Caroline Levine argues that forms organize not only works of art but also political life--and our attempts to know both art and politics. Inescapable and frequently troubling, forms shape every aspect of our experience. Yet, forms don't impose their order in any simple way. These are by no means the only forms, but they are particularly common, pervasive — and also significant. Though we have not always called them forms, they are the political structures that have most concerned literary and cultural studies scholars: bounded wholes, from domestic walls to national boundaries; temporal rhythms, from the repetitions of industrial labor to the enduring patterns of institutions over time; powerful hierarchies, including gender, race, class, and bureaucracy; and networks that link people and objects, including multinational trade, terrorism, and transportation.
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III. RHYTHM : Forms Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
Categories : Network Theory Governance Books. Navigation menu Personal tools Log in Request account. More recent critics have often followed forms in the opposite direction: showing, for example, how a social form like a racial hierarchy moves from the political world into a novel, where it structures aesthetic experience. In recent years, scholars interested in reviving an interest in form sometimes called the "new formalists" have sought to join formalism to historical approaches by showing how literary forms emerge out of political situations dominated by specific contests or debates.
Since the late s, literary critics like Susan Wolfson and Heather Dubrow have argued that literary forms reflect or respond to contemporary political conditions. Forms matter, in these accounts, because they shape what it is possible to think, say, and do in a given context.
Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
Forms: containing, plural, overlapping, portable , and situated. None of these ideas about form are themselves new, but putting them together will bring us to a new theory of form. How can form do so many different, even contradictory things? How can it be both political and aesthetic, both containing and plural, both situated and portable?
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To capture the complex operations of social and literary forms, I borrow the concept of affordance from design theory. Affordance is a term used to describe the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs.
Glass affords transparency and brittleness. Steel affords strength, smoothness, hardness, and durability. Cotton affords fluffiness, but also breathable cloth when it is spun into yarn and thread.
Specific designs, which organize these materials, then lay claim to their own range of affordances. A fork affords stabbing and scooping. A doorknob affords not only hardness and durability, but also turning, pushing, and pulling. 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 of an object.
Let's now use affordances to think about form. The advantage of this perspective is that it allows us to grasp both the specificity and the generality of forms—both the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford, and the fact that those patterns and arrangements carry their affordances with them as they move across time and space. 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 potentialities. Enclosures afford containment and security, inclusion as well as exclusion.
Rhyme affords repetition, anticipation, and memorization. Networks afford connection and circulation, and narratives afford the connection of events over time.
The sonnet, brief and condensed, best affords a single idea or experience, "a moment's monument," while the triple-decker novel affords elaborate processes of character development in multiplot social contexts. Forms are limiting and containing, yes, but in crucially different ways. Each form can only do so much. To be sure, a specific form can be put to use in unexpected ways that expand our general sense of that form's affordances. Rather than asking what artists intend or even what forms do , we can ask instead what potentialities lie latent—though not always obvious—in aesthetic and social arrangements.
An imaginative user, such as William Butler Yeats, deliberately pushes at the limits of formal constraints in "Leda and the Swan," a sonnet that captures the single moment that launches the epic story of the Trojan War—at once gesturing to the sweep of epic while remaining powerfully constrained by the sonnet's compact form.
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Although each form lays claim to different affordances, all forms do share one affordance. Precisely because they are abstract organizing principles, shapes and patterns are iterable—portable. They can be picked up and moved to new contexts. A school borrows the idea of spectators in rows from ancient theater.
A novelist takes from epic poetry the narrative structure of the quest.
Forms also afford movement across varied materials. A rhythm can impose its powerful order on laboring bodies as well as odes. Binary oppositions can structure gendered workspaces as well as creation myths. While its meanings and values may change, the pattern or shape itself can remain surprisingly stable across contexts.
Related Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
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