linguistic formalistsOverview

The Formalist schools of linguistics have shed much light on the detailed texture of poems, but their theories remain contentious, generally lacking field studies or laboratory evidence.

Introduction: Russian Formalism

Saussure's ideas caught on most rapidly in Russia, where of course the Revolution had overthrown bourgeois lifestyles and conceptions. Many of the Russian critics had already been moving in a similar direction, encouraged by the acute consciousness of craft which Symbolist poets exhibited, and by technical studies of Pushkin's art. {1} Very obliquely, the Formalists also drew sustenance from the Art for Art's Sake movement that swept Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. Both movements were anti-realist, denying that morality, philosophy or subject should be the concern of a poem. What did matter were verbal qualities: the evocative power of words for the Symbolists, their strident novelty for the Futurists.

But whereas the Italian Futurists strove for a new diction to express the new age, the Russian Futurists believed that poetic speech should be an end in itself, not a medium for conveying ideas and emotions. Many schools of poetry would be extinguished by such a conception, but the Russian Futurists were iconoclastic and lived dangerously. Many poets experimented wildly, arbitrarily using words for their form and texture rather than any communicative value. {2} Mayakovsky wrote: "Art is not a copy of nature, but the determination to distort nature in accordance with its reflections in the individual consciousness". {3}

Much that the Russian Futurists bequeathed was very valuable. They made countless studies of rhyme, metre, consonantal clusters, etc. of the Russian classics and of poems by contemporaries. They claimed, contrary to Symbolist assertions, that words and their connotations are not the most important ingredient of poetry. They replaced loose talk about inspiration and verbal magic by "study of the laws of literary production". In regarding literary history as successive revolts against prevailing canons, the young Futurists embraced a rather crude relativism, however, with results apparent even to them: Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy continued to be read for all that Mayakovsky called them period pieces.

Shklovsky was not consistent in asserting that the poet's art lies in deforming reality to make it fresh. Nor did Brik really believe that the author is immaterial, that Eugene Onegin would have been written anyway had Pushkin not lived. {4} Much of the writing was cavalierly provocative, originating in café talk, sharpened by youthful high spirits into polemic.

The Russian Formalists were materialists and anti-traditionalists, who tried to reach some rapprochement with social and political concerns. At first their approach was somewhat mechanical, treating literature simply as an assembly of literary devices. Subsequently they investigated the interrelated of parts, an "organic" approach. {5} Finally, in 1928, Tynyanov and Jakobson recast literature as a system where every component had a constructive function, just as the social fabric was a "system of systems." {6} But the short period of comparative tolerance of the early twenties changed as Stalinism tightened its grip, and the Formalists were obliged to recant, turn to novel writing, or flee abroad. That literature should not be subordinated to narrow Marxist concerns is a theme to which Russian authors occasionally returned in the succeeding thirty years, but an aesthetic divorced from socialism remained a heresy in the Soviet Union.

Russian Formalism: Achievements

The Russian Formalists tried to explain how aesthetic effects were produced by literary devices, and how literary writing differed from nonliterary. Literature, as they saw it, was an autonomous product, and should be studied by appropriate methods, preferably scientific. The literary was not distinguished from the non-literary by subject matter, poetic inspiration, philosophic vision, or sensory quality of the poetic image, but by its verbal art. Tropes, particularly metaphor, were the key, as they shifted objects to a new sphere of perception, making the familiar strange, novel and exciting. Of course Aristotle had accepted unusual words as necessary to poetic diction, and the Romantics saw novelty and freshness as one of the hallmarks of true poetry. Surrealists made poems as a renascence of wonder, an act of renewal. {7} But Jakobson deepened the interest. "The distinctive feature of poetry lies in the fact that a word is perceived as a word and not merely a proxy for the denoted object or an outburst of emotion, that words and their arrangement, their meaning, their outward and inward form acquire weight and value of their own". {8}

Now if rhythm, euphony and startling word order should converge on a word so as to throw into relief its complex texture, its density of meanings and associations, that was nothing unusual. {9} Few conscientious writers would disagree. Words, and the meanings and emotions they carry, are the material assembled into a poem by the usual devices of this art form. Exactly in the same manner, a painter takes the outside world as his raw materials rather than the given "content" which he must faithfully reproduce. But Jakobson and Zirmunsky equated this "material" with the verbal. {10} That was the crucial difference. Words for them drew their meaning from their arrangements within the poem, not their outside referents, an attitude analogous to Saussure's closed system of arbitrary signs.

