In his 1936 essay ‘Narrate or Describe’, György Lukács writes: ‘when a writer attempts as an observer and describer to achieve a comprehensive description, he must either reject any principle of selection, undertake an inexhaustible labour of Sisyphus or simply emphasize the picturesque and superficial aspects best adapted to description’. Nearly 80 years later, Bruno Latour would write that description is ‘the highest and rarest achievement’. However differently these two thinkers conceive of description, the passages above seem to mark the crux of a contemporary problem for literary studies. The recent groundswell of methodological polemics on the one hand (Rita Felski, Heather Love, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus) and formal polemics on the other (Caroline Levine, Anna Kornbluh, W. J. T. Mitchell) appears to be symptomatic of an anxiety about literary studies more generally. We might best be able to capture this anxiety in the form of a question: what exactly is it that we—literary scholars—do? This article argues that the (re)turn to form and the turn to post-critique are of a shared moment and derive from this shared concern. Further, and perhaps most crucially, we argue that no amount of surface topography nor formal ingenuity will answer the question that undergirds both. Rather, we argue that it is an attention to form at its limits that will serve our contemporary moment. As such, we turn to the work of Edward Said as a case study for literary criticism and theory that anticipates these contemporary debates and suggests various ways forward.