Across the slatted border between the United States and Mexico, near Ciudad Juárez, the artists Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello recently installed several pink seesaws.1 These devices briefly turned blockade into buoyancy, making new, if provisional, communities of children and parents on either side. Instead of rejecting or overcoming the form of the fence, the artists exploited that form to make something more affecting, perhaps, than they could have achieved by building from scratch.
Not everyone believes that form can be generative in this way. The assumption that forms necessarily—and negatively—constrain has guided many projects in 20th-century philosophical, political, and aesthetic theory. The proponents of such theories, according to Anna Kornbluh in The Order of Forms, are fundamentally in error. In art, they esteem only “fragmentation, unmaking, decomposition.” In politics, they value only the transgressions of “anarcho-vitalism,” Kornbluh’s label for theories that imagine razing the established order so as to create a “beatific fantasy of formless life.”
For Kornbluh, by contrast, there is freedom to be found in form and formalism. Her spirited polemic in The Order of Forms urges literary critics to use their knowledge of worlds built with words to institute “better collectivities” in universities undermined by the defunding and devaluing of academic labor, and to imagine “new togethernesses, new compositions, new orders” in society at large. An English professor, Kornbluh anchors her brilliant and challenging book in the 19th-century realist novel but goes well beyond those confines to argue forcefully for the political dynamism and durability of forms and formalisms in our time. Forms are not merely immovable perimeters or momentary playthings. They are, for Kornbluh, the tools sustaining art and literature that we can use to build a better world.
It is form, antecedent to content, that remains the crucial category for understanding and rebuilding society.
To locate this constructivist spirit in literature, Kornbluh reaches backward for a surprising set of tools: forms found in 19th-century logic and mathematics. She shows how internalized coherence in formal systems (syllogisms, geometric projections, limits in calculus) came to be prized over externalizing reference to reality. That is, the internal consistency of a logical statement or mathematical theorem was more important than whether it reflected a real state of affairs. Kornbluh’s central contention is that the formalism in 19th-century logic and mathematics can also be located in 19th-century novels, particularly in their architectural metaphors, images, and patterns. The “imaginative projection of other spaces” that literary formalism shares with mathematical formalism, Kornbluh argues, commits readers to modeling and building worlds by means of structure and abstraction. In this way, the architectural imaginary of novels undergirds a political formalism that, in the reader’s hands, can be used to envision and erect social forms and relations that might be more just than those existing at present.
The concepts of mathematical, literary, and political formalism that Kornbluh examines are all supported by an underlying argument that is self-consciously Marxist and utopian. The Order of Forms is an inventive study of literary realism informed by the Marxist critical tradition (Georg Lukács, Ernst Bloch, Henri Lefebvre, and others). Perhaps most fundamentally, the book is inspired by Karl Marx’s own sense of “ungrounded social organization—form without content—as the essence of human experience.” The abstract form of social life as interdependent collectivity, Marx argues, exists prior to the particular forms adopted by individual human lives within any given society. Collectivity is the dynamic condition that structures whatever discrete arrangements we build together. “There is no life without form,” as Kornbluh explains, “yet form has many lives.”
The book’s incisive introduction illustrates this conceit by comparing Marx and Friedrich Engels’s German Ideology, where social collectivity underwrites individual existence, to William Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, an early compendium of photographs focused on architecture. Just as Marx’s famous image for ideology, the camera obscura, makes material life unthinkable outside the darkroom’s artifice, Talbot’s photographs mimic “camera architecture” in their “self-reflexive substance, architecture as such.” They etch a vision of social space as necessary and contingent, “indispensable infrastructure and arbitrary artifice,” visualizing Marx’s paradoxical “built collectivity, the polis that exists by nature.” It is form, antecedent to content—walls in general, prior to the groupings that support or contest them in whatever particular instantiation—that remains the crucial category for understanding and rebuilding society.
A second theoretical chapter develops a formalist approach to literary realism, wrenching it from the paradigm of mimetic representation to that of architectural model. For Kornbluh, novels do not patiently document the given and the made. Instead, they project blueprints for spaces in which new modes of giving and making can occur. Her guide in reimagining realism as “the art of producing space” is Henry James. She considers his theoretical, metaphorical, and photographic obsession with architecture to plumb the impossible dimensions of his “house of fiction” and outlines the spatial form of literary techniques like omniscient narration. Glossing James’s views, Kornbluh insists on realism’s open-endedness in “fabricat[ing] volumes of sociality and voids of totality that inspire the mapping of extant spaces and incite the design of other spaces.”
