Viktor Shklovsky wants to make you a better writer, part 1: device & defamiliarization
When I was finishing up my Master’s degree at ISU, I worried that I still didn’t know much about writing—like, how to actually do it. My mentor Curtis White told me, “Just read Viktor Shklovsky; it’s all in there.” So I moved to Thailand and spent the next two years poring over Theory of Prose. When I returned to the US in the summer of 2005, I sat down and started really writing.
I’ve already put up one post about what, specifically I learned from Theory of Prose, but it occurs to me now that I can be even more specific. So this will be the first in a series of posts in which I try to boil ToP down into a kind of “notes on craft,” as well as reiterate some of the more theoretical arguments that I’ve been making both here and at Big Other over the past 2+ years. Of course if this interests you, then I most fervently recommend that you actually read the Shklovsky—and not just ToP but his other critical texts as well as his fiction, which is marvelous. (Indeed, Curt has since told me that he didn’t mean for me to focus so much on ToP! But I still find it extraordinarily useful.)
Let’s talk first about where Viktor Shklovsky himself started: the concepts of device and defamiliarization.
Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was, among other things, one of the founders of the intellectual movement that we today call Russian Formalism. (Other participants include Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Propp, and Yuri Tynianov). Broadly speaking, they wanted to understand artworks by breaking them down into their constituent parts, or devices (priem)—what we might call tropes or techniques or mechanisms. Different members of this circle studied different devices, and they didn’t always agree as to which devices mattered most. Rather, what unified them was their dedication to identifying devices, then explaining how those devices worked in concert with one another—as well as how those arrangements changed over time.
Theory of Prose was originally published in 1925, but not published in English until 1991. (You can read a lot of it online, here.) It begins with a literal account of the above paragraph: “Art as Device.” (This title is sometimes translated as “Art as Technique”; this is of course that word priem—прием—which means many different things, including chess strategy.) Shklovsky spends some time discussing other accounts of art that people before him have proposed, mainly so he can dismiss them. (He was a fierce critic.) And a lot of new readers get tripped up in these first few pages, but the essential point is that Shklovsky is defining art as device: an artwork is, formally speaking, the sum of its techniques. What’s more, those devices are artistic devices:
In a narrow sense we shall call a work artistic if it has been created by special devices whose purpose is to see to it that these artifacts are interpreted artistically as much as possible (2)
In other words: art for art’s sake! (We don’t judge or evaluate a sculpture by the same criteria we judge other objects—such as iPads, which, despite whatever aesthetic qualities they might possess, ultimately have mundane, utilitarian functions.)
Shklovsky next proceeds to a broader defense of art, and an argument as to its purpose. This is the most famous thing he ever wrote. First, Shklovsky relates a passage from Tolstoy’s diary, in which the author recounts how, after dusting his living room, he couldn’t remember whether he’d cleaned his sofa. This causes Tolstoy to wonder how much of one’s life is lived unconsciously:
If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. (5)
Shklovsky next draws a distinction between “recognition” (“automatized perception”) and “seeing.” Recognition occurs when we look at things without seeing them—when dusting the sofa has become so familiar, we tune it out. (“I know I drove home from work, but I don’t recall doing it.”) Seeing, in contrast, happens when something makes us to look again, and regard a thing as though we’re encountering it for the first time. An example I’m fond of is that I lived in Chicago for five years, riding the CTA Blue Line constantly during that time, before noticing (actually seeing) the wood paneling that lines the inside of its train cars.
OK. Shklovsky next asks how we might escape recognition—whose dull teeth are ever at our throat—and return, time and again, to seeing. He goes on to write the most-quoted passage from Theory of Prose:
Held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. […] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to its fullest. (5–6)
Art is art because it shakes us out of our complacency, reminding us that we are alive and that things don’t have to be the way they are. It reminds us that anything is possible, despite the fact that we routinely convince ourselves that things are just as they are—the way we’ve inherited them. It is the job of the artist, therefore, to imagine what exists outside of prescribed reality. In a certain sense, art becomes a kind of experimental living.
