Annotation: David Palumbo-Liu’s “The Occupation of Form” (2008)

As promised an original annotation at last. ^^

Peer-Review: 0

Palumbo-Liu, David. “The Occupation of Form: (Re)theorizing Literary History.” American Literary History. 20.4 (2008): 814-835. Print.

In this article Palumbo-Liu examines two academic journals, New Literary History and American Literary History that grapple with debates about the productivity of formalism in contemporary literary studies. Both journals reject formalism’s ahistorical emphasis on close reading and posit theory as the mechanism that will help “(re)connect the study of literature to the world outside” (816). Palumbo-Liu, however, calls for a reexamination of formalism and ultimately a productive recuperation of formalist concerns for critical literary analyses.

He notes how the emerging school of “New Formalism” articulates “a basic desire to return to close, formalist readings of texts” in addition to a “common feeling that these readings should be attached to the larger socio-historical formations in which these texts were produced” (820). While Palumbo-Liu supports this movement, he attempts to further conceptualize the advantages and insights New Formalism will provide as a critical apparatus in light of the increasing “transnationaliz[ation] of American literary studies” (820). He asserts that “Form” should be viewed as “common place” where readers can articulate their own literary interpretations in conjunction with those of others (822). Palumbo-Liu emphasizes that within a transnational frame, Formalism an analysis of “transsubjectivity,” or “slices” of simultaneous and nonsimultaneous histories” in terms of both temporal and spatial incongruities (828).

In the latter half of his essay he goes on to discuss how Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange offers a productive terrain to employ the apparatus of New Formalism in a transnational context. He notes how the form of Yamashita’s novel reflects the way in which forces of globalization and neocolonialism force people into proximity and dependency, without necessarily a commensurate degree of control and self-determination” (828). He then goes on to analyze the consciousness of Manzanar, who conducts an orchestra from his post atop a Los Angeles freeway, sees the familiar urban sprawl below him steadily morph and change wit “markers of new intimacies and encumbrances” (830). Palumbo-Liu suggests that Manzanar perceives the form of the hidden form of the city beyond its material structural edifices and economic flows, to conduct beautiful urban music from seemingly cacophonous sounds and disparate events.

He also references the preface to The Portrait of a Lady in which Henry James describes “the house of fiction” as containing numerous disconnected windows through which readers can view the work of art. In contrast to James’ configuration, however, Palumbo-Liu suggests that Yamashita’s novel presents overlapping transhistorical and transnational spaces, which is ultimately closer to his own conception of form.

To him, “literary form is…both a material and real ‘thing,’ but one variously inhabited and animated by various occupants” (832). Palumbo-Lui emphasizes that the simultaneous multiplicity of time and space as heterogeneous and overlapping is emblematic of “the contemporary, late capitalist world” (832). Form he asserts finally, serves as “a necessary container and common ground that is precisely not reified but dynamic, a contingent meeting space for otherwise divergent histories, literary and public at once” (833). He therefore encourages the manipulation of form to serve the multivalent interests and concerns of the reading public.

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