The Social Lives of Form

Over the past 15 years, the interest in form that has long characterized literary studies has grown into a movement in its own right—the so-called “new formalism.” While its generative debates are no ...

Over the past 15 years, the interest in form that has long characterized literary studies has grown into a movement in its own right—the so-called “new formalism.” While its generative debates are no longer exactly new, this formalist turn continues to ignite urgent and animated arguments. Three recent books explore not only how we might connect aspects of form to social, ethical, and political concerns, but also the stakes of recognizing that reading for form has ethico-political implications of its own. Although their works vary in sensibility and scope, Derek Attridge, Caroline Levine, and Jarad Zimbler all argue that we should reframe form not merely in terms of what we study, but also in terms of the approaches we adopt and the scales at which we operate.

Levine, in Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, makes the strongest argument for rescaling. She contends that “paying attention to subtle and complex formal patterns allows us to rethink the historical workings of political power and the relations between politics and aesthetics.” For Levine, the moment has come for literary and cultural critics to muster their skillset and direct it outward, beyond their own discipline, toward the forms that social life assumes. Far from moribund, the concept of form, in her view, helps us to resolve the supposed impasse between meticulous analyses of individual artworks and macro-analyses of political and institutional realities, providing, that is, we notice how “one of the places where humans have some agency is in the orders that we ourselves impose: our spatial and temporal arrangements, our hierarchies of value and distributions of wealth—our forms.” Levine aims to reconceptualize customary ways of thinking about literature’s responsiveness to material circumstances that shape its forms. The idea that a text simply reflects and is furnished by its context is ambitiously reconfigured, as she proposes that “instead of assuming that social forms are the grounds or causes of literary forms, and instead of imagining that a literary text has a form, this book askes two unfamiliar questions: what does each form afford, and what happens when forms meet?”

Boldly asserting early on that her intervention, “like many others in the humanities, is an attempt to think about how we might make our world more just,” Levine sets the tone for what remains an earnestly argued book, investigating whether there are specific kinds of forms “we wish to see governing social life” and whether, in turn, certain “forms of protest or resistance actually succeed at dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements.” As prisms for refracting this discussion, she adopts four key terms that embrace artistic characteristics, critical subjects of interest, and social behaviours: whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network. These organizing categories all “have resonant corollaries in literature.” But literature—or, more precisely, literariness—is deliberately not Levine’s primary destination. Rather, her purpose is to show that “we can understand sociopolitical life as itself composed of a plurality of different forms, from narrative to marriage and from bureaucracy to racism.” To do this, she urges us to read for “the forms of the content” both “inside as well as outside of the literary text,” so as to reveal that, in everyday life, “forms are everywhere structuring and patterning experience.” That Levine’s book is intentionally not about shedding new light on the mechanisms of particular literary properties is made clear in the final flourish of its introduction, where she proclaims that we should now capitalize on what literary critics, with their expertise in systems of genre and the intricacies of expression, “have traditionally done best,” by acknowledging that “it is time to export those practices, to take our traditional skills to new objects—the social structure and institutions that are among the most crucial sites of political efficacy.”

This is all very rousing. Insofar as it encourages literary critics to rove across terrains typically occupied by political scientists and economists, however, it does raise the thorny issue of (inter)disciplinary competency. It also raises the issue of whether Levine’s command to “export” our approaches to form when engaging with social process ends up producing an argument-by-analogy. She does confront this potential glitch by reminding us that “form has never belonged only to the discourse of aesthetics”: this alone, she implies, yields an opportunity to expand form’s critical purchase to include the manner in which “politics involves activities of ordering, patterning, and shaping.” Analogies between the literary and the social are therefore justified in the hope of broadening form’s “ordinary usage.” Moreover, Levine needs to retain analogical connections between the way textual and political forms “shape what it is possible to think” in accordance with her central notion of affordances. Borrowed from design theory, “affordance” is invoked to “describe the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs.” Interpretively speaking, the concept facilitates suggestive, if convenient, lateral slides that not only link (seemingly) unrelated phenomena—“What is a walled enclosure or a rhyming couplet capable of doing?” wonders Levine—but also highlight form’s “portability across time and space.” That is, if forms “organize” private, social, and institutional dimensions of experience, then the ways they “afford” those arrangements remain “stable over time,” allowing us to “agree” on how forms politically act “across materials and contexts.” Consequently, “it is difficult not to agree,” argues Levine, “on the shape of the classroom or the schedule of the prisoner’s day, the hierarchy of a bureaucratic organization or the structure of a kinship system.” Inevitably, she concedes, there’s “some abstraction entailed here”; but for Levine, entertaining power’s “principles of organization” abstractly, irrespective of local circumstance or historical “audience,” is precisely what’s enabling.

