New Formalism: a Paradigm for 21st Century Criticism?


Abstract: This essay takes a close look at ‘New Formalism’ as one possible paradigm for 21st century literary criticism, following Marjorie Levinson’s overview of the most significant contributions to redefining form‐concerned literary approaches, which announced a ‘resurgence of the aesthetic’ in the last two decades (1995‐2007). My premise, which I share with Levinson is that, what she calls New Formalism, in order to distinguish it from the ‘traditional formalism’ associated with a certain version of New Criticism, is not a monolithic movement. Instead, approaches gathered under this name range from normative to activist formalism, veering closer to or keeping their distance from Adorno, Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, from New Historicism and Cultural Criticism. My essay seeks to push Levinson’s conclusion a step further and inquires into the possible dialogue among all these not‐so‐long‐ago irreconcilable theories of interpretation, based on the premise acknowledged by many of those reviewed by Levinson, that they share multiple points of contingency. To prove my point I summon Michael Berube, Rita Felski, John Frow, from the camp of the Cultural critics, but also Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, who also engages with the possibility of re‐readings and productive dialogue.

Keywords: New Formalism, Activist Formalism, aesthetics, Cultural Criticism, New Historicism