We don’t realize it, but forms are all around us—ordering our lives—according to Caroline E. Levine, English. We might associate terms such as rhythm and shape with works of art and literature, but these words for artistic form are equally good at describing sociopolitical patterns that organize our social world. Take the concept of the whole in literary studies: for the last hundred years, literary theorists have been looking at works of art from a holistic perspective, asking what they accomplish overall.
“That has become a basic way of reading literature,” Levine says. “But at the same time, we’ve also been fascinated by questions of boundaries and enclosures in the social world. For instance, when we talk about nations, refugees, or immigrants, we are thinking about how we organize people into enclosures—the nation as a whole.” Theorists have contended that thinking about a whole literary text and then applying that analysis to the idea of the wholeness of a nation or a people is just metaphorical, Levine says, but she doesn’t agree. “I think we’re using some of the same analytical faculties we use in our literary critique to think about boundaries, for instance, and what they do: a boundary encloses, it includes, it contains.”
Artistic and Social Forms
Levine explored this train of thought in her highly praised book, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015). In this work, she borrows from design theory and behavioral psychology the idea of affordances, possible uses that are latent in any material or design. Levine explains an example often given for affordance—the door knob. It affords turning, pushing, and pulling; but things can also be hung from a door knob—an affordance its designers did not intend.
“My shift in literary studies was to think of literary and artistic forms as having certain affordances,” she says. “A poetic rhythm can think certain thoughts that a framed picture cannot. The same is true of the terms we use for analyzing our world. If we think of a text as having boundaries—a beginning, a middle, and an end—then we’re thinking of it in a certain way as a whole. But if we think of it as part of a culture, the idea of it being whole doesn’t work anymore. Different conceptual designs produce different kinds of thinking. In my book, I was trying to use these basic formal structures, like the whole, to think about what these forms afford across art objects and social worlds.”
Levine argues in her book that forms have good and bad affordance. As an example, she looks at the world of Medieval nuns who were enclosed in a convent, not allowed to leave the building or even to look out the window. “They chose to activate an affordance of enclosure—which was centrality—that I don’t think was intended by the Catholic church,” Levine says. “The nuns said, ‘Yes, we’re at the very heart of the church. We are its center and its life’s blood.’ People can activate affordances strategically and creatively even when they can’t totally redo them.”
How Forms Shape Our Sociopolitical Structures
Levine continued thinking about the forms that structure our social world as she began working on her current project which focuses on the forces that keep these forms in place. “If you look at racial hierarchy, for instance, that’s still organizing our world even though it’s no longer the letter of the law,” she says. “Why? How does it stick like that?”
“Formalist analysis comes best out of the arts…When I’m looking at a novel, I’m looking at multiple overlaid structures at the same time. I have this analytic capability that I can bring to the social world.”
To answer that question, she researched the history of redlining, the government practice in the 1930s of drawing lines around minority neighborhoods on maps of cities and then deeming those neighborhoods too risky for Federal Housing Administration loans. “Once you have these neighborhoods that are designated as risky, that’s a whole; that’s an enclosure,” Levine says. “It promotes white flight out of the neighborhood. Then when it’s time to build mass transit or sewer lines, they are built in the wealthier white suburban neighborhoods. They bypass the redlined minority neighborhoods completely. So racism is being built into the environment through these designs, and that is why racism continues to stick.”
Alternative Organizational Structures, Reimagined
While seeking to understand the impact of forms growing out of sociopolitical practices, such as redlining, Levine is also investigating how literary scholars can use texts and art objects as ways of modeling or imagining different organizational structures for the world. In one line of inquiry, she is looking at the endings of Victorian novels for ways to rethink the structuring of households. “Some of these novels are quite experimental in their ideas of households,” she says. She mentions the novel Romola, by George Eliot, which ends with a woman moving in with her dead husband’s mistress to raise a child. “It’s a woman-centered household, raising this child,” Levine says. “It’s an example of how the Victorian novel experiments with the possibilities of a household unit. A question that gets raised all the time in Victorian novels is ‘who should raise the children?’ Often it’s not the biological parents.” In Romola two woman who should hate each other instead join together, which offers the possibility of women’s collectives—another type of enclosure but one that joins together the women who create it.
It’s important to understand how forms organize our social world and to reimagine those forms that are unjust, Levine says. To do that, scholars need to look at the many forms and structures as they crisscross, reinforce, and undo each other—and that is exactly what literary theorists already know how to do. “Formalist analysis comes best out of the arts. Other disciplines also look at these types of questions, but we’re the ones best equipped to think certain types of thoughts. Sociologists, for example, think in terms of structures, but they tend to look at simple structures, like stratification, whereas when I’m looking at a novel, I’m looking at multiple overlaid structures at the same time. I have this analytic capability that I can bring to the social world.”
Literature holds within it possibilities and answers to questions about life as well as its intrinsic value as a work of art. “Those two are never separate for me. I want to bring them together. I want to think about why great artistic, subtle models have in them the material for living.”