Using Viktor Shklovsky

My hero.

[This post began as a response to some comments made by Douglas Storm on Amber’s most recent post.]

The name “Viktor Shklovsky” comes up a lot at this site (I’m guilty of mentioning it in perhaps half of my posts), and one might wonder why the man and his work matters. Below, I’ll try and lay out what Viktor Shklovsky has done for me, and what he might be able to do for you, too! Because Shklovsky might be the single most interesting and, above all else, useful critic I’ve ever encountered…

I don’t remember when I first read Theory of Prose (which was published in Russian in 1925); it was sometime between 2000 and 2003, when I was a student at Illinois State University. I remember that Robert McLaughlin gave us the essay “Art as Device” in one of his classes. And my mentor, Curtis White, constantly encouraged me to read Shklovsky (along with Hegel, Marx, Adorno, and Frank Kermode). Also, between 2002 and 2003 I worked for Dalkey Archive Press, the publisher of Benjamin Sher’s English translation of Theory of Prose (1991). So I read it “sometime around then.”

When I moved to Thailand in 2003, Theory of Prose was one of the few books I took with me (another was David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art, a work heavily indebted to Shklovsky). For the next two years, I did little else beside ride buses and boats around Bangkok, reading and rereading those two books (while listening to Cat Power—speaking of whom, let’s recruit her for a little background music…).

What did this reading do for me? And why might you care?

Let’s start at the start. Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was one of the founders of the intellectual movement we today call Russian Formalism (along with Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Propp, Yuri Tynianov, others). Broadly speaking, they wanted to understand artworks by breaking them down into their constituent parts, or devices (“priem”)—what we might call tropes or techniques or mechanisms. Different members of this circle studied different devices, and there was not always a clear consensus as to which devices mattered the most. Rather, what unified the Russian Formalists was their dedication to identifying devices, and to explaining how they worked in concert with one another—as well as how those arrangements changed over time. (Forgive me this oversimplification.)

Here is one such example: they distinguished between a narrative’s fabula (story) and syuzhet (presentation). The two need not line up exactly. If someone asks you what the movie Fight Club (1999) “is about,” you might say, “Well, it’s about a guy (Edward Norton) who invents an alternate persona, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), in order to give himself the courage to break out of his mundane white collar existence.” But of course that’s not at all how Fight Club presents itself to the audience. The narrative’s presentation begins at its climax, which is interrupted, and only then proceeds to the the story’s chronological beginning. From that point on, the film contains a mix of chronologically-ordered scenes and bits of narrative exposition (Northon’s voiceover) that allow us, ultimately, to return to and understand the climax, which is then resolved in the final minutes of the movie. Furthermore, the narration conceals from us for most of the film’s running time the fact that Tyler Durden is the psychological creation of the nameless narrator/protagonist.

Formalism helps us explain this kind of narrative phenomenon. By separating story from presentation, we can begin to speak of them independently from one another, as well as to understand how they relate. From this follows many other concepts: for instance, we can see how exposition is back story that gets related (narrated) in the narrative present, whereas a flashback is a scene that’s chronologically embedded in the narrative present. And so on. (I just taught an eight-week creative writing workshop at StoryStudio Chicago, and the lectures I gave, and the creative writing exercises I designed, and the ways in which I analyzed and workshopped my students’ papers, were all largely derived from Shklovsky.)

Today, it’s common to hear that there’s a difference between what a story is about, and how it is told. Roger Ebert, for instance, regularly says words to that effect:

I should like Hal Hartley’s “Flirt” a lot more than I do, since it illustrates one of my favorite mantras: “A film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it.” A good film or a bad film can be made about anything. Therefore, to dismiss (or praise) a film solely because of its subject matter, it is not necessary to see it. That is why people who make statements beginning with the words “I don’t like films about. . .” are idiots, or censors.

