ACLA 2017: The Politicization of Form and The Formalization of Politics

deadline for submissions: 
September 23, 2016
full name / name of organization: 
Iven Heister
contact email: 

"…a little formalism turns one away from History, but...a lot brings one back to it."

–Roland Barthes

If the New Criticism that dominated Anglo-American literary studies in the first half of the twentieth-century was a radical attempt to sever literature from history, we may surmise that the explosion of heavily politicized methodologies (from structuralism to new historicism) in the latter-twentieth century was a reaction to an extreme program. Charles Altieri suggests that the unexamined nature of New Criticism’s supposedly apolitical object of study–the literary–gave rise to a similarly “idealized social criticism” that obscured the political dimensions made possible through formalist techniques. Probing further into hidden formalisms, Tom Eyers has interrogated Jacques Lacan’s engagement with Gaston Bachelard’s “rationalist concern for formalization” as a fundamental embedding of formalism in subsequent politically oriented discourses. Given the latency of formalist techniques in politicised movements as diverse as structuralism and new historicism and in foundational theoretical discourses like psychoanalysis, it may be necessary to disentangle these many iterations of formalism, to examine the ways formalist strategies intersect with other reading practices and theoretical orientations. Caroline Levine’s recent insight that forms are not just symptomatic of socio-political realities but agents in shaping them gives those in literary studies a pronounced occasion to reconsider the present and history of literary criticism with this overlapping relationship in mind.

Our driving question then is: where are the hidden politicizations of form and formalizations of politics? We are interested in proposals that trace these overlaps between the political and the formal, that trouble the privileging of the one over the other. To imagine form as an opening invites new definitions of forms and formalisms and opens new spaces for politicizing the formal or, as Walter Benjamin would say, the aesthetic. Broadly, we are interested in proposals that practice either a formalist analysis of politics or a political analysis of form or that consider either dynamic in the work of other theorists or authors. Specific topics include but are not limited to formalist or political readings of:

  • New Criticism

  • Classical and early-modern formalism

  • Poetic form as political praxis (Language Poets, Occupy Oakland, conceptualisms)

  • Du Bois’s Art as propaganda, Écriture féminine, and other forms of marginal representation

  • Epistemology and the philosophy of science

  • Structuralist, poststructuralist, new historicist, and other late-twentieth-century schools

  • Meanings of formalism in the history of literary criticism

  • Public and private institutions in the colonization and shaping of individual experience

  • Binaries in psychoanalysis (primal scene/symptom, anxiety/partial objects, etc.)

  • Twentieth-century formalisms and fin de siècle aestheticism

  • The archive and archival studies

Proposals limited to 1500 characters, including spaces.

We are proposing this seminar for the the American Comparative Literature Association's 2017 Annual Meeting that will take place at Utrecht University in Utrecht, the Netherlands July 6-9, 2017. 

For information on our seminar proposal and to contact the seminar organizers, visit this page:

You may also send proposals to the seminar organizers: Iven Heister and Melissa Wright