The Order of Forms

The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism and Social Space

The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space offers a new theory and practice of political literary reading at a moment when the political horizons of the humanities are vigorously contested.  I name that reading method “political formalism” and develop it along two axes: reading aesthetic forms with foremost attention to the integrity of their composition and their revelation of their own madeness, and in turn reading the forms that organize political experience (collectivity, institution, the city, law, the state, sovereignty) as mere forms, integrally composed but open to reform, indispensable for existence but undetermined in advance.  Taking up literary realism, the mode that has perennially centered debates about aesthetics and politics, I read novels by Dickens, Bronte, Hardy, and Carroll, and accounts of realism from Henry James to Fredric Jameson, to propose an experimental formalist theory of literary realism as the projection of possible social space, the modeling of political forms.  I articulate this concept of “model” by focusing on realism’s surprising engagement with mathematics, specifically the formalist revolution in mathematics (non-Euclidean geometry, symbolic logic, set theory), which radicalizes theories of space and practices of the signifier.  Mathematical formalism, aesthetic formalism, and political formalism each provide a way of valuing forms – the mathematical formula, the work of art, collective sociability – as essential but also ungroundable and reformable.  Sharply  contrasting the robust formalist faculties in the nineteenth century with the anarcho-vitalist hegemony in contemporary theory, which devalues forms as oppressive constraints and prizes formlessness, the book mobilizes the past to intervene in the present.

current table of contents

Introduction: Three Formalisms for Today

The Realist Blueprint: For a Formalist Theory of Realism

The Set Theory of Wuthering Heights: Realism and the Infinities of Social Space

The Limits of Bleak House

The Crease and the Sovereign: Symbolic Logic on the Social Plane of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Obscure Forms: the Social Geometry of Jude the Obscure

States of Psychoanalysis: Formalization and the Space of the Political

The Formal State: Ranciere, Levine, Jameson, Dean