The developmental significance of Russian formalism

Peter Steiner

pp. 205-230

[The scientist] accepts gratefully the epistemological conceptual analysis; but the external conditions, which are set for him by the facts of experience, do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted in the construction of his conceptual world by the adherence to an epistemological system. He therefore must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist.

— Albert Einstein, “Reply to Criticism”

Readers who have patiently followed my discussion up to this point might now find themselves uneasy about its metapoetic method. I began by berating those who dealt with Formalism in a piecemeal fashion, and demanded instead a holistic approach. Yet have I not treated the Formalist movement as a cluster of loosely connected theoretical models without any obvious common denominator? Furthermore, in chapter 1 I argued that the epistemological assumptions behind the individual Formalist models were too disparate to provide a unified basis for the movement. I also insisted on the futility of a purely historical approach for distinguishing Formalism from the other schools that preceded or followed it. Given all these counterindications, it must surely appear strange to persist in seeking an overall unity for RussianFormalism.

Yet persist I will. For the separation of Formalist epistemology from its history with which I began is ultimately the cause of the difficulties that we now encounter. Such a separation is quite inappropriate for this movement, whose theoretical heterogeneity is largely a function of its historical situation, and, vice versa, whose vague historical boundaries can be traced to its epistemological eclecticism. It is a mistake to seek the unity of the school in either of these spheres alone; it must be sought in their conjunction. In my opinion, there is an intellectual coherence to Russian Formalism, and that coherence lies in its evolutionary significance, the developmental role it played in the history of Slavic literary theory. This role, as I shall argue subsequently, consisted above all in destabilizing the traditional patterns of literary scholarship and in opening up new and provocative vistas.

Such an assumption, I believe, is appropriate for dealing with a movement as aware of its place in Russian literary study as Formalism. The young theoreticians conceived of their enterprise as a deliberate departure from previous critical practice. Theirs was to be a truly scientific approach to literature. According to Victor Erlich, “the driving force behind Formalist theorizing was the desire to bring to an end the methodological confusion prevailing in traditional literary studies and systematize literary scholarship as a distinct and integrated field of intellectual endeavor” (Erlich 1981, pp. 171-72). Given this goal, the “state of the art” ofliterary study could not but strike the Formalists as deeply unsatisfactory. “The status of literary history among the other sciences ofculture,” Tynjanov complained, “remains that of a colony” (Tynjanov1929, p. 30).This is so, Jakobson pointed out, because “literary historians have found a use for anything that came to hand: byt, psychology, politics, philosophy. Instead of a literary science they created a conglomerate ofhomespun disciplines” (Jakobson1921a, p. 11).

The criticism that literary historywas a totally disunified field, however, was not unique to the Formalists. As early as 1870, Aleksandr Veselovskij had declared, “The history of literature reminds one of a geographical zone that international law has sanctified as a res nullius,where a historian of culture and an aesthetician, a savant and a student of social thought hunt [side by side]. Everyone takes out of it whatever he can, according to his talents and opinions. The goods or booty carry the same label but are far from having the same content. With no prior agreement as to norms, everyone constantly returns to the samequestion: what is literary history?” (Veselovskij 1940, p. 53).

Veselovskij’s answer was that literature should be defined interms of the history of ideas. But this solution did not satisfy the Formalists either, for it simply confirmed theirbelief that literary study is unscientific because it, unlike any other discipline that claims the status of a science, has no distinct object of inquiry. For Tomaševskij, when traditional critics approached the literary work as a facet of its author’s biography, a sociohistorical document or a manifestation of some particular philosophical system, they were dissolving literary studies into a series of disconnected disciplines (Tomaševskij 1929a, pp. 12-13). The lesson that the Formalists drew from their predecessors’ forays into such heterogeneous cultural domains was purely negative. “Thanks to these inquiries,” Grigorij Vinokurwrote, “we have gradually begun to learnat least what the object of poetics or literary history is not” (Vinokur 1923, p. 104).

Nevertheless, out of this negative lesson came a positive program for a new literary science, a Copernican revolution in literary study. Before Formalism, literary studies revolved around other branches of knowledge, but the Formalists provided the discipline with its own center of gravity by insisting that it had a unique and particular object of inquiry. In Vinokur’s words, theFormalist revolution boils down toa “simple idea, that literary sciencestudies literatur itself, and not anything else: that the student of an artwork has as his subject matterthe structureof this work and not factors that are historicallyor psychologically concomitant to its creation” (ibid.).Or as Èjchenbaum put it, “the prime concern of the ‘Formalists’ is… literature as the object of [literary] studies” (Èjchenbaum 1927, p. 116).

This step necessarily involved a new conception of what literature was. Traditional critics hadnot treated literary texts in terms of psychology, socio-history, or philosophy just to be perversely “unscientific,” but because they saw these works as expressions of their authors mental lives, documents of their time, or philosophical meditations. The Formalist view was quite different. For them literature was an autonomous reality governed by its own regularity and more or less independent of contiguous spheres of culture. From this perspective the vital issue for literary science was no longer the investigation of other realities that literary texts might reflect, but the description of what it was that made them a literaryreality. “There should be only a single principle that establishes the content or the object of a science,” Èjchenbaum declared. “Our principle is the study of literature as a specific series of phenomena. Next to it… there can be no other principle” (Èjchenbaum 1924b, p. 4).

