Who is formalism, what is she? test

Peter Steiner

pp. 13-38

History as a scholarly discipline recognizes only a single source of its knowledge—the word.

— Gustav Špet, “History as an Object of Logic”

These words of Špet’s encapsulate the historian’s dilemma. Writing about a school of literary theory from the past, I indeed have nothing but words at my disposal and no Polonius as a whipping boy. “Words are chameleons,” declared the Formalist Jurij Tynjanov, whose own words I shall soon have occasion to reclothe in my own language; his phrase in turn is borrowed from a famous Symbolist poet, with whose generation the Formalists had locked horns in an animated dialogue. Words change meaning as they pass from one context to another, and yet they preserve the semantic accretions acquired in the process.

“Russian Formalism” is just such a locus communis out of which the history of ideas is made. Such terms are used over and over again until their repetition lends them the air of solid, universally accepted concepts whose referential identity is beyond doubt. A closer scrutiny, however, reveals a different picture. On sifting through the myriad texts in which “Russian Formalism” occurs, I discovered a wide diversity of functions the term was meant to serve: for example, as a stigma with unpleasant consequences for anybody branded with it, a straw man erected only to be immediately knocked over, and a historical concept that on different occasions refers to very different literary scholars. Given the wide divergence of these speech acts (the preceding list can be easily augmented), “Russian Formalism,” far from serving as a stable basis for scholarly discussion, resembles more an empty sign that might be filled with any content.

Let me illustrate this contention with some concrete examples. Those we customarily call Formalists always rejected the label as a grossly misleading characterization of their enterprises. In his tongue-in-cheek essay, “The Formal Method: In Lieu of a Necrologue,” Boris Tomaševskij described the baptism of this movement:

Formalism screamed, seethed, and made a noise. It also found its own name – “OPOJAZ.” In Moscow it was called the Linguistic Circle (by the way, the Moscow linguists never called themselves Formalists: this is a Petersburg phenomenon).

It is worthwhile to say a few words about the name. Only its future biographer will have to decide who christened it the “Formal method.” Perhaps in those noisy days it itself courted this ill-suited designation. [But] Formalists who rejected the very notion of form as something opposed to content do not seem to square too well with this formula (Tomaševskij 1925a, pp. 146-47).1

Boris Èjchenbaum voiced similar objections to the label “Formal method” in his gloves-off polemics with contemporary anti-Formalists:

First of all, there is obviously no “Formal method.” It is difficult to recall who coined this name, but it was not a very felicitous coinage. It might have been convenient as a simplified battle cry but it failed as an objective term that delimits the activities of the “Society for the Study of Poetic Language” (“OPOJAZ”) and the Section for Verbal Arts at the Institute for the History of the Arts...

What is at stake are not the methods of literary study but the principles upon which literary science should be constructed—its content, the basic object of study, and the problems that organize it as a specific science.…

The word “form” has many meanings which, as always, cause a lot of confusion. It should be clear that we use this word in a particular sense—not as some correlative to the notion of “content” (such a correlation is, by the way, false, for the notion of “content” is, in fact, the correlative of the notion of “volume” and not at all of “form”) but as something essential for the artistic phenomenon, as its organizing principle. We do not care about the word “form” but only about its one particular nuance. We are not “Formalists” but, if you will, specifiers (Èjchenbaum 1924b, pp. 2-3).

Èjchenbaum was not the only member of the Formal school to suggest a more fitting name. “Morphological school,” “expressionist” method, and “systemo-functional” approach are only some of the labels concocted. This wealth of designations, however, indicates not merely dissatisfaction with the existing nomenclature, but a fundamental disunity in the movement itself. In part this disunity was a function of geography. From its very beginnings, Russian Formalism was split into two different groups: the Moscow Linguistic Circle with such young scholars as Pëtr Bogatyrëv, Roman Jakobson, and Grigorij Vinokur, and the Petersburg OPOJAZ, which included Boris Èjchenbaum, Viktor Šklovskij, and Jurij Tynjanov, among others. Even though their relations were cordial, the two groups approached literature from different perspectives. According to the Muscovites Bogatyrëv and Jakobson, “while the Moscow Linguistic Circle proceeds from the assumption that poetry is language in its aesthetic function, the Petersburgers claim that the poetic motif is not always merely the unfolding of linguistic material. Further, while the former argue that the historical development of artistic forms has a sociological basis, the latter insist upon the full autonomy of these forms” (Bogatyrëv & Jakobson 1922, p. 458).

The reorganization of scholarly life under the Soviet regime further encouraged these divergences. OPOJAZ was dissolved in the early twenties, to be incorporated into the State Institute for the History of the Arts in Petersburg. The Moscow Circle—transformed by the departures of Jakobson and Bogatyrëv in 1920 for Czechoslovakia—became part of the State Academy for the Study of the Arts in Moscow. In these two research centers, the original Formalists began to collaborate with other students of literature and entered into an exchange of ideas with significance for both sides. Many Formalist notions were accepted by non-Formalists, and in turn, the Formalists modified their views in response to the intellectual trends around them. This dialogue produced a wide spectrum of literary-theoretical ideas labeled “Formalist.”

Though this dilution of “pure” Formalism occurred in both branches, it was the Muscovites who were most deeply influenced by the philosophical ideas propounded at the State Academy by Edmund Husserl’s pupil, Gustav Špet. This intellectual cross- pollination gave rise to what some commentators have termed the “formal-philosophical school” of the late twenties, within whose orbit belonged such literary scholars as Michail Petrovskij, Grigorij Vinokur, and Michail Stoljarov (Efimov 1929, p. 56). Rejecting the iconoclastic tenor of early Formalism, the members of this group rehabilitated many concepts and methods of traditional philology. The introduction to their 1927 anthology Artistic Form, announced what the followers of Špet perceived as their special character: “In contrast to the Formalists of the ‘OPOJAZ’ type who usually confine their research to the sphere of outer form, we understand artistic form here as ‘inner form.’ Thus we pose the question [of artistic form] more broadly and seek its solution in the interrelations of various forms—logical, syntactic, melodic, poetic, rhetorical, etc.”(Cires 1927, p. 5).

