Theory Tuesday II
OK, so I’m a few hours late with today’s Theory Tuesday. That’s because I left my copy of Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays on top of the refrigerator last night, and spent way too much time this morning running around looking for it. (I don’t write these blog entries in advance, folks—they come to you fresh from the keyboard, hand-crafted on the very day they go up. How do I post a 2200-word theory-thing in one day? It’s simple: I type really, really fast.)
Now to Viktor Shklovsky, as I promised last week. Why Shklovsky, why now? Because long ago in 1986, my dissertation director, Michael Levenson (about whom more in a future installment), taught an introduction-to-theory class in which he suggested not only that modern literary theory begins with the Russian Formalists, but more specifically that Shklovsky’s idea of “defamiliarization” (or deautomatization, or more precisely, for those of you who speak Russian, ostranenie) runs throughout twentieth-century literature and literary theory, even (or especially) where it doesn’t declare itself by name. The more I read, the more I came to think that Michael was right on both counts. The world of “Theory” (I will pretend for now that there is such a world, and that it was not created one day last week by the Valve) began to seem to me like an ostranenie-o-rama: if there was one thing that feminist critics, psychoanalytic critics, Marxist critics, and deconstructionists wanted to do to me, it was to make me see things anew, to make the familiar strange. Whether they sought to reveal the workings of patriarchy, of ideology, of the unconscious, or of language itself, they were engaged in the Shklovskian task of laying bare the device. Even Hans Robert Jauss’s “reception aesthetics” depends on the idea of defamiliarization, when it claims that the value of a work is a function of the degree to which it violates the “horizon of expectations” of its readership. And then four years later after I took that course, Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, with its now-famous analysis of gender performativity and the meaning of drag, and I thought to myself, wow, still more defamiliarization! Drag denaturalizes, disidentifies, and defamiliarizes! Hey, Michael was right!
So if you want a handy entry-point into Theory, you can hardly do better than Shklovsky, for all kinds of reasons. Not only because he devises a theory of “poetic” as opposed to “ordinary” language, thereby setting the terms for another six or seven decades of debate, but because he names a project that, taking its motive from the aesthetics of modernism, became part of the armature of theory itself. Here’s what I mean: many of the successes and many of excesses of theory can be traced to its desire (yes, it has desires) to defamiliarize, to make strange. I think this is where much of the energy of theory, and much of the frustration and hostility it’s aroused, ultimately comes from: whereas just-plain-vanilla literary criticism usually tries to explicate a text, or to take it apart and put it back together, or simply to describe what’s going on in this or that difficult passage, literary theory’s ambitions (for better and worse) are grander. When theory works—when it leads you to see things about texts and textuality that you’d never seen before—it’s a remarkable thing: you come away thinking, “well, I’ll never look at rhetorical questions quite the same way again,” or “I’ll never look at drag the same way again,” or (for you Raymond Williams fans out there) “I’ll never think of the word ‘culture’ in the same way again.” When it doesn’t work, well, that’s when it looks more like a bunch of people dressing up banal or insane propositions in ornate and/or ungainly and/or neologistic language. That’s when you get people like Baudrillard saying, “by the orbital establishment of a system of control like peaceful coexistence, all terrestrial microsystems are satellized and lose their autonomy,” at which point you should decide to move away from the guy who’s clearly been in the coffee shop too long and has been slipping absinthe into his espresso since noon. (I note in passing that very few people bother to read—or even anthologize—Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” all the way through. There’s a good reason for that.)
Now, I imagine that some of you are already thinking of this or that objection to the preceding paragraph, because you’re just that way. For one thing, Shklovsky’s theory of “defamiliarization” isn’t supposed to be a theory about theory; it’s supposed to be a theory of literariness (not of “literature”: this is a crucial distinction, the very foundation of Formalism). Fair enough. Let’s go to the text: “Art as Technique,” also translated as “Art as Device.” It was published in 1917, a very busy year for most of Russia.