But it’s important that we note how art, in fact, does this in Shklovsky’s account. Here we must return to our concept of device. Because, remember, for Shklovsky, art is device. And these devices can be cataloged and inherited and imitated—they can even assume the insistence of dogma. (“Show, don’t tell.”) They routinely get assembled in conventional ways—familiar patterns. How, then, can a thing as solidly formulaic as an artwork ever produce something other than automatic recognition?
Shklovsky’s answer is defamiliarization, or ostranenie (which is also often called “estrangement” or “enstrangement”; the Russian is “остранение”). And this is a concept that has been much misunderstood. (Here are two examples of literary critic James Wood completely botching it; mistaking it as being akin to metaphor.) Another common misunderstanding is that defamiliarization is anything surprising or novel in art (“Put the painting on the ceiling!”). But defamiliarization, at heart, is both simpler and much more powerful: it is the manipulation of an artwork’s devices such that the artist disrupts mere recognition.
Shklovsky provides an example from Tolstoy (his favorite author), the story “Kholstomer,” told from a horse’s point of view. What Shklovsky likes about this is not the narrator’s equinity (i.e., not some gimmick), but rather how that conceit enables Tolstoy to defamiliarize everyday customs and objects (and aspects of language):
Many of the people, for example, who called me their horse did not ride on me. Others did. These same people never fed me. Others did. Once again, I was shown many kindnesses, but not by those who called me their horse. No, by coachmen, veterinarians and strangers of all sorts. As my observations grew, though, I became increasingly convinced that this concept of mine was invalid not only for us horses but also for human folk, i.e., that it represents nothing more than man’s base and beastly instinct to claim property for himself. A landlord, for instance, says “my house” but never lives in it, concerning himself only with the structure and maintenance of the house. A merchant says “my shop,” “my clothing shop,” yet he himself does not wear any clothes made from the fine material displayed in it. (7)
Shklovsky then notes—crucially—that “the horse is killed off long before the end of the story, but the mode of telling the story, its device, does not change” (ibid). What matters is Tolstoy’s novel use of a stock literary device, which he pursues to the extent of warping both the story and our impression of everyday life.
For Shklovsky, then, art—while always a matter of conventional devices—demands that the artist resist automatic recognition by means of defamiliarization—that he or she make some unconventional employment of one or more of the artwork’s devices. Since he was a writer and literary critic, his concern is how this is done in literature. And so he spends much of the rest of the chapter discussing how euphemisms, erotica, riddles, and poetry produce this effect by impeding recognition:
In our phonetic and lexical investigations into poetic speech, involving both the arrangement of words and the semantic structures based on them, we discover everywhere the very hallmark of the artistic: that is, an artifact that has been intentionally removed from the domain of automatized perception. It is “artificially” created by an artist in such a way that the perceiver, pausing in his reading, dwells on the text. (12)
Poetry, thus, is not “thinking in images,” as others before and after have claimed, or even a prescribed way of writing. It is not metaphorical language, as many lyric MFA students have been taught; nor is it writing that resists semantic closure and thereby forces the production of meaning onto its audience, as the Language Poets would have it. Nor is it writing that is above all else sincere, as the New Sincerists and Muumuu House would have it; nor is it allegorical writing that results, mechanically and residually, from a motivating concept or procedure, as the Conceptual Poets would have it.
It is instead all these things and more; it is “the language of impeded, distorted speech. It is structured speech” (13). N.B. that structure and impedibility are not antitheses! The impeding is a function of the structure—indeed, it is impossible to make the reader pause without structure.
This principle gets at the very heart of my disagreement with Chris Higgs, seen most sharply here and here. (The rest of our debate is forthcoming!) It also underlies my criticisms of James Wood, and my many, many critiques of Christopher Nolan. I will try to summarize it as simply as I can:
- Art is formulaic; it is comprised of devices and patterns of devices.
- We desire, however, that art defamiliarize.
- Thus, the artist must employ some of those devices toward defamiliarization—through addition, subtraction, or substitution.
