Graphic Formalism / Introduction: One Dialogue & Four Diagrams / Eugenie Brinkema, Rebecca Clark, and Emmy Waldman


Eugenie Brinkema: It seems to me nearly an obligation of writing on formalism to, at some point, invoke Barthes’ famous line in Mythologies: “I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it.” Invocation without interpretation, however, reduces to its etymology: an appeal in prayer for aid or comfort. Isn’t that why these words so often appear in the guise of an epigraph—there not to be read, but to keep watch, good angel, over the mewling, embryonic text to come? Barthes’ aphorism is dropped into so many texts as a hoped-for theoretical balm for the project at hand, as if these circular rotations of thought might appease formalists and historicists alike in advance, assuring that their project is not, in the end, so different after all. How especially unfortunate, then, that what follows that quotation has been lost to the dustbin of academic citation. For Barthes complicates his general promise with a particular example and a telling warning: “Is there a better example of total criticism than the description of saintliness, at once formal and historical, semiological and ideological, in Sartre’s Saint-Genet? The danger, on the contrary, is to consider forms as ambiguous objects, half-form and half-substance, to endow form with a substance of form.” 

I’ve always believed that theorists should know the risk in play. And now we do: The danger is to endow form with a substance of form

Emmy Waldman: Is the danger that endowing form with a hypostatic “substance of form” freezes what is plural, changing, relational about form—the way forms are always forming between texts and readers? Ellen Rooney reminds us that form is not a fixed, “external mold” into which content is poured, nor is it the transhistorical, essential meaning of the text, manifested in its “organic shape.” Form, “as the enabling condition and the product of reading,” incites each reader to reconstellate form and content in every context (“Form and Contentment” 37). In this sense, a lot of formalism circles back to history, recommits to history, because it looks at the continual renegotiation of form and content, which in turn generates a plurality of new, surprising, and sometimes subversive meanings in particular situations. Form is not (or not only and always) the foot soldier of content. What happens when forms rebel? 

In his new book, Queer Forms, on the shared forms of the women’s and gay liberation movements, Ramzi Fawaz takes inspiration from Rooney’s keen phrase: “When the text bites back, it rewrites [our] assumptions and commitments […]. Form is its sharpened tooth” (Rooney 38-39). Fawaz’s distinctly queer formalism understands forms as enabling shapes or structures that perform political and cultural work as they figure forth previously unthought expressions of gender and sexuality, desire and intimacy. Formalism asks where and how forms bite back, tearing into politics as they do.   

Brinkema: I take Barthes to be warning critics against treating formal problems as little more than attestations of any prior, externally determined substance or program—a warning directed equally at the political Left and Right. After all, the most famous example of that which he is opposing would be Lenin’s “Literature must become party literature,” the dictum that demanded that literature (read: art) itself become part of the common cause of the proletariat, that its formal workings share and bear the burden of being an active, engaged, creative aspect of Party work. (Among other problems with this would be that form would thus never be the site where Party could be posed, challenged, thought. Politics would be presumed; form, its mere servant.) Barthes is warning that, in any iteration or translation of such a case, ideology merely takes new root in the aesthetic, and the aesthetic can no longer become the site of ideology’s critique, deconstruction, analysis (or reimagination). 

And nowhere is this hazard more pronounced than when it comes to the question of violence, the site where every turn towards form solicits a range of interlocutors demanding that some substance of form prescriptively (as a moral claim) or descriptively (as necessity) insinuate itself. 

Rebecca Clark: The question of violence, and what it means to read its representations formally, brings us to the term in this dossier about which I’ve spilled the most ink: the “graphic.” In American Graphic: Disgust and Data in Contemporary Literature (Stanford UP, 2022), I analyze how the graphic, an increasingly common but undertheorized term in contemporary culture, branches outwards in use and meaning in seemingly contradictory directions. As a synonym for “explicit,” “graphic” refers to a representation that provides excessive detail, especially of taboo content like sex and violence. This three-dimensional, visceral graphic designates that quantity and/or quality (“too much”) of violence, sex, or the grotesque that offends mixed company, breaches social mores, or violates legal strictures. On the other hand, and concerned with a different, far less fleshy sort of rendering, there’s another common use of the graphic—think of it as the graph- without the -ick. This graphic goes back to the Greek graphikos, naming what belongs to writing and drawing, acts of inscription and arts of description, of creating clear and effective two-dimensional verbal and/or visual pictures. The “graphic,” in this earlier meaning, today encompasses the general problem of design (as in cartographic, infographic, or the increasingly omnipresent graphic user interface [GUI]). It often spares its audiences the unfiltered excess of the gooey graphic by paring down details. It is how we interact with raw data when it becomes processed information, how we manage bodies when we want to administer, know, and dissect them, at a distance—without wading through blood and gore all over the floor.  

