Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space. Reviewed by Aaron Ottinger.

Thursday, October 1, 2020 - 15:35

Anna Kornbluh The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (The University of Chicago Press, 2019) 240 pp., 6 halftones, 5 line drawings. (Paper $27.50, ISBN: 9780226653341; Cloth $82.50, ISBN: 9780226653204).

Aaron Ottinger

Seattle University

Anna Kornbluh’s second monograph on Victorian-era literature, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space, joins a coterie of recent studies invested in the intersection of mathematics and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, including Alice Jenkins’s Space and the ‘March of the Mind’ (2007), Matthew Wickman’s Literature After Euclid (2016), and Andrea Henderson’s Algebraic Art (2018), among others. These texts tend to be more strictly historicist. For Kornbluh, there is little room for anything resembling a source study (169n.25), and instead she uses contemporary mathematical concepts, including set theory, limits, symbolic logic, and non-Euclidean geometry, to articulate the formalism of British, realist authors, including Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carrol, and Thomas Hardy.

Kornbluh’s formalism is ultimately in service of outlining social space, or what she calls “political formalism” (4), and thus her main interlocutor is Caroline Levine. In the opening pages of Forms, Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton 2015), Levine asks, “would our critic be right to distinguish between the formal and the social?” (1). Holding literary analysis and social analysis in the balance, Kornbluh responds by parsing out “the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics” (32). But like her first study, Realizing Capital (Fordham 2013), Kornbluh departs from her predecessors by presupposing that “aesthetic representations do more than reflect the conditions and context of their production” (6). Of course, the genre most often associated with representing a correlative reality is literary realism. Hence, Kornbluh redefines realism in formalist terms, as something more abstract, nonmimetic, speculative, and ungrounded.

How can we qualify Kornbluh’s mathematical-formalist approach to the realist novel? The opening chapter, “The Realist Blueprint: For a Formalist Theory of Literary Realism,” first appeared in the Henry James Review (three of the six chapters were published previously in peer-reviewed journals, meaning many eyes have reviewed these pages), and it is refreshing for a critic (Kornbluh) to use a critic from the period under investigation (James) to frame their own theoretical outlook. Quoting the Preface to The Portrait of a Lady, where James formulates “the house of fiction,” Kornbluh beautifully and insightfully elucidates:

These infinite windows ‘are not hinged doors opening straight,’ permitting passage from exterior to interior or from fiction to fact; they are not even portals of illumination, but chimeric reverberations, penetrable fenestrations, holes within holes, queer openings casting an ontological paradox: since ‘dead wall’ is the architectural term for a wall without windows, the fabrication here cleaves windows in a place without windows, lacunae unto their own nonexistence. (35)

While Zaha Hadid, Kornbluh remarks, could not have designed such a building, Luciana Parisi, I want to add, documents architectural design software that comes close, in what Parisi calls “weird formalism.”[i] Kornbluh’s realism is likewise weird because its shape defies our Euclidean sensibilities. And realizing this realism through the novel as an architectural structure is important because architecture “does not represent, depict, denote, or refer—it rather takes place, makes space, composes shape, inaugurates contour; it negates and exceeds what exists” (42). This is not the realism of Auerbach or Lukács, nor the realism of Jameson, on whom Kornbluh writes sagaciously (48-54). However, as my reference to Parisi suggests, there are moments when Kornbluh’s ideas chime with those associated with speculative realism, new realism, and new materialism, so I was a little surprised to find only a single dismissive reference made to the last (191n.4), especially given Kornbluh’s talent for synthesizing close readings of literature and theory (including, Agamben, Badiou, and Rancière, and more). Still, the opening chapter is so full of quotable quotes, insights, and points for debate, I will conclude this paragraph simply by saying, with this chapter, The Order of Forms will be a touchstone for realist criticism for years to come.

To put this realist blueprint to the test, Kornbluh herself says that chapter three, “The Limits of Bleak House,” “tests my formalist theory of realism against the limit case” (80). Charles Dickens’s novel is the limit case because it is regarded by many as the apotheosis of British realism—second only to Middlemarch, which appears in Kornbluh’s first book—especially in the way Bleak House aspires to represent London in its “totality,” a primary criterion of realism. Of course, totality is a little dubious. And Kornbluh is quick to point to the law in Bleak House as providing certain limits on this totality, which undergirds her political formalism: “Limits are not just destructive but constructive,” and thus they serve as necessary but ungiven laws for building social spaces (81).