Given the vicissitudes of geography and history, the identity of Russian Formalism might be sought more profitably outside its organizational structures. One possibility advocated by Tomaševskij in his informative survey, “The New School of Literary History in Russia,” was to focus on the protagonists of this movement in order to distinguish the core of genuine Formalists from the peripheral fellow travelers:

It is people that one should consider now, rather than a school constituting an intellectual unity. Contemporary historians of literature can be classified, according to their relations with the new school, into three groups: the orthodox, the independents, and the influenced.

The orthodox are those faithful to OPOJAZ. They represent the extreme left of Formalism. The best known among them are Šklovskij, Èjchenbaum, and Tynjanov. The independents took part in the creation of the Formalist school and contributed to its works, but did not accept its discipline and went their separate ways: thus, Žirmunskij and Vinogradov. As for the influenced, it would be futile to pretend to specify their number (Tomaševskij 1928, pp. 239-240).

The classification of the Formalists drawn by Tomaševskij has all the authority of an eye- witness account. Yet one wonders what the common denominator between Šklovskij and Tynjanov actually is. This question cannot be dismissed easily, for there are historians of the Formalist movement who see these key figures as quite dissimilar. Ewa Thompson, for example, divides the Russian Formal school into “idealistic” and “positivistic” trends, with Šklovskij gravitating toward idealistic aesthetics and Tynjanov a clear-cut representative of the positivistic orientation (Thompson 1971, pp. 55-110). For quite different reasons, Jurij Striedter also maintains that the two leading Formalists are conceptually distant. Šklovskij’s notion of the artistic work “as a ‘sum of devices’ with the function of ‘de-familiarization’ to make ‘perception more difficult’ was, in Striedter’s opinion, rendered obsolete by Tynjanov’s more comprehensive definition of the artwork “as a ‘system’ composed of devices whose functions are specified synchronically and diachronically” (Striedter 1976, p. xvii). And although to their contemporaries the difference between the two men might have appeared unimportant, within Striedter’s developmental scheme it is of great significance. According to Striedter, Šklovskij stands as the orthodox Formalist, whereas Tynjanov turns out to be the John the Baptist of Structuralism.

There is yet another reason Tomaševskij’s categorization should be taken cum grano salis. His “state of the movement” is presented from a particular standpoint: that of the insider. This perspective might, of course, be instructive in some respects, for he was privy to information unavailable to strangers. But, at the same time, his point of view is that of the movement he belonged to, and this collective ideology inevitably slanted his presentation. Tomaševskij’s contemporary, the psychologically inclined critic Arkadij Gornfel’d, for example, wrote in 1922 that “the Formalists are, of course, very diverse: there are among them simple-minded ones like Kušner and Šengeli clumsily parodying the method, talented robbers like Viktor Šklovskij, and cautious eclectics like Žirmunskij” (Gornfel’d 1922, p. 5). Boris Arvatov, the father of the “formalist- sociological” approach, cut the pie in the following way: “The researchers of OPOJAZ do not represent anything homogeneous. On the contrary, by now three different groups can be discerned in it: the extreme right which insists on the total separation of poetry and praxis (Èjchenbaum, Žirmunskij), the center adhering to a so-called linguo-poetic theory (Jakobson, Šklovskij), and the extreme left— sociological and technological (Brik, Kušner)” (Arvatov 1923, p. 59). Wary of other critics’ triads, the Marxist Pavel Medvedev identified four trends in Formalism: “The first tendency is an academic Formalism characterized by its desire to gloss over contradictions and to avoid a formulation of problems according to a single principle” (Žirmunskij); “the second tendency amounts to a partial return to the psychological and philosophical treatment of literary problems” (Èjchenbaum); “a shift toward the sociological method characterizes the third tendency” (Tomaševskij, Jakubinskij); and “finally the fourth tendency is Šklovskij’s frozen Formalism” (Medvedev 1928, pp. 97-98).

This sampling of contradictory, incompatible classifications applied to the Formalists illustrates the futility of any attempt to pin down the identity of this movement by sorting out its central and marginal protagonists. Ultimately, it seems, one must come to the same conclusion as Medvedev, that “there are as many Formalisms as there are Formalists” (ibid., p. 97). This conclusion, however, should not be interpreted as a sign of hostility toward the Formalist enterprise or of deliberate perversity on the commentator’s part. It corresponds to the methodological pluralism of the Formalist approach openly displayed by its practitioners. In his stock-taking article, “The Question of the ‘Formal Method,’” Viktor Žirmunskij characterized the Formal school in this way:

The general and vague name “Formal method” usually brings together the most diverse works dealing with poetic language and style in the broad sense of these terms, historical and theoretical poetics, studies of meter, sound orchestration, and melodics, stylistics, composition, and plot structure, the history of literary genres and styles, etc. From my enumeration, which does not pretend to be exhaustive or systematic, it is obvious that in principle it would be more correct to speak not of a new method but rather of the new tasks of scholarship, of a new sphere of scholarly problems (Žirmunskij 1928, p. 154).

Žirmunskij was not the only Formalist who insisted that this approach should not be identified with any single method. Other more militant proponents such as Èjchenbaum, who blasted Žirmunskij for his “eclecticism,” concurred with him on this point (Èjchenbaum 1922c, pp. 21-23). In Èjchenbaum’s assessment, “the Formal method, by gradually evolving and extending its field of inquiry, has completely exceeded what was traditionally called methodology and is turning into a special science that treats literature as a specific series of facts. Within the limits of this science the most heterogeneous methods can be developed... The designation of this movement as the ‘Formal method,’ which by now has become established, thus requires a qualification: it is a historical, not a definitional term. What characterizes us is neither ‘Formalism’ as an aesthetic theory, nor ‘methodology’ as a closed scientific system, but only the striving to establish, on the basis of specific properties of the literary material, an independent literary science” (Èjchenbaum 1927, p. 117).

