Russian Formalism

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A school of literary theory and analysis that emerged in Russia around 1915, devoting itself to the study of literariness, i.e. the sum of ‘devices’ that distinguish literary language from ordinary language. In reaction against the vagueness of previous literary theories, it attempted a scientific description of literature (especially poetry) as a special use of language with observable features. This meant deliberately disregarding the contents of literary works, and thus inviting strong disapproval from Marxist critics, for whom formalism was a term of reproach. With the consolidation of Stalin's dictatorship around 1929, Formalism was silenced as a heresy in the Soviet Union, and its centre of research migrated to the Prague School in the 1930s. Along with ‘literariness’, the most important concept of the school was that of defamiliarization: instead of seeing literature as a ‘reflection’ of the world, Victor Shklovsky and his Formalist followers saw it as a linguistic dislocation, or a ‘making strange’. In the period of Czech Formalism, Jan Mukařovský further refined this notion in terms of foregrounding. In their studies of narrative, the Formalists also clarified the distinction between plot (sjuzet) and story (fabula). Apart from Shklovsky and his associate Boris Eikhenbaum, the most prominent of the Russian Formalists was Roman Jakobson, who was active both in Moscow and in Prague before introducing Formalist theories to the United States (see function). A somewhat distinct Russian group is the ‘Bakhtin school’ comprising Mikhail Bakhtin, Pavlev Medvedev, and Valentin Voloshinov; these theorists combined elements of Formalism and Marxism in their accounts of verbal multi‐accentuality and of the dialogic text. Rediscovered in the West in the 1960s, the work of the Russian Formalists has had an important influence on structuralist theories of literature, and on some of the more recent varieties of Marxist literary criticism. For a fuller account, consult Peter Steiner, Russian Formalism (1984).

Subjects: Literature.

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