Form-fitting, brain-bending theory

FormsI’m not going to apologise for being overly excited at what I think is a highly original and unusual contribution to thinking, analysing and being political emanating from literary theory. And I’m not going to apologise for the feeling that because this contribution speaks directly to some frustrations I’ve had living in this world of research, theory and analysis, that I might be overstating its case. Towards the end of last year I read Michael Wood’s review in the London Review of Books of Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Despite the review, I was intrigued (maybe ensnared) by the subject matter and set out to find the book which took quite some determination before I actually located it online and managed to buy it.

I then waited a bit once it arrived because it felt like this book was going to open up something important and I didn’t want to spoil it, or discover I’d been wrong. But I so wasn’t wrong about it. However, at the outset I need to say that Caroline Levine is a literary theorist steeped in Victorian writing (and this is the soil which provokes her thinking but doesn’t contain her range of ideas), I, on the other hand am a shameless magpie with an interest in the literary, a job in media studies and a weariness about grand theory (especially now that we’re living through another revolution and still talking the same talk of the previous ones, as though more and louder will be the trick).

So how to start? First of all I’ve got to say that the same impulse that has led me to explore surface reading and the overly-honed mind that is made by critical inquiry (see previous post) is the same one hooked by this set of ideas. I also need to say that in addition to the ‘shameless’ caveat above, that regardless of what Ms Levine’s colleagues in the literary world will make of her appeal to them about the usefulness of retrieving formalism in their work, I have absolutely my own interests at play here.


Caroline Levine

I suppose that Levine’s preoccupation and intention in writing this book is to deal with the relationship between art/literature and life/politics and the terrible complications which arise if we treat one as though they were easily interchangeable for the other (which ‘ordinary’ people do all the time and which researchers learn never to do — see the quote from Michael Warner in a previous post). This is a problem those of us in media theory are very familiar with — just because the media constructs a story about something real does not mean that it can be used as a substitute for the actual thing itself. To hold that distance and difference has become a religion in media theory thinking. But the necessary chasm which opens up does not help us figure out the important relationship between the two and what they might say to each other. Media theorists use the idea of ‘representation’ to hold these two spheres apart and to remind us that the thing in the media is not a copy/reflection/mimesis but a thing in itself operating according to different rules of construction and interpretation. Levine shows that the consequence of this has been the development of methods that are used to analyse and interpret constructed works and the separate development of methods to understand the world around us. Literary theorists have then reacted to an over-emphasis on treating literary works as though they were each little universes in themselves operating by idiosyncratic rules by insisting on their conditions of making, their historical contexts and the possibilities embedded in the social situations out of which they arise. This is territory familiar to media theorists. But, as Levine points out, to reinsert the political, social and historical into analysis risks treating any creative work as “epiphenomenal” (and here the Marx reference is intentional) — secondary to the social and real world Sontag.jpg(and here I hear Susan Sontag saying Amen — if you haven’t already, then read her essay Against Interpretation).

Levine wants to get rid of the “real/unreal” distinction and the way she does this is highly novel: she insists that form (“Form, for our purposes, will mean all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference” 2015: 3) is so endemic an organising principle across the aesthetic AND the social that it presents itself as a means of analysis that straddles the chasm. She also argues that it re-prioritises the value of creative works so that instead of their being explained in two sets of analysis: first according to aesthetics and then according to politics, they get analysed in terms of forms which move across both spheres and which allows both spheres to show up their relationships and for a communication across both terrains. She also thinks form is more flexible and elegant than structure and better and more useful than genre (and here I totally agree as a media person).

So how does Levine pull this off? The beauty of this book is that she demonstrates over and over again with multiple literary, media and other examples just how she can make form speak and have value. Just as I’d read a section and think “how the heck?” Levine would obligingly go directly into a demonstration of how this could work. And I never once felt she was doing the stretching, reaching, overcompensating for the argument shtick by making an example do what it couldn’t.