This primary principle of Formalist literary science—the specificity of its subject matter—was utterly unacceptable to other Russian literary critics, regardless of their theoretical stripe. Their reactions can be summed up in the question: What are thegrounds for this principle? The Marxists offered a predictable answer. In the Formalists’ attempt to de-ideologize literature they saw the classical move of bourgeois ideologists to neutralize literature as an effective weapon of class struggle. Others, for whom this analysis was too crude, traced the Formalists’ view of literature to avant-garde artistic practice, and in particularto Futurist poetics, with its stress on the “self-valuable” word. Though theirs was a more perceptive objection than the Marxists’ it still requires some modification, for as we have seen, the Formal school was as heterogeneous in its origins as in its theoreticalmodels. Some of itsmembers did begin as proponents and interpreters of Futurist art. Others came to Formalism from the mainstream of traditional literary study and still others entered its orbit after the closerelationship with Futurism was over. True, not all the Formalists completely severed their ties to avant-garde art. But the young scholars aspired to be more than mere spokesmen of a poetic movement. They set out to establish a science of literature capable of dealing with verbal art in all its historical manifestations.

These and similar attempts to “deconstruct” Formalism by pointing out its ideological or aesthetic basis proceed from a fundamental misunderstanding of its aims. Though Èjchenbaum argued for the specificity of the subject matter of literary science, he did so not as an article of faith needed to advance either bourgeois or Futurist interests, but as a heuristic device needed to advance science. The postulate of the specificity of literary phenomena, the Formalists maintained, was not an apodicticstatement or anexpression of some ontological commitment, but merely a hypothesis, a cognitive lens for focusing the material at hand and unfolding a literary theory. It was not sacrosanct, and if proven unproductive it could be replaced by any other such device.

We did not and do not have [Èjchenbaum wrote in 1925] any …ready-made system or doctrine. In our research we value theory only as a working hypothesiswhich helps us to discover factsand make sense of them: that is, to ascertain the irregularity and render them a material of study. Therefore we do not care for definitions, sodear to epigones, and do not construct general theories, so appealing to eclectics. We advance concrete principles and stick to them to the extent that they are justified by the material. If the material requires their further elaboration or alteration we elaborate or alter them. In this respect we are free enough of our own theories as a science should be if there is a difference between theory and conviction. A science lives not by establishing certitudes but by overcoming errors (Èjchenbaum 1927, p. 117).

This “laying bare of heuristic devices,“ however, did not placate the detractors of Formalism. It perhaps refuted the claim that Formalist literary science depended on certain ideological or artistic assumptions, but that refutation only invited a different criticism. The notion that basic principles are mere hypotheses falsifiable bythe facts is a sign of philosophical naiveté, the critics argued. Theories should not be advanced in such a random fashion if science is to make anysense. To proceed properly, students of art should first of all seek a secure epistemological basis for their theorizing, which can be provided only by the most general branch of knowledge—philosophy. The denial of this truth,the argument goes, betrays either naive realism or facileempiricism.

Ippolit Uduš’ev’s philosophical debunking of Formalism exemplifies this attitude.

The Formal method exists, but the Formalists themselves lack any philosophy of this method.... Do not bother asking them about the philosophical foundations of their own method. In vain would you inquire why, while rebelling against the dualism of “form” and “content,” they introduced another dualism, “form” and “material.” And why is the latter better than the former.… Why do they break the integral work into the elements of form and motivation? Where did they get the criterion for this delimitation? On the basis of what world view do theyeliminate the artist’s world view from their studies? How can one explain anything, even the rejection of a worldview, without some alternate world view?… Why must literary phenomena be severed from all other cultural domains, particularly the domain of cultural unity: philosophy in its broadest sense? Why do the Formalists (I know very well why!) deny any philosophical-aesthetic foundation of their theory? Do they really think (alas, they do!) that the theory of art can be founded outside of philosophical aesthetics? (Uduš’ev 1925, pp. 176-178).

The charge of philosophical naiveté that Uduš’ev (whoever is hidden behind this nom de guerre) and like-minded critics leveled against the Formalists shouldnot, however, be accepted without reservation. We have seen that the Formalists were not ignorant of modern philosophical developments, and if certain procedures or concepts from that discipline suited their needs they did not hesitate to put them to use. As the flippant Šklovskij remarked in a statement that shocked the Marxist establishment, “We are not Marxists, but if in our household this utensil proves necessary we shall not eat with our hands out of spite” (Šklovskij 1926, p. 88).

Moreover, if we look at Èjchenbaum’s pre-Formalistessays, we quickly realize that the concerns voiced by Uduš’ev were not at all alien to him. “Every literary historian,” Èjchenbaum maintained in 1916,

no matter what particular field he chooses to investigate, must rely on a whole series of aesthetic and even epistemological presuppositions that he accepts as self-evident and that are, therefore, totally heteronomous.No matter how well he is insulated in his particular field, no matter how remote he seems at first glance from aesthetics and epistemology, those hidden presuppositions will show up in his method. For in the humanities, more than in other branches of knowledge, there is no method in itself,separate from the principle that founds it. There is no particular distinct from a generality, there is no analysis without a synthetic intuition. If the history of literature has a future, it will come about only when the philosophical attitude of the scholar toward his discipline becomes an absolute necessity for him (Èjchenbaum 1924a, pp. 5-6).

This statement suggests that Èjchenbaum was definitely a better historian than a prophet. It might also explain why of all the Formalists he was the most capable of providing a synthetic overview of the movement’s intellectual program. Above all, it offers an alternative to Uduš’ev’s view of Formalism; What characterized the Formalist mode of inquiry was not a naive neglect of philosophical assumptions but a well-calculated rejection of philosophy as the ultimate arbiter of scientific theory. For the young scholars (as Èjchenbaum noted in his diary in 1922), “a concrete science [is]not a direct and immediate extension of philosophy” (quoted by M. Čudakova in Tynjanov 1977, p. 454). Rather than being aphilosophical, the Formalists’ theoretical posture was consciously anti-philosophical.

