What is Russian formalism, and what was its effect on literature?

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Russian formalism was a school of Russian literary scholarship that emerged in the 1910s, flourished throughout the 10s and 20s, and was forcefully repressed by Stalin beginning in the 1930s. It was primarily a fierce reaction against theretofore predominant intellectual trends in literary analysis. Russian formalists, including Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Tomashevsky, and Yuri Tynyanov, rejected those literary styles characterized by academic esotericism, the “people” centric, message-oriented literature of social theorists, and symbolic literature. Instead, they argued for the creation of a standard (“formalized”) field of literary study, one which would clearly delimit its methodological approaches and the theoretical criteria by which it would analyze works of literature. The formalists argued that literary study needed to clearly and unambiguously define what its own field of inquiry was and put an end to the blending of analytical traditions.

The formalists took to the extreme the argument that elements that made a given poem or literary work unique were not to be found within the particular psychology, or “inspiration,” of its writer. Nor were answers to be found in the way its readers absorbed and interpreted a text. Rather, all of the information relating to the peculiarity of a given literary work was to be found in that work itself—no outside source of explanation would suffice. A corollary to this way of thinking was that the particular elements that enabled a work to be defined as a piece of literature were not to be found in its use of images. As the Formalist Viktor Shklovsky argued in his seminal essay “Art as a Device,” all of the “tropes,” uses of imagery, and figures of speech in a piece of literature could be dispensed with without taking away from its effectiveness. Poetic language, according to Shklovsky and others, does not enhance the spiritual meaning of a given work. Rather it serves to hide subject matter which simpler prose could more easily convey.

Russian formalism lent itself to the structural analysis of culture, literature, and art. In doing so, this theory championed the use of empirical investigation to differentiate and isolate the individual elements that composed a given literary work. The Russian formalists had a tremendous influence on the rise of literary formalism throughout the rest of continental Europe, especially in places like France in the 1960s.

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A school of literary criticism centered in Russia beginning in the 1910s, Russian Formalism aimed to use a more scientific approach to thinking about and discussing literature, rather than the psychological, cultural, or historical methods that had been previously favored. Its practitioners believed in the role of literary and poetic devices and forms, and that they should also be studied independently from the texts that employed them. In essence, they wanted to ascribe a scientific method to studying literature by breaking it down into its various technical parts.

Within this broad definition of Russian Formalism, there are many (often competing) schools of thought. Mechanistic Formalism focused very closely on literary techniques and devices. Viktor Shklovsky was the chief architect of this method.

Lev Jakubinsky and Roman Jakobson practiced Linguistic Formalism, which centered language and aimed to sideline the emotional qualities of a work when discussing it.

Systemic Formalism, whose main proponent was Yury Tynyanov, acknowledged how language and literature intersects with the culture at large. As such, it was too far in the center to be included in most Russian Formalism as well as more traditional literary criticism.

Organic Formalism was created when some critics felt that the Mechanistic Formalism method was too rigid. The scholars of this method looked to the flexibility of biology to guide them in their scientific inquiry into literature.

Russian Formalism was derided by both Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, and its practitioners suffered political persecution once Stalin came to power. This persecution slowly but surely ended this form of criticism by the 1930s. However, its influence continued throughout the century, specifically in its connection to the French Structuralism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

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Russian Formalism was a literary movement and primarily a school of literary criticism/theory which developed in Russia in the early 20th century. Although the practitioners of this method had diverse ways of approaching formalism, the general idea is that these critics focused on poetic techniques, language, and the structure of literature. This was an attempt at making the study of literature more scientific. They focused on the texts themselves, giving less attention to authorial intent, biographical information, and cultural/historical significance. One of the goals was to distinguish literary language from all other language. What makes poetry poetic? 

Viktor Shklovsky was one of the more influential Russian Formalists. He endeavored to study literature for its structural functions and what makes it different from other language formations. He wanted to get away from critiquing and analyzing literature in terms of social, political, emotional, and psychological meanings and manifestations. He coined the term "defamiliarization" to denote the way that literary and poetic language differs from ordinary language. Literary language is unfamiliar. It causes the reader to slow down the reading process. The technique is artful because it makes the familiar unfamiliar.

Formalists also studied the novel in structural terms. They analyzed the connection between story (chronology of events) and plot (the raw material of the story). In Russian, story is "fabula" and the plot is called "sjuzhet." The Russian Formalists were different from but are often compared to the New Critics in America. Both groups shared some similar formalist methods.

The formalist method widely influenced literary theory from the early 1900s onward. Given the focus on literary structure, the Formalists had a large influence on subsequent Structuralist theorists. And in turn, they would have an indirect influence on Post-structuralist theorists. Although Feminist, Marxist, Post-colonial, Gender, and Postmodern theorists focus more on political and social issues in literature, the notion of distinguishing the uniqueness of literary language is still a part of many modern traditions.

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