In the study of language, the idea that form encases content like a vessel had been a lasting supposition, unchallenged until Viktor Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists put forth the radical notion that such a relationship need not exist. The revision of that Hermeneutic standard was, in many ways, the biggest contribution of Russian Formalism and is still widely supported today by a range of literary theories. I suggest, however, that their argument was wrong since it splits form from a binary that never existed, and more importantly, isolates form from language. To make sense of that, we might first re-evaluate our working definitions of content and form.

It’s unfortunate how often the term “form” is thrown about and how widely literary theorists define it. Nothing is more telling of this tendency than the fact that Shklovsky’s essay — the very piece from which form in the Formalist argument really became defined — has been translated as both “Art as Form” and “Art as Technique.” This looseness of term is frustrating, but mistakes between matters of form and format are actually detrimental to critical theory. Form is the technique, the literary device, the rhythmic pattern, etc. that exist in a work. Together, these forms are codified into a static format, which, to avoid confusion, we might substitute with a synonym: style. We might think of atoms as form and molecules as style, especially since this explanation demonstrates that combinations of the same forms in different ways can create different styles. To use a concrete example: Iambic Pentameter is the form of the Shakespearian sonnet and the Spenserian sonnet — they use the same rhythmic form but a different form of rhyme-pattern.

With form defined as such, we find a slight issue facing us — there exists form but nothing to be formed. Imagine if we had -,+,=, etc. without numbers. The problem is obvious: We lack a system. Such a necessitated system, which I will import with no variation from Saussurian semiotics, is defined by its limited set and the rules that govern that set. If we combine the set of forms with this system of language, it creates a binary that I believe is central to a discussion of language, since with that is the possibility of creativity for the writer.

This problem is especially difficult for the Structuralists to answer and this is directly a result of language as they conceive it. If language is a structure, which I wholly agree it is, then it’s bounded at every synchronic moment. The unit of language, the word, has no room to change. Only in the diachronic “history” of a language does the language itself change; which is an issue for the artist working on a fixed point of that line, since they are unavoidably outside language. Simply put, we cannot create language.

We might take the interesting leap and wonder what, if anything, would be accomplished if we could actually create language. We would expect to see an expansion not of ideas or form, but of coding for form. For proof of this, let’s look at the explosion of computer languages that took place in the 20th century. Since no “computer language-based society” existed in the beginning of the computer era, separate computer languages emerged to accomplish the same tasks. These are the equivalent of forms. The creation of distinct computer languages has one significant drawback: They cannot communicate among themselves. It was not until the older languages, such as FORTRAN, LISP, and COBOL, were replaced with the first independent languages that the complexity took off. Like computers, if every artist created his or her own language, we would have less a canon of literature and more a set of languages, a collection of works like Samuel Pepy’s diary, which would have different codes for the same ideas. Nobody could communicate. Here lies the necessity of a static, structured language: universal understanding for those that speak it. If not capable of achieving anything “real,” it does afford communication and communication is powerful. Therefore, we could argue that language is not the creative element of literature; though I should mention that creativity is not the same as saying that the author has no choice with language. Following this, the author may not be able to create language but he can script it. Such an argument inevitably leads to Roland Barthes’s suggestion that the artist is dead and only a literary “scriptor” remains.

To see that we need not reach this conclusion, we need to shift our focus from language back to form. Language is a structure and form is a set. Rather, each form is part of a set, which can be arbitrarily and repeatedly classified into styles. Therefore, form shares no rule and is not bound by anything more than convention and the artist. What form is and what it is not inevitably becomes subjective. This is a disturbing thought for those like the Structuralist or Formalist, who attempt to turn literature into a science. However, from the perspective of the artist, such subjectivity provides not only the potential for creativity but also an openness of interpretation.

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