Carole Levine’s, The Affordance of Forms is a theory piece that was written in 2015. Its primary goal is to discuss the way that form is about the organization not only of literary works but society, art, and political life. Form means the way something appears or manifests. It’s literally something that’s tied into all our existences. The thesis of this piece is that form literally defines everything we do so we must be aware of it and use it in ways that allows us to understand texts in a better way. The motive of Levine’s piece is to explore the way form changes and the way form is integrated into everything around us. Levine first suggests that a book such as Jane Eyre and how its “a case for expanding our usual definition of form in literary studies to include patterns of socio political experience like those of Lowood School. Broadening our definition of form to include social arrangements has, as we will see, immediate methodological consequences” (2).
She reminds us that form never belonged only to the “discourse of aesthetics. It does not originate in the aesthetic and the arts cannot lay claim to either the longest or the most far-reaching history of the term” (2). A broad definition of form is better, one that’s even broader than literary studies. She reminds readers that here form simply means “all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference” (3). This isn’t done out of laziness or to reduce a microcosm to its simplest terms, rather than, to explore the idea she first brings up about form being everywhere and relevant to everything. Politics, after all, as she sums up Jacque Ranciere as having the same idea in relation to politics. Due to the types of subjects and nation-state boundaries that inevitably come up in this context, form becomes an area that not just about “imposing order or space. It also involves organizing time” (3).
Levine analyzes this by comparing it to literary study and how they focus on various political ordering principles. Aesthetic and political arrangements as separate, but always draw on the social scientific meaning of “structure” to either of them. In literary studies literary forms are read in relation to social structures.
Five influential ideas about how form works: Forms contain (Milton using this to his advantage when using blank verse as reclaiming “ancient liberty” against the “troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.” Marxism–literary forms as attempts to contain social clashes and contradictions.”) Forms differ (developing careful, precise language for description.) Various forms overlap and intersect (intersectional analysis–literary patterns operating on different scales–small as syntax–ex: overlap w/ social hierarchies–race and class and gender work together to keep many African-American women in a cycle of terrible poverty.) Forms travel (Movement of forms–epic, free indirect discourse, rhythm, plot–surviving across cultures and time periods– and then organizing them in a daily timetable as per Foucault. The second way is by moving back and forth across aesthetic and social materials. Binary oppositions i.e.: male and female, light and dark … ) Forms do political work in particular historical contexts. (historical approach to showing literary forms.)
The “Affordances” section discusses the contradictory nature of forms. She uses the example of art to describe how each form gives a difference affordance to what can be done. “Glass affords transparency and brittleness. Steel affords strength, smoothness, hardness, and durability. Designed things may also have unexpected affordances generated by imaginative users; we may hang signs or clothes on a doorknob, for example, or use a fork to pry open a lid, and so expand the intended affordances objects. (6).
“What is a walled enclosure or a rhyming couplet capable of doing? Each shape or pattern, social or literary, lays claim to a limited range of possibilities.” Ex: Sonnet Yeats use of Leda and the Swan allusion to Trojan Horse–gesturing to sweeping epic while remaining powerfully constrained by the sonnet’s compact form (7). She also touches upon the idea of making abstract things organizable, iterable, and portable, and how they open up a generalizable understanding of political power. This works well with really any book, think poems such as Boyer or Arden, think Satire in Beatty, the unique structure of Citizen all allows us to know more/something different about what’s being discussed.
What does form do in certain novels such as Citizen or The Sellout and what types can be seen throughout the novels? Subsequently, what does these forms do to further support the author’s main themes throughout the novel?
What does form do in Boyer or Auden’s poems and how do they use the limits of structure to redefine what they do? How does this make their work intertextual with others?
Part A: Caroline Levine’s scholarly article “The Affordances of Form” is just one chapter in her 2015 book, “Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network.” Though she provides various definitions of ‘form,’ the word, for the purposes of her argument, means “all shapes and configurations…all patterns of repetition and difference” (3). Levine’s central argument for her text is, in the world of literature, all forms afford an author certain allowances, such as “a sociopolitical experience” (2), for example. She highlights there are “five influential ideas about how forms work” (4). According to Levine, literary and cultural studies intellectuals have been guided by the following in understanding how forms work: “1-forms constrain, 2- forms differ, 3-various forms overlap and intersect, 4-forms travel, and 5-forms do political work in particular historical contexts” (4-5). Levine’s motive for establishing the concept of the ‘many affordances of form’ in literature may include her claim that “attending to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power” (7). The form of a hierarchy, for instance, will “always afford inequality” (7), whether in the real or fictional world(s). For a number of passages, Levine critiques “many Marxist thinkers” for their treatment of “literary forms” (14). Levine states Marxists, such as Lukacs and Moretti, “have cast literary form as…a neat structuring of representation that soothes us into a false sense of order” (14), which she immediately refutes. Levine suggests, “literary forms and social formations are equally real in their capacity to organize materials” (14), like the form of a narrative, for example. She regards narratives as a form “striving to impose its own order” (16), even if only in a fictional world of a novel.
