The New Aesthetics: New Formalist Literary Theory

by William Spell Jr.

Form and function are a unity, two sides of one coin. In order to enhance function, appropriate form must exist or be created.”–Ida Pauline Rolf

The history of literary theory consists of formalism and something that is not formalism in alternating cycles-circles-for throughout history. Now formalism swings around in the timeline once more as the new formalism.

Formalism’s great turns in the timestream variously took the shape of Aristotle’s school, the Russian formalists, the Chicago School of formalism, the categorical works of Northrop Frye and Wayne Booth, and the New Criticism. New Criticism, a later incarnation of formalism, championed close readings of the text and attention to the structure and form of the text itself.

New historicists are the latest form of not-formalism. New historicists rely on a textually extraneous knowledge of history, contemporary affairs, and sociology which a reader had to bring to a text to understand it and in order to interpret it. To the New Critics it was the structural form of the text, that is, the relationship of sections of the text to other sections of the text, that held the key to critical understanding, not the author’s biography or political background in which the text was written.

A Formalist Reaction to New Historicism

New historicism arose in opposition to New Criticism, a formalist theory; new formalism, also a formalist theory, in turn arose as a reaction to new historicism.

New Historicism is theory that was developed in the 1980s as a counter theory to the formalist New Criticism theory…[C]oined by Stephen Greenblatt, it…believed history is as important as the text alone. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, New Historicism is a method of literary criticism that emphasizes the history of the text by relating it to the configurations of power, society, or ideology in a given time.

“Literary Theories: A Guide: New Historicism.” LibGuides, Thurgood Marshall Library.

New historicists literary critics elevate sociopolitical context above the form of the text itself as the sine qua non of whether or not a text is worthy of consideration as a literary text.

 New Historicism may focus on the life of the author; the social, economic, and political circumstances (and non-literary works) of that era; as well as the cultural events of the author’s historical milieu. The cultural events with which a work correlates may be big (social and cultural) or small. 

Edward-Mangione, Angela. “New Historicist Criticism” Writing Commons.

Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (University of Minnesota Press, 1979) is concerned of modernity’s “grand narratives” of history. In it he used the words “grands récits,” literally, “big stories”, meaning “metanarratives” but sometimes translated as “grand narratives”. In English translation:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. … The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language … Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?

Jean-François Lyotard

Soon after the dawn of the new millennium a growing body of critics began in earnest to consider return to the study of form in literature.

The translation, “grand narratives” connotes in English the “big stories” of the western canon of literature, a canon questioned in contemporary times on the grounds that it is largely written almost exclusively by white male authors. The western canon, such as it has come to us, came under attack by the new historicists on the grounds that it excluded more culturally diverse authors. They made a good point. What better time to look at and reexamine old, outdated ways of doing things and doing something better than the turn of a millennium?

But their methodology remained historical and sociological without consideration of the form of the text-the storytelling aspects and literary devices such as imagery and the artistry of the prose-without what makes a text a thing of beauty and art. According to the new historicists, critics must look to the author, his politics, and the times in which the text was written and do to so primarily and to the exclusion of form.

A critical approach developed in the 1980s in the writings of Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism is characterised by a parallel reading of a text with its socio-cultural and historical conditions, which form the co-text. New Historians rejected the fundamental tenets of New Criticism (that the text is an autotelic artefact), and Liberal Humanism (that the text has timeless significance and universal value). On the contrary, New Historicism, as Louis Montrose suggested, deals with the “textuality of history and the historicity of texts.” Textuality of history refers to the idea that history is constructed and fictionalised, and the historicity of text refers to its inevitable embedment within the socio-political conditions of its production and interpretation. 

Mambrol, Nasrulla. “New Historicism: A Brief Note.” Literary Theory and Criticism. 16 Oct. 2016

The era of deconstruction in literary theory had, just before the advent of new historicism, brought a radical new idea to the field. Deconstructionists search for clues that the meaning of any fictional text collapses under the strain of language. Language, they claim, and particularly the language within a given text, is unstable, too complex, so that it is impossible for a text to sustain a consistent meaning. As critics, they read a text to expose its contradictions and points of opposition within itself until an aporia is reached, the point at which interpretative reading can go no further.

While the deconstructionists were busy taking works apart at stitches and seams, the new historicists were running the cast off threads through a socioeconomic acid test.

Among the new historicists, numerous sub-specialties arose. Frederic Bogel, professor of Literatures in English at Cornell and author of New Formalist Criticism: Theory and Practice (Palgrave, Macmillan 2013), listed some of these:

From early feminism and Marxism, to variations on historicist, ideological, and political criticism (stressing race, class, gender, and sexuality), to postcolonial studies, to New Historicism and cultural studies, and on to queer theory, cognitive sciences, and ecocentrism, the main tendencies of literary studies have remained historicist, referential, contextual.

