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Russian Formalism

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Russian Formalism refers to a number of highly influential Russian and Soviet scholars (Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Grigory Vinokur) who revolutionised literary criticism between 1914 and the 1930s by establishing the specificity and autonomy of poetic language and literature. Russian Formalism exerted a major influence on thinkers such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Yuri Lotman, and on structuralism as a whole. The movement's members are widely considered as the founders of modern literary criticism.

Russian Formalism was a diverse movement, producing no unified doctrine, and no consensus amongst its proponents on a central aim to their endeavours. In fact, "Russian Formalism" describes two distinct movements: the OPOJAZ (Obscestvo izucenija POeticeskogo JAZyka - Society for the Study of Poetic Language) in St. Petersburg and the Linguistic Circle in Moscow. Therefore, it is more precise to refer to the "Russian Formalists", rather than to use the more encompassing and abstract term of "Formalism".

The term "Formalism" was first used by the adversaries of the movement, and as such it conveys a meaning explicitly rejected by the Formalists themselves. In the words of one of the foremost Formalists, Boris Eichenbaum: "It is difficult to recall who coined this name, but it was not a very felicitous coinage. It might have been convenient as a simplified battle cry but it fails, as an objective term, to delimit the activities of the "Society for the Study of Poetic Language...."[1]

There is one idea that united the Formalists: the autonomous nature of poetic language and its specificity as an object of study for literary criticism. The Formalists' main endeavour consisted in defining a set of properties specific to poetic language (be it poetry or prose) recognisable by their "artfulness" and consequently analysing them as such. A clear illustration of this may be provided by the main argument of one of Viktor Shklovsky's (the founder of the OPOJAZ) early texts, "Art as Device" (Iskusstvo kak priem, 1916): art is a sum of literary and artistic devices that the artist manipulates to craft his work.

Shklovsky's main objective in "Art as Device" is to dispute the conception of literature and literary criticism common in Russia at that time. Broadly speaking, literature was considered, on the one hand, to be a social or political product, whereby it was then interpreted (in the tradition of the great critic Belinsky) as an integral part of social and political history. On the other hand, literature was considered to be the personal expression of an author's world vision, expressed by means of images and symbols. In both cases, literature is not considered as such, but evaluated on a broad socio-political or a vague psychologico-impressionistic background. The aim of Shklovsky is therefore to isolate and define something specific to literature (or "poetic language"): this, as we saw, are the "devices" who make up the "artfulness" of literature.

Formalists do not agree with one another on exactly what a "device" (priem) is, nor how these devices are used or how they are to be analysed in a given text. The central (and revolutionary) idea however is more general: poetic language possesses specific properties, which can be analysed as such. This, it may be argued, was already the view defended by Aristotle in his Poetics.

In the Soviet period, the authorities further developed the term's pejorative associations to cover any art which used complex techniques and forms accessible only to the elite, rather than being simplified for "the people" (as in socialist realism).

[1] Boris Eichenbaum, "Vokrug voprosa o formalistah" (Around the question on the Formalists), Pecat' i revolucija, no5 (1924), pp.2-3.

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