Indeed, at times analogy and equivalence precipitate effective readings. As a finale to Chapter 3, for example, Levine reads Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1837 poem “The Young Queen” to discern how it “points the way to a new set of protocols for reading the relations between the time of poetry and the time of institutions.” Astutely recasting links between prosodic convention and political apparatus, Levine reveals that in “organizing her text around a meter that does not evoke any of the particular social tempos she describes, Barrett Browning suggests that poetry can impose its own order.” Neither a mimetic reflection of nor symbolic opposition to the motions of state infrastructure, the poem “affords an organizing of temporal experience in its own way in the moment of reading, just as political power does in the moment of royal succession, which means that the state and the poet are actually at work on one and the same project.” If this is still a version of argument via analogy (or at least via alignment, as “rhythmic repetitions and sudden breaks” characterize state and poem alike), I nevertheless found it convincing by virtue of Levine’s close reading alone—the sort of patient concentration on the warp and weft of textual form that other areas of this book seem to evade.

Levine is thus at her most dextrous and perceptive when she doesn’t comply so adamantly with her own mandate for exporting formalism; when she explicates rather than extrapolates the experience of encountering discrete literary techniques; when she substitutes aesthetic specificity for all-encompassing abstractions, often couched in insistent catalogues (“All of us, along with other species and objects, are located at the crossings of multiple unfolding networks that are perpetually linking bodies, ideas, and things through numerous channels at different rates and across different kinds of spaces”). The book is at its most riveting, in sum, when Levine allows that form “is a word,” to quote Angela Leighton, “which gives writers a figure for something essential to the literary work: for that obliqueness of style and matter, music and meaning, which demands attention, and becomes, in its way, a new kind of knowledge.”1

Like Levine’s, Attridge’s concepts are driven by propositions about the social and emotional efficacy of forms. But he’s more willing to question the pressures placed on criticism to promote a capacity for political discernment as the justification for its worth.

What forms might in fact “know” is elaborated in Levine’s engrossing final chapter, on The Wire. Here she puts the book’s four keywords successively into practice, celebrating the HBO series for the way it actively theorizes the social. More than just a credible window on community life, The Wire enacts a “stylized” vision that compels—affords—a complex apprehension of spatial enclosures, colliding tempos, institutional hierarchies, and criss-crossing knowledge networks that seem crucial “to understanding the ways that the social world works.” As the book’s climactic exhibition, this reading is undoubtedly powerful. But in its seamless fulfilment of Levine’s prototype categories, it can also feel somewhat programmatic. However “chaotic and contingent” she views our everyday experience of social forms to be, there’s something paradoxically formulaic about the way Levine’s narratives neatly yield the affordances they do. Just as the “contending networks” of Bleak House emblematize the way this “novel needs to present lots and lots of nodes, and to link them to multiple pathways,” so The Wire is “valuable” to Levine “for its capacity to represent multiple forms operating at once.” As though this drama were endlessly available for transcription into social prognosis, we’re “shown how things work, with openings to multiple alternatives at every turn.” Rather recursively, she observes that The Wire “repeatedly imagines the ways that forms might work together for genuine social change,” sourcing this disruption of power in “the overlapping of multiple forms” through its “attention to the ways that multiple social forms unfold in relation to one another.” Aside from the rhetorical overexertion of multiplicity here, we start to see how efficiently Levine’s models organize and reiterate analytical outcomes.

That efficiency might make one appreciate Derek Attridge’s recent worry that “it would be a pity if formal analysis, which could play a major part in a revaluation of literature as a cultural practice and an individual experience, became just another tool to ‘prove’ the critic right.”2 Attridge has long persuaded us to think of form less as an object for critics to dissect in ways that showcase their athleticism than “as an active principle, as an essential element in the literary event,” one that often eludes predetermined vocabularies of aesthetic analysis and ideological diagnosis alike. In line with Levine, he considers “what is traditionally called ‘form’ … inseparable from what is traditionally called ‘content.’”3 (I’m quoting here from his 2013 study of poetry, Moving Words.) The Work of Literature seems less like a follow-up to that earlier book than a valuable companion, one that allows Attridge to further his key priorities—critical attentiveness, hospitality, openness to invention and surprise—in “doing justice” to the formal singularity of literary works. The Work of Literature is divided into two parts. The first, “The Singularity of Literature: A Cross-Examination,” comprises a 94-page Q&A in which Attridge reflects back on the propositions of his 2004 landmark, The Singularity of Literature. Playing devil’s advocate with his own principal terms, he poses as a hypothetical examiner whose sharp queries impel clarification, elaboration, and self-qualification, prompting him to reassess notions such as “otherness and ethics” in the context of reading, as well as “inventiveness” and the “literary event.”

