Formalism and Its Discontents, An Interdisciplinary Conference


From: Thursday, February 23, 2017, 08:00am

To: Thursday, February 23, 2017, 05:00pm

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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? 


Keynote Speakers

Caroline Levine

Caroline Levine, Professor of English and David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of Humanities, Cornell University

Caroline Levine has spent her career asking how and why the humanities and the arts matter, especially in democratic societies. She argues for the understanding of forms and structures as crucial to understanding links between art and society. She is the author of three books, The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (2003, winner of the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies), Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (2007), and Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015, named one of Flavorwire’s “10 Must-Read Academic Books of 2015”). She is currently the nineteenth-century editor for the Norton Anthology of World Literature and has written on topics ranging from formalist theory to Victorian poetry and from television serials to academic freedom.



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Seth Brodsky, Assistant Professor of Music and the Humanities, University of Chicago

A musicologist by training, Seth's research focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century music and the intersection of music and philosophy, critical theory, and psychoanalysis. He is the author of From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious (University of California Press, 2017).





Roundtable Participants

 ♦ Jeff Dolven (English, Princeton University)  ♦ James Currie (Music, University at Buffalo)
 ♦ Abigail Zitin (English, Rutgers University)  ♦ Jocelyn Rodal (CCA, Rutgers University)
 ♦ Daniel Villegas Velez (CCA, Rutgers University)  ♦ Cara Lewis (English, Indiana University Northwest)

Conference Location

Alexander Library Teleconference Lecture Hall
169 College Ave
New Brunswick, NJ 08901

Parking is available free of charge to university guests in the parking deck, 622 George St, New Brunswick, NJ


Conference Schedule


Thursday, February 23

Friday, February 24 

1:00-1:30pm | Coffee  9:30-10:00am | Coffee and Breakfast
1:30-3:00pm | Panel, The Politics of Forms and the Forms of Politics  10:00-11:30am | Panel, Form and Materiality
♦ Geetha Ramanathan, "Enchantment of (Modernist) Forms"
♦ Daniel Hazard, “Frantz Fanon and the Antinomies of Form”
♦ Jason Bartles, "The Mandrake Syndrome: Somers and the Enigma"
♦ Noga Bernstein, "John Dewey and the Question of Decoration"
♦ George Adams, "'Because They Didn't Know How to Listen': On the Formal Analysis of Conceptual Music"
♦ Anna-Maria Bartsch, "The Rise and Fall of 'Formal Aesthetics' in 19th-century Germany"
 3:00-3:15pm | Coffee Break  11:30-11:45am | Coffee Break
 3:15-4:45pm | Panel, Theorizing Form  11:45am-1:15pm | Panel, Modes of Formalist Reading
♦ Wendy Xin, “The Melancholy of Form”
♦ Robert Machado, "The Micro-events + Micro-stories of Color vs. Line/Form" 
♦ Elias Kleinbock, "Informe and Atheology: In Search of Creaturely Love"
♦ Morgan Thomas, "Form/Matter: Greenberg, Kafka, Rothko"
♦ Caleb Agnew, "Don't Touch Me: Finding Form in Twentieth-Century American Poetry"
♦ Daniel Braun, "I. A. Richards’ Formal Experiments" 
 4:45-5:00pm | Coffee Break  1:15-2:30pm | Lunch (provided)
 5:00-6:30pm | Keynote 2:30-4:00pm | Roundtable 
 Caroline Levine, "Formalism for a Change: New Models for Collective Life" 4:00-4:15pm | Coffee Break
6:30-7:00pm | Reception 4:15-5:45pm | Keynote
   Seth Brodsky, "The Silence of Forms, the Music of Discontent”
   5:45-6:15pm | Reception




Mathematical Art by Henry Segerman

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Events sponsored by the Center for Cultural Analysis are free and open to the public, unless specifically noted