Viktor Shklovsky has long been one of my favorite literary theorists, and this year is the hundredth anniversary of his writing his most famous essay, «Искусство как приём» [Art as Device]. The TLS has published a fine essay by Alexandra Berlina (editor and translator of the forthcoming Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader) to commemorate the occasion:

“What we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the method of art is ostranenie [making strange]”, proclaims Viktor Shklovsky’s best-known essay, “Art as Device” (“Iskusstvo kak priyom”), written one hundred years ago, and published in 1917.

When I say “essay”, I mean a cross between an article and a manifesto. And when I say “published”, I mean that Shklovsky had it printed on what looked like toilet paper, along with articles by other hot-headed students who believed they had found new ways of understanding literature. Following the new fashion for abbreviations, they christened their circle “OPOYAZ”, short for “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”. When others disparagingly called them formalists, they proudly took up the label. There never was a formal beginning to formalism, but the group formed around Shklovsky in 1916. This year, then, celebrates the twinned centenary of both the OPOYAZ and ostranenie – a concept that is often misunderstood as a mere textual game, when it is actually about making life more real, both in its joys and in its horrors.

In English, ostranenie is known as “defamiliarization”, “e(n)strangement”, “making strange” or “foregrounding”, all of which have the potential to confuse. Being estranged from, say, one’s wife is the emotional opposite of the reconnection through wonder that is ostranenie. One might also think of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt; though he was probably inspired by the Russian theorist, the German playwright believed in restraining feelings in order to promote critical thought. Shklovsky, on the other hand, saw thought as inseparable from emotion. (As it happens, contemporary cognitive science agrees.) To avoid such confusions, I will stick to the original term. Not that it is correct: it should have been ostrannenie, from the Russian strannyi, strange. But orthography was not one of Shklovsky’s fortes, and, as he put it decades later, the neologism “went off with one ‘n,’ to roam the world like a dog with an ear cut off”. The word is strange to Russian speakers, too – which is arguably a good thing, considering what it means.

I never realized the word should have been остраннение, with two н’s; it looks strange to me, which is obviously appropriate. Berlina goes on to discuss the backgrounds of the concept as well as of Shklovsky and his circle:

When a scholar claims that “acute experience” of the world is to be found in literature, one might suspect that his real life consists largely of book dust. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Shklovsky. Actually, to call him “a scholar” is misleading: while most of his life was dedicated to literary and film studies, he was also a fiction writer and the protagonist of other people’s novels, instructor of an armoured division and professor at the Art History Institute in Petrograd (both without any formal qualification), revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, the patriarch and enfant terrible of formalism, the chairman and cheerleader of the OPOYAZ.

The OPOYAZniks met in hungry Petrograd (not St Petersburg anymore, not Leningrad yet) and discussed the laws of world literature until dawn coloured the icy room. When this room was filled, knee-deep, with water, they sat on the backs of chairs. They didn’t retain this luxury for long: one member – often Shklovsky – would be responsible for chopping furniture and feeding the stove. Books burned, too, but gave little warmth. Despite the hunger and cold, these young people were exhilarated. They believed they were creating not a new kind of literary scholarship, but literary science. They took their work seriously – but they also had fun. Imagine them singing their jocular hymn, with its punning refrain “Ave Shklovsky, ave Victor, / formalituri te salutant!”, and stanzas such as the following:

“Love, just as any other object,
is known to us with all its vices.
But passion, from a formal viewpoint,
is just convergence of devices.”

They sang, they argued, they published, and in between led rather unscholarly lives. Shklovsky wrote while fighting in the First World War, participating in the February Revolution and trying to stage an anti-Bolshevik coup. He wrote while hiding in a mental ward and while starving in Petrograd; while torn between an unrelenting love-object in Berlin and an imprisoned wife in Russia. He even wrote while convalescing in a hospital: a bomb had gone off as he was trying to defuse it.

