If a quick aside to literary theory may be indulged, I’d like to throw out a few ideas about Shklovsky’s Formalism, and thoughts on its use in literary studies.

Russian Formalism evolved from two academic circles; the Moscow Linguistic Circle and the St. Petersburg OPOYAZ (Общество изучения Поэтического Языка) group. Victor Shklovsky (Виктор Борисович Шкловский) was a member of the latter, and his “Art as Technique” (“Искусство как прием” – if you’d prefer to read it in Russian) essay is considered to be a seminal work for Russian Formalism.

Briefly, of chief importance was the division of language into two groups: poetic and prosaic. From here, Shklovsky proceeds to examine art (i.e. poetic language) by focusing on “techniques/devices” (прием) the author uses in order to make his work poetic. Shklovsky introduces the technique of “defamiliarization” or “making strange” (остранение) as the main tool of the artist. By utilizing this technique, the artist lengthens the process of perception, and breaks the automatic recognition of prosaic language, elevating his work into the poetic realm. Ostranenie, as it is transliterated, forces the reader to experience the text by giving pause, and cause for closer examination. This lengthening of the process of perception is precisely what makes something poetic.

Perhaps it would help to list the attributes of the two above-mentioned groups.



Art Everyday
Alive Dead
Perceived (sensed) Recognized
Semi-comprehensible (fully?)comprehensible
“Difficult, roughened, impeded” Efficient, ordered, economy of language
The experiencing The object

Shklovsky also sees a progression from poetic to prosaic, as words gradually “die,” they become automatically recognized (even skipped over) rather than carefully experienced and perceived.

Art, then, is dependant on perception and not the intention (of the artist).

Formalist literary study is essentially the study of techniques that make the work literary, the “literariness” and not the “literature,” as it is sometimes described. There is a belief that forms of art can be explained by the laws of art, and it is these laws that are studied.

Literature is stressed as an autonomous field of inquiry; the encroachment of other fields (e.g. anthropology, history, ethnography) into the literary realm is rejected, along with the influence of real life on art. The work is self-contained, abiding only by the laws of the text-law of art.

This approach might seem myopic, and it probably is to a large extent, but it can nevertheless be useful for examining certain works, especially when historical details are unavailable or unreliable. Since I am currently concerned primarily with classical Japanese poetry, discarding history is a non-issue. Much of the “history” comes from quasi-historical works like the Kojiki and Nihon-shoki, scant archaeological data, and inductive reasoning based on the above sources.

Also, I think Shlovsky is correct that often literature has little to do with real life experiences. A smile can be hardly stifled when ethnographers search literature for real-life conclusions to problems of purely literary origin. He is also right in some respect with the importance of defamiliarization. Surely one of the features of poetics is to make opaque (we can often easily distinguish between poetic and technical/expository writing due to the latter’s impulse to concision and clarity). Consider song lyrics, for example. You might have a favorite song but not know all its lyrics. And this is fine, it does not bother you. In fact, those parts that are unclear become imbued with fantastic meaning, even though you don’t know what the words are, much less what they mean. Curiously enough, when you do find out the words, you are usually disappointed.

However, more pressing problems arise. When dealing not only with historical, but also foreign literature, the idea of defamiliarization is rather moot. All is strange and fantastic. Since, modern Japanese, much less classical Japanese, are not my first-nor even second for that matter-languages, how accurately can my analysis be? According to Shklovsky’s theory, all Japanese literature would be deemed art, until I read enough of it to identify and know where trite poetic tropes pop up. Makurakotoba instantly come to mind, and Shklovsky is none to kind to epithets. But other than the obvious repetition of such “dead” phrases, how do we proceed with weeding out the defamiliarized wheat from the familiar chaff?

In general, what standards, if any, are there in art. If perception is the key criterion, can we call the Formalist approach highly subjective? But, is the Formalist approach not intended to move toward a more scientific literary study, which would imply a little more rigour? Are the “laws of art” flexible? When is a riddle just a riddle, and absurdities just absurdities? Both are plenty defamiliarized, but are both art? The major problem remains the almost complete neglect of content. Formalists concentrate on the “how” question, on how something is presented, not on what is presented. But the “what” is important. Literary works are also imbued with meaning that can only be discovered or appreciated by examination of the content.

Thus, the Formal method presents a very good approach for literary study, but hardly a complete system.