Book Reviews

A Democracy of Forms: Levine, Latour and the New Formalism


a democracy of forms


A Democracy of Forms: Levine, Latour and the New Formalism

A Review of Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network by Caroline Levine

Carolyn Lesjak

Department of English, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia


Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network proposes a new model of formalist criticism able to attend to the range of forms organising not only literary texts but also the larger social world. Against current modes of reading – influenced by Foucauldian notions of power as monolithic – Levine’s vision of formalism imagines forms as multitudinous, overlapping and unpredictable in their ‘encounters’. In her claim to ‘suspend causality’ in order to allow us to see these encounters in new ways, Levine’s formalism – and new formalisms more broadly – shares affinities with the work of Bruno Latour. As with Latour, the larger structures and logics within which Levine’s forms meet disappear, thereby proffering an illusory freedom from determination, or a democracy of forms, which mitigates Levine’s ability to speak to the twin crises of our time, namely global capitalism and climate change, and typifies non-causal, Latourian-based theories of literary texts and the social today.


literary theory – formalism – critique – Bruno Latour – causality – slow violence


Caroline Levine, (2015) Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

There is a sense of relief in the response to Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network that bespeaks a real fatigue with older protocols of reading and current practices of literary criticism.[1] Highly celebrated by the likes of traditional Victorian scholars, a range of critics working under the umbrella of ‘new formalism’, and many interested in new ways of thinking about political criticism (Bruce Robbins enthusiastically blurbs the book as a ‘trumpet blast of a manifesto’), Levine’s call for a new formalist criticism – referred to as ‘strategic formalism’ in its initial articulation[2] – turns our critical attention away from what have been increasingly felt as the tired, routinised variants of Foucauldian accounts of literary works in which power is seen as monolithic, and any given text’s response reduced to either reproducing or resisting that power. Significantly, for Levine, these models envision a unidirectional flow from the social to the text, in which social forms determine textual forms. They also come replete with assumptions about the function of different forms, taking for granted, for example, that bounded wholes are always repressive and in need of disruption, a critical practice central to deconstruction, but, as Levine shows, still very much in use in a range of contemporary criticism, from New Historicism to Gender and Queer Studies. Against this critical orthodoxy, Levine aims to offer a more open-ended, ecumenical approach to form, able to treat social and aesthetic forms as separate and multitudinous, and to understand power in more nuanced and multi-faceted ways. Intending, in part, to turn literary criticism ‘upside-down’ (p. 122), Levine proposes a ‘new formalist method’ (p. 3) that neither assumes ‘that social forms are the ground or causes of literary forms’ nor ‘[imagines] that a literary text has a form’ but instead asks the following ‘two unfamiliar questions: what does each form afford, and what happens when forms meet?’ (p. 16).

            As Levine’s subtitle announces, she is concerned with four key forms: wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks. She employs, as she herself acknowledges, a very broad definition of form as ‘all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference’ (p. 3). Of central importance is the work of forms, which ‘[make] order’ and hence ‘are the stuff of politics’ (p. 3). Forms for Levine are highly mobile in a way that genres, for instance, are not: they are portable, moving across contexts and time periods, and they are unpredictable, insofar as the interactions among forms have no predetermined outcomes, but instead are aleatory and often lead to surprising results. In thinking about forms in this way, Levine draws heavily on design theory, and the language, specifically, of ‘affordances’. Rather than seeing forms in any kind of singular fashion, forms have ‘potential uses or actions latent’ (p. 6) in them, as do the materials – glass, cotton, a fork, etc. – of designed things: glass, for example, ‘affords transparency and brittleness’; likewise, forms such as enclosures ‘afford containment and security, inclusion as well as exclusion’, while networks ‘afford connection and circulation’ (p. 6). Neither singular nor infinite, affordances ‘[allow] 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’ (p. 6). Because forms have particular constraints and possibilities, and can travel, and are, as Levine asserts, the ‘stuff of politics, then attending to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power’ (p. 7). In its broadest claims, then, Forms hopes to show how formalism is in fact indispensable to politics; a better formalist method, attentive to the affordances of form, will not only provide better accounts of how power works but also reveal ‘elements or fragments of more or less developed systems of alternatives’ (p. 12) within current systems of power.