Shklovsky opens by taking issue with people who claim that “a satisfactory style is precisely that style which delivers the greatest amount of thought in the fewest words”; he calls this kind of stylistic efficiency and compression “algebrization,” since it tends toward the reduction of concepts into handy single-letter symbols (through which “we see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack”). And he denounces the “habitualization” to which it inevitably leads, in this searing passage:
And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms 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 the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (Emphasis in original.)
A bit later on, the Marxists will have at Shklovsky for that last line; Bakhtin and Medvedev, for instance, will insist that Shklovsky “radically distorts the meaning of the device, interpreting it as an abstraction from semantic ideological significance. But, in fact, the whole meaning of the device is in the latter.” They have a point: if you bracket the object altogether, you wind up unable to say just what it is that’s being made strange. But Shklovsky is also making the entirely necessary (and very modernist) point that the aesthetic is not a function of objects-in-themselves: it is not the case, he says, that some objects are naturally aesthetic and some aren’t. It is a question of technique, of device: where you find ostranenie, there you find art. A few pages later, Shklovsky says this in so many words: “I personally feel that defamiliarization is found almost everywhere form is found.”
This is great stuff, and I bet most of us believe some version of it. In fact, it’s become kind of (ulp) familiar, and you can find versions of this argument not only in literature departments but in arts-foundation rhetoric and museum brochures (and other places too, as you’ll see if you keep reading). Art renews perception, art is a way of seeing, art deepens the spirit, art renders the world anew. All of which can be quite true, you know—or else I wouldn’t bother with art myself.
But it’s obvious that this is a modernist theory of art. A neoclassical theorist like Boileau (as John mentioned on Thursday) would insist instead that art involves the correct presentation of the unities; a straight-up classical theorist like Horace would suggest that the function of art is to delight and instruct; and legions of readers in every era might say (I’m looking especially at you medievalists) that the function of art is to make the unfamiliar familiar, so that we can better understand our place in God’s creation.
In one way, to call Shklovsky’s a “modernist” theory is simply to remark that Russian Formalism went hand-in-hand with Russian Futurism, which, in the person of Vladimir Mayakovsky, partook eagerly in the Russian Revolution: the new society would have a new literature and a new literary criticism and theory (now that’s excitement). For Russia, of course, the period was marked not only by the aesthetic turbulence of international modernism but by the radical (and violent) change from feudalism to Communism, and as a result, there was some really intense and energetic theorizing going on until Stalin shut down the whole show in 1928 (after which some of its participants packed up and moved to Prague, where they were permitted another two decades of speculative thought before the Iron Curtain fell on that stage as well). Boris Eichenbaum’s account of the time in “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’” sometimes makes it sound as if the Revolution were fought not by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks against Tsarists but by rival schools of poets and theorists:
The historical battle between the two generations—a battle which was fought over principles and was extraordinarily intense—was therefore resolved in the journals, and the battle line was drawn over Symbolist theory and Impressionistic criticism rather than over any work being done by the Academicians. We entered the fight against the Symbolists in order to wrest poetics from their hands—to free it from its ties with their subjective philosophical and aesthetic theories and to direct it toward the scientific investigation of facts. We were raised on their works, and we saw their errors with the greatest clarity. At this time, the struggle became even more urgent because the Futurists (Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, and Mayakovsky), who were on the rise, opposed the Symbolist poetics and supported the Formalists.
It sounds almost like a Monty Python bit; you expect to hear next that Alexander Kerensky was defeated by the experimental poetics of the Opoyaz group, and that the Battle of the Journals set the terms for the Second Congress of Soviets in October 1917. But Eichenbaum’s not kidding: some of the polemical energy of the Formalists was drawn from the sense that they were fighting the old society in the name of the new, just as Lenin and Trotsky were. Of course, Trotsky himself repeatedly weighed in on Formalist and post-Formalist debates in the 1920s and 1930s, so that sense was not all that delusional.
