02 July 2010

The Nihilism of Victor Shklovsky: Bakhtin & Defamiliarisation

A few weeks ago the grad student I’m tutoring for her thesis on Tolstoy came across a 2004 issue of Philosophy & Literature which contained an article that greatly interested me—‘Verbal Medium & Narrative Art in Homer & the Bible’, by Robert S. Kawashima of NYU. Already on the second page, Kawashima makes a reference that has become very familiar to me while reading critical work on Tolstoy when he mentions ‘Victor Shklovsky’s definition of art as “defamiliarization”’. [1] Matthew Reed has written about this concept in his posts on War & Peace (here, here, and here), even linking to a pdf of Shklovsky in the second post, and Shklovsky’s ‘defamiliarisation’ is an oft-utilised tool in critical analysis of Tolstoy. Most critics, however, seem to treat it merely as one device among many and to speak as though this is how Shklovsky treated it as well. Liza Knapp, for instance, in her contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, makes a remark about ‘the Formalist Shklovsky, who viewed ostranenie [defamiliarisation] merely as a device’. [2]

I first heard of Russian Formalism back in college when I started studying Bakhtin, but I never really gave it much attention, either in its own right or as a foil for some of Bakhtin’s ideas. Thus, having grown accustomed to passing references to Shklovsky and defamiliarization in the context of Tolstoy criticism, I at first thought nothing of Knapp’s comment about defamiliarisation being ‘merely’ a ‘device’ for Shklovsky. But Kawashima presents quite a bit more of the context for this idea. The latter writes:

Shklovsky, in his programmatic essay, ‘Art as Technique’, proposes a definition of art based, not on any given specific ‘device’, but on an underlying technique he calls ‘defamiliarization’: ‘The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are perceived and not as they are known. 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.’ In fact, art not only defamiliarizes concrete objects of perception, but artistic form itself: ‘By violating the form, [Sterne] forces us to attend to it; and, for him, this awareness of the form through its violation constitutes the content of the novel.’ He thus defines literature self-referentially as the manipulation of literary form, so that form itself becomes the object of renewed aesthetic perception. Over against Shklovsky’s theory of art stands [Walter] Benjamin’s account of the storyteller’s craft. This craft is based not on innovation, but on the conservation of tradition. The greatness of a story lies not in its originality, but in its seamless derivation ‘from the speech of the many nameless storytellers’, from ‘that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings.’ [3]

A bit further on, Kawashima continues his account of Shklovsky’s thought:

Shklovsky’s understanding of genuine experience is premised on a certain peculiarly modern ideal, namely, a life full of the promise of unending change. In his view, habit, and we might add, tradition, is non-experience, analogous indeed to oblivion—‘such [habitual] lives are as if they had never been.’ [4]

I won’t go into the details of Shklovsky’s rôle in Kawashima’s article, except to say that the latter makes the odd argument that the Bible lines up more with Shklovsky and Homer with Benjamin. For me the important thing was that this overturned any complacency I had about the use of Shklovsky in Tolstoy criticism—clearly, while defamiliarisation might be a handy analytical device, it was far, far more than that for the Formalists themselves. It was something very close in spirit to Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’, and indeed, in the chapter on Tolstoy in Bloom’s The Western Canon, the Yale critic writes:

I have argued throughout this book that originality, in the sense of strangeness, is a quality that, more than any other, makes a work canonical. Tolstoy’s strangeness is itself strange, because it so paradoxically seems not strange at all at first. You always hear Tolstoy’s voice acting as the narrator, and that voice is direct, rational, confident, and benign. Victor Shklovsky, a major modern Russian critic, noted that ‘the most common strategy in Tolstoy is one of refusing to recognize an object, of describing it as if it were seen for the first time.’ [5]

Now troubled by what I was learning of the Formalist position, I recalled that Bakhtin and his circle had been their outspoken critics, and I turned next to discover what those critics had had to say. I began with Clark’s and Holquist’s biography, Mikhail Bakhtin, Chapter 8, ‘The Formalists’. Clark & Holquist find the most important Bakhtinian responses to Formalism in a 1924 article by Bakhtin entitled ‘The Problem of Content, Material & Form in Verbal Artistic Creation’ and a 1928 book published by Pavel Medvedev entitled The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, while Voloshinov/Bakhtin’s [6] Marxism & the Philosophy of Language and Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky ‘would lay out the linguistic basis for a historical poetics to counter that of the formalists’. [7] In the interests of keeping this post manageable and of focusing on the now ‘familiar’ idea of ‘defamiliarisation’, I will try to limit my exposition of Clark & Holquist and the works they mention to passages that relate directly to defamiliarisation.

