Jerry Everard's Introduction to Russian Formalism...
This summary draws heavily on the work of Prof L.M. O'Toole and Raman Selden.
Russian Formalists considered literature to be a special use of language. As such it was amenable to analysis in and of itself. Peter Steiner considers Russian Formalism to fall into three periods:
Formalism began near the turn of the Century, emerging in the OPOYAZ group (Society for Poetic Language) as a break with the late romantic tradition of symbolism in literature and Futurism and a number of related movements in the visual arts.
The movement sought a non-prescriptive criticism that was part of a more general move towards making literature more accessable to the masses. Victor Shklovsky introduced the idea of 'making strange' in order to derail passive and uncritical reception of texts.
Shklovsky considered the work of art to be the sum of the formal devices of which it is comprised, thus abolishing the firm distinction between form and content. Later moves to orient criticism towards structure as opposed to form avoided the suggestion of form being something exterior to content.
Under this rubric, form becomes merely the organisation of pre-aesthetic materials. Thus Shklovsky differentiated between fabula (the fable) and syuzhet (plot) in terms of the structuring of what is said. Yurii Tynyanov emphasised the binary methodology favoured by the earlier formalists. Words, for Tynyanov were not essentially 'poetic' or 'prosaic' but rather were coloured by the formal textual context in which they were positioned.
Shklovsky, Tynyanov, Eikhenbaum and Tomashevsky considered the textual work in holistic terms as a complex unity of component parts. The parts were analysed in relation to each other. Those that stood out from the others were considered foregrounded. By establishing a 'scientific' critical practice, with the articulation of structural 'laws' then specific fields of literature could be related to other fields.
In 1928 Tynyanov, with Roman Jakobson published the Theses on Language. These formed the basis for the development of structuralism. These were:
Vladimir Propp was influenced by the Formalists, and his work The Morphology of the Russian Folk Tale provided one of the defining studies of genre, and laid the foundations for French Structuralism, influencing particularly the work of Roland Barthes.
Another contemporary figure, Mikhail Bakhtin, was also influenced by if not directly linked with the Russian Formalists. His contributions to the notion of dialogism and the notion of voice in literary discourse emerged contemporaneously with considerations of sound and rhythmic elements in Formalist analyses. Russian Formalism contributed a number of things to literary theory, including:
Structural Formalism continued for some time into the 1930s in the Prague Linguistic Circle. Some of this group, including Roman Jakobson migrated to the US with the emergence of Nazism. This group went on to influence the development of New Criticism in the 1940s and 1950s.
In other directions, the Bakhtin School combined elements of Formalism with Marxism. It was formalist insofar as it was concerned with the linguistic structure of literary texts, but was marxist in its comitment to the view that language could not be separated from ideology. At the same time it resisted the purely marxist turn insofar as it resisted the view that langauge arose as a reflex of a material socio-economic substructure.
Copyright Jerry Everard