That distinction can be traced back to Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists. (Ebert is of course a good friend of David Bordwell’s, whom he’s called “our best writer on the cinema.” Ebert also occasionally makes use of the concept of ASL, or Average Shot Length—see his Great Movies write-up on Annie Hall; ASL is a formalist critical approach to cinema invented by Barry Salt, and popularized by Bordwell and Thompson.)

(If this story/style distinction sounds something like the argument that Raymond Queneau is making in Exercises in Style (1947/1958)…it is! Although I don’t know whether Queneau was directly influenced by Shklovsky.)

In other words, Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists gave us ways of understanding how narratives are artificial things, assembled from many different conventional pieces or devices—and how the results may themselves be more or less conventional. These pieces tend to be inherited, as do the ways of assembling them. (I’m also fond of quoting from Roman Jakobson’s essay “The Dominant,” which describes how the essential character of a work of art—the way it feels, more or less—is the product of one or more devices dominating all of the others. So, for example, in a work of Language Poetry, it’s important that the writer obey the principle of parataxis—or at least avoid syllogisms; all other aspects of the poem then proceed from adhering to that one dominant device.)

Before I read Theory of Prose, I didn’t really know how to construct narratives; I’d been struggling to write a novel for about six years. After I read ToP (several times), I understood how to do that, as well as everything that Curt had been trying to teach me in workshop. And that enabled me to write my first novel, as well as other novels. What’s more, I now had a method and a vocabulary to explain how other narratives had been constructed; thus, I could formally analyze them and see how they “worked.” From there, I could criticize those narratives, or imitate aspects of them, or simply enjoy comprehending them more thoroughly. Nearly ten years later, I’ve yet to encounter a narrative—any narrative, in any narrative medium—that can’t be understood or explained in terms of Shklovsky’s analysis. Which strikes me as pretty powerful!

…Obviously one doesn’t need to read Shklovsky to arrive in a similar place (able to write and understand narratives). In my own case, however, I found Theory of Prose the single most productive text in this regard. And I think others could learn the same thing from it. I’m a very pragmatic person, and tend not to have any interest in theory unless I can use it to do actual things in my everyday life. Shklovsky is among the most practical theorists I’ve ever encountered. (It would of course be an understatement to say that many others have found Shklovsky similarly useful.)

So ToP can help us understand and write narratives. But the book goes much farther than that. Some accuse Russian Formalism of being “cold” and “uninterested in the social”; the opposite is actually true. Shklovsky is very much interested in narrative’s social aspects, and in the social importance of all art. Why should we make art, and devote so much time to analyzing it, if we don’t understand why we make it, and like it? In other words, Shklovsky wants formalist analysis to be something more than just theory—he wants to use it to demonstrate how and why telling narratives is essential to being human.

Shklovsky does this in the very first chapter of Theory of Prose, “Art as Device” (sometimes also translated as “Art as Technique”—this is that word “priem”—”прием”—which turns out to have many different meanings in Russian—including chess strategy! …but let’s not get too distracted). Here’s how it happens. First, Shklovsky relates a passage from Tolstoy’s diary, in which the author, after dusting his living room, can’t remember whether he’s dusted his sofa or not. Tolstoy then wonders how much of one’s life is lived unconsciously: “if the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been” (5).

Shklovsky next argues that there is a distinction between “recognition” (“automatized perception”) and “seeing.” Recognition occurs when you look at things without seeing them—when your surroundings have become so familiar that you tune them out. Seeing, by contrast, happens when something causes you to look again, and to regard a thing as though for the first time. An example: I’ve lived in Chicago for over six years, and have ridden the CTA Blue Line constantly during that time, and only about a year ago did I actually see the wood paneling lining the inside of the train cars.

Having established this distinction, Shklovsky wonders how we might escape recognition, and return to seeing. He proceeds to say (and this passage from Theory of Prose is probably its most quoted):

And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. [...] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to its fullest.” (5–6)

Art is art because it shakes us out of our complacency, and reminds us that we are alive, and that things don’t have to be the way they are. Anything is possible, despite the fact that we routinely convince ourselves that many things are, in fact, not possible—that the world is the way we’ve inherited it, and that nothing can change. It is the job of the artist to live outside of prescribed reality. Art becomes experimental living.