Moreover, this posture was perfectly inkeeping with the latest trends in the philosophy of science, which were well known to the Formalists. I have in mind in particular Husserl’s Ideen, published in 1913 and popularized in Russia by his student Gustav Špet (see Špet’s letter to Husserl of February 26, 1914, quoted in Holenstein 1975, p. 62). In this book the founder of phenomenology drew a strict line between sciences ofa specifically philosophical standpointand those of a dogmatic standpoint. The former “are concerned with the scepticalproblems relating to the possibility of knowledge. Theirobject is finally to solve the problems in principle and with the appropriate generality, and then, when applying the solutions thus obtained, to study their bearing on the critical task of determining the eventual meaning andvalue for knowledge of the results of the dogmatic sciences” (Husserl 1962, p. 87).The objectives of those practicing sciences of a dogmatic standpoint are radically different. “The right attitudeto take in the pre-philosophicaland, in a good sense, dogmaticsphere of inquiry, to which all the empirical sciences (but not thesealone) belong, is in full consciousness to discard all scepticism together with all ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘theory of knowledge’and find the data of knowledge there where they actually faceyou, whateverdifficulties epistemological reflection may subsequently raise concerning the possibility of such data being there” (ibid., p.86).

It is noteworthy that Husserl specifically rebuffs skeptics (of Uduš’ev’s type) who block the progress of the dogmatic sciences by raising epistemological issues. This procedure he sees as not only unwarranted but premature, for the basic problems of knowledge have themselves not been satisfactorily solved. “Having regard to the present situation, and so long as a highly developed critique of knowledge that has attained to complete rigour and clearness is lacking, it is in any rate right to fence off the field of dogmatic research from all ‘critical’ forms of inquiry. In other words, it seems right to us at present to see to it that epistemological (which as a rule are sceptical) prejudices upon whose validity as right or wrong philosophical science has to decide, but which do not necessarily concern the dogmatic worker, shall not obstruct the course of his inquiries” (ibid., p. 87).

Husserl’s characterization of the mode of inquiry proper to the dogmatic sciences explains well the Formalists’ stead fast refusal to engage in philosophical discussions about the epistemological ramifications of their theorizing. Given the variety of mutually incompatible systematizations of knowledge that competed for recognition in the Russian intellectual life of the time, it was obvious to them that such an undertaking could hardly yield satisfactory results. Moreover, becoming embroiled in the philosophical fray would only distract them from what they considered their main objective: the advancement of a new literary science. “Yes,” Tomaševskij replied to those who accused OPOJAZ of methodological unreflexiveness, “the Formalists deal with methodology, but only as a concrete testing of the literary historical methods in their research, and not as a methodology masking basically empty talk about what is literature, how it relates to the general problematic of spirit, epistemology, and metaphysics” (Tomaševskij 1925a, p. 148).In a similar vein, Èjchenbaum blasted his scholarly contemporaries for forgetting literaturein the heatof lofty philosophical discussions: “Hence the new ardor of scientific positivism characteristic of the Formalists: the rejection of philosophical presuppositions, aesthetic interpretations, andso on. The break with philosophical aesthetics and ideologicaltheories of art was dictated by this state of affairs. It was necessary to turn toward the facts, leave behind general schemes andproblems, begin in the middle at the point where the artistic fact faces us. Art had to be tackled directly and sciences to become concrete” (Èjchenbaum 1927, p. 120).

We now have an answer, I believe, to the problem with which this chapter opened. The common denominator, the “absolute” presupposition of the Formalists’ literary science, was that there should be no presuppositions in scientific inquiry. This seemingly simple and reasonable program, the demand for the elimination of all “metaphysical” commitments from science, under closer scrutinybecomes quite a complex issue. In the first place, the idea of presuppositionless knowledge by no means originated with Russian Formalism; in fact its wide circulation caused it toacquire a great variety of meanings. In the second place, because of the heterogeneity of the Formalist movement itself and its developmental fluidity, different members on different occasions utilized the idea of presuppositionless knowledge in quite dissimilarways. Therefore, it might be useful to specify at the onset of ourdiscussion the main functions of this notion in Formalist discourse.

First of all, “presuppositionless knowledge” signified a Socraticallynaive, “know-nothing” attitude toward the subject matter of literary studies, which the Formalists waved as a polemical flag beforethe literary-theoretical establishment. On a more sophisticated level, this idea implied not so much the abolition of allpresuppositions as the Formalist quest for a secure basis for the discipline of literaryscience. Such a basis would not itself qualify as a presupposition in the usual sense of this word. It would be self-evident or certain and hence, unlike its traditional counterparts, obligatory and impervious to any further epistemological critique (which as a rule invites an infinite regress). Finally, in what seems the most fruitful approach to this idea, “presuppositionless knowledge” expressed the Formalists’ deep-seated skepticism about the adequacy of any systematic or unified account of presuppositions in science. Given this impossibility, the Formalists conceived of their own scientific enterprise as a process unfolding in spiteof this impossibility and in the course of time consistently negating all of its own presuppositions.

The first meaning of “presuppositionless knowledge” as an epistemologically fresh start—is understandable within the historical context that gave rise to Formalism. Dissatisfied with contemporary literary studies whose approaches derived from metaphysical, speculative sources, the youngscholars wished to start all over again, to wipe the slate clean. And this goal could best beachieved, they believed, by expunging not only previous presuppositions but allpresuppositions. Yet obviously the positive science of literature, at least as the Formalists envisioned it, could not proceed from a mere negation. If, according to their primary principle, literary study has a specific subject matter, its task would have to be to pin down and describe this specificity, to explain what makes literature literature. In my very formulation of this notion, though, I cannot but notice the deliberate vagueness of thespecificity principle. It hypothesizes the distinctness of literary phenomena from other cultural domains without stipulating in the least in what this distinctness consists. By programmatically excluding all prior presuppositions from their inquiry, the Formalists seemed to be caught in an obvious paradox. They insisted that literature has a distinctness of its own; yet any specification of this distinctness would entail a commitment on their part, a presupposition oftheirown.

