The Fix of Form:
an open letter
Fin de siècle XX
Mayst seem to have reached a purer air,
Whose faith has centre everywhere,
Nor cares to fix itself to form,
or—as the undersigned trusts to find you still—
there was a time when the New Criticism taught you to pay attention to literary form as the embodied elaboration of meaning. You knew that authors had a design on you, but you learned to bracket questions of intention and affect so as to concentrate on the design itself, where creative purpose got built out in verbal deed. You dealt, by and large, with the concrete particular, anatomizing complexities for the sake of an analytically earned appreciation of distinct instances of formal unity. While every instance was unique, what you found to say about the unity of this poem or that novel did evince a family resemblance among literary works, and among critical interpretations, that linked them to each other and, presumably, to a family of wholesome universals. Or did it just seem to? If you couldn’t be sure then, and can’t be sure now either, that’s because these larger issues were somehow off in the background and beside the point, which was to practice criticism as a cognition of integral form.
Then the background swam up and swallowed the point, or nearly: a New Theory called all in doubt. The presuppositions that grounded the interpretation of literary texts suddenly demanded a scrutiny no less intense than you had lately bestowed on the texts themselves. For that matter, you learned to wonder whether “texts themselves” had any ontological status not conferred on them by arbitrary means of framing the aesthetic object, and whether those very means were not just as “textual”—did not need analytic interpretation—as much as the object they framed. Your critical formalism now looked liked small fry next to the big game of theory, arresting and interrogating the forces that produced forms for inspection in the first place. Intervening in the hitherto little theorized practices of literary-critical appreciation, philosophical aesthetics did to your customary close reading what philosophy has always done to custom: it charged custom to account for itself on better grounds than mere disciplinary habit or self-justifying result. You found it heady work complying with the new regime: high stakes and windswept exposures—with great views—but by the same token a little dry. If you noticed en passant some sameness in the readings theory tended to produce, that was because the general pursuit of signs as constitutive semiotic forces had a way of postponing, perhaps indefinitely, the diversifying effects that might come with scrutiny of actually constituted forms and contents. When you did attend to these, in off hours, you tasted a pleasure that wasn’t guilty exactly but was no longer innocent either.
Is that why you jumped at the New Historicism and the chance it offered to replenish literary interpretation with grain and heft? The historicist movement struck you at the time, to be sure, as progress rather than return. The reclamation of historical reference seemed to be not so much lifting theory’s embargo on the signified as fulfilling and vindicating it; the always implicit politics of theory were emerging at last, and at the most prestigious levels of interpretation too, from contemplative debate to something more like practical activism. For if literary theory had pushed critical inquiry back from form to force, then New Historicism showed you how to supply that force with a local habitation and a name, and moreover how to do things with it like break or shape a canon, reward neglected merit, promote an urgent cause. The world rushed back into the text that theory had lately evacuated; or, as you started more ambitiously to put it, the “text” under analysis proved to be the world, through an inside-outing of literature and its determinants that showed you how the elements of what an old historicism had called “context” were forces that had always already dwelt or circulated within textual forms. Dense with event and astir with motive, the world-historical scene became the object of your interpretation, which took the shape of as thick a description as you could manage.
How you managed was chiefly by cultivating an eye or ear—was it a sixth sense?—for isomorphic correspondences among the materials you studied. You assembled your world-historical scenery out of structural configurations (phrasal or rhetorical, perspectival or hierarchical) that yoked together artifacts spanning a range of venues: a play, a map, and a census; a catalogue, a statute, and a novel. The work felt politically significant, but it also felt like fun; and one source of the fun, you realized, was that you got to rehearse in a brand-new way the old skills you had honed as a textual formalist. Nobody was about to confuse your New-Historicist analysis of hegemonically interlocked ideologemes with your New-Critical appreciation of verbal iconicity; and yet, viewed from the structural point of view that both forms of analysis shared, the two had a lot in common. You were discerning patterns of formal unity all over again, only now the materials you operated with arose from a vaster historical pageantry than you had formerly dreamed of, and they resonated with nothing less than the immense complex of culture itself. To analyze that great system—tense to the point of paradox with the forces that braced it up and the stresses that wrought forth its changes—was a challenge you could no more decline than be equal to. Interdisciplinary practically by definition, the mission of culture analysis led you well out of your depth and far afield from your literary training; but you beat back vertigo and nostalgia with the theory-borne conviction that disciplinary fences were, if not down, then renegotiable to the point of flimsiness. Accordingly, you seasoned your interdisciplinary arguments with reminders about the vexed and contingent cultural history of the disciplines whereby normative “cultural history” had been produced. One day it occurred to you how slender a margin distinguished the kind of historical pattern-recognition you were now learning to practice from the kind of speculative guide to contemporary life that you found academicians of today and prophets of tomorrow publishing on every hand. If their Cultural Studies was in essence a New History of the present, what did you have to lose by saying that you did Cultural Studies too?
