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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

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!

Posted by Michael on 07/19 at 01:38 PM
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