On the heels of the previous post examining the absurd idea that formalism--close reading, paying primary attention to the formal and stylistic properties of works of art and literature--is a "mechanical" approach that turns art into "something less than human" comes this equally silly commentary by Emily Wilson at Slate:
Historicism, in various new and not-so-new guises, dominates most contemporary academic literature departments. It has become something close to heresy to suggest that any literary work could be studied without close reference to the specific place, time, and culture in which it was produced. Literature does not express timeless truths about human nature—or, at least, you would sound like a simpleton if you said so at an academic conference. Rather, literature articulates the ideas and values of its own time, according to older, Hegelian forms of historicism. Or literature "negotiates" the "power dynamics" of its own time, according to the newer, post-Foucaultian versions. These positions each have something to be said for them: Both respond, in different ways, to the obvious fact that literature is not produced independently of its author and his or her society—as radical forms of literary formalism might suggest. . . .
So formalists believe that a work of literature is produced "independently of its author"? Literally by a machine? By some magic process whereby an author discovers his/her new book fully-formed beneath a moss-covered rock?
Similarly, just how would a writer work "indepentently. . .of his or her society"? All writers are literally expatriates? They float above the world on a billowy cloud of inspiration, gazing heedlessly on their fellow humans down below, who don't seem to realize they might also be "independent" of their time and place?
What radical formalist ever believed such patent nonsense? Of course, names are never given in these sophomoric caricatures of formalism because no literary critic has ever held the position that "literature. . .is produced independently of its author and his or her society." Only someone intent on marginalizing formalism--aesthetic appreciation more generally--could even read such a statement without noting how ludicrous it is. Those of us who prefer to focus on the aesthetics of literature (without which there is no literature) are not so stupid as to think poets and fiction writers free themselves of the assumptions of time and place and produce "timeless truths"; we do think that they produce art, and that art bears scrutiny as art at least as much as (in my opinion more than) it does as a specimen of "the ideas and values of its own time."
Wilson goes on to maintain that "the triumph of historicism is a pity, not least because the dominance of any orthodoxy tends to deaden the critical faculties," but she has clearly accepted the underlying demonization of formalism (it's "inhuman," to accept it "heresy") that has made the domination of historicism in academic criticism possible. To deviate it from it might cede the scholarly territory to those radical formalists and pleasure-seeking aesthetes who still lurk outside the campus walls. Such "simpletons" wouldn't understand "power dynamics" if it was right there in front of them.