Tom Eyers, Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2017
Reviewed by Corbin Hiday
This essay has been peer-reviewed by the boundary 2 editorial collective.
The stakes of Tom Eyers’ recent monograph, Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present, are clear from the work’s ambitious first sentence: “This book proposes a new theory of literary form and formalization” (2017: 1). Eyers’ effort attempts to carve out space within a recent proliferation of what might be understood as a return to form, one aspect of his larger intervention into contemporary methodological debates. Speculative Formalism provides both an exciting contribution to the heterogeneous, unformed moment of “new formalism,” as well as an acute explication of a range of “positivisms” in literary studies (11). For Eyers, a theoretically rigorous formalism exists antithetical to the digital humanities and object-oriented ontology (OOO) —illustrative of such “positivisms”—instead insisting on the necessity of “the critical attention to form” for any project of critique (28).1 In his titular allusion to the “Critical Present,” Eyers acknowledges this larger context of which his work is a part, with particular attention to scholars like Caroline Levine, Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, Franco Moretti, and Graham Harman, all as ultimately unsatisfactory interlocutors. Ultimately, Eyers’ version of formalization, and his articulation of “speculative formalism” refuses a familiar dichotomy of literary mimesis—“its reflective or reproductive capacities”—and a self-enclosed version of literature—“fictive self-reference and self-foundation” (4). In order to produce an alternative to these poles, Eyers constructs sustained close readings of a series of poetic texts, in which Francis Ponge’s poems ultimately become central, and convincingly moves between and among various theoretical lenses, with Paul de Man’s version of deconstruction never too distant.
If we were attempt to “formalize” Eyers’ own work, albeit perhaps vulgarly, we might break the monograph’s composition into sections, with roughly the first half grappling with the “critical present” referred to above in the guise of “new formalism,” digital humanities, and object-oriented ontology, and the second half articulating a version of “speculative formalism” through poetic engagement, in the form of rigorous and attentive close-readings paired with theoretical interlocutors such as Alain Badiou, de Man, and Jean Laplanche. Of course, this type of bracketing and separation of method and practice is largely unfair to Eyers’ ambitious, and multifaceted project, but the demarcation can function to better orient the reader to the scope of the intellectual and critical stakes. Thus, we might understand the two parts as dialectical, moving between method and practice, holding together Eyers’ account of the “critical present” and his theoretical production of formalism as “speculative.” The chapter that occupies the middle section of Speculative Formalism, strategically moves from the larger context of the “critical present”—object-oriented ontology (Graham Harman being its manifestation here)—to the more intimately focused readings and philosophic inquiry that marks Eyers’ work. In this sense, Eyers’ chapter, “Francis Ponge, Jean Cavaillès, and the Vexed Relation between Word and World,” represents a pivot from survey to instantiation, presenting a reading of Ponge’s poetry as attendant to and oriented toward objects, but outside the theoretical framework of OOO.
For Eyers, through both deconstructive and psychoanalytic frameworks, language constitutively disrupts “the lack of a suitably nuanced account of subjectivity in Harman’s object-oriented ontology” and necessitates a “set of processes of formalization, processes that are motored by the resistances of objects, both material and linguistic, and in processes that are never ‘flat’ or easily delineable in the manner that Harman and his acolytes so often presuppose” (69). Turning to poetic objects through the work of Francis Ponge, Eyers continues: “[p]erhaps Ponge’s poetry of objects is best understood, then, as a somewhat devilish celebration of different instances of material and textual violence, of the ineluctable smothering of the autonomy of objects by the caprice of human language with its anthropomorphic excesses” (85). Eyers acknowledges a relationship between poetics and objects across Ponge’s poems, but in this process, exposes the limitations of OOO, while also laying the foundation for his own theoretical method. I refer to “foundation” here because this chapter, in many ways, becomes central to the book as a whole, in its staging of poetic, theoretical and philosophical encounters that are crucial to Eyers’ understanding of formalization, to his “speculative formalism.” Ponge’s influence persists throughout the book, becoming the looming literary figure for Eyers’ argument; one site of such persistence can be found in Eyers’ focus on the fruitful tension in the interplay of word and world, a “vexed relation,” marked by what he calls, “a fragile resonance between the two” (65), and only resonant “when both poetic language and the material world are imagined as necessarily shot through with impurities, such impurities preventing the swallowing of one by the other while permitting, nonetheless, their ruptural connection” (62). The fragility of both word and world, in their “impurities,” marks what Eyers finds productive in limits, a necessary incompletion and inability for literary language to achieve totalization of what Eyers refers to as “its various outsides—materiality, history, politics, nature” (1). According to Eyers, this becomes explicit in Ponge’s poetry as a function of corporeality, looking like Freudian erogenous zones: “the impasses of language are written on the body, in the involuntary corporeal contractions that poetic language and the object of that language alike may inflict” (86). This refusal of two poles, reflection and self-reference, inside and outside, not only characterizes Eyers’ larger project and his theorization of poetic, or literary (more on this distinction below) formalization, but also echoes the commitments of another imminent figure in Eyers’ work: Paul de Man.
