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Paper V – Art As A Technique – Viktor Shklovsky

Tenets of Russian Formalism

 Introduction

Formalism, as the word itself indicates, refers to the theory that believes in the primacy of form. Russian Formalism originated and flourished in the 1920s and was suppressed by 1930s. As a literary movement, Russian Formalism attacked the historical, sociological, philosophical and other intrinsic approaches to literature. It proposed a scientific method of studying poetic language. According to them, literature was simply a special use of language.

The movement shifted from Russia to East Europe to the United States. Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Tomashevsky were the leading representatives of Russian Formalism. It is mainly represented by the ‘Moscow Linguistic Circle’ founded in 1915 and ‘OPOJAZ’ in St. Petersburg, which stood for ‘Society for the Study of Poetic Language’ founded in 1916.
The essay, “Art as a Technique” by Viktor Shklovsky is a seminal work in Russian Formalism. It is divided in two parts. The first part explains the concept of defamiliarisation. It states that in literature, the experience of understanding the object is of importance while the object itself is not as important. To this effect, literary devices became the focus. In the second part, he elaborates on poetic language and how it is different from ordinary language since it is defamiliarised.

 

Background

The concept of Formalism that developed during the years of First World War, was described by Victor Erlich as:

A child of the revolutionary period… part and parcel of its peculiar intellectual atmosphere. (Bowlt, 1972, Pg.1)

 

In the beginning the term was used in a derogatory sense and was attacked by Marxist thinkers as the formalists had excluded subject matter and social values in literature in their aim to focus on formal patterns and technical devices alone. Later, the term gained a neutral status. This critical movement was suppressed under Stalinism in the Soviet Union in 1930s. The Soviet Union developed a repressive attitude to literary theory under Stalin and forced formalists into exile. This led to the center of the study to shift to Czechoslovakia. Thus formalism spread to Prague. But Prague at the time already had a structural objectivism derived from a 19thcentury writer, J. H. Herbart. When Jakobson arrived in Prague in 1919, he advocate classifying artistic styles by their formal qualities, by employing a terminology drawn from figures of speech, like metaphor and metonymy. “Foregrounding”, the manner in certain elements or features that came to be emphasized or brought to the fore from the background, became one of the chief concerns of Prague School of Formalism. The interests at Prague included tone, metaphor, ambiguity, patterning and parallelism in poetry; and diction, plot, characters and theme in prose works.

After Czech became the target of Nazis, they relocated themselves in the US. The principles of formalism became embodied in the works of American critics, Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, especially in their book titled ‘A Theory of Literature’. Eventually, formalism became an important mode of academic literature study in United States from Second World War to 1970s.

 

Tenets

It started as a linguistic enquiry into literary techniques under a group called OPOJAZ, which was a product of Moscow Linguistic Circle.

The basic premise is the belief that poetic language is different from the ordinary use of language.

Formalists believe in scientific study of textual dynamics such as the use of words, syntax, sounds and figures of speech.

They vehemently opposed symbolism and subjective interpretation of literature.

They maintained the difference between art and ordinary life.

Another belief that is central is the concept of literary facts. Formalists believe that literary facts are given in the text and readers have to understand them through literary techniques. This implies that it is possible to arrive at an objective and scientific understanding of the meaning through literary techniques of a text.

Russian Formalism strongly advocated the exclusion of social, psychological and historical approaches to literature. They were interested in the artistic devices of imaginative writing.

The focus was on the form of the text rather than the metaphysical concerns of literary criticism.

Another chief argument is that aesthetic effect of a text is the product of the literary devices used. They define ‘literary’ as a special use of language. In effect, Formalism attacked the mystical posturing of poets.

Formalists claim that literary language become distinct by distorting practical language.

In the final phase of Formalism, critics like Bakhtin and Thomashevsky began exploring other formats of fictions like the narrative and motif.

 

Art as a Technique

Viktor Shklovsky promotes mechanical formalism under the umbrella of Russian Formalism. His essay ‘Art as a Technique’ is a seminal work in Russian Formalism. It is largely about the function of art and poetic language in literature.

In his essay, Shklovsky attacks Russian symbolism by analyzing the statement of Russian Symbolist, Alexander Potebnya that art means to think in images. Shklovsky argues that art forms like music and architecture do not have images. He says that art is rather a technique that helps recover the sensation of life.

Perception becomes habitual in life, which leads to an automatic or mechanical life. Humans develop ‘algebrization’ which is explained as automation of perception. “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” This tendency, he argues, creates the economy of perceptive effort.

 

 

 

Theory of Defamiliarisation

Shklovsky coined this term in his essay ‘Art as a Technique’. He explains that it is an artistic technique to “distinguish poetic from practical language on the basis of former’s perceptibility.”  The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, make the forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception. “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.” (Shklovsky)

He argues that familiar objects are not significant and art removes objects from the automatism of perception so that one has to spend more time to understand them.

