Like the promoters of New Criticism, the Russian Formalists believed a text functions according to its own set of laws, distinct from both contextual references and biographical content. Nothing need be brought in from outside to interpret a text: no historical,... [more]
Like the promoters of New Criticism, the Russian Formalists believed a text functions according to its own set of laws, distinct from both contextual references and biographical content. Nothing need be brought in from outside to interpret a text: no historical, cultural, or personal information can fortify a particular interpretation. In fact, for the Russian Formalists, these extraneous elements vitiate textual meaning by reducing it to contingent factors -- the meaning of a good text, a meaning supplied by it alone, will always be both essential and eternal.
This is to say that the Formalists saw the literary text as its own internally consistent universe. They wanted the literary nature of this universe to be made explicit -- they espoused texts that display their literary devices, foreground narrative necessities, make the forms of their fictions apparent. They called this the technique of defamiliarization. Brecht perhaps best embodies this idea: he drew his audience into a seemingly familiar world, then shocked them out of it by abruptly revealing just how contrived that world was.
The Formalists enjoyed this play of the familiar and the strange, the everyday and the uncanny; it allowed literature to partake of reality while simultaneously asserting its independence from it. Russian Formalism enjoyed respect until the '30s; after that, Bakhtin and friends denounced it as a nihilistic destruction of meaning. He claimed that it ignored the ideological implications and influences so important to the increasingly popular Marxist style of criticism. As Marxism grew in Russia, historical and cultural factors began to play a greater role in literary interpretation. The Formalists were deemed decadents, while language and literature became ideological affairs.
Bakhtin also criticized the totalizing quality of Formalist texts -- their addiction to unity. As his work on Dostoevsky revealed, he espoused a true polyphony: multiple autonomous voices united by no overarching narration. The self-consistent unity of the Formalist universe subsequently suffered, and has not yet been revived. [show less]