While Ponge’s poetry becomes central, functioning as Speculative Formalism’s conceptual literary center, Eyers owes his largest theoretical debt to de Man. In his chapter, “Paul de Man’s Poetic Materialism,” Eyers sets out to read de Man’s late essays, collected posthumously in Aesthetic Ideology, as a political and historical extension of his linguistic and tropolgical concerns via the “concepts of ‘materiality’ and materialism’” (126). Eyers’ theoretical articulation of the non-correspondence between word and world, or at least their “fragile resonance,” producing a type of opening in closure (87), finds resonance with the particular de Manian brand of deconstruction. Eyers writes, “Representation, then, as a correlational model of reference, is put radically in question throughout de Man’s career” (128). In order to grapple with this question, Eyers turns to de Man’s engagement with Kant, and his (de Man’s) skepticism regarding the alignment of reference with “phenomenalism,” ultimately attempting to produce a “properly materialistic philosophy and poetics” (128). However, even within his debt to de Man, Eyers shifts the critical terrain, departing “from a number of his conclusions” (125). Where de Man finds fragments after a deconstruction involving the interaction of “‘grammatical’ structure” and “‘rhetorical reading,’” Eyers’ “speculative formalism would rather trace the uncanny persistence of texts even after their apparent detotalization” (125), preserving a “formative force of the linguistic and philosophical binds” (149). Even within deconstructive dissolution and fragmentation, Eyers insists on the constructedness of form, this “formative force” akin to what he refers to earlier in the book as the “formativeness of form” (5). An insistence on this literary residue, the site of what’s left over after the “vexed relation” between world and word, necessitates Eyers move from de Man to psychoanalysis at the conclusion of Speculative Formalism. While de Man functions as the towering theoretical figure, Eyers’ final chapter turns to psychoanalysis as the concluding orienting “model” in order to fully account for lingering concerns of temporality and historicity (153).
In his final chapter, “Language Poetry, Psychoanalysis, and the Formal Negotiation of History and Time,” Eyers concludes by turning to sources at the same time unlikely—the “so-called ‘language poets’”—and likely, psychoanalysis, a basis for his previous two books: Post-Rationalism: Psychoanalysis, Epistemology and Marxism in Postwar France (2015) and Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’ (2012). In order to do this, Eyers continues his meticulous close readings, here of language poets Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Susan Howe, and turns to psychoanalysis via Jean Laplanche to construct his final theoretical frame, producing in the process a conjunction of unexpected bedfellows, illuminating a bridge between two important spheres of twentieth-century theory and poetics. Eyers locates a particularly useful homology between Silliman and Laplanche in their shared “refusal to concede this forced choice,” between the simultaneous “temporal instant” and its dissolution and “even deletion,” irreducible to being “simply individual nor utterly collective or historical” (160). In this final chapter, we find the culmination of much of Eyers’ theoretical vision, reasserting the persistence of gaps and absences, the simultaneous openings and closures running through Speculative Formalism. The historical stakes of “absence” are refracted through reconceptualizations of linearity and subjectivity in Silliman’s poem, “Albany”: “Silliman pictures the degradations of historical possibility precisely through his determined staging of the absence of plottable narrative unfolding, in the very instability of the (barely hinted at) subject-positions from which the poem’s particles of sense can be thought to emanate” (161). Eyers ends the chapter by triangulating the thought of Freud, Lacan, and Laplanche, ultimately tracing the profound influence of psychoanalysis over the project as a whole:
If there is a legacy of Lacan’s reinvention of Freudian theory, and of Laplanche’s sophisticated extension and displacement of that legacy, is it surely this insight: word, world, and subject alike, in all their complex and asymmetrical entanglements, make contact at moments of apparent untranslatability; that is the broader thesis of this book with respect to literary form in particular. (181)
Here, an explication of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory finds connection to “literary form in particular.” However, because of Eyers’ particular attention to poetic objects, poetry comes to emblematize the capacity for this untranslatable “contact,” but it remains unclear why poetry stands in for literature as such. I wish now to briefly address this curious conflation of poetry with “literary form in particular” throughout Speculative Formalism.