First, concerning the ‘Problem of Content’ article, Clark & Holquist note that Bakhtin shared the criticism from the right ‘that the Formalists’ ingenious interpretations of particular works [such as Tolstoy’s] lacked a theoretical base in a full-blown aesthetics’, as well as that from the left ‘that the Formalists ignored social and political factors in their work’. [8] Clark & Holquist write:

Bakhtin here introduces an important concept, the aesthetic object, which according to him is the real subject of criticism. The aesthetic object is not completely coincidental with the external, material form but is nevertheless inseparable from it. . . . The aesthetic object is present as a totality of the values conveyed by the material form when combined with the other values, such as political or religious, that come into play in any specific act of perceiving the object. [9]

Thus, I find two—extremely difficult—passages in ‘Problem’ that touch on defamiliarisation. The first does not name the idea, but shows how an example of it is explained in terms of the ‘aesthetic object’, in this case, Pushkin’s use of the Church Slavonic form grad instead of gorod (‘city’) in his poem, ‘Remembrance’: [10]

The artist (and the contemplator) has to do, moreover, precisely with ‘the city’ as expressed by the Church Slavonic form of the word (grad): the connotation of the Church Slavonic form relates to the ethical-aesthetic value of the city, giving great significance to that value, and it becomes the characterization of a concrete value and as such enters into the aesthetic object, i.e., it is not the linguistic form that enters into the aesthetic object but its axiological significance (psychological aesthetics would say ‘the emotional-volitional moment corresponding to that form’). [11]

The second, more difficult, passage eventually names the concept of defamiliarisation. Bakhtin is explaining his understanding of ‘the primary function of form in relation to content—that of isolation or detachment’ for artistic embodiment of some particular aspect of something or of some moment in time. [12] Then he writes:

The so-called defamiliarization [ostranenie] of the Formalists is fundamentally the function of isolation that is not very clearly expressed methodologically and is incorrectly referred in most cases to the material [i.e., the diction]: what is defamiliarized is the word by way of destroying its habitual place in a semantic series. Sometimes, however, defamiliarization is related to the object as well, but is understood in a crudely psychologistic way—as the removal of the object, the value, and the event from the necessary cognitive and ethical series. [13]

I must admit, although I believe I’ve understood it, this passage was a struggle. Imagine, then, my relief when I turned to the selections from Medvedev/Bakhtin’s Formal Method and found the much less abstract ‘The Nihilistic Slant of Formalism’. Here are the highlights:

The formalists do not so much find something new in the word as expose and do away with the old.

The basic formalist concepts of this period—transrational language [zaum], ‘making it strange’ [ostranenie], device, material—are completely infused with this tendency.

. . .

The negative aspect of ‘making it strange’ [ostranenie] is just as strong as that of transrational language. Its original definition, far from emphasizing the enrichment of the word with new and positive constructive meaning, simply emphasizes the negation of the old meaning. The novelty and strangeness of the word and the object it designates originates here, in the loss of its previous meaning . . . .

In early formalism the concept of ‘deautomatization of the word’ was closely connected with ‘making it strange’. [14]

The negative tone is also dominant in this concept: deautomatization is primarily understood as abstraction from semantic context.

. . .

Thus the formalists attained their ‘discoveries’ in a rather unique way: by subtracting various essential aspects from the word and other elements of the artistic work. The new constructive meaning appears as the result of these purely negative acts of subtraction and elimination.

It goes without saying that the word without meaning looks new, looks different than the meaningful word. Certainly the idea with no pretentions to truth looks different than the normal idea which strives toward cognition.

But, of course, such subtraction cannot gain anything positive, new, or profitable.

