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  • Returning to the Politics of Form: Levine’s Forms, and Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns
  • Marta Bashovski (bio)
Fredric Jameson, The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms. London: Verso. 320pages. $34.95 (hc). ISBN: 9781781685938
Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 192pages. $29.95 (hc). ISBN: 9780691160627

Formalism has been mostly out of fashion in literary studies for some time. In critically inflected streams of social and political thought, the same claim might be made about formalism’s political-sociological avatar, structuralism. Debates around both literary formalisms – narratology, semiotics, New Criticism and so on – and structuralist forms of analysis in the social sciences often converged on formalist analyses' lack of historical acuity, their apparently apolitical claims and simultaneous textual entombing, and their universalizing generalizations. Even when these debates were at their most fervent, in the late 60s and 70s, however, it was often difficult to make a clear distinction between historical and structuralist analyses, between questions of content and those of form (as these were phrased in literary studies). In one well-known case, Michel Foucault vehemently denied that his The Order of Things was a structuralist text, writing that “certain half-witted ‘commentators’ persist in labeling me a ‘structuralist’. I have been unable to get it into their tiny minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts, or key terms that characterize structural analysis.”1 This denial, however, was accompanied by a concession that while he could not refuse the ways in which his work is determined by the conditions of his time, he could refuse the structuralist name. Later, Foucault further conceded that the text was political, commenting that “what else was it that I was talking about… but power?”2

Two recent texts continue these debates and reinvigorate formalism, taking contrasting positions on what has now become almost a clichéd dictum: Fredric Jameson’s “Always Historicize!” Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, is both modest in its methodological hopes and ambitious in its breadth, aiming to offer a “methodological starting point” (2015, 23) for a new “formalist cultural studies” which examines “what happens when a great many social, political, natural and aesthetic forms encounter one another” (132). Fredric Jameson’s own The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms is a collection of mostly previously published essays on themes ranging from Reubens’ painting, to late 20th century Eastern European films (Kieślowski, Sokurov, Angelopoulos), to The Wire and other “postmodern experiments.” This volume has no clearly outlined aims, but does speak to the broad program Jameson has described as “The Poetics of Social Forms,” to offer a reading of the relationships between aesthetic forms and their articulation in specific social and historical circumstances.3 Here, Jameson is particularly interested in tracing the formal contradictions, or “form-problems,” in Lukács’ terms, through which aesthetic innovation emerges as a means to convey historical change. While neither Jameson nor Levine take the aesthetic object as autonomous from its historical context, for Levine the aesthetic site is less important as a representation of emergent socio-political realities, than as a site where multiple social and political forms collide.

Both texts should thus be read as political treatises – in that the authors’ intentions are explicitly political, and in that methodological arguments are always political. In Jameson’s case, this is a relatively straightforward task, as The Ancients and the Postmoderns continues the Marxist thinker’s longstanding project. Here, Jameson resumes discussions from Archaeologies of the Future (2005), Valences of the Dialectic (2007) and The Antinomies of Realism (2013) on the relationships between modernist temporalities and affects and the question of a perpetual present, dialectics of realism and utopia, and the persistence of narrative in the diagnoses of historical transition. Levine’s approach is perhaps more experimental. Forms is an optimistic book, “an attempt to think about how we might make our world more just” (xii), taking from Rancière an understanding of politics as a question of appearances, distributions, and arrangements. “There is no politics without form,” Levine argues, and a collision of forms “sometimes reroutes intention and ideology” (18). While Jameson...