Study Guide

Formalism Critics

  • Boris Eikhenbaum

    My chief purpose here is to show how the formal method, by gradually evolving and broadening its field of research, spread beyond the usual "methodological" limits and became a special science of literature, a specific ordering of facts. Within the limits of this science, the most diverse methods may develop, if only because we focus on the empirical study of the material. Such study was, essentially, the aim of the Formalists from the very beginning.

    In a nutshell, Eikhenbaum's saying that the Formalists are elevating the study of literature to a science. Yes, you heard right. Science. You thought literature had nothing to do with science? Think again.

    In other words, we will investigate a poem or a novel just like a biologist investigates some icky bacteria in a petri dish. We'll ask: What's this stuff made of? How does it work? Why does it work that way? Just as there are certain conclusions that a biologist can deduce by studying his petri-dish bacteria, so there are certain conclusions that we literary scientists can deduce by studying a poem or a novel.

    What's important about Eikhenbaum's statement here is that it's showing how seriously the Formalists took themselves as scientists. These literary theorists really thought of themselves as the equivalent of those dudes in white lab coats with stuff bubbling away in test tubes. All they need is some thicker glasses and singe marks on their shirts.

    [T]he Formalists did not look, as literary students usually had, towards history, culture, sociology, psychology, or aesthetics, etc., but toward linguistics, a science bordering on poetics and sharing material with it, but approaching it from a different perspective and with different problems. Linguistics, for its part, was also interested in the formal method in that what was discovered by comparing poetic and practical language could be studied as a purely linguistic problem, as part of the general phenomena of language. The relationship between linguistics and the formal method was somewhat analogous to that relation of mutual use and delimitation that exists, for example, between physics and chemistry.

    We Formalists don't like sociology, history, psychology, and all those other social science-y disciplines (sound familiar?). In case you haven't noticed already, we think they're all rubbish. The one field we do have the stomach for is linguistics. And that's because linguists, like us Formalists, focus on language—some linguists even are Formalists! Crazy, right?

    Also—and here's another familiar tune—linguistics is a real science. So Formalism and linguistics have a lot in common: they're interested in the same thing, which is language. And they're both very "scientific."

    Eikhenbaum is laying out the very important relationship between Formalism and linguistics here. The Formalists approached literature from a linguistic point of view, looking at things like syntax, meaning, and sound. And linguists are all about language too, of course, as a system of communication and meaning, whether that meaning was poetic or not. See the overlap?

    The Formalists' emphasis on linguistics was a brand spanking new thing at the time. Nowadays it seems obvious to us that when we study a work of literature, we look at its linguistic aspects. How's this writer putting together his or her sentences? What's she or he doing with sound? Why does this sound pretty but not make very much sense?

    But literary critics before the Formalists weren't asking those questions. They were more interested in the historical references of a text, or its philosophical outlook, or its politics. The Formalists insisted on looking within the text, at the language, to understand it. Forget about what's going on outside it. And they drew inspiration from the field of linguistics to do this, thanks in part to the brilliant ideas of Mr. Eikhenbaum.

    And the phrase "I like Eikh" was born.

    The notion of form here acquires new meaning; it is no longer an envelope, but a complete thing, something concrete, dynamic, self-contained, and without a correlative of any kind. Here we made a decisive break with the Symbolist principle that some sort of content is to shine through the form.

    The literary critics who came before the Formalists (for example, some guys called the "Symbolists"), privileged content over form. These guys believed that the "form" of a poem, or a novel, is just like an envelope. According to them, what's important isn't the envelope, but what's inside it: the "content," or meaning underneath the words used to enclose it.

    You know how when we get a card in the mail, we open the envelope, pull out the card, and then throw the envelope in the trash? Well, according to Eikhenbaum, the Symbolists take the same attitude towards form. They throw "form" in the trash: they just don't pay any attention to it.