Frederic Bogel

In 2000, Michael P. Clark’s Revenge of the Aesthetic (University of California Press) noted it had taken deconstruction a mere ten years to take over academe. Historicists or “proponents of cultural studies” instilled within universities a “lack of importance and significance for literary study in general.”

In the face of that challenge, some belletristics have portrayed this tendency to collapse literature into a generalized form of symbolic determination as indicative of a drive to reduce the rich diversity of literary particularity to a monolithic political theme, regardless of the relevance that theme may have for a specific author or work.

Michael P. Clark

Something has been going on in literary studies having to do with “form” and “aesthetics” and, surprisingly, it has been going on for almost twenty years. The necessity for “return” was announced in the early 1990s: The call for a “new formalism” by Heath Durbor (1990); for acknowledging “literary interest” by Steven Knapp (1993); for “reclaiming the aesthetic” by George Levin (1994).”

Samuel Otter

We shall return to the subject of new historicism and its relationship with new formalism after looking at new formalism itself.

New Formalism Emerges

Soon after the dawn of the new millennium a growing body of critics began in earnest to consider return to the study of form in literature in works such as Theo Davis’ Formalism, Experience, and the Making of American Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture, 2007) and Samuel Otter’s essay, “A Different Formalism”. (NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 43, no. 2, 2010). 

Otter pointed to seminal works such as Morag Shiach and Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002) Jonathan Loesberg’s A Return to Aesthetics (Stanford University Press, 2005), and Michael P. Clark’s anthologies, Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today (University of California Press, 2000).

Samuel Otter, who denies that there is such a thing as new formalism if the term is meant to name a system of thought or a sustained method (that is, a theory), in “An Aesthetics in All Things” (Representations, vol.104, no. 1, Fall 2008), observed:

Something has been going on in literary studies having to do with “form” and “aesthetics” and, surprisingly, it has been going on for almost twenty years. The necessity for “return” was announced in the early 1990s: The call for a “new formalism” by Heath Durbor (1990); for acknowledging “literary interest” by Steven Knapp (1993); for “reclaiming the aesthetic” by George Levin (1994); and for reassessing literary value by Patricia Meyer Spacks (1994). The presence of such calls amid the historicism of the 1990s suggests that we may benefit from imagining alternatives to the pendulum that swings from old historicism to Russian formalism and new Criticism and then from New Criticism and Deconstruction to New Historicism and Cultural Studies.

Samuel Otter

Timothy Aubrey, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, pointed to an article that had been published earlier by the Chronicle announcing that several scholars had rediscovered aesthetics as a guiding star.

These were the forerunners of what would come to be known as New Formalism, a movement spearheaded by Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown’s 2001 Modern Language Quarterly special issue, Reading for Form, and carried on today by critics such as Caroline Levine, Namwali Serpell, David James, Sandra Macpherson, and Joseph North. The enterprise seemed a risky one back in 1998 with Elliott calling beauty “the forbidden subject” and Ann A. Cheng calling aesthetics “the bad child no one wants to talk about.”

Timothy Aubrey

MLQ Special Issue, March 2000

The Modern Language Association’s famous 2000 issue of the Modern Language Quarterly (MLQ, vol. 61, no. 1, March 2000) to which Aubrey refers is dedicated to new formalism and advocates formalism as the correct underpinning of literary theory (also published as Reading for Form (Dubrow, Heather, et al. Reading for Form, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown, University of Washington Press, 2006). Within the volume are essays which “advance a sophisticated yet unembarrassed sense of literary value—and pleasure.” In her introductory essay, she writes:

This issue of MLQ is not really an intervention, in fact, as much as it is a recognition of tenacious interests. For in the wake of deconstruction and its evolution into New Historicism, there has presented a formalist criticism, not burrowed in retreat in new critical streambeds but invigorated by and challenging the modern currents, even as it rereads the tradition of aesthetic theory-in particular, and repeatedly Kant.

Susan J. Wolfson

Bogel also engages Kant in his recall of formalism:

Just as Kant argued that we do not know the world in itself but only the world as the forms of human consciousness allow it to be apprehended, so critical methods actually determine the nature of the object they study by conceptualizing it in particular.

Frederic Bogel

MLA’s Quarterly devotion to new formalism heralds a return to the study of aesthetics in literary criticism. Historicists were judgmental of those who sought aesthetics in writing.

This “judgmental” kind of argument has been imposed on me by the very state of affairs in the surrounding intellectual world: the open displeasure with and condemnation of aesthetic form, of the beautiful, seem to me frequent and categorical and deserve a forthright answer. 

Virgil Nemoianu, “Hating and Loving Aesthetic Formalism”, Reading for Form, pp. 49-65.