This negative, nihilistic slant of formalism shows the tendency common to all nihilism to add nothing to reality, but, on the contrary, to diminish, impoverish, and emasculate it, and by doing so attain a new and original impression of reality. [15]

In their discussion of Formal Method, Clark & Holquist focus on Medvedev/Bakhtin’s objections to the Formalist distinction between ‘poetic’ and ‘practical language’, the latter being marked by transparency and the former by strangeness. They point out that Formal Method ‘is highly critical of the unspoken assumptions behind the separation of language into poetic and practical divisions, especially as defined by the Formalists’, and is especially concerned with the illogic of using defamiliarisation not only ‘as a means for getting at the essence of literature’ but ‘as the engine of literary evolution as well’. [16] Among other arguments, Formal Method ‘charges that the Formalists failed to evolve a convincing account of literary dynamics because there was no place in their scheme for anything new in poetry itself’, since poetry had to wait on practical language to develop something new so that the poets could defamiliarise it. At this point, Clark & Holquist quote a line from Shklovsky that Formal Method cites at much greater length: [17] ‘[Poetic speech] is purposely created to deautomatize perception . . . thus, we arrive at the definition of poetry as speech that is braked (zatormozennyj, distorted.’ Thus, in their words, ‘poetry depends for its effects on nonpoetic language, much as a parasite depends on its host. . . . Surely there is more to the complexity of poetic language than sheer “difference from”.’ [18]

Clark & Holquist relate this critique to Bakhtin’s larger theory of language when they write:

Bakhtin sees literary language as part of and as subject to the same conditions as other divisions of natural language, unlike the Formalists, who saw poetic speech as different in its fundamentals from other forms of language. Since Bakhtin perceives literature as part of the normal processes of language, he sees literary evolution as occurring very slowly, for the history of linguistic changes is always very conservative and drawn out. . . . The Formalist idea that the old generation’s forms soon become habitual and need to be deformed in order that art may once again be perceived in the next generation is seen by Bakhtin as betraying a desire to negate the past. History becomes reduced to a constant present or a permanent contemporaneity. [19]

Finally, Clark & Holquist situate Bakhtin’s critique of Formalist defamiliarisation to the very dialogic nature of Bakhtin’s thought:

[Bakhtin] always sought for connections between different people, texts, ideologies, and languages, not for cut-offs between their differences. This dialogic understanding of how different idea systems relate to each other underlies Bakhtin’s critique of the Formalist theory of deautomatization. That theory was based on the principle of either/or, mutual exclusion rather than communication between different texts. [20]

After mulling all of this over, I am now surprised that so many critics—especially, as I say, Tolstoy critics—are able to cite Shklovsky so cavalierly. I myself am resolved never to mention Shklovsky, Formalism, or defamiliarisation without at once adding a vigourous caveat.

[1] Robert S. Kawashima, ‘Verbal Medium & Narrative Art in Homer & the Bible’, Philosophy & Literature 28.1 (April 2004), p. 104.

[2] Liza Knapp, ‘The Development of Style and Theme in Tolstoy’, The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), p. 164.

[3] Kawashima, pp. 104-5.

[4] Ibid., p. 106.

[5] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books & School of the Ages (NY: Riverhead, 1995), p. 313.

[6] A brief note on this naming convention is in order. In the 1970s a close follower stated that Bakhtin was the real author of a number of works of the 1920s which had been published under the names of his friends Voloshinov and Medvedev. I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice to say that there is reason to believe there may be some truth to this, but the matter is very complex and likely cannot be resolved conclusively. When citing these works, Tzetan Todorov proposed a convention to express the openness of the question: using the name under which they were published followed by a slash and Bakhtin’s name. I like this a great deal, and intend to use it myself. Clark and Holquist, however, consistently refer to Bakhtin alone as the author of these works.

I find the convention especially important in the case of Medvedev, who was arrested in 1938 and shot by the Soviet authorities for not being sufficiently Communist in his writings. As Todorov writes, ‘In such a context I would be most loath to deny him the even partial authorship of works for which he died’ (Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, tr. Wlad Godzich [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994], p. 10).

[7] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1984), p. 194.

[8] Ibid., pp. 188, 189.

[9] Ibid., p. 189.

[10] See Sir Dimitri Obolensky, ed. & tr., The Heritage of Russian Verse (Bloomington, IN: Indiana U, 1976), p. 98.

[11] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Supplement: The Problem of Content, Material, & Form in Verbal Art’, tr. Kenneth Bostrom, Art & Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays, ed. Michael Holquist & Vadim Liapunov (Austin, TX: U of Texas, 1995), p. 299.

[12] Ibid., p. 306.

