The Elephant in the Text: On “Content Formalism”


Review of Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature: Literary Content as Artistic Experience, by Patrick Fessenbecker.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020


Something of a constitutive quandary for literary criticism is that an academic cannot write about what a text actually says without at least assuming the text says it obliquely, accidentally, inarticulately, or otherwise implicitly because criticism cannot risk restating the obvious. Who needs a professional or expert to explain what a good writer already says in a good book? As a field of expertise, criticism says what a text does not quite say; critics interpret or critique. For critics, then, the content of literature can become a kind of elephant in the room that we generally take for granted as understood, capable of speaking for itself, or too plain to warrant explanation. 

Critics have consistently responded to this problem by turning to “form,” a catchall category that includes stylistic and rhetorical features, the linguistic, generic, and ideological conventions by which a literary text mediates its content. As a shorthand for mediation, “form” has effectively named that which does not appear to be obvious. Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature by Patrick Fessenbecker resists this almost inevitable tendency with an engaging defense of writing about the “intellectual content,” or ideas, posed by novels and poems without rendering them into problems of form or subordinating them to cohesive interpretations of the texts as wholes (3).  “The notion that a literary text’s ideas are somehow less essential to it or less definitive of its status as a work of art, and that therefore they are not the purview of critics, is exactly the assumption that needs to be critically examined,” he says (51).     

One objective of this book is to close the gap “between reading practice and literary theory” (49) by promoting “reading-as-thinking” (3), a practice of intellectual elaboration different from critique or interpretation but not reducible to simply reading and understanding the text. This shift in critical priorities accordingly makes an enormous strawman of “form-fetishists” (17). “The unloved and maligned second child of literary history, content has never received the same kind of attention as her big sister form,” Fessenbecker quips; “at best, she can only hope that a writer will dissolve the distinction, and grant content equal status to form on the grounds that ultimately it is impossible to distinguish coherently between the two” (2). All the same, the book admits that “there is a long history of literary criticism valuing literary works for their content” (205); and it refers to “the tradition of thousands of critics whose practice resisted the dominant thrust of literary theory, and who were happy to read for the content and to treat literary authors as thinkers whose ideas had intellectual weight and which were worthy of sustained attention in the face of literary theory indicating that this was a mistake” (20). Critics have of course been writing about content all along.

But privileging content is not so simple; and, as Fessenbecker concedes with the phrase “content formalism,” form and content remain inseparable. The first chapter of Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature painstakingly negotiates the fine, tenuous line between these rhetorical classifications and acknowledges their correlation. A more recalcitrant defense of content might venture to demonstrate the epistemological validity or the social or scientific utility of the ideas offered by literature, but Fessenbecker instead appreciates content as a source of aesthetic value and proposes a practice that he calls “content aesthetics” (26). But he is surely right that a compelling approach to writing about literary content warrants “the dignity of a formal title” (232), and, however ambivalent, the phrase captures the distinct virtue of this book as more of a polemical theorization of literary scholars’ long-running shadow investment in content than an exercise in writing about ideas in literature.

Indeed, the inherent resistance to writing directly about what a text says is so strong that this very book advocating the practice commits much more to articulating and rationalizing its method than to practicing it. Fessenbecker devotes  five chapters to the history and theory of reading for ideas yet only three chapters to putting that theory into practice. The book includes an introduction “In Defence of Paraphrase,” an epilogue on “Thoughtful Reading,” and three separate chapters analyzing different theoretical questions about aestheticizing content: “Content and Form” (Chapter 1), “Justifying Anachronism” (Chapter 3), and “Everyday Aesthetics and the Experience of the Profound” (Chapter 5). The three remaining, interleaved chapters put theory into practice and engage with ideas in specific works of literature. Chapter 2, “Anthony Trollope on Akrasia, Self-Deception and Ethical Confusion,” translates Trollope’s romantic triangles and marriage plots from formal narrative devices into content by recognizing them as experiments with the philosophical problem of akrasia or weakness of will. Fessenbecker puts Trollope’s representation of three different modes of akrasia into dialogue with recent philosophy by Donald Davidson, Alfred Mele, and Nomy Arpaly as well as Victorians like Henry Sidgwick. 