All this point the idea of presuppositionless knowledge in its second meaning becomes vital for Formalist theory. The young scholars were willing to put their necks on the line and propose that what they saw was the distinctive feature of literature. Theyheld that this ultimate ground of their literary science was qualitatively different from the traditional presuppositions of the discipline. It was self-evident or certain, in the sense that it was derived from the very subject matter of their inquiry and not from any speculative, non-scientific sources. In this quest for a secure ground of literary science, the Formalists associated themselves with some of the most productive currents in modern thought which pursued the same objective in other disciplines or for knowledge in general.

Nineteenth-century positivism was certainly one of those currents. The positivists declared themselves totally free of metaphysical presuppositions, deriving their knowledge of the world solely from observable facts as sensory experience furnishes them. This positivistic empiricism—the reduction of facts to sensorydata—found its most sustained application in OPOJAZ in the early days. In a radical move the young scholars reduced the literary work solely to its phonic stratum and directed all their efforts to discovering the immanent laws of sound that characterize poetic discourse. This is not to say that the Formalists were unaware of the fact that literary texts are semantically charged, and hence involve values, ideas, and other qualities not open to directsensory experience. Rather, they would argue that these qualities do not constitute the essence of literature.What makes texts literary is the particular organization of their palpable substance: sound. Whether speaking of the “clustering of liquids,” “sound repetitions,” or “sonorous chords,” the early Formalists were arguing that the differential quality of verbal art lies in its phonic stratum. The reduction of literature to its sensory vehicle might appear quite strangetaken outside its historical context, but at the same time that it was formulated, the Futurist experiments with zaum’—transrational language deprived of meaning—provided the young theoreticians with empirical evidence that themanipulation of the phonèalone is sufficient to generate poeticity.

Even when in the early twenties the Formalists rejected the belief that the specificity of literary phenomena resides onlyin its sensory stratum, they did not accordingly abandon their commitment to presuppositionless knowledge, the program for a literary science that would be solely a cognitive extension of the factsunder study. They merely changed their minds about what the literary facts were.

In doing so, they were perfectly consistent with other turn-of- the-century scholars who searched for self-evident grounds of knowledge. Positivist science was then coming under heavy attack, but not all critics disagreed with its goal of eliminating metaphysical presuppositions and relying exclusively on the facts. What critics did question was positivist phenomenalism, the belief that only observable facts, those furnished insensory perception, are the genuine object of scientific inquiry. They considered the positivist commitment to experience as the sole source of knowledge too limiting and offered more adequate procedures for adirect, unmediated grasp of reality.

Among the welter of postpositivist notions of science, the most influential for the Formalists were Husserl’s phenomenology and Saussure’s linguistics. Husserl was far from denigrating the scientific vigor of positivism. “Empiricistic Naturalism,” he wrote in Ideen, “springs, as we must recognize, from the most praiseworthy motives. It is an intellectually practical radicalism, which in opposition to all ‘idols,”to the powers of tradition and superstition, to crude and refined prejudices of every kind, seeks to establish the right of the self-governing Reason to be the only authority in matters that concern truth” (Husserl 1962, p. 74).However, a fallacy was built into the positivist program, Husserlinsisted, which stemmed from its conflation of facts with sensorily perceptible phenomena. “The fundamental defect of the empiricist’s argument lies in this, that the basic requirement of a return to the ‘facts themselves’ is identified or confused with the requirement that all knowledge shall be grounded in experience” (ibid., pp. 74-75).No scientist, Husserl argued, proceeds in research through pure experience. Such an approach could provide no more than knowledge of a single fact in a unique spatiotemporal nexus, that is, an accident. Scientific laws, in order to qualify as such, must have broader implications, must applyto a category of phenomena. The notion of the category clearly exceeds the empirical realm and is not a product of direct experience. It is grounded in what Husserl terms the “essential insight” that discerns in a sensory multitude the categorical eidoscommon to all the objects of the same category, in fact, constituting it.

Husserl’s name for the “science which aims exclusively at establishing the ‘knowledge of essences’ [Wesenerkenntnisse]and absolutely no ‘facts’” was “pure phenomenology” (ibid., p. 40). Such a science would proceed not from sensory experience but from intuition— the direct grasp of the essences underlying the phenomenal world which provide it with its categorical identity. And whereas positivism, inHusserl’s opinion, by uncritically privileging experience as the ultimate guarantor of truth, had actually betrayed the idea of presuppositionless knowledge, phenomenology postulated it in its full purity. “We start out from that which antedates all standpoints: from the totality of the intuitively self-given which is prior to any theorizing reflexion, from all that one can immediately see and lay hold of, provided one does not allow oneself to be blinded by prejudice, and so led to ignore a whole class of genuine data. If by ‘Positivism’ we are to mean the absolute unbiased grounding of all science on what is ‘positive,’ i.e., on what can be primordially apprehended, then,” Husserl declared, “it is we who are the genuine positivists” (ibid., p. 78).In this respect, the later work of Formalism can be seen as a “purified” positivism as well.

Whereas Husserl was providing a prescription for the science of all sciences, Ferdinand de Saussure was pursuing a more limited goal. He wished to establish the ultimate foundations of a single discipline—a science of language. In this respect, his undertaking was much closer to that of the Formalists, who aspired to do the same for literature. The task that the Swiss linguist set out to accomplish might be characterized in Husserlian terms as theconstruction of a “regional ontology,” the isolation of the eidosthat makes linguistic facts linguistic. Traditional approaches to language were unsatisfactory, Saussure maintained, because they never asked the essential question, “what is language?” Instead, they stopped at the empirical level and rather than studying language, concentrated on its physical, psychological, and cultural manifestations. Inevitably, from this perspective “the object of linguistics appears as a confused mass of heterogeneous and unrelated things” (Saussure 1959, p. 9).To rectify this situation, Saussure proposed the strict separation of what is linguistically phenomenal, individual, and accidental from what is essential, social, and rule-governed. He bisected language into actual speech (parole) and potential linguistic system (langue) and proclaimed the latter the sole object of linguistics.