Let’s take this slowly because it needs some getting used to. Upfront Levine insists that form is useful because even though we’re used to talking about “form” and “content” in disciplines like literature, art and media, the fact is the term doesn’t originate with us, it has a long deep history in human life in general. And when Levine chooses to pick up and use form she is not thinking of the form/content binary (another Hallelujah from Susan Sontag, see aforementioned essay). Then she also insists that even though we’re not used to seeing it used in the political arena, actually it’s there if we look: “politics is not only about imposing order on space. It also involves organising time… crucially politics also means enforcing hierarchies of high and low, white and black, masculine and feminine, straight and queer, have and have-not… activities or ordering, patterning and shaping… there is no politics without form” (p3).

Form does things Levine is interested in and she’s interested because these things are affordances — a term she uses a lot (and borrows from design theory) which means the possibilities/capacities inherent in the form and/or injected into the form by a clever user. So a quick rundown:

  1. Forms constrain.
  2. Forms differ — Levine points out that we have “rich vocabularies” for describing various forms.
  3. Forms overlap and intersect — this is a messy world! In addition forms can be tiny (syntax) and huge (a genre) and can be nested within each other.
  4. Forms travel, they are portable often because they are simple to apply across fields.
  5. Forms do political work. “Forms matter… because they shape what is possible to think, say and do in a given context” (p5).

There are many many forms, but Levine isolates just four to prove her argument: wholes (the containers and boundary-making shapes), rhythms (repetitions and regularities), hierarchies and networks (both of which are exactly what you think they are). These four are extremely prevalent and very useful as exemplars of form. There are many others and some have big power to shape, for example binaries are forms with great organising and political power but Levine doesn’t go into that one, save to say that binaries often have hierarchies but that the two forms are not the same thing, and a careful analysis will separate out what they have in common and how they differ. This extreme picky carefulness permeates the book. The rest of the book is organised by charting chapter by chapter how these four forms work via a consideration of their “affordances” — those that are inherent to the form but also those that can be attached to the form with clever work.


Levine starts by taking issue with the the tendency in literary studies to treat individual literary creations as wholes in themselves which exist without connections and porous boundaries — “There is simply no such thing as an aesthetic whole which can be separated from the social worlds of its creation and reception” (p24). Yes. But then she turns to politics and argues that theorists who think that any bounded whole is inevitably pernicious are not seeing the possibilities of the form. This is a complex argument because Levine is not only interested in how, for example, the boundaries of nation states/institutions DO create insiders and outsiders (which she freely acknowledges has severe consequences for those excluded) but she is also at pains to show that the form in itself can be used differently. She shows researchers themselves how for the purposes of isolating the focus of their work they create temporary wholes in order to make some progress and to generate some useful knowledge and that they do this with the knowledge that these boundaries are a necessary fiction but that the world is just too complex to deal with all its features simultaneously.


Nancy Fraser

Then she asks about the other affordances of forms that contain: yes wholes as a form can be used to produce prisons and quell dissent, but “closures” and “enclosures” also work in liberating ways by keeping safe, giving space and legitimating voices, ideas and people, here I think of Nancy Fraser’s “counterpublics”. This chapter is complex and Levine is dealing with aesthetics, philosophy and politics but it’s also dense with examples and actual analyses.



