Russian Formalism

Russian Formalism, a movement of literary criticism and interpretation, emerged in Russia during the second decade of the twentieth century and remained active until about 1930. Members of what can be loosely referred to as the Formalist school emphasized first and foremost the autonomous nature of literature and consequently the proper study of literature as neither a reflection of the life of its author nor as byproduct of the historical or cultural milieu in which it was created. In this respect, proponents of a formalist approach to literature attempted not only to isolate and define the “formal” properties of poetic language (in both poetry and prose) but also to study the way in which certain aesthetically motivated devices (e.g., defamiliarization [ostranenie]) determined the literariness or artfulness of an object.

From its inception, the Russian Formalist movement consisted of two distinct scholarly groups, both outside the academy: the Moscow Linguistic Circle, which was founded by the linguist Roman Jakobson in 1915 and included Grigorii Vinokur and Petr Bogatyrev, and the Petersburg OPOJAZ (Obščestvo izučenija POètičeskogo JAZyka, “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”), which came into existence a year later and was known for scholars such as Viktor Shklovsky, Iurii Tynianov, Boris Eikhenbaum, Boris Tomashevskii, and Victor Vinogradov. (It should be noted that the term “formalist” was initially applied pejoratively to the Moscow Linguistic Circle and OPOJAZ.) Although the leading figures in the Russian Formalist movement tended to disagree with one another on what constituted formalism, they were united in their attempt to move beyond the psychologism and biographism that pervaded nineteenth-century Russian literary scholarship. Although the Symbolists had partially succeeded in redressing the imbalance of content over form, they “could not rid themselves of the notorious theory of the ‘harmony of form and content’ even though it clearly contradicted their bent for formal experimentation and discredited it by making it seem mere ‘aestheticism'” (Eikhenbaum, “Theory” 112).

Viktor Shklovsky/The Daily Star

In many ways, however, the Formalists remained indebted to two leading nineteenth-century literary and linguistic theoreticians, Aleksandr Veselovskii (1838- 1906) and Aleksander Potebnia (1835-81). Veselovskii’s work in comparative studies of literature and folklore as well as in the theory of literary evolution attracted the attention of the Formalists (particularly Shklovsky, Eikhenbaum, and Vladimir Propp), who found much of interest in his positivist notions of literary history and the evolution of poetic forms. More specifically, as Peter Steiner argues, “mechanistic Formalism was in some respects a mirror image of Veselovskii’s poetics” insofar as both stressed the “genetic” aspect in their theories of literary evolution.

Like the Formalists, Potebnia made a careful distinction between practical and poetic language. But his wellknown maxim that “art is thinking in images” (an idea, it should be noted, that was promoted earlier by midnineteenth- century literary critics Vissarion Belinskii and Nikolai Chemyshevskii) made him an object of derision in Formalist writings. Shklovsky categorically objected to Potebnia’s notion of the image, arguing that since the same image could be found in various writers’ works, the image itself was less important than the techniques used by poets to arrange images. Shklovsky further noted that images were common in both prosaic (common, everyday language) and poetic language; hence, the image could not be considered uniquely essential to verbal art. Potebnia’s theories led to “far-fetched interpretations” and, what is more important, knowledge about the object itself rather than the poetic de vice(s) that enabled one to perceive the object (Shklovsky, “Art” 6). Above all, it was “literariness,” rather than either image or referent, that the Formalists pursued in their studies of poetry and prose. With slight variations, literariness in Formalism denoted a particular essential function present in the relationship or system of poetic works called literature.

The personal and intellectual cooperation of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and OPOJAZ yielded several volumes of essays (Sborniki po teorii poeticheskogo iazyka [Studies in the theory of poetic language], 6 vols., 1916- 23). Given that many of the Formalists had been students of the Polish linguist Jan Baudoin de Courtenay and were well apprised of the latest developments made in linguistics by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, it is not surprising that most of the essays in these volumes reflect a predominant interest in linguistics (see Jakubinskii, “O zvukakh stikhotvomago iazyka” [On the sounds of poetic language], 1916; and Brik, “Zvukovye povtory” [Sound repetitions], 1917). But while members of the Moscow Linguistic Circle considered the study of poetics to fall under the broader category of linguistics, OPOJAZ Formalists (such as Eikhenbaum or Viktor Zhirmunskii in “Zadachi pofetiki” [The tasks of poetics], Nachala, 1921) insisted that the two be kept distinct. Shklovsky, for instance, remained predominantly concerned with literary theory (the laws of expenditure and economy in poetic language, general laws of plots and general laws of perception) rather than with linguistics, while Eikhenbaum and Tynianov are best known for their work as literary historians. Other Formalists, such as Tomashevskii (who was also interested in prose) and Jakobson, approached meter and rhythm in verse with a statistical approach and attempted to isolate the metrical laws in operation.