Saussure argued that linguists should not start with the observation of empirical reality, for in their psychophysical actuality, individual utterances are totally disparate. Instead, linguists should proceed from an insight into the essence of language, from their intuitive grasp of langue, which provides all utterances with their linguistic identity but is never fully implemented in any of them. Second, in organizing this knowledge linguists need not draw on patterns and schemes extrinsic to language. Because linguistic facts are by their very essence systemic, they can be treatedadequately only on the basis of the system (langue) that they engender. And because Saussurean linguists proceed from an intuitive grasp of langue, the object of their inquiry furnishes them with a framework for the systematization of their knowledge.

Saussure’s and Husserl’s influence on the Formalists was profound, as we have already seen. Husserl’s program found its most faithful follower in the vice-chairman of the Moscow Linguistic Circle,Roman Jakobson. By postulating that literariness rather than literature was the object of literary science, Jakobson was conceiving of poetics as an eidetic discipline. Furthermore, indefining the distinctive feature of literature, he utilized Husserl’s concept of the expression, a sign whose identity lies in the non-empirical domain. It was exactly this concept that enabled him to transcend theempiricism of the early OPOJAZ members, for whom the specificity of poetic language lay in its sensory stratum. Though the impact of Husserl’s thought on the other Formalists is less clear, in general, phenomenology was an important component of the antipositivist climate surrounding the later phases of Formalist theorizing. Yet its methods for grasping essences appeared to them too abstract and too implicated inwhat they regarded as purely philosophical issues to be directly applicable to theirown enterprise. Accordingly, they sought their inspiration fortreating the specificity of literary phenomena elsewhere—in Saussurean linguistics.

As I observed earlier, Saussureand the Formalists were pursuing the same objective: to wrest their respective fields from other disciplines that had traditionally dominated them. Saussure’s Courseprovided the young Russians with a well-elaborated program for what they themselves wished to achieve in literarystudies: a science generated intrinsically, on the basis of its own subject matter. Saussure’s path-breaking discussion of the essence of language suggested where the specificity of literary phenomena might lie. Like language, literature is a social institution, and it is the literary system—the set of norms valid for a given collectivity—that ultimately determines whether a particular text ispoetic or not. This conception of literature clearly informed Tynjanov’snotion of literary history, Jakobson’s poetic language, and to a great extent Tomaševskij’smetrics.

The antipositivist rebellion in European intellectual life also provoked interest in scientific models that predated positivism. In rejecting the scientific inquiryof the immediate past, scholars were drawn to achievements that the positivists had branded passé. This development helps to account for the revival of Goethe’s morphology, which several Formalists transplanted into the realm of literary studies. The theory of organic forms advanced bythe German poet-turned-naturalist was in some respects quite similar to the notion of science that was emerging some hundred years later. In the spirit of a Spinozan “scientia intuitiva,” Goethe had striven to grasp the “formal essence” of living beings, the ideal Ur-Typthat underlies all actual organisms despite their perplexing empirical heterogeneity (Goethe 1887-1912, sec. 4, vol. 7, p. 214). The dynamic notion of nature in Goethe’sthought provided a particular attraction for the modern period. What Goethe hoped to discover were the generative rules governing the formation and transformation of all organic forms. This approach was close to the hearts of Formalists seeking the essential invariant of literary genres and dissatisfied with Šklovskij’s overtly static conception of the literary work as a “sum of devices.” Thus, positivism, the phenomenological purification of positivism, and the science preceding positivism all entered Formalist thoughtthrough their search for the ultimate grounds of literary science.

The foregoing discussion helps illustrate how the Formalists went about their science of literature. They started from a general hypothesis that the literary serieshas an identity of its own and that literary facts constitute a reality of a different order fromother cultural phenomena. Guided by their belief that a scholarly theory must be above all a cognitive extension of its subjectmatter, they at first looked for the specificity of verbal art in its sensory stratum and later in a variety of non-empirical “deep structures” underlying the literary process and manifested inactual works.

Nevertheless, even a quick glance reveals the obvious inconsistency of Formalist procedures. These proponents of a “pure science of literature” indiscriminately borrowed frames of reference from other disciplines: linguistics, philosophy, or biology. Every Formalist model, despite the claim that scientific knowledge must be presuppositionless, arose from preconceived ideas about literature and molded its data according to a preexistent matrix. Given this fact, should we not assume that the Formal school failed to accomplish its own program?

The answer to this question, I believe, is no. Here we should return to the third meaning of presuppositionless knowledge in Formalist parlance. Profoundly mistrustful of any unified or systematic account of scientific presuppositions, the Formalists conceived of science as a contention among theories, a self-correcting process of elimination and attrition. According to Jurij Striedter’skeen observation, “the history and theory of Russian Formalismarc an uninterrupted dialogue between the Formalists and their opponents, but even moreso among the Formaliststhemselves, 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, p. 435). What characterizes Formalism, thus, is its “eristic” mode of theorizing: its refusal to reduce the heterogeneity of art to a single explanatory scheme. “Enough of monism!” Èjchenbaumhad declared in 1922. “We are pluralists. Life is diverse and cannot be reduced to a single principle” (Èjchenbaum 1922a, p. 40).By proceeding from very dissimilar premises, the young scholars turned their presuppositions against themselves, undercutting, subverting, and refuting each other.