Part B: Honestly, Levine’s text could be applied to ANYTHING. Every text we have read thus far is presented to the audience in a certain form, so Levine’s argument carries over to every novel and poem we have read for class. I’ve applied “Forms” to Beatty’s novel for my thesis (and the blog posts from last semester), the notes for which I’ll include here: Caroline Levine’s various definitions of “form” may be applied to Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” (Levine 2). Considering form can be “historical, emerging out of particular cultural and political circumstances” (Levine 2), it’s no wonder Beatty chose the form of a novel to express his opinion on inner race relations in America. Though the actual form of a novel has been around for centuries, the literary techniques of satire and irony, in regards to literature, has not. It wasn’t until I got to the seventh chapter that I realized what I was reading with horror was Paul Beatty’s brilliant use of satire in his novel, “The Sellout.” The novel challenges my interpretive skills as a critic because I didn’t recognize the use of satire and comedy by Beatty until the last leg of the reading. Instead of reading “The Sellout” as a satiric comedy on “slavery and segregation” in modern-day America (Beatty 23), I was aghast at the speaker’s account of his life on the West Coast. I thought I was reading some kind of sick, twisted fantasy novel that allowed the protagonist to have an elderly slave who believes, “true freedom is having the right to be a slave” (Beatty 83). Though the author uses satire in a blatantly obvious way, I was a poor reader who didn’t connect the dots until toward the end of chapter six. I had a hard time distinguishing between fact or fiction because Beatty writes What I find hard to explain is the protagonist’s first name, which is never mentioned I believe. We know his family name is “Me” (Beatty 21), however, he is only mentioned by name by Foy Cheshire as “The Sellout” (Beatty 95). I’m curious to know why Paul Beatty chooses to refer to his narrator with a degrading nickname instead of his real one. He follows the proper form of a novel by giving it a title but chooses to keep his protagonist a no-named mystery. Ironically, however, as the readers, we know much about the early and past lives of the speaker, despite not knowing his name. Considering Paul Beatty’s usage of proleptic form in “The Sellout,” the prologue makes a lot more sense now. I thought I was going to be reading a political novel about an innocent man on trial, but I was completely wrong. Beatty’s commentary on the social, political, racial, historical, etc. condition of the United States in the past ten years or so is a hard pill to swallow. Knowing the narrator’s case makes it to the United States Supreme Court does not give me, as the reader, a bunch of hope that his story will have a happy ending. I really hope I’m proven wrong by Beatty and his characters.
Carole Levine’s introduction “The Affordances of Form” is apart of her 2015 book, “Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network.” Levine begins by discussing a traditional formalist analysis versus contemporary critic. The traditional formalist analysis, is the “close reading” which allows the interpretation “of all formal techniques of a text as contributing to an overarching artistic whole” (Levine 1). This differs to the contemporary critic which being informed by the historical significance of a text, takes into regard the “social and political conditions that surrounded the work’s production… connecting the novels forms to the social world”(1).
Levine goes on to discuss “forms”, noting their ability to be “cast as historical, emerging out of particular cultural and political circumstances, or it can be understood as ahistorical, transcending the specificities of history” (2), while reminding readers that form does not fall into just one category and can be either “generalizing and abstract or highly particular” (2).
Forms work in a multitude of methods. Levine continues her introduction by establishing the 5 influential ideas on how forms work. These ideas include:
(1) Forms constrain- imposing powerful controls and constrains.
(2) Forms differ- they’re not all the same.
(3) Various forms overlap and intersect- The New Critics introduced close reading as a technique to indicate overlapping literary patterns on different scales.
Intersectional analysis discussed how different social orders overlap, sometimes reinforcing the other.
(4) Forms Travel- They can survive across cultures and time periods as well as moving through aesthetic and social materials.
