I’m working my way toward my goal of reading 30 books this year (here’s my list so far). I wanted to share the one so far that keeps rolling around in my mind. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, by Caroline Levine is a book about formal literary criticism that focuses spends a lot of time talking about The Wire. I’m increasingly thinking it has a lot of utility for sorting out how to go about working to maximize the impact you can have in supporting an organization meet it’s mission.
This post is a sharing out of some of my notes and reflections about reading the book and The Wire. There is a good chance that this post will be much more relevant and useful if you’ve read Levine’s book and or are familiar with The Wire. I’ve tried to make the post legible without background in both, but I think it will likely make far more sense if you have some experience with them.
Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
Levine asserts that “Formalist analysis turns out to be as valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature” (p. 2). I find that case compelling. The bulk of the book works to identify a set of literary and political forms and their affordances. In her words;
“Though we have not always called them forms, they are the political structures that have most concerned literary and cultural studies scholars: bounded wholes, from domestic walls to national boundaries; temporal rhythms, from reputations 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.” (21)
The book does a great job clarifying and articulating how these forms work and function both in literature and in society.
The more I’ve thought over the forms the more I see them in all kinds of every day decisions; who is in and out of a given group (bounded wholes), what is the right tempo for meetings and interactions around daily schedules (temporal rhythms), how are a given set of competing hierarchies playing out in any given situation, and what role are different social networks playing out in terms of how things get done.
On some level, it feels like this is a somewhat arbitrary list of forms, but the more I think about them and through them the more they seem like the right set. In many ways, several aspects of these, map into the organizational frames I discussed in a post last year.
There is no single “the system” there are colliding and competing forms
One of Levine’s central conceits is that forms collide. That in any given context there are a series of different competing socio-political forms at play which compete/struggle to resolve into maintaining or rupturing any given status quo. In her words;
“in practice, we encounter so many forms that even in the most ordinary daily experience they add up to a complex environment composed of multiple and conflicting modes of organization— forms arranging and containing us, yes, but also competing and colliding and rerouting one another.” (16)
In this context, Levine proposes that the central question for individuals working within these colliding systems is about how to navigate and work the forms. Fo her, this prompts a different set of tactical considerations for working toward any given set of goals. She asks;
“what tactics for change will work most effectively if what we are facing is not a single hegemonic system or dominant ideology but many forms, all trying to organize us at once?” (p. 22)
This line of questioning pushes us away straightforward notions of resistance or compliance with a system and toward a tactical framing focused on working through and across the collisions of forms.
Levine lands this analysis in an extended reading of the forms at work in one of my favorite works, The Wire, which I will explore further.
The Wire as a Life Coach on Forms
Like many, I’ve have been and remain compelled by the story of The Wire. I came to it late, I think Marjee and I watched the whole series four or five years ago. Since watching it I think of it often. Those who know me well will know I regularly bring it up in conversations about how systems and organizations play out in society. As a digression, I tend to think that the only other text I return to as much for understanding, explaining, and making sense of my world is American Gods.
I feel like Levine has given me a much more sophisticated set of tools for talking about how The Wire offers tools for reading our world. In Levine’s words, The Wire “conceptualizes social life as both structured and rendered radically unpredictable by large numbers of colliding social forms” (p. 23).
Central to the story is a dialog about the power and nature of the system. However, Levine nicely picks apart what that actual system is.
Both characters and critics bewail the power of what they call “the system” portrayed on The Wire, but it is crucial to note that “the system” is less an organized or integrated single structure than it is precisely this heaped assortment of wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks.” (148)
In this context, “the system” is an emergent outcome of the ongoing collisions of forms competing with each other. In Levine’s reading, the central focus of “individual decisions matter only within environments of colliding forms where no individual or elite group controls either procedures or outcomes” (p. 149).
Furthermore, Levine makes the case that the heroes of the story are the people that read and navigate the collision of forms to make their world bend toward being better or more just.
“The few characters who recognize the power and significance of multiple forms—Lester Freeman, Bunny Colvin, and Omar Little— all make strategic decisions which, temporarily at least, permit outcomes that frustrate or elude the conventional distribution of power.” (p. 149)
After finishing the book, and returning to my own reflections on The Wire, I find myself increasingly thinking about reading the various situations I confront in terms of these formal categories. How can I best work within and through the competing forms that work to organize my life and work? How do I establish a trajectory for action that accepts the collision and competition of these forms as a basis to act from and not a system to define myself in opposition to?
I’m curious for thoughts from other’s reading both the book and the show. I feel like the ecological conception of society and organizations that emerges in this approach is really valuable and I’m curious to talk with folks about it more.