Russian Formalism And New Criticism

What are the main differences between Russian formalism and New Criticism? I have searched a lot but can only find similarities.

One key difference between Russian formalism and New Criticism is that the New Critics examined literary language as a way to explain or illuminate the artistic value of the text, whereas the Formalists looked at literary language to understand how, in linguistic terms, it produced meaning.

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Russian formalism was a critical school which, as the name suggests, emphasized form over content and attempted to study literature as a linguistic phenomenon based on quasi-scientific principles. New Criticism was pioneered by a more loosely affiliated group of critics who did not at first consciously identify as a school and who did not even have a name for the principles they espoused until the influential critic John Crowe Ransom titled one of his books The New Criticism. The New Critics were interested in both form and content and generally favored close reading of individual texts alongside, or sometimes instead of, the more general Russian formalist theories of what constitutes "literariness."

Besides an emphasis on close reading which is not found in Russian formalism, the New Critics were particularly interested in the concept of ambiguity in literary texts, as outlined in William Empson's 1930 study Seven Types of Ambiguity. They concentrated on the subtleties that could be drawn out of complex texts by focusing on ambiguities. The Russian Formalists had a more mechanistic technique. Viktor Shklovsky introduced the central concept of defamiliarization, in which the aim is to set aside what the reader already knows about the text and view it with new eyes, regarding a work of literature as something to be discovered afresh from first principles.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 1, 2021
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Russian formalism and New Criticism are very similar. Both purport to be scientific and rigorous in their analyses of texts. Both sever the text from the biography of the author and its social context. Both are primarily interested in studying the words on the page in isolation from other inputs.

New Critics, however, focused more on understanding the content or the overall meaning of a work of literature than the Russian Formalists. The New Critics wanted to brush away biography and history in order to get a clearer understanding of what a work of literature really meant when encountered on its own. They believed that an author's biography, for example, could get in the way of understanding what a text was saying or divert attention from a text to an author.

The Russian Formalists, however, were less interested in the content of a work or its over all meaning and more interested in focusing on the specific techniques literary writers used to make their works "literary." What, specifically, made a literary text different from a newspaper article or a scientific paper? How did literary authors achieve the effect of what the formalists called "defamiliarization," or making language sound stunning or different from the ordinary?

The New Critics were also very interested in literary techniques but were more focused on using them to illuminate the meaning or content of a work. One way to understand this is to see the Russian formalist as wanting to dissect the "frog" of its text into component parts: the bones would go in one pile, the skin in another, and so on: they weren't particularly concerned with keeping the "frog" as a whole. The New Critics would open up the "frog" of the text and study its component parts but want to keep it together, maybe pinned to a board, so that by understanding the parts, you could understand the frog as a whole.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 1, 2021
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A key difference between formalism and New Criticism are the ideologies they embody. While both critical schools embrace the text as the "source" of artistic expression, their ideological ends for doing so are quite different.

For instance, both New Criticism and formalism saw literary language as distinct from everyday speech. For the New Critics, this became to basis for asserting that literary expression was somehow "better," or more sophisticated, and that literature—or, more precisely, that the readers of that literature literature had access to a superior and exclusive kind of aesthetic beauty. This elitism found expression in the rise of the "canon," or the list of "approved" literary works deemed by academics as worth studying. These texts were viewed as worth reading because they used language in a self-consciously artistic way to produce beauty. A good example of this approach is Cleanth Brooks's study of Keats, The Well Wrought Urn.

Russian formalism also saw literary language as a unique form of discourse, but rather than asserting its aesthetic superiority, the formalists were more interested in the ways in which it differed from everyday speech and in explaining how it worked in linguistic terms. Their end, in other words, was not to appreciate the "beauty" of the text, but to demonstrate, scientifically, how the language of the text produced meaning. In essence, where the New Critics saw the text as a work of art, the Formalists saw the text as a kind of machine.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 1, 2021
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As you correctly note, Russian Formalism and New Criticism have many similarities, as both are part of the early twentieth-century formalist movement. In both schools of thought, the text itself is paramount and is studied independently of its context or author's intent. Literary language is thought of as distinct from ordinary language, and the form and structure of the text are considered to provide more meaning than the content itself. These schools of criticism are most commonly applied to poetry and encourage very close reading.

However, there are several distinct differences between the two schools of thought. In Russian Formalism, a differentiation is made between form and content, whereas New Criticism does not make such a differentiation, maintaining that texts are unified through their patterns, literary devices, themes, etc. Russian Formalism also affords some importance to the text's language and structure, whereas New Criticism considers a text to be completely self-contained, autonomous of its fabric. Furthermore, in Russian Formalism, a process called "dematerialization" was privileged, wherein reality of fact is created through the use of language.

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