Ferdinand de Saussure describes both thought and sound as amorphous, indistinct masses prior to the advent of language. For Saussure, language maps the one on to the other.
This image of two inchoate substances ressembles Plato's accounts of creation in the Timaeus, in which earth and sky are separated by the gap of space, a gap which Eros tries to fill. (see philosophy / chaos ) While these accounts are about the origin of form, the informe is a counter-movement against the authority of form.
The distinction between the beautiful and the sublime in 18th century aesthetics mobilized the distinction between form and the formless. According to Kant, "The beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having (definite) boundaries. The sublime, on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object..." which provokes an idea of boundlessness to the mind. (Critique of Judgement, p.82)
A careful analysis of formlessness must distinguish between the simple opposite to form -- in which a formless thing would be described as ugly. The particular formlessness of the sublime, "whose boundlessness is represented, yet whose totality is also present to thought" needs to be distinguished from the absolutedly formless -- and disgusting -- parts of nature. (see below)
Some contemporary interpreters of Kant (such as JF Lyotard) have asserted that "with the aesthetics of the sublime, everything that had been repressed in the aesthetics of the beautiful makes a return."
But Kant claims that the experience of the sublime should be regarded more as a stirring of emotion
( Rührung ) than as the play of the imagination which he identifies with beauty. ( Critique of Judgement, Section 23.) He describes the emotion of the sublime as a"feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them" and calls it a "negative pleasure." This negative pleasure involves both a pain -- the feeling that the imagination is inadequate to comprehend unbounded, absolute magnitude -- and a pleasure -- the discovery of another purposiveness in the faculty of reason.
"Nature excites the ideas of the sublime in its chaos, or in its wildest and most irregular (regellos ) disorder and desoloation." (p. 128) Rather than giving us the pleasures of purposiveness, of the harmony between beautiful objects and our cognitive faculties, we call objects sublime on the ground that they are ill-adapted (zweckwidrig ) to our faculty of Judgement. For Kant, the sublime is not to be associated so much with nature as with our experience of the limitations of our imagination, which, according to Kant, makes us think of Reason and its Ideas, principles of the supersensible world. While we seek a ground external to us for the beautiful of nature, (we) seek it for the sublime merely in ourselves and our attitudes of thought. Thus the theory of the sublime is a "mere appendix" to the analytic of the beautiful.
More contemporary accounts of the formless, without the benefits of attachment to transcendental philosophy, refer less to the "Ideas of Reason" and more to those "negative pleasures" and their transgressive dimensions.
"...affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit." Georges Bataille, from the "Dictionnaire Critique " of Documents, English translation in Visions of Excess.
Bataille's brief entry in the "Dictionnaire Critique " begins by repudiating the project of definition. "A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. (une besogne à accomplir plutot qu'un sens ) Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world." (à déclasser in both sense of the word) One of its declassifying purposes is to break the distinction between form / matter.
Bataille's entry follows Michel Leiris' definitions of spit (crachat) as a disgusting reminder of the scandal of the mouth's dual function. How can one affirm the dignity of language and philosophical discourse when the mouth is also the source of spit? Here Leiris follows Freud's suggestion that the idea of beauty and aesthetics derives from man's growing disgust with the double function of his organs, in its repression and sublimation.
"If I can fervently drink his tears, wrote Jean Genet, why not the so limpid drop on the end of his nose?
To this we can reply: first that nasal secretions are not so limpid as tears. They are more like treacle than like water. " (Mary Douglas Purity and Danger, p.125) Douglas examined the symbolism of boundary pollution and ritual. Tears purify. They are naturally preempted by the symbolism of washing and are unrelated to the bodily functions of digestion and procreation. (cf dirt) (cf order/disorder)
For Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois, the informe is a way of dismembering the conflicts of form and content that structure the history of modernism. It is ironical to note that this repudiation of the authority of form appears to be conducted for the most part by (former) formalists.