Early on in his monograph, Eyers addresses a methodological and theoretical decision that ultimately results in sustained and successful attentiveness to poetry, while eliding narrative prose as object of critique. Eyers defends this decision at the end of his introduction: “It may be that poetry, with its self-conscious disruption of this narrative impulse…can act as a fever-chart of asubjective, even materialist impulses that are not so easily pinpointed in narrative, but that sit nonetheless at the eccentric center not only of all literary forms (narrative surely included), but also of variants of political and historical form” (32). Here, without explicit reference, Eyers seemingly has de Man in mind, particularly the materialist de Man that Eyers takes up in his fourth chapter, discussed above; however, it might be useful to return to the de Man of “Semiology and Rhetoric,” in which a reading of Proust moves between metaphor and metonymy in a battle for “primacy,” ultimately revealing a similar “self-conscious disruption”; near the end of de Man’s extensive reading, he notes that the text produces a “state of suspended ignorance” (de Man 1979: 19). This suspension, produced by the interaction, opposed to the convergence, between grammar and rhetoric, looks ahead to de Man’s theory of irony found in Aesthetic Ideology (building upon Schlegel’s formulation): “irony is the permanent parabasis of the allegory of tropes…the undoing, the necessary undoing, of any theory of narrative…” (de Man 1996: 179). So, to return to Eyers’ claim regarding the suitability of poetry to his project, why abandon narrative when, following de Man, disruption exists as constitutive to its form, and to perhaps literature as such? As de Man notes, this internal tension and contradiction, i.e. deconstruction, exists within the Proust passage itself, not as an external addition:
The deconstruction is not something we have added to the text but it constituted the text in the first place. A literary text simultaneously asserts and denies the authority of its own rhetorical mode, and by reading the text as we did we were only trying to come closer to being as rigorous a reader as the author had to be in order to write the sentence in the first place (de Man 1979: 17).
While Eyers seeks to avoid the Jamesonian impulse toward the “irreplaceability of narrative” (2017:32), we might return to de Man, following his conception of the “poetic” (or rhetoric) as literature broadly understood.2
In the absence of any engagement with narrative, particularly novels, Eyers refuses to pursue the rich narrative contributions of his preferred theoretical frameworks: post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Marxian literary theory, and de Manian deconstruction. Further, in his decision to focus solely on poetry, Eyers cannot fully articulate a repudiation of the literary mimesis he targets, a term more generally associated with prose, with its most problematic articulations related to the novel. We find one alternative to the mere reflection of mimesis in a version of literary “production,” and here we find Eyers’ debt to Pierre Macherey: “[t]o write of a ‘speculative’ formalism is simply to acknowledge that literature, is a peculiar site of production in its own right, one whose peculiarities are what allow it an awkward connection to its various others” (4). While I would argue that the novel exists as a particularly adept form at constructing “awkward connection[s] to its various others,” does a theory of form and formalization, as it relates to poetics or the “poem,” then produce an imagined world through the word, or does a rethinking of poetic formalization merely re-present or reflect the world in all of its instabilities, contradictions, and gaps? If a new theory of formalization looks more like the latter, then how does Eyers avoid mimesis under a different name? In other words, following Raymond Williams, how do we get “from reflection to mediation?”3
The question of mediation also raises the issue of Speculative Formalism’s uneven relationship to Marxist literary theory, perhaps stemming from the fact that this tradition generally takes its corpus to be the novel. Here it might be useful to turn briefly to Lukács and attempt to bridge the gap between novelistic and poetic form. As Lukács notably states in Theory of the Novel, “the novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given…yet which still thinks in terms of totality” (1971: 56). Somewhat relatedly, in his essay, “Art and Objective Truth,” he also writes about the limits of art, only ever able to give us the “approximation” of the “totality of life” (1978: 38). Compare Lukács to Eyers on poetic form and its “inability to present the whole”:
It is in poetry’s determinative inability to present the whole, an inability written into the very productive constraints exemplified in poetry by the marshaling of language into meter, that it gains momentary access to the similar failures of completion and rational totalization that define its referents, referents otherwise assumed to lie submissive in anticipation of poetic representation (Eyers 2017: 101).
