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



References: Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008. Jefferson, Ann & Robey, David. Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1984. Thompson, Ewa. Russian Formalism and Anglo-American New Criticism: A Comparative Study. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

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