Simona L. Brickers, my colleague on the board at Not in Our Town Princeton, reviewed this book by Caroline Levine. Thank you, Simona, for drawing my attention to Forms: Whole, Rhythms, Hierarchy, Networks (192 pages, $19.95, Princeton University Press).
Levine’s book is a fascinating journey through Forms, defined as the “fluid overlap of social and cultural order, patterns, and shape that open up to the “generalizable understanding of political power” (Chapter 1). It brings together, nicely outlined, literary work by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Jacques Derrida, and Ralph Waldo Emerson along with many others. It weaves the literary examples into accounts of lived examples of institutionalized, systemic, freedoms and constraints that influence social collaboration and chaos.
In relating the act of punishment to rhythm, Levine highlights African music as repetitive, cyclical, polyrhythmic and dialogic and expressing pleasures that produce a participatory and embodied collective singing. Rhythms turned out to be the repressive form used against African captives by slave masters to impose solidarity, control, and subjugations through chain gang songs (Chapter 3).
Levine’s central concern, as reflected in her title (Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network), was to present a platform to explore the phenomenon called “path dependency.” Path dependence is learned helplessness depicted as a systematic composition that constricts diversity (race and gender) with barriers that prohibit reversal because of social and organizational cost. The mechanism of sex is a device that produces hierarchical distinction (Chapter 4). The implicit disconnect in the various forms creates constraints and differences. Various forms overlap and intersect. They travel and influence political policies in particular historical contexts (Chapter 1).
Nevertheless, the whole theoretical concept is misleading when it is carefully examined to reveal the social advantages that differ according to the traditional rhythms of the hierarchical color-coded network . Levine quotes Derrida’s work because the desire for bounded wholeness has grave political consequences (Chapter 2). Levine addressed the underpinning of social order, pattern, and shape by examining the dysfunction of forms. She also studied how the web translates into “literature as landmarks,” depicted as advanced transgression. “Repetitive temporal patterns impose constraints across social life…standard repetition, durations, and arcs of development organize our experiences of everything from sleep and sex to governments and the global economy (Chapter 3).
Levine writes brilliantly. Each word captures an essence of social order, patterns, and shapes (norms) that have become invisible, taken for granted without acknowledgement of the transhistorical or macro-environmental influences on society and the policies governing our daily routines. The reader learns that we are not authentic — but domesticated, trained to behave, believe, and act according to a socialized outline that serves some differently than others , with no regard to how overlapping forms influence injustice.
Her masterful last chapter discusses The Wire (2002-2008), the David Simon HBO series. This conventional cop drama exploration of the ways that social experience is structured within African American communities (Chapter 5). The Wire rendered radically unpredictable and overlapping social forms. Levine ends the book by leading readers to contemplate the unsettled, unexpected and bewildering effects of an ideologically coherent society with power lodged in the hands of a few. The challenge is self-reflective, aiming to push the reader to seek beyond what is controlled by a few — the societal whole, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks that influence social order, patterns, and shape individual and collective Forms.
Levine asked this question on page 18: “Which form do we wish to see governing social life, then and which forms of protect or resistance actually succeed at dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements?”
The book is a masterpiece. It offers an opportunity to read, reread, and discuss the forms that are accepted as “unchangeable.”
Simona L. Brickers