New Formalism in the 21st Century

That aestheticism, to Bogel, grounds the study of literature as first and foremost a “linguistic object”. “Whatever else the text is-a play of themes, a historical document, a production of a particular author or era, a real-world political manifesto-it is fundamentally a structure of language.” The linguistic or verbal character of a literary work, its “literary specificity”, is what makes it literary.

In the foreword to New Formalisms and Literary Criticism, Heather Dubrow says Bogels’s essay “ implicitly gestures towards answers inasmuch as many questions that he associates with the development of a New Formalism, particularly intrinsic literariness, intention, and reference, are at the cutting edge of the field as a whole.”

Verena Thiele’s and Linda Tredennick’s New Formalisms and Literary Theory (Palgrave, 2013) brings together a number of new formalist scholars. The essays therein present new formalism as a ripening field of literary criticism. From the publisher’s web page:

Following on several prominent interventions announcing the arrival of a New Formalism, this collection takes a catholic view of that movement, emphasizing an aesthetic turn, a return to formalism that cooperates with historical and contextual analysis. It recognizes craft, acknowledging the experience of practitioners. It will be widely assigned and debated.

Suzanne Keen, Washington and Lee University

Timothy Aubrey asks “Should Studying Literature Be Fun?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s December, 2018 issue. He says that because critics and literary scholars lost the high ground of aestheticism to a never ending and exhaustive historicism, the province of aesthetic consideration has fallen to the nonacademic critics. To Aubrey the return to the study of form and language in and of itself is for something far nobler.

To affirm literature’s aesthetic value is to argue that it does something more than serve as an instrument for a particular politics, that the experiences it fosters are worth pursuing not only because they reaffirm our political views or further our ideological aims, but because they represent a mode of fulfillment-a quickening of our perceptions, a dilation of our temporal experiences, a revitalization of our thought and feeling-unavailable elsewhere.

Timothy Aubrey

Questions of aesthetics and beauty can and should be asked and answered without embarrassment:

Aubrey observed that:

A great deal has changed since I was in graduate school. New Formalism has steadily gained ground. It is no longer embarrassing to raise questions about aesthetics or care about beauty. But it’s also fair to say that New Formalism has not radically rewritten the discipline in the same way New Criticism and New Historicism did. One reason, of course, is that political criticism, in its myriad forms, has taught us many things about literature that we cannot unlearn. It’s significantly harder to appreciate the narrative craft of your typical Victorian marriage plot for its own sake when you know it’s a means of reinforcing heteronormative, bourgeois ideology.

Timothy Aubrey

W.J.T. Mitchell had noted in 2003, in “Commitment to Form”, (PMLA, vol. 118, no. 2.) the cyclical nature of formalism’s rise, fall, and rise.

The modernist movement of form, whether modeled on organisms, perceptual gestalten, or structural coherence, may be behind us, but that only means that some new notion of form, and thus a new kind of formalism, lies before us. This will be a formalism we will have already been committed to for some time without knowing it.

W.J.T. Mitchell

“Some new notion of form”, in the early years of the 2020’s, is well with us.

Aaron Kunin’s Character as Form (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) looks at character, a surprisingly neglected element within criticism. Indeed, there are more works on character in the realm of popular how-to writing books than there are in critical works. Kunin proposes a theory of character that breaks new ground claiming that “character is a collection of every example of a kind.”

Kunin is not alone.

Three recent books — Daniel Shore’s Cyberformalism: Histories of Linguistic Forms in the Digital Archive (2018), Anna Kornbluh’s The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (2019), and Aaron Kunin’s Character as Form (2019) — have asked, collectively and individually: how far can New Formalism go? Their answer: it can go all the way. 

Scarborough King, Rachel, “The Frontiers of Form”, Los Angeles Review of Books (Sept. 19, 2020)

Levinson & Activist or Normative Formalists

New formalism’s “central work” as a “movement” is to rededicate literary studies, not only to that of the “problematic of form”, but also “to recover values forgotten, neglected, or vulgarized.”

Quotations from Marjorie Levinson

A landmark essay in the works of new formalists is Marjorie Levinson’s “What Is New Formalism”, published in the 2007 issue of the Modern Language Association’s journal, PMLA. After first calling new formalism a movement and not a theory, Levinson lays down the conditions of surrender before the historicists. She will allow new historicists a place at the new formalism table, conditionally. Or at least she divides new formalism into two groups, those who would accommodate new historicists and those who will not. The two groups are:

(a) Those who want to restore to today’s reductive reinscription of historical reading, its original focus on form (traced by these critics to sources foundational for materialist critique-e.g., Hegel, Marx, Freud, Adorno, Althusser, Jameson) and

(b) Those who campaign to bring back a sharp demarcation between history and art, discourse and literature, with form (regarded as the condition of asethetic experience as tracted to Kant-i.e., disinterested, autoelic, playful, pleasurable, concensus-generating, and therefore both individually liberating and conducive to affective social cohesion) the prerogative of art.

