Since the 1930s Formalism has positioned literary art as independent of author, era, and even possibly meaning. It promises that if readers would just focus on structure, symbols, and tensions within the text itself, all will be clear. Although this approach still holds sway in literature and creative writing classes, Critical Race Theory has challenged its dominance since the 1970s, asserting that social and historical contexts outside the text inevitably influence authors, the texts they can create, and the ways these are read. However, Formalism’s far-reaching impact endures even in Critical Race Theory’s use of formalist terms and practices, such as close reading and defamiliarization.
For Formalist critics, structure, symbol, and language are keys that unlock an artwork’s beauty and coherence. Decoding the text in this way, they argue, does not require awareness of authors or their historical periods, let alone their race. Critical Race theorists, in contrast, demonstrate that language and form are linked to privilege, era, and racial politics, and the experience of these are controlled by the author’s race. As Toni Morrison writes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, “the act of enforcing racelessness in literary discourse is itself a racial act” (46). In America’s racialized society, even language itself reflects power and the racial hierarchies that attend it. To argue that characters or texts are not informed by the author’s racial experience is to argue that they are somehow outside the author’s imagination, with its socialized boundaries, which Critical Race Theory points out is an impossibility.
Formalists also assert that art is separate from reality. From Aristotle’s belief that art represents an ideal to Sir Philip Sidney’s argument that the poet’s task is to “invent another nature,” Formalism operates under the assumption that art must be beautiful, unified, and distinct from self-interest or even ethics. Critical Race Theory interrogates this assumption, illustrating that all art is necessarily embedded in—and constrained by—the world that the writer inhabits.
In the United States, we cannot extricate literary art from race any more than we can remove it from the domain of language. Morrison demonstrates this in her analysis of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, presenting Hemingway as a writer with no “awareness of [Black Americans] either as readers…or as people existing anywhere other than in his [imagination]” (69). Yet through language, plot, and characterization, Hemingway demonstrates not only an awareness of race but an unquestioning absorption of racist images and attitudes, from dehumanizing and violating to fetishizing and silencing his Black characters. As Critical Race Theory proves, even beauty itself—the gold standard of Formalism—is informed by culture, which has historically been anti-Black. Thus, even the aesthetics of art can never be free of race in a racialized society.
Nonetheless, Formalism introduced tools that have become integral to Critical Race Theory. One of Formalism’s lasting legacies is the technique of close reading. Intent on unfolding layer upon layer of meaning embedded in each word and sentence, close reading is instrumental in Morrison’s readings of Hemingway, Poe, and Twain, particularly these authors’ use of white imagery and Black characters. It is also the central tool in Henry Louis Gates’s criticism of Robert Penn Warren’s poem about a slave in which racial epithets appear. In close readings, Critical Race Theorists call attention to the fact that words and references do not simply appear but rather are selected by white writers whose socialization, even if not conscious intent, restricts our views of Black people to objects, threats, and Otherness.
Similarly, Critical Race Theorists have employed the Russian Formalist concept of “defamiliarization” to demonstrate the noticeable shock when a text distances readers from their expectations of race. Coined by Viktor Shklovsky, defamiliarization challenges readers’ perceptions, which Shklovsky claims the modern world has made automatic. His goal for defamiliarization was immediacy; if a text defamiliarizes the world, then readers can contend with reality directly. However, defamiliarization in Critical Race Theory offers readers the opportunity to “question the meanings and boundaries of [race and other] categories” (Schalk, 114). In her book Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, Schalk explains that defamiliarization can become a tool to interrogate “the very contestable nature of these categories” and to confront readers with the ever-changing and inherently political definitions of who is, or is not, human (Schalk, 117).
In conclusion, while both Formalism and Critical Race Theory are formative theories of the twentieth century, Critical Race Theory has provided a necessary counterpoint to Formalism’s emphasis on structure and symbol as well as its assertion that these are exempt from personal, social, and historical contexts. By accounting for racialized power structures and socialization, Critical Race Theory deepens close reading. It also invites readers and writers to engage with texts understanding that language and imagery reflect the author’s position within a particular, time-bound, and racialized society. Close reading, defamiliarization, and text structure—all central Formalist concepts—are now hard to imagine apart from Critical Race Theory in the twenty-first century, a testament to the ways that literary theories revise and re-envision the past, opening new visions for our engagement with diverse texts and inviting us to acknowledge the truth: that no one, even the artist, is exempt from the prejudices and limitations of their society.
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Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
*As I design an Accessible MFA in Creative Writing, I regard those I encounter while purchasing textbooks, posting reviews or coursework, attending virtual readings, and participating in writing groups to be my “classmates.” They are part of my learning experience and compel me, as this guy did, to crystallize and articulate my own positions.