- That said, in order for us to be able to feel the effect of defamiliarization, it’s essential that other devices in the artwork be conventionally employed. (Total innovation is indistinguishable from noise. If everything bucked convention, how would we know we’re in the presence of an artwork?)
- Furthermore, we can never prescribe which devices should be altered, or in what way. What can be done with an artwork to make it “feel stony” is entirely contingent on the artist’s time and place.
Shklovsky is adamant on this last point, and concludes the chapter by addressing it:
There is such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the order of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” […] We have good reason to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device. (14)
Christopher Higgs and James Wood are of course very different critics, but I’d argue that, as well-intentioned as they both are (they promote the writing they think the most artistic, which is noble), they both effectively make the same mistake. Chris (it seems to me) desires that writing be anti-Aristotelian, some hybrid of fiction and poetry that employs the devices he considers “experimental.” (Meanwhile, he considers other devices and patterns non-experimental.) James Wood, conversely, thinks the best writing to be realist prose, which he likes best when it’s written in the third person limited, employing free indirect discourse. These preferences lead Higgs and Wood to overstate the artistic importance and effect of what they personally like, to the point where those respective things are all that count for them as art.
[Christopher Nolan is a different animal entirely. I think he wants to be an artist—I believe he really does aspire to make today’s Godfather: Part II—and he even has some decent innovations (e.g., “tell the story backward”), although they’re never as defamiliarizing as he seems to think they are. But his real problem is that he relies too much on familiar convention, the commonest film techniques of the day, making movies wherein his 1% defamiliarization gets drowned out by the 99% of his rote, uninspired cinematic language—to the point where his innovation essentially becomes a gimmick. (Put another way, he thinks it cool that the narrator is a horse.)]
Returning to Higgs and Wood: it’s fine to have favorites, and I don’t fault them their preferences. But art has no favorite way of being made, and there are no experimental devices. One can only experiment with devices. There also aren’t any realist devices—rather, there are devices that, in a given time and place, produce the effect of realism. (This is why today’s most convincingly realist art is tomorrow’s stylized artifice. Can you believe that audiences once couldn’t see the artifice in classic Hollywood cinema?)
Furthermore, art is (necessarily) always a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. That mixture is not preset; nor is it a recipe or a formula that one follows. Any aspect of the artwork can be bent toward defamiliarization—and, in time, should be! Because what counts as art right now will very possibly not count as art tomorrow, except in some historic sense. We are always at war with the insatiable process of recognition.
This also suggests that the innovation of defamiliarization has nothing—nothing!—to do with originality or invention. Or, rather, arguments over originality and invention miss the larger point. When an artist disrupts a familiar pattern, it doesn’t matter if they’re the first person to do it, or whether they’ve stolen that idea from another time and another place (or whether they thought up on their own something that someone else already did). What matters is what effect the disruption produces in their specific artwork, in its specific time and place. For more on this principle, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and especially here.)
Finally, we can see that genre is no obstacle whatsoever to innovation. All writing, all art, is formulaic. Some of those formulas we call genres. Their familiar conventionality provides a serious artist with plenty of opportunity for innovation (aka, “The Stanley Kubrick Story”). Shklovsky: “Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant” (6, emphasis in the original).
“Art as Device” is a very dense fourteen pages, and serves as the foundation for the remainder of Theory of Prose. In the chapters that follow, Shklovsky provides extensive examples of devices and patterns of devices (taken from specific works), then demonstrates how authors can and do defamiliarize by manipulating the most conventional elements of literature. In the posts that follow, I’ll summarize some of that, drawing attention to the practical lessons I learned, and provide some more contemporary examples. (I’ll even explain how this relates to my recent series of posts on generating text!)
Until then—go fuck yourself!
Tags: Batman, Benjamin Sher, big other, Christopher Higgs, Christopher Nolan, conceptual writing, Curtis White, Dalkey Archive Press, defamiliarization, device, elisa gabbert, experimental writing, how fiction works, Inception, James Wood, mfa programs, muumuu house, New Sincerity, ostranenie, priem, realism, Russian Formalism, Theory of Prose, Viktor Shklovsky