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Russian Formalism (Literary Theory)

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Apr 08, 2013 | #1
Theory: The How's and Why's of Literature

Russian Formalism - Part I

Today the world is such an obviously interconnected place that it is hard to imagine a time or place where communication, even across great distances and between diverse languages, was not possible. Anyone who has grown up even with the airplane and the television has to imagine a remote island indeed that is not accessible to the rest of the world in some way, and for the generation for whom email is second nature, the internet a necessity, and instant messaging a first language, being somehow out of with others is not even in the realm of possibility. If I have an interest in any subject, no matter how esoteric, mundane, or even illegal, I will be able to find hundreds if not thousands, perhaps even millions of like-minded individuals who share my passion. This is an incredibly valuable gift that many of us have learned to take for granted, but it makes it easy to forget that in previous generations, even professionals working in the same fields were often completely ignorant of each other's existence.

Russia Formalism WritingImagine, if you will, the early 20th century. The world is a much larger place than it is today, and although the major socio-political divisions familiar to us on modern maps were very similar, the relationships between these diverse nations were not. The United Nations was not even a distant dream, and Marxism was a relatively novel political theory that was beginning to gain widespread acceptance in many parts of the world, including Europe. Threats from other nations and political systems were very real, but so too were the threats of revolution coming from within many nations, Russia foremost among them. Monarchies still reigned in more than a figurehead status in many nations, and ideas of equality and the equal distribution of a nation's resources was a potent one, which looked as if it could be realized, if the will of the governments, or their people, was in place.

The United States and Britain, having (mostly) healed the rift created more than a century ago by the Declaration of Independence, were allies and in relatively close , with academics and professionals corresponding and traveling back and forth, sharing ideas and research in many disciplines. A common ancestry and a common tongue, as well as an ocean that, while immense, could be traversed without inordinate danger, made these connections very natural, and very amenable to both sides. However, this was definitely not the case when it came to either of these nations in their dealings with Russia. If you imagine the opposite scenario of communication and cooperation, you will begin to get some idea of how things were across this cultural and linguistic divide.

What is perhaps most astounding, however, is that in spite of the division between these different nations, some highly comparable literary work was being conducted at almost exactly the same time. Since the New Critical project, which was arising in Britain and North America in the early 1900s, was devoted to the study of the text itself, and to its internal forms and structures, it became known in some circles as American (or British, or Anglo-American) Formalism. Because the Russian literary scholars who are the topic of this series had similar concerns for the formal properties of texts, and the devices that made them what they were, they were given the same designation. Remarkably, however, neither group had with or knowledge of the other, making this a fine modern example of parallel evolution. Two groups in two different places managed to arrive at similar conclusions without consulting each other, proof that, in some important ways, diverse groups of human beings are far more similar than we might believe.

Russian Formalism was born, as one should suspect, in Russia, specifically in Moscow, in the early twentieth century, between 1910 and 1915. It arose in opposition to earlier and competing schools of criticism, which the Formalists believed were focusing too much on extra-literary concerns, like history, sociology, and psychology, and not enough on the literary object itself. If this sounds highly familiar to you, you have been reading the previous series on the New Critics, who were also very concerned to see literature set apart as a discipline of its own. In a statement with the same rhetorical thrust as Northrop Frye's famous wheelbarrow statement, Roman Jakobson, considered by many the father of Russian Formalism (and other notable related theoretical schools as well), commented that the usual method of literary investigation was akin to a police raid, where in order to find the culprit, the detectives would arrest anyone in the vicinity, be they legitimate suspects or people passing by on the street. In other words, there was a definite lack of focus, and very little was discovered about the literary work. If you want to learn about a specific phenomenon or entity, the way to do it is through specific, focused research on the thing itself. You will learn something by looking all around it, but this is secondary and irrelevant until the primary, focused work has been completed.

It is worth nothing at this point that, although the Formalists and the New Critics shared the view that literature was a worthy object of study on its own, without recourse to other methods of investigation, their specific focal points overlapped in only limited ways. First of all, both were certainly concerned about poetic sound, and how the aural aspects of poetic works impacted their literary meanings. The literary work of art, for both groups, was a combination of sound and verbal meaning, though the Russian Formalists placed far more emphasis on sound than even the New Critics did, originally conceiving that the artistic qualities of poetry as entirely attributable to sound, with the semantic values of the actual words contributing little or nothing. In time, of course, they came to revise these views, but still put even more emphasis on linguistics than the New Critics ever would.

Both groups also pushed for an investigation of literature that strove to be objective, and the best path for both groups to objectivity was to adopt methods akin to those used in the sciences. The problem with this, however, is that it can lead in two different, highly negative directions. The first, which is the path the New Critics followed unwittingly at times, was to use a more scientific vocabulary, and to state their beliefs as scientific facts, when in fact they were still highly subjective. This results in highly convincing rhetoric, but an overblown sense of the weight, accuracy, and validity of your critical claims. The other direction, which was sometimes a tempting trap for the Formalists, was to push the scientific method, and scientific principles of investigation, to the forefront to such a degree that the very quality of the phenomenon you are investigating gets warped into an unrecognizable form. For example, as we have mentioned, the Formalists placed a great deal of emphasis on the scientific study of phonetics and linguistics in poetry, with little regard, in the early years, for thematic aspects of literary artworks. As a result, they were able to adhere to quantifiable data and thoroughly objective material, but in so doing they misconceived a huge aspect of the entity they had set out to explore.