But the theory’s debt to modernism is also its undoing. Part of the problem, as I’ve noted above, is that the idea of defamiliarization sets at a discount every earlier form of art whose purpose it was to put things in their proper place. But another part of the problem is that defamiliarization is contingent on the existence of the familiar, and the “familiar” is (guess what) historically and culturally variable, as Shklovsky inadvertently demonstrates (and as Michael Levenson pointed out to his class almost twenty years ago):
Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. . . . For example, in “Shame” Tolstoy “defamiliarizes” the idea of flogging in this way: “to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them to the floor, and to rap on their bottoms with switches,” and, after a few lines, “to lash about on the naked buttocks.” . . . The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature.
Over the years, most of my students, up until the Era of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, have responded to this passage by saying, “huh? The familiar act of flogging?” (I suppose we should stop here and thank George Bush and Alberto Gonzales for making this aspect of Shklovsky’s work more teachable today. Thanks, guys.) And once you pull that thread, the whole fabric of the theory starts to unravel. First you start to realize that defamiliarization is a modernist/ avant-garde defense of art, and then you realize that the idea itself has to be historicized. Then you have to start taking account of which times and places might have found flogging to be so habitual that their artists needed to “defamiliarize” it in order to renew perception, and before you know it, you’re asking about the social and cultural norms that art seeks to illuminate or violate, and presto, you’re not a Formalist anymore.
And then you start thinking, hell, what if defamiliarization isn’t specific to “the literary” in the first place? What if the pictures of Abu Ghraib, rather than the short stories of Leo Tolstoy, render the world unfamiliar and strange? What if theory, rather than literature, makes the stone stony? Or if you still don’t like “theory,” try this: once upon a time I was reading an airline magazine when I came across an ad for an ad agency. The agency promised its potential clients that its innovative campaigns would “defamiliarize” products and companies, leading consumers to see them in a wholly new way. This ad made my head hurt. It was as if Entertainment Weekly were quoting Walter Benjamin’s line about how “the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it, seriously into question.” I half-expected to read “we’ve got ostranenie and we can make it work for you.”
Of course, there’s a way around this problem, but it’s a circular way: you can say that defamiliarization is a property of the literary, and that (as Shklovsky suggests) the literary is found wherever you find defamiliarization—in an advertisement, in Gender Trouble, in Abu Ghraib. But that’s not a very satisfying argument, is it, now. What do you do?
Tune in to find out the chilling answer in next week’s Theory Tuesday!
Great description of formalism and its problems. I’m looking forward to Bakhtin. Are we, by Shklovsky’s definition, to consider Tolstoy a theorist then? If a novelist or short story writer can achieve defamiliarization of ordinary objects in the (relatively) stable context/world of the story or novel, how do we distinguish this from Theory and why would we prefer Theory to this literary defamiliarization? What does Theory have to offer the lover of literature? I’ll take my answer off the air.Posted by on 07/19 at 04:30 PM
We know how to deal with formalism, comrade.
No formalist, no problem.
I’ve put David Horowitz on this one. So-called “intellectuals” must learn to communicate to the hard-working patriotic men and women who comprise the vast majority in this great land of ours.Posted by Stalin on 07/19 at 06:24 PM
Wow, this post helpfully defamiliarised my sketchy understanding (which was always more art/design than literary theory) of Russian modernist aesthetics.
My answer to the question, is usually the question, “Whose familiar are you talking about?”. i.e the joke about the Lone Ranger remarking to Tonto that a thousand Indian warriors are bearing down on them and asks him, “What should we do?” to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean we, white man?”Posted by on 07/19 at 06:56 PM
Stalin used “comprised” incorrectly. To the gulag!
I do plan to start using “ostranenye-o-rama” in informal speech where I once said “jamais-vu.” So thanks for that, Michael.Posted by Chris Clarke on 07/19 at 07:04 PM
Oh yeah, it’s nice to imagine you writing this in a Varvara Stepanova outfitPosted by on 07/19 at 07:05 PM
Nice piece, Michael. On your cliff-hanger ending . . .
Well, one thing you might do is create a theory of stylistic progression in which a period of innovative defamiliarization is succeeded by a period of habituation and consolidation. So, for example, you might argue that as ragtime became stale at the end of the 19th century, it was succeeded by traditional jazz, which gave way to swing, which was shoved into history by rock and roll after the Korean War, and which has, in turn, been succeeded by hip hop. In this case, there’s a bit more to it, because there is appropriation and revitalization across shifting ethnic boundaries, but . . . .