More specifically, the Formalists understood poetic language as operating both synchronically and, as Tzvetan Todorov notes, in an autonomous or “autotelic” fashion. The Formalists consistently stressed the internal mechanics of the poetic work over the semantics of extraliterary systems, that is, politics, ideology, economics, psychology, and so on. Thus, Roman Jakobson’s 1921 analysis of futurist poet Velemir Khlebnikov, and especially his notion of the samovitoe slovo (“self-made word”) and zaum (“transrational language”), serves essentially to illustrate the proposition that poetry is an utterance directed toward “expression” (Noveishaia russkaia potziia [Recent Russian poetry]). Indeed, the futurist exploration of the exotic realm of zaum parallels the Formalist preoccupation with sound in poetic language at the phonemic level. In a similar way, essays such as Eikhenbaum’s “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made” (1919, trans., 1978), which examined narrative devices and acoustic wordplay in the text without drawing any extraliterary, sociocultural conclusions, emphasized the autonomous, selfreferential nature of verbal art. One of the most important of the devices Eikhenbaum described in that essay was skaz. Skaz, which in Russian is the root of the verb skazat’, “to tell,” may be compared to “free indirect discourse” (in German, erlebte Rede), which is marked by the grammar of third-person narration and the style, tone, and syntax of direct speech on the part of the character.

Certain Formalists were not quite so eager to dismiss issues of content, however: Zhirmunskii maintained an interest in the thematic level of the poetic work; Tynianov considered an understanding of byt, the content of everyday, common language and experience as opposed to consciously poetic language, essential to any analysis of a poetic work. Rather than resolving the issue of form versus content, the Formalists tended instead to downplay it or to reframe it in new terms. For example, Eikhenbaum asserted the need to “destroy these traditional correlatives [form and content] and so to enrich the idea of form with new significance” (Eikhenbaum, “Theory” 115). “Technique,” continued Eikhenbaum in the same essay, is “much more significant in the long-range evolution of formalism than is the notion of ‘form'” (115). In his defense of the primacy of form, Shklovsky explained that “a new form appears not in order to express a new content, but in order to replace an old form, which has already lost its artistic value” (“Connection” 53).

Rejecting the subjectivism of nineteenth-century literary scholarship, the Formalists insisted that the study of literature be approached by means of a scientific and objective methodology. Their emphasis upon the scientific study of poetic language may be viewed in four ways. First, it may be traced to the more general nineteenth- century West European turn toward classification, genealogy, and evolution in the human sciences. In his best-known work, Morphology of the Folktale (1928, trans., 1958), Propp, a somewhat more peripheral yet not unimportant figure in the Formalist movement, employed the rhetoric and methodology of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Georges Cuvier in his attempt to isolate certain regularly recurring features of the folktale. Second, the Russian Formalists viewed their work as a direct challenge to what they perceived as the subjectivism and mysticism inherent in the Symbolist movement (i.e., the literature and criticism of Aleksander Blok, Bely, and Viacheslav Ivanov, among others). Tomashevskii went so far as to denounce the futurists as well as the Symbolists, claiming that it was futurism, especially, that “intensified to a hyperbolic clarity those features which had previously appeared only in hidden, mystically masked forms of Symbolism” (“Literature” 54). Third, Formalism sought to create a professional discipline independent of nineteenth-century configurations of university scholarship. And fourth, the Formalist shift toward science may also be considered as a response to the broader (and more radical) social, economic, and political transformations that the influx of industry and new technology helped to precipitate throughout early twentieth-century Russia. Not surprisingly, the poetic fetishization of the machine found in futurist poetics and avant-garde aesthetics quickly made its way into Formalist thought. Shklovsky’s analyses of poetic works are distinguished by his reliance upon the metaphor of the machine (Steiner 44-67) and the rhetoric of technology to account for such poetic devices and formal laws as automatization and defamiliarization. Ironically, objectives of scientificity in Formalist literary study were held up as an ideal, but only insofar as the Formalists believed scientificity would shield their theory from external influences, since everything outside the poetic system could only corrupt and obfuscate data extrapolated from the text. By 1930 it was clear that this was not to be the case.

For Shklovsky, “literariness” is a function of the process of defamiliarization, which involves “estranging,” “slowing down,” or “prolonging” perception and thereby impeding the reader’s habitual, automatic relation to objects, situations, and poetic form itself (see “Art” 12). According to Shklovsky, the difficulty involved in the process is an aesthetic end in itself, because it provides a heightened sensation of life. Indeed, the process of “laying bare” the poetic device, such as the narrative selfreflexiveness of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and its emphasis on the distinction between story and plot (see Theory of Prose), remained for Shklovsky one of the primary signs of artistic self-consciousness.

