Marxism and Form, Revisited

deadline for submissions: 
September 20, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
ACLA 2019 / American Comparative Literature Association
contact email: 

We have found the recent debates that pit formalism against historicism to be rather dissatisfying. This seminar holds that the way out of this false dichotomy is through Marxism. We seek to understand how Marxism and related political positions offer a fruitful engagement with literary and aesthetic form precisely because of their political perspectives. Moreover, from the standpoint of Marxism, we are interested in how social and historical issues are formal issues in aesthetics.

Recent works by Joseph North and Caroline Levine (among others) have convincingly demonstrated the limitations of historicist approaches to literature and have called for a return to a politically reinvigorated formalism. This call to resurrect New Criticism, however, frequently overlooks the fact that political approaches to literature, such as Marxism, are already necessarily formalist. And as Althusser contends, Marxism is also not merely another flawed historicism because it takes as one of its central precepts the notion that history must be theorized rather than accepted as a given.

Marxism shows how it is disingenuous to distinguish too rigidly between historical content and aesthetic form. Jameson’s imperative “Always historicize!” is frequently misunderstood as a slogan for reductionist historicism. Yet Jameson has built his career out of close attention to style, and elsewhere goes so far as to suggest that “the absolute historicism I endorse . . . is also an absolute formalism.” From the Frankfurt School to the Reading Capital group,Marxists have always shown an abiding preoccupation with form. Adorno, for example, insists on “the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content.” Form, here, is indispensable to the political potential of art, as is also the case in Benjamin’s prioritization of techniques such as montage. Even stricter partisans such as Trotsky and Lukács rely predominantly on formal criteria in their aesthetic theories.

We therefore invite papers that take up these issues in any number of ways. Close readings informed by a Marxist, dialectical, or otherwise explicitly political approach are particularly welcome, as are purely theoretical engagements. Papers might address—directly or indirectly—the following questions and topics:

  • How is history inherently formal?
  • How does literature or other aesthetic works and media (such as film, visual arts, etc.) theorize history through form?
  • Marxist criticisms of historicism.
  • How does art participate in, order, rearrange, or present history, rather than simply represent it?
  • What would a properly dialectical understanding of history tell us about aesthetic form?

Please submit 300 word abstracts through the ACLA’s online portal between Thursday, August 30, at 12 p.m. noon EST and Thursday, September 20 at 9 a.m EST. The ACLA Annual Meeting will be held in Washington D.C., on March 7-10 2019. Please visit https://www.acla.org/annual-meeting for rules and guidelines. Contact Matthew Gannon (matthew.gannon@bc.edu) and Alex Moskowitz (alex.moskowitz@bc.edu) with any questions.