This is why I have written elsewhere on this site that Christopher Nolan is an artless filmmaker. In Inception and elsewhere (I just watched Batman Begins again, god help me), Nolan reduces his technique to the most instantly familiar, the most comprehensible and understandable, the most formulaic. He aspires to recognition, not seeing. … For more on this topic, see this series of posts:

  1. Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception
  2. Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle
  3. Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination
  4. More on Inception: Shot Economy and 1 + 1 = 1

They—and the majority of my writing at this site—are pure applied Shklovsky.

OK, let’s now try to connect Shklovsky’s argument that art is enstrangement (or “defamiliarization”; the Russian word is “ostranenie,” or “остранение”) with a Formalist understanding of narrative. The following is one of my favorite examples. Traditionally, Western narratives follow the patterning laid out by Gustav Freytag:

It’s a matter of convention that the climax is followed by the denouement—the falling action. This is as true in the cinema as it is in novels and short stories; we could think of hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands, of works that obey that structure.

Well, in 1959, François Truffaut made The 400 Blows, a film that famously ends at the precise moment of climax; what he did was cut out the denouement:

It caused quite a sensation. People were shocked by that film, by how it ended. (The “FIN” that appears over the last, frozen shot is akin to a good slap in the face.) (People were of course shocked by other aspects of the film as well, such as its borrowings from Italian neo-realist cinema.) It helped launch the French New Wave (1959–1967), and many of its aspects—devices—became heavily imitated. Lots of other filmmakers began ending their movies that way—until stopping right at the climax became something of a cliche of European art cinema.

(Something similar happened in US literature. Recently I was teaching the Raymond Carver collection Short Cuts (1993). And the first time my students read one of those stories—it didn’t matter whether it was “Neighbors” or “Vitamins” or “Will You Please Be Quiet Please?”—they were surprised by the lack of denouement, the way the story stopped so abruptly, right in the middle of the climax. But after they’d read a few more of the stories, they became accustomed to this aspect of the writing; they began to expect it as one of Carver’s “signature moves.” And ever since Carver, many realist writers have imitated that move, that device, until the point where it’s become something of a cliche of North American realist short story writing.)

Once that move became a cliche, ending the film (or the story) right at its climax was no longer an artistic thing to do. That device had become “familiar,” expected, conventional—automatic. And so artists then had to find something else to do, at the ending or elsewhere, to help audiences “see” films again as spaces for potential, not obligation.

All of this is to say, Shklovsky is supremely interested in why some works of art feel fresh and alive, while others feel dead and dated. He is chasing desperately after the sensations of life and possibility, which to him are fundamental aspects of being human—he wants, ultimately, to not live that unconscious life that never was. And he wants to explain why some (narrative) artworks produce those feelings, and others don’t. And he explains that difference in formalist terms.

Which is why Shklovsky is so valuable. He’s not the only one, of course, who can explain this; before I read Theory of Prose, I had read writings by the Situationist International, who used their own enstranging devices (détournement, the dérive) to escape the deadening, routine obligations of modern urban life. And I’d read John Cage’s Silence (1961), who had his own favorite devices (chance, indeterminacy) “to affirm [...] life, not to bring order out of chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord” (95, italics mine).

Shklovsky helped me understand how narrative writing could be a part of that same basic human desire. Which is to say, he showed me how to do what I’d wanted to do ever since I was a child: write artistic narratives.

[What he didn't show me how to do is proofread my own writing—ugh! I've updated this post for typos and the sake of clarity.]

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27 thoughts on “Using Viktor Shklovsky

    • Excellent! Well, I hope you and others find him useful…

      I should add that Theory of Prose also includes the greatest analysis of Don Quixote I’ve ever read. (He explains how Cervantes managed to build a 1000+ narrative out of smaller episodes and stories, and keep it all coherent. Very useful!)