Despite their agreement on the necessity of methodological pluralism, however, there is an important difference between Žirmunskij’s “eclecticism” and Èjchenbaum’s “principled stance.” While Žirmunskij characterizes Formalism somewhat nebulously as a “new sphere of scholarly problems,’’ Èjchenbaum identifies it as something much more concrete—a new “independent literary science.” Perhaps by taking advantage of Èjchenbaum’s insight, one could look for a more deep-seated identity for Russian Formalism. Beneath all the diversity of method there may have existed a set of shared epistemological principles that generated the Formalist science of literature.

Unfortunately, the Formalists’ methodological pluralism is more than matched by its epistemological pluralism. The principle that literature should be treated as a specific series of facts is too general to distinguish either the Formalists from non-Formalists, or genuine Formalists from fellow travelers. A similar concern was voiced by earlier Russian literary scholars, and the autonomy of literary facts vis-à-vis other phenomena was never solved by the Formalists themselves. Neither did they agree on what the specific properties of the literary material are or how the new science should proceed from them.

The epistemological diversity of this new literary science becomes obvious when we compare those who were methodologically similar, for example, the two leading Formalist students of verse, Tomaševskij and Jakobson. The former, rebutting the charge that the Formalists shirk the basic ontological issues of literary studies (that is, what literature is), wrote: “I shall answer by comparison. It is possible to study electricity and yet not know what it is. And what does the question, “what is electricity,” mean anyway? I would answer: ‘it is that which, if one screws in an electric bulb, will light it.’ In studying phenomena one does not need an a priori definition of essences. It is important only to discern their manifestations and be aware of their connections. This is how the Formalists study literature. They conceive of poetics precisely as a discipline that studies the phenomena of literature and not its essence” (Tomaševskij 1925a, p. 148).

Jakobson, in contrast, argues that such an ad hoc procedure was the modus operandi of old-fashioned literary scholarship. “Until now, the literary historian has looked like a policeman who, in trying to arrest a person, would, just in case, grab everyone and everything from his apartment, as well as accidental passers-by on the street.” To pursue accidental phenomena instead of the literary essence is not the correct way to proceed, Jakobson insisted. “The object of literary science is not literature but literariness, i.e. what makes a given work a literary work” (Jakobson 1921a, p. 11). Seemingly, the epistemological underpinnings of Formalist literary science were fluid enough to accommodate both Tomaševskij’s blatant phenomenalism and Jakobson’s implied phenomenology.

Perhaps such a conclusion should not surprise us. After all, Boris Èjchenbaum declared that epistemological monism—the reduction of the heterogeneity of art to a single explanatory principle—was the cardinal sin of traditional Russian literary scholarship:

OPOJAZ is known today under the alias of the “Formal method.” This is misleading. What matters is not the method but the principle. Both the Russian intelligentsia and Russian scholarship have been poisoned by the idea of monism. Marx, like a good German, reduced all of life to “economics.” And the Russians who did not have their own scholarly Weltanschauung, but only a propensity toward it, did like to learn from German scholarship. Thus, the “monistic outlook” became king in our country and the rest followed. A basic principle was discovered and schemes were constructed. Since art did not fit into them it was thrown out. Let it exist as a “reflection”—sometimes it can be useful for education after all.

But no! Enough of monism! We are pluralists. Life is diverse and cannot be reduced to a single principle. Blind men may do so, but even they are beginning to see. Life moves like a river in a continuous flow, but with an infinite number of streams, each of which is particular. And art is not even a stream of this flow, but a bridge over it (Èjchenbaum 1922a, pp. 39-40).

This brief foray into Formalist methodology and epistemology illustrates the difficulty of discerning a common denominator in this new literary science. Its identity appears to be that of a Wittgensteinian family resemblance: a set of overlapping ideas about literature, none of which is shared by every Formalist.

With all hope lost of establishing an intrinsic definition of Formalism, we might at least discover extrinsic criteria of identity for the movement. For instance, there seems to be a distinct pattern in the way the Formalists characterize their collective enterprise. Again and again they speak of the novelty of their approach, or their deliberate departure from previous modes of literary studies. This, for example, is how Èjchenbaum describes the field of Russian letters in 1922:

Something characteristic and significant has happened. There used to be “subjective” criticism—impressionistic, philosophical, etc... presenting its “meditations” about this and that. There also used to be “objective” scholarship—academic, internally hostile toward criticism, a lecturing from the cathedra full of certitudes. And suddenly all of this became a laughable anachronism. The scholarly certitudes preached from cathedras turned out to be naive babble and the critics’ meditations a mere empty set of words, more or less clever chatter. What was demanded was a business-like criticism—precise and concrete—that would encompass both genuine theoretical ideas and genuine keenness of perception. Both contemplative [intelligentskij] criticism and scholarship began to be viewed as dilettantism: both were sentenced to death (Èjchenbaum 1922c, pp. 13-14).

Èjchenbaum’s vivid depiction of the shift in Russian intellectual life created by the Formalist revolution suggests a possible source of unity for this school. Whereas a positive identity—some form of methodological or epistemological consensus—seems out of reach, a negative identity—the Formalists’ dissent from previous literary scholarship—appears much less problematic. Of course, this path has its difficulties. Even if we manage to establish what Russian Formalism is not vis-à-vis its predecessors, our knowledge of what it actually is will be quite vague. And without some understanding of Formalism itself, the line we draw between it and pre-Formalism will be accordingly imprecise. Before the advent of Formalism, a great many ideas, concepts, and methods were floating about in Russian criticism that later turned out to be crucial to the movement.

