Russian Formalism

Posted by jerry on February 12th, 2007 — Posted in

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:

  • the mechanical view of language;
  • the organic view – literature as organism of inter-related parts; and
  • the the systemic view – literature as a system, or organising principle.

Formalism began near the beginning of the 20th 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:

  1. Literary science had to have a firm theoretical basis and an accurate terminology.
  2. The structural laws of a specific field of literature had to be established before it was related to other fields.
  3. The evolution of literature must be studied as a system. All evidence, whether literary or non-literary must be analysed functionally.
  4. The distinction between synchrony and diachrony was useful for the study of literature as for language, uncovering systems at each separate stage of development. But the history of systems is also a system; each synchronic system has its own past and future as part of its structure. Therefore the distinction should not be preserved beyond its usefulness.
  5. A synchronic system is not a mere agglomerate of contemporaneous phenomena catalogued. ‘Systems’ means hierarchical organisation.
  6. The distinction between langue and parole, taken from linguistics, deserves to be developed for literature in order to reveal the principles underlying the relationship between the individual utterance and a prevailing complex of norms.
  7. The analysis of the structural laws of literature should lead to the setting up of a limited number of structural types and evolutionary laws governing those types.
  8. The discovery of the ‘immanant laws’ of a genre allows one to describe an evolutionary step, but not to explain why this step has been taken by literature and not another. Here the literary must be related to the relevant non-literary facts to find further laws, a ‘system of systems’. But still the immanent laws of the individual work had to be enunciated first.

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:

  • placing the study of the actual work at the centre of literary scholarship, rather than looking for authorial biographical links or sociolgical influences, which they considered as peripheral to the text.
  • They problematised the idea of ‘literariness’, and usefully addressed the ‘form’ versus ‘content’ issue.
  • They viewed literary history and the eveolution of literary genres as as an internal dynamic process.
  • They contributed a wealth of analytical techniques to stylistic analysis, including sound patterns, metres and verse forms.
  • They provided analytical techniques for characterising a range of discursive styles and different modes of story-telling.

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 language arose as a reflex of a material socio-economic substructure.

Copyright Jerry Everard

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Comment by Dr. Sohinder BIR

Russian formalism was considered as atechnica & machenical activity in literart critism.I have also worked in this activity.I attached the themes with contemporary literary & social history.Can you reply my views.
sohinder bir

Posted on March 2, 2007 at 3:54 pm

Comment by jerry

I could comment on your views if it were clearer what they were. Several have used something like formalism in cultural criticism under the rubrik of semiotics.


Posted on March 2, 2007 at 9:39 pm

Comment by bilel faleh

we can sum up the formalistic approach in:-A close reading.
-Developing anawareness of multiple meaning.
-looking for structral relationships and patterns not in words but in larger units.
-The need to probe deeply connotative words.

Posted on December 14, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Comment by Kiiza Tibasiima Isaac

It is a great analysis of Formalism. However, the ideas in looking at it as similar to Structuralism make it a bit unclear. Can there be a differentiation between the two literary movements?

Posted on January 15, 2008 at 6:12 pm

Comment by sohinder bir

i am thanks for your valueable comments.
i have seen bakhtin in his contradictory views for may be discuss on this theme.

Posted on March 4, 2008 at 9:40 pm

Comment by sohinder bir

i am thanks for your valueable comments.
i have seen bakhtin in his contradictory views for may be discuss on this theme.

Posted on March 4, 2008 at 9:40 pm

Comment by sohinder bir

pl. tell me that when you evaluate the literary work according to the russian formalism you will not going to ignore the aesthetics of the work?
now when we have passed about a century from the formalism we should not learn anything from critical history.

Posted on September 17, 2008 at 1:40 am

Comment by jerry

Formalism in a way was a reaction to Romantic aestheticism, by trying to identify objective criteria for a work of literature. That said, Formalism can provide a language with which to describe the salient features of an exceptional work – but, as Roman Jakobson noted, formal features in and of themselves could not distinguish effectively between a literary versus a non-literary text. So formalism provides a means to give voice to an aesthetic ‘hunch’. Postmodernism took elements of Formalism, but reinserted the necessity of context in any analysis.

Posted on September 17, 2008 at 7:48 am

Comment by Siswo Harsono

I like this article: simple but inspiring.

Posted on March 15, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Comment by prof. sohinder bir

dear Jerry
pl. tell me the role of m. bakhtin in the context of russian formalism?

Posted on September 24, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Comment by prof. sohinder bir

why volishnov and medvedev was killed/

Posted on September 25, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Comment by jerry

Prof Sohinder – I suspect it would take more than a blog post to discuss the role of Bakhtin and his relationship to Russian Formalism. There are some good books out on Bakhtin so it is worth doing an Amazon search and see what comes up.

Voloshinv and Medvedev were probably caught up in a Stalinst purge – the logic of which escapes most people.

Posted on September 27, 2009 at 9:59 am

Comment by sohinder bir

dear jerry,
i am very thankful for your suggestions.

Posted on May 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Comment by Dr Anthony Alcock

Dear Jerry.
God bless you for writing these clear and concise summaries of stuff that I would otherwise never read, but always wanted to know about.

Posted on September 5, 2011 at 3:24 am

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