Likewise, Chapter 4, “The Scourge of the Unwilling: George Eliot on the Sources of Normativity,” describes how George Eliot addresses the twinned problems of moral obligation and coherent selfhood in Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda. Eliot personifies the competing moral claims of Sidgwick’s utilitarianism, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and the Hegelian Idealism of F. H. Bradley and T. H. Green through the ways characters negotiate different modes of shame, which in turn embodies the intersection of an individual’s interests with those of others. These chapters do not strive to change how we interpret the novels so much as they articulate what the novels might say about the different moral ideas to philosophers engaged with the ideas. Where many critics might introduce current or historical philosophical discourse to recontextualize and thereby to produce a “new reading” of a given literary novel, Fessenbecker introduces the novel to philosophical discourse. He highlights the philosophical ideas in the literary text as contributions to philosophy. 

I could imagine enjoying many thick books filled with more chapters that muse in the style of, say, Isaiah Berlin on a much wider array of philosophical subjects proposed by Victorian fiction—ideas about architecture, cities, social contracts, work, ecology, time, fear, desire, difference, and you name it, a host of other topics beyond morality. But Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature concentrates on methodology and is really a better book about the aesthetics of content than about ideas in Victorian literature. The last chapter, “Robert Browning, Augusta Webster and the Role of Morality,” discusses these two poets’ ideas about how to reconcile moral obligations to the world with practical personal considerations; however, it ultimately interprets the poems allegorically as if they are about their relationships with their content rather than about the content itself. With their well-noted irony and obscurant speakers, Browning’s dramatic monologues, particularly “Bishop Bloughram’s Apology,” eschew the content they affect to communicate and instead foreground the character of their speakers and the obstructive dynamics of their form, even as that form secretes those speakers. Webster, in contrast, allegedly favors poetry as a mode of communicating ideas. Content only appears intelligible as such because of its special form. And so poems like “Pilate” or “A Castaway,” Fessenbecker says, offer “something a paraphrase can capture” (211). 

Bucking Cleanth Brooks’s “heresy of paraphrase,” then, and almost echoing Barthes’s ambitious vision at the beginning of S/Z, Fessenbecker proposes “an ultimate paraphrase” that would constitute “the text in all of the various discourses in which it might be interesting,” “something closer to the set of all possible readings, all of the multifarious dimensions of a text’s content” (61, 62). Philosophical, scientific, psychological, historical, theological, anthropological: turning to these discourses as they intersect with a literary text effectively substitutes for turning to form. By recontextualizing what a literary text openly says in a debate, discourse, or other field that it does not directly or elaborately invoke on its own, a critic can intelligently and creatively elaborate the content without simply summarizing, indexing, or explaining it. Paraphrase here involves discussing what the literature tells us alongside propositions from parallel fields of inquiry. For “content formalism,” the literary text creatively poses solutions to intellectual problems in domains to which it may only obliquely allude or ideas that only become fully intelligible as such when put in dialogue with alternative formulations from nonliterary contemporaries or modern writers in different disciplines. 

Enjoyably revisiting the lively debates about the history of ideas from the late 1960s and ’70s, Fessenbecker describes this work of paraphrase as what Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner call “rational reconstruction” in their introduction to Philosophy in History. Skinner’s influential “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” (1969) argues for the historicity of ideas and therefore against the “history of ideas” as it had been pursued as a discipline. Ideas, Skinner says, do not transcend time and place but are contingent, and we can only understand them retrospectively through the lens of our own concepts and methods. Skinner insists, in turn, on the necessity of authorial intention as a heuristic for recognizing what ideas a society might have possibly been able to think. 

Authorial intention here denotes not some positivist characterization of the actual author as an historical individual but an “ideally informed” hypothetical image of that writer (124). Content formalists will “invariably [be] guilty of the mythology of coherence” (125), for their work of paraphrase will rearticulate ideas that repeat in fragments across an author’s oeuvre, and they will elaborate these ideas only as they might have been elaborated had that “ideally informed” hypothetical author fully fleshed them out. This anachronistic, suppositional reconstruction of the text also invariably articulates the relevance of a historical text to the present, instead of offering it as an historical artifact. The “content formalist” further avoids restating the obvious, then, by posing the ideas in the literary text as “possible truth” (129), as Hans Gadamer put it, such that ideas in literature only become intelligible as true or false when rationally reconstructed. Fessenbecker justly notes that a novel or poem requires contextualization in different discourses not to make it “comprehensible,” as if writers were not capable of writing clearly enough, but in order to realize or actualize the truths it has to offer.

