- Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network by Caroline Levine
Caroline Levine’s new book expands and develops ideas presented initially in her influential essay, “Strategic Formalism” (Victorian Studies 48.1 : 625–57). In that essay, subtitled “Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies,” Levine set out to bridge the gap between two apparently incompatible critical methodologies: an older tradition of literary formalism, grounded in the New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks and others, and more recent historicist, poststructuralist, and cultural studies approaches, including New Historicism and various types of Marxist and feminist critique. Aligning herself with other “new formalists” (she cites Heather Dubrow, Herbert Tucker and Susan Wolfson, among others) but seeking to move beyond them, Levine proposed a “post-post-structuralist formalism” that “considers the ways that social, cultural, political, and literary ordering principles rub up against one another, operating simultaneously but not in concert” (632–33).
Central to Forms and to Levine’s earlier essay is an expanded understanding of the concept of form. Form, for Levine, refers to the patterns of repetition and difference that organize social as well as aesthetic experience. Rather than treat aesthetic forms in isolation from history, as literary formalism is often accused of doing, or view aesthetic objects primarily as reflections or products of their historical circumstances, Levine urges us to recognize the interplay of multiple social and aesthetic structures without necessarily giving priority to one over the other. Forms, she insists, are at work everywhere, and formalist analysis “turns out to be as valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature” (2).
Historicist and structuralist approaches, she argues, rely too often on overly simple models of analysis in which one ordering principle – race, class, nation, gender, or sexuality, for example – takes precedence over all other considerations. Ideological critique of the sort practiced by many cultural studies scholars seldom acknowledges the multiple and sometimes contradictory forces at work in a given text or institution. Levine recognizes the power of dominant ideologies, but does not regard them as always imposing themselves uniformly on cultural experience or as aligned [End Page 143] symmetrically with formal patterns in a given text or material circumstance. Instead of reading literary texts in relation to social structures, Levine prefers to think in terms of “collisions” (a favorite word) between and within both literary and sociopolitical forms.
Following an introduction that outlines her expanded version of formalism as a critical method, Levine proceeds to examine four major forms that have concerned literary and cultural studies scholars: wholes, rhythms, hierarchies and networks. Each of these topics receives a separate chapter, and each offers examples, social and political as well as literary, of how a formalist method might proceed. Trained as a scholar of Victorian literature, Levine provides examples from Victorian poetry and fiction to illustrate her approach: Jane Eyre in relation to questions of bounded form and narrative closure; a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in relation to questions of tempo and rhythm; Bleak House in relation to networks. She also provides discussions of works from other periods and traditions: the reception of Brancusi’s Bird in Space as an example of how institutional rhythms affect changing concepts of originality and precedent; the Antigone of Sophocles to illustrate the collision of multiple kinds of hierarchy. The book concludes with an extended analysis of the recent television series The Wire, as an example of how all four of Levine’s major forms operate in a single text.
A distinctive feature of Levine’s book is its appeal to models drawn from the social sciences: the concept of “affordances” from design theory; ideas about duration and periodization adapted from the “new institutionalism” of recent sociological theory; and terms like “path length,” “centrality,” “hub,” and “hinge,” imported from the network theory of political science and computer technology. In proposing the usefulness of such models, Levine is encouraging cultural studies scholars to develop a more nuanced vocabulary for analyzing social structures, one that is equal in sophistication and complexity to the vocabulary developed by literary formalists for...