The Formalists’ detractors pointed to these very notions in disputing the movement’s novelty. They tried to denigrate Formalist literary theory by portraying it as unoriginal and derivative, since in Russian letters the concern with literary form had preceded the birth of this group by decades. According to A. Maškin, “as early as 1884, even the famous ‘sociologist’ idealist N. Kareev urged his pupils at Warsaw University to study the formal elements of the literary tradition” (Maškin 1927, p. 164). The Marxist P. S. Kogan, president of the Moscow Academy for the Study of the Arts, found the spiritual father of Formalism in the “impressionistic” literary critic Kornej Čukovskij: “Čukovskij is older than our learned ‘Formalists.’ His critical acumen and artistic taste helped to anticipate many conclusions which the various linguistic circles and ‘OPOJAZ’ are reaching only now. In his critical practice he was applying to poets methods which V. Žirmunskij and his confederates are now trying to put on a scholarly footing” (Kogan 1922, p. 351). And for those who knew better than to equate Kareev or Čukovskij with Formalism there were always other “early” Formalists, for example, the poet-theoreticians of the Symbolist generation. Žirmunskij acknowledged their importance after his enthusiasm for OPOJAZ had cooled:

The actual impulse for our own methodological inquiries into the problems of literary form in fact came from the theoreticians of Symbolism, who compelled us to revise traditional academic poetics. I should mention in the first place Andrej Belyj. He not only propelled the theory of verse from a dead issue to a vital topic, but was also the first to criticize the traditional eclecticism of the pedantic “history of literature” and posed the question of a science devoted to the specifically artistic features of poetic works... Next to him Valerij Brjusov discussed the problems of form in a number of essays and notes devoted to the technology of the poetic craft and Vjačeslav Ivanov offered both a concrete treatment of these problems in his analyses of poetry and a general, theoretical one in the meetings of the “Poetic Academy.” The interest in formal problems corresponded to the general literary posture of the Symbolists: the defense of the self-contained meaning of art and its “autonomy” from extra-artistic goals (Žirmunskij 1928, pp. 8-9).

These hostile assertions need not be taken at face value. One should be aware, however, that not all the Formalists shared Èjchenbaum’s radical attitude toward history. To be sure, they viewed their common enterprise as a new and original chapter in Russian literary studies, but not necessarily one totally outside of its tradition. As Tomaševskij stressed in his 1928 lecture at the Prague Linguistic Circle, the Formalist negation of the past was selective. They rebelled above all against the main approaches to literature practiced in Russia at that time: (1) the biographical, which interpreted a text in terms of its author’s life; (2) the sociohistorical, which reduced the work to a mere mirror of ideas current at the time of its origin; (3) the philosophical, which used literature as an illustration of the interpreter’s philosophical system. “But one should not assume,” Tomaševskij continued, “that the new school rejected the entire heritage of Russian scholarship. If it sometimes opposed Veselovskij’s and Potebnja’s ideas, it did so merely to emphasize its own independent stance. It must be stated, however, that the new school is obligated to these two predecessors and that it borrowed many of its basic concepts from them. The Formalists —as the proponents of this new system of literary studies were called—rejected more than anything else the excessive tendency toward inertia” (Tomaševskij 1929a, pp. 12-13).

Bogatyrëv and Jakobson’s 1922 survey of current Russian philology also underlined the intellectual affinity between the Formalists and some of the older critics. The Formalist call for an independent literary science emerges from their account as the crystallization of a theoretical tendency that was in the air. “In recent years,” the two Muscovites wrote,

different philologists in a variety of ways arrived at the conclusion that current literary history is antiscientific... The Academician Perec in his Lessons on the Methodology of Russian Literary History published in Kiev in 1914, sharply attacks the views of literary history that were prevalent not so long ago and demands the systematic implementation of the formal method as a first step in the study of the evolution of literary forms. A. S. Orlov, in his 1921 lecture... “Thoughts about the Study of Literature as an Art,” has insisted on the same. N. N. Konov in the pamphlet Introduction to the History of Russian Literature (Moscow, 1920) and to some degree Geršenzon in the booklet A Poet’s Vision (Moscow, 1920) speak about this as well, though not without reservation and with a compromise in view. It is the works of the philologists grouped around the Petersburg Society for the Study of Poetic Language [OPOJAZ] and the Moscow Linguistic Circle that manifest the most radical demand for a fundamental switch in the history of literature and strict formal analysis (Bogatyrëv & Jakobson 1922, p. 457).

As the foregoing discussion suggests, a clear-cut separation of Formalist critical practice from that of the previous era is impossible without some overall understanding of the new school. A theoretical movement is obviously more than the sum total of ideas that it propounds; without the whole picture we cannot fit together its individual elements.

Demarcating Formalism from its predecessors, however, is only half the problem. The movement’s negative identity consists as well in its distinctness from the theories that followed in its footsteps. Indeed, here the confusion seems even greater. Not only did Formalist principles and methods become the common property of literary scholars, but some of the original members of this school managed to continue the Formalist tradition outside its native land. Thus the label of Formalism is commonly extended to movements whose members considered their own theorizing clearly non-Formalist and referred to themselves by quite different names.

Let me illustrate this point with two examples. The first is the Prague Linguistic Circle established in 1926, which labeled its approach “Structuralism.” The close link between the Prague School and Russian Formalism is indisputable. The two not only had common members (Bogatyrëv and Jakobson) but the Prague group consciously named themselves after the Moscow branch of the Formal school—the Moscow Linguistic Circle. Several leading Formalists (Tomaševskij, Tynjanov, and Vinokur) delivered lectures at the Prague Circle, and thus familiarized Czech scholars with the results of their research. A number of Formalist works, including Šklovskij’s On the Theory of Prose, were translated into Czech in the late twenties and early thirties.

