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? Continue reading

Chains of desire

Off to a good start at IALJS 8 with Robert Alexander using Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to show that there is a narrative drive in literary journalism to produce a story that is satisfying as story but which also produces meaning. The narrative drive pushes towards closure but this might be so at odds with meaning that the story might not be able to achieve closure.

Alexander used the idea of desire to say that writer, source and reader (through their expectations of genre) all come to the story invested. “A chain of desires saturates the process,” he said. In Orlean’s quest to find the ghost orchid in the Florida swamps she depends on her guide John Laroche to immerse her into his obsession and lead her to it. Thigh deep in swamp they don’t find it, “the story depends on the stability of Laroche’s desire” but the actual source is unreliable and unable to sustain his passion and with it her narrative arc. “Sources cannot be reduced to types of their desires,” he said.