Poetic Language  

In the second part of the essay, Shklovsky talks about how poetic language is a defamiliarised language. The language of poetry and the practical language have very different functions. Practical language is used for communication purposes, whereas the language of poetry has no such practical purpose. It’s objective is to defamiliarised and lengthen the time and effort in perception.

Poetic language is roughened and difficult, and it removes automatism of perception. He says that in poetry language deviates from syntax and phonetic structures. The physical sound of words when used in everyday language is defamiliarised and becomes prominent. This formal prominence is the basis of poetry. Shklovsky states, “Poetic speech is formed speech, because defamiliarisation is found almost everywhere form is found.”

He anticipates a futuristic concept of “trans sense language” where language contains in itself a sense of unintelligibility. Shklovsky categorizes folklores, nursery rhymes, and religious rituals in the group of trans-sense language. He argues that in these kinds of work, sound is more important than sense. Shklovsky also extends the use of defamiliarisation to the study of fiction. He says that in fiction, the story (fabula) and the plot (syuzhet) are different. While the story is a linear progression of events, a plot may unfold in any manner as chosen by the author. Some novelists defamiliarised the art of story telling with the help of narrative devices.

Shklovsly concludes the essay with a typical non-romantic statement. He argues that sentiments cannot be the mainstay of art. Art is trans emotional and unsympathetic. He reminds that even emotions in a work of art are the products of a different point of view, and in this, the point of view also becomes a technique.

 

Conclusion

Formalism took birth in Russia and spread to East Europe and United States. It holds the view that aesthetic effect in literature is produced by literary devices and hence it focuses sharply on these devices. It brought to the fore the study of devices such as narrative, poetic language, plot, motifs, figures of speech, among others. Through his essay “Art as a Technique”, Shklovsky indicates that true technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, and to make the forms difficult to understand so as to increase the difficulty and length of perception. He attacks historical and romantic traditions in literary criticism and suggests an intense formal analysis of literature. He argues that practical language is used for regular communication while poetic language has a higher purpose than practicality. The Formalists’ poignant differentiation between poetic and practical use of language has helped in evolving a scientific basis for the study of literature.

 

 

 

Theory of Defamiliarisation / Poetic Language

 

Introduction

Formalism or Russian Formalism is a type of literary theory that proposed a scientific method of studying poetic language. It began as a linguistic enquiry into literary techniques under a group called OPOJAZ, which was a product of Moscow Linguistic Circle.The basic premise is the belief that poetic language is different from the ordinary use of language. It attacked the historical, sociological, philosophical and other intrinsic approaches to literature. The essay, “Art as a Technique” by Viktor Shklovsky is a seminal work in Russian Formalism. It is divided in two parts. The first part explains the concept of defamiliarisation. It states that in literature, the experience of understanding the object is of importance while the object itself is not as important. To this effect, literary devices became the focus. In the second part, he elaborates on poetic language and how it is different from ordinary language since it is defamiliarised.

 

Art as a Technique

Viktor Shklovsky promotes mechanical formalism under the umbrella of Russian Formalism. His essay ‘Art as a Technique’ is a seminal work in Russian Formalism. It is largely about the function of art and poetic language in literature.

In his essay, Shklovsky attacks Russian symbolism by analyzing the statement of Russian Symbolist, Alexander Potebnya that art means to think in images. Shklovsky argues that art forms like music and architecture do not have images. He says that art is rather a technique that helps recover the sensation of life.

Perception becomes habitual in life, which leads to an automatic or mechanical life. Humans develop ‘algebrization’ which is explained as automation of perception. “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” This tendency, he argues, creates the economy of perceptive effort.

 

Defamiliarisation

Shklovsky coined this term in his essay ‘Art as a Technique’. He explains that it is an artistic technique to “distinguish poetic from practical language on the basis of former’s perceptibility.”  The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, make the forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception. “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.” (Shklovsky)

He argues that familiar objects are not significant and art removes objects from the automatism of perception so that one has to spend more time to understand them.

He provides a series of examples of defamiliarisation in literature. Many novels and poems have employed defamiliarisation to stretch the time of perception. An example of this is Leo Tolstoy’s novel, ‘Shame’. He says that Tolstoy describes familiar objects as if were seeking them for the first time, by not naming them directly. Flogging as a concept was not named directly. He quotes from the novel,

To strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, and to wrap their bottoms with switches.” (Tolstoy, Shame)

This description doesn’t use the term flogging. Instead, the readers have to spend more time to understand and make the connection. Shklovsky also discusses another novel by Tolstoy, Kholstomer, where the narrator in the novel thinks about private property and hears various names being called out. The narrator also sees a restricted view of the world, that appears only straight in front of him, and he has no lateral vision. The readers take time to realize that the narrator is a horse with blindfolds, and hence the world seen through its eyes become unfamiliar and difficult.

