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

Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Caroline Levine. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi + 173. $29.95 (cloth).

The final chapter of Caroline Levine’s Forms begins by asking what the formalist cultural studies of the future might look like. Levine’s answer: “it could look something like David Simon’s superb television series, The Wire.” Notice, not like an analysis of The Wire but like The Wire itself, which Levine goes on to treat as an exemplary “theorization of the social” (133). Rather than analyze the show’s most sympathetic characters, she says, the formalist critic might do better to emulate their “canny formalism” (150). This would be to do, not just to read, The Wire. Where a more conventional book would have closed by reasserting the distance between its method and its objects of analysis, Forms ends by collapsing that distance, treating criticism and cultural works not just as coplanar but as interacting, interchangeable. It’s a move that epitomizes the willful eccentricity of Levine’s book, which repeatedly declines to be the new formalist handbook it superficially resembles. For although the terms that make up its subtitle might look like an elemental toolkit—the four things you’ll need to do formalist cultural studies—they’re offered in a more open and more speculative spirit. Whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network: four places from which to begin imagining the formalism to come.

Forms would initiate such a process in hopes of escaping the dead end to which our reigning formalisms have brought us. We have gotten stuck, says Levine, in the assumption that aesthetic forms are ontologically separate from socio-political ones (which we tend to call “structures”). Stuck, as well, in the tendency to treat aesthetic forms as mere symptoms or epiphenomena of the social structures that undergird and causally precede them. Yes, in paying attention to the fissures, contradictions, and indeterminacies that compromise our aesthetic and political forms, we’ve observed that both kinds of form can constrain us and might therefore be evaded together. But in the process we’ve come to believe that forms only participate in socially transformative work through their evasion. We’ve neglected to think sufficiently about how forms might create, especially through their complex and unpredictable interactions, politically radical possibilities. If we’re to learn to see these possibilities, we need to get better at describing the interactions among multiple forms at multiple scales. This will mean breaking our habit of reducing formal complexity to univocal deep structural explanations (capital, nation, race, the unconscious). It will also mean abandoning our disciplinary reserve, leaving the safe radius of aesthetic formalism to track the interference patterns produced by all colliding orders and repetitions and differences, all forms of form.

In emphasizing surface over depth, description over decryption, Forms declares a partial affinity with recent promotions of surface reading over symptomatic reading. But whereas many proponents of surface reading wish to suspend the political imperative altogether, Levine takes “radical social change” to be the primary goal of her formalism (18).[1] The problem with the hermeneutics of depth, she writes, is not that it aims at political transformation but that its “exclusive focus on ultimate causality . . . has distracted us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends” (17). In fixating on the same intractable causes of unfreedom, in staging the millionth exposure of these already overexposed structures of domination, we miss our chance to find more local openings created by crisscrossing social and aesthetic forms, and to stage smaller-scale but consequential political actions in those openings.

Up to this point, Levine has been describing Forms as aiming “to produce a new formalist method” by bringing together “insights into social and aesthetic forms” that are dispersed through literary and cultural studies, fields that already possess the “tools to grasp this formal complexity” (3, xiii). The language of tools and method seems to promise a systematic procedure for practitioners to apply to an analytical object, a step-by-step primer. But midway through the introduction Levine begins to diverge from the handbook-of-methods genre toward which Forms has so far bent. Enlisting the words of social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger, she proposes a thought experiment. “What if,” she writes, “we were to see social life. . . as composed of ‘loosely and unevenly collected’ arrangements, ‘a makeshift, pasted-together’ order rather than a coherent system that can be traced back to a single cause?” Relatedly, what if we were to treat aesthetic and political forms as ontologically level, as contiguous, as transactable? What kinds of social transformation might be touched off by the aleatory energies loosed when those multiple forms collide?

The rest of Forms unfolds inside these “what ifs,” in a sense is the thought experiment they frame.[2] To the extent Levine’s book offers a method, it’s one in the subjunctive or conditional mood, a method for a world in which political and aesthetic forms were fungible and could be treated as such. In what may be its biggest gamble, Forms forbears to argue syllogistically that we live in such a world. Levine offers no critique of Marxism’s base–superstructure distinction, no point-for-point attack on any deep structural epistemology. As a result, readers committed to such epistemologies will probably not have their commitments shaken by Forms. Rather than break down impediments to its method, the book leaps over them. This is a leap not of faith but of strategy; focusing on structural causes, remember, “has distracted us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends.” Levine’s leap lands the book at a fascinating and seldom visited place: the border between theory and speculative fiction. It’s here that the introduction begins to stretch toward the concluding reading of The Wire. For if new formalist method can depend on a counterfactual leap, then why not read a work of fiction as an example of new formalist practice?