[13] Ibid., p. 307.

[14] Despite the acknowledgement of a connection, I’m a bit puzzled by the distinction here. Clark & Holquist actually translate ostranenie as ‘deautomatization’, claiming that it is ‘sometimes translated as “making it strange”’ (p. 191).

[15] From Mikhail Bakhtin & Pavel Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, tr. A.J. Wehrle (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978); in Pam Morris, ed., The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (London: Arnold, 1994), pp. 138-9.

[16] Clark & Holquist, p. 191.

[17] Bakhtin/Medvedev, p. 147.

[18] Clark & Holquist, p. 193.

[19] Ibid., p. 194.

[20] Ibid., p. 196. This last point is particularly dear to my heart. Although I myself am all for acknowledging important differences between ‘different idea systems’—see my controversial post on St Justin’s critique of ecumenism here, or, on the literary side, this one on Tolstoy and Homer—I like Bakhtin am more commonly preoccupied with looking for connections between things.


Fr. Mark said...

My graduate studies in literature were discontinued for various reasons, one being my inability/ unwillingness/ refusal to participate in seminars where each participant came wielding an ideological mace, fervently intent upon bludgeoning one another with their pet theories-that-explain-everything d'jour. Somehow the text or topic of the day quickly vanished in a haze of pomo-sophistry.

Structuralism, in my limited experience, can indeed be a useful tool for critical analysis. But when it becomes a totalizing world-view, those dialogical connections (so dear to Bakhtin) are shattered. Perhaps the most disappointing dimension of Structuralism in the Shklovskian mode is the silencing of voices, the evacuation of meaning. How far from the stirring observation that "Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival."

River Cocytus said...

What I recall about defamiliarization and the way I've used it is that it is a method to temporarily suspend the meaning of or 'desaturate' a word. Take the word 'God' for instance - various methods can be taken to speak of God in terms of commonly unfamiliar aspects of his works - and thus 'defamiliarize' God. But it is never permanent. The old definition must come into dialogue with the new and some kind of synthesis must happen.

From what I've read of Tolstoy I can very much see how he defamiliarizes, but (again) my experience with this method is that it is based on an 'aesthetic moment' - where you saw an ordinary thing in an extraordinary way. Since it temporarily became transformed before you, it must needs be made unfamiliar to be experienced properly. I sincerely do not believe Tolstoy is simply working to deconstruct language to give off airs of literature. The only way around that is to describe literature as actually just being defamiliarization (which seems to be what the Formalists were doing): but the only person who could do that sincerely is someone who has never written a story or poem, I think.

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Jim said...

How about actually reading Shklovsky? It's wrong to claim that the Russian formalists were all about defamiliarization (or estrangement). In one essay he discusses Tolstoy's use of psychological parallellism, which is very interesting.

It's kind of ridicules to be a TOLSTOY SCHOLAR and rely on seondary sources about Shklovsky belonging to an antagonistisc theoretical shool.

Aaron Taylor said...


First, I never claimed to be a Tolstoy scholar, or a scholar of anything else for that matter. I'm a dilettante at best, and that should be abundantly clear for regular readers of this blog.

Second, I'm perfectly open to reading Shklovsky, but I have very limited time and I have to be kind of picky about what all I get around to reading. This sort of post is more about me thinking through things for myself than providing some kind of formal critical statement as a contribution to scholarship. Bakhtin's circle may well represent an 'antagonistic theoretical school' as you say, but they are a school with which I am in broad sympathy and I tend to take their judgement, not uncritically, but certainly with a bit of prejudice in their favour. At the very least, I'm not likely to read Shklovsky unless someone whose opinion I trust more than yourself insists that I do so.

Thirdly, I never claimed the formalists 'were all about defamiliarization'. Kawashima, who is far from antagonistic to them, seems to imply as much when he claims that Shklovsky makes it basic to his definition of art. But Bakhtin only calls it 'one of the basic formalist concepts' of a certain period. If you reread my post carefully, I made no stronger claim than that.

You're clearly familiar with Shklovsky and formalism, and you raise some fair questions about my post, which is why I've published your comment, but your rude tone is unwarranted. How about reading a blog before blasting the blogger for saying things he hasn't said?


PS: It's kind of ridiculous to be a Russian Formalist scholar and be unable to spell the word 'ridiculous'.