            With these general principles about form and its affordances in hand, Levine devotes a chapter to each of her forms. While the first two chapters, on wholes and rhythms, look at how like forms meet, the later chapters on hierarchies and networks consider how ‘unlike forms encounter one another’ (p. 93) – the latter being the much more common state of affairs, whether in the social world or within literary texts. Levine’s final chapter then turns to The Wire, the proof of the pudding, as it were, since, as she frames this reading in her Introduction, the series brings the four major forms she analyses together; as a result, it ‘could provide a new model of literary and cultural studies scholarship’ (p. 23). Throughout these chapters, Levine ranges widely over varied terrain, from a discussion of the nuns of Weinhausen and the affordances of the cloister as a bounded whole at once imprisoning and empowering, to the mélange of temporal rhythms within educational institutions and the structuring of summer vacations, to the court case that ensued over whether a sculpture of Brancusi’s was art or not, to a reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘The Young Queen’, and on to an account of the contending hierarchies within Sophocles’sAntigone and modern bureaucracies. The range and number of examples necessarily leave any individual discussion at a fairly general level; they lead, as well, to what can at times seem like quite naive and/or self-evident readings of certain social and political situations, in which Levine’s attention to the local formal nuances of power relations seems not so different from the kinds of strategising we all engage in as we navigate personal, familial, institutional, national, global, racial, sexual, etc. relations and the overlapping power dynamics that inevitably come into play. In her reading, for example, of an encounter between two hierarchical forms, gender and bureaucracy, described in Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s feminist study of American women sales-workers and managers in a 1970s corporation, she first notes, following Kanter, that the rarity of women in the corporation led to a paradox: despite being marked as private by virtue of the gender binary, that self-same binary was reversed as the individual women essentially became ‘public characters’ as a result of their small numbers. Significantly, they also upheld the division between public and private spheres by occupying the traditional role of the public male persona in the office, keeping their feelings to themselves ‘to become insiders in the public world outside the home, while masculine insiders, traditionally bearers of the external (reason, the workplace, the public), could afford to express their inner feelings because they were so firmly on the inside of the outside’ (p. 105). Kanter’s study then looks at a different scenario in which two women are hired by a corporation and describes the different outcomes in work and gender relations depending on whether the women are successfully played off against one another by their male co-workers or become allies (in a ‘strategic deployment of the allied pair’, in Levine’s language) to counter their tokenism and ‘create and sustain their own antihierarchical form: an alliance of equals’ (p. 106). About this study, Levine concludes: Kanter’s study ‘shows that when hierarchies collide, they reroute and deform as much as they organise, unsettling divisions between public and private and masculine and feminine. Her study also makes clear that the structure of the pair, when it interacts with the other hierarchies in play – the career ladder, the gender binary – carries unpredictable effects with the potential to produce new hierarchies, competitions, or alliances’ (p. 106). It is hard, however, to see these effects as particularly ‘unpredictable’; nor does formalism per se seem necessary to yield such an account. And this ‘alliance’, while certainly important and notable, is only antihierarchical up to a point, as current workplace politics attest. In short, such ‘reroutings’ have appreciable limits.

            Other readings offer similarly heartening yet limited openings. Framed by the claim that bounded wholes and networks can work in concert with one another, Levine rewrites Diana Fuss’s analysis of Emily Dickinson’s famous seclusion in her father’s house in formalist terms, arguing that a ‘containing space’ or physical enclosure (her bedroom) is shown to be ultimately enabling, since it allowed Dickinson freedom from domestic duties and access to a ‘public world of letters’ (Fuss’s term). Dickinson’s ‘strategic embrace of a bounded enclosure’ thus permitted her to ‘take part in a larger, more sprawling and energizing network: a transnational literary community’ (p. 119). For Levine, the significance of Dickinson’s example is twofold: to show that ‘neither form has the final organizing word – neither always regulates the other’ (p. 119) and to argue that this need not mean we give up but rather commit to understanding more fully the ‘specificity of each form – what kind of network is it? what rules govern it? – … and what the affordances of each network can entail for other forms’ (p. 119). Again addressing the network, this time in a reading of Dickens’s multiplot novel, Bleak House, Levine highlights the ‘enormous variety of connectors that link people’ and that extend beyond Dickens’s own nationalism to the far corners of the globe. She compellingly notes that the narrative’s extensive ‘web of connections’ and its ‘complex model of distributed networks’ force a rethinking of novelistic character, in which characters like the itinerant sweeping boy, Jo (constantly being told to ‘move on’), are at once caught in and completely neglected by this web. But what we then learn about the ‘unlikely ties’ among Dickens’s characters beyond these descriptions of them is less clear, especially in terms of the more distant ties that structure Jo’s existence even as he is unaware of them.

