Issue #140 The Critique of Form (excerpted from Anteaesthetics)

The Critique of Form (excerpted from Anteaesthetics)

Rizvana Bradley

Ellen Gallagher, Untitled, 1999. Enamel, rubber, and paper on canvas. Courtesy: Art Institute Chicago. License: CC0.

Issue #140
November 2023

The unwieldy, internally variegated, and contested traditions that one might nevertheless nominate as black critical theory and black artistic practice, respectively, have had difficult relationships with various traditions of scholarly and aesthetic formalism (though these are, of course, hardly discrete designations). To begin with, the intellectual and artistic forms associated with blackness have typically been regarded by established traditions of formalism with, at best, skepticism. Where the myriad forms associated with blackness have been valorized by preponderant formalisms, it has generally been with extractive intent and far too often at the expense of sustained or nuanced attention to the manner in which these forms prove to be either vestibular to or irreconcilable with the presuppositions of the formalism that imposes itself as hermeneutic authority. For example, Huey Copeland draws our attention to the manner in which Clement Greenberg’s claim that “in Africa today we find that the culture of slave-owning tribes is generally much superior to that of the tribes that possess no slaves” rhetorically advances his defense of the true work of art and the social hierarchies upon which he believes it to have been historically predicated, over and against a romance of “folk art.”1 For Copeland, Greenberg’s rhetorical maneuver discloses the constitutive relation between the aesthetic formalism that subtends art-historical modernism and the raciality this formalism both mobilizes and erases. In Copeland’s words, Greenberg’s passing lines reveal that “racialized barbarity and aesthetic discrimination go together, underlining how dark figures have been mobilized as linchpins of a modern metaphysics that not only demarcate the limits of culture and humanity within Western discourse, but that also trouble the visual, epistemological, and historical categories that structure so-called white civilization.”2 Although Greenberg’s statement may now, more than eight decades later, appear a particularly egregious example of the racial fabrication of aesthetic formalisms—or what Anteaesthetics would theorize as the anteriority of blackness to the aesthetic and formalization as such—it is, substantively, hardly unique. Little wonder, then, that not a few black artists and critical theorists have regarded various aesthetic formalisms as orders of enclosure.

Where black artists and critics have endeavored to pay deference to reigning traditions of intellectual and aesthetic formalism, even going so far as to offer themselves as the most enthusiastic champions of the very formalisms that hold them at a remove, it has often been at the expense of the development or interpretation of their own intellectual and artistic practices. This pitfall may be regarded as a predictable consequence of a more general tendency on the part of art critics to “confer upon the [black art] work a form that it forcefully disavows … [thereby] attract[ing] considerable attention to the rhetorical work they oblige” black art to do, as Darby English observes.3 Be that as it may, this is not to suggest that all formalisms can or should be simply dispensed with. As Hortense Spillers avers, formalism can be “preeminently useful” even, or perhaps especially, when it is deployed as an instrument of its own self-destruction.4 Indeed, Spillers’s careful attention to the filigree, concealments, and excrescences of form—not least with respect to her conceptualization of the “hieroglyphics of the flesh” to which I repeatedly return—offers an exemplary model for the kind of ante-formal heuristic Anteaesthetics endeavors to develop and extend.5

Various hallmarks of modernity—among them, commodity fetishism, the vicissitudinous coupling of deterritorialization and reterritorialization (wherein “all that is solid melts into air”),6 and the will to epistemic mastery that is one face of the self-possessive subject—have all but ensured the incessant fixation on the problem of form within modern thought. Indeed, Fredric Jameson suggests the conjoined problematic “of content and form… in the long run come[s] to haunt all the corners and closets of the social itself.”7 But what exactly is form, and what distinguishes the modes of making and interpretation that lay claim to the title of formalism? In Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Caroline Levine gives a capacious definition of form, one which aims to refuse the partitioning of the aesthetic from the social: “‘Form’ always indicates an arrangement of elements—an ordering, patterning, or shaping … Form, for our purposes, will mean all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference.”8 Levine’s study is written, at least in part, against the antiformalist tendency that has ostensibly swept literary and cultural studies in recent decades, wherein scholars have become “so concerned with breaking forms apart that we have neglected to analyze the major work that forms do in our world.”9 Levine’s concern is echoed across a wide array of fields and, indeed, across political milieus that would appear, at first glance, to operate at a remove from the specialized interests of the academy or the art world. Anna Kornbluh, who affirmatively cites Levine’s definition of form in The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space, argues that the “pervasive political lament of form’s order,” which is equally in evidence in philosophy and art criticism, has become manifest as a naive and reprehensible “anarcho-vitalism,” which equates constitution with violence and reflexively “favors fragmentation, unmaking, decomposition.”10 In fact, in Peter Osborne’s view, the reaction against formalism is constitutive of contemporary art as an historical designation:

