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Defamiliarization or ostranenie (остранение) is the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance perception of the familiar. A central concept in 20th-century art and theory, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre, and science fiction, it is also used as a tactic by recent movements such as culture jamming.
Defamiliarization of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all devices. And with defamiliarization come both the slowing down and the increased difficulty (impeding) of the process of reading and comprehending and an awareness of the artistic procedures (devices) causing them. (Margolin 2005)
The term “defamiliarization” was first coined in 1917 by Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device” (alternate translation: “Art as Technique”) (Crawford 209). Shklovsky invented the term as a means to “distinguish poetic from practical language on the basis of the former’s perceptibility” (Crawford 209). Essentially, he is stating that poetic language is fundamentally different than the language that we use every day because it is more difficult to understand: “Poetic speech is framed speech. Prose is ordinary speech – economical, easy, proper, the goddess of prose [dea prosae] is a goddess of the accurate, facile type, of the “direct” expression of a child” (Shklovsky 20). This difference is the key to the creation of art and the prevention of “over-automatization,” which causes an individual to “function as though by formula” (Shklovsky 16). This distinction between artistic language and everyday language, for Shklovsky, applies to all artistic forms:
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (Shklovsky 16)
Thus, defamiliarization serves as a means to force individuals to recognize artistic language:
In studying poetic speech in its phonetic and lexical structure as well as in its characteristic distribution of words and in the characteristic thought structures compounded from the words, we find everywhere the artistic trademark – that is, we find material obviously created to remove the automatism of perception; the author’s purpose is to create the vision which results from that deautomatized perception. A work is created “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception. (Shklovsky 19)
This technique is meant to be especially useful in distinguishing poetry from prose, for, as Aristotle said, “poetic language must appear strange and wonderful” (Shklovsky 19).
Defamiliarization in Russian literature
To illustrate what he means by defamiliarization, Shklovsky uses examples from Tolstoy, whom he cites as using the technique throughout his works: “The narrator of 'Kholstomer,' for example, is a horse, and it is the horse’s point of view (rather than a person’s) that makes the content of the story seem unfamiliar” (Shklovsky 16). As a Russian Formalist, many of Shklovsky’s examples use Russian authors and Russian dialects: “And currently Maxim Gorky is changing his diction from the old literary language to the new literary colloquialism of Leskov. Ordinary speech and literary language have thereby changed places (see the work of Vyacheslav Ivanov and many others)” (Shklovsky 19-20).
Defamiliarization also includes the use of foreign languages within a work. At the time that Shklovsky was writing, there was a change in the use of language in both literature and everyday spoken Russian. As Shklovsky puts it: “Russian literary language, which was originally foreign to Russia, has so permeated the language of the people that it has blended with their conversation. On the other hand, literature has now begun to show a tendency towards the use of dialects and/or barbarisms” (Shklovsky 19).
Defamiliarization and différance
What Shklovskij wants to show is that the operation of defamiliarization and its consequent perception in the literary system is like the winding of a watch (the introduction of energy into a physical system): both “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence. Considered against the general and functional background of Derridian différance, what Shklovskij calls “perception” can be considered a matrix for production of difference. (Crawford 212)
Since the term différance refers to the dual meanings of the French word difference to mean both “to differ” and “to defer,” defamiliarization draws attention to the use of common language in such a way as to alter one’s perception of an easily understandable object or concept. The use of defamiliarization both differs and defers, since the use of the technique alters one’s perception of a concept (to defer), and forces one to think about the concept in different, often more complex, terms (to differ).
Shklovskij’s formulations negate or cancel out the existence/possibility of “real’ perception: variously, by (1) the familiar Formalist denial of a link between literature and life, connoting their status as non-communicating vessels, (2) always, as if compulsively, referring to a real experience in terms of empty, dead, and automatized repetition and recognition, and (3) implicitly locating real perception at an unspecifiable temporally anterior and spatially other place, at a mythic “first time” of naïve experience, the loss of which to automatization is to be restored by aesthetic perceptual fullness. (Crawford 218)
The technique appears in English Romantic poetry, particularly in the poetry of Wordsworth, and was defined in the following way by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria: "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar [. . .] this is the character and privilege of genius."
In more recent times, it has been associated with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Verfremdungseffekt ("enstrangement effect") was a potent element of his approach to theater. Brecht, in turn, has been highly influential for artists and filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer.
In popular culture
Chris Constantin's short story "Defamiliarization" (from the Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea collection) portrays a man who seemingly loses his mind, misconstruing his cat's normal feline behavior as demonic possession. The title is also a pun related to the concept of the familiar spirit.
- Crawford, Lawrence. Viktor Shklovskij: Différance in Defamiliarization. Comparative Literature 36 (1984): 209-19. JSTOR. 24 February 2008.
- Margolin, Uri. Russian Formalism . The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
- Shklovskij, Viktor. “Art as Technique”. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1998.
- Basil Lvov, The Twists and Turns of Defamiliarization.
- Min Tian, The Poetics of Difference and Displacement: Twentieth-Century Chinese-Western Intercultural Theatre. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
- Ostranenie Magazine