Symposium Introduction

The most elementary questions in the study of literature—What is literature? How does literary language differ from other kinds of language? What distinguishes the novel from the lyric? How does literature both secure and imperil the phenomenal context in which it is produced? What is the task of the critic?—have almost never been satisfactorily answered, nor even judiciously posed, in the history of the institution of literary criticism. These difficulties with the foundational questions have in turn been celebrated by literary theory as the proof of literature’s obliquity to science, philosophy, history: a special kind of writing, a special kind of knowing, literature at once shapes and evades those other epistemologies. Moreover, any given literary work recapitulates this obliquity in demanding its reader rest with its particulars while reading, resisting the generality at which the work could be synthesized with the category “literature.” There is thus something insuperably speculative in every effort to talk about reading literature, to move from the experience of absorption to the horizon in which we could say, to others who both have read and haven’t read, anything worth saying. The speculative is a consequence of there being no guarantees as to what is to be generalized about literature, what commons emerge from solitary sittings with singular scribbles, or why at all we should write about reading.

Tom Eyers is better poised than most to attend to this speculative dimension of critical reading, since he brings a philosopher’s training to the endeavor of literary theory. Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present is wonderfully ambitious in ways owing to philosophy’s project of knowing how we know, and at the same time it is wonderfully cautious in ways owing to a literary sensibility. Promising a new theory of the sites and modes by which literature and history converge and diverge, the book elaborates “formalization” as the process of making form, a process embedded in history, enduring in time, and paradoxically delimited by its own open-endedness: the work of making form never does get finished. “Incompletion” is thus elevated here as a definition of the literary, insofar as any work maps its own gaps while also gesturing at something more than self-referentiality, and incompletion also emerges as a definition of the historical material itself, since what is the past but the unfinished business of fumbling toward a present at once the same and different? As the responses to Speculative Formalism in this forum illustrate, incompletion is also a definition of that which constitutes criticism, the work of reciprocating literature’s formalizations with ongoing, situated assays.

In prioritizing formalization as process and incompletion as product, Eyers also prioritizes poetry over other modes of literature, in the tradition of formalisms before him. Addressing this exclusion, he argues for the relative ease of marking “materialist impulses” in poetry as opposed to narrative; poetic forms, in his reading, more readily disclose the very extra-referential tendencies of language that ultimately “center” not only literature as such but also, he is keen to insist, political relations and historical matter itself (32). This counterintuitive association of poetry with immediacy and narrative with mediation might leave novel theorists and formalists alike wishing for a speculative account of novel form, or that a speculative formalism purporting to theorize literature as such might have queried what difference mode and genre make to the generalizability of the theory. But it is the other prong of the claim, that political and historical forms are themselves centered by extra-referential materiality, which most importantly distinguishes Eyers’s formalism. Drawing on his rich expertise in psychoanalysis, that twin of literature in its obliquity to philosophy, Eyers points to a vision of social relations constituted by signifiers in their super-semantic function; what holds together a given social order is not its meaningfulness, but its sheer madeness, its fabrication from the linguistic medium of strange relationality. In turn, this account of the political as formed is what authorizes its interface with literary form. Literature meets history not in mimesis, but in the isomorphism of formedness, and in particular in the insuperable obstacles that prevent total form and guarantee ongoing formalizing. Opening this door (though not fully walking through it), Eyers offers critics committed to political reading—to, indeed, elaborating the non-oxymoron “political formalism”—fresh tools with which to argue for the dynamics in the political that literature intrinsically mediates.

In reaching for an idea of literary form that sidesteps mimesis but doesn’t bracket history, Eyers stakes out a path for future literary study that runs truly counter to the premises of the field-defining trends in both computational humanities and the sociology of affect. Speculative Formalism powerfully demonstrates what comes of close reading: knowing how things are put together, knowing where things fall apart, a kind of knowing irreducible to the knowledge of quantified data or the individualized phenomenology of feeling. This is literature’s political purchase, its own intrinsic theory of history.

The interventions below perform the formalizations of criticism in limning incompletions in Eyers’s text in order to project new speculations. They enact other romanticisms, other messianisms, other arts, other jokes. They are invitations to think with Eyers as he has thought with Ponge and DeMan, and I hope you will think with them.