Contemporary art is a field of generically artistic practices that developed via its Euro–North American heartlands in reaction against both (i) the formal critical norms of medium-specific modernisms and their transformative reproduction and extension of the old, Renaissance “system of the arts,” and (ii) the residual cultural authority of all other received aesthetic forms and universals—residual, that is, from the standpoint of the thesis of the tendentially increasing nominalism or individuality of works of art in liberal (now neoliberal) capitalist societies.11

Needless to say, both the variegated resistances to form and formalism and the countervailing condemnations of antiformalism across art, scholarship, and politics must be situated in relation to the transgeographic anti-colonial, feminist, queer, and many other rebellions in the latter half of the twentieth century, as well as the various iterations of revanchism that have become ascendant in their wake. A historical genealogy or political diagnosis of these contrapuntal tendencies is beyond the scope of this study. What concerns me is the matter of form—more specifically, the relationships between the gendered reproductions of blackness, the racial regime of aesthetics, and the (im)material extractions, transfers, consumptions, and displacements of form, including that genre of form through which form itself is thought to emerge—the form that is medium. Pace Kornbluh, I am not so much concerned with aesthetic forms as “privileged vehicle[s] of mediation” as I am with the manner in which all forms are constituted by the aesthetic, as that which endeavors to suture the metaphysical lacunas and aporias of “iterative discourse and conceptual logic.”12

I contend that the relationship of blackness to form poses singular problems for formalism, most immediately because the phenomenological appearance of blackness within the antiblack world is necessarily dissimulative, while the enfleshed existence of blackness is without ontology, relegated by the world to the status of nonbeing. The figure of blackness is therefore not only far from self-evident but, apropos Marriott, always already disfigured and disfiguring. Every form blackness is assigned is thus intrinsically aporetic. However, we will see that the converse is also true: blackness is, or bears, the aporia within and before every form.

My attention to the aporias of form and the forms of aporia within the racial regime of aesthetics finds at least some resonance with Theodor Adorno’s interest in “the unresolved antagonisms of reality [that] return in artworks as immanent problems of form.”13 “Pure form is the consequence of perfect death, black death.”14

At the same time, blackness poses irresolvable problems for form, which no amount of formalist interpretation can fully reconcile. Denise Ferreira da Silva elucidates the problem blackness poses for form by suggesting that, within the modern world, blackness bears the mantle of an ostensibly antiquated, Aristotelian definition of matter as “substance without form,” which ultimately disrupts modernity’s braiding of formalization and “the Equation of Value.”15 Making recourse to a series of deconstructive (anti-)mathematical operations (which I will not reproduce in detail here), da Silva suggests that blackness is functional to both “the ordered universe of determinacy and the violence and violations it authorizes” and the “materia prima—that which has no value because it exists (as ∞) without form”—which decomposes form and poses the thought of an “unbounded sociality … without time and out of space, in the plenum.”16 Warren, however, advocates a “mathematical nihilism,” or an embrace of a catastrophe that would dispense even with the critical recuperation of raw materiality, as “both matter and form are caught in antiblack imaginations.”17 For Warren, “the obsolescence of both matter and form,” which he calls the catastrophe, “opens a horizon of the unthinkable, where life, death, value, and nonvalue are displaced.”18

My own approach to a black critique of form could be said to move appositionally with da Silva’s and Warren’s. I share their interest in the inescapable blackness of what Georges Bataille called “l’informe” (the formless),19 or what Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss articulate as an operation of “declassification, in the double sense of lowering and of taxonomic disorder.”20 However, my principal interest is in the anteriority of blackness to (aesthetic) forms—wherein blackness is vestibular to the emergence, maintenance, modulation, and transformation of the very (antiblack) forms to which it is violently subject—as well as in the racially gendered reproduction of this anteriority. As I elaborate over the course of this book, the bearings of black femininity are doubly bound to the (re)production of the order of forms, as well as to black social and artistic refusals of this order. My thesis of black feminine anteriority has considerable implications for theories of the genesis and development of the modern order of forms, as well as the “quest(ion)” of this order’s dissolution.21

Anteaesthetics’s traversal of ante-formalism promises neither redemption nor emancipation. As Moten reminds us, violence cannot be excised from the materiality of the terrible gift of the hold, which is none other than black art: “Black art neither sutures nor is sutured to trauma. There’s no remembering, no healing. There is, rather, a perpetual cutting, a constancy of expansive and enfolding rupture and wound, a rewind that tends to exhaust the metaphysics upon which the idea of redress is grounded.”22 Thinking with and against the force of that rewind, Anteaesthetics lingers with the inarticulable yet enduring questions that emerge from the formal entanglements of aesthetics and violence—questions that are unavoidable for those given to blackness.

