Forms as Scenes

The other day I read Michael Wood’s review of Caroline Levine’s new book, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, 2015) in the London Review of Books (27 August 2015), and now I am curious to read Levine. Not because the four principal forms that she focuses on (listed as the book’s subtitle), are the kind of forms that I am interested in, but primarily for two other reasons.

The first, as Wood describes it, is Levine’s “suggestion that forms are never alone, that they get in each other’s way.” To think about forms as non-autonomous, is of course to completely re-define what we mean when we speak of forms. Here, forms are less stable, self-contained, and isolated entities, than they are understood to be  mobile, touching, overlapping, colliding and contaminating formative and “de-formative” forces. Their boundaries and limits are permeable or fluid, extending and overflowing. Contrary to conventional meaning and understanding, forms are not closed, but open. In a sense, we might say that it is at the place, zone, line or contour of the formative force of collision (for instance), that form is formed—as always singular plural. This leads me to want to make the claim not that there is (or are) a form of co-existence or being-with (formalism of the social and of form), but that the spacing of the “with” is what form means—both form’s source and sense.

Which leads to the second, equally if not more so, provocative and enticing theoretical approach of Levine’s, the one that Wood thinks “it’s worth pausing over…since it’s quite rare, and very promising.” At which point he hands the floor over to the author, who he quotes as stating:

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.

I too regard this as an extremely promising critical/theoretical approach to works of art, in no small part because in Levine’s self-description of it, I see something that closely resembles the approach that I have taken in my writing on contemporary art, literature and theory, most recently in my book, The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes. Whether this makes Wood’s sense of its rarity any more or less the case, I am heartened to encounter his estimation of it, and what appears to be a very compelling deployment. One that does not read the social back into the work of literature or art, or even reads the work outward onto the social, but that understands works of art—their forms—as social sites, or what, in my book, I mean by “scenes.”

In their attempts to think the relation of art and the social, aesthetics and the ethical, formalist methods operate with the assumption that one or the other exists prior to the other, and as a form separate from the other holds the potential to shape or inform the other. Whereas a non-formalist approach distinguishes itself by asserting that any notion of literary, artistic or social form is only possible to the extent that one attends to the scene where as Levine writes: “forms cross and collide.” To which I would go on to argue that it is “in” or “at” the coming-together and apart where forms are formed—where and how form happens—and neither before nor after.

Forms are thus re-conceived as needing to be sustained as the open and extended spaces that they are, in order to “remain” or persist as forms. Forms are incredibly fragile things, if not always, then often. Such that we might conclude that it is precisely such impermanent scenes that are the most worth trying to sustain, in and as the impossibility of their obdurate formal permanence. Therein lies the inseparability of aesthetics and ethics.

1 comment
  1. In “Far From Substance,” which is in part a reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Gerard Granel makes a point similar to the one that I attempted to make in this post. What I refer to as “scenes” Granel speaks of more broadly in terms of “spatiality,” and writes that “we will never think space itself—or spatiality as such—if we draw its various evidences from the intra-spatial. The ontological presupposition of a present reality, given first to sensibility, that is, as a diversity of sensations, would oblige us to conceive all form as an arrangement of sensations in space.” Which is to say that sensations are our first intimations and sensuous intuitions of reality, and that the arrangement of these sensations in space is what goes by the name of “form.” As Granel goes on to conclude, “In a word, the spatial of the perceived is formal, and no form is the affair of a content” but instead form is the arrangement of sensations in space. It is this that makes it impossible to grasp precisely where the form of space and the space of form begin and end.

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