Thus, in its historical dynamics, Russian Formalism is not the sum total of its theories—a static set of models derived from avariety of sources—but a polemos, a struggle among contradictory and incompatible views none of which could become the absolute ground of a new literary science. Tomaševskij’s remark that “the Formalist’s rejected more than anything else the excessive tendency toward inertia” encapsulates the movement’s attitude not only toward previous critical schools but also toward its own theories (Tomaševskij 1929a, p. 12). “In the moment,” Èjchenbaum wrote, “that we ourselves are compelled to admit that we have a universal theory, ready for all the contingencies of past and future and therefore not in need or capable of evolving, we would have to admit that the Formal method had ceased to exist, that the spirit of scientific inquiry had departed from it” (Èjchenbaum 1927, p. 148).41

Such a view of scientific inquiry as an incessant struggle among provisional frames of reference was conditioned, I believe, bycertain pragmatic considerations, the first of which is the collective nature of Formalist theorizing. “The evolution of the Formal method,” Èjchenbauminsisted, “appears as a consistent development of theoretical principles, independent of the role any one of us individually played in it” (ibid., p. 147). This self-abnegation is quite understandable if we do not forget that the Formalists as a group pursued a higher goal: the transformation of literary studies into a science. Measured by this goal, it seemed more reasonable to stress the impermanence, the transience of one’s own theory than to maintain it at any cost and thereby endanger the group’s loyalty and the commonality of their enterprise. Strategically speaking, the centrifugal tendencies so strong within Formalism had to be balanced by an implicit agreement to disagree if this movement were to succeed.

The eristic mode of theorizing was useful in still another way. As I argued earlier, by rejecting the presuppositions of the older critical schools as “metaphysical” the Formalists could distance themselves from the past and launch their new literary science from point zero. To compete with elaborate principles andmethods that had been in circulation for decades, however, the rising scholars had to advance convincing substitutes in the shortest time possible, and here their notion of presuppositionless knowledge proved extremely effective. Bound merely by a general hypothesis about the specificity of the literary series and an agreement to disagree, the young scholars were able to generate,seemingly overnight, an amazing variety of theories concerning the most disparate fields of literary study: versification, narratology, genre theory, and literaryhistory. True, some of their more flamboyant hypotheses fell by the wayside, but many others took firm root, becoming the common property of modern literary scholarship.

Despite this success, the Formalists’ victory was to some degree Pyrrhic. They changed the entire course of Russian literary study: yet no sooner had they done their work and suffered dispersion than their closest heirs, the Bachtin circle and Prague Structuralists were already declaring them passé. The Bachtinians set themselves up as uncompromising critics of Formalism. They viewed its members as their enemies, with the important qualification that one should “appreciate a good enemy much more than a bad ally” (Medvedev 1928, p. 232). The Prague theoreticians, perhaps because of the Formalist contingent among them, were much better disposed toward their Russian predecessors. Nevertheless, the two groups mounted quite similar campaigns against their Formalist precursors.

The main target of the Bachtinians’ critique was the Formalist vision of literature as an autonomous reality independent of other cultural domains. By challenging this view, the Bachtinians were not, however, returning to the old approaches discredited by the Formalists. Their new perspective is apparent in the very first sentence of Medvedev’s book-length critique of Formalism: “Literary study,” he wrote, “is one branch of the extensive science of ideologies that encompasses… all the spheres of man’s ideological creativity” (ibid., p. 11). This opening sentence indicates the direction of the entire study: the presentation of literature as an ideological phenomenon closely related to other such phenomena (politics, religion, and so forth), yet possessing an identity of its own. For the Bachtinians, a limited rather than total autonomy characterized literature as a specific series.

Of course, this position was not utterly alien to Formalism. The Formalist principle of the specificity of the literary series was vague enough to allow some members of the school to study the relationship between literature and social life. What set the Bachtinians apartwas their semiotic frame of reference. Everyideological phenomenon, according to Valentin Vološinov, is a sign, a reality that stands for some other reality. “Within the sphere of signs, i.e., within the ideological sphere,” however, “there exist profound differences. Afterall, this category includes the artistic image as well as the religious symbol, the scientific formula as well as the juridical norm. Every sphere of ideological creativity has its own orientation toward reality and refracts it in its own way. Everydomain performs its own function in the totality of social life” (Vološinov 1930, pp. 14-15).

The Bachtinians’ definition of literature in semiotic terms may seem to paraphrase Jakobson, who also conceived of verbal art as a specific type of sign—the expression. In fact the two are quite different. As an expression, the literary work is an oxymoron: a semiotic nonsign. It is endowed with meaning, yet it does not represent any other reality. For the Bachtinians,however, literature differs from other ideological domains not in failing to signify but in its mode of signifying. Literary signs, Medvedev claimed, are metasigns—representations of representations. “Literature reflectsin its content anideological horizon: alien, non-artistic(ethical, cognitive), ideological formations. But in reflecting these alien signs literature creates new forms—literary works—new signs of ideological intercourse. And these signs—literary works—become in turn anactual component of the social reality surrounding man. By refracting what lies outside them, literary works are, at the same time, self-valuable and distinct phenomena of the ideological milieu. Their presence cannot be reduced to the simple, technical, auxiliary role of refracting other ideologems. They have their own ideological role and refract socioeconomic reality in their own way” (Medvedev 1928, p. 29).

This metasemiotic definition led the Bachtinians to a thorough revision of Formalist theories of language, the medium of literature. From a linguistic point of view, a verbal sign that reflects or refracts another verbal sign is exactly like an utterance commenting on or replying to another utterance. It forms a dialogue. This concept is the controlling metaphor of Bachtinian literary-theoretical discourse. Moreover, the dialogic conception of language was a direct challenge to Saussure’s linguistics and Husserl’s logic. The Formalists, as I showed earlier, did relativize the asocial and ahistorical categories of their intellectual predecessors, but they were primarily concerned with the centripetal forces operating in language that make it systemic. The Bachtinians’ priorities were precisely the opposite. As a dialogue, language is not a system (ergon) but a process (energeia), an ongoing struggle between different points of view, different ideologies. Hence, what intrigued them was not the homogeneity of discourse but its heterogeneity, the centrifugal forces that resist integration.

