The Persistence of Form: Introduction


In his “Forms” entry for Marxism and Literature Raymond Williams distinguishes between two senses of form. One has to do with the identification and description of “available forms” and their attendant “rules,” the other with the “active making of forms,” a “shaping impulse” by which forms of expression, of sociality, of being in the world more generally become identifiable as forms. “Form,” Williams concludes, “thus spans a whole range from the external and superficial to the essential and determining.”[1]

Writing in 1977, with a clear agenda to promote a flexible understanding of the points of contact between Marxist theory and cultural formations, Williams promotes a third way between these two embattled senses of form. It is important to observe, he argues, that “available forms” with identifiable behaviors and “rules” are, in fact, “made, the rules arrived at, by a long and active process of active shaping, of trial and error […].” In the same manner, form’s “shaping impulse” eventually coheres into “general” or schematic forms—which is to say, the shaping impulse does not unfold in a vacuum, but emerges into recognizable configurations (187). The objective, Williams insists, is not to choose between one sense or the other. Rather, our goal should be to understand the relation between the two: between a structure and that unstable element within structure that is volatile and exploitable, between something already achieved and a tentative negotiation. “What is at issue in form,” writes Williams, “is the activation of specific relations, between men and men and between men and things” (190). In Williams’s understanding, then, form names a rhythm or oscillation between the conventional and the improvised, the generic and the singular; analyses of form might then aim to identify and describe those oscillations, while also probing for instabilities, openings, ways to influence form’s future movements.

While form and formalism are no less “ambiguous,” to use Williams’s term, in their present uses, the idea that a discussion or analysis of form could entail “the activation of specific relations” seems a much more acceptable description of form and its uses today than the embattled alternatives Williams described in 1977. This is not to say that there is any agreement on what form, as an object of analysis, or formalism, as a method of analysis, are. If anything, the meaning and uses, as well as the locations, of form and formalism have proliferated, becoming ever more useful, but also (and often as a result) increasingly difficult to define. In pulling together this cluster of essays for Open Set addressed to the “persistence of form” in cultural writing and practice today, our goal was not to arrive at a working definition of form or an agreed upon accounting of its value and uses. Rather, we wanted to ask what sort of work form continues to perform for writers, artists, members of disciplinary communities, and in and as social and cultural relations. Work, in this sense, includes positive articulations (resources, concepts, ways of nimbly and historically conceptualizing the object of study), as well as negative closures (places and practices in aesthetics or in ordinary social realms where form renders action or articulation impossible, unthinkable, dispersed in and by the very conditions of contemporary life).

While our interests tilt toward form’s workings today, we have also been interested in generating an opening for thinking about form as itself something that has a history, and not only in theory. Tracking the conceptualizations of form actively debated within particular disciplines is one way to ask such a historical question. If, for instance, we accept a characterization of the present as a “networked society” in Manual Castells’ terms, or a “control society” in Gilles Deleuze’s, these attempts to characterize the present are themselves readable as claims about form: what is the form of a network, or more narrowly, of a search engine that puts a distributed network to work?[2] What negotiations between structure and improvisation, precedent and irruption, are endemic to the specific social and aesthetic forms that impact the present? To what extent does contemporary aesthetic practice participate in, and distance itself (aversively or utopically) from such figurations? Debates about form within particular fields of study are debates about such historical and analytical questions. In other words, the problems that particular disciplines (as well as fields of inquiry that are perhaps not yet disciplined) take to be current themselves tell us something about the historical present, its problems, its impasses, its blindspots. In this way, the question of form traverses, and so joins, aesthetic and social realms, the registers of representation and of materiality.[3] This is one of the distinctive conceptual contributions of form, and one of the reasons for its persistence through a set of significant transformations, expansions, and contractions.

This journal and the contributions we’ve solicited on form move across disciplines and practices. We, the editors of this particular cluster of essays on form, were both trained more or less within the discipline of art history. Despite the fact that art history has opened itself to the influence of other disciplines and theoretical conversations—morphing, at times torturously, into such interdisciplinary formations as cultural studies, visual cultural studies, and visual studies—the narrow art historical debates over form remain particularly intense and polemical sites of struggle. Those polemics are most visible and contentious when it comes to describing not just what kind of work form does, but also where exactly it is to be located. This has been a central question in modernist debates over form. The question is repeatedly asked whether form is in the work of art, a product of, to use Clement Greenberg’s phrase, “artisanal concern or emphasis,”[4] or in the world, in, for example, the relation that arises between the making of the work and the maker—something more akin to Harold Rosenberg’s much maligned concept of “action painting.”[5] Following the dematerialization of the art object in the 1960s, there emerged the possibility of a third option: that form is not something we discern as either in the world or in the work of art, but is, rather, something in us, a capacity of discernment that we alone bring to bear upon the object of analysis.

