Forms at Work: New Formalist Approaches in Literary Studies

International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC), Alter Steinbacher Weg 38, 35394 Gießen
International PhD Programme "Literary and Cultural Studies" (IPP), European PhDnet “Literary and Cultural Studies”
19.11.2018 - 21.11.2018
Polland, Imke

Forms at Work: New Formalist Approaches in Literary Studies
Justus Liebig University Giessen, November 19-21, 2018

“Forms are at work everywhere,” writes Caroline Levine in her literary-theoretical proposal to apply formalist analysis to both literary texts and “social arrangements” (2015: 2). It also seems that work on form – that is, new formalist approaches within literary and cultural studies – has become increasingly ubiquitous in recent years. In a review published in the March 2007 issue of PMLA entitled “What is New Formalism?,” Marjorie Levinson describes new formalism as a movement of “rededication” that “seeks not only to reinstate the problematic of form […] but also to generate commitment to and community around the idea of form” (561). Contributions (and contestations in reaction) to this movement are diverse and can by no means be lumped into uniform frameworks.
What virtually all contributors to as well as critics of the movement have in common, however, is the conviction that formal analysis must move beyond traditional formalist and narratological approaches that either disregard or oversimplify the socio-political dimensions of a text. New formalisms are largely dedicated to what Greta Olson and Sarah Copland have called a “desire to politicise narratological and formal analysis while retaining the form specificity that has been a feature of narratology” (2016: 207). One obvious and repeated question poised within the context of this discourse is: How new are these approaches in the first place? After all, contextual and cultural approaches to narratology have been delineated and debated for decades (Chatman 1990, Nünning 1999). And Marxist literary criticism arguably offers the longest and richest tradition in interrogating “the ideology of form” (see Jameson 1981).
This international graduate conference is intended to explore what methods, concepts, and theoretical frameworks we as scholars of literary and cultural studies find productive and convincing within the contexts of our own formal analyses. It will provide a forum for discussing how forms “constrain,” “differ,” “overlap and intersect,” “travel,” and “do political work in particular historical contexts,” to borrow from Levine’s outline of “five influential ideas about how forms work” (2015: 4-5). The International PhD Programme “Literary and Cultural Studies” (IPP) invites contributions that demonstrate and/or critically engage with the application of new formalist approaches to the analysis of literary and cultural texts. We welcome proposals from early career researchers as well as experienced scholars who read form in terms of its socio-political dimensions, engage with new formalist methods of interpretation, or contest new formalism in favor of preexisting or alternative traditions and methods. In order to establish a common reference point for discussion, we strongly encourage attendees to have read and/or address Levine’s Forms in their papers. The organizers plan to publish a conceptual volume with contributions from conference participants following the event.
Possible areas of exploration can include but are certainly not limited to:
• Methodological innovations and proposals related to form within literary studies (e.g. revisiting close reading, expanding the purview of narratology, reaffirming or revising Marxist-critical approaches, etc.)
• The analysis of formal and social tensions, collisions, and contradictions within a given literary or cultural text
• Formalist movements in artistic expression (e.g. New Formalist poetry)
• Emergent forms of life in literary expression (see Nünning/Basseler/Hartley 2015).
• Form in relation to genre (film, TV, pop cultural texts, theater, etc.)
• The knowledge of form(s)/the form(s) of knowledge
• The relationship between ethics and aesthetics
• Form(s) of life as a category for cultural analysis and criticism (see Jaeggi 2013)
• Elaborations upon or additions to the four categories suggested by Levine (whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network)
• The “politics of literature” (Rancière 2011 [2006])
• The “ideology of form” (Jameson 1981)
• The “content of form” (White 1990 [1987])

Please send your abstract of approx. 250 words for a 20-minute paper and a short bio note to by June 4, 2018.

The conference is jointly organized by the International PhD Programme “Literary and Cultural Studies” (IPP) and the European PhDnet “Literary and Cultural Studies.”

Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC)
Alter Steinbacher Weg 38
35394 Gießen

Basseler, Michael/Daniel Hartley/Ansgar Nünning. Emergent Forms of Life in Anglophone Literature: Conceptual Frameworks and Critical Analyses. Trier: WVT.
Chatman, Seymour. 1990. “What Can We Learn from Contextualist Narratology?” In: Poetics Today 11/2: 309-328.
Hartley, Daniel. 2017. The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics. Leiden: Brill.
Jaeggi, Rahel. 2013. Kritik von Lebensformen. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca/New York: Cornell University Press.
Levine, Caroline. 2006. “Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies.” In: Victorian Studies 48 (4), 625-657.
Levine, Caroline. 2015. Forms. Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Levinson, Marjorie. 2007. “What is New Formalism?” In: PMLA 122 (2), 558-569.
Nünning, Ansgar. 2009. “Towards a Cultural and Historical Narratology: A Survey of Diachronic Approaches, Concepts, and Research Projects.” In: Bernhard Reitz/Sigrid Rieuwerts (eds.) Anglistentag 1999 Mainz, Proceedings. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier. 345-373.
Olson, Greta/Sarah Copland. “Towards a politics of form.” In: European Journal of English Studies. 20 (3), 207-221.
Rancière, Jacques. 2011 [2006]. The Politics of Literature. Trans. Julia Rose. Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press.
White, Hayden. 1990 [1987]. The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Imke Polland

Alter Steinbacher Weg 38
35394 Gießen

Forms at Work: New Formalist Approaches in Literary Studies, 19.11.2018 – 21.11.2018 Giessen, in: H-Soz-Kult, 14.02.2018, <>.
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