Given this close relationship, it is not surprising that Victor Erlich’s pioneering work, Russian Formalism, contains a chapter dealing with the Prague school. To account for the repercussions of Russian Formalism in the neighboring countries, Erlich introduces the umbrella concept of “Slavic Formalism” whose Prague mutation is called “Structuralism.” Although he points out the difference between what he terms “pure Formalism” and “Prague Structuralism” (Erlich 1981, pp. 154-163), for Erlich the literary theory of the Prague school is ultimately a restatement of the “basic tenets of Russian Formalism in more judicious and rigorous terms” (Erlich 1974, p. 727). Because of the wide acclaim of Erlich’s book in the West, the conflation of Prague Structuralism with Russian Formalism has become commonplace in many subsequent histories of literary theory. Fredric Jameson, for instance, who regards Erlich’s work as the “definitive English-language survey of Formalism” (Jameson 1972, p. 85) mentions the Prague school in his comparative study of Russian Formalism and Structuralism only in connection with the Russian movement, and refers to its members as “Czech Formalists” (ibid., p. 51).

In Czech criticism, a similar view of the Prague school was often advocated by those hostile to Structuralism. Earlier we saw that the Russian foes of Formalism attacked its theories as derivative. Czech anti- Structuralists employed the same strategy. They declared the Prague school approach to be a mere intellectual import from Russia, a continuation of Formalism by emigrés who could no longer practice it in their own land. Concluding his 1934 survey of the Formalist movement, Karel Svoboda wrote: “Russian Formalism tries to make up in our country for the losses it has suffered in its homeland. It was brought here by R. Jakobson; on his initiative in 1926 the Prague Linguistic Circle was established, modeled on the Moscow Linguistic Circle and incorporating Formalist principles” (Svoboda 1934, p. 45). Some thirty years later, Ladislav Štoll, the Czech Communist Party’s authority on literary matters, faced with the ideologically subversive resurrection of Structuralism in his territory, proclaimed: “At a time when Prague literary Structuralists… accepted all the basic concepts, procedures, and terminology of the Russian Formal school, the followers of this school in the U.S.S.R., under the influence of Marxist literary theory, were rethinking their previous positions and gradually departing on new paths. In its essence, Prague literary Structuralism is a belated echo of the Russian school” (Štoll 1966, p. 86). Needless to say, the villain of Štoll’s account was the “agent of the worldwide bourgeoisie,” Roman Jakobson, whose insidious influence set back the development of Czech literary studies many years, returning it to the cul-de-sac of Formalism.

Predictably, the Prague Structuralists disagreed with these portrayals of their movement. The Circle’s leading aesthetician, Jan Mukařovský, retorted by poking fun at Svoboda’s account: “The matter is often presented as if Czech scholarship one day discovered Russian Formalism and copied it, almost like a village carpenter who was ‘doing Art Nouveau’ until he suddenly discovered a pattern book with the plan of a constructivist house.” Russian Formalism, in Mukařovský’s opinion, was welcomed in Bohemia only because it meshed with a domestic tradition of empirical aesthetics whose foundations were laid in the nineteenth century by the Herbartian Formalists (Josef Durdík, Otakar Hostinský). “Under these conditions, it would be wrong to believe that Formalism penetrated Czech scholarship like an alien body. Proceeding from the inevitably international nature of the scholarly enterprise, Czech scholarship consciously and actively absorbed a theory that suited its own developmental tendencies and facilitated its further development... [It] did not collapse under the influence [of Russian Formalism], but overcame in Structuralism the one-sidedness of Formalism” (Mukařovský 1935, p. 14).

The conflation of Formalism with Structuralism, whether justified or not, adds yet another twist to the problem of demarcating the Russian movement. Its most obvious effect is to extend the label across temporal and geographical boundaries. Yet at times the conflation has had just the opposite result. In the sixties, when Structuralism was becoming an international movement, historians often divided the Russian precursors into early “pure Formalists” and more advanced “Structuralists.” This reshuffling of Formalism was facilitated by the vagueness of the historical label of Structuralism. Coined by Roman Jakobson in his brief account of the First International Congress of Slavicists in 1929, “Structuralism” was used to designate the “leading idea of present-day science in its most various manifestations” (Jakobson 1929-1930, p. 11). As a new holistic and teleological paradigm of scholarship, Structuralism attempted to displace the atomistic and genetic-causal paradigm of positivism, the work of the Prague Linguistic Circle being its clearest exemplification in the fields of linguistics and poetics. By defining Structuralism so broadly, however, Jakobson created an overlap between Formalism and Structuralism. For in its heterogeneity, Russian Formalism certainly contained some of the ideas informing the new paradigm, and some of the Formalists had treated their data in a holistic manner and/or eschewed a genetic-causal mode of explanation.

In this way, what previously was regarded as a single theoretical movement suddenly split in two. P. N. Smirnov points out in his encyclopedia entry, “Structuralism in Literary Studies,” that some of the Russian Formalists should correctly be called Structuralists.

In the U.S.S.R. Structuralism began to emerge in the twenties, separating itself from the Formal school (see OPOJAZ). While the Formalists identified the artistic text with the object (artifact) and put forward as their primal theoretical terms the notions of “material” and “device,” the structuralists juxtaposed to this the difference between the text and structure implicit already in V. Ja. Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928). Ju. Tynjanov, one of the first to introduce the term “structure” into literary-theoretical discourse, proposed to study the constructive elements of the poetic work in relation to the artistic whole, i.e., from a functional point of view (instead of a technological one) (Smirnov, 1972, p. 231).

The limitation of the designation “Formalism” to only the early stage of the Russian movement is not the practice of Soviet historians alone. As I mentioned before, Striedter draws the line between Šklovskij’s and Tynjanov’s theories in roughly the same way. Another advocate of this view is the Dutch comparatist, Douwe Fokkema. Surveying modern Slavic criticism, he writes, “Within the context of this paper my main point is that the Russian Formalists gradually came to accept the view that the various factors in verbal art are interrelated. The dominant function of one factor subordinates the importance of other factors and deforms them, but seldom completely annihilates their functions. If the Formalists viewed literature as a system characterized by the interdependence of its elements, this position must be called structuralist although they rarely used that label before 1927” (Fokkema 1976, p. 163).