Well, something maybe. Wondering about that something, you went back to the structural likeness you had remarked between cultural historicism and critical formalism as fundamentally holistic modes of interpretation. Each mode in its day trained on its object the skills of what you called the Higher Matching: correspondences among specific data, and then among increasingly aggregated systems of data, were made to manifest with as full a suggestiveness as possible the shape and tendency of the inexhaustible whole to which the data belonged and referred. (There you were at your Higher Matching again, noting correspondences between schools of correspondence-notation.) The difference in modes was an affair of scale, nay entire orders of magnitude, as interpretation zoomed out from the consideration of a whole poem to that of a whole culture. And there lay the trouble: where the quantitative shift in focus was so enormous, you had to worry lest it entail a qualitative change in attentiveness. You welcomed, on the whole, the radical enlargement of vista that came with Cultural Studies to quicken the novice, rejuvenate the old hand, and make scholarship matter to the world. Great, yes, on the whole. But what about the part? Wasn’t substantial signifier-inflation going to be virtually inevitable, the very bigness of the cultural signified obliging you to base interpretation on proportionately big themes and historical categories of the kind that textbooks scooped up from research subcontractors at discount and printed in large boldface type? The ambiguous trope, the ingredient mot juste, the play of ironic tone and curve of prosodic form, the constituent verbal body of sense: would these even count as quarry, under the de facto rules of the new big game? The panoramic scope of Cultural Studies might well make such detailed textual signifiers, no matter how much respect they garnered in principle, comparatively invisible, and therefore functionally insignificant. Maybe you did have something to lose, then: the endangered constituency of literary forms as exceptionally nuanced cultural artifacts. And who was to represent that constituency, if not you who remembered how to notice such things?
Could this, Dear Reader, mean you? Is this tale of toil and storm any concern of yours? Let Tennyson have another try:
O thou that after toil and storm
Mayst seem to have reached a purer air,
Whose faith has centre everywhere,
Nor cares to fix itself to form....
Feeling interpellated? Probably not. Section 33 of In Memoriam, which this passage opens, is a scold of a lyric easy to despise on numerous accounts: patronizing sexism, self-righteousness, and a bad blend of unction with complacency, all epitomized in the contrast it goes on to draw between the adventurous thou hailed here and his good little sister: “Her faith thro’ form is pure as thine.” Poor prospects, admittedly, for the calling of an evangelizing neoformalist. Still, if there is any new fetch at all in the old stanza, it’s likely to lurk in the repeated concern with “faith,” “form,” and the unstable relation between them.
What would it take for Tennyson’s outmoded summons to make a claim on you now? It might take, first, your conceding that it did make such claims once: an ample paper-trail of Victorian testimony establishes that In Memoriam spoke directly to thousands for years. But this by itself would be a tourist’s concession rather than a pilgrim’s. In order to become an engaged critic of the passage, and not just its disinterested scholar, you would have to observe that in its substance Tennyson’s apostrophe to the reader is all about what interpellation in modern society is all about: namely, how the liberal subject learns to dispense its budget of attention across a diffuse and relativized field of competing options. Come to think of it, Tennyson’s “faith,” here as across the entire poem, denotes something not much like dogma but a lot like what you would call ideology: a belief system definitively decentered (or, same difference, centered “everywhere”) and indeterminate (unfixed “to form”). Wouldn’t the stanza exert some pull on you if it proved to describe, not commitment, but rather an orientation toward commitment, halfway between affirmative open-mindedness and allergic negativity? The stanza hails a free spirit, a quintessentially liberal soul not unfamiliar in our time but whose cultural coordinates you could go back and plot on the reformist and consumerist axes of Victorian political economy—one part spiritual refugee jealous of a hard-won freedom, one part shopper having a good look around. The disposition not to fix on a form of faith was shaping up in the early Victorian decades as an ideology unto itself, a free-form cultural formation already recognizable in Tennyson’s day. Suppose the stanza turned out to appeal to the choice that modern subjects make to safeguard choice, to remain cool customers in the faith market. Would it then appeal to you? Would you have the ears to hear?
