It didn’t look like a bird

Michael Wood

  • Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network by Caroline Levine
    Princeton, 173 pp, £19.95, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 16062 7

‘Structures don’t take to the streets’ was a famous Paris slogan of 1968, ‘Les structures ne descendent pas dans la rue.’ The implication was that structuralists didn’t take to the streets either, that current thought and theory represented only quietism. There was an echo here of a grand debate between Sartre and Lévi-Strauss, in which Sartre represented himself as engaged in history and Lévi-Strauss as a mere aesthete, dedicated to just watching things. In his book The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss, rather surprisingly, accepted the charge of aesthete, adding a brilliant turn to his programme: ‘I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man.’ He added, with more than a little polemical mischief, that he was

not blind to the fact that the verb ‘dissolve’ does not in any way imply (but even excludes) the destruction of the constituents of the body subjected to the action of another body. The solution of a solid into a liquid alters the disposition of its molecules. It also often provides an efficacious method of putting them by so that they can be recovered in case of need and their properties be better studied.

Dissolving man was not going to get rid of people. Or streets or protests.

The interest of this argument is that it shows us how inseparable the slogan’s wit and interest are from its limitations. It’s true that structures don’t demonstrate – and that grammar doesn’t speak, that the unconscious doesn’t come out to play with the children of reason. But then some structures are already in the streets, in the form of barricades, buildings, student organisations, cadres of policemen, political ideologies. Grammar is everywhere in language, especially when it is ungrammatical; and the unconscious isn’t any less active for behaving like a secret agent. There is a real difference between history as Sartre understood it, a matter of visible human behaviour in time, and what Lévi-Strauss had come to call ‘structural anthropology’. In Tristes tropiques, he takes geology as his model of the science of what we can’t see, what we have to deduce:

Every landscape offers, at first glance, an immense disorder which may be sorted out howsoever we please. We may sketch out the history of its cultivation, plot the accidents of geography which have befallen it, and ponder the ups and downs of history and prehistory: but the most august of investigations is surely that which reveals what came before, dictated, and in large measure explains all the others.

He then associates geology with psychoanalysis, and a little later writes:

At a different level of reality, Marxism seemed to me to proceed in the same way as geology and psychoanalysis … All three showed that understanding consists in the reduction of one type of reality to another; that true reality is never the most obvious of realities, and that its nature is already apparent in the care which it takes to evade our detection.

The ‘never’ in the last sentence is tendentious, and the assumption that the truth is always in hiding has led many scholars and students into trouble, not just psychoanalysts and literary critics. But the claim for different types of reality is attractive. We don’t have to deny history to be interested in structure; we can join the visible protest and also want to understand the invisible, intricately overdetermined grounds any protest is likely to have.

The debate between Lévi-Strauss and Sartre invited, almost ensured, certain consequences: the continuing achievements of structuralism in the social sciences and other disciplines; a growing philosophical and literary suspicion of structuralism’s universalising tendencies; a return to history as a way of rescuing the concrete and the local – since even structuralism’s enemies could be pretty abstract in their pursuit of implication. There were attempts to keep the two ways of thinking together. Raymond Williams wrote of ‘structures of feeling’ but didn’t forget expressions of feeling. Foucault’s metaphor of archaeology was loyal to Lévi-Strauss’s buried history but allowed constant connections to the visible history of the material world.

Still, large divisions of temperament and tendency remained, and they were often framed in terms not of history and structure but of content and form. You had to be interested in both, of course, and might on occasion say that they were inseparable. But this was a piety rather than a practice, and on any given day you were going to prefer one to the other, to think content was serious, for example, and form was a frill; or that form called all the shots and content was a sort of humanist illusion.

Caroline Levine’s provocative plea for formalism – ‘I propose here to track the forms of the content’, she says – opens with the story of just such a difference within the family. She would argue, she tells us, ‘that patterns of language came before us, preceding and creating subjects’. Her father, a historian, ‘would insist that human agency and intention were primary, shaping any utterance we make’. ‘The debates themselves were pleasurable,’ she adds, ‘but he never convinced me – or I him. I wish Joseph M. Levine were alive to read this book. He would cheerfully disagree with every argument in it.’