She talks about Swift, Twain, Vonnegut, and Martin Amis, among other practitioners, and explains how the idea spread:

It was only in 1965 that “Art as Device” was read in the West, translated into French by Tzvetan Todorov, and into English by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Other languages followed suit, and Shklovsky’s ideas became part of the critical toolkit, spreading by osmosis, usually without mention of his name. While his young self was resurrected in foreign languages he never learned, Shklovsky remained shut off from the world. “I doubt that most of us who were enthusiasts of the handful of essays available in the West were aware that he was not only still alive, but still publishing”, writes one of the early Shklovskians, David Gorman. Having already influenced Jakobson, Mikhail Bakhtin and Yury Lotman, Shklovsky’s work went on to inspire readers who did not speak Russian, such as Umberto Eco with his A Theory of Semiotics. Via Guy Cook, ostranenie entered linguistics and cognitive science as “schema refreshment”. The idea of cognitive renewal is now widespread in psychology, used in approaches such as “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” and “schema-focused therapy”. The twenty-first century has seen a new surge of interest in ostranenie: a special double issue of Poetics Today (2005/2006) connected the concept to thinkers ranging from Hannah Arendt to Michael Holquist, and a collection of essays, Ostrannenie (sic), in 2010, illuminates its importance for film studies. The international conference “A Hundred Years of Ostranenie”, scheduled for this year, has attracted submissions not only from literary and film scholars, but also from anthropologists and philosophers.

Read the whole thing; I’ll close with what is for obvious reasons one of my favorite bits from the Shklovsky essay:

Let me illustrate. I’m walking along the street and I see a man walking ahead of me wearing a hat. Suddenly, he drops a package. I call out to him: “Hey, you with the hat, you dropped a package!” This is an example of a purely prosaic use of an image. A second example. Several men are standing at attention. The platoon leader notices that one of the men is standing awkwardly, against army regulations. So he yells at him: “Hey, clean up your act, you crumpled hat!” This image is a poetic trope. (In one case the word hat serves as a metonymy, while in the other example we’re dealing with a metaphor. And yet I’m really concerned here with something else.)

Поясняю примером. Я иду по улице и вижу, что идущий впереди меня человек в шляпе выронил пакет. Я окликаю его: „эй, шляпа, пакет потерял“. Это пример образа — тропа чисто прозаического. Другой пример. В строю стоят несколько человек. Взводный видя, что один из них стоит плохо, не по-людски, говорит ему: „эй, шляпа, как стоишь“;. Это образ — троп поэтический. (В одном случае слово шляпа была метонимией, в другом метафорой. Но обращаю внимание не на это).

(I wish the translator had rendered по-людски properly as, e.g., “not the way normal human beings do it” rather than blanding it out as “against army regulations” — the ostranenie is lost!)


  1. Fascinating!

    I think the spelling ostranenie is correct after all. The second n is an adjectival suffix and not part of the root, so it shouldn’t make its way into a verbal form, e.g. беременный vs. обременить, гомогенный vs. гомогенизация.

  2. True, странный (originally ‘foreign’) is from страна ‘country’ and in OCS it’s страньнъ, where you can clearly see the distinction between the two н’s.

  3. Thanks, LH! It has been my fav technique of refreshing imagination ever since I was a small kid. The spelling can be also understood IMVHO, if you take it is as “Looking from a different vantage point”, literally “assessing from a side / from a distance” (со стороны) which is of course where the etymology of both странный “strange” and страна ‘country’ is rooted.

    BTW last year I wrote about defamiliarization in my blog, with a vignette about Shklovsky, where the gist of the discussion understandably drifts towards tango dancers and their expressive creativity vs. routines.

    In the West, there is a more familiar but less specific zen tale about a brimming full cup of tea, which to me highlights a slightly different angle of defamiliarization

  4. F and Hat, if остранение was indeed intended (or were to be read) to mean ‘making it strange’, it may have been intended (and could be read) as a verbal noun based on a perfective verb (остраннить, no pre-1917 Russian National Corpus hits with any number of н’s) derived from the adjective странный (strange). обелить and очернить (figuratively paint smth. white/black, resp.) from белый and чёрный would provide the model for the deadjectival verb.

