Monday, February 5, 2018

TIMN's “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 2 of maybe 4) — an illuminating analysis of “forms” by literary theorist Caroline Elizabeth Levine

Ordinarily, to follow up Part 1, I might have to turn next to Plato and Aristotle as proponents of thinking in terms of “forms”. Fortunately, I need do nothing so philosophical. For a literary and cultural theorist has recently written a book that speaks to my view of TIMN’s reliance on “forms”. It’s by Cornell professor Caroline Elizabeth Levine. And just look at the title — Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). Thus it’s not only about “forms”, but also touches on two of TIMN’s four forms: hierarchies (institutions) and networks. Still more fortunate for me, her introductory chapter (I’ve not seen the rest of her book yet) is online here:
Levine’s marvelous book is the only writing I’ve found so far that focuses on “forms” much as I do. So I’m going to excerpt numerous quotes from her Introduction that resonate with my usage and draw validation from that for TIMN. (I apologize in advance for the wordiness and repetitiveness of my write-up, but that’s become a side-effect of how I get things done these days.)

• Levine starts by noting that in past usages ““form” always indicates an arrangement of elements — an ordering, patterning, or shaping”. She makes her own definition deliberately broader: “Form … will mean all shapes and configurations, all ordering principles, all patterns of repetition and difference.” (p. 3)

Likewise, TIMN’s forms amount to different arrangements, patterns, shapes, configurations, ordering principles, and/or patterns that get repeated. We coincide on that, even though I don’t use all those terms. But our efforts differ in that TIMN is based on four forms, whereas her approach finds all sorts of forms everywhere.

• Levine clarifies that it is “the work of form to make order.” Which means that “forms are the stuff of politics.” And this means that “forms”, being inherently if not explicitly political, work by “imposing order on space” and by “organizing time” — say, by way of imposing boundaries and hierarchies, and by setting terms and age-requirements. To such an extent, she says, that “there is no politics without form.” (p. 3)

Likewise, TIMN’s four forms represent different approaches to order, including different ways of structuring space and time (as noted here). Levine deems all forms of order more political than I have (or would); but in a broad sense all four TIMN forms, their uses and combinations, are political, for they are subject to politics and become objects of politics.

• Levine collects together and makes explicit five long-standing literary and cultural ideas about “how forms work”. (1) They “constrain”, control, and contain. (2) They “differ” in how they impose order. (3) Many “overlap and intersect” — “sometimes powerfully reinforcing one another”. (4) They are portable, for they can “travel … across culture and time periods”. (5) They “do political work in particular historical contexts”, for “they shape what it is possible to think, say, and do in a given context.” Furthermore, “None of these ideas about form are themselves new, but putting them together will bring us to a new theory of form.” (pp. 4-6)

Levine’s five points apply well to TIMN’s four forms (tribes, institutions, markets, networks). In the order she listed, (1) They all serve to constrain and contain what people do. (2) They all differ in how they do so. (3) They often overlap and interact — in many societies, the tribal form in particular tends to penetrate the other forms. (4) They get applied in societies around the world. And (5) they shape each society’s history throughout the course of its evolution. A point I’d add that is missing from her list is that the four TIMN forms also differ as to the kinds of incentives and opportunities they provide to people.

• Levine’s next step is to “use affordances to think about form” — a concept whose usage is new to me. If I understand it correctly, the previous five points are generalities that apply across all forms, whereas affordances are specifics that attend a particular form. In her words, “affordances” refers to “both the specificity and the generality of forms — both the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford”. Particular forms thus differ as to the “constraints and possibilities” they carry — the concept of “affordances” helps express that “Each form can only do so much.” (p. 6) In other words, “each form lays claim to different affordances”; and as forms get moved from situation to situation, “forms bring their limited range of affordances with them.” (p. 7) What Levine wants to do with this concept is assure a discussion of power — for if forms “are the stuff of politics, then attending to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power.” For example, she says, “A panoptic arrangement of space, wherever it takes shape, will always afford a certain kind of disciplinary power; a hierarchy will always afford inequality.” (p. 7)

I don’t cotton yet to Levine’s concept of “affordances”, and I think the foregoing is unclear. Her individual chapters on selected forms — Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network — may make matters clear, but I’ve not read them yet. Even so, the points she makes with “affordances” are much like points I make about TIMN’s four forms, instead using terms like “attributes” or “uses” or “implications” (while, I’ve learned, others use “potentials” or “advantages”). For example, take a look at Table 1 from an old blog post (here) comparing attributes of each TIMN form. If those attributes correspond more or less to affordances — it looks to me they do — then once again Levine’s and my separate usages of “forms” are running parallel, often overlapping.

