Space for Rent: Cultural Lens-Formalism

Tweet of the Day: Censorship, Yo.


Formalism or the New Criticism is a school of literary analysis that focuses exclusively on the text without little or no consideration for outside factors. It attempts to analyze a narrative by what lies between the covers in an objective way.  It dismisses such things as the author’s intent,  historical context or other “external” factors. It is the word on the page to the exclusion of everything else.

This approach runs contrary to those I written about the last couple of weeks, but while it appears to negate the cultural lens paradigm, it reinforces it:

  1. Language is Meaning: Language is a collection of symbols whose meaning is agreed upon by a group. Thus any meaning in the text has to conform to established or soon to be established communal symbols/meanings.
  2. No Such Thing as Objective Criticism: The critic brings his own cultural baggage to his view of work. This particular school came about as a reaction to other schools who focused on socioeconomic or biographical factors. Neither it, nor the critic nor the work exists in a cultural vacuum.
  3. The Intimate Conversation: The art of writing and the experience of reading are  tied together. I have often said that reading is a intimate conversation between the writer and the reader. The writer may not be telling you his story but he is telling you a story to the reader alone. No other format (except video games) offers that one-to-one connection between creator and individual audience members.

That is not to say that this format doesn’t have validity. On the contrary, it serves to reign in wild speculation about the meaning of a work. It is too easy to throw all manner of influences into a work, to the point that readers lose all perspective. Formalism offers a solid starting point as long as we are aware of its limitations. First there is the printed word, second the meaning between the words and finally, everything else.

Which brings me to my final point.  None of the paradigms discussed here are mutually exclusive. In fact most critics gleefully mix and match them. But we should be careful how we approach any work, establish a hierarchy of analysis that starts with a formalist approach and goes from there. Each layer/school should help peel away the layers of the work and allow us to reach a deeper meaning as long as we are fully aware that not all of them will fit neatly into the hierarchy or can lead us far afield.

Thank you for your support and I hope that this series was as illuminating for you as it was for me.


2 comments on “Space for Rent: Cultural Lens-Formalism

  1. I really enjoyed this series and wish there was more to come. I will probably refer to these when I’m back in school


    • Thanks. I thought this was a good place to stop since going further would be rather redundant from my point of view. I may pick it up later if I find something interesting to write about.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: