Formalist Literary Theory

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Written Report: Russian Formalism and New Criticism

Formalism is a literary theory that was spearheaded by two main bodies – Russian Formalists and New Critics – which focused on understanding the literary text through the text itself. Its principles posed a great shift from the traditional approaches during its time, and so it sparked a movement in the field of literary studies that would adopt new perspectives and ideas. While Formalism received much criticism due to its dubious methods of the closed reading of a text, its lack of a solid theory of language, and so on, it was also able to establish the notion of literary study being a partly scientific, objective process, and its framework would serve as a starting point and a great influence for future ideas and theorists to come.

Old Criticism. The form that literary studies had taken during the second half of the nineteenth century, positivism, was largely based on the genetic approach: critics concentrated on uncovering the sources and genesis of particular works. The role of biography and history reduced the importance of literature itself in literary scholarship. Study of literature had become a loose aggregate of philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, etc. As Jakobson said, historians of literature had become practitioners of what he called ‘homespun’ disciplines based on psychology, politics, and philosophy, where literature itself could only offer secondary and defective evidence.

Emergence of Russian Formalism
Formalist theory emerged from the meetings, discussions, and publications of the Opojaz (The Society for the Study of Poetic Language) and the Moscow Linguistic Circle. They were dissatisfied with the ways of studying literature in the academe. Opojaz was based on St. Petersburg, dates back to 1914, and dissolved in 1923. Its nucleus was formed by Sklovsky, Eikhenbaum, Brik, Tynyanov. MLC came to life in 1915. Its best known member is Roman Jakobson. When he left them in 1920 for Prague, they lost their most talented member, and ceased to be a significant formalist center. Some of the figures who influenced Russian Formalism were:

Andrei Bely and his work, Symbolism
* Said that, “our knowledge of reality is never direct… we do not know reality except approximately through symbols. * Literary criticism has to be preoccupied with the specific forms of artistic creativity. * What is joined in the symbol in a humanly inseparable way is form and content. * Literature is both spatial and temporal. Other arts like sculpture or music realize themselves within only one of these forms. * Reality appears to be different from that seen in a work of art. It is “deformed”. Occurs by certain specific constructive forms. These are to be investigated. * Immersed in the mystery that the mosaic of art covers, the critic lose their view of their proper task. They search for something that is beyond it before describing it with any accuracy. A. A. Potebnja

* Literary activity is cognitive and tightly connected with its medium – language. * Poetry is a form of thinking in images, the ‘shape’ of which is dependent on the linguistic features of a given language. * Poetic image need not mean a static picture of something, it can also mean action. Not just spatial, but temporal too. * Images play a synthetic role in our thinking. Poetry strives to reduce the wide variety of complex phenomena to a small number of images. * Imagery is not basic aspect of poetic craft – but also sound. Images are not the only means to convey meaning in a poetic work.

Emergence of New Criticism
The prominent figures in the movement for the New Criticism were John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks. They initiated a professionalization of American literary studies – one way of spreading the ideas of New Criticism was by publishing New Criticism based textbooks to be used in universities. These individuals saw the...
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