Tom Haigh on Eichenbaum

'The theory of the "formal method"' is a propagandist and celebratory account of an attempt to place the study of literary theory and history on a scientific basis. Eichenbaum places 'Formal method' in quotes because he rejects the idea of a single infallible method as being itself unscientific. (p846). Rather their loyalty is to the systematic and scientific uncovering of literary facts by whatever means are required.

This is to be a specifically literary science, specialized in same way that physics, for example, is unconcerned with the work of economists. 'We did not take up questions of the biography and psychology of the artist because we assumed that these questions, in themselves serious and complex, must take their places in other sciences.' (p485). They focused on 'the pure and unique concerns of literature in so far as it bore a distinctive character and only to the extent that it stood alone.' (p484).

The language of science is used throughout this essay - according to Eichenbaums version (which is all I am concerned with here) the Formalists 'posit principles', 'find proof', study 'literary genetics', establish 'literary facts' and 'eliminate bias'. They are presented here as painfully, unremittingly positivist in their outlook, with absolute faith in the potential of systematic collection of facts and their generalization in theory to produce empirical truth. We posit specific principles and adhere to them as the material justifies them. If the material demands their refinement or change we change or refine them. 'In this sense we are quite free from our own theories - as science must be free...' (page 829). 'In scientific work I consider the ability to see facts far more important than the construction of a system. Theories are necessary to clarify facts; in reality theories are made of facts. Theories perish and change, but the facts they help discover and support remain.'

Oh dear. Science does not work like this, has never worked like this and could never work like this. However, as recently as the 1950s it was almost universal to suppose that it did, even amongst specialist philosophers and historians and therefore we must concede that Eichenbaum could not reasonably be expected to be aware of the theory-laiden nature of observation, the social construction of facts, paradigmatic constraints and the other concepts today deployed to explain the workings of science. (They suggest on p. 835 that a scientific poetics must begin inductively with a hypothesis built on accumulation of evidence, suggesting a Baconian faith in inductive method which was outdated even then and contradicts Eichenbaums denials of fixed method).

However, it still seems very hard, from our postmodern perspective, to understand why Eichenbaum might think that the placing of literary study on such an empirical and scientific basis might produce major advances: that using nothing more than rigorous observation and collection of facts, specialization and the formal statement of problems it might be possible to solve the key problems of literature once and for all. They worked, of course, in the spirit of their age - Marx had already placed history and economics on a scientific and non-ideological basis, revolutionary transformation of society was underway, and they sought to sweep away the naive and pathetic aesthetics of their elders and set literary theory on the path to its salvation. Ironically the introduction suggests that their movement was destroyed for political reasons, specifically for being interested in art for art's sake rather than the social causes of art - and so we see an ideology promoting the scientific and empirical study of art swept aside by another which had scientific and empirical proof that culture was a deterministic product of the social base and therefore required no science of its own. A clash of scientists? Hardly.

What I find revealing is that the all-new, scientifically tested findings they produce seem to be of a very similar class to those produced by Aristotle - discovering differences between plot and story, special characteristics of different forms, three styles of lyrical poetry and so on. Like the Greeks, they studied literature as something with its own unique and natural subdivisions (as he put it a self formed social process.) Aristotle worked at the dawn of scientific thought, a time when ideas of a fixed and external nature were first being constructed, and that in a manner which (the modern reader can see) was inherently political - his ordered and natural principles including the existence of woman as an inferior being and slaves as quite worthless. Natural forms, for Aristotle, become apparent through gradual evolution as each literary form attains perfection and becomes fixed in its character. The Formalists sought similar general and natural principles, and were similarly unaware of (or unwilling to acknowledge) the gulf between our ideas of what is fixed, empirical and natural and those demanded by nature itself. The claim to empiricial validity for one's ideas is for both, as it always is, an attempt to enforce their acceptance.

Acting as if simple, universally applicable facts and theories exist and can be discovered is a professional strategy which works well to do some things, like physics, and terribly to do others - as Marx's claims to scientific history demonstrates. Unfortunately for the formalists, literature is more like history than it is like physics. Economic history exists, but as one approach amongst many and whilst it may produce useful insights we know that no methodology, especially one disguised as a neutral and scientific means of truth production, will ever answer every worthwhile question. That is why the academic pursuit of knowledge is divided into disciplines in the first place.

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