Formalism and the Masses

Alan Liu. “The Power of Formalism The New Historicism” in Local Transcedence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database.

In the peroration to this piece about the space between text and context, the stakes are starkly positioned:

To read the world, after all, is not an ideologically neutral act. It is to appropriate the world from the masses of the less articulate and literate. It is a statement of privilege.

As stark as this may seem it doesn’t lead to impasse. It is not so much the case that privilege is to be surmounted as it is to be acknowledged. There is a moral obligation hinted at here that the intellectual moves from an “I can” to a “how may others do.” In a sense the reading becomes at some point self-reflexive if it is to avoid becoming self-absorbed. And so, the appropriation leads to a kind of alienation.

And so for day 938

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