Julia Ng


Coffee and Donuts

A Response to Tom Eyers’s Speculative Formalism

Towards the end of Tom Eyers’s Speculative Formalism—and thus at the close of its appraisal of the “Critical Present” that its subtitle announces—and after a final volley at the trace of messianism he detects in what for him is Paul Livingston’s otherwise salutarily formalist account of the conditions for “thinking political novelty”—as Eyers writes, in the idea that paradoxes are the “truth” of a structure that therefore open up to the recognition of an as-yet-unrecognizable form of life, there remains “nonetheless a little of the late Derrida’s insistence on a politics ‘to come’ in the notion of a ‘site’ where a new life is”—one reads, with the urgency of someone who has been frustrated by all available options on hand, the following exhortation: “One impatiently wishes to know what such a life and such a politics might look like” (199). In spite of the apparent impersonality of the third person singular pronoun “one”—though in line with the irony with which the sovereign speaker is thus invoked—the entreaty to unveil the next act, so to speak, begs to be read as a battle cry whose refrain operates as the structural core of the book. If it is to be possible at all, so the book argues, “thinking political novelty” has to take place as an interruption, an act of “refraindre” in the Old French sense, so to speak, of “capital’s relentless drive outward and onward” and the “reifications of the contemporary” that result from it (200). Taking literature to “stage better than most phenomena the manner in which . . . the impossibility of any final, formal integration of a structure and its component parts is the very condition of possibility of that structure” (8), Eyers locates the potential to disrupt capitalism’s formative drive in literature as well, specifically in those literary forms that can be shown to deform and reform, and thus not merely let themselves be informed by the vicissitudes of its possible determinants. Given that literature’s “speculative” potential resides in its formal characteristics, the onus thus falls upon literary criticism to catch up with literary form’s “creative capacity” to impact the world.

Hence the subtitle of the book: “speculative formalism” announces itself as a diagnosis of and a strategy-in-waiting at the end of the “critical present,” which is cast both as the end of the relevance of “critique’s” disassembling impulse for formulating agency in the present, and as the presentist logic of all manner of positivisms that have rushed to fill the void. Both speculation and formalism are necessary, Eyers argues, in order to mobilize textuality (later: materiality) against the digi-bio-scientistic methodology seen everywhere subsuming not only literary theory but also academic life at large on multiple levels, as the intellectual analog to the operations of global capital seemingly dominating over all possible forms of life. Hence, also, the impatience with which the strategy-in-waiting demands to be recognized, formally, as meaningful in the “now,” and therefore as a strategy that does not in fact wait at all. The strategy, in this sense, is but a description of poetic form that already exists, and the form demands a world in response. Ponge, Baudelaire, Stevens, and the language poets, all “formalize” the relation of poetic form to the world of objects (and experience, and history) in terms of the impurity or ineluctable incompleteness of that very relation, which is to say their verse illustrates how poetic form can produce worlds through “failing” to reproduce the world as a form of refusal. Formal features such as sheer repetition, punctuation, and other “asemantic” (137) elements ensure that their poetry falls into neither solipsism (qua aesthetic self-reflexivity) nor sublimity (whereby nature is graspable on the imagination’s failure to apprehend it), and instead captures something of the world in its sheer physicality. With such examples Eyers demonstrates the possibility, if not the necessity, of diverting literary criticism away from the veritable obsession he finds, even in the most adamant of existentialisms and materialisms, with “mythologies of the origin” (83) that constrain poetic meaning to belaboring the ultimately theological question of “which came first, the word or the world” (86). Eyers also makes a move against Badiou’s “secularized Pauline streak,” as evidenced in the latter’s affirmation of art’s creative self-sufficiency as the condition of truth and of an authentic existence to come (99). By contrast, Eyers is suspicious of attempts to think the disjunction of word and world in anything but radically atheistic terms: the poem’s agency should not be understood as world-negating and therefore redemptive, its powerlessness vis-à-vis material life paradoxically an imitation of the fallenness of things and an attitude of waiting for their messianic overcoming qua restoration of a prelapsarian whole, but rather, to paraphrase a certain historical materialist, as the transformation of the world, in the world as such.

It seems, then, that speculative formalism is a formalization of impatience: a fundamentally anti-messianic position that militates against the onto-theological assumption that there might be an absolute to restore, or that such restoration is at all desirable. In literary terms, poetry does not merely present the unpresentable, thereby resacralizing the world in ruins, but rather “enacts the presentable” on, indeed “only on the foundations of a formal [and] contradictory ground” (113). As Eyers writes, “threatening the lack of tomorrow” (121) is only the “radical finitude proper to the human experience” (130), in which responsibility for the world cannot be ceded even to the arrival of the unrecognizable or the unexpected: for these categories also yoke the “being” of action, as it were, to a horizon of fulfilment, thus evacuating action of any sense other than that which has made or will make it onto the plane of “history” after its own time. Against such Paulinian (read: melancholic) triumphalism, which constricts possible classifications of action to either failure in history or a messianic-transcendental “leap” into the completion of history, Eyers wants to see reality and (historical) being linked in some way other than through transcendence. The argument in respect to “history” is mainly fleshed out in chapter 5, on the example of the language poets: what their verse shows, Eyers suggests, is that history is not just reference and exteriority relative to language, but reference and exteriority as they can be rendered legible. That is, literary form is not a symptom of history; rather, history, or exteriority, is one of many surface logics (162) making an appearance as it is simultaneously effaced by the independent and singular movement of language, or to be more precise, in the interior of language.