  5. In case anyone else was confused by how ‘You with the hat’ is a metaphor: it’s not. The Russian (literally, ‘You, hat’) is, though. The Russian Wiktionary lists ‘absentminded person’ as the second sense for шляпа, whose primary meaning is ‘hat’: http://ru.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D1%88%D0%BB%D1%8F%D0%BF%D0%B0

    Not sure how an absent-minded person is like a hat. Maybe the vehicle of that metaphor is the mouth feel of shlyapa.

  6. In case anyone else was confused by how ‘You with the hat’ is a metaphor: it’s not.

    And he doesn’t say it is. The first use (“You with the hat”) is metonymy, the second (“you crumpled hat”) is metaphor. Of course, in the English version you have to take “crumpled hat” as equivalent to the Russian шляпа, which it’s not, but to be fair I can’t think of a way to render the Russian while still keeping the hat.

  7. Not sure how an absent-minded person is like a hat.

    One common explanation is that this specific class of hats was worn by civilians as opposed to servicemen, or by white-collar as opposed to blue collar (so either officers or workers would have used it derisively)

    Another claims a link with German “schlafen” / Yiddish “Shlofn” “to sleep” through the common word “прошляпить” ~~ literally “to hat through” but meaning to space out, to miss absent-mindedly, and modeled after a similar “проспать” ~~ “to sleep through” which means to miss something because of not paying attention. So “a hat” becomes a distracted, inattentive loser owing to a similarity with an Yiddish word?

  8. The OED thinks that toff ‘upper-class person’ is an alteration of tuft ‘gold tassel worn by the sons of peers at Oxbridge when in full academic costume’, and so a close variant of identifying people by their hats.

    Here are Chesterton and Tolkien on mooreeffoc, another tradition parallel to ostranenie (reparagraphed):

    Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickens could always vitalize some dark or dull corner of London. There are details in the Dickens descriptions – a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door – which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality: it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly.

    Dickens himself has given a perfect instance of how these nightmare minutiae grew upon him in his trance of abstraction. He mentions among the coffee-shops into which he crept in those wretched days one in St. Martin’s Lane, “of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood”.

    That wild word, “Moor Eeffoc”, is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle – the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate objects.

         —Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906)

    Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

    That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot.

    Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.

         —“On Fairy-Stories”, the section titled “Recovery, Escape, Consolation”

  9. Ooops, didn’t notice that the person in the first example was wearing a hat, making the first example clearly a metonymy, and the second one a metaphor.

    I had originally read the second example in English only and assumed the ‘crumpled’ hat was one of the soldier’ offenses, which made me think that was the metonymy. I am a shlyapa.

  10. Dmitry, this is awesome, thank you!

    (However, Shklovsky’s calling his second example a metaphor still implies that he sees a resemblance between a shlofer and a hat…)

  11. (However, Shklovsky’s calling his second example a metaphor still implies that he sees a resemblance between a shlofer and a hat…)

    folk etymologies aren’t averse to metaphoric meanings! And poetry, not a stranger to seeing new meanings in what’s mere sound similarities to others?

  12. ‘You with the hat’ is, by some useful definitions, not metonymy because there is no substitution of the name of an attribute for the name of the referent. The original Russian example (literally, ‘You, hat’) fits the definitions that require that the name of the attribute be the entire designation of the referent.

    This naturalizing translation of an example of language use has added implications. I’d have preferred a gloss or something close to it.

    No translator-bashing intended. What to do with examples of language use is a difficult problem every time.

  13. The translator in this case is Benjamin Sher, who in his preface explains why he uses “enstrangement” for остранение.

  14. So the “correct” form then should have been остраненение, which would have had an additional advantage of being comical.

  15. January First-of-May says:

    I did not realize until I already started comment that this is not about the word отстранение (note the extra т), which literally means something like “pulling away from a thing”, and can also refer to metaphorical distancing (which seemed close enough to what was discussed).
    I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the actual word in question (with any amount of н-s).

