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Old Formalism, New Structuralism

William Ghosh

Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchies, Networks
Caroline Levine
Princeton University Press
192 pages
ISBN: 9780691160627Caitlin Doughty
W.W. Norton and Company
272 pages
ISBN: 9780393240238


Perhaps the hardest part of the AQA A-Level English Literature syllabus was the requirement to distinguish between structure and form in the analysis of texts. Forgotten were the days of GCSE simplicity, when discussion of structure alone was sufficient, a criterion satisfied by examples of the “foregrounding” of first and last sentences. At A-Level, the second, more elusive category of form came into play. The best teachers admitted they didn’t know the difference between structure and form. But a common idea was that whereas structures tended to be abstract and infinitely portable (all texts contain an ending), the form of a text referred more to the kind of text it was (a novel or a sonnet). As such, “formal attention” might position texts within particular lineages and locations, and might not be divorced from patterns of circulation and reception. Formalism had been colloquially opposed to historical contextualisation, but in practice the two were not oppositional. The last forty years of so-called “formalist” analysis—perhaps most prominently the work of Fredric Jameson—has corroborated the account of the schoolteachers.

Caroline Levine, in her lucid and engaging new book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, disagrees. Framing her argument in terms of a dispute with her father (the historian of ideas, Joseph M. Levine), she wants to keep formal analysis separate from historicism. “Precisely because they are abstract, organizing principles, shapes and patterns,” she writes, forms “are iterable—portable”. They cannot be localised to specific moments or epochs (“a novelist takes from epic poetry the narrative structure of the quest”), and nor are particular forms bound to particular “materials”: “a rhythm can impose its powerful order on labouring bodies as well as odes”. Levine describes her work as an attempt to radically expand the category of “formalism” such that it can be used as a lens through which to comprehend all kinds of structured objects (institutions and social practices alongside legal and literary documents) within the same analytic framework. In the process—ruling out categories of genre explicitly, and paying only brief lip-service to the sonic, aural or scribal forms of language itself—she removes from the analysis much of the stuff on which formalist critics have previously depended.

Her reason for doing this is twofold. First, Levine wants to suggest that the tools of the literary critic for comprehending the work of multiple, complex structures within textual or visual media are themselves portable, and have much to contribute to the analysis of extra-textual, “social” formations as well. Secondly, within the more local sphere of textual analysis, she hopes that an emphasis on underlying structural arrangements (“wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, networks”) might offer a corrective for a too-dominant emphasis on “vagueness and indeterminacy, boundary-crossing and dissolution”: “the field has become so concerned with breaking forms apart that we have neglected to analyse the major work that forms do in our world”. Both in her interest in underlying structure, and in her unease with the kind of analysis that has hitherto gone by the name of “post-structuralism”, it would seem that what is being offered is not a new formalism but an old structuralism by another name.

Levine’s structuralism 2.0 shares many of the limitations of the older, less fashionable model, but it also offers a renewed manifesto for the richness of structure as an analytic concept. One of the most suggestive applications of her method comes via a continued engagement with the institutional structures of the academy itself: with structures of pedagogy (for example, the seminar form), structures of employment (the conflict, for would-be-mothers, between the tenure-clock and the biological window), and also with the way in which research is governed by structures: rhythms and hierarchies that are often latent or unacknowledged.

An overarching argument is that whereas in public discourse institutional structures are portrayed as unitary and monolithic (the gender binary, the class hierarchy), any one institution is in fact structured by a complex mesh of competing, contradictory structures. In the context of the university, Levine offers a persuasive reading of Gayatri Spivak’s work as emerging from an institution in which professional success was made possible by structures of class and education which were not, as American academia and the field of “postcolonial studies” turned away from Marxism, the same as the structures of inequality which that same academy sought to critique (predominantly race and gender). Spivak “takes advantage of her class status and professional success to speak as a critical voice on behalf of women in the third world”. So hierarchies do not work according to “master-hierarchies of value”: “they are just as likely to unsettle one another in odd places as to reinforce given structures of power”.

If this sounds like a politically ambiguous credo, it is, and the too-vehement ethical patter of the book (“any redistribution of the world’s wealth, which I strongly favour, must follow some kind of organizing principle”) would suggest that she is conscious that her thesis could sound insufficiently right-on. Yet her argument is at its most persuasive when she invites in this ambiguity. Thus, in the strongest literary reading in the book, Bleak House emerges as a “sprawling, overlapping, and indefinitely expanding” narrative network, whose complexity “can never be fully grasped at once” by any character and whose affective force may be a negative one, cultivating stupefaction rather than outrage or identification:

Again and again, the networked plot hints at immeasurable durations and extensions that lie beyond its own considerable reach. The vastness of Bleak House affords not individual agency, not the primacy of families, and not the wholeness of the nation, but a kind of narratively networked sublime.

One of the points Levine returns to is the distinction between an “epiphenomenal” reading of a text (seeing the text as a second-order reflection, or index, of prevailing social structures) and a phenomenal reading (seeing the structures of a text as sitting alongside and competing with the different institutional and semiotic structures that constitute the social world). Critics, she argues, need to dispense with the former mode of reading in favour of the latter. In a work whose debt to structuralism is writ so large, it is unsurprising that a principal literary-critical tradition on which she draws is narratology (a tradition heavily influenced by structuralist thought) and that Levine writes best about plots and narrative architecture. Less compelling is her engagement with literary form at the more local level. Her reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Young Queen’ concludes with the idea that the “rhythm” of the poem might be independent of (that is, neither mimetically approximating nor subversively undercutting) the forms of social and temporal rhythm embodied in the coronation narrative the poem treats. This is neither interesting in itself, nor is it a novel way of thinking about meter: a similar presupposition about the “phenomenal” qualities of poetic form underlie the work of a number of undergraduate textbooks in the field, Derek Attridge’s The Rhythms of English Poetry for example, which first appeared in 1982.

In fact, though she cites the “new formalist” movement on a number of occasions, there is little engagement with any of its better known practitioners (Angela Leighton, Marjorie Levinson, Richard Strier, to take a random sample). Much of her argument constitutes a refutation of the New Critical assumptions of Cleanth Brooks—that the literary text constitutes a harmonious formal synthesis of opposing principles, for example—and for this reason many of the polemical points feel superannuated, long since won.

If this can be dismissed as a venal error, there is a more foundational problem, or at least begged question, which dogs Levine’s argument. Formalist analysis, it will be recalled, is to be detached from engagement in histories or patterns of reception and circulation among particular readers at particular times. Re-describing formalism as structuralism will make the “formalist toolkit” more portable and will allow literary critics to export the expertise they have honed on the analysis of complex literary texts into analyses of the complex institutional or social world. At root, however, this argument does not recuperate textual attention from the charge of secondariness (or, “epiphenomenality”), but re-defines it as secondariness of a different sort. In this version, texts are not secondary because they (merely) reflect the social world, but because they (merely) constitute models on which analytical skills can be honed before being exported into the real, gritty business of social analysis.

In her preface, Levine recalls with distaste being asked in graduate school “to situate literary objects in thickly described, local contexts,” an approach she admits to having found “dreary”. It is easy to sympathise with her position, but it is hard, reading Forms, to escape the nagging suspicion that precisely such dreary work—situating texts and media within the social and historical contexts in which they circulate and are read and have been taken up and disposed of—may still be a necessary means by which to understand how they operate as agents in a social world of which they form a first-order, phenomenal (though no-doubt limited) part.

William Ghosh [1] is a DPhil candidate in English at Exeter College, Oxford.