This building project—using Marx and James to envision a new formalist theory of literary realism—is accompanied by efforts at demolition and repair. First, Kornbluh sweeps aside the rubble of the “referentialist fallacy” (the assumption that realist novels straightforwardly refer to the real world) that has guided novel theory from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis onward. Next, she recuperates the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson from this fallacy by finding a more formalist conception of realism in his writings on architecture and utopia.
Although this ground clearing is compelling, I worry that it makes the new collectives Kornbluh demands harder to realize by foreclosing potential alliances. She dismisses “the quantifiers and the contextualizers”—digital humanists and historicists—for insufficient attention to novelistic form, as well as for treating literature as mere information. Yet she shares logico-mathematical underpinnings with the former and appeals to historical “conjuncture” in a manner reminiscent of the latter.
The allure of Kornbluh’s method is its persistent abstraction from messy historical particulars—treating mathematical formalism as “a guiding style of thought rather than as a topic for [her] analysis”—but I wonder whether contextual specifics might have redirected her argument without compromising its energy. Perhaps she might have specified the cultural setting in which formalist conceptions of logic and mathematics flourished, or highlighted the fact that these developments were themselves founded on collectivity, as ideas were transmitted and debated back and forth between England and continental Europe in the 19th century. By eschewing such details in the history of mathematics, Kornbluh sometimes forfeits nuances of the concepts she uses as models for reading novels.
For example, she attributes the formalization of the mathematical concept of the limit to Augustus De Morgan, but arguably a more rigorous account is to be found in the work of his earlier contemporary in the calculus, Augustin-Louis Cauchy.2 What would it say about a formalism of political limits and its relevance for realism if its 19th-century mathematical analogues were French rather than English? In a study that often uses historical referents as organizing devices—prominently 1848, the year of revolutionary ferment across Europe—the cultural specifics of histories of mathematics and logic could play more of a load-bearing role in the argument for form’s political efficacy.
Despite her disclaimer that she will “not chart the ways literary creations adopted mathematical protocols” overtly, there are moments in Kornbluh’s argument where literary designs are neatly aligned with historical developments in logic and mathematics. For example, the chapter on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, playfully arranged as a quasi syllogism, is captivating because its subject, the mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), would be so sympathetic to her account. She ascribes a political character to symbolic logic (via the novel’s obsession with sovereignty) to explain the valences of shared terms like rule and sentence and assigns a logical status to literary realism (via the novel’s emphasis on arbitrary puns and corresponding jests in illustration and typography), again seeing realism not as metaphorical mirror but as metonymic artifice. Investigating the failure of language to connect to reality, Alice in Kornbluh’s reading becomes “an inquiry into the possibility of reference” and the constructability of worlds.
But, by the same token, the chapter on Bleak House’s unexpected minimalism—the “tiny metonymies” of its character connections, the spatial confines of its split narration—sometimes comes apart from its frame. I find it hard to imagine Charles Dickens engaging in mathematical thinking, however intriguing Kornbluh’s assessment of his use of limits—legal and domestic—to fashion the approximate, unfinished character of the novel’s social space.
“The Order of Forms” often feels like a study of 19th-century culture in high-modernist mode.
In fact, the book’s most dazzling readings, of Emily Brontë and Thomas Hardy, succeed precisely because we can plausibly see how these novelists were attracted to mathematical formalism (regardless of any specific knowledge). Kornbluh characterizes Wuthering Heights as a trenchant allegory of society’s “universal antagonism,” which would endure even if particular antagonisms—enclosure, property, capitalism—were to wither away. This foundational negativity, for Kornbluh, calls forth a positive imperative to build new “social formations, in all their stylized structure.”
