Alexandra Berlina at The Times Literary Supplement:
“What we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the method of art isostranenie [making strange]”, proclaims Viktor Shklovsky’s best-known essay, “Art as Device” (“Iskusstvo kak priyom”), written one hundred years ago, and published in 1917.
When I say “essay”, I mean a cross between an article and a manifesto. And when I say “published”, I mean that Shklovsky had it printed on what looked like toilet paper, along with articles by other hot-headed students who believed they had found new ways of understanding literature. Following the new fashion for abbreviations, they christened their circle “OPOYAZ”, short for “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”. When others disparagingly called them formalists, they proudly took up the label. There never was a formal beginning to formalism, but the group formed around Shklovsky in 1916. This year, then, celebrates the twinned centenary of both the OPOYAZ and ostranenie – a concept that is often misunderstood as a mere textual game, when it is actually about making life more real, both in its joys and in its horrors.
In English, ostranenie is known as “defamiliarization”, “e(n)strangement”, “making strange” or “foregrounding”, all of which have the potential to confuse. Being estranged from, say, one’s wife is the emotional opposite of the reconnection through wonder that is ostranenie. One might also think of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt; though he was probably inspired by the Russian theorist, the German playwright believed in restraining feelings in order to promote critical thought. Shklovsky, on the other hand, saw thought as inseparable from emotion. (As it happens, contemporary cognitive science agrees.) To avoid such confusions, I will stick to the original term.