A version of ‘close but not deep’ reading, these accounts are not so much wrong – indeed, they offer many insights, especially about the neglected middle ranges of reading between standard models of close reading and the kind of distant reading Moretti has advocated – as incomplete.[3] Essentially reformist in nature, they stop short of any kind of economic analysis; formal structures are invariably about power relations rather than economic exploitation, and thereby open to strategic remedy, as in Dickinson’s case, or so varied and multiple, as in Dickens’s novel, as to defy any apprehension of an organising totality. Formalism of the sort Levine proposes ‘reveals many opportunities, large and small, to hamper networks and their coordinating power’ (p. 131), as well as those of wholes, rhythms, and hierarchies, within the logics at hand; it has less to say about a politics addressing the logic of capital itself. Often, too, the value of Levine’s formalist language is less revelatory than Levine imagines it to be. Why exactly do we need the language of nodes and networks rather than systems, structures and processes to understand the myriad connections in Bleak House, for example? It bears repeating that within Marxist thought there are plenty of examples of structural analyses that in no way assume some kind of obvious, unmediated or ‘closed’ relation between economic and social or political formations; in fact, it is precisely the complex mediations between micro- and macro-levels that constitute the object of Marxist theory.[4] But without an attentiveness to rather than a jettisoning of the logic of capital and its totalising operations we will only be left able to ‘hamper’ networks and power, to use Levine’s language, rather than grasp and overturn them; despite her stated aim of opening up political possibilities, then, the space for these possibilities is far less ‘alternative’ than promised.[5]

            Lest these reservations seem churlish given Levine’s ambitious and worthy aims, I want to underscore that they speak to a larger, crucial aspect of Levine’s overall approach that is echoed in a range of recent calls for new methods of reading and analysis and therefore is important, I think, to identify and open up to spirited critique – namely, her emphasis on forms as encounters that collide and elude any kind of causality. As Levine characterises her approach, it relies ‘on a kind of event I call the “collision” – the strange encounter between two or more forms that sometimes reroutes intention and ideology’. Specifically, Levine avers that thinking about ‘the movement and assembly of forms’ in terms of collisions ‘[unsettles] the power of another explanatory form in literary and cultural studies: the dialectic’ (p. 18). Equating the dialectic with binary oppositions, Levine proposes that:

binary opposition is just one of a number of powerfully organizing forms and that many outcomes follow from other forms, as well as from more mundane, more minor, and more contingent formal encounters, where different forms are not necessarily related, opposed, or deeply expressive, but simply happen to cross paths at a particular site. Suspending the usual models of causality thus produces new insight into the work of forms, both social and aesthetic. (p. 19.)

What Levine misses are any of the complexities of dialectical thought, which are too numerous to elaborate here; suffice it to say that while the dialectic traffics in binaries, it cannot be reduced to them. Importantly, the unpredictability of the dialectic lies in its capacity to reveal in the contradictions of capitalism a surprising ‘unity of opposites’, not, as Levine suggests, a simple binary opposition. Immanent rather than external to the logic of capitalism, dialectical thinking not only attends to the given but also sees a way beyond it by providing insight into the limits of the present and current thinking about it.

            For our purposes, Forms’ cursory treatment of Marxism more generally is telling, and registered in Levine’s final claim above regarding the value of ‘suspending causality’. In her Introduction, Levine characterises the Marxist tradition as ‘the most complex and robust school of formalist thinking in literary and cultural studies’ (p. 14), but then goes on to simplify it to such an extent that it is hard see how it could ever be complex or robust. Strikingly, Hayden White becomes representative of how Marxists treat form (p. 14); and the ‘Marxist emphasis on aesthetic form as epiphenomenal … prevents us from understanding politics as a matter for form, and … assumes that one kind of form – the political – is always the root or ground of the other – the aesthetic’ (p. 14). These claims are made in the service of moving away from any notion of social causation, as literary forms and social formations are seen to be ‘equally real in their capacity to organize material, and equally unreal in being artificial, contingent constraints’ (p. 14). The assumption seems to be that it is only through ‘[refusing] deep causality’ (p. 23) that the space for understanding form or power can be found – and by extension, that our agency within that space can be recognised or restored. But once causality is suspended, so too are the means of understanding the structural constraints within which forms or power exist and formulating a politics – aesthetic or otherwise – able to address these constraints, let alone overcome them. As Levine contends, ‘No form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others’ (p. 16). Forms multiply and in their multiplicity forestall any exercise of power as monolithic. In her discussion of temporal rhythms, the existence of multiple time-periods within institutions puts pressure on Foucault’s account of the dominance of carceral forms throughout the social field; for Levine, ‘the array of archaic institutional forms that linger longer through patterns of repetition and reenactment – among them the historical period, the seminar, and the electricity cooperative – [provides] ongoing alternatives to any single, coordinated and monolithic regime of power’ (p. 65).[6] Likewise, in her reading of Barrett Browning’s poem, multiple ‘tempos of our experience, the poet suggests – social, political, biological, and aesthetic – structure our experience, no one of them dominating or organizing the others’ (p. 79). The same can be said for the ‘subtle and conflicting temporal organizing patterns’ (p. 68) in the different institutions vying over the status of Brancusi’s sculpture, the ‘multiple principles of interconnection’ (p. 115) and overlapping networks in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, the colliding of forms inThe Wire, and so on. Across all her examples, Levine is subject to her own form of repetition in her insistence that forms encounter each other as something like equals insofar as no form is ever assumed to be dominant over any other, and no form determines any other form. Levine essentially envisions a democracy of forms – but in the midst of a form of democracy that is democracy in name only.

