Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network

Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 192 pp. ISBN: 9780691160627.

This monograph is in line with Caroline Levine’s long-term research interest in how literature relates to social-political and material-historical conditions. A scholar of Victorian literature and culture inspired by Foucauldian and New Historicist criticisms, her work involves bridging the gap between historical-political approaches to culture and the more traditional techniques of literary formalism. Her publications include advanced interpretations of rhymes and networks in Victorian literature and world literature, as well as the edited work The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Before elaborating on her proposed method of literary interpretation, Levine stresses Michel Foucault’s scholarly impact and indicates Discipline and Punish as a “revelation” (p. x). Foucault’s study does not presuppose or target the meaning of specific texts, but rather emphasises the ordering principles of discourses which influence the way different texts are organised and received. Different from interpretative theories which place the author’s intention and textual meanings at the centre of discussions, Foucault’s language ontology has provoked many controversies in the field of literary studies. Levine starts her book with a family debate between her and her father (a respected intellectual historian) on literary interpretation. It encapsulates a larger debate between formalism and historicism which fundamentally reshaped the study of literature since the 1960s, and continuously inspired Levine’s academic pursuits. This book proposes a new method – addressing the relationship between cultural artefacts and political arrangements – that renews the formalistic methodology. With this she makes a substantive contribution to the humanistic disciplines which deal with narratives and social politics.

Levine interprets the conception of form as follows: forms universally structure and pattern experience (p. 16); form differs from context as forms “can remain stable over time”; form also differs from genre as they “traverse time and space in different ways” (p. 13). In the introductory section, the current reception of form is summarised as five basic ideas about how forms work: “forms”, “contain”, “differ”, “overlap”, and “intersect”. Forms travel and do political work in particular historical contexts (p. 4-5). The proposed new method looks beyond the currently perceived functions of form to explore collisions of forms – the encounter between forms that “reroutes intention and ideology” (p. 18). Levine draws upon her interdisciplinary engagements to adapt conceptions such as affordance in the field of industrial design (concerning the dynamics of people’s perception of artefacts) (p. 6) and inadequate structures in Brazilian legal politics (p. 17) to entail the possibilities and limits forms place on their constituents. Affordance remains important all through the analysis, since it embodies the transformation of meanings from domains of experience that people know well to domains that they do not understand. We also find out about how forms both constrain and mobilise practices through examining the use and misuses of experiences. The denotation is followed by four research themes (p. 22): 1) the order each form imposes; 2) how knowledge claims itself through organising forms; 3) the relationship between literary and political forms; 4) politics operates through different kinds of forms rather than a single hegemonic system/dominant ideology.

The above interpretations summarise the conception and functions of form. Levine then details four major literary forms that one can observe in their reading. The whole design of Levine’s new method is to look into these forms in literary practices, to see their interactions, and to understand how these interactions convey discursive regimes and political institutions.

Whole can be seen as a constitutive outside (p. 26) which structures organizations and imaginations of relationships, e.g. the powerful and prevalent wholes – nation-state, Renaissance, etc. Levine employs inspiration from two influential schools – New Criticism and New Historicism – to present the bounded-wholes universally confronted or imagined in literary studies. The former compares a poem to an enclosed container, which their representative scholar terms “the well wrought urn”; the latter embeds literary texts in socio-historical contexts (p. 27-28). Levine goes through a series of examples, from the restrictions imposed upon medieval European nuns to John Ruskin’s art criticism, in order to demonstrate the dynamic process of bringing “unending and uncontained plurality” (p. 30) to the seemingly unified container/context. By showing how various bounded-wholes are contending in terms of organised and styled narratives, she reminds us to rethink the historical contexts not as single, powerful ideologies, but as colliding forms (p. 39-40). In other words, historicism can also be considered as a type of formalism when examined from the perspective of form collision. This chapter is concluded with an interesting intellectual history of a special whole – the seminar room:

Capable of crossing disciplinary boundaries, encouraging critique and innovation, and prompting deliberately open-ended discussion about such confining wholes as convents and nation-states, the seminar room is a bounded, enclosed shape that sets out to disrupt other bounded, enclosed shapes. Can it succeed? Most of us literary and cultural studies scholars behave daily as if it can and does.” (p. 48)