    We Formalists, on the other hand, take a completely different attitude. For us, form isn't less important than content—it's the most important thing. In fact, it's everything. For us, there is no "card" inside the envelope. The "card" is the envelope. Kind of like a postcard. In other words, form is content. What matters isn't what a poem is saying, it's how it's saying it. It's how a writer says things, not what they're saying, that really counts.

    So this is another big idea that's come down to us from the Formalists: form = content! Got that? If we're not paying attention to how a writer is saying things, then we are totally missing the point of literary criticism, according to the Formalists.

    It matters whether a writer chooses to write in first-person or third-person. It matters if a poet capitalizes the first letter of every line in a poem or doesn't. It matters if a writer uses really long sentences or really short sentences. It matters if a novel is broken up into four chapters or forty. It matters if the word "matters" is italicized five times in a row. Matters!

    The Formalists were the first theorists to insist on the importance of paying attention to form. And a testament to their influence is the fact that, today, we do actually pay a lot of attention to form when we study literary works. And we wouldn't be doing that if the Formalists hadn't woken us up to it.

  • Roman Jakobson

    The object of a science of literature is not literature, but literariness—that is, that which makes a given work a work of literature. Until now literary historians have preferred to act like the policeman who, intending to arrest a certain person, would, at any opportunity, seize any and all persons who chanced into the apartment, as well as those who passed along the street. The literary historians used everything—anthropology, psychology, politics, philosophy. Instead of a science of literature, they created a conglomeration of homespun disciplines.

    Literary critics and historians have been getting the study of literature way wrong. That's because they try to explain literature by looking at it through the lens of a whole bunch of totally unrelated fields—which is like, the opposite of science. Why would we need to know philosophy in order to understand literature? Why do we need to know psychology to read a poem? Why do we need to have a good grasp of politics or anthropology, for shmoop's sake? Hello. These things have nothing to do with literature.

    In order to understand literature, we need to throw all of these other things out of the window. Instead, we need to focus on something called "literariness." Which is what, again? It's what makes a text "literature" and not just some words someone threw on a page.

    We probably all agree that there's a difference between a news article and a poem, right? Well, what makes a poem different from a news article is that it possesses this special, magical, magnificent thing called "literariness," which a news article does not have. So our job as Formalists is to study this thing "literariness," and figure out what it's made of and how it works—forget going and reading a whole bunch of philosophy or politics or anthropology to try to help explain a work of literature. Explain how? Pshah!

    Jakobson's doing something here that the Formalists totally love doing. And that is the high exalted act of "bringing the focus back to the literary text." In other words, he's saying that we just need to focus on the poem, or novel, or play. And that's it. We need to read closely. For what? That's right: "literariness." That thing that makes a text "literature."

    Notice how Jakobson, like Eikhenbaum, is talking about literary criticism as "a science" of literature. Didn't we tell you these guys were obsessed with being scientists? It's those white lab coats they're envious of. They all want to be stylin' that lab coat, yo.

  • Lev Jakubinsky

    The phenomena of language must be classified from the point of view of the speaker's particular purpose as he forms his own linguistic pattern. If the pattern is formed for the purely practical purpose of communication, then we are dealing with a system of practical language (the language of thought) in which the linguistic pattern (sounds, morphological features, etc.) have no independent value and are merely a means of communication. But other linguistic systems, systems in which the practical purpose is in the background (although not entirely hidden) are conceivable; they exist, and their linguistic patterns acquire independent value.

    First thing's first: don't get Jakobson confused with Jakubinsky. One is a "son" and one is a "sky." One is way famous in lots of branches of literary theory and the other is only sort of within the nearly dead branch of Formalism. Just cuz they both start in "Jak" doesn't mean they're equally jacked up in the theory world.

    That said, they believe in basically the same stuff. There are two types of language: practical and poetic language. Practical language is all about communication. If we're sitting at dinner, and I want to spice up my bland chicken, and I ask you, "Pass me the salt," that's practical language. The words serve one purpose: to communicate something we want or need.

    On the other hand, if we're sitting at dinner and I burst into song, chanting, "Puh-lease puh-paasss me the sweet yummy tasty salty-salt, you friend full of wonder and enchantment," that's poetic language (well, more or less).