            In this regard, Levine’s formalism shares affinities with the work of Bruno Latour. Indeed, it would seem today that formalism and Latour go hand in hand. Here, for example, is Rita Felski, in her 2015 book The Limits of Critique contrasting Latour’s vision of the social to the now-discredited historical master-narratives:

For Latour, by contrast, there is no historical box and no society, if we mean by this term a bounded totality governed by a predetermined set of structures and functions. Society does not stand behind and steer human practices, as if it were outside of and ontologically distinct from these practices, akin to a shadowy, all-seeing, puppet master. Rather, what Latour calls the social is just the act and the fact of association, the coming together of phenomena to create assemblages, affinities, and networks. It exists only in its instantiations, in the sometimes foreseeable, sometimes unpredictable ways in which ideas, texts, images, people, and objects couple and uncouple, attach and break apart.[7]

In a similar vein, Levine comments in her chapter on ‘Network’ that

Networks are useful, Bruno Latour suggests, because they allow us to refuse metaphysical assumptions about causality in favor of observing linkages between objects, bodies, and discourses. Latour asks us simply to notice points of contact between actors as well as the routes actors take. By tracing the actual and possible paths that forms follow, we can practice a large-scale cultural studies method that starts not by presuming causality, but rather by attending to specific patterns of contact between forms. (p. 113.)

Admittedly, Levine, as we have seen, draws on multiple sources and disciplinary frameworks in her analyses of wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks. Nonetheless, the catholic, freeing capacities of networks – Latour’s preferred structure without a structure – are to be found, and moreover celebrated, in all her organising forms, insofar as her overall view moves away from the language of causality to that of ‘collisions’, crossings and the overlapping of social forms.[8] Levine’s stated aim is ‘to shift attention away from deep causes to a recognition of the many different shapes and patterns that constitute political, cultural, and social experience’ (p. 17).

            Felski and Levine are just two of the many critics proffering new versions of formalism, of course, but their turn to Latour, I want to suggest, is particularly illustrative of the return more broadly to the language of form and, by extension, of the wider critical field today. Wherein lies the appeal of Latour, his networks, and his vision of the actor-network theory, or ANT, in which human subjectivity is made to resemble an ant, a pun Felski cleverly makes when she describes the new Latourian critic – in contrast to the old Marxist one – in the following way:

We are no longer afforded a panoramic vision of the social order: to do actor-network theory is not to soar like an eagle gazing down critically or dispassionately at the distant multitudes below, but to trudge along like an ANT, marveling at the intricate ecologies and diverse microorganisms that lie hidden among thick blades of grass.[9]

Felski’s critique of critique rests on what has now become a relentlessly repeated mischaracterisation of Marxist literary criticism within calls for a new formalism or new aesthetics, as well as a new ethics: a mischaracterisation that has at its heart a slippage between critical practices and history itself.[10] Whether in the claims for surface reading or the championing of postcritique, the Marxist critic is a kind of superhero – male, no doubt – who ‘masters’ texts and bends them to his will, imposing on them a wilful determinism – not in the last instance, but always.

            In contrast, Latour offers, seemingly, freedom from determination. Against analyses of the system, or what he calls the Total with a capital T, which can only drain all possibility of social action, in his account Latour promotes a reduction in scale, and claims that it is only by ‘[cutting] down to size’ our critical purview that politics is possible.[11] This reduced space – ‘a place where formats, structures, globalization, and totalities circulate inside tiny conduits’ full of ‘hidden potentialities’ – frees us to act, whereas the insistence on overarching structures or systems or a totality is ‘masochistic’, ‘a perverted way to look for a sure defeat while enjoying the bittersweet feeling of superior political correctness’.[12] Agency is thus restored, but at the expense of the critique of political economy; the act of critique as ‘totalising’ becomes essentially synonymous with the object of critique, the Marxist critic rather than capitalism the agent of economic determination. Or as Benjamin Noys summed up Latour’s project in a 2011 talk, ‘the result is a strange entanglement of agency, in which points of intervention are multiplied as the “global” horizon recedes.’ In the process, ‘the object “capitalism” ultimately “evaporates”’.[13]

