A Preface to Russian Formalism
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Jerry Everard's Introduction to Russian Formalism
This summary draws heavily on the work of Prof L.M.
O'Toole and Raman Sheldon.
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 machanical view of language;
the organic view - literature as organism of inter-related
the the systemic view - literature as a system, or
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:
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
Literary science had to have a firm theoretical basis
and an accurate terminology.
The structural laws of a specific field of literature
had to be established before it was related to other fields.
The evolution of literature must be studied as a
system. All evidence, whether literary or non-literary must be analysed
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
A synchronic system is not a mere agglomerate of
contemporaneous phenomena catalogued. 'Systems' means hierarchical organisation.
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.
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.
The discovery of the 'immananet 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.
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
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
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.
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.
to russian formalism/
personal point of view/ russian
formalist bibliography/ Links
to Chomsky and Russian Formalism.
Copyright 1999-2000 Olivia Malonda Hernandiz.
02/12/99 Updated: 20/1/00