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Apr 8, 2012

Russian Formalism

A type of literary theory and analysis which originated in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the second decade of this century. At first, opponents of the movement of Russian Formalism applied the term "formalism" derogatorily, because of its focus on the formal patterns and technical devices of literature to the exclusion of its subject matter and social values; later, however, it became a neutral designation. Among the leading representatives of the movement were Boris Eichenbaum, Victor Shklovsky, and Roman Jakobson.

When this critical mode was suppressed by the Soviets in the early 1930s, the center of the formalist study of literature moved to Czechoslovakia, where it was continued especially by members of the Prague Linguistic Circle, which included Roman Jakobson (who had emigrated from Russia), Jan Mukarovsky, and René Wellek. Beginning in the 1940s both Jakobson and Wellek continued their influential work as professors at American universities.


Formalism views literature primarily as a specialized mode of language, and proposes a fundamental opposition between the literary (or poetical) use of language and the ordinary, "practical" use of language. It conceives that the central function of ordinary language is to communicate to auditors a message, or information, by references to the world existing outside of language. In contrast, it conceives literary language to be self-focused, in that its function is not to convey information by making extrinsic references, but to offer the reader a special mode of experience by drawing attention to its own "formal" features—that is, to the qualities and internal relations of the linguistic signs themselves.

The linguistics of literature differs from the linguistics of practical discourse, because its laws are oriented toward producing the distinctive features that formalists call literariness. As Roman Jakobson wrote in 1921: "The object of study in literary science is not literature but 'literariness/ that is, what makes a given work a literary work." (See Linguistics in modern criticism)

The literariness of a work, as Jan Mukarovsky, a member of the Prague Circle, described it in the 1920s, consists "in the maximum of foregrounding of the utterance," that is, the foregrounding of "the act of expression, the act of speech itself." (To "foreground" is to bring something into the highest prominence, to make it dominant in perception.) By "backgrounding" the referential aspect and the logical connections in language, poetry makes the words themselves "palpable" as phonic signs. The primary aim of literature in thus foregrounding its linguistic medium, as Victor Shklovsky put it in an influential formulation, is to estrange or defamiliarize; that is, by disrupting the modes of ordinary linguistic discourse, literature "makes strange" the world of everyday perception and renews the reader's lost capacity for fresh sensation.

(In the Biographia Literaria, 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had long before described the "prime merit" of a literary genius to be the representation of "familiar objects" so as to evoke "freshness of sensation"; but whereas the Romantic critic had stressed the author's ability to express a fresh mode of experiencing the world, the formalist stresses the function of purely literary devices to produce the effect of freshness in the reader's experience of a literary work.) The foregrounded properties, or "artistic devices," which estrange poetic language are often described as "deviations" from ordinary language.

Such deviations, which are analyzed most fully in the writings of Roman Jakobson, consist primarily in setting up and also violating patterns in the sound and syntax of poetic language—including patterns in speech sounds, grammatical constructions, rhythm, rhyme, and stanza forms—and also in setting up prominent recurrences of key words or images. Some of the most fruitful work of Jakobson and others, valid outside the formalist perspective, has been in the analysis of meter and of the repetitions of sounds in alliteration and rhyme. These features of poetry they regard not as supplementary adornments of the meaning, but as effecting a reorganization of language on the semantic as well as the phonic and syntactic levels.

Formalists have also made influential contributions to the theory of prose fiction. With respect to this genre, the central formalist distinction is that between the "story" (the simple enumeration of a chronological sequence of events) and a plot. An author is said to transform the raw material of a story into a literary plot by the use of a variety of devices that violate sequence and deform and defamiliarize the story elements; the effect is to foreground the narrative medium and devices themselves, and in this way to disrupt what had been our standard responses to the subject matter. (See Narrative and Narratology)

American New Criticism, although it developed independently, is sometimes called "formalist" because, like European formalism, it stresses the analysis of the literary work as a self-sufficient verbal entity, constituted by internal relations and independent of reference either to the state of mind of the author or to the "external" world. It also, like European formalism, conceives poetry as a special mode of language whose distinctive features are defined in terms of their systematic opposition to practical or scientific language. Unlike the European formalists, however, the New Critics did not apply the science of linguistics to poetry, and their emphasis was not on a work as constituted by linguistic devices for achieving specifically literary effects, but on the complex interplay within a work of ironic, paradoxical, and metaphoric meanings around a humanly important "theme."

The main influence of Russian and Czech formalism on American criticism has been on the development of stylistics, and of narratology. Roman Jakobson and Tzvetan Todorov have been influential in introducing formalist concepts and methods into French structuralism. Strong opposition to formalism, both in its European and American varieties, has been voiced by some Marxist critics (who view it as the product of a reactionary ideology), and more recently by proponents of reader-response criticism, speech-act theory, and new historicism; these last three types of criticism all reject the view that there is a sharp and definable division between ordinary language and literary language.

In the 1990s a number of critics have called for a return to a formalist mode of treating a work of literature primarily as literature, instead of with persistent reference to its stand, whether explicit or covert, on political, racial, or sexual issues. A notable instance is Frank Lentricchia's "Last Will and Testament of an Exliterary Critic" (Lingua Franca, Sept./Oct. 1996), renouncing his earlier writing and teachings "about literature as a political instrument," in favor of the view "that literature is pleasurable and important, as literature, and not as an illustration of something else."

See also Harold Bloom's strong advocacy of reading literature not to confirm a political or social theory but for the love of literature, in The Western Canon (1994); the essays in Aesthetics and Ideology, ed. George Levine (1994); and Susan Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997).

(See also objective criticism under criticism.)
The standard treatment of the Russian movement is by Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (rev., 1981). See also R. L. Jackson and S. Rudy, eds., Russian Formalism: A Retrospective Glance (1985). RenĂ© Wellek has described The Literary Theory and Aesthetics of the Prague School (1969). Representative writings are collected in Lee T. Lemon and Marion I. Reese, eds., Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (1965); Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, eds., Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (1971); Garvin, ed., A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style and Peter Steiner, ed., The Prague School: Selected Writings, 1929-1946 (1982). 

A comprehensive and influential formalist essay by Roman Jakobson, "Linguistics and Poetics," is included in his Language in Literature (1987). Samuel Levin's Linguistic Structures in Poetry (1962) represents an American application of formalist principles, and E. M. Thompson has written Russian Formalism and Anglo- American New Criticism: A Comparative Study (1971).

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