Attridge also underscores the political stakes of his method through his identification with postcolonial studies. It’s a field, he rightly reminds us, “made up of many disciplines,” with literary studies being only one, albeit prominent, part. To clarify his own position, he quotes from the editorial introduction to the recently established Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, in which Ato Quayson, Debjani Ganguly, and Neil ten Kortenaar “gesture toward a mode of reading that stays with the text, lingers with it, and expresses a reluctance to depart from it.” Such a commitment finds confident exposition, as we’ll see, in Jarad Zimbler’s study of J. M. Coetzee. But it also befits Attridge’s professed “interest … in the contribution made by literary works to colonial and postcolonial struggles as literary works, which means first of all engaging with their singularity and inventiveness.” Part II calibrates this interest with the aid of nine concepts: justice, singularity, criticism, context, culture, metaphor, knowing, affect, and hospitality. These categories provide rubrics for testing Attridge’s overarching contention that the “value of criticism lies primarily in enhancing the reader’s experience” of a work’s formal distinctiveness, so as to convey the way our “experience of the powerful literary work, when read as literature and not as something else, is an affective and somatic as well as an intellectual one.”

In its beautifully executed entirety, The Work of Literature is a limber embodiment of this candid, generous, often passionate argument. Like Levine’s, Attridge’s propositions are driven by concepts about the social and emotional efficacy of forms. But rather less like Levine, he’s more willing to question the pressures placed on criticism to promote a capacity for political discernment as the justification for its worth. Against the prospect of scholars from literature departments gallantly transplanting their expertise into areas occupied by political historians or sociologists, Attridge warns that “if we spend our time as teachers showing how literature exemplifies and reinforces ideology we’re not treating it as literature but simply as one among many types of discourse.”

Even when considering how a text “can be seen to undermine the ideology it apparently endorses,” Attridge argues that “we still risk reducing its field of operation to the restricted realm of existing ideological structures.” For Levine, those structures are precisely what we need to home in on with formalism’s appliances, thereby bolstering literary scholarship’s practical influence within the wider academic community. By contrast, Attridge’s misgivings remind us, as Helen Small shrewdly does, that “it is not self-evident that the humanities have special rights or responsibilities here, over disciplines with more obvious claims to understanding the operations of modern government and modern economies.”4 So, looking ahead, what can approaches to form do socially, in Attridge’s view? His incisive conception of literature as an “event” offers one answer. As soon as “we conceive of the work as an event, meaning becomes an occurrence, not a substance or an abstraction.”5 Departing somewhat from Levine’s quest to understand what the complex affordances of literary and cultural texts can tell us about the covert operations of order and subjugation, Attridge insists that “treating a work as an event means finding in that event the value of the work, not in anything to be learned or deduced from it.” One can of course learn all sorts of useful things about moral responsibility and political action from literary texts, although “to that extent we’re treating them as if they were something other than literature.” This sobering position has considerable consequences for one’s critical ego, of course, especially if we suppose political intuitions are inherent virtues and if we support those intuitions by interpretive audacity alone. Hence, “the best criticism,” Attridge suggests, is watchful of its own self-importance: remaining “rigorous in reflecting the critic’s actual experience of the work” as an event that illuminates social and ethical arenas without being reducible to them, while “resisting the ever-present temptation to exploit the powerful machinery of critical discourse to make ingenious points.”

Postcolonial studies is hardly the only field that benefits from this level of honesty about what exactly criticism claims to do in the interests of progressive change.