      And it also includes the greatest (or at least the funniest) analysis of the Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve ever read. To summarize: Shklovsky asks why, if Sherlock Holmes is such a great detective, it always takes him 20 or 30 pages to solve the mystery. Because Holmes always solves a smaller mystery in the first two pages of the story; he’s that good! So why does he need 25 pages for the bigger mystery?

      Shklovsky’s answer: because otherwise the story wouldn’t be 30 pages long! (This is indicative of his humor.) This is more than a tautology; when viewed from that perspective, it becomes obvious that the job of the mystery story writer is to delay the reveal of exposition (“who committed the crime”) until the last few pages of the story. Shklovsky then goes on to describe the devices such authors use to delay that revelation…

      (It’s quite a book!)

      …I used that last trick when I wrote an early draft of my novel Giant Slugs. I was 5000 words in, and it was time, story-wise, for my narrator and protagonist to reach a certain place, the City of Ninjas. But I didn’t want him to get there until at least 10,000 words. So I had to delay that happening for another 5000 words. I did so by embedding other narratives–digressions.

      After 10,000 words, I felt it was time to get him to the city. But how to do it? Simple: I just wrote, “In the end it surprised me how easily I found the City of Ninjas…”

      This is all pure Shklovsky.

  1. Thanks for this, Adam. I will of course only be responding to what your post conveys of Shklovsky rather that his work but I will commit to reading “Art as Device” (should this very title call to mind Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”?).

    It seems to me as if these “devices” have served to offer the “reproduction” of “art” via a contrivance of “moving pieces”. I can think of nothing more deadening to me than something like “parataxis”; and I don’t know if this counts, or if it will be seen as a kind of blasphemy but I cannot feel as if I’m “seeing” something new when confronting something like Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual.

    Also, we seem to only be seeking a newness that keeps us dissatisfied with life in the seeking out of “new sights”. Perhaps this is indeed a kind of industrial question and a response to a world of industrial production.

    I suppose I would say that it requires this kind of theorizing for the mechanical man to “feel” again the world in its simple majesty. A stone always feels stony if one is not overcome by our age of technological replication.

    • I don’t know of any historical connection between Shklovsky and Benjamin. It’s possible that Benjamin read Shklovsky, but I doubt it. Though I may be wrong.

      Some people like to contrast formalism and historical materialism, really play them off each other, but I find them more compatible myself. Although I’m also not aware of anyone trying reconcile those two essays—though that surely must exist. Just an example of some aspect of the literature I’ve yet to encounter.

      I would note, though, that I don’t think it matters much for Shklovsky whether the artwork in question is “an authentic one” or the replicated product of industrial society (such as a film print). Indeed, Shklovsky mostly wrote about novels and film, two artworks that have long been the products of mechanical reproduction. Shklovsky’s point, I think, is that it is possible for us to become inured to daily life no matter where and when we are, because it’s a matter of familiarity (not, necessarily, industry). In fact, who’s to say that today’s spectacle makes it harder to live unconsciously? (Obviously many have argued that that is the case, but I can imagine an argument to the contrary.) .., Actually, that would make for a very good avenue for some writing: how to reconcile Shklovsky’s concept of the human (conscious of life) with an industrial or post-industrial concept of the human? Or with a Romantic concept of the human? … Sounds like a topic for Curt!

      Regardless, for anyone feeling stuck, in the here and now, and wanting a way out, Shklovsky offers a good solution. Several good solutions!

      • How much of a “point” is it that it’s possible to become inured to daily life? Rather it seems to me that the “slog” of life in the “grind” of an industrial world is a great way to want to forgot “daily life” and NEED the “newness” of “change”. Yes, I’m reaching for a kind of idealism here–an organic being finding the very breath of life worth giving attention to doesn’t need to “make it new”.

        Art that exacerbates that seems to me to be part of the problem of disjunction.

        I don’t know Adam, so far this seems too, I don’t know, simple?