Because of their focus on the formal, definable, quantifiable aspects of literary texts, and their focus on the structures these created, the Formalists, who had never known themselves by this designation, were given the label of Formalism by members of competing literary camps, such as the orthodox Marxists who enjoyed an official monopoly on sanctioned literary practice in post-revolution Russia. Having a concern only for form and device was seen by the Marxist school as absurd, since social conditions and the political implications (and uses) of literature and art were the main reasons they should be considered at all. The Formalists, however, embraced rather than eschewed this title, and while it is somewhat too narrow to capture the movement though its various transformations, it does the job of setting them apart from their contemporaries and describing their core interests quite nicely. Like so many other groups, they were able to successfully take a word that was intended to be slanderous, and turn it to their advantage.

Though undoubtedly related to their early interest in phonetics, the Formalists were most interested in the differences between poetic and non-poetic language, or between literary and everyday modes and figures of speech. They contended that there was a definite distinction between them, and that this was a distinction that made literature what it was. Everyday language was seen by them as a vehicle for the communication of thoughts and ideas, in a clear and straightforward manner as possible. In this conception, sound had no value in and of itself, but only in as far as it allowed meaning to be transmitted from one person to another. In poetic language, the opposite was the case, as the specific phonetic sounds and patterns themselves had a meaning independent of the semantic meanings of the words they represented. A simple example of this is the presence of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance, where sounds combine to form patters of expression that create an effect without recourse to the words that contain them.

Following the differences between practical and poetic language further, the Formalists saw the latter as being extensive, with the former being intensive. Put another way, the language we use from day to day makes reference to things, ideas, and minds that are outside itself, that exist objectively in the world or in the mind of someone in the world. In short, everyday language always points away from itself, always drawing attention to something else; it should be a lens through which we can see and conceptualize the world, and communicate what we see and know to others. When we do not use language well, clearly, and efficiently in everyday language, the lens gets smudged, and we find ourselves staring blankly at the dirty pane, unable to penetrate to that which we want to see through it.

Poetic language, on the other hand, takes what is considered a flaw in practical language and turns it into its dominant mode. Poetic language does not point out to something in the real word, and it does not attempt to fade into the background to facilitate smooth communications. Returning to the lens analogy, poetic language should be like stained glass, or like a complex pattern in many colors etched into the surface of the lens; this transforms it from something used to look at something else, to something which demands to be looked at. Poetic language draws attention to itself as language, and demands that the reader or listener pause at the surface, arrested by what presents itself, rather than what it is apparently trying to present.

At this point it is important to note a terminological discrepancy between our common notion of a term and its more technical uses in literary studies. You might have noticed that, throughout this series, I have been using the term "poetic language" frequently, and many of you likely assumed that this made explicit reference to poetry proper, to verse, and excluded prose from consideration. While it is the case that the Russian Formalists focused most of their attention, especially in the early going, on poetry, poems, and verse in general, they spoke of prose as well, as we shall see later in this series, and they used the term "poetic language" to refer to prose, poetry, and drama alike. Poetic language was not an antonym for prose language, but rather for everyday or practical language. Today, we would be more likely to use the term literary language to avoid this confusion, but in the early 20th century, their meaning was understood very clearly, and it would not have done, scientifically and logically speaking, to try to define the major principles of literature by recourse to a term that contains the word literary in it.

Like the New Critics, the Russian Formalists were influenced significantly by the new forms of poetry that were coming to life around them in the early 1900s, and some of their theoretical positions were tailor-made to deal with the poetry of the Russian Futurists, who composed verse that made, literally, no sense, but rather put words together in a kind of poetic musical arrangement that was described as being "trans-rational." Their theory of the self-valuable word was highly influential on the Formalists, and it is possible to see much of their early research as an elaboration of this poetic principle in theoretical terms. Something known as "zaum" poetry became the dominant poetic form of favor among the futurists, which presented language stripped of its meaning in as far as this was possible. This new language was supposed to be as close to pure experience as possible, cutting through cultural and social associations and penetrating to a primal, natural aspect of the human that ordinary language covered over. This is obviously highly analogous to the views the Formalists held on the nature of poetic language, and made the same kind of distinction between everyday practical language and the language of poetry, though never couched in the same natural/unnatural, pure/diminished terms the poets used.

Of course, the preoccupation with sound for its own sake eventually proved insufficient, and the Formalists turned to a more highly integrative examination of literature, combining their study of sound and phonetics to rhythm and syntax, as well as diction and vocabulary. This made for a much clearer, more complete picture of what poetic language was all about, and what a poetic experience consisted of. The focus at this point, in the late 1910s and the early 1920s, was still firmly on verse, which makes sense considering that verse is as different from everyday language as possible. After all, if I show a group of people a poem and a newspaper article side-by-side, they will easily identify one as poetic, the other as ordinary, and be able to comment on what characteristics make the one distinct from the other. However, if I hold up an excerpt from a short-story next to a news article, differentiating between the two will prove more difficult. The phonetics, which the Formalists saw as so important, were no so clearly different between two prose texts, and while there were notable distinctions, these were not so evident.

Because the difference between poetry proper and daily language is so pronounced, it made an excellent starting point for determining what made the two sorts of language different from each other. Scientifically and logically speaking, it makes more sense to determine the most distinctive and general differences between two opposing entities first. This allows you to establish the key differences, which then permits the investigation of the more subtle distinctions that flesh out the ambiguous points of departure between the two things. In Plato's Republic, he (always as Socrates) discusses how it will be useful to present a large and simple model of the formation and structure of the Republic first, which because of its large size, will allow him and his listeners to see more easily the structure of the whole, and which will prove as a useful guide to the later, more detailed examination of the smaller aspects of the edifice.