While the making and unmaking of artistic form is thematized most explicitly in the third chapter of Anteaesthetics, all the anteaesthetic practices analyzed throughout the book variously deconstruct the modern order of forms, whether the latter’s impetus to formalization is expressed as the body (chapter two), the medium (chapter four), or the world itself (chapter five). That is, the world itself is an aesthetic form, a paradigm defined by the chiasmatic world-making of form and form-making of world. I would also accent this book’s interrogation of formal technics, not least with respect to time-based media, that “position … certain bodies and things within, outside, or across the threshold of form in order to maximize the functionality and reach of the system it constitutes.”23 In thinking with the anteaesthetic practices explored over the course of these chapters, a central concern will be the ways in which the gendered reproduction of black anteriority to the order of forms, within which blackness is an existence without ontology, instills an aporia or exorbitance within every form. Not even the onto-phenomenologically truncated form assumed by matter can escape this exorbitance, which can never be fully subsumed, displaced, elided, or eradicated by the order of forms. As we shall see, in every instance, blackness is the condition of (im)possibility for form.


Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Beacon Press, 1961), 18; Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (University of Chicago Press, 2013), 10–11.


Copeland, Bound to Appear, 10–11.


Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (MIT Press, 2007), 5.


Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago, 2003), 85.


Spillers, Black, White, and in Color, 207.


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition (1848; Verso, 1998), 38.


Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (Verso, 2007), xix.


Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015), 3. Emphasis in original.


Levine, Forms, 9.


Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (University of Chicago Press, 2019), 2, 3.


Peter Osborne, “Notes on Form,” in Thinking Art: Materialisms, Labours, Forms, ed. Peter Osborne (CRMEP Books, 2020), 160.


Kornbluh, Order of Forms, 168n13, 14.


Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (1970; Continuum Books, 1997), 6. While my method is not dialectical materialist per se, I share the Marxian interest in the material relations that are expressed (and obscured) in (the fetishism of) aesthetic forms. However, my method finds a deeper philosophical intimacy with black critiques of form and formalism, which have witnessed a flowering in the academy in recent years but which are also part and parcel of a diverse intellectual tradition that is coterminous with the history of the diaspora and that is as much in evidence in vernacular traditions as it is in scholarship. Within the contemporary scholarly iterations of the black critique of form, theorists such as Calvin Warren stress that the modern world must be understood as formalization, and that antiblack violence both subtends and is effectuated through the order of forms. C. Warren, “The Catastrophe: Black Feminist Poethics, (Anti)form, and Mathematical Nihilism,” qui parle 28, no. 2 (December 2019).


Warren, “The Catastrophe,” 357. Warren is here referring to David Marriott’s thinking and phraseology in “The Perfect Beauty of Black Death,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Philosophical Salon, June 2017 .


Denise Ferreira da Silva, “1 (life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value,” e-flux journal, no. 79 (February 2017) .


Da Silva, “1 (life).”


Warren, “The Catastrophe,” 368.


Warren, “The Catastrophe,” 368.


Georges Bataille, “Formless,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31.


Yve-Alain Bois, “Introduction: The Use Value of the ‘Formless,’” in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (Zone Books, 1997), 18.


Cf. Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World,” Black Scholar 44, no. 2 (2014).


Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Duke University Press, 2017), ix.


Seb Franklin, The Digitally Disposed: Racial Capitalism and the Informatics of Value (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 5.

Aesthetics, Modernism, Race & Ethnicity, Philosophy, Feminism
Blackness, Black Feminism
Return to Issue #140

Excerpted from Anteaesthetics: Black Aesthesis and the Critique of Form by Rizvana Bradley, published by Stanford University Press. ©2023 Rizvana Bradley. All rights reserved.

Rizvana Bradley is Assistant Professor of Film and Media and Affiliated Faculty in the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and Terra Foundation Visiting Professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Bradley’s book, Anteaesthetics: Black Aesthesis and the Critique of Form, was published by Stanford University Press in 2023.


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