Form’s Function

By David AlworthMarch 20, 2015

Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network by Caroline Levine

A FAMILY FEUD opens Caroline Levine’s intelligent new treatise on literary interpretation. In the preface, she describes regularly arguing with her father, an eminent intellectual historian, over how to read literature. While he believed in trying to discern the “concerns and debates” that had motivated writers in their time, she “wanted to track subtle arrangements of words and images.” His emphasis fell on authorial intention; hers fell on textual effect — on the internal workings of literary texts, irrespective of historical context. Their dispute, which enacts the hoary conflict between historicist and formalist procedures, would continue through her years in college, where she “fell in love with poststructuralist ways of reading” and eventually recognized the ethical power of New Historicism. Despite this recognition, however, the younger Levine never abandoned her formalist commitments, even though they became increasingly difficult to defend. By the mid-1990s, when she received her doctorate, historicism — carving up literary history into periods, exploring social and political conditions, tracing links between literary and nonliterary writing — had fundamentally reshaped the professional study of literature.

But Forms is less a defense than a redesign of formalism. Levine doesn’t call for a return to old-school aesthetic appreciation and apolitical close reading as a way to curb historicism run amok. Instead, as many critics have done before her, she looks beyond her discipline for a way around the whole formalism/historicism debate. Just as previous critics redefined the practice of literary interpretation by engaging adjacent disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology, and linguistics, so too Levine engages the interdisciplinary field of design, adapting the concept of “affordance” — which refers to whatever a given object (say, a spatula) allows an agent to do (flip pancakes, swat flies, whack a sibling) — in order to develop a new formalist method. This method, call it Formalism 2.0, promises not only to be more agile than its New Critical predecessor but also to address the relationship between cultural artifacts and political arrangements, thereby fixing the bug of apolitical close reading that marred version 1.0. Forms delivers on its promise. This book makes a compelling contribution to a lively debate, currently unfolding across the academic humanities, over how (and even whether) to read.

Still, as they say in the design world, there are some usability issues here. As Levine herself acknowledges, Forms provides “a methodological starting point,” so the book has the feel of a prototype rather than a finished product. This is what makes it challenging but also pleasing to read. Stylistically, what differentiates Forms from your typical work of theory and method is its pedagogical strategy. While the book offers several satisfying close readings, including a dazzling account of HBO’s The Wire, Levine does not try to stun you with the “intellectual pyrotechnics” of her interpretive master code; rather, she invites you, through one example after another, into a new dialogue about how to apprehend literature in relation to social life. And there are lots of examples. Levine examines the manifestation of four abstract forms — wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks — in cases drawn from literature, visual art, mass culture, and everyday experience. The result is an argument that relies on variegated evidence and spans thousands of years.

Through this argument, Levine means to present something like a Theory of Form, which synthesizes many of the most influential ideas from Plato and Aristotle on down. It turns out that “form” (like “theory” and “method”) is a rather vexed term: it can mean an immaterial idea (Plato) or material shape (Aristotle); it can suggest ontological essence or mundane existence; it can convey something abstract or particular, local or universal, historical or transcendent. Moreover, the vocabulary of formalism within literary studies comprises a multifarious potage of philosophy, rhetoric, prosody, genre theory, structural anthropology, philology, linguistics, folklore, narratology, and semiotics. Which is not even to mention the advanced formalist thinking within, say, legal theory, mathematics, military science, and crystallography. Levine takes all this, “the very heterogeneity at the heart of form’s conceptual history,” and distills it into five functions — forms contain, differ, overlap, travel, and operate politically — in order to ask what happens when forms collide. Her final chapter considers such collision in one particular work.

By the time you get to this chapter, on The Wire, you’re eager to see what Levine’s method will reveal about a show that has been discussed so widely. Up to this point, Forms provides a stimulating intellectual experience, one that is bound to leave many readers impressed, provoked, and craving more of this or that: a longer analysis of a literary work, an additional perspective on a theoretical problem, a fuller engagement with a given thinker or intellectual tradition. The book, in other words, presents a broad range of affordances. But, as it unfolds from chapter to chapter, Forms also employs the concept of affordance as a literary-critical tool.

This concept was invented by psychologist James J. Gibson and applied to industrial design by Don Norman. These two men spent many late nights discussing the dynamics of human perception, specifically the question of whether perception entails interpretation. Gibson, who pioneered what’s known as the ecological approach to perception, claimed that our sense organs, without any intervention from the brain, constantly gather information about the world around us. Norman disagreed. He argued that the brain is always involved in the perceptual process, and without the brain to organize all the perceptual data that we acquire through sight, smell, touch and other sensations, we could not attain a coherent picture of the world. The two men failed to settle the matter. After “many bottles of beer,” they decided to call it a night and, like the two Levines, agreed to disagree.