One of the major distinctions the Formalists noticed between poetic and ordinary language is the unusually concentrated patterning which occurs on many levels of poetic language, which is simply not present in everyday language. On the level of sound, meaning, and device, words and ideas fall into noticeable, distinctive patterns in poetic works, whereas this kind of patterning is far less common, and less concentrated, in practical language. Looking at poems specifically, we can see that such rhythm and rhyme both create patterns that do not usually occur in regular language. Looking as well at different methods of conceptualizing ideas, poems tend to make very liberal use of figurative language, which is language that speaks about things in a non-literal way. Simile, metaphor, and personification are three specific example of figurative language, and while they do occur in practical language, they are relatively quite rare, and almost never as fresh or live. In this reckoning, a live metaphor is one that has not been used so often that is has become a part of everyday conversation. For instance, if I say that I am off the races now that I have overcome the last obstacle to my success, the meaning of this phrase is so evident that one would not think it at all strange, and would not need to consider it for any length of time to determine what I am saying by it. If I tell you I am down, you know I mean I am feeling sad or depressed, not because down has any inherent connection to sadness, but because that direction has been associated so closely, for so long, with sadness in my language (and many others). Both of these are dead metaphors, completely transparent and now a part of everyday speech.

Live metaphors, on the other hand, have not been subsumed by regular language, and cause those hearing them, especially for the first time, to stop and take notice, perhaps even to stop and figure out what meaning they contain. For instance, if I claim that my book is a flying saucer, you will be immediately arrested in the progress of reading, forced to consider what this strange comparison might mean. When the text goes on to say that it was a book about aliens, and that the story took me (metaphorically) to a different land where I could escape the bounds of my present existence, the metaphor begins to make some sense, but it is the original impact of the strange comparison, rather than the explanation which may or may not be provided, which makes the metaphor live. Because of its unexpected novelty, the live metaphor has the ability to have an effect on the reader, while the dead metaphor does not.

Figurative language is one of the prime examples of the Formalist conception of how poetic language draws attention to itself, points inward to itself rather than outward to external reality. If I am using literal language, I must be careful that I obey the laws of language, the laws of nature, and more broadly, the laws of reality. For example, if I want to tell you about a fight I witnessed last night in a literal way, I will describe the combatants in a way that ensures no misunderstanding is possible, and that does not stray into impossibility. A possible passage from this literal telling might go something like this: "Last night I saw a large man with already-bruised knuckles take hold of young, thin man in an aggressive manner. Surprisingly, the young man immediately struck the larger one, rendering him unconscious."

This gets the point across, but it does not emblazon the details in memory or imagination like it would if figurative elements were present. Since figurative language is not bound to the constraints of reality, one is permitted to say or write impossible things which none-the-less still register their meaning on the reader, perhaps even more effectively than the literal way. The same events told figuratively might run as follows: "A great ogre of a man, swollen ape-knuckles dragging on the ground, embraced a mousy youngster as if he wanted to kill him and take him back to his cave for dinner. Faster than lightning, the whelp's shocking blow toppled the giant like an oak in a thunderstorm." Looking at the preceding passage literally, one would have to conclude that the author was delusional, as very little of this is possible. A man cannot be an ogre, and "an ogre of a man" suggests a hybrid that simply cannot exist, since ogres are fictional beings. No man has the knuckles of an ape, nor would an ogre, nor an ogre-man, if either existed. No person can move faster than lightning, and the man who was present in the last sentence has somehow turned into a whelp, which is a young dog, or puppy, which is also impossible. I could go on, but this should provide a good idea of what the power of figurative language can be, and how it finds a home in poetic, rather than regular, language. After all, it takes some effort to speak or write in such a figurative way, and to make so many metaphors, similes, and personifications work together to create a coherent narrative. If people tried to speak like this in everyday situations, confusion would reign, and communications would slow to a trickle.

Figurative language, especially when it is used in clusters as it was above, attracts the notice and attention of the reader, and thus puts itself on display. It is certain that I will remember the details of the story if it is told to me in the second, figurative way, but the actual events recede into the background somewhat, and the figurative description comes to the fore. I will remember the ogre-ape, the mouse-puppy, and the toppling ogre-ape-oak within the thunderstorm, and while the actual events will adhere to these images, the images are at the center of my consciousness. It is obvious in this example that the purpose of telling the story in both cases is very different. In my literal retelling, the purpose is to convey facts as clearly as possible. In my figurative rendering, the purpose is to delight the senses and to entertain, even if that means the actual events are not as accurately conveyed. This is a core distinction, which leads to one of the central tenets of Russian Formalism.

Of course, there are many more literary devices than figurative language, and just about any form of language which rests outside the norm, or any aspect of unconventional patterning on a phonetic, semantic, or thematic level takes us from practical language to at least the suggestion of poetic language. Although the Formalists took great pains to explain all of the devices and patterns that could mark out this vital distinction, they used a single term to describe the basic effect that these created. In Russian, the term is ostranenie, which translates roughly into English as "estrangement," (you can hear the common root if you say both of them out loud), but more accurately, and now commonly, as "defamiliarization."

Any literary device, which has not been normalized by being subsumed into practical language, acts to foreground itself, to place itself in front of whatever the words would usually point out to, and to cause attention to be paid to the device, and to the words, themselves. Foregrounding is especially common in literary texts, and foregrounding is a key feature of literature for the Formalists; take away foregrounding, and you are left with practical, not poetic, language. This foregrounding, since it is distinct from regular language, causes us to stop and take notice. It interrupts our usual simple method of gleaning information from a text, and as a result, changes our focus significantly.