Waldman: Of course, a closer look corrodes any facile opposition we might want to draw between these two kinds of graphic rendering, between giving visual/verbal pictures and goring bodies. Violence in fact marks and scores the earliest attestation of the Greek verb grapho, meaning “to write, draw, express by lines drawn” (and earlier, “to scratch or graze”). Grapho first appears in Homer’s Iliad (17.5999), where it describes a spear wounding a warrior in the shoulder. (Relatedly, see Hillary Chute’s fascinating discussion of graphic form and embodiment, in which she cites this striking etymology of “grapho.”) To write (or draw) is to pierce skin, to open a wound in flesh.

Clark: Exactly. In American Graphic, I consider both visual and verbal texts in which moments of excess are unsettlingly graphic in both ways at once: when flesh meets data, descriptively hemorrhagic while affectively anemic, showing too much and feeling too little. Inspired by Eugenie’s first book, The Forms of the Affects (Duke UP, 2014)—and particularly her brilliant location of disgust in the form of the grid—I focus on the strange affective structures of the dimensional chimera that is the double graphic. Moving through exemplary figures of the ethnographic (the silhouette), pornographic (the sex doll), and infographic (the data point), I argue that the double graphic creates a crisis within the politics of affect and identification. As the sentimental tradition weeps and keens and flays its way into the era of database aesthetics and information overload, the double graphic reworks how sympathy operates in texts that do upsetting things with bodies. It forces us to face how closely and discomfitingly yoked together disgust and data—identification with and identification of the other—have become in our increasingly graph-ick world. The double graphic, I suggest, forces us to grapple with our fundamental inability to know the other in all of their dimensions, even as our inundation with data seems to make capturing, cataloging, and cathecting onto anyone and everyone a tantalizingly frictionless possibility.

Brinkema: Through this density of meanings attributable to the term “graphic,” the title of this dossier gives birth to a range of possible rotations: graphic formalism (a formal interest in the vividly descriptive or diagrammatic picturesque as opposed to other possible analytic sites); graphic formalism (a formalism of the erotic and violent, as opposed to other possible analytic approaches); and graphic formalism (formalism itself made graphic, vivid, obscene, by being, one presumes, too explicitly formalist, drawing too clear a picture of its theoretical approach). The graphic thereby puts pressure on possible critical trajectories for formalism, while formalism puts pressure on the visceral sense of graphic within the diagrammatic one, and vice versa. What becomes clear is that the excessive, explicit, and violent are not neatly separable from the graphed, mapped, and gridded, nor are critical methods of close reading, distant reading, or tracing as reading neatly separable from practices of drawn panels of graphic art.

Waldman: Speaking of drawn panels, as a comics scholar I’m most invested in “graphic formalism” as a formal interest in “graphic narrative,” understood broadly as narrative work in the medium of comics. Comics—in the singular, as a sprawling yet still coherent set of formal practices and conventions—threads through this dossier as both object of study and critical methodology, connecting Bradway’s essay on Czerwiec’s graphic memoir Taking Turns to the hand-drawn inquiries of Sohini, Wu, and Szép. Where is the graphic/graph-ick in comics? What can comics teach us about the relations between form and content? One answer bubbles up from the comix underground of the late 1960s and 1970s, where the gleeful representation of explicit sex and violence smashes up against self-reflexive, “merely formal” experiment—a belatedly high modernist preoccupation with the parameters of the medium itself. Sounding altogether like a good formalist critic, attentive to the material specificities of his medium, Robert Crumb summed it up with this wry disclaimer: “It’s just lines on paper, folks!” Crumb’s definition strips comics down to the nakedness of form, just lines. 

