Russian Formalism

Comparison of the use of Formalist terminology in two scholarly articles and evaluation of Formalism’s contribution to scholarship

Seminar Paper, 2009

10 Pages, Grade: 1,2


1. Introduction

In the course of this essay the terminology that was applied by the Russian Formalist theoreticians shall be investigated (many terms were even invented and introduced by the Formalists themselves). More precisely, a careful look will be taken at how the literary critics, Medvedev and Bakhtin in The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship1 and Hansen-Löve in Der Russische Formalismus2 examine the Formalist terms. In order to evaluate Formalist terminology accurately and objectively, the mentioned critics’ theories shall be underpinned by and contrasted with the opinion of other critics in this field.

Two of Shklovsky’s articles, The Resurrection of the Word3 and Art as Device4 are taken as a starting point for paving the way for a detailed analysis of the formal terminology. The major focus lies on the term ‘ostranenie’ that was firstly introduced by Shklovsky (1991) and is most commonly translated as ‘estrangement’, ‘defamiliarisation’ or ‘making it strange’. The essay shall not only analyse the origins of this concept, but furthermore, compare the different interpretations the term entails. Hansen-Löve’s evaluation of the concept of ostranenie as well as Medvedev and Bakhtin’s assessment of Shklovsky’ analysis of Tolstoy’s Kholstomer in the view of estrangement reveals the critical approach on which this essay is based on.

Moreover, the Russian term of ‘obnazenie’, the ‘laying-bare’ of the work (Hansen-Löve, 1978) and ‘oveshchestvlenie’, the process of materialisation (Medvedev & Bakhtin, 1978), shall be regarded throughout this essay, since both concepts go hand in hand with the idea of ostranenie.

In the last part of the essay, the formal theory of shutting out subjective consciousness from the work (Medvedev & Bakhtin, 1978) and the effects of this concept are in the centre of the attention. This shall lead to the final evaluation of the quality in the formalist concept of perception.

2. Ostranenie, Obnazenie and Oveshchestvlenie

In order to analyse major components of the concept of Russian Formalism, firstly, Shklovsky’s article The Resurrection of the Word shall be considered. With resurrecting the word, the Formalists sought the independence of the word from any meaning and significance. Thus, as suggested in The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, other components of the word, such as its phonologic and structural elements, that are autonomous from the meaning, are essential in motivating the artistic process. By emancipating the word from its essence, more precisely by eradicating its sense, a new idea of the term is constructed, a word that looks unfamiliar (Medvedev & Bakhtin, 1978). In that sense, it was the Formalists’ aim of displaying the familiar in an unusual way, so that it is perceived in a new light. This showing of an object in a distorted way is regarded as the process of ‘breaking down the barrier of automatic perception’.5 By ‘tearing the object out of its habitual context’, which is referred to as ‘de-automatisation’, we are pulled into experiencing the naked sensory structure of the object.6

This concept of de-automising an object is brought about by the artistic device of ostranenie.

In his famous article Art as Device Shlovsky, for the first time, defined the term ostranenie as a device of art. It encourages the artistic process, namely the process of materialising the word and of seeing habitual correlations with fresh eyes; which is the general aim of estrangement from a formalistic point of view (Hansen-Löve, 1978).

Hansen-Löve sees the starting point of estrangement in the linguistic criticism of Greek Sophism, which influenced the Socratic ‘laying bare theory’ that is compared to Formalism’s concept of obnazenie. This calls for greater exploration. Minimal similarities can indeed be drawn between the Russian idea of estrangement and the mentioned Socratic philosophy, since the Greeks saw and used speech as a device of delusion and deception. However, they did not apply this device in order to distinguish an artistic work from a non-artistic work and to keep the reader’s attention on it, as the Formalists did, but rather to influence people in favour of their own, mostly political interests. Nevertheless, the Socratic laying bare concept bears resemblance to the idea of obnazenie that is described as the process through which the attention is drawn away from the object towards the form and composition, the making of the work itself (Hansen-Löve, 1978).

It is this seeing of a thing in a novel light that, in the formal method, leads to a materialised perception. At this point a closer look shall be taken at the process of materialisation, in Russian oveshchestvlenie. In introducing the term oveshchestvlenie, Medvedev and Bakhtin take the example of Acmeism, a literary movement that evolved at around the same time as Russian Formalism, and was, too, concerned with a worshipping of the word. The Acmeist’s aimed at subordinating and weakening the meaning of the poetic word, precisely materialising it and divorcing the literary work from ‘other spheres of ideology’ (Medvedev & Bakhtin, 1978, p. 58). Similarities to the theory of the Russian Formalists’ are to be observed in this concept. However, when more precisely comparing the two movements, it becomes unveiled that, while the Formalists were focusing on revolutionising poetic arts, the Acmeists were more interested in a clear and definite use of plain language in poetics.

Additionally, for the Russian Formalist theoreticians the Acmeist concept of materialisation of the word was not radical enough as the Formalists aimed to completely cut off the ideological significance of the word (Medvedev & Bakhtin, 1978).


1 Medvedev P.N. and Bakhtin M.M., The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978).

2 Hansen-Löve, Aage.A, Der Russische Formalismus: Methodologische Rekonstruktion seiner Entwicklung aus dem Prinzip der Verfremdung, (Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen Akademien der Wissenschaften, 1978).

3 Shklovsky, Victor, ‘The Resurrection of the Word’, in Russian Formalism: A Collection of Articles and Texts in Translation, Bann, Stephen and Bowlt, John E. (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1973), pp.41-47.

4 Shklovsky, Victor, ‘Art as Device’, in Theory of Prose, Shklovsky, Victor (IL: Dalkey Archive Press,1991), pp.1-14.

5 Rossbacher, Peter, ‘Sklovskij’s Concept of Ostranenie and Aristotle’s Admiratio’, Compartive Literature, 5 (1977), 1038.

6 Erlich, Victor, ‘Russian Formalism’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 4 (1973), 629.

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Russian Formalism
Comparison of the use of Formalist terminology in two scholarly articles and evaluation of Formalism’s contribution to scholarship
University of St Andrews
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Russian Formalism, Medvedev, Bakhtin, Hansen-Löve, Der Russische Formalismus, Shklovsky, The Resurrection of the Word, Art as Device, ostranenie, estrangement, defamiliarisation, Kholstomer, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship
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Robert Stolt (Author), 2009, Russian Formalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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