            Noys more fully explores how and why capitalism ‘evaporates’ in The Persistence of the Negative, where he devotes a chapter to Latour, and identifies him as an exemplary affirmationist theorist in his neglect of Marx’s concept of real abstraction. As he writes, ‘Real abstraction implies the operation of capital as the abstraction of labour – its detachment from its pre-capitalist grounding – and through its abstractive effects the commodity, in which the law of value “levels” equivalences.’[14] It is, as Noys clarifies (citing Alberto Toscano), the ‘ontology of capital: first, the concrete articulation of reality as a series of differences, and second, the void of its absence of determinations, the lack of a historical or cultural content to capital.’[15] In his insistence on a ‘“flat” ontology’[16] in which ‘scale is the actor’s own achievement’,[17] Latour seeks to wish-away all such determinations – he baldly claims that ‘Like God, capitalism does not exist’[18] – and in the process enacts a series of conflations in which critique functions as a synonym for Marxism, which in turn becomes one with nothing short of ‘state-communist violence’.[19] Two aspects of Latour’s affirmationism are key here, in terms of thinking about how Levine follows Latour: on the one hand Latour’s emphasis on networks rather than structural determinations is meant to offer the possibility for social change, a possibility supposedly foreclosed when we take into account less free-floating forms such as the commodity-form itself; on the other hand, the vision of the democratic ‘assemblages’ that results from the bracketing of the commodity-form as form-determining, can at best lead to liberal reforms. As Noys comments concerning Latour, ‘the very “power” of the network model lies in it constructing a normative account of change that resists any macro-level events, while operating as a “macro” explanation even if built from the local. It imposes a piecemeal reformism as the only true model of change, or at least the only effective model of change.’[20]

While Levine has far fewer bones to pick with Marxism per se, ignoring it more than engaging with it in any substantive way, as noted above, her persistent desire to untether literary form from any notion of causality or set of structural determinations echoes in a more minor key Latour’s attacks on Marxism/critique.[21] Levine, along with Felski, also shares Latour’s penchant for sweeping dismissals of current models of (Marxist) critique in the interest of making claims about the necessity for new ways of reading that are affirmative rather than negative, and attentive to rather than critical of the possibilities already present in both texts and the world – as if critique and/or Marxism were devoid of what Raymond Williams aptly called ‘resources of hope’. Noys refers to Latour’s desired mode of thinking as ‘acritical’; Felski calls for a ‘postcritical reading’ which would recognise ‘the text’s status as a co-actor’; and Levine proffers a new formalism in which structures of determination – real abstraction, the commodity-form, and ‘totality’ – recede into the distance to open up space for a new politics able to read forms with latitude. Finally, Noys too sees Latour’s project as indicative or ‘emblematic’ of our current moment and its ‘mood’ – Felski and Levine, as I am suggesting, being two cases in point – and advocates in response ‘a more patient and careful thinking-through of a period of defeat’ instead of yet one more ‘new’ theory.[22]

            Despite Noys’s point, well taken, that perhaps the last thing we need are calls for more new kinds of reading, his emphasis on patience does raise the idea, at least for me, of a call for ‘slow theory’ – not in the sense of Slow Food so much as slow violence. Slow violence is Rob Nixon’s compelling term for the slow, longue durée form of environmental violence that is at once ‘non-evental’ and invisible, because of its sheer duration, and monumentally ‘eventful’ in its social and ecological impact. It is as much about the future – of the planet, no less – as it is about the past and the present. Slow theory in this sense would name the attempt to attend to thelongue durée of the twin contemporary crises of today – global capitalism and climate change – and to uphold the necessity of critique to such a formalist practice precisely because social forms are never as free-floating as we/Latour and others might wish them to be. Climate change, in particular, I would argue, not only requires new approaches to form within Marxism, but also highlights why critique is as necessary as ever – and why causality cannot simply be willed away. Indeed, Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ arises from these twin crises (whose simultaneity is no accident) and the representational challenge they pose: ‘By slow violence,’ he writes, ‘I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.’ This kind of violence, he goes on, is ‘neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.’[23] In short, climate change and the attritional violence it brings in its wake are simultaneously hard to see and structurally determinate, thereby necessitating new forms of critical analysis able to read the ‘range of temporal scales’ across which they play. To disavow determination altogether – or ‘suspend causality’ as Levine proposes – hampers our chances of understanding the current crisis.

