The 13-year survival of an outstanding school of formalist criticism, in Russia, during and after the pivotal, tragic time of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, is itself a paradoxical phenomenon on both a historical and a cultural level: it would require a special study to clarify the complex causes of an impossible cohabitation between a dogmatic cultural establishment and an apparently elitist, context-free ideology.

            Indeed, it was for the first time in the history of criticism that a group of scholars had as a definite aim the attempt to find a "scientific", objective method for defining the specific features of literature, its methods and devices. The Russian formalists refuted the earlier perspectives which regarded literature as a mere reflection of biographical, historical or social reality; instead they insisted on its specificity. From an epistemological viewpoint, their premises largely derived from Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological theory, which attempted to set apart objects of knowledge in their genuine, pure form, by “bracketing” the contextual factors. Although the formalist movement had essentially Russian roots, on an aesthetic level the influence of the German theories of form, such as the principles put forward by Heinrich Wölfflin in his studies on the art of painting, can clearly be discerned in some of its prerequisites.

              The activity of the formalists was concentrated in two centers, where the foci of their studies were slightly different: the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded in 1915 by Roman Jakobson, Petr Bogatyrev and Grigori Vinokur, adopted a linguistic perspective on literariness; the other group, Opojaz (i.e. “The Society for the Study of Poetic Language”), which began its activity in Petrograd in 1916, was formed of literary historians (Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, Boris Eikhenbaum, Boris Tomashevsky) who were rather bent on studying literature as an independent form of art, having its own principles and methods.         

           In the early 1920s formalism played a leading role in Russian literary scholarship, although it was not spared the attacks of the orthodox Marxist critics for its disregard of the social and economic influences upon the literary work and for its allegedly bourgeois ideological roots; however, by 1930 the official disapproval of the formalist movement became definitive and its members were forced to relinquish their persuasions. (Shklovsky, the principal target of the anti-formalist attacks, was forced in 1930 to draw up a self-critical text, “A Monument to Scientific Error”, which castigated the formalist persuasions.) For a good many decades this approach to literature was proscribed in the Soviet Union, the term “formalism” signified an anti-Marxist heresy, and only in the 1960s did some of their studies come out again. In the meantime Jakobson, Bogatyrev and others continued their activity in Prague, with the formalist linguistic circle in that city, and later Jakobson emigrated to the United States, where his studies (like those of René Wellek, another émigré from Prague) considerably influenced the principles and methods of the American New Critics and of the French structuralists.

            In the first stage of the Russian formalists’ activity, which lasted from 1916 to about 1921, they sought to ensure an independent place for literary studies as a science in its own right, which is different from other related cultural domains. As Jakobson put it in an article written at that time,


the situation has been that historians of literature act like nothing so much as policemen, who, out to arrest a certain culprit, take into custody (just in case) everything and everyone they find at the scene as well as any passers-by for good measure. The historians of literature have helped themselves to everything - environment, psychology, politics, philosophy. Instead of a science of literature they have worked up a concoction of homemade disciplines.[1]


            In order to achieve this purpose, they concentrated on the LITERARINESS (LITERATURNOST) of the poetic and fictional works, their specific organization and the structural devices that differentiated them from other types of discourses.

            One way of defining literariness was to emphasize the difference between POETIC LANGUAGE AND PRACTICAL LANGUAGE. The former was seen as the quintessential form of literary expression, and at first the formalists insisted particularly on the “phonic texture” of poems, which they believed had a greater import than meaning itself. Thus rhythm is, for Tomashevsky, the foundation upon which all the other elements of verse lie, be it classical metrics or any speech-like rhythmic impulse:


/C/lassical metrics do not exhaust the nature of verse, ... verse is viable also in its secondary features of sound, ... there is such a thing as a recognizable rhythm along with meter, ... verse can be written with only its secondary features observed, ... speech can sound like verse even without its observing a meter. One type of rhythmic procedure is dominant in any individual work, and accordingly verse can be classified as tonic-metrical verse (e.g., the description of the battle in Poltava), intonational-melodic verse (Zukovsky’s poetry), and harmonic verse (typical of Russian Symbolism in its later years).[2]


Tomashevsky’s view on the prominent role of verse form is related to the formalists’ notion of the genuine fusion between form and content in poetic works.

            Sounds (which manifest themselves through rhythm and phonetic figures, i.e. deviations from the normal structures) exert an “organized violence” (Jakobson’s term) upon the perceiving consciousness, and thus our attention is drawn to the constructed nature of the poem. The object to which the poem seemingly refers becomes less important to the reader than the very “mode of expression”. Therefore literary language can be said to be devoid of the practical function which everyday language performs, being instead self-referential. In their view of literature as deviation from and distortion of practical language, Shklovsky and Jakobson were significantly influenced by the tenets of the Russian futurist poets, who developed the notions of the self-sufficient word and trans-rational poetry, in which meaning was lacking in importance.