And then you might take a look at Colin Martindale’s The Clockwork Muse. I don’t recall that he specifically talks about the Russian Formalists but, as you say, the defamiliarization idea is all over the place. Martindale is a psychologist who’s been developing a model of stylistic succession, one that’s a bit more sophisticated that what I sketched out above. And he’s developed the model with stylistic analyses of phenomena like Western art music, French poetry, gothic architecture, New England grave stones, and Japanese prints. He finds that there is a regular stylistic succession (hence the clockwork muse) involving periods of “primordial” content and formal development.
Fun stuff.Posted by bill benzon on 07/19 at 07:56 PM
So when Duchamp enters a urinal into an art show it’s not that I see the urinal in an Art Gallery ( delight and instruct? ) it is the urinal itself ?? My automatic response to urinal is not available, I’m ad libbing, defamiliar ??
Sounds a lot like that Make It New stuff.Posted by on 07/19 at 08:22 PM
Good question, black dog. No one, to my knowledge, pissed in Duchamp’s urinal: instead, they looked at it. They may have been scandalized or enchanted by it, but they saw it anew—not as a urinal but as either a work of art or a proposition about “art.” But for more about how that’s possible, and how it simultaneously confirms and challenges Shklovsky’s insistence that the object is not important, well, that’s for next Tuesday (you knew I was going to say that, right?).
Bill, you’re headed right down the path the Formalists took when they began to speak of “literary evolution” (as in Yuri Tynyanov’s essay, “On Literary Evolution") as a succession of stylistic devices. It’s basically a theory of stylistic progression in which a period of innovative defamiliarization is succeeded by a period of habituation and consolidation. And it’s not a bad way of understanding defamiliarization (and Jaussian reception aesthetics) historically, but it can lead to endless “and then this school reacted to that school which rejected that school” histories of forms and ideas, whereupon it becomes vulnerable to the good old fashioned Marxist insistence on the importance of the means of material production and its influence on the content of the superstructure (hi, Josef! good to see you on this deviationist blog!)—however reductive that may be, in its turn.
One of the coolest things about this wing of the theory enterprise, from Shklovsky to Mukarovsky, is that they really debated the competing merits of Marxism and formalism. Until the Stalinists made them stop, that is.Posted by Michael on 07/19 at 09:02 PM
Thanks for this. For some time now I have been sort of idly thinking I should track down whatever Russian theorist I had told had some theory about how literature consists of making-strange, but other than a few half-hearted Google searches, I hadn’t gotten very far.Posted by Dave on 07/19 at 09:07 PM
Martindale introduces an interesting reply to Marxist reduction: that when you look at the timing (as he has done) the aesthetic shift precedes the shift in the “material base” that’s supposed to be causing it. That kind of makes the Marxist argument impossible; worse, it suggests that maybe aesthetic change has a causal role in history.* Trouble is, I don’t quite follow his evidence on that. He may, in fact have it, but I can’t yet see it.
There’s another problem. This is all well and good when you’re dealing with a world where there is relatively rapid stylistic change, as has been the case in “the West” for the past several hundred years. But you don’t have that kind of change elsewhere. Why not?
*And I’m inclined to think it does. That’s one of the reasons the black-white dynamic in American popular music interests me so much. I do think that dynamic itself exerts causal force. But I’ve not been able to frame analysis that makes that argument in a way I find convincing.
This culture stuff is HARD to suss out.Posted by bill benzon on 07/19 at 09:13 PM
Great post. I love Theory Tuesdays!
One thing I find particularly interesting (or frustrating) about Shklovsky’s formulation of formalism is, despite what we’re told that it’s apolitical, ahistorical, acultural, (and to continue the alliteration, let’s just add Trotsky’s charges that Formalism was partial, preparatory, scrappy and subsidiary. That’s not an exact quote. I could find my copy of the “Four Essays,” but Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution seems to have been exiled from my bookshelf…) Shklovsky’s examples strike me as just so… so… so political (flogging, “the fear of war,” “the wife"). He uses Tolstoy, after all, in order to demonstrate the technique.