Pierre Bourdieu

This is the chapter that excited me most because it was so very stimulating and probably because it connected with a conundrum I’ve been carrying in my head for decades, which is: how did journalism get to be so routinised and why do the routines work so powerfully against change in newsrooms? And why are journalists so bonded to their routines that they cannot see how these processes dictate, distort, frame, shape how they produce information? This is the chapter that answers that question powerfully well for me. First it’s important to note that we treat rhythms as though they’re completely natural, we walk in rhythm, we breathe in rhythm, we get great pleasure from singing and dancing which arise out of rhythm. But as Bourdieu’s work on habitus has shown us, we’ve been controlled by the regimens beaten into our bodies since the day we were born. “Rhythmic form has the potential to do serious political work,” Levine says (p49). So how does the argument unfold? Essentially rhythm is the form used by the formations which dispense all the power that operates in our lives socially — institutions which crucially function on rhythms. This is a startling and helpful insight. Let’s think this through: the rhythms of institutions manifest themselves through periodisation (history itself, the imperial imperative of progress and development), the control of time and activities acted out on the body, the longevity over time as individuals come and go as surrogates into the positions that continue long after the individual has gone. The stability, duration and endurance of even the most heinous institutions has a particular relationship with the rhythms they manage to instantiate and maintain over time.

Rhythm is critically a management of time. We are aware that social change comes only with the assault on institutions and we are aware of how marvellously resistant institutions are, the contribution Levine makes to the politics of change is that we cannot undo our assault on institutions unless we understand their rhythms and the fact that their strength is imbedded in their routines, regularities, repetitions and reiterations. All the forms that are important to an institution are repeated and this gives it its solidity, presence and history over time.

This is the place to intersect with for change, and Levine points out that rhythms as a form are vulnerable because their repetitive nature means that they can be intercepted at the known point of punctuation. Right now, the university I work for is anticipating that student revolutionaries will disrupt registration processes in early February because we all know exactly when and what happens to start the academic year. Registration is a rhythm and it has its vulnerabilities for those with a political agenda. Point taken.

Hierarchy and Network

“Hierarchies arrange bodies, things and ideas according to levels of power and importance,” says Levine (p82). They are assymetrical, discriminatory and painful. There is not a lot to be found in their affordances to obviate this state. But Levine shows us that our world is shot through with different forms of hierarchy and they compete and collide. this might be the moment to introduce her idea of “collision” which is extremely useful. Levine thinks that rather than try to do political work by tracing back a problem to its original agent/situation of causality (which often proves to be a massive undertaking and results in despair) it’s more useful to look into the present situation for cracks/spaces/possibilities that allow for manouevre, and colllisions is her term for this possibility. The chapter outlines how various hierarchies can collide with surprising results, when a gender binary hits a family obligation and finds its way into public in a dispute with a ruler (Antigone) interesting things can happen. That’s a literary example carefully argued, but Levine turns to bureaucracies as her real-world example and shows that some of the bizarre and ludicrous situations that arise come from precisely the place where different forms of hierarchy collide. A clever operator with a keen sense of affordances can work the cracks in any bureaucracy.

1333475033_the-wire.jpgAnd then there’s the sort-of opposite, Network, which is all about relationships and routes and connections. Levine points out that the word originally came from an actual interlaced object in the fields of metallurgy and fabric and is a close cousin of the word text. Networks have multiples shapes and sizes and can be dense or spread, wonderfully helpful or coercive, simple or complex. And like all forms they overlap, interweave and collide. Helpful terminology here: hubs, nodes and hinges — where networks touch each other. Levine spends considerable time in this book unpacking two texts to show how they are constructed as networks and not so much as plots or stories told over time. She uses Dickins’ Bleak House and the TV series The Wire to demonstrate how network form can work powerfully as a narrative method to convey very deep social complexity. These are probably the most fascinating of the examples she applies her argument to.

A final thought about narrative 

Although she doesn’t go deeply into it, Levine twice makes the assertion that narrative is the very best of ways to identify and track the relations between forms (and that is her chief interest, how forms work with and against each other across social space and our productions). I like the idea and find it very interesting, even if what she says about in this book is tantalising rather than comprehensive.

In conclusion. This is the most exciting theoretical work I’ve read for a number of years and it feels like I just have to share it. It answers my own questions about how to work across social space and into media production space without losing the value of either, it speaks to my own sense that genre and structure are a bit weak as interpretive categories, it feeds my desire to find new ways to think about very challenging, very complex situations.










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