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...
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.