Starting with Zero: Formalist Criticism

        In the earliest days of computer design, IBM engineers were notorious for insisting that in all uses of numbers to count consecutively, the number system started not with "1" but with "0."  It's a useful way of suggesting that, in human cultural studies, even so-called "beginnings" start with content of a sort, though it's so rudimentary we take it for granted.  In fact, in terms of human culture, we cannot trace the history of interpretive theory and critical methods to a true "zero" for lack of written records from such a time.  Classical or early formalist criticism (fifth century BCE to first century CE) is about as early as we get. 

        "Formalist" criticism is a critical practice that concentrates on describing the form of the work: naming its parts and looking for superior examples of the genre to which it belongs.  Though the reader/audience may be discussed, such interests are guided by the formalist critic's need to know better how the work is made. Plato had other things on his mind, of course, since he intended to reform the state and its inhabitants, and literature was but one occasional subject of his philosophical project.  He did offer an influential description of the poet's creative process and the poet's relationship to the work and the audience.  For many centuries, Aristotle far outshone Plato as a guide to the theory of literature because he so thoroughly described all its major genres and their constituent parts.  The New Critics and Structuralists also have been called "formalist" because of their intense focus on the construction of the literary work, often forbidding questions about the author, the audience and the work's effect upon the world.