Caroline Levine’s “Forms” and Theory of Literature: Introduction (#01)

Hello and welcome! I’m Filip Magnus and I’m an English Studies major, currently doing a Theory of Literature class. I find it utterly fascinating and quite complex — so what better to do in order to learn more about Forms than to write about it on my blog?!

In this short series of blog posts, I’ll endeavour to break down Caroline Levine’s Forms to their very core without taking away too much of their hard meaning. I’ll be quoting directly from the book for the most part but I’ll also be splicing in a bit of my own commentary, as well as impressions and experience from Theory of Literature lectures and seminars. I won’t be giving many examples from the book — that’s no fun, and way too much in the way of copying. Instead, I’ll be making up some of my own later down the line! Besides, the book is not one of your absurdly expensive textbooks — you can grab it for a couple of dollars for the Kindle right now! Exciting, isn’t it?

The reason behind this entire exercise is two-fold; on one hand, both explaining something to others and writing down the ‘highlights’ has a positive didactive effect on assimilating complex ideas…and on the other, I would like to analyse some of my favourite SFF novels using these methods. So in the future, rather than referring to the book, I will be referring to these next few blog posts. Oh, there’s one more reason, in fact — I’ve been having this blog rust for too long now. No more! Time to go back to serious, regular content updates once again, folks. If you’re new here, that’s something we haven’t had since 2017.

But without further ado, let’s jump into it!

Defining ‘Form’

Caroline Levine opens the first chapter of Forms with an inquiry: Is the literary critic right to distinguish between the realm of the formal (i.e. aesthetics) and the social? Indeed, Levine’s proposed methodology is built on the notion of “expanding our usual definition of form in literary studies to include patterns of sociopolitical experience”. (1) The form of a literary text and its content need not be separated by a gap. Nor is there a need to limit our analyses only to literature — equipped with these types of forms Levine presents, we can analyse and understand sociopolitical institutions, as well. Forms are at work everywhere. *gasp*

But just what meaning should we place in this rather abstract term, what does Levine mean when she says “form”? In just about every science, natural or not, we can find a different meaning of the term so it’s only natural that some confusion — a lot of confusion — may arise. Levine admits that freely: “Even within literary studies, the vocabulary of formalism has always been a surprising kind of hodge-podge…”(2)

Rather than crumble underneath the weight of all these various meanings, Levine finds their existence refreshing, and even works it neatly into her argument — “Form has never belonged only to the discourse of aesthetics.” (2) Better yet, these different uses throughout history allow her to extrapolate a common definition: “‘form’ always indicates an arrangement of elements-an ordering, a patterning, or shaping. Any sort of structure, social or otherwise–all shapes, ordering principles, patterns of repettition and difference, all of these are forms.

To Levine, who defines politics as a matter of distributions and arrangements, this is obviously going to be a potent lens through which to view the sociopolitical state of the world. Political power is defined by the enforcement of boundaries, the organization of time and the imposition of hierarchies on experience. By Levine’s definition, these are all forms.

It’s this book’s task, then, to bring together the field’s dispersed insights into social and aesthetic forms to produce a new formalist method. To this end, five influential ideas are articulated(3-5):

  1. Forms constrain: form is disturbing because it imposes powerful controls and containments. Critics, especially Marxists, have often read literary forms as attempts to contain social clashes and contradictions.
  2. Forms differ: theorists of narrative have developed a rigid language when talking about formal differences among stories — such terms as frequency, duration, focalization, description, suspense, narrative voice, narrative distance, and so many more.
  3. Various forms overlap and intersect: “Intersectional analysis emerged in the social sciences and cultural studies in the 1980s and focused our attention on how different social hierarchies overlap, sometimes powerfully reinforcing one another.
  4. Forms travel. For one, certain literary forms like the epic, survive across cultures and time periods, enduring through vast spatial and temporal distances.
    Second, the structuralist school of thought made the case that human communities were organised by certain universal structures, binary oppositions such as masculine and feminine, light and dark, which impose a recognizable order across social and aesthetic experiences, from domestic spaces to tragic dramas. We’ll get to speaking about those when we talk about Antigone; plenty of binary opposites there.
  5. Forms do political work in particular historical contexts.

Forms have Affordances

‘Affordance’ is a term borrowed from design theory. It is used to describe the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs. For example, steel affords strengths, smoothness, hardness and durability. So do items made of it; but given their different designs, they adopt new affordances as well. A steel fork affords stabbing and scooping. For an inventive user, it can afford even more — things that are not readily obvious to most, like prying open a lid.

