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  • Not Against Structure, but in Search of Better StructuresA Response to Winfried Fluck
  • Caroline Levine (bio)

I wholeheartedly agree with Winfried Fluck that “[m]ethodological debates are, in the final analysis, also debates about cultural values and their normative base” (244). Methods should never be mere exercises but struggles to realize ends. I wrote Forms (2015) because I was preoccupied by a set of political goals. These goals shape all of the questions I asked then and continue to ask now. I want to see wealth redistributed from the rich to the poor, the temperatures of the upper atmosphere stabilized, and clean water and adequate nutrition available to all. I want racial and gender hierarchies flattened, and a vast range of bodies and pleasures allowed—no, encouraged—to flourish.

But I wrote the book, too, because I was frustrated by the struggle to realize those values in the political sphere. Since I came of age in the 1980s, the Left has met with many more losses than gains. We have seen the rise of ethnonationalisms and the onrush of climate catastrophe and the privatization of almost every public good. We have seen the rollback of voting rights and the mass incarceration of African Americans. In this context, I have asked myself over and over again which of our traditional strategies on the Left—revolution for the Marxists, social reform for the center-left, or the detourings and micropolitics of queer and poststructuralist theory—could best help us toward the ends of justice. All of these have for long stretches left me dissatisfied and despairing. I suspect I am not alone in this. [End Page 255]

At stake for me, then, fundamentally, is not a question of values and norms in the academic humanities—most of us share broadly progressive desires for wealth redistribution, environmental justice, and racial and sexual equality—but a question about how to intervene effectively: How exactly does change for the better happen? Does it involve intentional, coordinated efforts and careful organizing? Can micropolitics spark structural or revolutionary change? Does radical change follow only from mass despair? Do piecemeal reforms quell revolution by providing just enough in the way of comfort and security to workers that they don’t rise up against the system? Will we have to resort to violence or can we use nonviolent strategies?

My goal in Forms was to focus on the two political models that have the most purchase in our fields, Marxism and poststructuralism, both of which were troubling me on strategic grounds: Marxism, for its attention to a single deep cause that is the real source of all social structuration; and poststructuralism, for its insistence on resisting all forms, on understanding all structurations as domination. I asked: What if the problem for realizing our values was that neither of these offers a persuasive account of the way that structures actually work in the world?

I ended up following this question along two tracks. First, I asked how we might make sense of the fact that there are many orderings and structurings in our world. Does any single one of them really dominate, organizing or causing all the others? This seemed to me increasingly unpersuasive. Gender, race, nation, and class, although they can work well together, do not always do so. The more I looked, the more this started to appear true of other, smaller forms too. So it seemed possible that there might be genuine opportunities for political action in recognizing openings for change when structures do not reinforce one another. This is why the collision mattered so much to me. It meant that there might be ways of undermining economic domination or racial hierarchy, more readily foreseeable and practicable than radical, large-scale revolution.

Second, I became convinced that structures are necessary to collective life, not only as modes of domination but also, crucially, as modes of producing justice. From what I can tell, humans have never had collective life without orders and regulations: spaces for shelter and gathering, appointed times for work and food and rest, procedures for decision-making. In this sense, the polis cannot do without distributions and arrangements. And that means that the best...


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pp. 255-259
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