The notion that new literary production always involves a series of deliberate, self-conscious deviations from the poetic norms of the preceding genre and/or literary movement remained fundamental to Shklovsky’s and other Formalists’ theories of literary evolution. Tynianov’s and Jakobson’s notion of the “dominant” approximates Shklovsky’s emphasis on defamiliarization, albeit as a feature of the diachronic system, inasmuch as it demands that other devices in the poetic text be “transformed” or pushed to the background to allow for the “foregrounding” of the dominant device. The function of the dominant in the service of literary evolution included the replacement of canonical forms and genres by new forms, which in turn would become canonized and, likewise, replaced by still newer forms.

Toward the end of the Formalist period, the emphasis on the synchronic nature of poetic devices was gradually mediated by a growing realization that literature and language should be considered within their diachronic contexts as well. Some critics— Krystyna Pomorska, Fredric Jameson, Jurij Striedter— regard this later shift in Formalist theory (as described particularly in the works of Tynianov) toward establishing a set of systemic relations between the internal and external organization of the poetic work as protostructuralist. However, newly emerging literary groups such as the Bakhtin Linguistic Circle (M.M. Bakhtin , Pavel Medvedev, Valentin Voloshinov) and Prague School of Structuralism (Jan Mukarovsky) found the Formalists’ attempts to incorporate a diachronic view of the literary work insufficient. Critics (e.g., Medvedev) attacked the Formalists for refusing to address social and ideological concerns in poetic language. The same criticism, of course, was leveled at the Formalists by the Soviet state (especially by Anatolii Lunacharskii and Lev Trotskii), and with much more serious consequences. Various individuals and groups advocating or at least incorporating a Marxist perspective on literature, including members of the “sociological school” as well as the Bakhtin school in the 1920s, attacked the Formalists for neglecting the social and ideological discourses impinging upon the structure and function of the poetic work. In The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), Medvedev dismisses the Formalists primarily for failing to provide an adequate sociological and philosophical justification for their theories. While many critics (e.g., Victor Erlich) approach Bakhtin’s work as distinct from that of the Formalist school, others (e.g., Gary Saul Morson and Striedter) view Bakhtin’s work as historically connected to the broader aims and implications of the Russian Formalist movement. Despite Tynianov and Jakobson’s attempt to connect the aims of Formalism to the broader issues of culture (as an entire complex of systems), Russian Formalism remained committed to the idea that “literariness” alone, rather than the referent and its various contingencies, historical and otherwise, was the proper focus of literary scholarship.

Perhaps the ongoing, seemingly irresoluble debate over what constitutes Formalism (both then and now) arises in part from what Jurij Striedter describes as the “dialogic” nature of Formalism itself. The Formalists, especially Tynianov, based their theories of literary evolution (and their own role therein) largely upon Hegel‘s dialectical method. In his summary of the contributions of the Formalist movement, Eikhenbaum ironically concluded that “when we have a theory that explains everything, a ready-made theory explaining all past and future events and therefore needing neither evolution nor anything like it—then we must recognize that the formal method has come to an end” (“Theory” 139). Eikhenbaum’s vision of a type of Formalist dialectics suggests the dynamic character of the movement as a whole, though external political pressure was surely also a factor by the time Eikhenbaum wrote his essay in 1926.

Shklovsky’s 1930 denunciation of Formalism signaled not just that political pressures had worsened but that the de facto end of the Formalist movement had arrived. Even before Shklovsky was forced to abandon Formalism to political exigencies, the Moscow Linguistic Circle and OPOJAZ had already dissolved in the early 1920s, the former in 1920 with the departure of its founder, Roman Jakobson, for Czechoslovakia, the latter in 1923. With the banning of all artistic organizations (including the various associations of proletarian writers) and the introduction of “socialist realism” as the new, official socialist literature of the Soviet Union in 1932, the Russian Formalist movement came to an official close.

The Formalist approach continued to make itself felt, however, in European and, later, American literary scholarship (though, it should be noted, the formalism of new criticism possessed no direct relation to Russian Formalism). The immediate heirs to the Formalist legacy were the Prague Linguistic Circle (founded in 1926 by Jakobson and a group of Czech linguists) and the Bakhtin Linguistic Circle. The contributions of the Prague Linguistic Circle (especially of Mukarovsky) eventually made their way into the literary discourses of French structuralism. The work of French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss echoes and acknowledges the work of Propp and, to a lesser extent, Tynianov’s interest in cultural and literary systems. The Bakhtin Linguistic Circle’s work (which first attracted the attention of Western scholars in the 1970s) extends several Formalist concerns, not the least of which deal with narrative theory and discourse in the novel. The development of structural-semiotic research and the emergence of the Tartu–Moscow Semiotic School in the 1960s (see the writings of such scholars as Viacheslav Ivanov, Iurii Lotman, Vladimir Toporov, Boris Gasparov, and Boris Uspenskii, to name just a few) may also be viewed as an extension of the aims and interests of both formalism and structuralism. Specifically, semiotic research continues to renew in various ways the Formalist emphasis upon language and the devices therein that function to generate meaning as sign systems.

