[loose rendering of Czech aktualisace ‘actualization’]
1. For the Prague school linguists this referred to a stylistic feature characterizing poetic language (and literary language in general), in which verbal devices (e.g. rhetorical figures of speech) draw particular attention to themselves. Jan Mukařovský (1891–1975), a Czech literary theorist, declared: ‘It is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression’. In other words, in this form of language use, ‘it ain't what you say, but the way that you say it’ that counts. In Jakobson's model, this is the poetic function (being used ‘for its own sake’)—in particular contrast to the referential function. In semiotic discourse, foregrounding of this kind involves signifiers attracting attention to themselves rather than simulating transparency in representing their signifieds. Drawing attention to the medium can function as a form of defamiliarization.
2. (stylistics) Attracting attention to a particular feature of a discourse or representation by deviating from conventional norms or expectations: see also markedness.
3. More loosely, making some aspect of a discourse or representation the primary focus of attention (see also salience). This relates more closely to the gestalt psychologists' distinction between figure and ground (which influenced the Russian formalists). Note that in this usage, commentators may refer to content being foregrounded, while form or style retreats to transparency, as in the codes of aesthetic realism. For instance, in classical Hollywood movies, the storyline is foregrounded while stylistic features are backgrounded through such practices as ‘invisible’ continuity editing. Such practices serve to naturalize the codes employed (the opposite of defamiliarization).