            Later on Eikhenbaum, Tynianov and others became aware that attention should be paid as well to other elements which make up a poem, such as vocabulary, syntax, semantics, and their interlocking in the text; several studies were dedicated in the 1920s to the role of these complex relationships in the definition of the poetic object.

            One of the most salient concepts meant to define literariness was OSTRANENIE (i.e. “making strange”, DEFAMILIARIZATION), introduced by Shklovsky, in his 1917 innovatory study “Art as Technique”. Art functions by making objects “unfamiliar”, in order to help us experience the artfulness of objects, in other words to ensure our fresh, non-habitual, non-automatic perception of words and ideas. Shklovsky begins by rebutting a widely-admitted concept of a precursor, Aleksander Potebnya, who stated that “art is thinking in images” - an idea which was highly popular with the contemporary theorists of the Symbolist movement. In actuality, Shklovsky argues, images are given to poets beforehand: the latter are “much more concerned with arranging images than with creating them” . [3] Imagistic thought and art overlap, but do not coincide.

       Because habitualization devours everything, “works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war”, it is the role of art “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known”. (264) The main artistic method consists in making forms difficult and increasing the difficulty and the length of perception. Leo Tolstoy, for instance, makes things strange by not naming the familiar object: in “Shame” he does not use the notion of “flogging” but instead refers to that action in this way: “to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, to rap on their bottoms with switches ...”, (265) and then ironically proposes a change in the proceedings, which would not alter the nature of that punishment. In another story, “Kholstomer”, Tolstoy employs the point of view of a horse (which is the narrator in the text) in order to make unfamiliar the things he sneers at, and not only them. Defamiliarization is the basic technique of the erotic riddle (based on euphemism), states Shklovsky, and of any kind of riddle for that matter. The greatest possible effect toward removing the automatism of reception is obtained through the slowing of the perception: the object is thus perceived not in its spatial extension, but in its continuity. This obtains especially in the use of poetic language, which may contain archaic phrases, intricacies (like il dolce stil nuovo), or may be obscure, with “roughened” forms that make pronunciation difficult.

       The defamiliarizing technique of slowing down, protracting actions is best exemplified, according to Shklovsky, in Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for instance in the scene in which the dejected Mr Shandy lies on his bed after hearing  of his son’s broken nose, where his posture is depicted in an unusually detailed manner (down to “his knuckles reclining upon the handle of the chamber pot...”). [4]

      In his study Shklovsky insists also on another device which results in ostranenie, and which was employed by Lawrence Sterne in his unconventional novel: the LAYING BARE of his own literary techniques, in other words the frequent commentaries on the very structure of the novel (actually Sterne’s method anticipated both Bertold Brecht’s dramatic effect of “alienation”, and the postmodern metafictional schemes).

      Shklovsky’s colleague, Boris Tomashevsky, exemplified defamiliarization with Jonathan Swift’s technique of having Gulliver explain the ways of humankind in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels. Here the narrator discards the euphemistic expressions which are usually employed to explain the human vices and follies, and in this way the full monstrosity of war or class iniquity is revealed. The freshness of perception is thus ensured through specific literary devices.

      Later on the rather sweeping, diffuse concept of defamiliarization was taken over and expanded by Jan Mukarovsky, a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle, into foregrounding, which describes more coherently the intentional distortion of the linguistic elements in the literary work.

      The formalist critics did not believe in the value of the traditional dichotomy between content and form in the literary work, because in this kind of discourse content could find its expression only through a certain formal arrangement, which becomes identified with it. Speaking about verse and the “rhythmic impulse”, Eikhenbaum states in “Introduction to the Formal Method” that


verse form ... is not in opposition to any “content” extrinsic to it; it is not forced to fit inside this “form” but is conceived of as the genuine content of verse speech. Thus the very concept of form ...emerges with a new sense of sufficiency.[5]


       Instead of that dichotomy the formalists suggested a difference should be made between MATERIAL and DEVICE, that is between the pre-aesthetic stage of the creative process and the aesthetic stage. The organizational principles of that process turn the raw material into a literary work through such devices as rhythm, phonetics, syntax, and plot.

      In a narrative, PLOT (SJUZET) should be distinguished from STORY (FABULA). Actually the distinction was first suggested by Aristotle, in Section 6 of Poetics, who spoke about the plot as the arrangement, by the author, of the incidents of the story. According to the formalists, these incidents are connected through chronological and causal links, whereas in creating the plot the author rearranges them without necessarily observing such motivations. Besides, as Shklovsky ingeniously notes, the plot arrangement in Tristram Shandy also includes the interpolated digressions, authorial commentaries, typographical games, which all are employed in order to protract or discontinue the narration. Typical categories of plot composition are, according to Shklovsky, the “staircase” (based on episodes, in which repetition and parallelism are used), the “hook-like” structure (where contrast, opposition prevail and there is a false ending), and the double-plotting (including heterogeneous components). The plot type is either motivated by the requirements of verisimilitude, or unmotivated, “laid bare”, as in Sterne’s novel, which thwarts the reader’s expectations.