Like the Bachtin group, the Prague Structuralists also rejected the radical Formalist view of literature as an autonomous reality. “It would he wrong,“ wrote the Circle’s leading aesthetician,Jan Mukařovský, in 1934, “to place poetry in a vacuum under the pretext of its special function. We should not forget that the developmental series of individual structures changing in time (e.g., the political, economic, ideological, literary) do not run parallel to each other without any contact. On the contrary, they are elements of a structure of a higher order and this structure of structures has its hierarchyand its dominant element (the prevailing series)” (Mukařovský 1948, p. 166).

The attentive reader might hear in Mukařovský’s “structure of structures” an echo of Tynjanov and Jakobson’s conception of culture as a “system of systems,” a notion advanced by the two in 1928 as a corrective to the purely immanent approach to literary history that had characterized earlier Formalism. But Tynjanov and Jakobson had failed to explain the mechanism that makes the interaction among different cultural systems possible. Within six years of their time, however, Mukařovský developed such an explanation. Like the Bachtinians, he accounted for the relative autonomy of the literary structure by means of the general theory of signs. “Without a semiotic orientation,” he declared at the 1934 Congress of Philosophy in Prague, “the theoretician of art will always be inclined to regard the workeither as a purelyformal construction or as a direct reflection of its author’s psychic or even physiological dispositions, of the distinct reality expressed by it, or of the ideological, economic, social, or cultural situation ofa given milieu… Only the semiotic point of view will permit the theoretician to recognize the autonomous existence and essential dynamism of the artistic structure and to understand its development as a movement which is immanent yet inconstant dialectic relation to the development of other spheres of culture” (Mukařovský 1936b, p. 1070).

Because they considered “all of reality, from sensory perception to the most abstract mental construction” a “vast and complexrealm of signs,” the Structuralists had to introduce some criterion to differentiate individual semiotic structures from each other (Havránek et al. 1935, p. 5). Here the notion of function entered Structuralist thought. Rooted in a purposive view of human behavior, it designated “the active relation between an object and the goal for which this object is used” (Mukařovský 1971, p. 17). The Structuralists stressed the social dimension of functionality, the necessary consensus among the members of a collectivity about the purpose the object serves and its utility for such a purpose. From the functional perspective, every individual semiotic structure—art, religion, science— appeared as a set of social norms regulating the attainment of values in these culturalspheres.

The Structuralist concept of the aesthetic function was especially important to their revision of Formalism. It might besaid that this function was the dialectic negation of all other functions. Whereas in “practical” functions, the teloslies outside the object used, in the aesthetic function the telosis this object. That is to say, in extra-artistic activities functional objects are instruments whose value stems from their suitability for particular purposes. Works of art, on the other hand, as the objects of the aesthetic function, do not serve any practical goal directly andthus constitute ultimate values in and of themselves.

The dichotomy between the aesthetic and practical functions may appear simply to restate in different terms the Formalist notion of de-familiarization, according to which the displacement of an object from its customary context—byt—makes it a “self-valuable” work of art. It is necessary to point out, however, that Structuralists conceived of an object’s functionality in terms of hierarchy rather than in terms of the Formalists mutualexclusivity: the dominance of one function did not preclude the presence of others. Further, because of their semioticoutlook, they did not see the aestheticset toward the object as a total break from the social context. On the contrary, a dominant aesthetic function prevents the practical functions contained in the work from realizing theircorresponding values; therefore these values are transferred from the empirical to the semantic plane. Extra-aesthetic values become meanings that contribute to the total semantic structure of the work. Thus, “from the most abstract point of view,” Mukařovský claimed, “the work of art is nothing but a particularset of extra-aesthetic values. The material components of the artistic artifact and the way they are exploited as formal devices are mere conductors of energy represented by extra-aesthetic values. Ifat this point we ask ourselves where aesthetic value lies, we find that it has dissolved into individual extra-aesthetic values and is nothing but a general term for the dynamic totality of their interrelations” (Mukařovský 1936a, p.69).

We have seen that both the Bachtinians and the Prague Structuralists redefined the primary principle of Formalist literary science from a semiotic perspective. They did not stop there; they also questioned the “ultimate” presupposition of this science,namely, that its theories must be generated solely from the data studied. Medvedev’s critique of Formalism takes up this point several times. “In the humanities, to approach the concrete material and to do so correctly is rather hard. Pathetic appeals to the ‘facts themselves’ and the ‘concrete material’ do not say or prove much. Even the most extreme specimens of the biographical method are founded on facts and concrete material. Eclectics of all kinds areespecially ‘factual’ and ‘concrete.’” But since a correct grasp of the material at hand influences the entire theory that follows from it, “the onset of research, the first methodological orientation, the mere sketching out of the object of inquiry, are crucially important. They are of decisive value. One cannot establish this initial methodological orientation ad hoc, guided solely by his own subjective ‘intuition’ of the object” (Medvedev 1928, p. 108).

This, of course, was precisely what Medvedev thought the Formalists had been doing. Sprung from an ‘‘unholy union” of positivism and Futurism, Formalism lacked any solid philosophical foundations and molded its object of inquiry according to the aesthetic sensibility of modernist art. Obviously, many of Medvedev’scharges were polemical exaggerations, but the overall thrust of his argument was straight forward: literary study, in order to treat its materialadequately, must proceed from a well-defined, correct philosophical point of view. This, he happily announced, is Marxism. The “ultimate presupposition” of Medvedev’s sociological poetics is that the literary fact is first of all an ideological fact and literary study a branch of the general science of ideology. “The foundations of this science concerning the generaldefinition of ideological superstructures, their functions in the units ofsocial life, their relationship with the economic basis and partially also their interaction, were laid deeply and firmly by Marxism” (ibid., p. 11).Although one may ask how well the Bachtinians’ metasemiotics squared with the official Soviet Marxism-Leninism and its flat-footed theory of reflection (and hence whether they should be called Marxists at all), the choice of a tag is not important. Thepoint is that the Bachtinians saw philosophy as the necessary ground of literary study and the Formalists did not.