In the United States, the Formalist approach found a sympathetic cousin in New Criticism, which emphasized, though in organic forms actually reminiscent of Russian Symbolism, the literary text as a discrete entity whose meaning and interpretation need not be contaminated by authorial intention, historical conditions, or ideological demands. Poststructuralism (and Deconstruction ) in the 1970s and 1980s, though a partial critique of the organic notions of form in much American New Criticism, nevertheless extended certain Formalist assumptions. Figures as diverse as Roland Barthes , Paul de Man, Juia Kristeva, and Fredric Jameson are all heavily indebted to the aims and strategies of Russian Formalism.

Further Reading
Stephen Bann and John E. Bowlt, eds., Russian Formalism: A Collection of Articles and Texts in Translation (i973); Osip Brik, “Zvukovye povtory” [Sound repetitions], Sbomiki po teorii poeticheskago iazyka 2 (1917); Boris Eikhenbaum, “Kak sdelana ‘Shinel” Gogolia” (1919, “How Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ Is Made,” Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays, ed. and trans. Robert A. Maguire, 1974), “Teoriia ‘formalnogometoda'” (1927, “TheTheory of the ‘Formal Method,”‘ Lemon and Reis [appeared first in Ukrainian in 1926]); Roman Jakobson, “The Dominant” (Matejka and Pomorska), Noveishaia russkaia potziia [Recent Russian poetry] (1921, Selected Writings, vol. 5,1979); Lev Jakubinskii, “O zvukakh stikhotvornago iazyka” [On the sounds of poetic language], Sbomiki po teorii poeticheskago iazyka 1 (1916); Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, eds. and trans., Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (1965); Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, eds., Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (1978); P. N. Medvedev, Formal’nyi metod v literaturovedenii (Kriticheskoe wedenie v sotsiologicheskuiu poetiku) (1928, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, trans. Albert J. Wehrle, 1978 [sometimes attributed also to M. M. Bakhtin]); Christopher Pike, ed. and trans., The Futurists, the Formalists, and the Marxist Critique (1979); Vladimir Propp, Morfologiia skazki (1928, Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, 1958, 2d ed., ed. Louis A. Wagner, 1968); Victor Shklovsky, “Iskusstvo kak priem” (1917,”Art as Technique,” Lemon and Reis), “On the Connection between Devices of Siuzhet Construction and General Stylistic Devices” (1919, Bann and Bowlt), 0 teorii prozy (1927, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher, 1990), “Tristram Shendi: Sterna i teoriia romana” [Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and the theory of the novel] (1921, “Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: Stylistic Commentary,” Lemon and Reis); B. V. Tomashevskii, “Literatura i biografiia” (1923, “Literature and Biography,” Matejka and Pomorska), Teoriia Literatury [Theory of literature] (1928); Iurii Tynianov, “O literaturnoi evoliucii” (1929, “On Literary Evolution,” Matejka and Pomorska), The Problem of Verse Language (1924, ed. and trans. Michael Sosa and Brent Harvey, 1981); Iurii Tynianov and Roman Jakobson, “Problemy izucheniia literatury i iazyka” (1928, “Problems in the Study of Literature and Language,” Matejka and Pomorska). Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine (1955, 3d ed., 1981); Aage A. Hansen-Löve, Der russische Formalismus (1978); Robert Louis Jackson and Stephen Rudy, eds., Russian Formalism: A Retrospective Glance (1985); Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972); Daniel P. Lucid, ed., Soviet Semiotics: An Anthology (1977); L. Μ. O’Toole and Ann Shukman, eds., Formalism: History, Comparison, Genre (1978), Formalist Theory (1977); Krystyna Pomorska, Russian Formalist Theory and Its Poetic Ambience (1968); Peter Steiner, Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics (1984); Jurij Striedter, Literary Structure, Evolution, and Value (1989); Ewa Μ. Thompson, Russian Formalism and Anglo-American New Criticism (1971); Tzvetan Todorov, Critique de la critique (1984, Literature and Its Theorists: A Personal View of Twentieth-Century Criticism, trans. Catherine Porter, 1987); Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (trans. Rose Strunsky, 1975).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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  1. Series on Art Movements and their influence on Cinema – Part II – Formalism – Talking Films Online

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