This is a tricky balance to strike for any close reader of form, notably when the most socially alert readings can also be the most virtuosic in tackling discrepant aspects of literary works. But it’s a balance that Jarad Zimbler achieves in his absorbing book on Coetzee. Zimbler has taken a relatively traditional genre—the single-author monograph aimed at specialists—and armed it with something invigorating: a desire, first, to foreground the compositional concerns of a writer whose critics don’t always attend to his handling of form; and, second, to reach beyond Coetzee aficionados by demonstrating assiduous treatments of diction, pace, and timbre that will appeal to anyone interested in contemporary writing. Zimbler admirably avoids “the temptation,” as Attridge describes it, “of jumping from formal detail to large ethical and political themes.”6 Instead, his premise is that “style is fundamentally important to the ways a novel mediates and knows the world,” focusing on what the “subterranean operations of syntax, lexis, prosody and narrative structure” contribute to Coetzee’s spare idiom. Where Levine exports formalism to make it matter politically, Zimbler shows how grammar, stress, and inflection—despite being “regarded as the special preserve either of pedants or professional linguists”—are themselves part of the political substance of Coetzee’s prose. Whereas Levine “seeks out pattern over meaning, the intricacy of relations over interpretive depth” in an attempt to convince those “interested in politics to become formalists,” Zimbler reverses this operation to prove that deep, unashamedly involved close readings can elucidate political ramifications often missed by critics bent on showing how fiction symptomatically reproduces social struggle.

Across five core chapters, Zimbler moves chronologically through Coetzee’s major works, from Dusklands (1974) to Disgrace (1999). In so doing, he offers a biography of fictional technique, but one that’s always historically vigilant. In Chapter 3, for instance, on “Poetry and Perspective,” he situates Coetzee’s tenor of “intimate address” against a moment in South African letters when “a determined anti-lyricism had become increasingly prominent” for novelists writing under apartheid. Although occasionally the pay-off of Zimbler’s elegant dissemination of syntactic and phonemic features is more implicit than overt—sometimes seeming to trace alliterative or assonantal runs for their own euphonic sake—ultimately he is as aware of the hazards of being aridly formalist as he is of the reductions of being schematically political. What emerges is a manifold portrait of Coetzee the practitioner, throwing vividly into relief that “strange entanglement in his writing of economy and emotional intensity.”

Zimbler himself gets rather emotional toward the close, urging his readers to discover fresh ways of “recognizing that we are each of us affected by those subtle shifts in tense and tone, vocabulary and register that are often the consequence of a writer’s groping search for subject matters and forms.” He advises this in the context of asking, rather pointedly, whether postcolonial criticism will “survive its own faddishness.” To do so, he predicts, “it will need to address its failure to treat literary works as literary works, rather than cultural texts.” This injunction sounds very much in tune with Attridge’s call for hospitable modes of reading, mindful of their own charisma, that prioritize the literary and don’t automatically presume they’re making any profound difference, even if politics is their topic and motivation. It strikes me that postcolonial studies is hardly the only field that might benefit from this level of honesty about what exactly criticism claims to do in the interests of progressive change, not least when literary scholars face Levine’s charge that they’re “missing an opportunity to read social structures” with the tools they’ve honed to read textual forms.

To be sure, all three critics considered here are invested in pursuing the intersection of social and aesthetic orbits. Yet their opinions ultimately differ over the question of how far we should regard work on poetics as necessarily translatable into politics. For Levine, this is an ongoing imperative for any conversation worth having about form “on multiple scales,” especially if we’re to “grasp the interconnections between cultural objects and vast patterns of domination.”7 For Attridge, I suspect, there would be signs here of an underlying instrumentalism that fosters readings with the tendency to overlook how poetry and fiction exceed preconceived political explanations, however sophisticated or well intentioned. For Zimbler, likewise, the hubris of critique has had the ironic effect of limiting literary studies, and his salutary remedy is to revitalize stylistic analysis and to question some orthodoxies of postcolonial inquiry. Each of these books does a good deal of soul-searching on behalf of what we mean by the value of literary criticism, while also inviting us to ponder the value of transforming our objects of study altogether by migrating to other disciplinary domains. For that reason alone, they’re all the more pertinent at a time when many find it compelling to measure the “impact” of scholarship in increasingly quantitative terms. icon

  1. Angela Leighton, On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 241.
  2. Derek Attridge, Moving Words: Forms of English Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 27.
  3. Ibid., p. 29.
  4. Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 139.
  5. Attridge, Moving Words, p. 29.
  6. Ibid., p. 25.
  7. Caroline Levine, “Scaled Up, Writ Small: A Response to Carolyn Dever and Herbert F. Tucker,” Victorian Studies, vol. 49, no.1 (2006), p. 104.
Featured image: J. M. Coetzee speaks at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Photograph by César Cortés / Flickr