            In its very title, Andreas Malm’s 2016 book Fossil Capital underscores the twinned nature of this crisis. Malm defines climate change as ‘anthropogenic’ specifically in order to highlight that in its very definition, it ‘has its roots outside the realm of temperature and precipitation, turtles and polar bears, inside a sphere of human praxis that could be summed up in one word as labour.’[24] He aims, as a result, to find ‘history in climate’ rather than vice-versa, and dramatises just how complex such a history is when it comes to tracing causal linkages precisely because of its duration and dispersed expansiveness. He begins his book with the following scenario:

Global warming is the unintended by-product par excellence. A cotton manufacturer of early nineteenth-century Lancashire who decided to forgo his old waterwheel and invest in a steam engine, erect a chimney and order coal from a nearby pit did not, in all likelihood, entertain the possibility that this act could have any kind of relationship to the extent of Arctic sea ice, the salinity of Nile Delta soil, the altitude of the Maldives, the frequency of droughts on the Horn of Africa, the diversity of amphibian species in Central American rain forests, the availability of water in Asian rivers or, for that matter, the risk of flooding along the Thames and the English coastline.[25]

This chain of effects in no way refuses causality; instead it foregrounds the exponentially intricate set of causal connections a fossil economy brings into being, even as it insists on the determining nature of that self-same fossil economy. ‘Fossil fuel combustion is only one cause of global warming, just as’, he wryly notes, ‘the sun is only one of the bodies in the solar system and the American president only one in a larger team: the others, puny by comparison, revolve around it.’

Despite the existence, then, of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, fossil fuels, Malm concludes, are ‘quantitatively dominant and qualitatively determinant’.[26] Granted, ‘multiple points of contact’ exist within such a system, to return to Levine’s and Latour’s language, but those points of contact are circumscribed ultimately by the fossil economy. Individuals cannot escape fossil capital; at the same time, it does not create an impregnable historical box: as Malm clarifies, ‘A person born today in Britain or China enters a preexisting fossil economy, which has long since assumed an existence of its own and confronts the newborn as an objective fact. It possesses real causal powers – most notably the power to alter the climactic conditions on planet Earth, but this only as a function of its power to direct human conduct.’[27]

            While climate change perhaps highlights most powerfully the need for new temporal models of crisis and new ways of thinking the collective, other historical processes certainly present similar representational challenges. To return to Levine: the TV series The Wire grapples with just such challenges. As Levine notes, ‘The Wire’s plot appears so complex that it often seems to thwart both knowledge and action’ (p. 147), a condition very much akin to the subjective and spatial disorientation that prompts the need for what Fredric Jameson names ‘cognitive mapping’. Working sequentially through the forms treated in each of her chapters, Levine argues thatThe Wire ‘is truly exceptional in its attention to the ways that multiple social forms unfold in relation to one another, their encounters producing serious, painful, and occasionally promising effects’ (p. 137). She shows, in particular, how characters, such as Lester Freamon, Bunny Colvin, and Omar Little, with a ‘knowledge of networks’ (p. 146) or how power works, more generally, ‘all make strategic decisions which, temporarily at least, permit outcomes that frustrate or elude the conventional distribution of power’ (p. 149). As with her many other examples, there is nothing especially arguable in such a claim. Who would dispute, for example, that ‘Freamon manages to link politicians to drug smugglers by following the tracks of economic and information networks, briefly exposing a corrupt elite’, or that ‘Omar remains comparatively free, the consummate outsider, refusing to join hierarchies and always escaping from enclosing shapes’ (p. 150)? Or, finally, that these characters are ‘the show’s epistemological and ethical exemplars’? That they understand how certain aspects of the system of which they are a part (whether directly, tangentially, or accidentally) work, and figure out ‘canny’ ways of working within that system are without a doubt noteworthy and impressive, and also key to why the show worked in the ways it did. But if the ‘canny formalism’ they perform stops there, as it seems to for Levine, then it is not clear how they (or we) move from the canny to a more full-throated critique of these forms that both tie and bind and, yes, offer opportunities for limited forms of freedom, such as Omar’s. In this way, again, Levine’s commitment to envisioning forms as multiple and overlapping, ‘without positing an ultimate cause’ (p. 19), echoes Latour’s advocacy of what Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle aptly refer to in the context of Latour’s collaboration with Emile Hermant,Paris: Invisible City, as an assembly of ‘partial totalisations’ that aims in the end to ‘cut the very knot … that ties together (individual and collective) subjective disorientation, theoretical elaboration and political action’.[28]

