I thought I’d write a bit about these two terms, since they come up often in the classroom and have become foundational to my research.
Formalism and historicism are labels for methodologies in literary studies. The labels, and the methods of reading they are supposed to indicate, have histories. Those histories, in some sense, add up to the history of the field itself. Formalism and historicism are usually thought of as mutually exclusive modes locked in a long-term inverse relation: an “Old” Historicism reigned in the late nineteenth century, followed by the valorization of the literary text as a self-contained object in the “New” Criticism of the early/mid twentieth century, followed by the revaluation of historical context in the “New” Historicism and various strands of cultural studies since the 1960s and 1970s. Lately, predictably, there is a “New” Formalism afoot.
I understand what the terms formalism and historicism are trying to mean on the level of shorthand, gestalt. Formalism refers to a critical method that seeks to understand literature as such. Historicism refers to a critical method that works toward the literary from other dimensions of human experience.
Yet upon reflection, these procedures are the same procedure, akin to shading in a figure vs. shading in all the space around it. For “historicism,” how can one work toward some object/category, the literary, without some prior understanding of its nature (even including the claim that it has no special nature)? And for “formalism,” in what terms can one understand literature apart from the terms given to human experience, which is historical experience? So formalism and historicism may arguably be describing opposite starting points for the act of literary interpretation, but they are not describing opposite end points. Excellent scholarship that takes up the mantle of formalism looks a lot like excellent scholarship that takes up the mantle of historicism. I’m not the first one to notice this (see Further reading).
My research on English poetry looks at the history of literary form, a topic that makes no sense at all within the formalism/historicism dichotomy strictly considered.
If I might be permitted a speculative conclusion: What really seems to be at stake in the two terms is a symbolic political struggle. It’s a struggle between those who feel literary studies devotes too much energy to the category that organizes it, the literary, and those who feel literary studies devotes too much energy elsewhere, to the worlds of social power, politics, and identity. The struggle is political because these are urgent matters, which go directly to the value and ethics of humanistic study. That’s why versions of “historicism” and “formalism” keep see-sawing in disciplinary history, each a reaction to a perceived flaw in the last manifestation of the other. But the struggle is symbolic because in practice–the practice of scholarship, as I read it–form and history can only be defined in terms of one another.
Liu, Alan. “The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism.” ELH 56 (1989): 721-71.
Mann, Jill. “The Inescapability of Form.” In Readings in Medieval Textuality: Essays in Honour of A. C. Spearing, ed. Cristina Maria Cervone and D. Vance Smith (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2016), pp. 119-34.
Strier, Richard. “Afterword: How Formalism Became a Dirty Word, and Why We Can’t Do without It.” In Renaissance Literature and its Formal Engagements, ed. Mark David Rasmussen (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 207-15.