On Russian Formalism


“We do not see the walls of our rooms”  Victor Shklovsky

Russian Formalism began in the immediately pre-revolutionary period in Russia, developed through the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods, receiving some negative criticisms from within the new communist regime, most notably from Leon Trotsky, and was suppressed as Russia descended into the Stalinist night. It is in many ways at the inception of modern literary theory, fathering early Structuralism by way of Prague, though in the west its influence was largely posthumous and belated, as if it was time-warped from 1920’s Russia to 1960’s Western Europe.

Russian Formalism was not very tightly unified as a school, but its general orientation was to overcome the sort of criticism and reflection on literature which preceded it, and which is in other places and at all times, even now, a pole of attraction – a muddling of specifically literary concerns with biographical, even gossipy, details of an author’s life, psychological conjectures, over-emphasis on contemporary social events and currents, philosophical musings, assorted tittle-tattle, and so on. All this, the Formalists felt, condemned literary theory to an unscientific, cosy dilettantism, and, though the sorts of concerns just indicated may have their place as subsidiary enquiries, these were obscuring our view of the specifically literary. In contrast to this, many of the Formalists saw their project as being to put literary studies on a scientific footing.

One can detect even from this rudimentary outline a tendency to emphasize the autonomy, whether relative or absolute, of literature, and to split it off from its embeddedness in wider society; as one might expect, the communist regime did not look too kindly on it, being guided by a philosophy which is in many ways quite the opposite.

“Formalist” was, at least initially, not a term of their own choosing, but more a term of disparagement from their opponents, such as we find in the phrase “merely formal” – their own view of themselves is, perhaps, better indicated by the term “specifiers”: they were trying to analyse what was specific to literature that made it literature. As they developed their views, they started to define their object not as literature but as literariness – literary texts may have a multiplicity of features, but it was the literary features which were of central concern to literary theory.

The Formalists had two main geographical centres – St. Petersburg was home to the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, (acronymed in Russian as Opojaz), and Moscow to the Moscow Linguistic Circle. The key figure in the St. Petersburg society was Victor Shklovsky, and the leader of the Moscow circle Roman Jakobson.

Shklovsky maintained that “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”, and that this was accomplished by a certain technique – “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”

The central notion here is usually named Defamiliarization, or Estrangement, from the Russian Ostranenie.  Closely related terms are Alienation (taken up by Bertolt Brecht), De-automatization, Deformation and Deviation.

Shklovsky believed that in ordinary life we tend to fall prey to a tendency to “recognize” rather than really “see” things – our perceptions become routine, habitual, and automatized – “We no more feel the world in which we live than we feel the clothes we wear.” and “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it.” However, “Art removes objects from the automatism of perception …”

The main way this is done is through the peculiar form language takes in literary works – “The language of poetry is, then, a difficult, roughened, impeded language.” “The poet brings about a semantic dislocation, he snatches the concept out of the sequence in which it is usually found and transfers it with the aid of the word (the trope) to another meaning-sequence. And now we have a sense of novelty at finding the object in a fresh sequence.”

In some ways, Shklovsky seems to be flying in the face of a lot of our intuitions about art – for instance, that poetic language is the most direct and immediate form of language. Yet, if we pick up on his use of the word “trope” here, we can begin to make some sort of sense of what he is getting at. “Trope” is originally Greek, meaning a turn, an alteration, or a change, and is roughly equivalent to “figure of speech” or “rhetorical device”. The key idea is that in using language in altered ways, our perception of the world is changed and freshened.

I mentioned earlier that in attempting to found literary theory as an autonomous discipline, the Formalists frowned upon psychological conjectures – they had as their targets those who had too great a concern with the mindset or attitudes of a writer, and those who regarded literature as being in some special way about the mind, as telling us about the mind. However, Shklovsky’s thought clearly has a psychological dimension in a different sense – we are dealing with perception, caught within the polarity of its automatization and its defamiliarization.

In developing the concept of defamiliarization, the early Russian Formalist analysis bifurcated – some saw defamiliarization as related to general perception and not exclusively linguistic (Shklovsky tends in this direction) whilst others saw defamiliarization as essentially linguistic. That which is defamiliarized could thus either be out in the big wide world, or be constructions within language itself.

_____________BELOW HERE UNDER CONSTRUCTION______________

The Formalists who were more inclined to generalize features of literature outside literature itself noted the similarity between literature and other arts, and, whilst this seems to pull poetics away from the purely linguistic, the concept of semiotics, a science of signs which would include linguistics as a subsector, would afford some room for manouevre even for specifiers: literature would be a species within two genera – language, and art – both of which could be understood within semiotics. Whether the understanding of pure music or pure abstract art can be largely assimilated within a semiotic paradigm, orientated as it is to the concept of the sign, remains a puzzle.

Shklovsky pays great attention to Tolstoy’s “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse” where the observation of human behaviour and values from the perspective of a horse serves to defamiliarize and subvert our habitual outlook. Though the story depends on language in the most obvious way, its main impact is not achieved by unusual use of language, but rather at the semantic level. Although this example is one from prose fiction, it is not too difficult to find similar examples within poetry.

These considerations apply not only to deviation, which we have discussed, but also to extra patterning (as yet not discussed here) – Extra patterning can occur at a semantic level, and not be a matter of linguistics in any immediate sense, for example, a sub-plot which mirrors or inverts the main plot.

Provisionally, we can note a tripartite division of subject, language, and reality, and see deviation as the linguistic means, and the achievement of defamiliarization of reality as the end.

The concept of defamiliarization was subsumed under the concept of foregrounding, a development which I regard as unfortunate for reasons I’ll try to explain here.