            To be sure, unlike other recent calls for new reading methods, Levine repeatedly foregrounds the interconnectedness of formalism and politics; she also has great faith in the ability of formal analysis to be put to work in the world for positive political ends. As she ends the Introduction, ‘I want to persuade those who are interested in politics to become formalists so that we can begin to intervene in the conflicting formal logics that turn out to organize and disorganize our lives, constantly producing not only painful dispossessions but also surprising opportunities’ (p. 23). These are laudable commitments. But time and again, her optimism about formal plenitude seems unwilling to countenance the dialectical possibility/co-existence of heterogeneity and homogeneity, and with it, the different scales and power of different forms.[29] Even when she explicitly addresses enduring forms, and identifies the particular value of the new formalism to attend to the ‘longues durées of different forms, their portability across time and space’ (p. 13), those forms appear free-floating, unanchored or ungrounded by the larger political contexts within which they must function. Yes, the seminar room can provide a ‘bounded, enclosed space that sets out to disrupt other bounded, enclosed spaces’ (p. 48), but it in no way operates on the same scale as other bounded, enclosed spaces – even such proximate spaces as the university. Despite the important aim, then, of addressing different scales,Forms tends to negate or level scalar differences, which, in turn, I would suggest, becomes the basis for its optimism. This is not to say that Levine’s optimism needs to be replaced by doom and gloom, only that assertively willing-away the larger structural forces that circumscribe what is possible from the start hardly seems like a productive path forward. After all, these same forces provide the material ground for the very kinds of opportunities Levine hopes to foster and make visible, but which can only remain partial or limited within the current forms we inhabit.



Felski, Rita 2015, The Limits of Critique, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Felski, Rita 2017, ‘Response’, PMLA, 132, 3: 384–91.

Jameson, Fredric 1988, The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971–1986, Volume 1,Situations of Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jameson, Fredric 1996, The Seeds of Time, New York: Columbia University Press.

Latour, Bruno 1988, The Pasteurization of France, translated by Alan Sheridan and John Law, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno 2005, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lesjak, Carolyn 2013, ‘Reading Dialectically’, Criticism, 55, 2: 233–77.

Levine, Caroline 2006, ‘Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies’, Victorian Studies, 48, 4: 625–56.

Levine, Caroline 2015, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Love, Heather 2010, ‘Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn’, New Literary History, 41, 2: 371–91.

Malm, Andreas 2016, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London: Verso.

Nixon, Rob 2011, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Noys, Benjamin 2010, The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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[1]In the 2017 PMLA forum on Rita Felski’sThe Limits of Critique, Felski, in her response, comments, ‘After describing some of the uses of literature in an earlier book, I felt impelled to turn to the limits of critique, to articulate my reservations about a style of thinking that has shaped much of my own intellectual life. Yet it was not easy to discern how much of this malaise was personal or even generational. Perhaps my sense of intellectual fatigue was largely due to having spent almost four decades in the trenches of literary and critical theory?’ See Felski 2017, p. 390. I will return to some of the problems with this particular form of malaise below.

[2] In this earlier piece, Levine notes that ‘One could call [this formalism] “social close reading”; I prefer to call it “strategic formalism”.’ She also refers here to her proposal as a form of ‘post-post-structuralist formalism’ (Levine 2006, p. 632). — is it? what rules govern it?” a form of “post-post-structuralist formalism” (632). e reading”; I prefer to call it “strategic

[3] The idea of ‘close but not deep’ reading comes from Heather Love and entails ‘a method of textual analysis that would take its cue from observation-based social sciences including ethology, kinesics, ethnomethodology, and microsociology’. The value of these sciences for Love is that they ‘have developed practices of close attention, but, because they rely on description rather than interpretation, they do not engage the metaphysical and humanist concerns of hermeneutics’ (Love 2010, p. 375). She turns, in particular, to Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman, both of whom ‘offer descriptions of surfaces, operations, and interactions’ and thus, for Love, ‘suggest an alternate model of reading that does not depend on the ethical exemplarity of the interpreter or messenger’ (ibid). Levine directly references Love, noting that ‘close but not deep’ reading ‘is a practice that seeks out pattern over meaning, the intricacy of relations over interpretive depth’ (Levine 2015, p. 23). Unlike Love, however, Levine argues that literary critics can bring their skills to bear in the political realm rather than looking to the social sciences for new models of reading.,n terms of spaceity”(15). g–feelings along with consumer goods, language along with built space–that would seem incompatible

[4] Reflecting on the aims of his own theory in The Ideologies of Theory, Fredric Jameson characterises this particular set of essays as

[trying] to stage the attractiveness of a worldview – the only one, I think – for which those multiple dimensions and temporalities we sometimes crudely call the political, the history of forms, the dynamics of desire, the class texture of the social, the originality of the act, and geological rhythms of human history, all unimaginably coexist. (Jameson 1988, p. xxix.)

Marking a shift in his approach ‘as something like a shift from the vertical to the horizontal’, Jameson identifies his change in focus as a move ‘from the attempt to talk about the sentence to the (equally impossible) attempt to talk aboutmodes of production’ (Jameson 1988, p. xxix).