Each of the book’s four body chapters explores a key form, examining its indwelling potentials or “affordances,” a term Levine borrows from design theory. Rhythm, the term used here for any recurrent temporal pattern, affords both solidarity and control, both pleasure and subjugation. Institutional rhythms, which we have tended since Foucault to associate with regulation, also afford interruption and transformation, particularly when the tempos of multiple institutions either complicate or reinforce one another. In her discussion of the 1928 case C. Brancusi v. United States, Levine shows how the sculptor and his lawyers harmonized the precedential rhythms of common law with the innovative and audience-instructing ones of the avant-garde to produce a more porous legal conception of originality. The decision to recategorize Brancusi’s Bird in Space as a duty-free artwork rather than a tariff-bearing utensil may not exemplify the kind of radical social change that is the stated goal of Levine’s formalism. But it is a tangible change in this-world legal precedent, one of whose affordances is applicability to a range of subsequent objects. What’s more, the discussion of the Brancusi case intriguingly models a prosody of institutional rhythms. Forms bears out its literary anti-exceptionalism in such moves, rotating the disciplinary techniques of literary study outward to face an enlarged universe of aesthetic and social forms.

Levine, I said above, declines to hawk the analytical payoffs of her method in a concluding tour-de-force reading, preferring to describe Simon’s series as itself performing a new formalist analysis that scholars might do well to emulate. In practice, there may not be a vast difference between using new formalist methods to read The Wire and reading The Wire as an example of new formalist method. Both approaches produce necessarily partial descriptions of the series (no description without analysis, no analysis without partiality), and in terms that are exogenous to it. The greater departure may be in asking formalist critics to do justice not only to The Wire’s complexity as an object but to its complexity as a prolonged act of description: to rise, in their scholarship, to the level of its longitudinal, multi-tiered, polyscalar account of the city of Baltimore, and to try rivaling the series in tracking the complex collisions of forms and forces that together constitute its chosen object. Levine’s promotion of The Wire to new formalist paradigm should also prompt us to ask whether there are limits to how far academics can and should go in modeling their scholarship on the canny formalism of persons, real or fictional, whose lives are radically precarious.

Before long we’ll begin to see what kinds of work Forms spurs other critics to undertake. My guess is that while future new formalists will continue to write of form’s affordances, they may not sound much like Levine.[3] They likely won’t hew to wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks as their central categories. Yet they will have benefited enormously from Forms’ space-clearing gestures and heterogeneous example sets. Given its author’s reluctance to codify a method by burnishing a finite number of tools—not least because she understands the interpretive tool as one among many kinds of form—such a legacy would seem just right. If we’re lucky, some of those inspired by her book will be as willing as Levine to stage collisions between literary criticism’s conventional forms and those of other modes and disciplines, in the hope of creating new ways of doing what we do. As willing, too, as Forms is to call for what it doesn’t need to be.


  1. ^ See, for example, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (Fall 2009): 1–21. Best and Marcus are willing to brook charges of political quietism in doubting whether literary criticism should be treated as “political activism by another name,” and in wishing to shift critical practice away from ideological decryption and toward the description of literary surfaces (2). However, they end their piece by insisting that “producing accurate accounts of surfaces is not antithetical to critique” (18).
  2. ^ The “what if” question—part invitation, part counterfactual, part rhetorical question—is one of Forms’ central gestures. “What if we understood literary texts not as unified but as inevitably plural in their forms—bringing together multiple ordering principles, both social and literary, in ways that do not and cannot repress their differences?” (40). “What if we consider [poetic] meter as another of these social rhythms, not an epiphenomenal effect of social realities, but capable itself of exerting or transmitting power”? (74). “[W]hat if the organizing forms of the world do not—cannot—unify experience?” (80).
  3. ^ I assigned Forms in my graduate proseminar this past semester. Judging by its rapid uptake into our working vocabulary, the word "affordances" seemed to scratch an acute lexical itch.