Viktor Shklovskii outlined his theory of the process and effect of defamiliarization in a landmark of Russian Formalist theory entitled Art as Device, which became the accepted guide for Formalist thought on the subject. He begins by explaining that, as we go through life on a daily basis, we encounter the same things over and over. We see the same objects, hear the same words, engage the same people in the same conversations, and visit the same places. As a result, the world we experience from day-to-day is dry and dull, which means that our perception becomes automated; when things become entirely commonplace, we cease to notice them at all. They no longer rise to any place of prominence in our consciousness, and while we may be able to, for example, avoid the table which stands next to the coat rack on the way out of the house, we do so without thought, and may not even realize how close we come each morning to ramming into that particular piece of furniture. Just as fish are not aware of the water they swim in, and we are seldom aware of the air we breathe, and our process of breathing, so too do other features of our lives become completely automated.

Of course, this automation serves some important functions, and practically speaking, it is indispensable. After all, imagine if we arose each morning and everything we saw and experienced seemed fresh and new to us. This might be fine if we had no obligations or responsibilities, but it would be enormously taxing is we had places to go and things to do. It is important to stop and smell the roses from time to time, but if everything in our natural environment becomes, in a manner of speaking, roses, it would be difficult to tear ourselves away from them for long enough to get anything done. Also, and far more negatively, it would take a tremendous amount of memory and caution to navigate the everyday dangers we have automated responses to deal with. As nice as it might be to see the neighbor's dog fresh and anew each morning, it would be terrible to be bitten by it each day because I failed to automatically leave my house from the other door.

The automation of everyday life is an important human trait, but it can tend to make experience less than vivid, to say the least. People go on vacations and jump out of planes to give themselves experiences that are not automated, and that register themselves vividly on their consciousnesses, but we are certainly limited in the number and frequency of these events based on their expense, the time they take, and the danger they can sometimes present. I am certain going on a safari without a guide in the deepest reaches of the Brazilian rainforest would be an exciting experience that would definitely not fall under the category of automation, but I am also willing to bet that it might be my last such experience; even if I lived, I doubt I would ever be sufficiently calm ever again to leave my home, much less re-enter the jungle.

In art, however, and specifically for Shklovskii, literary art, we can take shortcuts to these experiences that disrupt automation and lead to defamiliarization, which can be considered the opposite to automation. In a literary text, which employs poetic language, we are shown objects, events, people, and ideas in a way that we are not accustomed to experiencing them. If the author tells me a rock is standing at the base of a statue, I will perhaps briefly picture it, and then quickly forget it. I will fall into my usual perceptual habits, and it will recede into the background of my consciousness. However, if poetic language is employed, the rock at the foot of the statue will be foregrounded just as the language that describes it becomes foregrounded. By doing something different with language, I have to consider it more, and this lengthens and makes more difficult the act of perception. For Shklovskii, this disruption of perception is what is necessary to breaking our automatic, habitual response to everyday events; as a result of this disruption, we are able to see things, even very common things, in a different light, and they feel fresh, new, strange, and unfamiliar to us. Throughout our lives, we build up associations and assumptions about the world, and so rather than actually seeing, or perceiving things, we tend to merely know them, without really experiencing them at all. All the associations and ideas that we have about them take the place of the experience of the things themselves, and so we cannot experience them. Defamiliarization allows us to perceive things that we have only known, to experience them more directly, rather than through the automatic mediation of our ideas about these things. For the Formalists, this is a primary characteristic of poetic language, and its most vital function.

Defamiliarization and foregrounding are such important Formalist principles that they lead directly into Formalist definitions of literature itself. Roman Jakobson, mentioned earlier as, arguably, the most important figure of Russian Formalism, took the lead amongst the Formalist scholars in defining the object of their analysis. He was very aware, however, that the term literature (in Russian as much as in English, and in most other languages) is a very old one and is full of so many connotations and associations that it is a difficult term to define in anything like a scientific way. Consider the range of its meanings just in English for example: it can refer to any written work, technical manuals, scientific research publications, publications in any discipline, any creative writing, creative writing of a given quality, and many, many others. The Formalists had a few options here, the two most obvious of which were to define the term in a discipline-specific way, or to use another term altogether. Jakobson took a middle route, and in so doing defined a central premise of formalist theory.

Whenever one wishes to employ or define an already existing term in a specific sense in a given discipline, there are a host of complicating factors that accompany it. In the case of literature, it is obvious that the Formalists, who wanted to make literature the object of their scientific investigations, needed to propose a definition of it, for how can one study something if one does not know what the object of study even is? All of the different definitions of literature mentioned earlier were in wide use, which meant that the Formalists would have to be very specific to ensure what they meant by literature was clear.

Of course, although one can, in theory, name any given word and apply whatever definition one wants to it, this does not make for positive, effective communication between members of various groups. It is highly inadvisable to ignore the history a given term brings with it, and to be unaware to the various connotations it has taken on both in popular parlance, and in specific disciplines. A term as old as literature was, even 100 years ago, obviously saturated with meaning and history, meaning that any attempt to define or redefine it with a more scientific, precise meaning, would be met with significant resistance from many different groups. If you find it difficult to believe that different groups of academics could have such a vested interest in the mere definition of a term, keep in mind that even a word like "meaning" makes contemporary scholars take positions on any one of a number of different issues. Is meaning uniquely human? Is it cognitive, affective, or both? It is extensive or intensive, or both? Can you find the meaning of a literary work, or are there several, or none at all? All of these positions are endorsed by academics in different disciplines, and thus all attempts to define meaning are already politicized from the beginning. The same is the case for literature, and so the Formalists decided to name the object of their studies somewhat differently.