If you literally did—if having found a personal ideological stake in the content of the stanza you repaid its interest by listening—then you might surprise yourself into a neoformalism that, despite long odds, Cultural Studies could yet put to use. Much of what you heard in the stanza would serve to reinforce what the analysis of content had previously given you; and this supportive redundancy would be as welcome to Cultural Studies as to any hermeneutic practice. For example: a convalescent care to avoid over-stimulation “after toil and storm” emerges through the bland assonance of stressed syllables within the last two lines—staid short e in the main (“center,” “everywhere,” “cares,” “itself”), with a nod toward neighbors on either side of the vocalic spectrum (long a in “faith,” short i in “fix”). Furthermore, in metrical terms the regulation iambics of these lines spell out, with rhythmic prudence, much the same homogeneity of affect that dwells in the homophony of the vowels. Valetudinarian strokes for latitudinarian folks, the lines render the sandblasted affect of a Broad Church communicant who neither feels very much faith nor, all told, “cares to.” The physical soundings of the verse thus remind you that apathy is feeling, and indeed a kind of feeling to which modern ideology has more than once since Tennyson’s time assiduously beamed its blandishments.
The stanza can produce this culturally coded numbness so effectively only because it has done something else first, something which is inaccessible to merely thematic analysis but which neoformalism is ideally suited to open up. For the vocal-rhythmical humdrum of lines 3 and 4 is an effect that lines 1 and 2 have set off. Having established his iambic norm in the first line, Tennyson proceeds to vary it in the second with fine ironic finesse: “Mayst seem to have reached a purer air.” The second metrical foot, “to have reached,” is the strategic stumbling block here, and once you trip on it you fall into some fancy footwork that is ultimately ideological in nature. To begin with, it takes you longer than it should to reach “reached”: in a sense your late arrival ratifies that toilsome and stormy struggle from line 1, but in another sense the vowel chime that “reached” makes with “seem” makes you suspect that agnostic poise may be a less stable position than it seems. After all, the poet could have written “Hast reached at last,” or even “Mayst seem to reach”; the slightly needling metrical imperfection of what he did write unbalances the stance of the man who, if he believes nothing else, believes that he has come through into the perfect tense.
One extra syllable is the problem, which you can resolve by scanning the second foot as either an anapest or a rather heavy-breathing elided iambic. The choice is free between these two scansions, but each has strings attached. For, whichever scansional form you fix yourself to, the choice involves a crux of pronunciation, of accent and arguably of class-bound dialect, that resumes at the level of phonology something rather like what the whole stanza is about. Would you aspirate the aitch in “have” (to mark the anapest) or not (to oil the elision)? Would Tennyson? Would his Lincolnshire neighbor the Northern Farmer? Would his dead friend from Cambridge, the subject of In Memoriam, the man Sam Weller and his Cockney cronies would presumably have called Harthur Allam? Get a set of Victorians to say line 2, and by their aspirations you will know them. To audition these possible speakers and their diverse subcultural allegiances is to hear the spirit of the age in a puff of breath, ventilating for a prosodically amplified moment questions of class and region that articulated nineteenth-century Britain’s changing conception of itself.
One more invisible detail and then farewell. You know how the primary objects of Victorian liberal reform were to secularize the state and extend the franchise, and how each step in these reforms was at once the result and the further instrument of a national identity in the making. This identity had a linguistic analogue in the standardization of the Queen’s English: a hyperglot, ostensibly transregional medium of denomination and exchange for which, were you an aspiring Poet Laureate circa 1850, you would cherish special regard—and for which, were you an aspiring Cultural Neoformalist circa 2000, you might find a trope right here in this stanza: “purer air.” The phrase looks nice on the page but, coming on the heels of that shibboleth second foot, proves delicately embarrassing to say aloud. The risk lies in running all those rs together: if you don’t want to stutter your way through them in Northern burr, or stammer along in Western brogue or transatlantic twang, then you must insert a glottal stop between “purer” and “air.” But what a perverse place for it! Could anything be more mischievous than a glottal stop in the very flow of breath that utters “purer air”? Tennyson invites you to choke on your own tongue, your own proper Queen’s English—or whatever its contemporary equivalent may be in metropolitan cultural capital—and thereby puts into all but subliminally intimate question the secular state and liberal society for which In Memoriam made such suave apology that you now take it for granted. If the words stick in your throat, that’s because the values they stood for stuck in Tennyson’s at a time when, in order to publish his national testament of a poem, he had to stifle a tempest of private doubt. A Poet Laureate’s gag if ever there was one.
So are we doing Cultural Studies yet? Let’s fix ourselves to form and try again.
Yours in vocative case,
Herbert F. Tucker
University of Virginia