This conclusion makes clear that Caroline Levine is not trying to bridge the gap between the two positions. She wants us to see that form is everywhere. This isn’t quite the same as saying that everything is form, but elsewhere she comes pretty close, since her examples of exception are ‘fissures and interstices’ and the like, gaps between forms rather than the sort of content her father was looking for. But she isn’t interested in the detection of evasive or hidden forms, as Lévi-Strauss was. Her suggestion, chiefly, is that the forms are there for us all to see; we just don’t know to look.

She says she noticed, for example, that scholars have ‘often assumed that aesthetic forms were tremendously complex, while political forms were comparatively simple.’ She thinks this perception is ‘not altogether wrong’, because ‘a blunt political instrument’ does its work precisely by not being ‘a complex formation in itself’ – or, we might add, by not respecting any kind of complexity at all. But then ‘any simple order gets complicated fast once we start attending to the dense intertwining and overlapping of multiple forms.’ These ‘travelling, colliding forms’ are the subject of her book.

Levine is not only urging us to pay attention to political and social forms (and persuasively showing us how to do it), she wants us to resist what she sees as an excessive historicism. ‘I have always thought, none of our research matters unless it is generalisable, unless we can learn something from it that has implications beyond its own time.’ This is surely too categorical a view of research and what matters, or perhaps it is simply too broad a statement. The scholar’s idea of what it means to ‘learn something’ will be quite different from the idea held by the person who wants to close her supposedly irrelevant department down. Still, the substantive point is a good one. We don’t study other times solely in order to understand our own time better. But we can’t study other times at all without taking something of our own times with us, and this two-way traffic, which Levine calls ‘portability’, teaches us all kinds of things. The very idea of the local, for instance, is refreshed and tested by the non-local.

The colliding is important as well as the travelling. In fact, the really challenging and original element in this book may be the suggestion that forms are never alone, that they get in each other’s way. A collision ‘reroutes intention and ideology’. ‘As they collide with other hierarchies and an array of other forms in social situations, hierarchies often go awry or are rerouted.’ The Wire is a narrative series organised around ‘the many points where forms collide’ rather than ‘a sequence of separate institutional forms’. If the sphere of the domestic involves both the idea of home and the idea of nation, then the two ideas have only to clash for the assumption of ‘a single intention or ideology’ to be no longer tenable; the division itself will become ‘capable of generating a set of social, political and cultural possibilities of its own’.

Levine tells us she has been accused of quietism, and one can see why. Can we make these collisions happen, or do we have to wait for chance and disorder to do it? Even her most eloquent moments have a way of slipping off into hopes rather than promises. ‘Foucault gives us the very tools we need to grasp the impossibility of his own nightmarish era of the total co-ordination of “carceral” forms.’ This is a wonderful idea, and probably in large part true. But the tools he gives us are analytic, and his nightmare is of course anything but impossible. All we can believe is that it is not inevitable or universal. What Levine goes on to say is that ‘his logic implies that lots of other old forms might also be waiting around … Foucault’s interest in enduring forms might prompt us to begin noticing an array of archaic institutional forms … which provide ongoing alternatives to any single, co-ordinated and monolithic regime of power.’ There is something forlorn about those two ‘mights’ and that ‘begin’; and ‘waiting around’ doesn’t sound so great either.

Levine isn’t a quietist, though, and it would be unfair to blame the author of a manifesto for not knowing how all the details of the programme will work. It’s true that I get nervous when I hear her speak of ‘those who care passionately about unjust arrangements of power’, and when she tells us her book ‘is an attempt to think about how we might make our world more just’, because I seem to hear the voice of a good liberal who doesn’t know how passionately the unjust care about their power arrangements. Don’t they already know everything we could possibly know about forms? But I may be wrong about this tone, and in any case, as Gramsci told us, pessimism of the intellect is no excuse for pessimism of the will. When Levine writes of ‘a canny formalism’ as what allows some figures to do relatively well in the world of The Wire, or of certain medieval nuns and 20th-century American Methodists who became ‘canny formalists’, turning restrictive rules into opportunities for change, we know she is interested in something more practical and specific than counting on the contradictions of capital to do us a favour. And she understands, as not too many people have, that Foucault’s work was trying to wake us up rather than depress us.