Foregrounding seems at first glance perfectly reasonable – defamiliarization was brought under the superordinate concept of foregrounding, which presumed to include not only defamiliarization / deviation but also extra patterning. Deviation would be a loss of order, and extra patterning an addition of order, both foregrounding language. Very neat. These two would form the wings of foregrounding, but nevertheless the aircraft “Foregrounding” should not be given permission to fly. The acceptance of foregrounding is a mistake for aesthetics. It invites a sort of ultra-formalism, where it is claimed that artistic uses of language can be fully analysed as drawing our attention to language as such (on one wing conflating deviation, the mechanism, with defamiliarization, the result, and on the other wing conflating the pleasure of patterning with the significance for cognition). It is a false unification of deviation and extra patterning, seductive by its surface simplicity and obviousness.

[Would it be possible to replace foregrounding with totality?][Foregrounding and the dominant.]

Peter Steiner divides the development of Russian Formalism into 3 stages –

  1. The Machine Metaphor
  2. The Organic Metaphor
  3. The Systems Metaphor

The Machine Metaphor stage, focussed on defamiliarization, has become linked by Steiner and others with what I would call an atomistic tendency – Shklovsky spoke of the literary work as being the sum of its devices. I regard this as unfortunate, and would like to extricate the concept of defamiliarization from the bad company of atomism: simply because the relationship between defamiliarizing devices within a work was undertheorized is not in itself reason to move on from the concept.

The Organic Metaphor stage seems close to the thinking within New Criticism, though perhaps overly concerned with the phonetic aspects of verbal art.

The Systems Metaphor stage is closely related to the mutation of late Formalism into Structuralism – the literary system rather than the individual work becomes the focus of attention and analysis.

(Note – “Systems” is apt to confuse: at a glance, it is easy to see little difference as such between the organic and the systems metaphors, since much systems thinking could be regarded as a sort of generalized organicism (I’m thinking here of the General Systems Theory founded by Bertalanffy, and Cybernetics founded by Wiener) . However, the differences become clearer if we regard organicism as closely related to the internal integrity of something (here, a literary work), whereas the systems metaphor shifts focus entirely from the individual work to the systems which govern the structure of that work like a language governing an utterence. In other words, the shift to the systems metaphor is a shift to full-blown Structuralism. It is interesting to note that Saussure, the father of Structuralism, did not talk of structure, but rather of system. Terms within different theoretical paradigms can take on different meanings.)

The specifier aspect of Formalism can be qualified in two directions –

that some of its concepts (e.g. defamiliarization) might generalize to other arts,

that, similarly, they might generalize to human psychology, and as a particularly notabe sub-section, humour.

Poetics clearly falls within either linguistics, or within a bad form of mysticism; that far, I am a formalist, a semiotician, and a structuralist. However, there are obvious similarities and affinities between the arts, whether drama, dance, or painting, and also between these and other areas of human communication and psychology, notably humour.

My psychologistic interpretation or slant on Russian Formalism will mean that it should lose something of its specifier aspect, if it is taken to insist on a specification of literariness, and literariness alone; it has already been noticed by many people that some of the core concepts of Russian Formalism (especially defamiliarization) seem to generalize to arts beyond the literary, and perhaps beyond art itself to key features of human psychology. One of my favourite examples of defamiliarization leading to a freshening of perception is this – if one takes a trip out to an unfamiliar place, one feels enlivened. In taking such a slant, I don’t want to suggest that the linguistic aspects of Russian Formalism and its heritage should be discarded – actually quite the opposite; I want to use them, in combination with concepts from other schools of thought, as a model for psychology.

This puts me at odds with attempts to subsume or sublate the insights of Russian Formalism towards sociology, a premature politicization, and a liquidation of poetics into a part of sociology or politics, sometimes conceived of as Rhetoric, and sometimes as a general theory of ideology – I’m thinking here particularly of a tendency for those influenced by Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Medvedev, Althusser, Bennett and Frow.

However, I acknowledge that the social is not an add-on to psychology, probably not even for many non-human species, but especially not for the human, and most especially because of language. Language is intrinsically social and at the same time vital and essential to an understanding of human psychology. So, we cannot have human psychology as a level which we then integrate into the next level up, sociology, or social psychology.

Nevertheless, the path towards the liquidation of literary theory into a general and sociologically conceived rhetoric is an evasion of the psychological aspects of literature and poetry; there seems to be something premature about Voloshinov’s formulations – he throws out the specificity of poetry in a rush to show the complete integrity of his concerns with his regime’s sociology, here, Bukharin’s Historical Materialism. Methodologically, it might be fruitful to look at Literary Theory against the immediate background of a psychology which is initially considered as friction-free – as if sociologically neutral. The sort of psychology I’m thinking of here is cognitive. Integrations of any insights afforded by such a restriction with a later bringing into play of sociology might arise, or the model might just get messier, or a more fundamentally sociological approach prove its worth and win the ground.

Perhaps those of a psychological, poetic bent and those of a sociological or political bent are destined forever to talk past each other, but there is good reason to believe the former approach stands more chance – linguistics, though intrinsically social, is in its core achievements free of sociology, and is one of the most advanced areas of the humanities. Similarly, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology have recently advanced considerably, and have done so with a sort of bracketing-out of sociological concerns.

In “Literature and Revolution”, Trotsky devotes a chapter to an attack on the Formalist school.  … but in this battle between Shklovsky and Trotsky, a central conflict of modernism is being fought out …


About David Ruaune

My main interests are philosophy, psychology and semiotics.
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One Response to On Russian Formalism

  1. Pingback: Aesthetics | David Ruaune's Blog

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