It is also interesting (for me at least) to trace these defamilizarized stony stones as they make their little ripples through history (through theory?) from Shklovsky to Brecht who saw it as a tool to shape reality (stone, hammer, whatever) to the situationists (Debord et al) who contended that “sous les paves la plage.”Posted by badger on 07/19 at 09:27 PM
Well, Bill, the doctrinaire Marxist insistence that change in the base has to precede change in the superstructure (because anything else would lead to that bad Hegelian idealism) is just one of the stupidest aspects of the Marxist critical legacy. Would that that legacy had contained someone like Oscar Wilde, someone willing to insist that the entire nineteenth century had been dreamed up by Balzac. And badger, I think you’re exactly right: Shklovsky’s examples continually lead outward, into the world represented by the text, even when he thinks he’s simply talking about the stone. That’s why Bakhtin and Medvedev accused him of missing the whole moral point Tolstoy was (surely) raising.Posted by Michael on 07/19 at 09:44 PM
Very interesting. I came to the concept of “defamiliarization” in anthropology classes: they talked about “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” From then on I pretty much conceived that as the alpha and omega of any cultural or historical analysis worth the name.Posted by on 07/19 at 10:52 PM
Boy; am I confused.
How is defamiliarization different from Hegel saying that art interests us principally insofar as we can judge its means of presentation—1828-29 Lectures?
So? Tolstoy gives writer Shklovsky an intellectual gymnastics ribbon to dance with (I doubt reader Shklovsky experienced even a mild frisson from Tolstoy’s flogging scene). Why isn’t that just simple admiration of Tolstoy having made-it-new by altering perspective?Posted by on 07/20 at 12:33 AM
Other reasons to read Shklovsky: his prose is really lovely, even in translation (no, I don’t read Russian), and he was right about Tristram Shandy.
And I agree: he’s implicitly historicist, even though he doesn’t know--or at least, doesn’t admit--it. But I kinda dig that too.Posted by bitchphd on 07/20 at 01:31 AM
Wow, Michael! Beautifully done. I think that’s all exactly right. (How lucky to have a teacher like Levenson). But I’d personally want to put some of the points more strongly still. E.g.:
Part of the problem, as I’ve noted above, is that the idea of defamiliarization sets at a discount every earlier form of art whose purpose it was to put things in their proper place.
It’s worth pausing over this, I think, to note how much defamiliarization is an aesthetic sensibility and how profoundly limiting that sensibility turns out to be. To refer to art whose purpose was to put things in their proper place accedes to formalism’s terms. Another way to put it would be to think of all the qualities or tasks (not just representation or, of course, narrative, but expression, exhortation, calumny, praise, invocation, and countless others) we might associate with artfulness that become insignificant from this perspective. The great achievements of twentieth century art (and Theory) are not inconsistent with an impoverishment of emotional and artistic range--and perhaps of political range as well. Making strange doesn’t necessarily do that much.
When, as you recommend, we historicize formalism, I think it’s possible to see not only that, like modernism in general, it’s uniquely well suited to the era of mass culture, but also that (despite, or because of its revolutionary origins), it has some strong class affiliations. It’s a profoundly elitist attitude and one well-suited to the emerging world of brain workers. (We do the unfamiliar stuff, the rest of you drudges do the commonplace. We’re against habit--sounds like Emerson!--you’re locked in the routine.)
But the big problem here, I think, is in wanting to have a formal definition of the literary in the first place. Bad idea.Posted by Sean McCann on 07/20 at 07:43 AM
You cover so much ground so comprehensively that I fear any particular gripe will probably emerge from my willfully downplaying other parts of your essay. But here goes.
My central concern comes from your claim that defamiliarization (I prefer the translation “estrangement” myself, but whatever) has the main goal of “laying bare the devise” –- and that this is what connects it with Theory.
