Russian Formalism

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A Brief Introduction to Russian Formalism
Zhu Gang

In the heyday of high modernism emerged a group of college students and young faculty in Moscow and Petersburg, Russia, whose interest was claimed to be literature per se. They were few in number, but their unmistakable insistence on the ideal status of literary study and stubborn pursuit for its realization has marked the beginning of a new era, and produced profound influence on the subsequent development of contemporary Western critical theory. It is generally believed that Formalism started in 1914 when Viktor Shklovsky published “The Resurrection of the Word,” and ended with his essay “A Monument to Scientific Error” in 1930. Organizationally the formalists centered around two different though interrelated groups. One was “The Society for the Study of Poetic Language” (Opojaz), founded in 1916 by Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Yury Tynyanov and others, whose interest was the general principles governing literature and distinguishing it from other forms of verb expression. The other group was the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded in 1915 by linguists like Roman Jakobson, which based literary study on linguistics by insisting on the differentiation between poetic and practical language. In spite of the apparent differences in their theoretical assumptions and critical practice, the two groups share one thing in common, namely, to “place the study of literature on a scientific footing by defining its object and establishing its own methods and procedures.” In other words, they were united in an effort to find the internal laws and principles that make a piece of literature literary, or the FORM of literature (hence the label of “formalism”, though Eikhenbaum for political reasons would rather prefer the word “specificity”). “Form” is a negative word, methodologically, if not ideologically. That is, the formalists argued at the beginning for a strict separation of form and content and made repeated efforts to discredit the latter as a proper object of literary study by concentrating exclusively on the former. This radical separation posed difficult problems, theoretical as well as ideological, for the later formalists, and forced them to make compromises. The former “extra-aesthetic” materials (historical, biographical, sociological, or psychological) were treated as quasi-formal and put back again into the category of “form” in terms of foreground/ background. Here content was called upon only as a means of foregrounding form, and therefore had lost the value of its own ontological existence. For Shklovsky, there must be a quality which made form “formal” or literature “literary.” Here he and other formalists faced a difficult task of defining the peculiarity of literature. This peculiarity had been talked about ever since Aristotle in vague terms like “poetry” or “work of art,” simply because it seemed to defy any concrete explication. But for the formalist a concrete and unmistakable concept had to be found, so that the object of discussion (literature) might be put in a more clearly defined theoretical framework. Shklovsky made a wise breakthrough by turning to language, as literature is basically a verbal art. He argued that literature differs from non literature for a quality called “literariness,” (though other formalists such as the Muscovites would express it in different terms) manifested in its peculiar use of language, as “the language of poetry is ... a difficult, roughened, impeded language.” It is to be noted that this does not mean “poetic” language is necessarily a difficult language. The emphasis here, Shklovsky argued, is on the process of experience rather than on its final product, “the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” A.S. Pushkin and Maxim Gorky reversed the traditional literary/ ordinary language and therefore “roughened” their language by intentionally making it easier. Similar cases are...
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