• Levine’s approach leads her to stress that forms and their affordances not only organize but also disorganize the world. This occurs because forms “often fail to impose their order when they run up against other forms that disrupt their logic and frustrate their organizing ends” — such as when “particular historical situations” make “forms overlap and collide”, creating contradictions (pp. 7-8). Her concept of affordances thus helps illuminate the capabilities and limitations of forms as organizing principles operating “in contexts where other political and aesthetic forms also are operating.” In sum, she says, “Form emerges from this perspective as transhistorical, portable, and abstract, on the one hand, and material, situated, and political, on the other.” (pp. 10-11)

At the same time, Levine is careful not to overemphasize contradictions that may arise among various forms and their affordances. Instead, she muses that her academic “field has been so concerned with breaking forms apart that we have neglected to analyze the major work that forms do in our world.” Since societies cannot be “altogether free of organizing principles”, she advises analysts in her field to move away from placing “too strong an emphasis on forms’ dissolution”, because doing so “has prevented us from attending to the complex ways that power operates in a world dense with functioning forms.” (p. 9)

Much the same applies to TIMN’s four forms. Their purpose is to organize, and TIMN is about how they may be progressively combined in complementary ways to improve the performance of evermore complex societies. Yes, their different organizing principles do tend to contradict one another — e.g., tribes vs. institutions, or hierarchies vs. networks. So the need is to make the forms function together as complementary contradictions. And identify why some societies prove better at doing so than others.

• Against this background, Levine identifies her book’s two major goals: The first is “to show that forms are everywhere structuring and patterning experience, and that this carries serious implications for understanding political communities.” Theoretically, she says, “political forms impose their order on our lives, putting us in our places.” But in actuality, we live in complex environments “composed of multiple and conflicting modes of organization” — with myriad forms “competing and colliding and rerouting one another.” Thus she is out to “make the case that no form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others.” (p. 16)

This too is consistent with TIMN. It focuses only on the four cardinal four forms serving to organize our lives, but people often do use them to try to compete, collide, and reroute others — particularly where the tribal form and its clannish “affordances” (?) remain so pervasive they corrupt the later forms. In any case, in those societies where TIMN forces progress well, the story of societal evolution is about the successful combination of forms, not domination by any single form. One form or another may seem most prominent at times, but a society that gives way to domination or paramountcy by a single TIMN form, or worse yet to its hegemony, is doing something wrong. This amounts to a major parallel between TIMN and Levine’s analysis, in that it is best that “no form, however seemingly powerful, causes, dominates, or organizes all others.” Theorists elsewhere err who have claimed that the TIMN progression from monoform (T-only) through quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies means a sequential domination by the latest form added — a debate for discussion another time.

• Her book’s second major goal is more political and strategic: “to think about the ways that, together, the multiple forms of the world come into conflict and disorganize experience in ways that call for unconventional political strategies.” She objects to “critics and theorists” on the Left who assume that “powerful social institutions” and “coherent ideologies” rule our experiences. Instead, her book stresses the significance of “social disorganization, exploring the many ways in which multiple forms of order, sometimes the results of the same powerful ideological formation, may unsettle one another.” She seeks to clarify “how competing forms can sometimes produce pain and injustice as troubling as any consolidation of power.” (p. 17)

In arguing for her view that we live in societies where “no single form dominates or organizes all of the others,” she goes against “one of the deepest political convictions in the field: that ultimately, it is deep structural forces such as capitalism, nationalism, and racism that are the truly powerful shapers of our lives.” She agrees that “our lives are certainly organized by powerful structuring principles.” But she finds that “an exclusive focus on ultimate causality has not necessarily benefited leftist politics.” Instead, “It has distracted us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends.” (p. 17)

Thus Levine’s work is about both theory and practice, for she aims to show that a multi-form approach to “formalism” has strategic implications for political activism by the Left. Contrary to conventional ideological activists who think and strategize in terms of large central concepts and forces, e.g., capitalism and socialism, she advises activists to “shift attention away from deep causes to a recognition of the many different shapes and patterns that constitute political, cultural, and social experience” — including “a careful, nuanced understanding of the many different and often disconnected arrangements that govern social experience.” In Levine’s view, then,
“ … the primary goal of this formalism is radical social change. All politics, including revolutionary political action, will succeed only if it is canny about deploying multiple forms. … Which forms do we wish to see governing social life, then, and which forms of protest or resistance actually succeed at dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements?” (pp. 17-18)
Here again TIMN has lots in common with what Levine says. I am interested in TIMN primarily as theory. Yet it has implications for strategy, much like Levine’s, for it too implies “deploying multiple forms”, rectifying or reforming the improper application of established forms, and not letting any single form dominate.

I have not articulated TIMN to be explicitly about values like “dismantling unjust, entrenched arrangements” (her words). But TIMN could easily be moved in value-laden directions. For its system dynamics favor respecting the limits of each form (i.e., what it can and cannot do best), and achieving proper balances among them (e.g., so that tribalized forces are kept from corrupting and distorting the performance of a society’s institutional and market systems). Each TIMN form is loaded with value orientations; it’s up to people how they get enacted, and this has a lot to do with their notions of limits and balances.