And while this does seem to be the goal of Theory, it is not the ultimate goal of estrangement. “Laying bare the devise” –- like Brechtian distancing-effects -– are designed to disengage you from the art, to keep you from being taken in as a spectator. The technique and Theory worries – from a political point of view—about things like beauty and narrative and style and the aesthetics of perception. (Think, as a paramount example, of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure” work.)
Estrangement, on the other hand, is about reengaging with both the artwork and with the world –- to feel it afresh and see it anew. It’s like Windex for the senses. It wants you to say, “Gee, I never really thought about it but it really does look/feel/sound just like that.” Theory’s “laying bare” wants you to say, “Ah, so that’s how they tricked me! I won’t fall for that one again. Now I’m in control of the situation.”
Admittedly, you do engage with estrangement as an aesthetic enterprise. Nonetheless, with this deft move, you conflate aesthetics with the distrust of aesthetics –- and turn theorists into the true artists of our time. (A claim that many theorists have implicitly and explicitly made over the years.)
PeterPosted by on 07/20 at 07:45 AM
You tricked us into reading the whole essay when in fact you had already “laid bare the device” when you put the book on top of the refrigerator and couldn’t find it, therefore denouncing the - familiar - expectation regarding where books are supposeed to be…Posted by on 07/20 at 09:03 AM
Chris Clarke, we will come when you least expect it.Posted by Stalin on 07/20 at 09:19 AM
Uh, yeah. Can I just say its a rather disingenuous move to conflate “the Marxist critical legacy” with “the doctrinaire Marxist insistence” on the primacy of the base. It might be quick but its certainly not historically accurate (or very generous I might add).
Really Michael, you should know better than this.Posted by on 07/20 at 11:57 AM
Tom, you’re not serious? This blog’s dedication to quoting Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall to everyone who will listen and many more who won’t is beyond question. We heart Williams’s “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” for example, precisely because it is one of the least reductive discussions of base and superstructure available in 10,000 words or less. But we also think that the doctrinaire insistence on the primary of the base—made by, guess who, the older leftists against whom Williams was reacting—is stupid. There are many aspects of the Marxist critical legacy. This is a bad one.
And Peter: with this deft move, you conflate aesthetics with the distrust of aesthetics –- and turn theorists into the true artists of our time.
Not really. As Sean suggests, there are so many problems with defamiliarization as a theory of art that I can’t go with it (much as my modernist sensibilities might lead me to). In fact, in tracing defamiliarization through various modes of theory, I thought I was actually underlining a point that Sean had made in his initial post on Theory’s Empire, with regard to Stephen Adam Schwartz’s claim that cultural studies involves “an extension of aesthetic—specifically Dada and surrealist—avant-gardism to intellectual work.” I’m trying to get a handle on Where Subcultural Analysis Went Wrong (alternate title: Why Aren’t More Cultural Studies Books Like Simon Frith’s Performing Rites?), and I think this angle of approach is much better than Tom Frank’s.
Dr. B.: Tristram Shandy rocks. Theorists who realize how much Tristram Shandy rocks rock, too. Not that that makes them subversive or anything.Posted by Michael on 07/20 at 12:37 PM
Ok, so you end with circularity. Show me a literary concept that isn’t, *ultimately*, ciruclar (say, in the Theory Tuesday on Derrida), and I’ll eat my weight in Norton Anthologies of Literary Criticsm--and I’m a big boy.
The point to me is, the circle you identifty is a really really long path around a park with a lot of ducks and ponds and cool sculptures and even some of those remote controlled sailboats and the occasional corndog stand. Who wouldn’t want to follow that path? Besides, as with all circular paths, this one forks off to reveal still other circular paths, which themselves break off into still others. Sure, you could go from defamiliarzation to the literary and back to defamiliarization, but you could also make a left at the literary and go on to, say, culture. Sure, you’ll probably find your way back to defamiliarization some time, but not without getting to stop at cool places like art (whether a urinal or a Dutch masterpiece), language, rhetoric, and even “theory” itself first.
