This essay excavates a lineage of formalist analysis that stretches from the Victorian art critic John Ruskin to the early twentieth-century art historians Aby Warburg and Henri Focillon, proposing that a fascination with what Ruskin had called “inessential form” drives these three thinkers’ attempts to conceive of form as immanent to both matter and time. The theories of form developed by these three thinkers, while little cited in literary studies, destabilize many of our field’s present-day assumptions about the role of form in literature, from recent debates about surface versus depth to the longstanding distinctions between historicist and formalist approaches to literary texts. From these art historians we learn that close attention to form is close attention to affect, that is, how emotionally charged energies crystallize, throughout time, into pictorial and sculptural details—flowing hair, intricately sketched earlobes, or billowing garments, for example. Building on their work, we advocate for an approach to form in literature not as a fundamental pattern or shape to which the text can be conceptually reduced, but as the capacity of language to be affected by the reality it also shapes.
Brilmyer, S. Pearl and Trentin, Filippo
"Toward an Inessential Theory of Form: Ruskin, Warburg, Focillon,"
Criticism: Vol. 61:
4, Article 4.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol61/iss4/4