On 19 August 2018, Eric Weiskott’s “Formalism Is Historicism” appeared on his own website. In the piece–a short, fast, easy read–Weiskott notes reasons for addressing the terms in his title before offering quick-and-dirty definitions for both formalism and historicism–the first looks at literature as literature, while the latter looks at literature as a result of other circumstances. He then asserts that the two approaches, often held to be in opposition, are essentially the same, grounding his assertion in a series of readings he references at the end of his piece and the simple fact of his study of English poetry, which itself abrogates the division between formalism and historicism. He offers what he calls speculation to conclude the piece, noting that the perceived tensions between formalism and historicism are fundamentally internal political matters and that the two categories cannot be defined except in terms of each other.
This is not the first time I’ve written in response to Weiskott, to be sure. (Witness here and here.) As I’ve noted, it’s a pleasure to read what he writes, and it’s more of a pleasure to see his working around concepts that his students–whom he obliquely references in the opening of his piece–will likely have to grapple with, themselves. Seeing their professor still working with ideas and how to better understand them–for those of his students who do see it; not all students research their professors–is likely to help the students handle their own difficulties in handling materials. It should help them feel less foolish for not understanding; so holds one line of thought.
When I’ve taught, though, I’ve always worried about exposing my own uncertainties and failures of understanding–in part because I remember being a student, expecting professors to know, and feeling my respect for them lessen when they did not. (I still did what I was supposed to do, of course, but there is a difference between compliance and enthusiasm I believe many people understand.) I have tended to expect people to react like I do (which I know is a failure of thought, and I try to do better, but I know I have much more to do in that regard), and so I have tended to think my own students will react to me as I did to my own professors. While I am getting over it at this point, I do still have concerns with my legitimacy at the front of the classroom, and I admit to not being brave enough to expose myself quite so openly as Weiskott seems to do. (And I am aware of the irony of writing such a thing in a venue students have told me–and occasionally shown me–they peruse.) What I arrive at, then, is that Weiskott is braver at the front of the classroom than I–as I am sure many are. Whether I will continue to be in the classroom long enough for that to matter, though, is an open question.