In my manuscript, Filial Lines: Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Comics Form, I draw variously from poetry, art, modernist literature, psychoanalysis, and comics theory to read this form in relation to one of its most persistent contents, or discontents: parental loss and the filial subject. The narrative language of comics is a complex system of relations. The verbal and visual interbreed: text collects dimensions of imagery (every element of the writing functions as an image that speaks to the eye as much as to the ear), while image borrows from the grammar of text (a sequence of visuospatial panels can be “read” as unfolding action). And comics making is also, as Szép put it in her contribution to this cluster, “an embodied performance,” in which the gestural body indexes itself in and through the mark. My book examines if and how these multimodal relations that make up the comics language (text and image, mark and body) might be uniquely suited to articulate the “filial lines” that drive the parental memoirs of both Spiegelman and Bechdel. To this end, each chapter explores a different visual figure or “grapheme” that I take to symbolize a fundamental unit of the comics language: panel as box, line as spiral/squiggle, grid as tic-tac-toe board, textual surface as mirror, textual system as web. Filial Lines suggests one line of inquiry into graphic formalism.

Clark: While silhouettes, sex dolls, data points, spirals, squiggles, grids, mirrors, and webs are some of the objects and forms that have interested us in our work, the authors in this dossier locate their explorations of graphic formalism in everything from the abstract conceptual tool of diagonal lines to the concrete (or marble, or granite) material substance of gravestones. 

Brinkema: In objects ranging from queer kinship diagrams to the fungal filament of lichens; the geometry of paper flowers to diagonal vectors in structuralist thought; the public signposting that was the COVID arrow to plasmaticity in animation; the formalization of temporalities of grief to the labor of lines and shadowgraphs, the authors in this dossier share a commitment to ground their work in a consideration of form. Ultimately, it is not despite a study of schemas, diagrams, figures, lines, shapes, zones, systems, relations, networks, maps, and grids that this dossier thereby takes on grief, desire, intimacy, the ethics of opacity, and yes—recalling Barthes’ gestural formalism of the turn—even revisits the possibilities of historical critique. It is, rather, and entirely, by way of that study. 

In my recent book, Life-Destroying Diagrams (Duke UP, 2022), this is what I mean by the polemic for a “radical formalism” in the theoretical humanities: not an approach that would instrumentalize readings of form for the externally-determined, prior sake of the projects of radical politics (precisely what Barthes warns against), but returning to the Latin root radix, meaning root or ground. This would be a formalism that returns to the speculative ground of what formal thinking can claim and situates reading for form as the rootedness of theoretical claims themselves, what produces the stakes of speculation. In the book, I write about a formalism that would move past thinking about form to the question of thinking from form. 

The implications of this shift are large—as anyone knows who has seen Life-Destroying Diagrams in its hefty, material form—but at heart the book is a demonstration of one answer to Barthes’ worry. If the danger is to endow form with a substance of form, there is an antonymic security to be found in taking form seriously, on its own terms, and then seeing what analytic possibilities, questions, provocations, difficulties, and speculations might thereby emerge. This is not a monolithic approach. Not all thinkers of form think form in the same way. The diverse objects and readings and creative works in this dossier demonstrate, however, the extraordinary intellectual and inventive fecundity that arrives from thinking anything whatsoever from the point of view of form first and foremost.

Clark: On that note, taking advantage of the formal affordances of the online cluster, rather than setting a prescriptive linear order for reading through the essays, we offer instead four suggestions in the form of diagrams. We invite you to read chronologically, from deep time and lichens to the arrows that tried—and often failed—to point our way through grief and grocery stores during the height of COVID-19. Or you might read geographically, traveling from the rural aesthetics of Montana to photographs of Rivaz, Switzerland to a cemetery in Hudson, NY. We’ve also tried visualizing a thematic family tree that suggests unexpected lines of intellectual kinship between pieces with seemingly disparate geographic or chronological foci. And, finally, we’ve offered a visualization of the overlapping forms and speeds of media—image and text, moving and still—about and in which our contributors have thought, in the form of a Venn diagram. 

What makes a Venn diagram distinct from earlier efforts at articulating logical relationships, such as those of Leonhard Euler, is its simple yet rigorous geometry: a set of overlapping circles concisely represents all possible mutual relations of the sets diagrammed therein. Accordingly, when John Venn first proposed this schematic possibility in his 1880 paper, “On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasoning,” he dubbed it “a more hopeful scheme of diagrammatic representation.” 

In the spirit, then, of hopeful schemes:

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This is part of the cluster Graphic Formalism. Read the other posts here.

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