Russian Formalism: Social Aspects

Formalism of a sort was already in existence before Saussure's ideas arrived, and the critical establishment were not slow to ask such questions as: Is literature the same as literariness? Is art no more than the sum of its devices? And is the greatest art that which employed the most devices and/or deployed them with the greatest skill? The older ideas lingered on and even as late as 1923 Shklovsky, who had brilliantly applied the concept of defamiliarization to Tristram Shandy, was warning that formalist criteria should not be applied too mechanically. {11} Devices obtruded in Sterne's novel or Byron's Don Juan, but The Divine Comedy was not an extended device on which to hang irrelevant theological considerations.

Perhaps we should say that "poetry is the world transformed into language" {12} — recognizing that elements of biography, psychology, philosophy, emotion and reference to the outside world are not so much incorporated as recreated in the artistic process. Style is the means a writer employs in coming to terms with the world, but his created world is not a reliable guide to the world disclosed by historical or biographical research. The Formalists stressed the autonomy of literature, the devices it employed, the need for systematic study of those devices, but even Jakobson, the most provocative of thinkers, did not generally deny that literature was in some ways a reflection of life. But how should we compare the two worlds, of life and art? Possibly by seeking in the semantic shifts occurring on the level of the sign for some correlation to the complex and bewildering nature of reality itself.

The readiness with which poets could find an enthusiastic audience among the proletariat (and indeed the shortage of paper itself) made poetry the most popular literary form during the early years of the Revolution. The Formalists were among its enthusiastic champions. Verse, they emphasized, was speech organized in its entire phonetic texture. {13} Image was downplayed as a device that involved only one level of poetic discourse, but rhythm was soon seen as crucial. And Formalist analysis of Russian, Greek and Serbo-Croat poetry went far beyond the usual metrical studies. Included were studies of sentence structures, consonantal arrangements, phrasal melody, syntax, rhyme, sound with sense — all of them drawing closer to linguistics. Narrative poetry led them to study literary language, and from stylistics they went on to problems of composition, plot, genre and character.

Russian Formalism: Assessment

But how sensible was the Formalist's emphasis on continual innovation? Possibly art does grow stale and needs renewal, but change cannot be solely directed by literary features, argued Zirmunsky. There may be an internal dynamism, but also important will be the social and political context. {14} Nor did literature evolve steadily as though it were a self-contained object: there were twists and complications, with influences from unlikely side-branches, as the art of Pushkin or Tolstoy illustrated.

Arguing for ostranenie or defamiliarization, Shklovsky wrote in 1917 that "Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." {15} So extreme a position he did not maintain, but the opinion, still rehearsed today, that art should give us back a fresh view of a world grown dull by habit begs important questions. What is art? The geographer and social historian look with a keener eye on a landscape or portrait than ever the painter can, but we do not call their observations art. Consciousness-altering drugs also vivify our perceptions, but those perceptions are private and evanescent. And if novelty of outlook is the end of art, then we shall be dulled by even the latest of art's achievements and demand even greater novelty. Perpetual aesthetic revolution breeds not excitement but eventually weariness and indifference.

Perhaps this was already apparent in the critics who tried in the later twenties to accommodate art in Marxist thought. Mikhail Bakhtin and others of his "school" drew literature into the social and economic sphere. Language was a socially-constructed sign system and thus a material reality. Words are the weapons of class struggle, with the ruling classes ever concerned to narrow their meanings to support the status quo. Bakhtin stressed the ways language may disrupt authority and release alternative voices. In his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics of 1929 he contrasted the diversity of viewpoints in Dostoevsky's novels with the authoritarian viewpoint of the author in Tolstoy's novels. This "carnivalization", as Bakhtin called it, became important to later theorists (particularly left-wing and psychoanalytic critics) who wished to see art as multi-levelled, resistant to any unified meaning, certainly to bourgeoisie ideology.

The Prague School

From Russia, Saussure's ideas spread to Prague, where Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) arrived 1919, publicizing theory and Russian futurist poetry. But Prague already had a proto-Structuralist objectivism, deriving from J.H. Herbart's (1776-1841) writings, and this aesthetic included social values. Under Jan Mukarovsky, who took the Herbartian chair in 1938, the aesthetic object (artwork as sign) was regarded as the signified of its material signifier (artwork as thing). Art could be complex or difficult even, but its essence did not lie in deviation and distortion. What should be studied was aktualisace — 'foregrounding' as it came to be translated: the manner in certain elements or features came to be emphasized or brought to the fore from the background of more normal usage. Notably these included tone, metaphor, ambiguity, patterning and parallelism in poetry, and diction, character, plot and theme in prose works. {16}