Now how do I get through this damn turnstile?Posted by on 07/20 at 12:44 PM
I’d like to quote an example of a mathematicohistorical conundrum of an epistemological nature:
“There’s an interesting tale about the later discovery of the 19th and 20th Mersenne primes (corresponding to exponents 4253 and 4423) by Hurwitz and Selfridge in 1961: Because of the way the computer printout was stacked, Alexander Hurwitz read about the larger number a few seconds before the smaller one. The fact that history has now recorded that the 19th Mersenne prime (n = 4253) never held the record as the largest known prime clearly indicates that what we mean by ‘known’ [for now and in this context, at least] is ‘known to some human being’. Mathematical and other scientific facts may be gathered automatically, but they become actual knowledge only when someone is aware of them. It’s simply a question of what our current vocabulary means, and that meaning may evolve. Students of philosophy may still have fun wondering if a falling tree makes a sound when nobody is around to hear it, but they are currently up against an anthropocentric majority opinion: In the mid 20th century, we did not [yet?] acknowledge a record broken by a machine, if nobody was aware of it while it ‘held’...”
“Henry Dobb (2002-05-26 e-mail) was kind enough to confirm the above story, which he heard from John Selfridge himself around 1990, when Selfridge was a visiting professor of mathematics at Florida Atlantic University.”
© 2000-2005 Gérard P. Michon, Ph.D.
Number Theory & NumerationPosted by Jonathan Vos Post on 07/20 at 12:52 PM
"There are many aspects of the Marxist critical legacy. This is a bad one.” Ok, I’ll accept that as what you meant to say and ask that you be more careful to say it in the future. I offer my apologies as well if my comment seemed a bit obnoxious. I’m just very sensitive to those statements that want to (or appear to) reduce Marx to the abuses of a Stalinist dialectical materialism (which, despite the pedigree that it has from Engles, is to be sharply distinguished from a properly Marxian historical materialism) and/or the excesses of an Althusserian structuralism. There is much in Marx that argues against such interpretations just as there have been many arguments about such interpretations. Marx still has much to teach and many insights to offer (despite Hardt and Negri, I think he’s still the go-to-guy on globalilzation). And as the work of Roy Bhaskar and the Critical Realists demonstrates, there is much more to him philosophically than the above examples would indicate.
As far as the circularity thing goes, I think it a satisfying conclusion in as far as it is revelatory of the essentially hermeneutic nature of the enterprise of literary theory (I’d like to add that I first encountered theory as a species of Frankfurt School critical theory long before I even imagined that literature had a theory). There is nothing long with that circularity as long as we refuse to let it be a vicious circle, which is of course the difficult bit. In fact, my touchiness about Marx/Marxism can be traced to an understanding of them that sees their efforts as aiming at exactly that.Posted by on 07/20 at 01:59 PM
D’Oh! I just realized as I posted my entry above that I hadn’t proofread as closely as I thought. Damn these nearsighted eyes! I meant to say “There is nothing wrong with that circularity as long as we refuse to let it be a vicious circle, which is of course the difficult bit.”Posted by on 07/20 at 02:02 PM
I’ve always wondered where Shklovsky was coming from on this. What common roots are there for his “defamiliarization” and Pound’s “make it new” and similar modernist formulations?
Pound at least I can trace back to Pater.
The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. * * *
Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.
This seems to me a proof-text for the aesthetic quality of theory that Michael’s discussing, & apologies if I’m being too obvious by even mentioning it.
The downside of the continual quest for novelty and defamiliarization is, to my taste at least, visible in the rather desperate quality of contemporary art.
There’s also a possible connection with late capitalism and marketing. The valorization of the new and the unfamiliar is essential to keep us buying stuff.Posted by Anderson on 07/20 at 05:14 PM
For anyone interested in reading Art as Technique, it’s online in full, in what (at a cursory glance) appears to be a really bad translation.