(5) Forms do work in particular historical contexts- literary forms reflect/respond to contemporary political conditions, affecting what is possible to think, say, and accomplish in any given context.
A concept Levine takes from design theory to “describe the potential uses or action latent in materials and designs” (6). This entire notion of affordance surrounds the idea on what a specific form is capable to do and what its use provides the text, reader, and author.
If one was to apply Levine’s theory for the seminar exam, you could ask, what does form do for novels such as Citizen or unaccompanied? One would then focus specifically on how different poetic forms, use of multi-lingual writing, and artwork, etc. affords both the writer and readers?
“The Affordance of Form” is an excerpt from her 2015 book, “Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network”, the book was created to help connect political, social and historical context within literary, critical, and cultural studies. Levine defines form as “all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference” (3). Levine discusses how forms differ, forms overlap and intersect, forms travel, and forms constrains (4).
“Forms, defined as patternings, shapes, and arrangements, have a different relation to context: they can organize both social and literary objects, and they can remain stable over time (13). Forms can be used as a way to separate and help an individual recognize a particular thing. She notes that while you my not be able to recognize a pattern from a Shakespearian sonnet, once you are taught this pattern, from that moment on you will be able to recognize that pattern. Similarly, for anything that has a readily recognizable pattern, from the alphabet to punctuation marks to a logo.
She also discusses the use of affordances, “ I borrow the concept affordance from design theory. Affordance is a term used to describe the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs” (6). What are the potential uses for us learning about good literature? What does this knowledge afford us?
“Literary forms and social formations are equally real in their capacity to organize materials, and equally unreal in being artificial, contingent constraints. Instead of seeking to reveal the reality suppressed by literary forms, we can understand sociopolitical life as itself composed of a plurality of different forms, from narrative to marriage and from bureaucracy to racism (14)”. The ways in which forms are applied to our real world show how the lines or the “forms” we have created exist only because we say they exist. Using this text in my thesis, it opened my eyes to the ways in which forms surround us. The most interesting use for this literary text would be in accompaniment with Rankine’s Citizen. How could form be applied to this text?
Caroline Levine talks about how form does more than just the aesthetic for us. Forms are used to include “patterns of sociopolitical experience…Broadening our definition of form to include social arrangements has, as we will see, immediate methodological consequences” (2). The use of form and how one chooses to arrangement and express their work, has multiple layers of consequences. This relates back to Morrison and her quote on language as an act of consequences. The form of language that is expressed in each narrative does much to affect the reader.
• Levine claims, “forms are the stuff of politics” (3). This means that we cannot have any type of form without politics imbued within the words. Politics itself is a form, which means that the form of language expresses the form of politics. In that case, everything around us is a form that people have put into place. The political system regulates these forms and that is why literature expresses these forms of politics. Literature is a form that is also regulated, however, writing has begun to diminish those boundaries.
• This can be seen in Milton’s Areopagitica. The form of literature was banned by the political form of the time. The church and state did not want freedom of print because they felt it would affect the minds of individuals negatively. However, Milton, due to his form of writing based on the political constructs of the time, eventually led to freedom of print.
• Levine also says, “Crucially, politics also means enforcing hierarchies of high and low, white and black, masculine and feminine, straight and queer, have and have-not. In other words, politics involves activities of ordering, patterning, and shaping” (3). Literature is a reflection of the political in many ways. Literature does in fact reflect the author’s moment, and that cannot be done without the political. We cannot break from including the political in our works of literature because they are what shapes our experiences.
• An example of this can be seen in The House of Mirth. Lily’s whole existence reflects around the constraints of society. She is a product of her political system as the characters of many stories are. This is also an example of how “forms constrain”
(4). There is a set system in Lily’s world and it keeps her repressed. It is the political form and it keeps her in this bubble of restrictions. This also applies to the form of literature itself. Literature can be a force for liberation and freedom. Levin says, “form is disturbing because it imposes powerful controls and containments” (4). Because of Lily’s faced experiences, Wharton allowed her readers to contemplate the real-life view of women in society and how their positions in the world were relative to Lily’s.
• Another example of form being liberating is “Antigone.” The political situation of the play calls to attention the tyranny of a ruler, and was a point of contemplation for the people in the present day circumstances.
• When we think about forms in literature, literature as a form itself, and the political form intertwined in the literal form, then there is much to say about what literature can do for us. It reveals realities that need to be altered or reformed.
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