Unlike Levine, I don’t urge that TIMN should inform leftists about new ways to pursue radical social change. But because of its +N component, TIMN is inherently a harbinger of radical social change in the coming decades. And with further articulation, TIMN could be turned into a manifesto for radical social change. It needn’t be a leftist or rightist manifesto, but it would have to be a quadriformist manifesto — one very much about “Which forms do we wish to see governing social life” (as she puts it).

As I look ahead with TIMN in mind, it seems more important to try to be a quadriformist than a leftist or rightist. Today’s aging triformist societies are fraught with splits between leftist progressives and rightist conservatives who endlessly argue over whether government (+I) or market (+M) solutions should prevail — they’re stuck in triformist mindsets. Yet, tomorrow’s new quadriform societies will be transformed and remodeled by the rise of +N, completely altering public policy dialoge. These societies will surely have their own Lefts and Rights, but for now I think it’s more important to try to figure out what will be the essence of this next form than claim to be a leftist or rightist proponent of it. In my view, it will probably, hopefully, be a commons sector (as I’ve said in other posts).

• While Levine sees an unlimited variety of forms at work, she identifies four in particular as pervasive “political structures”: namely, bounded wholes, temporal rhythms, hierarchies, and networks. Here she gives more detail regarding what she means by each (before providing a separate chapter on each):
“ … 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.” (p. 21)
TIMN is based on four cardinal forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks. So I’m pleased that two of her four (hierarchies and networks) roughly correspond to two of TIMN’s four forms — hierarchical institutions and information-age networks. But I can tell from the above passage that I’ll find significant discrepancies between her meanings and mine if/when I read her chapters.

For one matter, TIMN’s forms are sweepingly evolutionary in nature — her forms not so much, at least not from what I read in her Introduction. Moreover, reflecting historical analysis, TIMN prescribes a preferred progression in the addition and combination of its cardinal forms — from T-only, to T+I, to T+I+M, and in the decades ahead, to T+I+M+N societies. Her view is not like this, though it may well favor some forms over others. Also, I’m pretty sure TIMN’s forms are much more bounded than her four. Yet, as I said above, I’m pleased at the rough correspondence between the forms we each study — another plus for TIMN, in my view.

• Levine’s chief strategic insight is that “what we are facing is not a single hegemonic system or dominant ideology but many forms, all trying to organize us at once”. Thus she raises a concern that resistance to excesses associated with one form “may not emancipate us” but instead reinforce another form, undesirably. In light of this, achieving social change may be more difficult “in a world of overlapping forms” than theorists and activists have realized. What she asks her readers to wonder is, “Can we set one form against another or introduce a new form that would reroute a racial hierarchy or disturb exclusionary boundaries?” To find an answer, “we need a fine-grained formalist reading practice to address the extraordinary density of forms that is a fact of our most ordinary daily experience.” (p. 22)

Levine’s insightful points are already embedded in TIMN. It too is concerned with system dynamics and strategies for systemic change, particularly in advanced societies where TIMN’s four forms vie for application. Where our approaches may differ is that TIMN is about the presence and performance of four cardinal forms, whereas she finds an “extraordinary density of forms” of many kinds spread throughout society. Despite this difference, her points that people may try to “set one form against another or introduce a new form” resonate with what I’ve written about TIMN — for example where I’ve noted how some politicians push excessively for a government (+I) or a market (+M) solution to a policy problem. By TIMN standards, Ayn-Randian libertarians and anarcho-capitalists in particular uphold unwarranted beliefs in using +M solutions. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, many leftists are so against capitalism they dismiss the necessity for an advanced society to include a proper +M/market system. Neither side seems to understand the limits of their vaunted form and the need for a balance among the four forms.

• Levine’s final paragraph in her Introduction reiterates her goal to “understand the relations among forms — forms aesthetic and social, spatial and temporal, ancient and modern, major and minor, like and unlike, punitive and narrative, material and metrical.” More to the point, she wants to “persuade those who are interested in politics to become formalists”. And she wants this for strategic as well as theoretical purposes — “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)

Likewise, I would wish to persuade others to become TIMNistas. However, I would not call myself a “formalist”, nor say that TIMN expresses “formal logics” — that sounds awkward to me, not quite apt, too borrowed from literary studies. Maybe there’s some truth to it, but for now I’d prefer something like “form-oriented” or form-based”. Nonetheless, language aside, her closing remarks resonate with me because it would be good if TIMN were developed to the point where it could be used to help guide the future transformations it implies — in her words. “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.”

CODA: For trying to understand the meaning and implications of “forms,” Levine’s is an excellent book, better than anything else I’ve come across. I see at Amazon that it received lots of praise, awards too, from academics right after its publication. What I don’t see is whether it received much recognition from leftist social theorists and activists who strategize about social change. My guess is no, but I’d like to know for sure, either way, and why. I’d suggest they (especially pro-commons P2P theorists) should give her approach more attention, as should future-oriented theorists and activists on the Right. I’d also suggest that Darwinian theorists take a look as well (see Part 1 of this multi-part post). From what I’ve read about “strategic action fields” and “institutional logics”, their theorists might benefit as well (see my discussion in Parts 3 and maybe 4, next).

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