    Sure, maybe we do actually want the salt. But there's a lot more going on here than just practical communication. We're playing with language. We're alliterating. We're adding more information than is necessary. Not to mention syllables. The words and sounds aren't just there to communicate our need for salt—they're doing tons more than that. Got it?

    Jakubinsky's distinction between practical and poetic language was super important for the Formalists. This was the first time that someone had actually tried to explain how language is used differently in a literary or poetic context.

    And yes, while we may all know there's a difference between everyday speech and poetic speech, however salty that speech may be, no one had done such a good job of explaining the difference between the two until Jakubinsky came along.

  • Osip Brik

    No matter how one looks at the interrelationship of image and sound, there is undoubtedly only one conclusion possible—the sounds, the harmonies, are not only euphonious accessories to meaning; they are also the result of an independent poetic purpose.

    Is a euphonious accessory like a Gucci purse? Um, sure, if it goes nice with the other stuff you're wearing (euphonious means it sounds pretty).

    But basically, says Brik, we have this very bad tendency when we read poetry to pay more attention to meaning than sound. We think the meaning of words in a poem is more important than the sounds of words. Which actually is total baloney.

    Not only are sounds just as important as the meaning of the words—sounds in a poem are often completely independent of meaning. A poet puts in certain words because they just sound nice. Poetry is music, people! It ain't just about making sense. This emphasis on sound (as opposed to sense) is a hallmark of poetic language.

    So pretty much the Formalists were obsessed with sound. They sat there reading poems aloud to themselves and thinking about how each little line sounded. And they came to the conclusion that sound in poetry is super important. In fact, one of the things that makes poetic language "poetic" is that it puts at least as much emphasis on sound as it does on sense—if not more!

  • Viktor Shklovsky

    If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconscious automatic…[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 an object "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.

    We're all probably familiar with being defamiliarized from things we're familiar with. Totes clear, right? Basically, says Vik, when we look at the same thing over and over, we stop really seeing it. It becomes so familiar that we pretty much stop noticing it, unless something sort of forces us to look at it through fresh eyes. What art does, is that it makes familiar objects unfamiliar.

    For example. Let's say we drink coffee every morning. We need it to be awake. We prefer the hipster independent coffee shop on the corner. But one day we have a visitor from out of town who doesn't know about coffee (so maybe they're from out of planet) and they say: "What's that sludge you're drinking? Is it sewage water? It looks like sewage water, maybe with sand floating in it. I didn't know hipsters drank sand."

    We look down into our personalized ceramic mug as if we're seeing coffee for the first time. And we think seriously about changing our morning beverage habits (but then we get sleepy and we don't).

    That martian's comment about the coffee is kind of like what good writers do. They defamiliarize the familiar. They make us see things in a fresh way. And this is important because this is what art is all about. It doesn't matter what a writer is describing. What matters is how that author describes it, and how successful she or he is in making it new for us, no matter whether we want to keep drinking it after.

    Shklovsky is defining one of the key concepts of Formalism here: defamiliarization. This concept is super important—so make sure you get really familiar with it before you start defamiliarizing. Because this wasn't just important for the Formalists: it became a really big concept in literary criticism generally. In fact, it's influential to this day.

    We now take it for granted that a really good writer is someone who makes us look at things with new eyes. Someone, in other words, who "defamiliarizes" things. So think about that next time you drink your morning sludge.

    The idea of plot is too often confused with the description of events—with what I propose provisionally to call the story. The story is, in fact, only material for plot formulation. The plot of Eugene Onegin, is, therefore, not the romance of the hero with Tatyana, but the fashioning of the subject of this story as produced by the introduction of interrupting digressions.

    Story is a completely different thing from plot. How so? Let's take an example. Here's a story: A guy breaks into a house, kills an old couple, and escapes. A detective investigates. A series of clues lead him to the killer, and the detective arrests him. Tah-dah!

