Paul Saint-Amour is Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.
One of the touchstone quotations in Franco Moretti’s work on distant reading is a line from the composer Arnold Schoenberg, which Moretti seems to have encountered in Theodor Adorno’s The Philosophy of Modern Music. It’s a repudiation of middles, and it goes like this: “The middle road . . .
Weakness: not a word that would seem, at first blush, to have anything to say to modernism. Modernism doesn’t blush; it blasts. Its reputation is for strength in extremis—for steep critiques of modernity, energetic convention busting, the breaking of vessels. In the words of its early theorists, modernism is “rebellion against authority,” a “revolution of the word,” “kicking over old walls” and “breaking of ‘Do Nots.’” Nothing small-bore about revolt, nothing weak about making it new. Surely weakness is modernism’s obverse—injured, low-energy, and acquiescent—all the cloying orthodoxy that modernism would shock its way out of. Modernism is the production of aesthetic strength through iconoclasm and strenuous innovation. It is strong people exhibiting strength.
The final chapter of Caroline Levine’s Forms begins by asking what the formalist cultural studies of the future might look like. Levine’s answer: “it could look something like David Simon’s superb television series, The Wire.” Notice, not like an analysis of The Wire but like The Wire itself, which Levine goes on to treat as an exemplary “theorization of the social” (133). Rather than analyze the show’s most sympathetic characters, she says, the formalist critic might do better to emulate their “canny formalism” (150).