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The principal object of interest for Russian Formalism, the elusive quality of language use that distinguishes the poetic from the ordinary. This quality is best seen in—indeed, is produced by—what the Russian Formalists referred to as ostranenie, the process of making the already familiar seem unfamiliar or strange, thereby awakening in us a heightened state of perception. Just as people who live by the sea no longer hear the waves, Victor Shklovsky wrote, we no longer hear the words we utter, and as a consequence perception has withered into mere recognition. It is this habit-dulled state of affairs that literature, by power of its ability to defamiliarize the familiar, is supposed to address, according to Russian Formalism. A simple example of how this might work, which film directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino have both exploited to good effect, is to tell a story out of order (as Godard famously said, ‘a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just not necessarily in that order’), thus challenging the viewer to reconstruct the correct order for themselves.

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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