The problematic boundaries between Formalism and Structuralism are not the only hindrance to an understanding of the Russian movement. With the rise of a new critical star on the current intellectual horizon—post-Structuralism—another Russian literary-theoretical group with ties to Formalism has caught the attention of historians. I speak here of the Bachtin circle, whose most prominent members, aside from Michail Bachtin himself, were the literary scholar Medvedev and the linguist V. N. Vološinov. Since this group produced some of the most penetrating critiques of Formalism from a self-proclaimed Marxist position (See Vološinov 1930, Medvedev 1928), the Bachtinians were left out of the picture in older accounts of the Formal school.

Erlich’s classic work does not mention Bachtin, although it notes Medvedev’s book on Formalism, calling it “the most extended and scholarly critique of Opojaz ever undertaken by a Marxist” (Erlich 1981, p. 114). Striedter’s 1969 introduction to a German anthology of Formalist texts fails to mention the Bachtin circle altogether. Well aware of the conceptual heterogeneity and developmental fluidity of the Formal school, Striedter conceives of its unity in a dialectic fashion, as a “dialogic form of theorizing.” From this perspective, “the history and theory of Russian Formalism are an uninterrupted dialogue between the Formalists and their opponents, but even more so among the Formalists themselves, who opposed and criticized one another... they were all at one and the same time partners and adversaries in the fascinating dialogue which produced and represented the formal method” (Striedter 1977 [1969], p. 435). Yet Striedter is unwilling to include in this “uninterrupted dialogue” the very scholars who made the notion of dialogue the center of their theory—the Marxist critics of Formalism who gathered around Bachtin. Because of the alleged rigidity among the Russian Marxists of the late twenties, Striedter claims that “any combination of Formalist and Marxist methods remained, of necessity, a one-sided compromise. Individual Marxist literary scholars did in fact in the course of time take over individual elements of Formalist theory, or at least parts of their analytical technique... But such ‘appendages’ have no more in common with actual Formalism and its decisive insights than does the Formalists’ own contribution to ‘literary life’ with Marxism” (Striedter 1978, p. 18).

Erlich’s and Striedter’s views of Russian Formalism are now being challenged by the youngest generation of Slavicists. In the most comprehensive and meticulous book written on the subject, the Viennese scholar Aage Hansen-Löve divides the history of the Formal school into three successive stages. The last stage in his presentation includes not only the sociological and historical approaches propounded by such “clear-cut” Formalists as Èjchenbaum and Tynjanov, but also semiotics and communication-theoretical accounts. This is the model advanced, according to Hansen-Löve, by the Bachtinians and the psychologist Lev Vygotskij (Hansen-Löve 1978, pp. 426-462). From a similar position, Gary Saul Morson reproaches the historians of Formalism for ignoring the Bachtinians: “The work of the Bachtin group is, in fact, a logical development of Formalist thinking. It follows that to leave Bachtin out of an account of Russian Formalism is profoundly to misunderstand the nature and objectives of the movement: and this is what has largely been done” (Morson 1978, p. 408).

One may question Morson’s argument for the necessity of including the Bachtinians in the Formal school. As long as he fails to clarify what the nature and objectives of the movement are, his charge of misunderstanding remains a rhetorical device. Nevertheless, the point raised by the young scholars has been recognized by their seniors as at least deserving attention. “Were I writing this book today,” says Erlich in the introduction to the American edition of Russian Formalism, “I would undoubtedly pause before the achievements of Mikhail Bakhtin.... the essentially structural and metalinguistic thrust of his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics attests to a strong affinity for the mature phase of Formalist theorizing” (Erlich 1981, p. 10). Likewise, Striedter mentions Bachtin in a comparative study of Russian Formalism and Prague Structuralism when he searches within the Russian critical tradition for the precursors of the semiotic approach that subsequently flourished in Prague. In this connection, he also speaks of the “Leningrad group centered around M. Bachtin at the end of the twenties, which, in part as a continuation of Formalist theses and in part as a critical opposition to them, proposed to develop a theory of art that can he characterized as communicational and semiotic” (Striedter 1976, p. xlvi).

It must be stressed, however, that while aware of the problem the Bachtinians present for the history of Formalism, neither Erlich nor Striedter accepts them as true Formalists. Erlich is particularly strict on this issue. He merely includes Bachtin in what he calls “neo-Formalist developments,” and declares categorically that “Bakhtin, who made his debut in the late twenties only to lapse into enforced obscurity until the sixties, could not be labeled a Formalist” (Erlich 1981, p. 10). Striedter is somewhat more flexible here, willing to consider the semiotic trends within the Russian literary studies of the twenties under the heading of Formalism. But he is also quick to point out that these are merely the fringes of genuine Formalism. “To be sure, it is no accident that [my] examples came mostly from the ‘periphery,’ whether in the sense of a group affiliation, i.e. the ‘margins’ rather than from the very ‘core’ of Formalism, or in the sense of a particular subject matter.… In terms of time it is also striking that the works quoted appeared mostly toward the end of the twenties just before the end of Formalism as an independent school (and immediately after the founding of the Prague Linguistic Circle)” (Striedter 1976, p. xlviii).

The two competing opinions about the status of the Bachtinians, which I have presented as a dialogue between generations, pose an obvious challenge for anyone writing on Russian Formalism. However, it is not my intention to argue one way or the other here. The debate over the Bachtinians is merely another example of the imprecision in the critical usage of the label “Russian Formalism,” even as a negative concept.

