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What Is Russian Formalism?

Russian formalism is a school of literary criticism.
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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Russian formalism is a school of literary criticism formed in Russia that became highly influential in the early decades of the 1900s. Some of its concepts are still in use today in literary criticism. Its central tenant is that the text of the writer’s work should be the focus of any inquiry or criticism regarding the work. The Russian formalists believed that literature, including poetry, should not be interpreted based on ideology, historical interests, or psychological principles. Literary art is the total effect of literary devices and “strategies” the writer uses to achieve her aims.

Scholars point out that Russian formalism is not the precise term for the school of criticism. Many of its early adherents could not agree on what all of its principals and goals should be. They simply considered themselves “formalists.” By the 1930s, Russian authorities were using the term formalist as a pejorative to describe any “elitist” artist.

Formalists advocated an objective and what they considered a “scientific” method of studying literature and poetic language. Literary scholarship was thought to be a distinct field of study that was separate from the disciplines of psychology and sociology. Only those features that distinguish literature from all other kinds of thought and expression should be the object of critical study.

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One key feature that formalists identified as distinguishing literature from other endeavors was its use of “defamiliarization.” This term refers to the way in which literature uses language in new, unfamiliar, and even strange ways. The writer is in control of a universe of her own making. She can explain the world in a whole new light through her choice of language and story construction. What the writer says cannot be separated from how she says it.

Formalists believed that literature has its own distinct history and innovations. It is left to the writers to find new approaches to defamiliarization. Two modern examples of the literary strategy of defamiliarization are James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” writing, and the use of magical realism by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novels.

Russian formalism influenced the literary theory of structuralism. Structuralism holds that relationships between concepts are dependent on the culture and language in which the concepts are created. These relationships can be discovered and studied.

The school of “new criticism” is comparable to Russian formalism, although it did not evolve from it. Both schools of thought believe that literature must be studied on its own terms. It cannot be evaluated in terms of cultural and historical “externalities.” The focus of study should be the literary strategies and craft of the writer.

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ddljohn
Post 3

Russian formalism was not a very unified movement. Scholars and academicians who supported and participated didn't come up with a set of rules or a mission statement. So the movement eventually branched out into several groups.

fify
Post 2

@SteamLous-- It's true that if you want to analyze a literary work in a way that Russian formalists encourage, then you should be looking at the literary devices that the writer uses.

The type of literary criticism that Russian formalists emphasized is not really important any longer. At the time however, the formalists felt that literary criticism was unnecessarily influenced by other fields such as sociology and psychology. They felt that the essence of criticism was being lost and that not enough emphasis was being put on creative writing styles. So this movement wanted to encourage critics to use more scientific methods of analyzing a piece of writing that is more objective and accurate.

SteamLouis
Post 1

I think that Russian formalism and criticism is interesting. I'm just learning about it but it has given me a new perspective about criticism.

I review stories and films as a hobby and there are many times when I criticize literature based on cultural, religious or ethical issues. But according to Russian formalism, this is completely wrong. I should only be criticizing according to the text and according to how language is being used. I'm definitely going to think about this next time I criticize a literary work.

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