I’ve been meaning to write a post about form for awhile now — long before the Columbia conference, even. It’s been on my mind for several reasons this semester. I revisited Caroline Levine’s 2006 Victorian Studies article on “strategic formalism” back in March when I was briefly transforming my dissertation abstract into a “popular religion” project for the purposes of a fellowship application (final analysis: “religion” is totally plausible, “popular” perhaps less so) and found that I’d sort of caught up with it conceptually since the last time I tried to use it. I’ve been able to see Levine herself speak twice about the form issue at two different conferences, most recently at Columbia, and we had the chance to renew our own ongoing conversation about these issues, which — among other things — in turn is helping me think about my more general theoretical investments, whether it’s time for me to start calling myself a post-poststructuralist or post-deconstructionist or some other term that expresses the appropriate relation of allegiance, belatedness, and potential for surpassing the original.

During one of our Long 19th Century reading groups, Mia asked what the difference was between form and genre. The question threw me a bit, and I probably didn’t answer it all that well because we’ve been meeting on Tuesdays, which is a teaching day for me, and getting up at 6am ensures that I will be loopy by noon. But I think the question threw me more profoundly because I don’t really even think of those two things together. (In retrospect, I realize that I’m probably the weird one.) For me, form functions more capaciously — really as a way of organizing experience, which is more or less how Levine uses it in her work — whereas genre seems more narrowly focused on content, on a certain inflection given to what is contained by the form. In some ways, it seems too narrowly literary or aesthetic, where I understand form as a more general structuring principle. But it’s possible that this distinction is at its fuzziest precisely in literature and aesthetics (especially given how we teach “genres” in intro to lit classes, which probably should be “forms”).

I was surprised, in a way, to hear myself making such broad claims for form, if only because I wondered later whether I was moving away from being able to articulate a specific function for, say, literary/poetic form. I’ve heard people ask Levine this question — and I think I probably asked it myself at one point — and it does get a little bit tricky because at some level portability of structure begins to look like uniformity of function. Levine herself is pretty straightforward that, at least in a general theoretical sense, she isn’t giving literary form a privileged or special place (though she certainly doesn’t dismiss it either). With that being said, though, her examples are frequently from literature and in the VS article she says something about literary form existing in a “destabilizing” relation to other forms. This makes a lot of sense from the perspective of the kind of work that Warwick Slinn does on 19th-century poetry and theories of performative speech. Basically, his argument (largely in Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique but also in Victorian Poetry circa 2004) is that Victorian poetry’s specific relationship to language (especially in terms of suspending the difference between literal and figural meaning) allows it to expose the workings of other kinds of discourses, allows us to focus on what he calls “processes of signification,” how different kinds of institutions construct meaning, and so on. (Slinn doesn’t get cited as much as he should, but I do use his work as a starting point for my Maud article.)

If form is “destabilizing”–and for me a lot of Levine’s most interesting and helpful ideas have to do not so much with form itself, but with the way that *different* forms interact with each other, destabilizingly or not–I would also want to say that it is (or at least can be) enabling. This, at least, is where a lot of my work has been going as of late. I think I’ve always seen suspension this way, at least the suspension that’s been the subject of my dissertation. I realize that sounds paradoxical — it’s not exactly enabling to be mistaken for dead and buried alive — but in a more general, structural sense, suspension is enabling precisely because it allows for contradictory possibilities to interact with each other, creates a simultaneity that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and offers a kind of “container” for working through different possibilities. This is also how I’ve been thinking about religious forms — the ones I’m most interested in are the ones that enable particular kinds of engagement with faith and doubt or simply with the given conditions of one’s own life.

I don’t have a good intellectual defense for why that is right now. Among the many realizations I had at the Columbia conference, it occurred to me that I haven’t been thinking about form over the past year as much as I’ve been living it — particularly as a result of the turn that my practice of Zen meditation has taken. Zen is really into form, which is something that made me nervous for several years, but is now something that I find to be helpful, enabling, and often instructive. And it’s possible that one of the things I’ll be able to do this summer (one can dream) is start to make that more available to an intellectual articulation. For now, though, I’ll simply mention that in the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom sutra (PDF) — one of the texts that we chant on a regular basis at the place I meditate — we find these lines: “form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form.” This is something I think about a lot.

I’m stopping here mainly because I try to limit myself to 1,000-ish words (and because I’m self-conscious about being the only person blogging here) — I still want to work out some of my thoughts on method, function, the difficulty of talking about form in academic contexts, and why I thought it was great when Caroline Levine said during the Columbia Q&A that “it doesn’t all have to be rupture.” But you all know I can ramble. Would anyone want to have a discussion instead?