Casting Brontë’s novel as more adroit in aestheticizing these social formations than its near contemporary The Communist Manifesto, Kornbluh claims that both share insights with De Morgan’s logic, a foreshadowing of mathematical set theory. Like De Morgan, fascinated with what sets (or classes) enclose, exclude, and subtend, Brontë privileges spatial over temporal organization in the novel’s obsessive attention to setting, nested frame narratives, and persistent imagery of “boundaries, hearths, thresholds.” The novel’s symmetries and doublings subject plot to patterns of spatial repetition and capture the conundrums of class struggle (logical and political). For instance, Catherine Earnshaw’s declaration of identity with the man she loves more deeply than the one she has just agreed to marry—“Nelly, I am Heathcliff”—is ingeniously read as a logical declaration “against self-belonging,” akin to wider struggles about class that turn on the fact of fundamental antagonism: no set can belong to itself.
Hardy’s Jude the Obscure constitutes a similarly powerful case, since the motifs Kornbluh collates—geometric, architectural, legal, typographical—so nicely comport with the work of a novelist equally at home with the letter, the lathe, and the law: Hardy, in addition to being a novelist, was also an architect and magistrate. Jude is studded with references to line and shape, parallels and perpendiculars, from its characters’ “love rectangle” to its “elliptical narration.” Yet this “geometric scaffolding” is subject to distortion via non-Euclidean geometry, which deploys infinity to make thinkable the crossing of parallel lines.
With the non-Euclidean model of geometry as “radical imposition” rather than natural given, so formally available as “a political theory, a method for thinking the ungroundedness of every social formation,” Kornbluh sees around the novel’s immovable walls and unbending laws to the “malleability of social lineaments.” To the Pauline warning that Hardy truncates into an epigraph—“The letter killeth”—she could be taken to append a stirring revision: “but form giveth life.”
In its formidable push toward abstraction, its utopian striving for collectivity, and its insistence on building new futures rather than dwelling in the past, The Order of Forms often feels like a study of 19th-century culture in high-modernist mode. It sidesteps the eminently Victorian question of organic form and dispenses with the related materialism of accounts that would link natural forms with novelistic ones. Against, say, T. J. Clark’s definition of form as “those features of matter that are repeatable with some precision under special conditions,”3 Kornbluh’s view of form as “composed relationality” lifts materiality toward abstraction.
The book’s ending confirms this modernist tilt, departing from literary terrain to address the abiding interest of psychoanalysis in institutionalization. From Sigmund Freud’s reflections on “lay analysis” to Jacques Lacan’s codification of concepts in quasi-mathematical formulae, psychoanalysis transmits itself as a praxis of form, committed to antagonistic reinvention over “programmatic statement.”
Stressing relation prior to subjectivity, symbolization beneath sociality, psychoanalysis and its structuralist forebears offer an alternative to the book’s Marxist lexicon. Often this material seems addressed to insiders, yet its concepts—like Claude Lévi-Strauss’s “zero value institution,” concerned with the “form of institutionality as such”—are retroactively illuminating. In the conclusion Kornbluh considers experimental theories of political formalism in recent work by Jodi Dean and Jameson, closing with institutional architectures (clinic, party, military) distinct from the earlier novelistic edifices (family, house, university, wonderland).
Although this split structure sharpens the methodological tension between abstract formalism and historical particularism, that tension is generally transcended by Kornbluh’s ebullient tone. Just as children playing across any fence at any historical moment would be formally affecting, even as those pink seesaws draw their poignancy from current crises, so her calls to build are always formally inspiring, even as they receive additional pathos from specific challenges to the humanities and institutions of higher education in our time. Forms can provide starting points. What comes next is what the artist, the writer, and the audience build with them.
A subset of critics may pause over historical details in the background of Kornbluh’s readings, as I’ve suggested. But I’ll count myself in the larger class that will be invigorated by her enthusiastic calls to engage in “criticism as future-thinking,” to resist the lure of formlessness, and to build—however abstractly—with form.
This article was commissioned by Leah Price.
- Bill Chappell, “See-Saw Diplomacy Lets People Play Together Along US Border Wall,” NPR, July 30, 2019. Designs for the “Teeter Totter Wall,” from 2009, appear on the artists’ studio website. Related projects are described in Ronald Rael, Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the US-Mexico Boundary (University of California Press, 2017). ↩
- On the differences between De Morgan and Cauchy, see Joan L. Richards, “Augustus De Morgan, the History of Mathematics, and the Foundations of Algebra,” Isis, vol. 78, no. 1 (1987), pp. 23–26. ↩
- T. J. Clark, “More Theses on Feuerbach,” Representations, vol. 104, no. 1 (2008), p. 4. ↩