Marjorie Levinson

Levinson calls the first group “activist formalism” and the second “normative formalism”. Normative new formalism “assigns to literature a special kind or concept of form, one that is responsible for a work’s accession to literary status in the first place…” rather than any historicist reading of sociopolitical orientation.

Levinson would be among the more restricted ranks of new formalism, new historicists would no doubt reply.

New formalism’s “central work” as a “movement” is to rededicate literary studies, not only to that of the “problematic of form”, but also “to recover values forgotten, neglected, or vulgarized as the direct or indirect consequence of new historicism’s dominance…”

New Formalism and Historicism

What then of the current and future relationship of new formalism and historicism?

Far from ignoring the historical context in which a text is written, new formalists actively engage it. Bogel writes in his introduction to New Formalist Criticism:

[T]he central questions that govern and girdle all the chapters address these tensions and actively encourage reflections upon the points of intersection with other theoretical approaches, such as…gender studies, queer theory, poststructuralim, New Historicism, cultural materialism, and Marxist criticism, to name but a few.

Frederic Bogel

So long as new formalism is a mere reaction to new historicism and a clarion call for a return to formalism, it will be a movement rather than a theory. Literary theories have methodologies.

While new formalism operates in a “historically and politically charged background”, this historiopolitical background is not to be mistaken for the test of the literary quality of a text.

New formalism, in all its incarnations, be they intrinsic, lyrical, or historical, seeks to understand the way in which form is reinvented and reshaped and reinterpreted, and it does so against a historically and politically charged background, one that, above all, is meaningfully influenced by both literary and literary-critical tradition.

Frederic Bogel

As to the new historicists, Bogel warns new formalists in a cautionary word. “If historicist arguments too often minimize or dilute formalist assumptions and achievements, contemporary formalism must not replay that bias in another key.”

In “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism” (Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 5, 2015), Jeffrey J. Williams looks to post-historicist critical movements that do not perform a “symptomatic reading” that seeks hidden cultural meanings in texts.

Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make “intervention” of world-historical importance. Their methods include “surface reading”, their “descriptions”, the “new formalism”, “book history”, “distant reading”, “the new sociology”.

Jeffrey J. Williams

Caroline Levine makes the case that forms-shapes and patterns-and their study can be applied to sociopolitical matters as well as art and literature in Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015).

New historicists present to us the end of history. New formalism calls us to a life of renewal in both art and history.

Movement or Theory?

So long as new formalism is a mere reaction to new historicism and a clarion call for a return to formalism, it will be a movement rather than a theory. Literary theories have methodologies. Formalism in its classical methodology has its toolkit of techniques in its analyses which include among others:

  • Structure of the text
  • Linguistics
  • Narrative technique
  • Character analysis
  • Rhetorical devices
  • Literary devices (imagery, metaphor, etc.)

Fertile ground for new formalist theory can be found in these and many other techniques of analysis. These methods can be improved and refined and other methods relating to the form of the text are ripe for development and growth.

Beyond Criticism

Literature is not written to criticism. It is the critic’s function to consider texts, both fictional and nonfictional, not the writer’s function to write texts amenable to or in accordance with one or more types of literary theory. First comes the text, then the criticism, not the other way around.

Comes now Jane Alison and her Meander, Spiral, Explode (Catapult, 2019). Meander, Spiral, Explode is by a working writer and celebrates nothing less than whole new forms of literature, forms beyond the traditional narrative arc of storytelling.

Meander, Spiral, Explode proposes a return to form as a vehicle for creating fiction. Not the workaday rising and falling arc of the old form, but of a new form that welcomes narrative structures similar to the structures that inform nature. Finding the narrative arc outdated or vastly overused, Alison examines literary form on a micro-level, point, line, and texture. She observes the movement and flow of a narrative structure, the story’s “color”. Looking at certain fictional texts, she compares them to waves or meanders or spirals or networks or explosions.

This is revolutionary stuff. Alison points to extant texts which seem to break free of the narrative arc in favor of more complex and new literary forms of expression in the structure of literary works.


New formalist critics should earnestly work out a fully fleshed literary theory complete with new or improved practices incorporating and developing formalist methods of interpretation.

New historicists should, at the very least, turn to the study of form in literature to reach any interpretation at all of any future forms of literary texts that take literary writing into new dimensions.

Because if literature takes a turn to a new formalism as a literary movement, we’re all going to need it.

Cite as: Spell, William. “The New Aesthetics: New Formalist Literary Theory”. Life and Literature, 2021

Advanced Formalist Resource References

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