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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.
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.