On this issue the members of the Prague school were perhaps more reserved than the Bachtinians; yet they certainly did not deny the relevance of philosophy to theory. The Formalists had considered themselves specifiers, pioneers in the new science of literature, but the Structuralists emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of their research and the similarity of their principles and methods to those in other fields of knowledge. “Structuralism,” as the coiner of the term, Roman Jakobson, stated in 1929, “is the leading idea of present-day science in its most various manifestations” (Jakobson 1929, p. 11).Its emergence heralds the eclipse of one era in European intellectual history and the beginning of a new one. “European Romantic scholarship,” Jakobson argued, “was an attempt at a general, global conception of the universe. The antithesis of Romantic scholarship was the sacrifice of unity for the opportunity to collect the richest factual material, to gain the most varied partial truths. Our time seeks a synthesis: it does not wish to eliminate general meaning from its purview, a law-governed structure of events, but atthe same time it takes into account the great reservoir of facts gathered during the previous epoch” (Jakobson 1935, p. 110).

This view of Structuralism was echoed by other members of the Prague Circle. According to Mukařovský, the modern history of European scholarship was marked by an oscillation between Romantic deductivism, which subordinated scientificdata to an overall philosophical system, and positivistic inductivism, which reduced philosophy to a mere extension of the empirical sciences. The novelty of Structuralism, Mukařovský believed, lay in its efforts to bridge this dichotomy. “Structuralist research… consciously and intentionally operates between two extremes: on the one hand, philosophical presuppositions, on the other, data. These two have a similar relation to science. Data are neither a passive object of study nor a completely determinant one, as the positivists believed, but the two are mutually determining.” For Mukařovský,“Structuralism is a scientific attitude that proceeds from the knowledge of this unceasing interrelation of science and philosophy. I say ‘attitude,’” he continues, “to avoid terms such as ‘theory’ or ‘method.’ ‘Theory’ suggests a fixed body ofknowledge, ‘method’ an equally homogenized and unchangeable set of working rules. Structuralism is neither. It is an epistemological stance[my italics]from which particular working rules and knowledge follow to be sure, but which exists independently of them and is therefore capable of development in both these aspects” (Mukařovský 1948, pp. 13-15).

Against these two philosophically oriented schools, the nature of Russian Formalism is apparent. It served as what can only be termed an “interparadigmatic stage” in the evolution of Slavic literary scholarship. Thomas Kuhn, who introduced this notion, argues that normal scientific practice is characterized by the presence of a “paradigm,” a “strong network of commitments—conceptual, theoretical, instrumental and methodological” shared by researchers in a given field (Kuhn 1970, p. 42). The paradigm provides the scientific community with everything it needs for its work: the problems to be solved, the tools for doing so, as well as the standards for judging the results. At a certain moment,however, the hitherto accepted paradigm comes under suspicion because of its persistent failure to yield the results it predicts. Kuhn noted, “Confronted with anomaly or crisis, scientists take a different attitude toward the existing paradigms and the nature of their research changes accordingly. The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research” (ibid., pp. 90-91).

Such interparadigmatic hallmarks are the prime characteristics of Russian Formalism. Though it might be argued that the situation in the humanities is somewhat different from that in the exact sciences, inasmuch as the total domination of a single paradigm never occurs there, Kuhn’s remarks fit the picture of the Formalist movement quite well. Motivated by the desire toprovide a “more rigid definition of the field,” the Formalist scholars raised fundamental questions about the principles and methods of literary study. In order to destabilize the older paradigm, they strove to open the theoretical space as wide as possible ratherthan to limit it by some a priori agreement. Hence the extreme heterogeneity of their enterprise, the proliferation of widely divergent and often incompatible models. What ties the individual Formalists together is the goal they pursued: to change the scholarly practice of their discipline. The unity of Formalism is thus of a special kind. It is a unity of action, a dynamic configuration of multiplex forces converging in a particularhistorical context.

As such, Russian Formalism does not represent a single paradigm of literary study but a cluster of diverse theories. Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, some seventy years after its inception Formalism still exerts considerable influence on literary study. Its debunking of earlier paradigms and its wealth of insights into the nature of the literary process provided a fertile ground for the new syntheses, new disciplinary matrices, that began to appear at the very moment of Formalism’s demise in the late twenties. One of these emerged in Prague under the label of Structuralism, and for the next forty years achieved an ever-growing worldwide influence. The other was Bachtinian metasemiotics, forcibly suppressed for many decades, but since the seventies enjoying an international reputation as a viable alternative to Structuralism. Russian Formalism was without a doubt a transitional and transitory period in the history of literary study. But insofar as the literary-theoretical paradigms it inaugurated are still with us, it stands not as a mere historical curiosity but a vital presence in the critical discourse of our day.


41 Readers familiar with recent developments in the philosophy of science might recognize that the Formalist view of the “spirit of scien­tific inquiry” anticipates to some degree Paul Feyerabend’s “anarchistic theory of knowledge” (Feyerabend 1975). It is noteworthy that the Formalists in their polemics with Marxism occasionally invoked the “anarchy of life,” a notion that is alwaysincomprehensible to the adherents of the rigid and doctrinaire Marxist Weltanschauung. Explicitly comparing the struggle between the traditional philologists and the Formalists to that between the Marxists and anarchists, Èjchen­baum exclaimed, “Life is not built according to Marx—all the better” (Èjchenbaum 1922a, p. 41).

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(1984) "The developmental significance of Russian formalism", in: Steiner Peter, Russian formalism, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, pp.242-270.