Roman Jakobson’s Contribution to Russian Formalism


The work of Roman Jakobson occupies a central place in the development of Formalism and Structuralism. A linguist from Moscow, Jakobson co-founded the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1915, and along with Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Eichenbaum, he was involved in yet another Russian Formalist group, the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOJAZ) in 1916. In 1926, he established the Prague Linguistic Circle, which was critically engaged with the works of Saussure. In 1943, he co-founded the Linguistic Circle of New York in America.

With the Russian Formalist’s endeavour to make literary criticism a  scientifically grounded discipline, Jakobson formulated the concept of “literariness,” a quality that makes a verbal message a work of art. Proposing a fundamental opposition between the literary and practical uses of  language, Jakobson believed that literariness is that feature that would offer the reader a special mode of experience by foregrounding the formal features of a.text. Viktor Shklovsky explained that the objective of literature in foregrounding its linguistic medium is to estrange or defamiliarize, refresh ordinary perceptions and render things more perceptible. This mode of making language strange is perfectly delineated in Hopkins’ “The Windhover.” The same idea was advocated by the Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge, though they focused on the author’s ability in evoking the freshness of sensation rather than the literary devices. Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre also employs a similar idea, which he calls “alienation effect” or “Verfremdungseffekt“, to incite the intelligence of the audience. Jakobson’s stress on the formal devices also informed Stylistics of the 1950s, which sought to undertake an “objective/ scientific” analysis of the style of literary texts.

Jakobson introduced the concept of metaphor and metonymy in his “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” (1956), two rhetorical figures representing two fundamental ways of organising discourse. He suggests that language has a bipolar structure, oscillating between the poles of metaphor and metonymy, and that the development of any discourse takes place along these two semantic lines. in his 1958 paper, “Linguistics and Poetics” he incorporated CS Peirce’s ideas of Semiotics and formulated that “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination” — thus arguing that poetry is essentially metaphoric, and prose metonymic. Based on the differential and oppositional functions of metaphor and metonymy, Jakobson proposed a poetics of both poetry and prose, which was later developed by French Structuralists. His notion of the binary oppositions being the elements of structure, also informed Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogic criticism and Levi Strauss’ Structural Anthropology. Lacan also applied metaphor and metonymy in the formulation of his “law of the signifier”, which the dream work and the unconscious process follow.

Jakobson’s phonological orientation to language was also highly influential in the development of Structuralist theory. He developed a comprehensive structural description of the ultimate constituents of phonemes and phonological systems, based on Saussure’s binary oppositions. His phonological order formed the foundation of Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar, as well as the critical work of the members of the Tel Quel group such as Roland Barthes, AJ Greimas, Tzvetan Todorov and Julia Kristeva.

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3 replies

  1. It is Verfremdungseffekt not Verfreundungseffekt


  1. Narrative Theory – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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