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Russian Formalism The modern literary theory developed with Russian Formalism. Russian Formalism is not Russian version of the Formalists movement; rather it is called so for it developed in and around Russia. The movement developed during the 1910’s and 1920’s. In 1924, the Russian ruler Vladmir Ilich Lenin died and later Stalin came to power. Earlier Formalists had to leave their native land due to the higher degree of surveillance and were forced to do scholarly works in fields that are non-political. Notable Russian Formalists are Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, Vladimir Propp, Boris Eichenbaun, Roman Jakobson, Grigory Gukovsky and Boris Tomashesky. Formalism is the study of literary forms. Russian Formalism is the result of interaction between two groups of scholars- Moscow Linguistic Circle and OPHAJE School of Linguistics. Both these groups were fabricating a movement which came to realization only by their interaction. The Moscow Linguistic circle consists of a group of linguists dissatisfied by literary studies in Russia. The circle was also called Prague Linguistic Circle for the critics of the movement came together in Prague for discussions. The school started in 1926 and continued till the Second World War. Vilem Mathesius, Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Rene Wellek and Jan Mukarovsky belong to this circle. Rene Wellek and Jan Mukarovsky developed the Czech Formalism. In 1989, the Prague School’s activity was renewed under the leadership of Oldrich Leska. The OPHAJE School of Linguistics is also known as Society for Study of Poetic Language. It was a learned society established between 1916 and 1918 by many eminent


linguists, prosodists, theoreticians and historians. The society was headed by Viktor Shklovsky. Boris Eichenbaum and Yuri Tynyanov belong to this group. Russian Formalism emerged to make literature an independent discipline. It is neither an approach nor a methodology. The movement aims at finding out the subject matter of literature. It does not ponder on how to study literature. It ruled out the significance of biography and psychology of authors. They considered texts as the single object for analysis. They judged biography and psychology the outcome of certain redundant critical practices. According to T S Eliot, the objective of criticism is to divert the attention of reader from poet to the poem. According to Rene Wellek, “Russian Formalism sharply emphases the difference between literature and life, it rejects the usual biographical, psychological and sociological explanations for literature. It develops highly ingenious methods for analyzing works of literature and for tracing the history of literature in its own terms”. Formalism paved way for structuralism and New Criticism. Boris Eichenbaum discussed his concepts of Formalism in his essay “The Theory of the Formal Method”. According to him, “Formalism is characterized only by the attempt to create an independent science of literature which studies specifically literary material”(20). Mikhal Bakhtin, Pavlev Medvedev and Valentin Voloshinov developed Formalism by combining it with Formalism and Marxism. One of the drawbacks of the Formalists is that they concentrate only on poetic forms. The Formalists believe that ordinary or automatized language is an impediment to study of literature. The ordinary language is something mundane, uninspired or boring due to recurrent use.


There are six important idioms in Russian Formalism, namely defamiliarization, literariness, device, function, content and form. The term ‘defamiliarization’ was coined by Viktor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique’. Defamiliarization or ostranenie is a process of making things, objects, places, language and situations strange and unfamiliar. According to Roman Jakobson, defamiliarization is organized violence committed on language. As a result of defamiliarization, poetic language becomes abstruse. According to Shklovsky, “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony… The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, to make form difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”(Habib, 20) There are three levels at which defamiliarization takes place at three levels – phonetic level, rhythmic level and semantic level. According to Jakobson, at phonetic level there is roughening. In rhythmic or syntactic level, it affects the loss of rhythm of poetry. Shklovsky believes that the rhythm of poetry is ruptured rhythm. The rhythm of poetry is from its disorder. He explains this by taking the example of Greek temple in which where there is order and not a single column is disrupted. At semantic level, poetry is characterized by the presence of ambiguity. Ordinary speech is characterized by absence of ambiguity and hence there is no polysemy. The subject of literary study is literariness. It is the quality that differentiates poetry from other literatures. It is an inherent quality of languages and is a result of defamiliarization.


Devices act on language producing literariness. Literariness cannot be defined by objects depicted in the texts. According to Viktor Shklovsky, “devices are like oil in cooking. They enhance the freshness of language without uttering the constituent linguistic units.” Devices themselves may be automatized by repeated use. According to Roman Jakobson “the object of study in literary science is not literature but literariness/ that is, what makes a given work a literary work”. Function is introduced to overcome automatization of devices. According to Formalists, the devices are valued for their functions of defamiliarization and they have no value of their own. Instead of repeatedly using same devices for same functions, the writers should use the devices for different functions in different literary texts. By this method, the automatization of devices can be triumphed over. For example, the use of myth transfer subjective feelings or emotions and it makes the work psychologically convincing. Form is a receptacle for content. Form receives any content that the writer wishes. For example, pastoral elegies are set in pastoral setting. Conventionally, content is privileged over form. Formalists believe that form and content are synonymous. They are like two sheets of the same paper. It is the form that determines the content. Elements of form or characteristics of form are part of content. Content is an extension of form. Formalists use the terms device and material for form and content. They believe that forms arise in literary works automatically and unconsciously. Formalists believe that author is a byproduct of criticism, writing, literary work or reading practices. Conventional reverence given to author is taken away from them. An author


uses language skills. Knowledge of literature is essential for his use of language skills. In short, an author can be called as a wordsmith. According to Formalists, meaning has no significance in the study of literature. A literary text is not expected to be pedagogic or didactic. Meaning is a byproduct of pedagogic practices. Neurosis is artistically productive and it is even better for the development of the psyche. According to Formalists, biography and psychology of authors have no role in their writings. A literary work is the end product and it is a manifest form of literariness. In 1918, Lenin came to power and he prescribed socialist realism. Socialist realism is representing a modified form of reality through imagination of writer. It is a politically loaded literature which portrays the capitalist exploitation of the proletariat, the uncompromising class struggle, the ultimate victory of the proletariat and establishment of political sovereignty. Critics have pointed out certain limitations for Russian Formalism. The Formalists speak more of poetry with the assumption that literature and poetry are synonymous. They ignored other genres. The Russian Formalists have no theory of language, culture or history of society. They concentrated on language, but they had only a pre-Saussarian view of language. Formalism paved way for the later movements Structuralism and New-Criticism. It is a way for technology rather than theology. Russian Formalism: History and Doctrine by Victor Erlich describes the evolving process of Russian Formalism. The earliest writings of the Formalists appeared in the journal LEF- Left Front of Art.


Roman Jakobson’s Model of Linguistic Communication

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. Referential Phatic Metalingual Poetic



Works Consulted Schmitz, Thomas A. Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts. Malden: Blackwell, 2002. Print. Habib, M. A. R.. Modern Literary Criticism and Theory . Malden: Balckwell, 2008. Print. Literary Theory: Russian Formalism . Narratologist. 2004. Web. 5 Jan 2017. Russian Formalism. Oxford Reference. Oxford n.d. Web. 8 Jan 2017. Deepak. Russian Formalism. Literarism. The Republic of Letters. 8 Apr 2012. Web. 10 Jan 2017. www.literarism. Elrich, Victor. Russian Formalism. JSTOR. 2000. Web. 9 Jan 2017. Formalism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 4 Jan 2017. Prague Linguistic Circle. New World Encyclopedia. May 27, 2015. Web. 7 Jan 2017. Society for the Study of Poetic Language. Encyclopedia2. The Free Dictionary. N.d. Web. 6 Jan 2017.

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