Form captivates us. Its varieties can be tied to different formalist explanations without undermining the coherence of literary study or the knowledge we produce (Kramnick and Nersessian 2017: 663–65). Formalisms plural lead to claims about what literary form is and what it does, from Sandra Macpherson's (2015: 401) “determinist formalism” that sees form as inescapably material to Caroline Levine's (2015) contention that a formalist politics can enact social change. Seemingly in the background now is the concern, once frequently expressed, that new formalism is primarily normative, a resurrection of Kantian aesthetics under which the only freedom form enables is the freedom of disinterested aesthetic judgment (Levinson 2007).
In Practical Form: Abstraction, Technique, and Beauty in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics, Abigail Zitin reminds us precisely of this: that the new-formalist focus on knowledge sidesteps the aesthetic and its pleasures. Zitin's book is a striking, rigorous, and—quite frankly—beautiful prehistory of form for literary studies that demonstrates the epistemological thrust of form's place within aesthetics leading up to Kant. Without compromising her argument's impressively broad scope stretching from Shaftesbury to the Critique of the Power of Judgment, Zitin immerses us in one example in particular of empiricist aesthetics: William Hogarth's 1753 treatise The Analysis of Beauty. On Zitin's reading, Hogarth's Analysis advances a theory of beauty based in a perceptual practice necessary to art making. The key word here is “practice.” To Hogarth, anyone can learn to see the world as an artist does, by initially avoiding referentiality and instead abstracting spatial form from objects. This technique or practice of formal abstraction underwrites an aesthetics, because for Hogarth the “counterteleological qualities” of abstract spatial form give rise to a visual pleasure that becomes “the basis for judgments of beauty” (108). For artists, the end of this formalist technique is the making of art. For nonartists, the end is aesthetic acumen. Hogarth's practical formalism is thus democratizing craft knowledge and aesthetic theory in one.
Zitin is an associate professor of English, so we might expect her to focus on literary form. We would be wrong. Because her thrilling account of Hogarth's Analysis is the foundation of her book, she focuses on form as understood in that treatise, exclusively with reference to visual objects. Below I will take up the question of what this emphasis on the visual might mean for literary form, and for makers and readers of verbal art that is not explicitly reliant on the visual dimensions of the page. But for now, I want to develop as best I can some of the key insights that appear across the book's five chapters. The argument of each chapter is equally clear and intricate, and for this reader, productive of pleasures akin to those of visual intricacy as described by Hogarth.
Zitin's first chapter offers British Enlightenment empiricism and its skeptical focus on the limits of our knowledge about objects as the philosophical context for the rise of empiricist aesthetics. Beginning with Joseph Addison's “Pleasures of the Imagination” Spectator papers, Zitin identifies an antiformalism that originates in Locke's insistence that we not confuse the identity of objects with what we perceive of them. For Locke, form denotes the Aristotelian idea of a substance's real essence, precisely that which we cannot know by virtue of ideas of perception. Taking seriously Locke's skepticism, Addison refuses to locate the causes of our experience of beauty in the form of an object perceived. Here, then, is the birth of modern aesthetics: “The aesthetic comes into focus as a dimension of experience—not to mention, becomes philosophically interesting—when it legitimates disagreement on matters of taste by holding the space between knowledge and pleasure” (96). This chapter's most striking conclusions emerge from this insight. Two paths, according to Zitin, branch outward from the impenetrability of objects: down the first is a celebration of our imagination's freedom from matter, and down the second is practice, feeling our way toward objects we cannot know (38). Addison pursues the first, Hogarth the second. Her second chapter characterizes Shaftesbury's Platonist formalism (and its renunciation of matter) as an early eighteenth-century alternative to British empiricist aesthetics, but she complicates this picture by turning to his Stoicism. One key source here is Shaftesbury's 1710 “Soliloquy; or Advice to an Author.” Stoic ethics inspires Shaftesbury's practice of character shaping, which we must consider alongside his other discussions of the beautiful and the good.