Here Eyers foregoes an interrogation of the complex and deeply problematic history of the concept of history that emerges precisely from the interstices of critical theory, political theology, and Jewish and Christian biblical hermeneutics viz. theories of language, not all of which can be readily dismissed as “onto-theological” obsessions with the restoration of prior plenitude, if only because the question of which came first, word or world, became a problem generative of wide-ranging debates on the transformations of the very idea of history on the agonistic plane of world politics (see Taubes contra Scholem, for instance)—but perhaps there isn’t time enough for such formal histories of the concept of history. Instead, he rather hastily (in my opinion) identifies history with reference, exteriority, and the “backstory” (158), in order to characterize history as a “formal logic,” here perhaps even more accurately to be understood as a “form of logos”: “history” appears just as words formally efface it, when sentences follow upon one another non-sequentially, with each full stop marking the end of the “primary temporal building block of the paragraph” also fully stopping the ineluctable movement forward—the “historical narrative,” the fully fleshed out “backstory”—that it announces (159). As a “formal logic,” “history” should be comprehended as the “constitutive absence” of historical action, so the argument goes, because history’s withering is (itself) fraught with political contestation (161). Certainly, by pitching the time of the poem against historical time Eyers is able to circumvent the problem of historical determinism that will inevitably accompany the notion of reference: cuts and ends of actions that are instituted on a formal level are just as likely to undermine as to amplify historical action. But surely the shift of action’s ground from historical predetermination (or predetermination by a doctrinal or confessional idea of history) to a worldly political strategy of constructive nihilism would imply that “history” has itself to be conceived from the outset as more than just a reference, or as a yoke of language to externalization, however much this ends up being “logically” effaced—since the conception of political action as being initially indissociable from an external event implies an event horizon in orientation to which the event then has to remain strictly anticipated if all attempts to verify its claim to eventfulness (that is, to being legible as history) are ultimately rendered illegitimate on the formal level. In other words, what, if not a trace of messianism, remains to link reality to a historical being that is mortgaged out to a political strategy premised on the insuperable nullity of worldly institutions?

Of course, earlier parts of the book do temper the impatience to formalize the work of logos with something of a formal account of the “radically minimal historical logic” (172) that Eyers sees staging “the promise of dynamic collective possibilities” (175) by evidencing the repeated senselessness of its erasure. This formal account is given a name, though only a handful of times before subsiding to interpretive verbal descriptions, and this name is “topology”: topology replaces transcendence to link reality with historical being. It is worth noting at this juncture that, contrary to the way in which the term has sometimes been used outside of mathematics, which is the field from which it is borrowed, topology generally refers to the study of qualitative properties of geometric figures which remain invariant even as these figures undergo what’s known as continuous transformations, such as bending and stretching. That is, topology refers to a set of analytic tools developed to address problems in geometry that depend not on the exact shape of the objects involved, but on the way they are put together: a square and a circle, for instance, are both one-dimensional objects that divide the plane into a part inside and a part outside; it is impossible to cross each of the seven bridges of Königsberg exactly once due to the way they are connected to islands and riverbanks, not their lengths or distances from one another. Topology defines those properties on which such problems do rely with the idea of homeomorphism, or “invertible” transformation: the Königsberg bridge problem applies to any arrangement of bridges that is “homeomorphic” to it, that is, can be deformed into it without cutting or gluing, just as a donut is homeomorphic to a coffee mug by virtue of one’s continuous deformation into the other, as illustrated here:

From a topological point of view, the coffee mug and donut are the “same”; their “sameness” is evidently not based on a mimetic relation or a correlation between name and description, but instead ceaselessly oscillates as a constitutive deformation of one another. Topology per se, however, does not refer to a particular set of points, their subsets, and relations between them that satisfy a set of axioms—that is, a topological space, though “topology” can with qualification designate one. Topology, rather, is a branch of mathematics in which the principle of this “sameness,” their equivalence, can be studied, and as such is not in the same class as transcendence, which seems more analogous to a particular type of equivalence over another. Replacing transcendence in relating reality to historical being, then, and designating how the interior and exterior of language enter into relation such that “thinking political novelty” might be possible, must be a particular topological space. Such a “topology” would be governed, in literary terms, by an equivalence defined by those “non-mimetic, non-correlational but nonetheless shared moments of incompletion that define text and materiality, literature and history, such moments being conditions of possibility as much as of impossibility, and being as likely to register as indifference as they are to impinge in a radical or disruptive register” (14).