So it is that different forms have different affordances. Rhyme affords repetition, anticipation and memorization. Networks afford connection and circulation, narratives afford the connection of events over time, or even between events happening simultaneously. What conclusion should these wildly differing examples lead us to?

Forms are limiting and containing but in crucially different ways. Each form can only do so much.

We should further ask ourselves: What potentialities lie latent, obvious or not, in aesthetic and social arrangements?

There is one affordance all forms DO share — they are, each and every one of them, portable. They can be picked up and moved from one context to another.

Literature is not made of the material world it describes or invokes but of language, which lays claims to its own forms–syntactical, narrative, rhythmic, rhetorical–and its own materiality–the spoken word, the printed page. And indeed, each of these forms and materials lays claim to its own affordances–its own range of capabilities.

Affordances, at the end of the day, show us not only what forms are capable of but make us aware of their limitations as well.

Forms can only do their work in contexts where other political and aesthetic forms are also operating. Forms overlap one another, imposing their order and constraining the world in a variety of contexts.

Rethinking Formalisms

Plenty interesting in this section but I’ll cut it down to the bare essentials. (A discussion on New Historicists, New Critics, and Marxist formalists is just some of what you’re missing out on).

We’ve already spoken how forms can be moved from one context to another. Let’s extend this logic to suppose that forms outlive the specific conditions that give birth to them. They stick around, available for reuse despite the change in ages; waning and waxing again, waiting to be brought back into the spotlight. They don’t belong to certain times and places — recall that the hero’s quest, originally began in the epic is now a favourite tool of the contemporary novelist.

Further attention at the historical study of such ‘holdover’ forms can only benefit those of the “nerw formalist” school of critical thought.

Forms also allow us to recognise configurations and arrangements which organize materials in distinct and iterable ways no matter what their context or audience might be.

Where politically minded new formalists or Marxists would read the text as a response to the immediate social world around it, Levine’s formalism is dependent on tracking the many organising principles (forms) that encounter one another inside as well as outside of a literary text. This book asks two questions: what does each form afford, and what happens when forms meet? (16)

From Causation to Collision

Levine doesn’t like the concept of causation. Nope, not even a little bit. She phrases it differently, of course: “…no form, however seemingly powerful, causes dominates, or organizes all others.” I’ll grab this rather direct quote from her book next, since it seems to me a striklingly good point:

This means that literary forms can lay claim to an efficacy of their own. They do not simply reflect or contain prior political realities. As different forms struggle to impose their order on our experience, working at different scales of our experience, aesthetic and political forms emerge as comparable patterns that operate on a common plane. I will show in this book that aesthetic and political forms may be nested inside one another, and that each is capable of disturbing the other’s organizing power.

This book puts an emphasis on social disorganization, exploring the many ways in which multiple forms of order, sometimes the results of the same powerful ideological formation, may unsettle one another.

Caroline Levine, Forms, 16

The key to social, long-lasting change, Levine seems to argue later on in this section, is knowledge of the forms governing social life, as well as of those forms that have the power to recognize and dismantle unjust, entrenched arrangements and oppressive social structures.

Enter “collision” — that event in which two or more forms encounter one another, to results both foreseeable and deeply unexpected. One of the purposes of Levine’s accent on these collisions, which we’ll talk about over the next few chapters, is to unsettle the explanatory power and critical influence of dialectic materialism. Not because binary opposition doesn’t exist but because it is, Levine argues, just one of a number of powerfully organizing forms. Many outcomes follow from other forms, where they aren’t necessarily related, oppposed, or deeply expressive, but simply happen to cross paths at a particular place and/or time.

See? Told you she has it in for the good ol’ causality concept.


Narratives are useful, valuable and posit a shortcut that allows for the study of many different forms interacting. Whethery they cooperate, come into conflict or otherwise overlap, a narrative will track these differing forms without posting an ultimate cause behind their setting in motion.

For Levine, fictional narratives are productive thought experiments that allow us to imagine the subtle unfolding activity of multiple social forms.

Levine’s insistence on narrative further thrusts her upon a reading of the plot that’s somewhat incongruous with other critical schools of thought. It’s a reading practice that does not fir any familiar formalism but draws from all of them.

What Follows Next

The last section in this introductory chapter Levine uses to preview the four major forms she’s decided to explore fully. She also introduces the questions she’ll use in order to look into each of these four forms: wholes, rhythms, hierarchies and networks.

One chief purpose of “this book is to propose a way to understand the relations among forms–forms aesthetic and social, spatial and temporal, ancient and modern, major an minor, like and unlike, punitive and narrative, material and metrical.” (23)

Well, this was somethin’. I hope you find it an interesting read, whether as an introduction to ideas that you’d like to explore more deeply using Levine’s novel or as something else entirely.

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