However, they were also not free to merely identify a number of characteristics and then give this any label they wanted. Technically, just as you can give an existing term whatever definition you want, you can take an existing definition and apply to it any word you like. In the case of literature, the Formalists were obviously thinking of it as writing and speech that is notably different from regular discourse, consisting of strong patterning and a high attention to its own sounds and structure. They also undoubtedly thought of it as something one would usually find in a book, or on the stage, and which would be evident to most who saw it. However, because many would dispute that literature needs to have all of these properties, and other would argue that it has many more (while still others would argue that it does not even exist), using the term literature to describe this more specific phenomenon they were interested in was not going to be easy. An alternative would be to give this idea they have another name, something completely different from the usual terms with all of their vexing controversies and political complications. A name like Verbal Art had its own complications and history, and an invented name like Wordcraft, or even Rngthy, would have seemed beside the point. After all, all academic endeavor, no matter how seemingly obscure and lofty, has to say something about the world we live in and the ideas we use as human beings. People care about literature, and have for generations. People have no interest in Rngthy; part of the value of the Formalist project was to investigate this phenomenon of literature, which, while not well defined, seemed to be a sufficiently unified concept that one could begin to study it vigorously. By shifting the focus from the thing itself - literature - to its causes, the Formalists were able to create a relational definition that proved highly flexible and still very effective in capturing the flavor of the phenomenon they wanted to examine, without needing to define it out of all recognizable shape.

Roman Jakobson made it clear as early as 1919 that the object of Formalist study was not literature itself, taken somehow in its entirety, but rather what he referred to as "literariness." Literariness in turn was defined as "that which makes a given work a literary work," which marks a radical departure from traditional literary criticism, and even from traditional notions of what literary scholars were supposed to be doing. Thinking about the potential problems associated with definitions, we can see how this careful phrasing and carefully engineered focus managed to escape the potential pitfalls the Formalists could easily have fallen into.

First of all, it is vital to note that the Formalists managed to avoid directly employing the term literature in their defining formulation. This permitted them to stay away from the debates and politics of definition. They were able to achieve this side-stepping by making their key term applicable to the constituent parts of literature, not literature itself. By moving down a level to the parts which compose the entity in question, rather than focusing on the entity itself, the Formalists could deflect some arguments by stating that their object of study was sufficiently narrowly defined that they could make reliable claims about it without fear of stepping on the toes of other aspects of literary works, or literature as a whole.

Next, notice that the term literariness is not some arbitrary string of characters like Rngthy was in an earlier article, but rather contains the root of the very term that they were so careful to avoid! As we have been discussing, it is interesting to study significant, widely known and experienced phenomena, so labeling your object of study some imaginary title will detract from its potential appeal and the perception of its importance. By taking a key term like literature and molding their key term around it, the Formalists managed to convey the obvious connection between their subject and the common area of interest it explored. Literariness is not the same as literature, of course, but it sounds an awful lot like it, and it has so much to say about it that for all intents and purposes, it became Formalism's concept of what literature really was, although they never said this in so many words.

Looking even more closely at Jakobson's formulation, we see that there is at least a strong flavor of circularity in it. Literary science, he tells us, does not take literature as its object, but rather literariness. And what is literariness? It is the thing, the property, that makes a work literary. What makes a given work literary? Literariness of course! There is no definition of what literature is here, but it can be safely inferred that it will have much to do with the specific properties and devices a given work employs. So, I suppose it only becomes possible to know a work of literature as such after one has identified it as possessing a certain amount of literariness, a certain critical mass of features that are associated with literature. This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by the New Critics, who did not place nearly so much emphasis on defining what a literary work was. They took for granted the object of their investigation, and understood it as self-evident, obvious to anyone who knew anything about the topic. Therefore, they spent a lot less time considering what it was about literature that made it so, and a lot more making grander pronouncements about literature as a whole (for example, ideas regarding the canon), and about specific works taken as a whole. They believed in the importance of the text itself; the Formalists, on the contrary, were interested in the common devices and patterns which existed below the level of the text itself, but which made literature itself possible.

The more open and flexible (and admittedly circular) definition of literariness that the Formalists employed to lead their investigations meant that, unlike the New Critics, their theories were amenable to adoption outside the field of literary studies, and that even the idea of literature could be significantly altered. The New Critics looked at texts that were considered literary, especially poetry, the short-story and novel, and drama. These large genres are safe places to go, since generally speaking, anything appearing in any of these forms is an example of literary art, and will display expected characteristics because of the expectations of its genre. The Formalists, even though they most often limited themselves to examples from these recognized literary genres in practice (with a special concentration on poetry and the novel), their focus on language meant that literariness was not bound to works that were considered traditionally literary, but potentially to any utterance. This means that literature, being a verbal expression with a given concentration of literariness, could exist in any media that employed words. This applies to all kinds of texts that are not normally considered literary works, and of course to productions on the radio and in film, or even today on the computer. The Formalists are sometimes criticized for delineating literature too sharply, and not considering the vast range of historical and cultural diversity that creates literary diversity. However, although some of their ideas were limiting in this way, they also set up a framework that made few assumptions from the outside, and allowed the phenomenon itself to define what they would say about it. What makes a given work seem literary, the devices that are used to achieve this effect, and the subjective judgments needed to make these evaluations, mean that in whatever culture you care to discuss, Jakobson's formulation can be effectively applied with no loss of sensitivity to the people of a particular time or place. This is part of the reason why, as we shall see in later chapters of this large series on literary theory, the ideas of the Formalists became very influential to later schools of theory, while the New Critics, while exerting an influence in literature classrooms to this very day, were not adopted so widely.