 

Thus, Shklovsky explains that the difference is the key to creation of art and the prevention of ‘over-automization’ which causes an individual to ‘function as though by formula’. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things 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 it must be prolonged.

 

Poetic Language   

In the second part of the essay, Shklovsky talks about how poetic language is a defamiliarised language. The language of poetry and the practical language have very different functions. Practical language is used for communication purposes, whereas the language of poetry has no such practical purpose. It’s objective is to defamiliarised and lengthen the time and effort in perception.

Poetic language is roughened and difficult, and it removes automatism of perception. He says that in poetry language deviates from syntax and phonetic structures. It produces a slowness of perception. For instance, the word ‘sunne’ is to be understood as ‘sun’ and the word ‘fyre’ is to be read as ‘fry’. He indicates that archaism, obscure style and conceits are used in the same objective. However, he reminds that if there are too many experiments in poetic language, the occasional use of simple language will also do the trick.

Shklovsky says that when every object of the world becomes familiar to us we become habituated. Our everyday life becomes a life of ‘prose perceptions’, which means that tiling becomes known but not perceived. But against these prose perception there is a world of art which, Shklovsky says, “exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feels things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” According to Shklovsly, in the process of defamiliarisation the worldly object is taken out of the area of prose perception and placed in the arena of art. It draws our attention to the artifice of literary text. For example, he states, “A dance is a walk which is felt even more accurately, it is a walk which is constructed to be felt.”

The language of poetry is oblique, torturous, difficult and attenuated. The physical sound of words when used in everyday language is defamiliarised and becomes prominent. This formal prominence is the basis of poetry. Shklovsky states, “Poetic speech is formed speech, because defamiliarisation is found almost everywhere form is found.” He refers to fellow poet and critic, Leo Jakubinski who had brought in the idea of phonetic roughening that is, using unfamiliar sounds in poetry. He also calls poetry as  an impeded language as observed in poems by Pushkin. He states that both rhythm and disordering of rhyme can create defamiliarisation in poetic language.

He anticipates a futuristic concept of “trans sense language” where language contains in itself a sense of unintelligibility. Shklovsky categorizes folklores, nursery rhymes, religious rituals in the group of trans-sense language. He argues that in these kinds of work, sound is more important than sense. By proclaiming the supremacy of sound over sense, he makes a deliberate break with the earlier school of symbolists, which took every word / sound in a poem as having a function.

Poetry practices a form of controlled violence on practical language, which is thereby deformed and compels out attention to its constructed nature. For them, literary studies consist of especially the poetic language, as themes are inconsistent and tend to be centrifugal. The notion of literariness, which is central to the Formalist School, is achieved by the process of differentiation. It also gives literary studies a scientific status, which helps in understanding the coherence of the system. To view a text as literary, the context of non-literary has to be brought in.

Shklovsky offers examples of defamiliarisation in poetic language. He says that sexuality and love are defamiliarised in poetry from the days of Boccacio to the modern poets. In Boccacio’s Decameron, one finds that ‘catching nightingales’ has significant figurative implication of the sexual act. Shklovsky maintains that erotic subjects are presented figuratively in metaphysical poetry. Donne and other metaphysical poets refer to sexual organs thorugh “lock and key”, “quiliting tools” and “bow and arrow”. He says that such devices make poetic language strange and wonderful.

Shklovsky also extends the use of defamiliarisation to the study of fiction. He says that in fiction, the story (fabula) and the plot (syuzhet) are different. While the story is a linear progression of events, a plot may unfold in any manner as chosen by the author. Some novelists defamiliarised the art of story telling with the help of narrative devices. He gives the example of Tristram Shandy, a novel in which the narrative does not give any story of Tristram. Shklovsky reminds that there are different story lines in the plot that emphasize the structure of the novel rather than the story. He says that Sterne, by violating the form, forces the readers to view it minutely. Readers become aware of the form of fiction once the form is violated.

Shklovsly concludes the essay with a typical non-romantic statement. He argues that sentiments cannot be the mainstay of art. Art is trans emotional and unsympathetic. He reminds that even emotions in a work of art are the products of a different point of view, and in this, the point of view also becomes a technique.

 

Conclusion

‘Art as a Technique’ is a seminal work in Russian Formalism by Viktor Shklovsky. It is largely about the function of art and poetic language in literature. Shklovsky indicates that true technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, and to make the forms difficult to understand so as to increase the difficulty and length of perception. He states “art is the way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important”. He attacks historical and romantic traditions in literary criticism and suggests an intense formal analysis of literature. He argues that practical language is used for regular communication while poetic language has a higher purpose than practicality. He focuses sharply on these devices. This essay brought to the fore the study of devices such as narrative, poetic language, plot, motifs, figures of speech, among others. The Formalists’ poignant differentiation between poetic and practical use of language has helped in evolving a scientific basis for the study of literature.

 

 

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