    Here's a plot of this story: A detective is handcuffing a dude and leading him to a police car. At the police station, the detective interrogates the dude. Through the interrogation, we get flashbacks to this really grisly break-in where a couple was murdered. All the while we're not sure if the dude being interrogated is the killer or not. Slowly, we see what clues led the detective to this dude. And, oh my! we realize the dude is the killer. Oh, the suspense.

    See how in the plot above, the events of the story are all scrambled? The plot begins with the end of the story: with the killer being arrested. Then we go back and see what happened. The story just shows us the events as they happened in time (dude breaks into house, kills couple, is tracked down and arrested).

    That's what Shklovsky's getting at when he talks about the difference between "story" and "plot." He uses the novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin (by the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, who most Russians think of as pretty much equal to God) as an example. It's a novel about this Russian dandy living in St. Petersburg and his relationship with Tatyana. The story is very simple, but the plot of the novel is complicated, thanks mainly to a whole bunch of digressions, letters from one protagonist to the other, unrelated philosophical ponderings by the narrator, and plays with language of all sorts.

    Shklovsky is elaborating something totally earth-shattering here (seriously, we're not exaggerating). He was the first literary critic to make the explicit distinction between "plot" and "story." Nowadays, we take it for granted that these two things are different. But it took good ole Vik to make us see that.

    [A] work of art is perceived against a background of and by association with other works of art. The form of a work of art is determined by its relationship with other preexisting forms… All works of art, and not only parodies, are created either as a parallel or an antithesis to some model. The new form makes its appearance not in order to express a new content, but rather, to replace an old form that has already outlived its artistic usefulness.

    Here we go obsessing about form and content again. But this time is different, because it's also talking about individual literary texts in relation to other literary works. Don't get us wrong—what defines a literary work isn't its historical background. Or its philosophical outlook. Or the author's biography. What defines a literary work is how it's similar to or different from literary works that came before it, and that does have something to do with looking outside the text.

    And you know how forms change? Like, Dickens wrote differently from Hemingway who wrote differently from Woolf, not just because they were different folks but because literary styles were different in the times when they each lived. Well, all those crazy changes don't have anything to do with new content. Changes in form are about expressing old content in a new, fresh way. Yeah, that's right. The content is always (well, usually) the same.

    How many literary texts or works do we have about star-crossed lovers? Like, loads. Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Lancelot and Guinevere in all those King Arthur legends. Buffy and Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (ok maybe that last one's not "literature" exactly, but you get the point).

    See, the story of star-crossed lovers is an old story. But through the ages it's been told in new ways. In other words, it's the form that changes, not the content.

    Shklovsky, that superstar Formalist, is saying that the only thing that matters about a literary work (aside from all that language stuff, obvi) is its relationship to other literary works. The literary critics who came before Shklovsky and his pals weren't looking at the relationship between texts in this systematic way.

    As much as the Formalists get flak for not paying attention to historical context, they were the first to emphasize the importance of looking at how form and types of language used in storytelling changed over time. Take that, all ye who doubt!

  • Roman Jakobson and Yuri Tynyanov

    The history of literature (art), being simultaneous with other historical series, is characterized, as is each of these series, by an involved complex of specific structural laws. Without an elucidation of these laws, it is impossible to establish in a scientific manner the correlation between the literary series and other historical series.

    There are specific laws that govern the development of literature. Think of it as the constitution of the land of books and poems. If we don't study and understand these laws, say Roman and Yuri, then don't get no illusions about understanding literature.

    Not to mention how literature relates to history. First we need to figure out what these "literary laws" are that are involved in the development of literature, and then we can relate what's going on in literature with what's going on outside it. The point is, we have to study literature and understand it first.

    Jakobson and Tynyanov really believed that literature was like this organism with its own skeleton and set of particular laws. Again, here we're seeing the Formalists' emphasis on a "scientific" point of view.

    Also, notice that word "structural"? Well, that's very important. Because the Formalists and the Structuralists had tons in common. Here we're seeing Formalist and Structuralist ideas coming together. And that is how Formalism still breathes in literary theory today.

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