What, however, is the “topology” of the poem? While topological figures are distributed throughout the book in the form of its highly figurative language, co-implicating literature and its criticism—for instance, the relation of history to poetic form is described at one point as the “curling back of language on itself” (78), Stevens’s jar and the wilderness in which it embeds itself “both twist around in a dialectical dance” (79), or, in regard to Baudelaire’s “Correspondances,” “at one and the same time, there is no way of cleanly wrenching poem from ‘context,’ word from world, outside from inside . . . word and world awkwardly intercalate in a manner irreducible to any priority of context over text, text over context” (141)—there is one statement in particular in which Eyers lets emerge what he means by topology. Of Ponge and Cavaillès he writes that “the speculative generativity of form . . . helps incite an ever expanding topological complexity, one that refuses in advance any clean inner/outer distinction. Instead, the language that serves to capture its object . . . is, from the perspective of a more distant, encompassing scale, somehow a part of the object that it is otherwise assumed to merely represent” (73). There is unfortunately not enough space here to unfold what regrettably only remains implicit in the book itself, but one can say this: first, the poem aspires to a “topological complexity” that is “ever expanding,” going beyond the non-complex, everyman homeomorphism of coffee mug and donut—one imagines as the familiar construction of such topological complexity the Klein bottle, a bounded two-dimensional manifold with one side which makes it impossible to distinguish between inside and outside. “Thinking political novelty,” then, is qualified by its being, in mathematical terms, “non-orientable,” the traveller along the entire side of the bottle being eventually, and inevitably, turned upside-down. Second, the paradox or impasse that is supposed to possibly “impinge in a radical or disruptive gesture” (14) is predicated on language’s being “somehow a part of the object that it is otherwise assumed to merely represent” (73), which, far from being reducible to (neo-)romantic aesthetic self-referentiality, might be better comprehended as self-reference or reflexiveness in the formal sense: self-reference is what Russell, in his 1908 paper “Mathematical Logic as Based On the Theory of Types,” calls the common characteristic shared by the subject of the statement “all Cretans are liars,” and the speaker of that statement, Epimenides. The liar’s paradox ensues from the need to include Epimenides’s remark in its own scope, which results from the attempt to say something about “all statements” uttered by Cretans, a set of which Epimenides is a member. With its own predilection to refer to itself, poetic language seems the perfect analog to logical self-reference.

Were the attempt to talk about “all statements” abandoned as meaningless—perhaps the liar does not lie every time he opens his mouth, or not all Cretans are liars—the contradictions would fall away. Eyers wants to maintain self-reference as a meaningful if paradoxical element of poetry, however, and it’s worthwhile considering what this implies for the project of “thinking political novelty” without transcendence. Logical self-reference implies failure of the sort Eyers is after: poetry’s failure to mimetically reproduce nature or history demonstrates, through its repetitive and asemantic moments of self-reference, the possibility of a dynamic collective politics in absentia. Would this new collective politics then not entail the total non-orientability of the individual towards any horizon whatsoever, including towards collective action? At the very least, if it is to be in any way meaningful, staging the erasure of politics in order to let emerge the promise of that which is erased would seem to involve an impossible subject: that of the ontologically privileged position of a speaker who, in denouncing her own communication as deceitful, pushes the very possibility of truth to the radical and impersonal exterior to logic, and to a heterogeneity to truth lent objective weight. (Incidentally, Walter Benjamin had a word for this: objektiver Schein.) That this may be a prospect more terrifying than salubrious might be seen, indeed, if we adopt what Eyers calls “the perspective of a more distant, encompassing scale” and consider the transformability of forms on the level of its principle, which ensures even the “sameness” of apparently simple forms such as the mug of coffee and the donut. For this, abstracting from all content, is ultimately what a politics instituted on the inevitable end of the poem may amount to: self-superseding series of actions and cuts, just as likely to undermine as to amplify historical action, and, to use US American parlance, as potentially devastating as the “main street” politics over a cup o’ joe.

Jaleh Mansoor


February 20, 2018, 1:00 am

Tom Eyers


February 20, 2018, 1:30 am

Audrey Wasser


February 27, 2018, 1:00 am

Brian McGrath


March 6, 2018, 1:00 am

Tom Eyers


March 6, 2018, 1:30 am