Formalism and its Discontents, An Interdisciplinary Conference
15 Seminary Pl.
New Brunswick 08901
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Recent turns in the humanities, including affect theory, the digital humanities, and surface reading, have often been understood as moving past a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” If affect theory examines immediate, automatic, or emotional reactions to a text, it puts less stock in the analytic decoding of that text. Much of the digital humanities depends on that reading which computers can execute, and computers (the argument goes) compute rather than interpret. Surface reading seeks not to disclose hidden meaning, but to attend to evident meaning, examining that which is perceptible and apprehensible in the surface of the text. In music studies and art history, hermeneutical criticism and iconology have also given way to approaches that explore the various modes in which we visualize objects and experience performances. In rejecting the hermeneutic notion that meaning must be excavated, all of these methodologies assert that meaning in art and other cultural objects can manifest itself immediately. In other words, content lies on the outside, and form is no ideal abstraction but something easily within reach.
However, a range of formalisms across the 20th century always showed sensitivity to the politically fraught and pragmatically difficult nature of any effort to disentangle form from content, suggesting that this turn toward the surface may not be as new as one would expect. In 1976, Raymond Williams pointed out that form has always described both “an outward shape” and “an essential shaping principle,” and that formalism has long since denoted both attention to texts’ superficial appearances and attention to their determining structures. Are these diverse movements, then, rejections of formalism or returns to it?
This interdisciplinary conference proposes to consider approaches to form that emphasize its materiality, affective dimensions, and political effectivity, as well as considerations of new directions for the humanities in which these notions of form might be central. Questions to be contemplated include: Do approaches such as affect theory and surface reading imbricate art, music, and literature with the social and political realm, or do they divide them from it? Is there a cohesive new formalism, and what distinguishes that new formalism from previous formalisms? How might attention to form shift our understanding of the relationship between materiality and abstraction? Where does an attention to surface leave the position of art vis-à-vis world?
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