        The concept of plot is a central concern also in Morphology of the Folktale (1928), an extremely influential study by Vladimir Propp (who was only partially associated with the Russian Formalist school). Other pre-structuralist studies of the narrative which focus on the functions and the types of plot are E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) and Norman Friedman’s “Forms of the Plot” (1955). They will be dealt with in a later chapter.

       Eikhenbaum and other Russian theorists were interested not only in the plot construction, but also in the role which the narrative voice played within the framework of the story. That kind of narrative which is fashioned so as to give the impression of spontaneous speech was called SKAZ by Eikhenbaum (from the Russian skazat’, to relate, to tell). In it the voice of the narrator is foregrounded (as different from that of the author): his or her lexicon, grammar, intonation are significant in themselves, sometimes outweighing the composition or the interplay of narrative motifs. Skaz may be based on puns, idioms and folk etymology (as in the stories of the 19th century writer Nikolai Leskov); in other cases it makes use also of gestures, miming and sound gestures (as in Nikolai Gogol’s story The Overcoat).

      We could add examples of skaz narratives from other literatures, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Jerome D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Other first-person narratives, in which the intellectual and linguistic distance between the (implied) author and the narrator appears as comparatively smaller or hard to detect, cannot be classified as skaz: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is such an example.

    Apart from its undeniable merits in creating new concepts for the definition of literariness, the first phase of the Russian formalist movement came under attack later on for its members’ rather static, mechanistic, and ahistorical view of the artistic phenomenon. In the second stage of its development, roughly between 1921-1926, some of them attempted to partially reconcile that view with a diachronic, dynamic one, and to reduce the gap between the art object and the reality to which it refers.

  Yuri Tynianov’s and Roman Jakobson’s studies published at that time advanced the formalist tenets toward a proto-structuralist theory: in his book, The Problem of Verse Language (1924), Tynianov regarded the literary form for the first time as a DYNAMIC STRUCTURE, characterized by the interaction of its component elements, not their mere combination. These elements are in a continuous struggle with one another, and the device which prevails and subordinates all the others was called by Tynianov THE CONSTRUCTIVE FACTOR. But this prevalence is only temporary; in the course of the work the hierarchy will change whenever this is appropriate.           

  In another study, “On Literary Evolution” (1927), Tynianov commented on the functional importance of both the intrarelationships of the elements in a specific work (THE SYN-FUNCTION), and the relationships between these elements and similar ones in the literary system as a whole, or even in extraliterary structures (THE AUTO-FUNCTION).

  Literature can be analyzed properly only if we take account of LITERARY DYNAMICS, which explains why literary forms are always renewed diachronically: after a new principle of literary construction appears, it is adopted in other works, then becomes widely used and ends up by being superseded by another one.

  Tynianov’s concepts of “constructive factor” and “literary dynamics” are closely connected with Roman Jakobson’s notion of THE DOMINANT, which he defined in detail in a 1935 article with the same title: within the internal hierarchy of the global sign which is the literary work, one device (the dominant) always gets foregrounded. This focusing element of the art work ensures its gestalt or total order. Jakobson shifted the stress from the materiality of the device to its function (later on he quoted Braque, the Cubist painter, who said that he believed not in things, but in the relationships between them). A dominant can also be observed when higher relational networks are considered, such as poetic genres, as well as their diachronical evolution. The systematic change of poetic forms in the course of time is due to the “shifting dominant”, sometimes originating in a non-literary structure. (Such examples would be the dominant in the Renaissance age, which was based on visual arts, or the one in Romantic poetry, which had its roots in music.)

   Generally speaking, the Russian formalists’ principles and methods relied on a staunch belief in the linguistic basis of literaturnost’ and in its systemic nature, comparable to that of grammar: there was a “dream of order” [6] which informed their theories and analyses (the same that would underlie the works of the French structuralists later on). In order to illuminate the particular traits of the literary work these theorists gave their attention to both poetic and narrative texts and for the first time brought to light a significant series of devices and characteristics of such literary creations, without insisting greatly on the differences between the two genres. The external relationships with other cultural systems and their dynamics were also the foci of their analyses especially in the second phase of formalism.

      The later development of literary theory, especially in its structuralist phase, could hardly be imagined if it had not been for the seminal findings put forward by the Russian formalists during their brief but fruitful period of activity.

[1]   Recent Russian Poetry, Sketch 1 (Prague, 1921), 11, quoted in Boris Eikhenbaum’s article “Introduction to the Formal Method”. See Note 11.

[2]   Quoted by Eikhenbaum in “Introduction ...”, 15.

[3] Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”, in Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer (eds.), Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies (New York: Longman, 1986), 262. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[4]   Cf. V. Shklovsky, “Sterne’s Tristram Shandy” (1921), in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 27-44.

[5]   B. Eikhenbaum, “Introduction to the Formal Method”, in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999),  15.

[6]   The syntagm is taken from  Mihaela Irimia’s study, The Stimulating Difference: Avatars of a Concept (Editura Universitatii Bucuresti, 1995), 26.

Contents Mikhail Bakhtin and the Formalist Theories
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