Having failed to ascertain either a positive or a negative identity for the movement, we might legitimately ask whether it is worthwhile to retain the label at all. Perhaps what we need is a new, more suitable and precise concept—to start over with a clean slate. But as the title of my book reveals, I have refrained from this attractive proposition. The reason for this conservatism lies in my understanding of the role that historical concepts play. To explain this, I shall take a short detour into the field of semiotics.

As I have been showing throughout this chapter, historical labels, such as “Russian Formalism,” are vague. To create more precise replacements, it seems logical to turn to less equivocal types of verbal signs. Let us take, for example, proper names. They denote individuals, places, and so forth on a one-to-one basis. If historical concepts could successfully emulate the exact referentiality of proper names, historical discourse might become less impressionistic.

But how do proper names signify? Traditional logic drew a strict line between the proper name of an object and its definite description. Description is always partial, for it provides knowledge about only some of an object’s properties. The name, on the other hand, does not impart any knowledge about the object but rather points to the identity of the object in its entirety. The proper name thus conceived is a senseless mark, an index whose meaning is merely the object to which it points, or, in John Stuart Mill’s terminology, a sign with denotation but without connotation. From the standpoint of this theory it is immediately obvious why concepts like “Formalism” are so ambiguous. They do not simply name stages or trends in literary theory but describe them by referring to them through some of their randomly selected features. Because formal concerns are far from limited to Russian Formalism, these concepts are easily transferable to other literary theoretical schools.

The theory of proper names thus provides me with a criterion for replacing ambiguous historical concepts with less ambiguous substitutes. The names selected should be devoid of connotations which could motivate their homonymic extension. To separate the metalanguage of historical discourse completely from the object-language of literary-theoretical discourse, I might designate Russian Formalism as “79.” It is doubtful, however, whether such a radical change of nomenclature would produce any actual gain. The problem is not that the procedure would not work, but that it would work only too well. A number-name is such a senseless mark that no one would understand what it designated. And yet, in the very moment that the name is explained through a synonym, in this case, “79 is Russian Formalism,” it is automatically subject to the same slippage and ambiguity as the previous concepts.

According to some logicians, this attempt at replacing traditional historical concepts with new ones is doomed from the start, for it proceeds from a mistaken assumption about proper names. The theory propounded by Gottlob Frege, for instance, holds that proper names are not at all senseless marks, but rather shorthand descriptions. Their sense stems from the fact that the naming always presents an object in a particular mode, as part of a particular context. “The morning star” and “the evening star” for example, are two names for the same object captured in different phases. This account of proper names fits quite well the conceptual muddle of historical discourse. Terms such as “the morphological school,” “OPOJAZ,” or “Structuralism” can indeed be seen as partial descriptions of “Russian Formalism,” since they present this movement from different perspectives. Although Frege’s theory legitimizes this interchanging of historical concepts, it provides no criteria for selecting among them. There is no reason that I could not call the Russian Formalists “neo- Aristotelians” (referring in this way to some principles of Aristotle’s poetics incorporated into Formalist poetics) or any other name, provided that it grasps at least one feature of the movement.1 Given the extreme heterogeneity of Russian Formalism, the acceptance of Frege’s theory would lead to the direct opposite of what I intended to achieve: a proliferation of historical concepts rather than their limitation and clarification.

These two theories of proper names lead nowhere because they represent two extreme views of the act of naming: in the traditional theory, naming is prior to description, whereas in Frege’s countertheory, description precedes naming. The traditional view conceives of names as static tags attached on a one-to-one basis to equally static objects; Frege conceives of names as an unlimited set of signs whose significations are a function of the contexts of the entity designated. The proper name in fact falls somewhere between these two poles. The traditionalists correctly point out that its signification is much more specific than that of other nouns, but Frege’s argument also has weight: as long as the proper name is a linguistic sign it remains inadequate in some way to the object named. The two theories appear mutually exclusive because of their either/or presentation. For those who believe that the name is a senseless mark, only a word that identifies a single object in its entirety is a name proper; for their opponents, no name can achieve this absolute goal and therefore there are no proper names but merely definite descriptions.

One can, however, assume a more moderate position allowing the name some degree of imprecision. Taking for granted the essential inadequacy of the relationship between a name and its object, one can argue that this inadequacy is not strong enough to prevent the proper name from referring to a particular object. This position, adopted by some modern logicians, is well illustrated in John Searle’s discussion of the use of the name “Aristotle.”

To ask for the criteria for applying the name “Aristotle” is to ask in the formal mode what Aristotle is: it is to ask for a set of identity criteria for the object Aristotle. “What is Aristotle?” and “What are the criteria for applying the name ‘Aristotle’?” ask the same question, the former in the material mode, and the latter in the formal mode of speech. So if, prior to using the name, we came to an agreement on the precise characteristics which constituted the identity of Aristotle, our rules for using the name would be precise. But this precision would be achieved only at the cost of entailing some specific descriptions by any use of the name. Indeed, the name itself would become logically equivalent to this set of descriptions. But if this were the case we would be in the position of being able to refer to an object solely by, in effect, describing it. Whereas in fact this is just what distinguishes proper names from definite descriptions … the uniqueness and immense pragmatic convenience of proper names in our language lies precisely in the fact that they enable us to refer publicly to objects without being forced to raise issues and come to an agreement as to which descriptive characteristics exactly constitute the identity of the object. They function not as descriptions, but as pegs on which to hang descriptions (Searle 1969, p. 172).

Searle’s “pragmatic” view of proper names opens up a new perspective on the function of historical concepts. These concepts do not simply denote segments of the historical continuum but refer to them in such a way that the issue of the identity of these segments is avoided. This view of historical concepts provides the most convincing argument against the wholesale rejection of vague terms like “Russian Formalism.” It is concepts like these rather than their more precise replacements that refer in the manner outlined by Searle. “Non-connotative” concepts, as long as they remain truly senseless, cannot refer at all, while shorthand descriptions identify objects through some of their characteristics and become too easily embroiled in disputes over the identity of their referents.