Chapters 3 and 4 center Hogarth's Analysis. Chapter 3 elucidates the surprising “antimimetic strain” in Hogarth's theory of the beautiful (88). Zitin finds that for Hogarth, beauty is correlated with “a pleasurable ‘Action of the Mind’—that is, with the perception of form construed as a kind of nonconceptual cognition” (101). It is “seeing to forget the name of the thing one sees,” to paraphrase the evocative aphorism that Lawrence Weschler chose as the title for his 1982 book on the minimalist artist Robert Irwin, and that Zitin deploys deftly in the beginning of this chapter. In chapter 4, Zitin turns to sex and gender in the politics of Hogarth's aesthetic theory, finding a “feminist potentiality” in the Analysis (119). This chapter directly intervenes in previous accounts of the role of the female body in Hogarth's aesthetics. Reading against the grain of interpretations that have found the “democratizing tendencies of Hogarth's treatise” to be dependent upon “a masculinist focus on the female body,” Zitin finds, by contrast, that women are not only Hogarth's subjects but his “exemplary . . . readers” (118). So what is the nature of his feminist aesthetics? According to the conventional idea that aesthetic judgment must be disinterested, the artisan is too close to the work of art to judge it properly. Relatedly, albeit with an important difference, women are too close to the object being judged because they are that object (120). Yet for Hogarth and for Zitin, a “practical formalist” is someone who knows how to create form for another's pleasure (including their own). Both women and artisans possess this practical knowledge. Zitin ultimately builds to the claim that this knowledge leads to a practice of self-abandonment, and this abandonment is what most truly marks the pleasure distinctive of artistic practice. She cautions readers against understanding Hogarth's cognitive pleasure primarily in terms of Kant's “free play” of the imagination, but one cannot help but see her account of unconsummated mental activity in Hogarth's Analysis as a brilliant bridge toward Kant.
So where does this leave form in Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment? Practical Form's final chapter approaches Kant's theory from the perspective of the practitioner as opposed to the spectator. This is difficult work given the apparent incompatibility of any focus on the artist or artistic intention with Kant's investment in the disinterestedness of aesthetic experience. Zitin is careful not to downplay the dissimilarities between Hogarth's theory and Kant's, but she does find in Kantian aesthetics “one of Hogarth's stranger and more subtle ideas: that the pleasure we feel when we experience beauty is a pleasure belonging to cognition” (148).
This is not a criticism, but I would have appreciated more discussion of how this practice of formal abstraction unites persons with objects and, by extension, with the nonhuman world. Zitin tells us that the “democratic implications of practical formalism begin in its recognition of the inextricability of civic life from material life” (122), but what are the civic implications of a relationship with matter that is knowable to the practical artisan only through the pleasure of attending to (or embodying) an object's abstract spatial form? Actually becoming an object is not possible (or desirable—consider dehumanizing objectification), but the “as if”—the seeing as if one leaves one's personhood and connection to concepts behind—is. Zitin suggests that it is in this “as if”—a relationship struck between subject and object—that the visual pleasure of abstract form has something to teach us.
More pressing for a reader like myself: what does this version of form as a practice of visual abstraction offer literary formalism as method? Despite a brief look at Sterne and Cowper in her epilogue, Zitin does not go there. Or, at times, it feels that the book must end before we arrive. (This is fitting, given Practical Form's emphasis on the pleasures of unconsummated mental activity.) Zitin identifies no easy correlation between abstraction for spatial form and abstraction in the case of verbal artifacts. Visual abstractions derived from verbal art (a diagrammed sentence or mapped plot) are tools of analysis, not creation. Yet Zitin reminds us that writing is also an act of making—one that can feel like a struggle “with a resistant medium” (26) and thus that seems to draw on the embodied knowledge of the maker. By her telling, literary form too is part of this history of the pleasure of seeing (and perhaps also touching, tasting, hearing, and smelling) for making. As part of this history, literary form remains connected to the pleasure of forgetting what we know in order to make something new.
While reading Practical Form I found myself immersed in Zitin's rich descriptions of self-loss in the pleasures of making. This immersive experience is the practical tool her book offers literary criticism today. Practical Form teaches us of the opportunities for self-loss in relation to the objects of our criticism in much the same way as Hogarth's practical formalism teaches ordinary viewers about the opportunities for losing themselves in the pleasure of seeing. The below passage from chapter 1 is paradigmatic. Zitin has just established British Enlightenment empiricism's skeptical epistemology—the limits of our knowledge about objects. Aesthetics is born of these limits, but what does it offer us? In answer, Zitin contrasts Hogarth's call for an embodied practice with Addison's freedom of the pleasures of the imagination: “How might you get close to the form of an object you know you can't really know? You make it. You touch it. Perhaps—and if this isn't apparitional, I don't know what is; a willful delusion complementary to Addison's—perhaps, in the best-case scenario, you become it” (38). To get practical with literary form might require letting go of the desire for form to be the thing that earns literary study its badge for knowledge advancement within the academy. There is a radical shift in focus here, away from form's affordances—what we can do with form—and toward a serious consideration of what form can do to us.