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A central concept in Russian Formalism's attempt to describe and define what constitutes literaturnost (literariness). A neologism, it implies two kinds of actions: making strange, and pushing aside. Consistent with this double meaning, the concept refers to the techniques writers use to transform ordinary language into poetic language, which for the Russian Formalists is language which induces a heightened state of perception. Habit, according to the Russian Formalists, is the enemy of art, therefore to produce art the writer has to force the reader outside of the usual patterns of perception by making the familiar appear strange or different. The principal theorist of this concept, Victor Shklovsky, uses a famous passage in Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869), where an opera is described as ‘painted cardboard and oddly dressed men and women who moved, spoke and sang strangely in a patch of blazing light’ to exemplify this concept. Basically what Tolstoy does, according to Shklovsky in Theory of Prose (1990), is view things out of context, or to put it another way he fails to see the thing that makes the actions he describes either meaningful or coherent and in this way he defamiliarizes them. In The Prison-House of Language (1972), Fredric Jameson enumerates three advantages of the concept of ostranenie: firstly, it enables literary theory itself to come into being by providing a way of distinguishing its object—namely, poetic language; secondly, it enables a hierarchy to be established within works and between works (i.e. more or less defamiliarizing); thirdly, it generates a new way of thinking literary history in terms of ruptures and breaks rather than continuities and influences. The problem with this concept, however, is that it is psychological rather than purely textual, inasmuch as it is premised on the deadened senses of the reader being awakened by clever writing rather than something specific to the writing itself. Obviously, too, this process suffers from the logic of diminishing returns—what was shocking yesterday is all too familiar today, thus demanding an ever greater level of shock to achieve a decreasingly small level of shock value (this, as many commentators have observed, is the problem contemporary non-representational art also faces). See also cognitive estrangement; estrangement-effect.

Further Reading:

T. Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (1979).V. Erlich Russian Formalism: History—Doctrine (1955).

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