Theory: The How's and Why's of Literature

Russian Formalism - Part II

Another New Critical notion (that had precedent in far older criticism, of course) which the Formalists did not adhere to was the division between form and content. It is common practice even today in schools ranging from Britain to America to speak of literary works as having these two distinct attributes, and to discuss them separately. For example, if I read a poem and want to impress the teacher, I will likely start by describing the rhyme scheme, the meter, and the type of poem it is (whether it be a sonnet, ballad, limerick, or what have you). After this discussion of form, I will then discuss what the content of the work is. This will involve listing the setting, the character of the speaker, the dramatic situation, the important themes, and so on. Many discussion end here, as this seems to cover the form and content of the work sufficiently, but the brightest sparks will talk about how the form reflects the content of the work; to use the most direct example, I would comment on how the shape of a concrete poem, how it is arranged on the page, reflects on what the poem is talking about. All of this can lead to a good elucidation of the work, but for the Formalists, this was largely missing the point of what literature was, and what it did with language.

For the Formalists, this division of a literary work into such categories as form and content was misleading, for it implied that there were separable levels which could be taken apart. In itself this would not be a problem, but the fact of the matter is that literature can only manifest itself as such in the interaction of what would traditionally be considered form and content. If this division were applied to practical language, it might be somewhat more tenable, since the content is the focus, and the only thing that really matters, while the form is simply the structure that contains it, and allows it to be communicated to others. In literature, however, the form a work takes is generative of meaning that goes beyond the meaning of the bare content, the semantic thrust of each word on the page. As a result, form becomes content. By the same token, if a novel uses the various stages of a character's life to make divisions in the text, content becomes form. Literature, then, seems to be created in the interface between what can be called form and content, and as a result, these things cannot be talked about separately in literary science; if we chop them up, we can use them to discuss history and linguistics, but the art is lost.

Instead of form and content, then, the Formalists focused on a different relation, that which occurs between material and device, terms that were especially applicable to the studies of the novel the Formalists began to pay more attention to as their theories of literature developed. The distinction is another one that separates poetic from practical language, but in this case, it is even more specifically applied to the matter of narrative literature. Material is described by the Formalists as the raw matter of literary creation, as the thoughts, ideas, places, characters, and the rest that go into the construction of a literary work. Device is the specific, artful, literary arrangement of this matter into meaningful, active structures that arrange the raw material into art, transforming it from random and mundane to ordered, patterned, and evocative. Keep in mind that, while this sounds somewhat like the dichotomy between form and content, it is applied to a different aspect of literary construction. Material exists not in the text itself, but in the world at large, and is what the author uses to create his or her tale. Think of this as something like the scenery available to a landscape painter. There is the wide world, full of exciting views, all of which comprise the material which he or she will use in the creation of a work of art. Device is analogous to the different techniques the painter uses to bring that material to a different medium, and to an interested viewer.

Taking this interesting set of terms - material and device - to the analysis of the novel, we discover another related set of Formalist terms that aid in the understanding of how a work of creative narrative is composed. The Russian names for these terms will be familiar to you if you have done work in film theory, and they are fabula and siuzhet. We usually render these terms in English as story and plot respectively, although many times the Russian terms are kept in order to avoid the confusion that these terms can cause.

In contemporary English, the words plot and story have taken on so many meanings in everyday parlance that attempting to employ them in the investigation of literary works is a risky proposition. Whenever we hear story, it is most often used to refer to the entire work we are looking at, and the events, characters, and places it contains. This seems straightforward, but if this is the case, what room does this leave for plot? No one has ever asked me for the story of a novel, but many people have asked me for the plot. However, if story is often used to refer to the contents of a work as well as the work taken in its entirety, wouldn't this significantly overlap with plot? When used in this way, plot means the actions and events as they unfold in the literary work, which also requires one to explain the characters and settings that participate in and contain the events and actions.... As you can see, these terms are not well differentiated in everyday conversation, and for this reason, they remain problematic for scholars as well. Scholarly terms should strive to be unambiguous, and these two are anything but.

For this reason, it is often preferable to use the terms the Formalists used, which are fabula and siuzhet. These words roughly translate into story and plot in English, and so in Russian they likely run into similar problems as we do with our own English terms, but the benefit of taking terms from other languages is that they come into the new language with a definite set of associations and precise meanings. Similarly, they are not likely to change and bend over time, because they are part of a professional dialogue only, and do not really have much of a role in everyday conversation. For some of the same reasons, biologists have a detailed system of taxonomy that employs Latin extensively: people in different regions, even regions with the same language, have different common names for different things, and sometimes the same name is applied to two different things in two different areas. By employing Latin names, the scientists ensure they are speaking of the same things consistently over time, and more to the point here, since Latin is not used in conversation anywhere, the descriptive terms do not get altered.

Recognizing the need for some distinction between the terms if they were to be academically and scientifically useful and descriptive, the Formalists described fabula (story) as the series of events occurring in their chronological order, and according to the causes and effects which motivate them. Think of fabula as the most basic formulation of narrative, which follows the same rules as everyday life. In reality, things happen in a given order, and as the result of things that happened before them. If a camera followed my point of view for an entire day, this would be a pretty good representation of fabula; this would show the plain events of my day, in order, where causes and effects are apparent, with the latter always following the former. If one were to try to write a book in this way, any readers who managed to read any portion of it all would likely want to kill themselves after a short time. The unfolding of events at the pace and in the order of real life is fine for real life, but it makes terribly boring fiction. One could argue that it would not even be possible to write down fabula, as it is something that can only really be constructed imaginatively or theoretically from a narrative literary work, but in any event, an important building block of literary narrative.