Strange as it might seem, what makes established labels best suited to the act of referring is their vagueness. They become established not because they are more adequate to their objects than other signs but because of their semantic “elasticity”—their capacity to accommodate different, often contradictory usages. In this respect, established concepts are multiperspectival, trans-temporal representations of their respective historical segments. They contain many points of view and many layers of semantic accretion, thus presenting their objects synthetically in their manifold heterogeneity. It is precisely this institutionalized slippage of established concepts that makes them indispensable for historical discourse. Only through them is it possible for historians to refer to roughly the same temporal segments, intellectual schools, and trends, while at the same time providing different accounts of them. In other words, though historians of literary theory disagree widely in their descriptions of Russian Formalism, their disagreement is meaningful only if an intuitive agreement that they are speaking of the “same” thing underlies their discussion.

What remains to be explained is my own method of dealing with Russian Formalism. From the very beginning I have faced a dilemma. On the one hand, I am only too aware of the pitfalls of a piecemeal approach toward Formalist critical practice. As long as we focus merely on the individual ideas, concepts, or principles that constitute it, the unity of the movement (if it exists) will always elude us. On the other hand, I have at my disposal no methodological or epistemological denominator common to all of Formalist theorizing.

Pondering plausible holistic approaches to the Formal school, I began to wonder whether the theoretical program the Formalists advanced for the study of literature might not, mutatis mutandis, be applied to their own writings. Just as they, in searching for the differential quality of literature, had shied away from what the writer said to focus on how he said it, I began to study not what the Formalists had to say about literature but how they conceptualized it. But even after turning the Formal method upon itself, I learned that there is no single “how” to Russian Formalism. The propounders of this “pure science of literature” indiscriminately borrowed frames of reference from other realms of knowledge. As I realized that the unity of the movement must be sought elsewhere, I began to have some inklings about where it might be found.

At the same time, I found this transference of conceptual frameworks from one realm of knowledge to another quite intriguing. It reminded me of the poetic tropes I often discussed as a teacher of literature. I soon discovered that some modern philosophers of science also call attention to the figurative nature of scientific knowledge. Max Black, perhaps the best-known proponent of this view, observed that “a memorable metaphor has the power to bring two separate domains into cognitive and emotional relation by using language directly appropriate to the one as a lens for seeing the other: the implications, suggestions, and supporting values entwined with the literal use of the metaphorical expression enable us to see a new subject matter in a new light” (Black 1962, pp. 236-37). Because of its simplicity and ad hoc character, however, the explanatory power of a metaphor is low. Therefore Black introduced a second notion, the complex metaphor, which he terms a model. “You need only proverbial knowledge, as it were, to have your metaphor understood; but the maker of a scientific model must have prior control of a well-knit scientific theory if he is to do more than hang an attractive picture on an algebraic formula. Systematic complexity of the source of the model and capacity for analogical development are the essence” (ibid., p. 239).

With this in mind, I have happily applied Black’s insights to my own material. But in doing so I have found that the limitation of his theory to transferences based on similarity or analogy—that is, metaphors—is too narrow for my purposes. Obviously, not only metaphors but other complex tropes can provide conceptual frameworks. The biographical approach, common in literary studies, is metonymic in that it is based on an association of contiguity: the life of the author is studied not necessarily because it is analogous to his or her work but because it supposedly provides the cause for the organization of meaning in it. I decided therefore to employ the term “model” somewhat more broadly than Black, as an umbrella term for any complex language transference used as an explanatory tool, regardless of the type of associations that underlie it— metaphoric or metonymic.

This way of dealing with Russian Formalism, of course, is not entirely new. A similar strategy was employed by Frederic Jameson in his Prison-House of Language. Explicitly stating in his preface that “the history of thought is the history of its models,” Jameson proceeded to discuss the model which in his opinion molded the literary theory of the Formal school (Jameson 1972, p. 3). Here we part company, for obviously I do not believe that any one model is capable of accounting for Russian Formalism in all its diversity. Jameson identifies the “absolute presuppositions” of this school with the “linguistic model.” The source of this reductivism may well lie in Jameson’s Marxist stance, since such a treatment of Formalism fits rather well with what Viktor Šklovskij had to say of Maksim Gor’kij’s “ironic bolshevism.” According to Šklovskij. “The Bolsheviks believed that what counts is not material but its formation... They could not understand the anarchy of life, its subconscious, the fact that the tree knows best how to grow” (Šklovskij 1923b, p. 266). Though one need not be a neo-Hegelian to agree with Jameson’s claim that the linguistic model is more progressive than the organic one he consigns to the dustbin of the nineteenth century, this judgment did not stop some of the Formalists from regressing into organicism. Had they read The Prison-House of Language perhaps things would have been different. But they were such an unruly bunch!

My task, then, is to separate the tangled threads in the confusing and often contradictory frameworks utilized by the Formalists, and to outline a typology for the theoretical models that they applied to the study of literature. I call my work a “metapoetics” because it attempts to examine a poetics in terms of poetics itself, or more precisely in terms of the poetic tropes that molded the Formalist discourse on poetics. This exercise might appear frivolous to those who prefer other ways of writing intellectual history. But I have taken this path nevertheless, convinced that it not only might shed new light on a movement whose significance for modern literary study is undeniable, but also might enable me, finally, to formulate what the distinctive quality of Formalist theorizing is.


1 Unless indicated otherwise, all translations are my own.

2 For analogies between Aristotle and the Formalists, see, for example, Svo¬boda 1934, p. 39 or Hansen-Löve 1978, pp. 24-30. However, the Formalists’ themselves resented any parallelism drawn between their poetics and Aristotle’s, and they certainly would have rejected the label “neo-Aristotelian.” See, for example, Tomaševskij 1978 [1925], pp. 385-86.

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(1984) "Who is formalism, what is she?", in: Steiner Peter, Russian formalism, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, pp.15-43.