Here we have what seems like a useful formulation to draw out a particular homology between poetic and novel form. Following Lukács, we know the novel might desire or strive toward the representation of totality, but because of formal (and historical) limits, the novel necessarily cannot fully capture totality in all of its social antagonisms, breaks, and ruptures. Is it possible to extend the idea of what Eyers refers to as a “noncorrelational spark” (62) beyond poetics into the realm of prose, specifically the ways in which the novel form constructs noncorrelationism?
At stake here, in some sense, is the applicability or mobility of Eyers’ theory of formalization. In other words, does his insistence on the poetic object reveal something about form or formalization that the novel cannot? In the final chapter, Eyers provides his reader another defense of poetry: “Poetry, that is, seems ineluctably caught between the individual and the collective, or between the particular and the universal, and it is at the level of poetic form that these formative contradictions are best accessed” (169). In the idea of being “caught between the individual and the collective, or between the particular and the universal,” I find particular resonances between poetry and the novel form, thus suggesting potential openness and the conditions of possibility for the narrative future of Eyers’ “speculative formalism.” Following this, I want to suggest that Eyers’ attention to poetic objects throughout Speculative Formalism in no way forecloses or limits the possibility of the theoretical usefulness or applicability of his account of formalization to other objects of study. In fact, his refusal of a series of what he calls “neo-positivisms” (36), the latest fads in literary studies, allows for an embrace of negativity, and more than tarrying with or falling into a “negative theology” (133), Eyers convincingly articulates a version of negativity that opens up and expands the ways in which we think through our various worlds—theoretical, historical, political. In conclusion, I briefly suggest a return to the relation between Lukács and Eyers through Eyers’ own reading of Theory of the Novel. Early on in this account Eyers writes of Lukács’ early work: “Theory of the Novel may well bear within it non- if not anti-narrative theoretical resources” (Eyers 2016: 86). To borrow and slightly revise: Eyers’ Speculative Formalism certainly bears within it non-poetical theoretical resources, and I look forward to the after-life of this important work.
Corbin Hiday is a PhD student in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses primarily on the Victorian novel, environmental and energy humanities, Marxist theory, and psychoanalysis. He is also the Economy Editor at Another Chicago Magazine.
- While Eyers will specifically take up digital humanities and object-oriented ontology in Speculative Formalism, engagement with debates around “critique” and “post-critique” in literary studies are not explicit. For paradigmatic examples of the “post-critique” strain of the “critical present,” see Bruno Latour’s foundational essay, “Has Critique Run Out of Steam” (2004), and Rita Felski’s literary critical version in The Limits of Critique (2015).
- Again, in de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric,” he refers to the “deconstructive discourse that we call literary, or rhetorical, or poetic…” (1979:18).
- Here I have in mind Williams’ chapter, “From Reflection to Mediation,” from Marxism and Literature (1977).
De Man, Paul. 1996. Aesthetic Ideology. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
De Man, Paul. 1979. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Eyers, Tom. 2017. Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Eyers, Tom. 2016. “Form as Formalization In/Against Theory of the Novel. Mediations, Vol. 29, No. 2: 85-111. www.mediationsjournal.org/articles/form-as-formalization
Lukács, György. 1971. The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Translated by Anna Bostock. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.
Lukács, György. 1978. Writer and Critic, and Other Essays. Translated by Arthur Kahn. London: Merlin Press.