To be fair, the link to mathematics here is a bit strained. The author claims that limits were first formalized in the nineteenth century, despite a longer history behind the limit concept[ii]; George Boole, and not Augustin-Louis Cauchy, is the point man on limits but without a citation or note; a mathematical function is provided, but readers would benefit from a slightly more detailed explanation, including, for the nonmathematician, how to verbalize this function: “f of n approaches the value L”; and it concludes with a paragraph beginning with the enduring legacy of Boole in computation but then turns abruptly to differential calculus in Marx’s manuscripts, which, while fascinating, feels digressive. Nevertheless, Kornbluh gets mileage out of Marx’s manuscripts, concluding that he saw how calculus provided an example of a groundless, constructed, and simple inscription that bears the meaning of something excessive and unrepresentable—an idea that is more fully developed in the final chapter on the mathematics of psychoanalysis in Lacan, which was illuminating and a pleasure to read (86).

Ultimately, for Kornbluh, the sign is a law, and as a law it is also a limit but a limit that produces, not forecloses, new relations. The limit is figured in Bleak House as a house, and once a house is instituted, it becomes the inaugural line “that enables the undefined to unfurl, repeating across time and space, scaffolding relations of multiple shapes” (86-7). Hence, Dickens’ houses serve as “hybrid professional/domestic habitats” (89). This model of social space implies not one whole London but “small pieces of worlds and the limits these bring about” (86).

For our readers, more steeped in Romanticism, a little contrast might be in order: If Romantic-era texts are to a large extent about going beyond an intellectual/emotional limit, the Victorian realist novel is about the proliferation of social spaces following from instituting a limit. For some, this formulation might cast the Victorian novel as reactionary. However, the same chapter’s section on the “Absent Center of Political Ontology” reminds us that there remains a Victorian tendency towards demystifying any metaphysical ground, and Dickens’s novel stresses this point upon finally encountering the house named Bleak House: “it is not Bleak House itself but a replica” (94). Crucially, the original in its dilapidation may signify the law in all its “disorder,” but at the same time, the new Bleak House offers “the promise of better building.” Out with metaphysical origins, in with ungrounded replicas; out with limit as containment, in with limit as liberation.

Kornbluh’s purpose in this book, as well as in her other 2019 release, Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club (Bloomsbury), is to promote criticism as building and to demote criticism as “destituency,” which belongs to a camp she calls “anarchovitalism” (20). Personally, I support this emphasis on building. But in my view, Kornbluh sets up a binary that works well for a theory book intended for undergraduates but less well for a volume appealing to an academic audience that can handle a more nuanced configuration. Certainly, Kornbluh appreciates that sometimes you have to break something down in order to build something up, since The Order of Forms highlights the 1800 Accumulations Act, which put a limit on perpetuities, allowing money to be distributed within a reasonable lifespan (83). Yet, Kornbluh eschews mentioning the efforts of marginalized groups resisting dominant forms. What about the efforts of Black Lives Matter to defund the police? This more recent instance exemplifies destroying in order to build—but it is a building according to communities, for that money should be reallocated to community organizing, restorative justice, and reparations (ideas which have been circulating long before the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor). It is less clear in this case if Kornbluh agrees because the book never addresses building “according to whom.” As a result, the focus on building makes for a suspicious celebration of forms. Is all building of equal value? What about prisons? What about plantations? There is plenty of room to discuss architecture and mathematics in relation to these buildings as well (the panopticon being a clear starting point), and it would have allowed the author to qualify building in such a way that the content of the law would no longer be rendered “irrelevant” (84).

Nevertheless, the stress The Order of Forms places on building should inspire literary theorists and teachers alike. The two chapters not yet mentioned, on Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, are the perfect size for teaching these novels in class. With The Order of Forms as an aid, instructors will feel more at liberty to introduce students to this interdisciplinary practice of reading literature formally using math as a framework. One need not have an advanced degree in mathematics to read mathematically. Kornbluh’s book demonstrates how grappling with mathematical concepts can open up new relations between people, spaces, as well as the text.





[i] See Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. MIT Press, 2013.

[ii] On the limit in Romanticism, see Rachel Feder, “The Poetic Limit: Mathematics, Aesthetics, and the Crisis of Infinity.” ELH, vol. 81. no. 1, 2014, pp. 167-195.