The “Rhythm” chapter engages with repetitive temporal patterns in text-buildings and social lives. It explores how temporal structures collide in social arrangements and how these collisions relate to extant institutions. Among many, the examples of the academe of English literature are especially supportive in conveying Levine’s basic arguments. The first example explains how English studies as a discipline was officially established in India before it was institutionalised in Britain; and the curriculum was later brought back to Britain and provoked a kind of nationalist ideology (p. 58). In this example the “institutional times” of both sides collided and brought about the status of English literary studies. Levine’s first two claims in studying rhythm exactly stress that the social situation demands the coexistence of multiple tempos (tempos of certain historical progress and of literary arrangements deriving from various cultures) (p. 61 & 79). The second example generally addresses the common practice of maintaining old division of historical periods in English studies while methodologies have already been updated (e.g. the popularisation of New Criticism which recognises different temporal patterns in the history of English literature). Through this example Levine reiterates that historical periods are meaningful bounded wholes, and makes her third claim – institutions persist and survive through repetitions (p. 62). Thinking of Roman Jakobson’s momentous argument that meaning is constructed by projecting the analogue axis of paradigmatic substitution (1960), the third “rhythm” statement can also be interesting in the semiotic and linguistic perspectives. Jakobson examines how phonetic and semantic elements in languages are aligned to make a verbal message a work of art. In a similar manner, Levine concludes the “rhythm” chapter with elaborations of poetry. Levine refused to see the aesthetic form as representations of social relations. But rather, she suggests that “poetic meter affords an organising of temporal experience in its own way in the moment of reading” (p. 79). If poetry does deliver great metaphors of life, we may learn that our lives are also simultaneously organised by multiple social, political and aesthetic rhythms (p. 80)

The chapter on hierarchies shows that this book is an effort towards “establishment”, which fundamentally departs from deconstructive approaches. The formation and results of hierarchies are of key importance in social politics. Levine makes a precious effort to integrate different studies on hierarchies, and suggests that the inadequacies of extant investigations can be understood with a novel insight – that the collision of many different hierarchies does not lead to simplified orders. Antigone is a perfect example to show that “a firm insistence on one hierarchy typically ends up reversing or subverting the logic of another, generating a political landscape of radical instability and unpredictability” (p. 85). Many excellent scholarly minds have lingered on the interpretations of Antigone. The theorist Judith Butler, for example, has already pointed out how the hierarchical relationships she engages with differ from Hegel’s and Lacan’s. Levine’s analysis of form is exactly about exploring how different hierarchical relationships in Antigone can be put together and how they conflict with one another in the bounded wholes (gods and men’s tempos, law, etc.). Modern novels, Jane Eyre for example, also mediate contending hierarchies. Seen in the light of Levine’s interpretation, Jane Eyre juxtaposes “affordances” of different plots which constantly interact and shape destinies of characters. The analyses relate literary interpretations to the most popular topics of social anxieties, e.g., gender, bureaucracy, etc. Levine then concludes the chapter by noting that “the methodological point is not to decide, once and for all, on a particular text’s hierarchy of values, or on our own, but to become clear-eyed about the ways that the vertical form of the hierarchy structures acts of literary reading.” (p. 111) This view urges literary scholars to analyse how a text is started, circulated and received, especially when they confront texts from very different cultures or texts that belong to a very old civilization. It has certain limitations in diluting the historical positivist approach emphasised by certain academic disciplines (e.g. Classics, philosophy).

The “network” chapter approaches a significant and delicate social configuration of our time – network. Economists and sociologists have extensively discussed why modern societies should be concerned about the changing ways information, human resources, materials, etc., are connected. Literary scholars, philosophers and historians also debate about the circulation processes of literary images and ideas. Levine especially provides us an insight of looking into specific encounters between unendingly expanding networks (p. 117). As should be clear from the above, the experiences of creations and receptions are structured by collisions of forms. And the most powerful collision – increasingly powerful in the age of globalization and informationisation – is the collision of networks. Levine states that overlapping networks sometimes challenge bounded wholes, which is clearly shown in her study of Dickens’ Bleak House. Dickens placed his characters in different imaginary networks (e.g. lawsuits, diseases) and made their connections flow out from crossing nodes. The reading experience is just a mimesis of our social experience, that “we spend hours and hours in the experience of uncertainty…we know that we cannot grasp crucial pathways between nodes…We cannot ever apprehend the totality of the networks that organise us” (p. 129).

Only after learning about Levine’s four major forms, especially network, can the reader enjoy the comprehensive and extended discussion of the HBO TV series that follows: The Wire. Levine indicates that this show brings forth a new genre (“quality Television”) which “extrapolate[s] generalizable rules and theorize the social” (p.134). The Wire is a crime drama which introduces different institutions in the city of Baltimore and their relation to law enforcements. There is an interweaving of several social networks surrounding key characters (e.g. drug dealer, politician, judge, lawyer, etc.), which are growing in real time and bringing about confronting hierarchies from different networks. Levine explores how the four major forms cross and contend with one another in the series. She also points out that the series could be seen as sociological sources because the characters are aware of the power and juxtaposition of the social-political arrangements. They lively perform how the forms interact and thus predict the social significance of the functioning of forms.

As Levine herself reflects, this book is a “methodological starting-point” (p. 23). One may find various possibilities to enrich the theory or to argue against it. This book is a must for researchers from humanistic disciplines who deal with textual effects and their relationships to socio-political arrangements. Besides the most relevant disciplines such literature studies and Classics, the methodology is also relevant to subjects like anthropology, drama studies, politics, social linguistics, etc. And as exemplified by the above analysis of Antigone, it is also highly recommended for readers who ponder about how great literary works are metaphors of human conditions that transcend time, space and culture.

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Lijing Peng

Comparative Criticism and Translation

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