Siuzhet (plot) on the other hand, is the artistic presentation, or re-presentation of fabula (story) events. This relationship might seem confusing, but thinking of it in terms of a movie like Pulp Fiction might be quite helpful. Of course, Pulp Fiction is not a straightforward, simple movie, but this is precisely why it is so valuable for differentiating between the fabula and siuzhet; it makes the difference between them glaringly obvious. Looking at the start of the movie, we have people sitting in a coffee shop, and there is a couple who is discussing robbing places, and who decide, seemingly on a whim, to rob the restaurant they are eating in. The female half of the duo gets up on the table with her gun drawn and orders everyone not to move. From here, we next meet up with a couple of gangsters in an interesting conversation, a boxer who gets on the wrong side of a gangster, and their complex interrelations. Finally, in one of the last scenes of the film, we see the restaurant from the start of the film, albeit from a different character's perspective, and we see the start of the hold-up repeated, and then played through its conclusion.

Throughout the film, all of the various storylines are presented in a way that makes it difficult to connect them to each other, and even to connect various parts of them to themselves. The reason for this is that the film is not worried about presenting the fabula in its natural order whatsoever. In most films and books, we can figure out the fabula without too much difficulty, and although we can never recreate it completely, we can get a good idea about the most important things which happen, and can deduce when they happen in relation to each other. The reason we can never recreate the fabula completely has a lot to do with the nature of art and its relation to reality, as well as the limits of human perception. After all, whenever something happens, there are untold, uncountable tiny details that escape the attention of even the most observant onlooker. Even if we were able to put all of the observations of an assembled crowd together, we would still have an incomplete picture of the events that ate taking place, or the fabula. The very nature of art demands that the artist select some aspects of the fabula and presents them to us in an interesting way. The selection that takes place will many times appear very obvious, but it must not be forgotten that selection is going on regardless, and that this is what constitutes the siuzhet, the ordered plot of the work. An old but effective example of the difference between the unfolding of a story and its ordered selection revolves around using the bathroom. Take any of your favorite characters from literature or film and ask yourself how many times you see them going to the bathroom. We know that everyone must do this on a daily basis (at least) which makes it part of the fabula, but since it is usually uninteresting (and unappetizing) it does not get included in the siuzhet.

Pulp Fiction has taken the fabula/siuzhet division and made it a central theme. Rather than just allowing us to delude ourselves into believing we are seeing the whole story unfold in a natural way (as much literature and film attempts to do), it points out its own constructed nature, and makes us focus on the work itself, as art, as much as it does the story we are trying to follow. This achieves the effect of defamiliarization, and thus shows how many Formalist principles work together to explain the diverse features and effects of artistic narrative works.

The interaction between levels of art and reality were very important to the Formalists, and it is no surprise that they expended a lot of effort in examining this relationship. The construction of plot and its relation to story was an important principle of literary investigation for the Formalists, but since this did not account for certain narrative structures, it was not complete, and other aspects of the work and its creation needed to become the focus. For example, while many literary works are primarily concerned with the relation of a narrative and the unfolding events of the fabula as presented in the siuzhet, some have a different focus all together, and draw attention to other features of the text, most notably, the authorial or narrative voice which tells the story. In these kinds of narrative works, while there may be a story which is being offered to us, we get the distinct feeling that we are learning more about the person who is telling the story than the story that they apparently want to share with us. This is precisely the opposite of what many realists would have considered good literature; for them, the goal of the literary work was to present a tale in such a way that the reader is immersed to such an extent that the necessary artifice of the work's construction fades into the background, and the reader feels as much as possible that he or she is living in the world created by their reading. In this realist mode, the author or narrator of the story should be as unobtrusive as possible, since the story should appear to be telling itself, to be happening spontaneously without the artifice or creation of any outside force. However, since the Formalists were more interested in studying what made literature effective in all its different manifestations than making declarations about what literature should and should not do, they were free to examine literary works that did not fit the traditional patterns.

The Russian Formalist term for the kind of literary work that put the author or narrator on display as the focal point of the work, on a par with or above the unfolding events of the plot, was skaz, or skaz narrative. In these kinds of literary works, the ordering principle was not primarily the selection and ordering of narrative events, but rather the narrative voice itself. In skaz, the narrator does his or her best to rise to the foreground of the literary work they are a part of, through any means necessary. The most simple and obvious of these is through self-reference, when the narrator of a story refers to themselves; an especially strong instance of this occurs when the narrator refers to themselves as the narrator of the story, and discusses the present process of constructing the story that we readers are currently reading. Other methods used in skaz include frequent authorial interruption of the narrated events; in these instances, the narrator brings the unfolding plot to a halt, and takes some time to either describe something about themselves or an event in their own story-level. This can include discussing how the events they are describing make them feel, or even the fact that a small bird had perched itself on the typewriter they are using to create the story we are reading! Traditional narratives attempt to hide or minimize the difference (where one exists) between the world of the narrator (including both time and place) and the world of the story the narrator tells. Skaz narrative, on the other hand, intentionally blurs or confuses this distinction, so that the act of creation and/or the act of telling become part of the story, rather than merely a supposedly invisible vehicle for it.

As we have seen so vividly displayed in the previous articles in this series, one of the greatest strengths of the Formalist project was its ability to identify and isolate the various features of literature in a way that made these factors easily identifiable and examinable. Since their approach was a scientific one, this disentangling of the various elements of literature was of the utmost importance, and it allowed them to more easily grasp both the object of their inquiry and some of its most important defining features. It also gave them a strong, well developed vocabulary of terms to use, without which scholarly and scientific discussion becomes both incredibly longwinded and prone to frequent misunderstanding. By naming and defining key concepts, the Formalists made it possible to discuss literature in an efficient and more objective way, which simply was not possible under impressionistic criticism.