[5] The need to account for capitalism as a totality, ‘to talk about modes of production’, in no way equates to a turn away from form; nor does it assume that the social is a transparent, coherent whole, as is so often asserted in various new formalisms. Using C. Wright Mills and Jameson as their examples, Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle note that

it is only those who believe that theories of the totality conform to a Stalinist caricature of ‘dialectical materialism’ who would tax them with an ‘excess of coherence.’ A social theory of capitalism as a totality, and the imaginations and aesthetics that strive toward it, could only be marked by such an excess if it neglected the incoherence, the trouble in its object, refusing to acknowledge its own theoretical activity – with all of its highly artificial stylistic, political, and methodological machinations. (Toscano and Kinkle 2015, p. 55.)

This claim is made in the context of their discussion of Bruno Latour, to which I will return below.

[6] Throughout Forms, Levine’s criticisms of current models of power seem to have as their target primarily Foucauldian-inspired analyses, despite claiming a broader applicability to political criticism in general. It bears repeating that Foucault and those in his wake stress discourses of power, whereas Marxists emphasise structures of exploitation. For a fuller reading of the distinction and its consequences as articulated by Fredric Jameson, see Lesjak 2013. As noted there, other new modes of reading, such as surface reading and various forms of post-critique, tend to remain within the discourse of power.

[7] Felski 2017, p. 157.

[8] Levine’s dictum to not ‘presume’ causality begs the question. To presume a lack of causality is a starting presupposition in its own right that precludes the prospect of causality being found, a result that her individual readings bear out.

[9] Felski 2017, p. 158.

[10] To be fair, Felski claims she is not performing a critique of critique. See Felski 2017, p. 9 and passim.

[11] Various appeals to this kind of freedom can be found across a range of disciplines. The new field of sensory ethnography, for example, and its most well-known practitioner, the filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor, aim for an immediacy of experience – aided in Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan by the new technology of the GoPro – which, in turn, allows for a kind of ‘mythical spectatorial freedom’, as Christopher Pavsek phrases it: ‘By Castaing-Taylor’s account’, Pavsek argues, ‘he and [Verena] Paravel [co-director and co-producer ofLeviathan] did not wish to create a film that dominates the spectator, that tells the viewer what to think by providing some unitary account of the world, which would amount to “an abdication of aesthetic, intellectual and political responsibility, because it is reducing the world to something that the filmmaker is pretending to be able to give you certain pronouncements about, to edify the audience”’ (Pavsek 2015, p. 7). aylor… of sensory ethnography, the filmmaker, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, claims for films such as w field of sensory ethnography,

[12] Latour 2005, p. 252.

[13] Noys 2011, p. 11.

[14] Noys 2010, p. 10.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Noys 2010, p. 83.

[17] Latour 2005, p. 185.

[18] Latour 1988, p. 173.

[19] Noys 2010, p. 90.

[20] Noys 2010, p. 93.

[21] Hylton White also faults Latour for his mischaracterisation of Marxism, but for White, the problem rests with Latour’s account of fetishism and its relationship to his arguments against critique. In Latour’s view, White explains,

Critique … is a project of showing how fetishists have been deceived by their own beliefs into attributing powers to lifeless things. But how did fetishists come to think so wrongly in the first place? At this point, anti-fetishists [i.e. Marxists] supposedly inflect Latour’s ‘second cut.’ They claim scientific knowledge to show how human beliefs are shaped by hidden mechanisms – especially the functional imperatives of social domination (‘On Subjectivity’ 236). (White 2013, p. 671.)

[22] As Noys puts it, ‘[Latour’s] very refusal to engage in political activity or theory (at least from the “Left” as usually identified), his self-identification as a patient anthropological or sociological tracker of networks, conceived of as material assemblages that include the human and nonhuman in “equal” or democratic terms, and his dismissal of the modernist problematic of critique, make him emblematic’ (Noys 2011, p. 80). It is probably worth noting that neither Levine nor Felski are particularly interested in the democracy of the human and nonhuman that propels Latour’s advocacy of ‘hybrids’ and undercuts the imperial or modern subject – and which leads to his claim that ‘we have never been modern’. That said, Felski does consider texts as co-actors, as noted above.

[23] Nixon 2011, p. 2.

[24] Malm 2016, p. 6.

[25] Malm 2016, pp. 2–3.

[26] Malm 2016, p. 11.

[27] Malm 2016, p. 12.

[28] Toscano and Kinkle 2015, p. 51.

[29] Jameson identifies the coexistence of homogeneity and heterogeneity as a defining antinomy of postmodernity in The Seeds of Time. One formulation of this paradox, he writes, is ‘the equivalence between an unparalleled rate of change on all the levels of social life and an unparalleled standardization of everything – feelings along with consumer goods, language along with built space – that would seem incompatible with such mutability’ (Jameson 1996, p. 15).