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Postcolonial Formalism

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Organizer: Dominic O'Key

Co-Organizer: Ryan Topper

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This seminar interrogates the relationship between postcolonial studies and “new formalism”. We invite submissions that explore how postcolonial literary criticism and new formalism might mutually rejuvenate one another.
Postcolonial critics have been advocating forms of formalism for at least twenty years. For example, Gayatri Spivak (2003), Deepika Bahri (2003), Eli Park Sorenson (2010), and more recently Elleke Boehmer (2018) have each cast the aesthetic as vital to postcolonial studies.
Yet for each of these thinkers form remains curiously conservative, demanding less of a turn than a return: to a new critical exegesis that gestures toward form’s indeterminability (deconstruction), to a formal analysis grafted onto socio-political commentary (new historicism), or to form as the process of postcolonial readership (reader-response). In short, attempts to construct a “postcolonial formalism”, in Natalie Melas’s words (2007), have often relied upon tired if not retrograde categories of the 1980s theory wars.
Elsewhere, in the wake of works by Caroline Levine (2016) and Anna Kornbluh (2019), critics have identified an emerging “new formalist” literary criticism that counters contemporary criticism’s fetishisation of fragmentation, deconstruction, and formlessness as the escape route out of the trappings of power (Kramnick and Nersessian 2017; Fluck 2019).
What would postcolonial studies look like if it, too, broke from its tendencies to figure form as fragmentation or (more commonly) to ignore form in favor of sociopolitical context? Moreover, what might new formalism look like if it took postcolonial literature seriously?
Sample questions:

What role might aesthetic judgment play in postcolonial literary studies? How might we reimagine canonical instances of postcolonial writers critiquing other postcolonial writers based on the politics of form (e.g., Soyinka vs. Negritude, Gordimer vs. Coetzee, Silko vs. Erdich).
What is at stake when the new formalism foregrounds Victorian realism as the genre representative of the politics of form (Levinson, Levine, Kornbluh)? How might instances of postcolonial realism, or postcolonial critiques of realism, reframe the discourse?
How has the increased attention paid to Indigenous and/or popular forms in postcolonial studies made use of, or bypassed, discussions of formalism? How might a sociology of street pamphlet literature, an anthropology of sculptural practice, or other culture-specific genres be brought into dialogue with a formalism that often risks recapitulating restrictive, Western notions of what form is or does?
If, as Kornbluh argues, formalism combats post-deconstructive theory’s suspension of the political with the potential to rebuild and repurpose it, must a postcolonial formalism break with the negative ontology of necropolitics or Afropessimism? Or do the conditions of the postcolony necessitate a revision of Kornbluh’s thesis?

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