This last possibility has recently taken center stage for a number of scholars focused mainly on modernist art, who are aligned with the online journal Nonsite. For such scholars the formality of a work of art confirms and ensures, as it was recently put in their own issue on form, the “independence and separateness” of the work of art.[6] There is a difference between this more recent claim and older assertions, such as Greenberg’s, about the “necessity” of securing and discerning art’s autonomy via formal means. For scholars such as Michael Schreyach and Todd Cronan, following Walter Benn Michaels, who himself follows Michael Fried, the worry is no longer only that art maintain its independence from the everyday. Form’s role has become even more specific—a specificity that actually allows for an expanded definition of formalized art to include such denizens of the everyday as Robert Smithson. Form’s far more pressing role, according to the Nonsite scholars, is to demarcate the threshold between “the empirical viewer’s experience and the artist’s meaning.”[7] Which is to say that form is understood to be an indispensible framing device that does not simply distinguish between art and non-art, but between the meaning of the work of art and our experience of it. This latest development in the history of modernist/formalist arguments suffers from something of an excess in clarity: either the work of art, in its artfulness (which means via the clear intentions of its author), has meaning independent of the viewer and, as such, has meaning, or it does not have meaning at all.[8]

What is interesting about this recent formal (re)turn is the manner in which it reinvigorates the break between Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss in the early 1970s. It was the gradual dawning of the fact that the conditions of viewership were continuous with the structure of artworks—a realization that came from a close analysis of form—that led Krauss to break with the arch-formalists Greenberg and Fried. In her 1972 essay, “A View of Modernism,” Krauss articulated this break in a meditation on what she termed “the dangers of self-objectification” inherent in the formalist “methodology.” Her primary complaint against Greenberg and Fried was that, in their appeal to the objective nature of formalist methods—the objectivity that helps secure the “independence” of the object—they failed “to see that ‘history’ is a perspective, my perspective,” a “point of view,” and to account for that point of view, to “[take] responsibility for it.”[9]

Nonsite’s contentious return to the question of “point of view” demonstrates the manner in which form, whatever it may be in itself (if it can indeed be said to be anything in itself), is a rhetorical device that always operates relationally. In art history that relation bounces between a variety of over-polarized terms: form and content, form and image, form and viewer. And that oscillation itself, which might be the real historical problem hiding in these debates, seems always to force a choice or, at least, a prioritization: side with form, or side with life. In one sense, then, the problem of form (which includes frustrated calls to abandon form altogether) persists precisely because forced polarities compel a conversation to toggle endlessly between its poles.

One of our aims here is to better understand this oscillation itself, to consider it as a historical problem or symptom. And so we sent an invitation to a handful of scholars and artists in a range of fields to respond to the following, open-ended question:

What does form mean to you and how does it figure, overtly or tacitly, in your own work? How do you articulate these concerns in relation to your field(s) or discipline(s) and do you see yourself as in-line with others in this regard?

In asking our writers to speak to the work of form within their own disciplines and para-disciplines, we were asking them to reflect on the impasses of form as themselves part of the problem of form. One motivation for asking the question in this way was our suspicion that the frustrations and ambivalences of form are themselves symptomatic of, if not direct indices of, problems that seem to exist in ordinary life, in specific cultural formations, in social worlds, in structural inequalities that shape the experience of inhabiting and moving between those worlds—the various loci of critique and critical study.

An example of one such problem would be the apparent immateriality or dematerializing logic of electronic networks. Relatedly, continual attempts to dematerialize the object of art (whether in conceptualism, relational aesthetics, or post-internet art) would be another. But other problems indexed or symptomatized by conflicts over form are certainly imaginable. In the spirit of the latter, we asked Lauren Berlant if she would submit to an interview conducted by email. The question of form has been central to Berlant’s work, old and new, but has rarely been centrally conceptualized. This is due in part, as we hope the interview will show, to Berlant’s own refusal to settle form’s oscillating nature—what she describes in the interview as its “rhythm and movement.” Such a settlement would mean restricting form to little more than a disciplinary device, a stable feature of particular objects as they are defined by the disciplines that take them as their own. For Berlant, as her wide-ranging scholarship shows, form may be most effective and effectively analyzed once the very disciplinary restrictions that can appear to keep it alive are foresworn. A question remains, however: how much any of us can afford to relinquish our disciplinary commitments and the specialized training in form that comes with them—a question that may have to be raised in a future issue….

These clustered essays, then, are not meant to further a polemic. We want them, instead, to produce an interruption and an opening, an extension and proliferation of our resources for thinking the question of form at a time when technological, economic, and cultural forces are rapidly, even vertiginously transforming the very materialities and mediums of the world. Taken together, these essays on form and formalism seem to suggest that form persists precisely because it is one of the central, possibly even defining problems of the historical present, in ordinary practices of both making and coping.

—Kris Cohen and Christa Noel Robbins

[1] Raymond Williams, “Forms,” Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 186.

[2] Manuel Castells, The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Cheltenham, UK ; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Pub., 2004). Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59, Winter (1992): 3–7. Alexander Galloway has perhaps most concertedly asked the question of a network’s form. Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, Leonardo Book

Series (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).

[3] Fredric Jameson’s meta-methodological statement in The Political Unconscious is perhaps the most assiduously argued and totalizing version of this account of form. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981).

[4] Clement Greenberg, “The Necessity of ‘Formalism’,” New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971), 172.

[5] Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” ARTnews, v. 51 (September, 1952).

[6] Michael Schreyach, “Pollock’s Formalist Spaces,”, Issue #7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The authoritative text to refer to in this regard is Walter Benn Michael’s The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[9] Rosalind Krauss, “A View of Modernism,” Artforum 11 (September 1972): 48-51.


Christa Noel Robbins, a scholar of modernist and contemporary art, is an Assistant Professor in the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. She has published in the Oxford Art Journal and Art in America and is currently completing on a book manuscript titled Unmaking the Self in Late-Modernist American Painting. This is her website:

Kris Cohen is Assistant Professor of Art and Humanities at Reed College. He teaches and writes about the historical relationships between art, economy, and media technologies, focusing especially on the aesthetics of collective life. His current project, entitled Never Alone, Except for Now, addresses these concerns in the context of electronic networks.