Russian Formalism emerged in the opening decades of the twentieth century as a reaction to the mystification of literature found in the influential pan-European arts movement of Symbolism. Whereas Symbolism thought of literature as a means to apprehend a universal truth – a truth that could only be revealed by looking sideways at the world in order to glimpse the (platonic) Ideal form that gave birth to all -, Russian Formalism thought of literature on an altogether more prosaic, scientific basis – that is, as a kind of machine that could be adequately analyzed by concentrating on language and the employ of formal literary device.
For this reason, it is right to say that Russian Formalism was concerned more with the notion of literariness – what makes a text “literary” – than with the concept of literature itself. Indeed, this was the concern of Viktor Shklovsky’s critical work. In his well-read essay “Art as Technique” (which is also known as “Art as Device”), Shklovsky argues that literariness is simply the product of a particular use of language – it is our language of the everyday defamiliarized. That is to say, literariness is the result of working language so that it “makes strange” or interrupts our habituated or automatic perception of the word. By interrupting our automatic perception of the word in this way, the reader is forced to make extra effort in determining the meaning of the text and in so doing, Shklovsky argues, our wonder of the world is re-enlivened. He puts it like this:
“Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war … Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” (“Art as Technique”)
So, the writer’s job is to recover “the sensation of life” – that is, to render the world unusual or unfamiliar to the extent that the reader experiences the world anew. To return to his own example, it is to make the reader experience the artfulness of the stone rather than simply regard the stone as object. If one could sum up defamiliarization in a single sentence then, it might look something like this – defamiliarization is a technique by which the author can re-enliven the naturally inquisitive and literally awesome gaze of the child in the reader.
Perhaps the most important implication of thinking of the literary in this way is that literature itself can never again settle down. Clearly, those literary devices which once unsettled the reader will at some point become naturalized, just as the repetition of an inspiring metaphor means that it will eventually become a worn cliché. If literariness is a product of “making strange” then literature will always have to search out new ways of defamiliarizing the reading experience. Understood like this, literary history becomes the domain of discontinuities and interruptions rather than the smooth “progression” that some of the more conservative critics would advocate.