But, for Norman, this disagreement was a breakthrough. He realized that the world is filled with information about how to interact with it — a key realization for a designer — which explains why utterly unfamiliar objects don’t confuse us. As he writes in The Design of Everyday Things:

We live in a world filled with objects, many natural, the rest artificial. Every day we encounter thousands of objects, many of them new to us. Many of the new objects are similar to ones we already know, but many are unique, yet we manage quite well. How do we do this? Why is it that when we encounter many unusual natural objects, we know how to interact with them? Why is this true with many of the artificial, human-made objects we encounter?

The answer is that we are always learning from the objects in our midst. Through a process that Gibson calls “information pickup,” we sense that balls are for throwing, knobs are for turning, and chairs are for sitting. These sensations tell us about an object’s affordances, or lack thereof. A mashed potato affords satiation, but it does not afford slicing. You wouldn’t use a blowtorch to clean your teeth. But there’s a crucial caveat: affordances are not simply stored in a given object. Rather, they are defined, as Gibson puts it, “across the dichotomy between subjective and objective.” An affordance is therefore a relation between two entities, not a property of any single entity. This means, for instance, that some chairs afford both sitting and lifting for some human agents, whereas others, as Norman explains, “can only be lifted by a strong person or a team of people. If young or relatively weak people cannot lift a chair, then for these people, the chair does not have that affordance.” Still, the concept of affordance is not synonymous with prescribed use. Many affordances add to what Bill Brown calls the “misuse value” of a given object, as when you treat your chair like a ladder.

Levine performs her own act of creative misuse with design theory. Her aim is twofold: first, to expand the usual definition of form within literary and cultural studies; and second, to develop a method for analyzing how any given form, such as a hierarchy or a bounded whole, simultaneously enables and constrains its constituents. For most literary and cultural critics, “form” names the composite of aesthetic phenomena within a given text or artifact. The form of a novel like Jane Eyre, for example, comprises the marriage plot, first-person narration, description, free-indirect speech, suspense, figurative language, syntax, diction, and other elements, as well as the interactions among them. Whereas Formalism 1.0 seeks to interpret how all these elements fit together within a complex semantic unit, and historicism seeks to apprehend the dynamic relationship between this unit and the social conditions of its production, Levine’s Formalism 2.0 takes insights from both methods but follows a different script. Like her New Critical predecessors, Levine wants to appreciate the formal complexity of literary texts, and like her historicist colleagues, she thinks that any such appreciation must include an account of context, but she resists the notion that aesthetic form is an effect of the social tensions that it mimics, opposes, or imaginatively resolves. As she sees it, in other words, Jane Eyre should not be read as a formal treatment, however complex, of some preexisting social reality such as capitalism, imperialism, or sexism.

Instead, Levine would have you read the novel as a site where multiple forms collide. For her, the term “form” is awesomely broad, designating “all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference,” and narrative is “the form that best captures the experience of colliding forms.” This means that if you read Jane Eyre as Levine suggests you should, then you might see “narrative and gender as two distinct forms, each striving to impose its own order, both travelling from other places to the text in question, and neither automatically prior or dominant.” The novel, by this interpretive light, mediates a tense competition among forms, which pits their affordances against one another and thereby affords us a way of seeing how they shape human destinies.

This competition or collision is what counts most for Levine. In contrast to the Marxist critical tradition, which she calls “the most complex and robust school of formalist thinking in literary and cultural studies,” Levine is not interested in showing how literature “soothes us into a false sense of order” as it resolves preexisting social tensions through its formal operations. Rather, she wants us to see literature as a kind of Homeric battlefield where forms, such as narrative and gender, clash like Greeks and Trojans. It is easy to imagine how the elder Levine, the intellectual historian, would object to such a claim: the power of gender and narrative as forms, while formidable, is nonetheless historically specific — you risk the cardinal sin of presentism if you pry Brontë from her context. The younger Levine’s retort: of course Jane Eyre is an historical artifact, but gender and narrative are nevertheless portable forms that preexisted the novel and that function powerfully in the world today. And for this reason, it’s still fruitful to read Jane Eyre if you seek to analyze the affordances of such forms.

Here Levine’s book intersects with other recent works of literary criticism that have contributed to what Rita Felski calls the “method wars” of the 21st century. While questions of method have always been part of the literary-critical enterprise, they have become newly urgent in the face of rapidly shifting technological, economical, and pedagogical conditions within higher education. These days, even though historicism is still served up as what Levine herself labels “the daily fare” of the discipline, many critics are experimenting with alternatives, including a stance of radical openness toward the literary text. Such openness casts the text as a sort of teacher. Just be receptive to the text — don’t rush to “situate” it in historical context, and don’t rush to unmask its veiled ideologies — and you might learn something new from its formal operations. But Levine goes a step further. While she makes a case for the special affordances of narrative form, and while she analyzes an impressive range of literature, she also looks beyond literary representation to actual social formations.

