Study Guide

Formalism Timeline

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How It All Went Down

1915: Moscow Linguistics Circle is founded

Roman Jakobson and his buddies start getting together to talk about some really complex questions in linguistics. They did it in Moscow and they usually sat in a circle, so they decided to call their gang the Moscow Linguistics Circle. Clever, huh?

1916: OPOYAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language) is founded in St. Petersburg

Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and their buddies start getting together to talk about poetry. Boy, do these guys love poetry. And this group was in St. Petersburg, which is way up north from Moscow, so they needed a whole new name, too. And they came up with the oh-so-catchy… OPOYAZ?

Here's why: in Russian you say "Society for the Study of Poetic Language" like this: " Obschestvo po izucheniyu poeticheskogo yazyka." Which with a nice abbrev obviously sounds like "Opoyaz," just like the English would sound like "Socpolang." Gotcha? Totes.

1916: Lev Jakubinsky's "On the Sounds of Poetic Language"

Finally! Someone explains what "poetic" language is all about.

Which is, "Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow," instead of "Mary's pet sheep was white and on the small side."

1917: The February Revolution in Russia

What starts as a peaceful demonstration with old women asking for bread blows up into the Revolution of the century with the February Revolution in Russia. The upshot is that Russians rise against Tsar Nicholas II (and that creepy guy who's always trailing him, Rasputin) and kaboom! Adios, Russian monarchy (or should we say do svidaniya?).

1917: The October Revolution in Russia

No way. Two revolutions in one year?! That's right. The February one is what got rid of the tsar. Then a bunch of normal folk (normal aside from wanting to overthrow the government and being really well-read on Marxism) scuffle amongst themselves for a bit, until October when the Bolsheviks take charge.

Are all communists Bolsheviks? No. That was just the most popular group, and it was headed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who was like, the head cheerleader of socialism. And after that—communism was here, comrades.

1917: Viktor Shklovsky's "Art as Technique"

That's right, 1917 was a big year. Did he write this as a response to the revolution? No, he cared way more about literature than about ousting some lousy tsar.

But did someone say "defamiliarization?" Shklovsky did, in this famous essay.

1921: Roman Jakobson's "On Realism in Art"

This essay is where Jakobson talks about that magical thing, "literariness." Yep, people could still pay attention to that kind of stuff in the middle of all the Bolsheviks and snow swarming around Russia just then.

1922: The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics is officially formed

Yes, now we know what "USSR" actually stands for.

1924 (ish): Joseph Stalin becomes leader of the Soviet Union

Uh-oh. The despot with the bushy mustache rises to power. Here come the gulags.

1924: Lev Trotsky's Literature and Revolution

Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Communist Party (at least until Stal Stal wanted all the leading to himself and sent his comrade trotting away), rants against the Formalists in this essay. According to him, they're just a bunch of intellectuals living in an ivory tower, totally disconnected from the political realities on the red ground. Who cares about a metaphor unless it's helping the communist cause?

1926: Boris Eikhenbaum's "Theory of the 'Formal Method'"

Eikhenbaum is annoyed at how much bad press the Formalists are getting in the Soviet Union. Why is it that all anyone wants to talk about is politics, not art? And so he writes an essay defending Formalism.

So Formalism wins the day? Well, maybe that day, but stuff started getting way stricter under Stalin, so most of the Formalists ended up arrested or quietly fled the country. The theory wasn't exactly dead, but it had definitely passed its heyday by the end of the 1920s.

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