However, as we can see in the history of all early sciences, and even in the history of science itself, the original enthusiasm that the creation of a new method brings is soon tempered by more complex understandings of the phenomena under investigation, and what at the beginning seems like a relatively straightforward investigation is found to be highly complex. This is precisely the realization that the Formalists arrived at after their initial publications prior to 1921. The work they had been doing was absolutely necessary to what would come after, but through it they learned that they had been attempting to carve out a theoretical, scientific, and philosophical masterpiece with a blunt axe, rather than a fine-tipped chisel. As a result, they spent much of their efforts in the 1920s refining their earlier investigations, rather than moving in radically different directions. They, like so many others before them, discovered that early explorations raise far more questions than they answer; fortunately, their work had also given them the improved tools and increased understanding needed to examine these new issues effectively.

One of the most important realizations the Formalists made in this transitional period (in the very early 1920s) is that, while it is most convenient, and even necessary, to have ready terms for literary devices, and to have a basic understanding of how each generally affects the literary work in which it appears, there was a problem with treating the devices they discovered in such isolation. After all, while it may be true in a very general way that rhyme is a pleasing feature, and that two rhymed words tend to become more closely associated in our minds than unrhymed words with the same meanings would, this says nothing about how rhyme works in different literary genres, like prose versus poetry, or even epic versus elegy. Different devices that occur in a literary work do not work in isolation, but rather interact with one another, and change both how the other devices are perceived, and the effect of the work as a whole. This is a significantly different way of conceiving of a literary work than the model the Formalists used in their earlier period, which was one where the whole of a literary work was equal to the sum of its well defined parts. This model is not completely inaccurate, but it does not take into consideration the interaction that is so important to the success of any work of literature, and since this interplay is at the heart of literary production and enjoyment, it was an oversight the Formalists knew they needed to correct. As a result, the concept of literary dynamics was created, and this more refined concept powered much Formalist thought through the 1920s.

The idea of the dynamic structure of literary works is one that gave the Formalists the unity of a strong system perhaps for the first time, allowing them more theoretical coherence than the loosely structured series of related investigations they had been undertaking previously. Each formal device in a literary work has predictable individual effects, but these effects can be altered dramatically when placed in varying relations with others. Throughout the course of a literary work, the various devices and elements of the work rise to prominence at different times, and recede into the background at others, but each has an effect on how we perceive what has come before, and colors what will come after.

Because all of these various devices are working together in the same work at about the same time, the Formalists posited that they were in a constant state of struggle, each working to place itself above the others. Then winner of this struggle, the element that most successfully placed itself at the foreground of the work, was the constructive principle of the work, and all of the other elements were subordinated to it. While each element acted to change the others, the constructive principle warped all of the others to a high extent, forcing them into their various relations with each other on the basis of the effect of the constructive principle.

The word dynamic from the term "dynamic structure" obviously refers to the fluid, flexible nature of given literary devices which come into with one another. Motion arises from the give and take between different factors, and eventually begins to flow in the direction dictated by the constructive principle, the most powerful device in the work. However, the dynamic nature of a given literary work is often intensified by another kind of motion, which can include a significant shift in the relative positions of various devices, resulting in a new constructive principle for different sections of a given literary work. This keeps the work fresh and vibrant, and prevents it from becoming too predictable and automated over the course of several chapters, or cantos in the case of poetry.

All of this talk of constructive principles and literary dynamics has been highly abstract so far, so perhaps it is time to provide some more concrete examples to make the concepts presented here clearer. An excellent work to show how literary dynamics can be applied to literature is William Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury. For those of you who have read it, good job; it is not easy going to start with, and it is not popular in high school and university courses, so you likely had to make it through on your own. For those of you who haven't read it, I can highly recommend it, although you must be prepared for something that will challenge and at times frustrate you in the beginning especially. Take my word for it when I tell you that figuring out what is happening early on and why is worth the trouble.

This text is particularly pertinent to a discussion of literary dynamics for many reasons, the most obvious of which is the fact that it is divided into several sections, each centered on a given character, and told from his or her perspective. Even more interestingly, and especially appropriate for an application of Formalist ideas, the form of the narration changes to reflect the personality and mental state of the focus character.

In the first section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, the narrating consciousness is that of Benjy, who is significantly mentally handicapped. Fittingly, this section is the most difficult one to read in the work, as Benjy's narration does not operate in anything like a straightforward and linear manner. The style is stream-of-consciousness narration, where the narration is designed to look like the pouring out of thought from the mind of the character. Many, many literary devices are employed to achieve this effect, one of the most important of which is the interruption of chronological narration. Benjy's narration presents events in the present and the past without discrimination, meaning that time is always in the foreground as we try to piece together what happened and when. So, in this section of the novel, all of the devices that are presented are bent toward the constructive principle of the a-temporal stream-of-consciousness narration. This feature dominates all of the others, and warps their interactions in its direction.

In the second section, the narrative voice becomes that of Benjy's brother Quentin, who is not mentally handicapped, and who is actually attending Harvard University. The narration is still in the stream of consciousness style, but comparatively speaking, it is quite straightforward. There are time shifts like there are in Benjy's narration, but these are far less frequent, and it is far easier to separate one time from another. Thus, the focus shifts here, and stream-of-consciousness narration with its temporal leaping and disorientation moves out of the dominant position, and gets subordinated by other literary devices more appropriate to Quentin's character. His romantic, learned, poetic character comes to the fore, and the use of elaborate metaphors, allusions, and more figurative language in general rise to the level of constructive principle.

In the next section, the last I will discuss here, the narration shifts again, this time to the eldest of the brothers, Jason, who would be considered far more level-headed, serious, and practical than his brothers. It is doubtful he is as intelligent as Quentin, but he is highly logical and rational, which is reflected in his narration. The narrative is presented in a conventional way, in language that sounds more like Hemingway for its brevity and curtness than anything Faulkner ever wrote. Here, the dominant device or organizing principle is neither aspects of the stream-of-consciousness nor figurative language, but rather the virtual absence of these structural feat

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