Incidentally, Brian Eno claims to have urinated in Duchamp’s urinal in his diary, A Year With Swollen Appendices. He did it with a tube through the glass around it. He never said anything about his motives, but I guess it could be said to re-defamiliarize a piece of art which has become a tad too familiar and agreeable.Posted by Martin G. Larsen on 07/20 at 05:22 PM
I’d bet Duchamp would’ve submitted the urinal with urine included, if he’d thought the curators would let him get away with it.Posted by Anderson on 07/20 at 05:23 PM
"Duchamp would’ve submitted the urinal with urine included” and a submerged crucifex, but he didn’t want to lose his grant.Posted by Jonathan Vos Post on 07/20 at 08:10 PM
Thanks for the underlining (and the link), Michael. I did catch the similarity. And I say: Yes! More Simon Frith, please!
Peter, isn’t a suspicion of the aesthetic a built-in feature of the modernist (or late romantic) aesthetics that emphasize estrangement. Nearly everyone in this mold damns bad art or false pleasure so as to raise to still greater heights the true experience of Windex for the senses. It’s a pretty rote gesture, I think. Susan Buck-Morss repeats it perfectly when, for example, she describes aesthetics and “aneshtetics” as mutually implicated, endlessly warring experiences: good windex vs. cheap gratification. In fact, as an avant-garde, Theory takes up the attitude often and quite directly: mass culture, bad; subversive popular practices, good, and so on.Posted by Sean McCann on 07/20 at 10:33 PM
Bartender, I’ll have a Windex, on the rocks, in a dirty glass.Posted by Jonathan Vos Post on 07/20 at 11:37 PM
"But the Philistine’s senses are muffled by his intellect and by his habit of abbreviated thinking. His mental process is all algebra, a reckoning that loses sight of its original values and is over without reaching any concrete result.” - George Santayana
I would answer your final question, Michael, by pointing out that most of what we consider “art” began its historical life as “function”, and defamiliarization from that originally agreed-upon functional context is precisely what let it become more easily aestheticized. ("Easily," as opposed to those awful arguments we used to go through to prove that even a book published as science fiction might be worth reading and even a movie made in Hollywood might be worth serious attention.) Each era has its own varied class-tinged notions of what’s “purely functional”. Equally, each era has its own varied class-tinged notions of what makes the non-functional interesting, and not all non-functional stuff qualities. For many contemporary readers, the “best” art is that which directly feeds their fantasized self-image, which leads to fewer cheap reprints of “The Faery Queen”.Posted by Ray Davis on 07/21 at 03:43 PM
"As Sean suggests, there are so many problems with defamiliarization as a theory of art that I can’t go with it (much as my modernist sensibilities might lead me to).”
All of this analysis, naturally enough, takes place in a social-historical context of its own which would and will make very little sense in other contexts. But this is the context we have to work with, right? I don’t think you or Sean are going to successfully re-establish yourselves as Hellenistic slaves or 8020th-century Morlocks any time soon.
“Defamiliarize” seems too restrictive a term, though. In the even-more-up-to-date-than-Theory world of the cognitive sciences, one might posit some impulse towards individuation which balances the impulse to categorize. In our particularized social-historical context, one might also posit an individuation which doesn’t have to be restricted to one’s own ego: a lookit-there to balance the more pervasive lookit-me.Posted by Ray Davis on 07/21 at 04:04 PM
Great post. I have a question about the final argument: I see how when you consider Tolstoy’s flogging, the concept of defamiliarization starts to fall apart, but not all examples of defamiliarization are based on historical and sociological issues. I’m not a theory guy, I’m a fiction writer (in-training, at least). Charles Baxter has a book of essays about fiction, and one essay I particularly liked was about defamiliarization, and he quotes the same Tolstoy passage. It gets around.
Well, the point is, as a writer, defamiliarization is a tool, or rather a way of thinking. A base for my writing- when in doubt always try to see an object, or any sensation, with new eyes. So, in the case of flogging, it’s historical and cultural, but one can write about anything they see and defamiliarize it- a beach, a chair- anything. And it’s not about the object anymore, or its significance in society. In these cases, does it still fall apart?Posted by Frank on 07/22 at 02:00 AM
No, it doesn’t fall apart, exactly—it just makes the point that defamiliarization, or seeing with new eyes (with “beginner’s mind,” as the Buddhists say), is relative to a historical and cultural context.Posted by on 07/22 at 02:32 PM
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