The number of social and political forms is not infinite, but there are more of them than most of us are going to be able to count. Levine groups her examples under four headings – ‘whole’, ‘rhythm’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘network’ – and this is just the beginning. ‘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.’ And many other scholars, as the book shows. Wholes include the enclosed spaces of nations and prisons; rhythms are represented by labour and institutions; there are hierarchies of gender, class, and race; and there are networks everywhere. Levine ranges wide for her instances: into monastic history, Greek tragedy, American religion, contemporary sociology and design theory, as well as returning with affection more than once to her own field of 19th-century literature and culture. And then there is the final chapter dedicated to The Wire.

Different readers will pick up on different examples. I was most taken with three in particular. First, there is the legal story of whether and why, for US customs purposes, Brancusi’s sculpture Bird in Space, which arrived in New York Harbour in 1926, was a work of art. The law seemed to think it wasn’t, because it didn’t look like a bird, and a recent federal ruling had defined art as a set of ‘imitations of natural objects’. Jacob Epstein argued, however, that the title was not a description but the beginning of an interpretation. ‘Epstein offered the court a theory of art as that which would not repeat but would transform the perceptions and assumptions of the audience.’ This didn’t go down too well, and Epstein had another idea. Brancusi’s work did look like a bird – or at least like an ancient, stylised sculpture of a bird, a three-thousand-year-old Egyptian one. The work was ‘abstract but evocative’. The judge was persuaded, saying: ‘The wings and feet are not shown, still you get the impression it is a hawk.’ As Levine points out, the rhythms of originality and tradition are both in play. They could mess each other up, but here they help get the bird into the country, and lower the import tax. ‘In the end, it was a canny grasp of institutional tempos that won Brancusi the battle.’

And then there is her engaging account of Bleak House. I have long been haunted by the story Dickens adapted from Carlyle about the Irish woman in Edinburgh who had typhus and sought ‘help from the Charitable Establishments of that City’. They all refused. She died and infected her whole neighbourhood with fever, so that 17 other people died too. Carlyle says this is ‘very curious’. The woman asked her fellow citizens for help because she was their sister, and they said by their actions that she wasn’t. ‘But she proves her sisterhood,’ Carlyle says. ‘Her typhus fever kills them: they actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had man ever to go lower for a proof?’ A perfect instance of a network that is real but refused.

But Levine goes well beyond the story of disease in Bleak House. The law is a network in the novel, and so is philanthropy. So are ‘economics, class, gossip, the family tree, city streets, rural roads’: it’s a book, Levine suggests, that is organised ‘around networks rather than persons’. Some figures are ‘simply proximate – in the right place at the right time – while others become unconscious bearers of connectability.’ And some, of course, are impeccably in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the Irish woman in Carlyle, or indeed many people in the novel.

In Bleak House the police detective Mr Bucket makes a wonderful remark, offering a shorthand theory of crime fiction as the uncovering of networks. ‘I don’t suppose there’s a move on the board that would surprise me,’ he says. ‘And as to this or that move having taken place, why my knowing it is no odds at all; any possible move whatever (provided it’s in a wrong direction) being a probable move according to my experience.’ The conditional clause is devastating. Mr Bucket is a great detective, and there is very little he doesn’t know. But he can’t begin to understand people trying to make a move in the right direction, and for this reason can’t find the very person he is looking for. This failure fits very well into Levine’s picture of Bleak House as ‘a model of social interconnection that is larger and longer than even this dauntingly expansive novel itself could manage’.

It’s worth pausing over the critical approach Levine is taking, since it’s quite rare, and very promising:

The point here is less to use formalist methods to read Dickens than to use Dickens to throw light on the operations of social form. If this seems like literary criticism turned upside down, that is certainly part of my purpose. I have not understood literary texts in this book as reflections or expressions of prior social forms, but rather as sites, like social situations, where multiple forms cross and collide.

She applies this approach, compellingly, in her chapter on The Wire. This series too she regards as a place where ‘how things work is relentlessly a matter of form’, and she thinks that in this respect The Wire goes Bleak House one better, since it not only offers a model of a world, but starts on a theoretical study of that world. She says that the characters who best understand the networks of politics, law, crime, the press, the educational system and the street in an imaginary Baltimore ‘perform a reading of the social’. The wording sounds a little academic, but it describes a practice and invites further practice. The imaginary will help us with the real if we look at it hard enough, and we don’t have to wait for luck to make this happen.