Her chapter on hierarchies, for example, moves from a discussion of Antigone to an analysis of gender and bureaucratic structure within the 20th-century corporation. Never mind the whiplash from hurtling across 2,500 years in a few pages; you knew this book would flout historiographical convention when its author called historicism “dreary” on the first page. Levine is making a different point here. Her move from Antigone to the modern corporation, from the aesthetic object to the social realm, enacts the analytical reorientation or “Gestalt shift” for which she advocates:

Intended to act as a methodological starting point, this book proposes a way to understand the relations among forms — forms aesthetic and social, spatial and temporal, ancient and modern, major and minor, like and unlike, punitive and narrative, material and metrical. Its method of tracking shapes and arrangements is not confined to the literary text or to the aesthetic, but it does involve a kind of close reading, a careful attention to the forms that organize texts, bodies, and institutions.

This method, as each chapter demonstrates, “builds on what literary critics have traditionally done best — reading for complex interrelationships and multiple overlapping arrangements.” But Levine also urges these same critics “to export those practices, to take [their] traditional skills to new objects — the social structures and institutions that are among the most crucial sites of political efficacy.” In the end, then, Formalism 2.0 is not just a method for thinking transhistorically about the “shapes and arrangements” that govern both art and life; it’s also a way of doing political work. In sync with recent claims by Jacques Ranciére and Bruno Latour, while resonating with a note of Foucault, Levine contends that “the most strategic political action” begins with “understanding” forms and ends with the reordering of things.

This note rings with different inflections in each chapter after the introduction. The second chapter, simply titled “Whole,” reenacts a version of the Levine family debate through an incisive comparison of Cleanth Brooks (the formalist) and Mary Poovey (the historicist or “consummate antiformalist”). Levine has several interrelated goals in mind: to show us that formalism does not necessarily entail exclusionary politics; to reveal that historicism, too, is a kind of formalism; and to suggest that the “bounded whole” (a well-wrought urn, a historical period) plays a key role in formalism and historicism both. She then goes on to analyze what happens when different bounded wholes collide. Her examples are all over the map. They include the medieval doctrine of clausura, Methodist churches in the Jim Crow South, the literary technique of closure, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, and the academic seminar room. If “the seminar room is a bounded, enclosed shape that sets out to disrupt other bounded, enclosed shapes,” Levine wonders in conclusion, “[c]an it succeed? Most of us literary and cultural studies scholars behave daily as if it can and does.”

All the subsequent chapters are similarly kaleidoscopic, with the exception of the final one on The Wire. Levine is an elegant writer, so you never get lost in the thicket of cases and examples. She often achieves clarity by employing the verb “to let” in asking permission to lead you somewhere new. “Let me now take the argument a step further.” “Let me introduce two specific sociohistorical examples.” “Let’s now use affordances to think about form.” This rhetorical tic signals something deeper and broader: a self-conscious embrace of radical experimentation, a kind of analytical chutzpah that marks the best literary criticism of the “method wars” era. How else to describe the last decade of work by the likes of Franco Moretti, Heather Love, James F. English, Sianne Ngai, Elaine Freedgood, Sharon Marcus, Stephen Best, and so many others if not as the analytical equivalent of let me? Let me count the novels, visualize the data, abandon critique, rejuvenate aesthetics, rethink institutions, redefine Theory, and reconnect with sociology. Let me try and let’s see what happens. What do we have to lose? The method wars testify that this is not the era of a “new modesty,” but of a new analytical audacity.

And yet Levine’s book reminds us, by example, that some of the most audacious work is the least bombastic. Her steady voice guides our trek through wide and varied ground. “Rhythm,” chapter 3, revisits the topic of historical periods as wholes, examines “institutional time” though an engagement with sociological scholarship, reads Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Form and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and attends to public school schedules in the United States and Europe — all before considering the scandal of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (a masterpiece of modern sculpture that was classified as a kitchen utensil by US customs officials in 1926) and metrical patterns in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry. Chapter 4, “Hierarchy,” is the one that juxtaposes the men and women of Sophoclean tragedy with what Rosabeth Moss Kanter famously called the “men and women of the corporation,” but it does not conclude before addressing Bruce Robbins’s critique of Gayatri Spivak’s reading of Jane Eyre. Although the next chapter, “Network,” introduces fewer examples, namely Trish Loughran’s The Republic in Print and Dickens’s Bleak House, it shares the aim of the preceding chapters, which is to think strenuously about the politics of form by looking at a wide range of different, and seemingly disparate, examples.