Fessenbecker calls this process “thoughtful” reading, and suggests that it bridges the gap between “immersion” in a text and the abstraction, defamiliarization, and formalization of critique, which often remediates a text in terms of an external aesthetic or ideological category (236). The immersive process of rational reconstruction nevertheless has aesthetic import because it underscores “the elements of a text that make it worthy of attention” (126). We might call the aesthetic objects of this process “interesting,” in Sianne Ngai’s sense, because they do not fit neat formal categories and because they nevertheless captivate the reader and elicit discursive responses. Or we might just say that these objects rouse what Stephen Greenblatt memorably calls “wonder,” “the power of the object displayed to stop the viewer in his tracks” and “evoke an exalted attention.” “The ‘aesthetic value’ of a work that is profound,” Fessenbecker explains, “is just another way of saying that others will enjoy engaging the ideas it invites them to regard, that it is capable of evoking their interest, absorption and excitement” (186). And resonance, as Greenblatt describes it, surely has affinities with the ways Fessenbecker justifies anachronism. But Fessenbecker prefers the aesthetic category “profound,” because he explicitly wishes to avoid the determinate relationship that Ngai draws between economic modes of production and “our aesthetic categories,” the title of her book. He does not discuss Greenblatt’s “wonder,” but presumably wants to differentiate his object from that of new historicists, ideas from historical energies or structures of feeling.  

That said, thinking with Geertz, Chapter 5 describes the profound as a “thick concept,” one that both points at features of a work and facilitates the aesthetic experience of them. Profundity applies to “the peculiar experience of reading a book that makes genuine claims about an important problem, but where one may not be persuaded that the claims are entirely true” (236). Immersed in the “thick concept” conjured by a piece of literature, the content formalist appreciates ideas for their profundity, it seems, and not because they might contribute substantively to knowledge or solve problems in different domains. The value of these ideas is contingent. Fessenbecker welcomes us to define and embrace an expansive range of thick concepts and therefore to multiply the kinds of aesthetic responses criticism might elicit: “[T]he vocabulary we have for thick concepts as applied to literature is so impoverished” (198), he says, and conjures a range of intriguing alternatives to ponder, like strength. Whereas a critic invested in formal categories “must put herself outside of them, recognizing the changes between thick concepts as more important and revealing than the stance within a thick concept itself” (194), the “content formalist” would overcome the alienation implicit in professional criticism as it abstracts aesthetic form, historical energies, or ideology from ideas. 

At its best, this elaboration of content formalism and rational reconstruction recalls Andrew H. Miller’s powerful description of “implicative” literary criticism in The Burdens of Perfection. For Miller, “implicative” literary criticism is a mode of “perfecting” a text, which is to say, a mode of inhabiting, emulating, and elaborating a text: “In such criticism, marked first of all by the display of thinking, writers unfold the implications of their ideas rather than convey their conclusions” (221). Implicative criticism prompts responses and subsequent elaborations. 

A materialist, sociological consideration of the history of literary criticism in the past century would recognize that formalism and various instantiations of the hermeneutics of suspicion (critique) and of positivism (distant reading, historicisms) all express to some degree the capitalist drive to innovate, a drive that animates the production of scholarship as it animates the production of everything else. Academics differentiate themselves from lay readers and from each other by way of the originality of their interpretive methods rather than, say, a series of professional exams or a quantity of knowledge. The alienation inherent in any critical mediation of a text, its point of departure from the text that it is “about,” is precisely what distinguishes it as valuable. 

Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature offers an important, early contribution to new work like Miller’s that aims to reduce that alienation by respecting what the text outright says, work that “emphasizes overt statements in literature but uses them to draw out ideas that are allegorically suggested,” as Fessenbecker puts it, and “admits the importance of historical reconstruction and the threat of arbitrary connections, but insists on the need for rational reconstruction as a response to the allegorical impulse” (236). I hope to see content formalism spread.



Posted on 3 February 2021

JONATHAN FARINA is Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Faculty Senate at Seton Hall University. He also serves as President of the Northeast Victorian Studies Association. Jonathan is the author of Everyday Words and the Character of Prose in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and numerous articles on Victorian literature, criticism, and the history of knowledge production. He is presently writing an alternative history of nineteenth-century literary criticism, tentatively titled Aformalism: Victorian Literary Criticism and the Dispositions of Modern Knowledge.