Jakobson, the harbinger of futurism, advocated a more self-contained, Saussurean view, and continued to classify artistic styles by formal qualities, much after the manner of Heinrich Wolffin (1864-1945), but employing a terminology more drawn from figures of speech, especially metaphor (ascribing a property of one thing to something else) and metonymy (using the property of something to stand for its whole). Studying aphasia and child speech development while exiled in Sweden in 1941, Jakobson found that metaphor and metonymy were indeed fundamentally different. He therefore recast Saussure's basic structures in two terms — a vertical axis where phonemes can be replaced, and the lateral where they are combined in words. Metonymy, he announced, refers to the combination of linguistic units on the horizontal or syntagmatic axis. Metaphor operates by selection and therefore belongs to the vertical or paradigmatic axis. Poetic, i.e. predominantly literary language, projects the paradigmatic axis onto the syntagmatic. {17} On this simplistic notion, quickly taken up from its 1958 Pittsburgh launch, Jakobson conceptualized literature as essentially a play on words. Reference — to society, life, thought, history, society, anything outside language — was irrelevant, if not a distraction.

Linguists in Czechoslovakia and Poland did not agree. Literature should include nonliterary elements, and not be reduced to its verbal substratum. {18} Gradually, in both countries, as psychoanalysis permeated European thought in the thirties, Formalism began to incorporate both psychological and structuralist ideas. In Poland, where aesthetic purity was not so insisted on, the influence of Husserl also began to make itself felt, {19} a situation not unlike that of Paris thirty years later.

Prague School: Assessment

The critical theory of the Prague School is rich, diverse, and not easy to evaluate. Many of its approaches have become commonplaces, even among traditionalists. But one criticism which is often levelled at the school, and at the Russian Formalists, is the lack of testing, authentication.

Consider "foregrounding", a device widely recognized in Modernist and pre-Modernist writing. How valid is it? Certainly emphasis on these and other literary devices will provide new readings of texts, {20} increasing the depth and diversity of interpretation, but are these interpretations any more than artifacts of the interpretative method? Do readers actually take these features into account? How do they affect their aesthetic response? The evidence is equivocal. Very little has been done to test even foregrounding, and that testing has given very uncertain results. {21} Literary theory is often seen as an end in itself, {22} but if literary criticism has no larger aim than to give employment to academic critics and their students, then academia has indeed become the self-contained system that Saussure proposed for language itself.


1. Part One of Victor Erlich's Russian Formalism (1981), Lee Lemon and Marion Reis's (Trans.) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (1965), and Ann Jefferson's Russian Formalism in Ann Jefferson and David Robey's Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction (1986).
2. p. 45 of Erlich 1981.
3. p. 46 ibid.
4. pp. 77 and 253 ibid.
5. Peter Steiner's Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics (1984).
6. p. 134.134-5 ibid.
7. p. 179 ibid.
8. p. 183 ibid.
9. pp. 184-5 ibid.
10. pp. 189-90 ibid.
11. p. 197 ibid.
12. A phrase of the German aesthetician H. Konrad's. p. 206 ibid.
13. p. 212 ibid.
14. p. 255 ibid.
15. pp. 10-11 in Raman Selden's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985, 1989).
16. PL Garvin's A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style (1958), Jan Mukarovsky's Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts (1979) and Chapter 1 of Selden 1989.
17. Roman Jakobson's Linguistics and Poetics (1958).
18. p. 159 ibid.
19. p. 166 ibid.
20. David Lodge's The Modes of Modern Writing (1977).
21. Willie van Peer's Stylistics and Psychology: Investigations of Foregrounding. (1986).
22. Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990), Chapter 9 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture (1990), Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning: Reclaiming the Study of Literature (1996), Denis Donoghue's The Pure Good of Theory (1992) and Gerald Graff's Literature Against Itself (1979/95).

Internet Resources

1. Russian Formalism. Dec. 2003. Brief Wikipedia entry, with many links.
2. Russian Formalism. Karen A. McCauley. 1997.
. Detailed account and bibliography.
3. Structuralism. Ronald Schleifer. 1997.
. Good account of the main figures, with bibliography.
4. Prague School Structuralism. Lubomír Dolezel. 1997.
. History of the school and its main ideas.
5. Jakobson, Roman. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. 1997. hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/roman_jakobson.html. Brief account with bibliography.
6. Semiotics for Beginners. Daniel Chandler. Jun. 2002. A glossary of key terms, including note on Prague School.
7. On Poetic Language. Jan Mukarovsky. 1940/1976. Excerpts from his 1940 book.
8. Sula — Toni Morrison's poetic language. Robert Leaver. Some of Mukarovsky's concepts applied.
9. A Bibliography of Literary Theory, Criticism and Philology. José Ángel García Landa. 2003. Extensive listings collected into MS Word files.