  16. AFAIK остранение exists only as a term of art in literary criticism.

  17. not about the word отстранение
    just don’t use осранение

  18. The Russian Wiki entry on the term claims that the single-n spelling was a typo but Shklovsky came to a accept it later. Without the double n, the connection with the word странный is weaker but there is a sense of looking from the sidelines or from the outside, со стороны. There are also obvious parallels with отстранить and устранить.

  19. I did not realize until I already started comment that this is not about the word отстранение

    In discussing his choice of “enstrangement,” Sher says:

    The Russians I talked to reacted to ostranit’ exactly the way an American reader would react to “enstrange,” that is, they immediately assumed that it was a misprint for otstranit’.

  20. Alexandra Berlina says:

    What a joy to see people interested in Shklovsky!

    As regards the hat, translating puns is tricky. My own attempt (from the forthcoming “Victor Shklovsky: A Reader” reads thus:

    Walking down the street, I see a man wearing an old crumpled hat drop his bag. I call him back: “You, old hat, you’ve dropped your bag!” This is an example of a purely prosaic trope. Another example. “This joke is old hat, I heard it ages ago.” This image is a poetic trope. (In one case, the word “hat” was used metonymically, in the other, metaphorically. But this is not what I want to point out here.) The poetic image is a way to create the strongest possible impression. It is a device that has the same task as other poetic devices, such as ordinary or negative parallelism, comparison, repetition, symmetry, hyperbole; it is equal to that which is commonly designated as rhetorical figures, equal to all these methods of increasing the impact of a thing (words and even sounds of the text itself are things, too). But the poetic image bears only superficial resemblance to images as fables, to patterns of thought, such as a girl calling a sphere “a little watermelon” (Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky 16–17). The poetic image is a device of poetic language. The prosaic image is a device of abstraction: a watermelon instead of a round lamp shade, or a watermelon instead of a head merely abstracts a particular quality of an object. It’s like saying: head = sphere, watermelon = sphere. This is thinking, but it has nothing in common with poetry.

  21. Much better! While in general I’m in favor of literal accuracy in translation, in the case of jokes it’s far more important to preserve the joke, and “old hat” works beautifully here. I look forward to your book!

  22. @Alexandra Berlina: In English, I find the supposedly “prosaic” use of “old hat” much more evocative and would not at all consider it a “device of abstraction” (in either possibly relevant sense of “abstraction”). It forces me to imagine the person being addressed as having a fundamentally old and ugly hat—so old and ugly that it either becomes a defining feature or represents the general decrepitude of his appearance.

    In contrast, the “poetic” example is just a fixed, cliched expression. Hearing that a joke is “old hat” does not even cause me to think of hats at all, any more than it would to describe the joke as “old” or “trite.”

  23. Hmm… good points. This stuff is hard.

  24. The original Shklovsky’s example is not all that transparent either. There should be some reason to call someone a “hat” beyond simple fact that a person wears a hat. Maybe it is a very unusual hat, or nobody’s wearing a hat in that neighborhood and, returning to details of Shklovsky’s example, the person as we know dropped a parcel and шляпа becomes also a reference to his clumsiness.

    I don’t find the second шляпа very convincing either. Not sure how it was in Shklovsky’s time, but there is no strong reason to call someone шляпа just because they do not have a correct posture. The soldier did not lose anything, did he? He did not miss a good opportunity. If he was a country boy, валенок would be a better fit, if not, there’re plenty generic terms of abuse in Russian, but шляпа is not one of them.

  25. Not sure how it was in Shklovsky’s time

    Nobody can be now, and I would give Shklovsky the benefit of the doubt, since he had a good ear for language and slang changes very quickly.

  26. January First-of-May says:

    If not, there’re plenty generic terms of abuse in Russian, but шляпа is not one of them.

    It’s a completely normal Russian “generic term of abuse” to me, meaning something like “dummy”. Might or might not be related to прошляпить meaning “to miss”.
    (English Wiktionary glosses this sense as “milksop”, an English word which I do not otherwise recognize – but which seems to mean about the same thing judging from its own Wiktionary entry.)

Speak Your Mind