining the tendency in eighteenth-century periodical studies to focus on the genre's referential elements, its supposed reproduction of the material reality of English society, this article attends to formal aspects of Addison's and Steele's essays that call into question these historicist claims. By ignoring the performative and self-allegorizing dimensions of the periodical, critics have perpetuated the essayists' promotional image of themselves as enacting values idealized in neoliberal public-sphere discourses: most especially the Habermasian notion that media culture(s) should enable politically consequential, egalitarian debate in a way that responds to the self-generated demands of consumers. Formalist attention to the question-and-answer periodical reveals the extent to which these values were deployed as rhetorics for mediating the contradiction between early Enlightenment theories of inclusive participation in print culture and the ongoing practices of exclusion and inequality that condition the production and reception of the very texts that articulate such theories.

Couplets and Curls: A Theory of Form by Tita Chico

The Obligations of Form: Social Practice in Charlotte Smith's Emmeline by Cynthia Klekar

Charlotte Smith's first novel, Emmeline, demonstrates how the social practice of gift exchange and obligation underwrite, reinforce, and strain against the literary form of the late eighteenth-century novel. In Smith's novel, the various narrative elements--sentimental fiction, the gothic, and social critique--do not resolve themselves into a coherent aesthetic whole, but instead call attention to the tensions between narrative form and novelistic content. In Emmeline, both the social practice of gift exchange and narrative form disguise the heroine's return gifts of obedience as virtuous gestures inspired by filial loyalty. By framing Emmeline's obligations as gratitude, Smith makes clear that the heroine has no real "choice" when it comes to determining her will. The ideology of obligation reveals both the fictions of reciprocal obligations between men and women and the coerciveness of the novel's plot and narrative form.

Aesthetico-constructivism: Farther Adventures in Criticism by Robert Markley

This article explores the disappearance from the canon, after World War I, of Daniel Defoe's Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. By disregarding the publishing history of the Crusoe trilogy, many neo-formalist approaches have treated Robinson Crusoe as a coherent, stand-alone novel, elevating ahistorical notions of aesthetic value over Defoe's own comments on the novel and the practice of fiction-writing. To unpack the values that have allowed critics to sever Crusoe's two-part Adventures, this essay critically examines the assumptions of aesthetic organicism and challenges the idea that a formalist reading of an individual literary text mirrors or reproduces the original act of artistic creation. The essay concludes that aesthetic judgment, history, and ideology never operate independent of one another, and that key debates in eighteenth-century studies take place not between formalist and "ideological" critics but between different versions of constructivism.