When Levine finally gets to The Wire, though, she lingers for a while. The point of her extended analysis is to venture “the eccentric claim” that the show itself theorizes the social and models a new critical paradigm that she calls “formalist cultural studies.” Indeed, Levine argues that The Wire — a work of narrative fiction that we all started watching after The Sopranos convinced us that something big (something we’d soon call “quality television”) was happening on HBO — presents a theory and method for apprehending social reality:

There is something perverse, to be sure, in finding a theory of the social world not in science, not in philosophy, not in experience, but in fiction. The Wire may be realist in some ways, but it is obviously not the real: it is constructed and stylized, and it is hardly free of ideology or narrative artifice. And yet, to turn to The Wire as a theorization of the social is to be faithful to the roots of the word theory, which comes from the Greek word for “a looking at,” “spectacle,” or “contemplation.” Theoria entails the possibility that one might be able to extrapolate generalizable rules about the world from the experience of a spectacle, and here I am suggesting that there is in The Wire precisely this potential for theorizing the social.

To make good on this suggestion, Levine explores the interaction of wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks in the show. And she argues that the show’s “ethical exemplars” are the characters (Lester Freamon, Bunny Colvin, and Omar Little) “who recognize the power and significance of multiple forms.” Levine’s main intervention, though, is to be found not in any one specific claim about The Wire but in her definition of the show as a sociological resource: a powerful tool for understanding the complexity of collective life.

The novelty of this intervention is its reversal of standard critical practice. Instead of explaining how a given social condition, such as neoliberalism, has determined the form and content of The Wire, Levine explains how the show determines its own impression of the social, an impression that not only registers actually existing social conditions but also prompts a series of conceptual questions. One such question: What is this thing we call the social in the first place? (We can’t point to it, but we’re sure it exists. It seems to be everywhere, but nowhere in particular.) The formalist viewer, Levine suggests, would find an answer in the elaborate plotting of The Wire, which renders the social as an intricate pattern of volatile and conflicting networks, rather than a single, stable context.

In the end, then, Forms leaves the literary and cultural critic with two options. The first is to take forms — not texts, not cultural artifacts, not aesthetic objects — as the object of study. This approach entails a sort of residual (yet decidedly non-metaphysical) Platonism wherein every work of human imagination, from the ancient through the modern world, is just a mode of access to The Forms. It also means, as a matter of practical criticism, rejecting what Levine dubs the “arbitrary and misleading” distinction between the aesthetic and the social, since forms themselves do not respect this distinction.

Those who choose this option have a daunting task ahead of them. This task is not merely to fend off the objection that they are further diluting the aesthetic while downplaying the specificity of any artistic medium, but to figure out what comes next. What will Formalism 2.0 do for its users and creative misusers? What are the affordances of this new methodological operating system? To be sure, a fuller understanding of the forms that govern us — the sublime array of “shapes and arrangements” that are the condition for experience — will require at least some knowledge of mathematics, physics, econometrics, statistics, computer science, neurobiology, psychology, legal theory, and a host of other specialisms. It might also mean spending time with engineers, architects, designers, and hackers. Let Norman and his colleagues teach master classes. Put Python, Ruby, and C on the list of acceptable foreign languages for the English PhD. Levine is absolutely right to say that literary studies has developed a sophisticated formalism that it would do well to export. But her method also demands a lot of importing.

The second option for formalists following Levine is not to analyze how the same form operates within both art and social life, but to analyze those works of art whose formal operations constitute the ground of a sociological inquiry. This option takes its cues from Levine’s final chapter. It is precisely because The Wire is, as she puts it, “constructed and stylized” that it provides such a powerful “theorization of the social.” To understand the show as a kind of sociology is not to deny its fictionality and artifice, but to see its formal devices as part of what gives it such a compelling vantage on collective experience. Instead of assuming that The Wire is a symptom of the society that produced it, in other words, Levine defines the show as a formed object that affords thinking about social form.

This definition might be expanded: it’s as good as any for literature tout court, but especially for the novel. None other than Henry James, in the preface to The Princess Casamassima, said that human experience amounts to “our apprehension and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures,” and James, surely, was among the best microsociologists that the world has ever known. To read his fictions, after Levine, is to glimpse a robust social theory in their formal intricacy. It is to imagine how art does sociology in the profoundest sense.


David J. Alworth is Assistant Professor of English and of History and Literature at Harvard University.

LARB Contributor

David J. Alworth is Assistant Professor of English and of History and Literature at Harvard University. His first book, Site Reading: Fiction, Art, Social Form, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.


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