        Sherlock Holmes…and Giant Slugs…goes on for 5000 more words “because”? That seems a recipe for creating a “simple” sense of pointlessness in the work. I don’t think too many of us need to be reminded that life is “pointless” other than a culmination in that “end point”.

        Does the author want “more” out of the reader between the “easy” mystery and the lingering, unsolved mystery that extends the narrative? Perhaps, the author simply gets paid by the word…there’s a fine definition of “art” as production.

        • I can’t really speak as to whether the present day is more unconscious than the past was, because I wasn’t alive then. I’m mainly concerned with the here and now, and we have plenty of unconscious living to preoccupy us.

          Sherlock Holmes…and Giant Slugs…goes on for 5000 more words “because”?

          No, not “because.” Pacing and length are essential components of narrative. As has been said, it is the mastery of digression. There are better and worse ways to digress.

          That movie I saw last night, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, spent two hours plus digressing, and I think it did so artlessly; the real film was in the final twenty minutes, but good luck making it there. (One of my friends left after 100 minutes, saying she couldn’t take it any more.)

          I prefer to think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and, ah, myself digress more artfully than that.

  2. Interesting stuff, Ima add Shlovsky to the massive pile of theory I have to get to. I am kind of curious about your example of ending at the climax — if a technique that is too consistently copied becomes artless, then is art just a kind of fashion, constantly searching for something new, and then inevitably exhausting that thing’s newness? Is the history of art just a history of routes being closed off? As a writer that seems depressing.

    • I think it’s about context, though. Lauren Bacall once said that any movie you’ve never seen before is new. What happens is exposure. The more you experience something (film, literature, narrative of any kind) the more familiar it and its techniques become. In a way, art, like life, becomes overly familiar. There are things in life that ‘snap us out of it’ and the same is true in art. I think this is actually amazing, because it means we are constantly striving, seeking, and experimenting towards something new, something worth seeing. The last thing I want to have happen to me is I get ‘stuck’ watching the same movie over and over, or reading the same book over and over (not literally mind you), missing out on the past, the present, and the future of the shapes art takes and how it makes me see the world again in new and exciting ways.

      • I think that’s well said, Peter. It’s definitely a matter of context. The thing that makes art inexhaustible, Rob, is that even as we move toward new things, we’re moving away from other things that can later come back. Art, I think, is more about repetition and recycling than it is about finding stuff that’s absolutely objectively new. (So much of what anyone says is new is always something old, recontextualized.)

        And of course personal subjectivity also plays a large role. If I suddenly started watching, I don’t know, 1930s Mexican cinema, I bet I’d find a lot there that would startle and surprise me, here in Chicago in 2011, even though a lot of those movies may have been old hat in Mexico City in 1939.

  3. frankly, I always found Theory of Prose a little bloodless. My strong preference is for Energy of Delusion. Energy is much more like the rest of his work, especially the glorious fiction. I never thought much of the formalists. Too much Kantian analytics for me (especially Propp’s taxonomy of the fairy tale). Unlike Theory, Energy does in fact place Shklovsky in the Romantic tradition of anti-formalism, aesthetics of freedom, and play. Play, not form, is the true Shklovsky. Still, as Adam has here documented, whatever works to remove the film of habit, the ideology “of course” (“of course a story should look like this triangle”), and lead to incorrigible invention is a good thing.

    • I certainly prefer the sound of that. Play is all there is…homo ludens, yes? It is our disgrace perhaps that “mind”, ordering mind, hierarchical mind, has replaced the true joy of animal being.

    • I’ve still yet to read Energy of Delusion, poor me.

      Have you read Bowstring yet, Curt? I’ve read sections, but I’m still waiting for Jeremy to give me a copy, ahem. So far it looks very wonderful.

      I might suggest that Shklovsky’s play depends very much on form? Both adherence to it and the violation of it. As he writes in ToP, “The story disintegrates and is rebuilt anew (17).”

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  5. Nice one Adam. I’m interested in this: “Shklovsky is supremely interested in why some works of art feel fresh and alive, while others feel dead and dated.” Maybe you could amplify that. Are there specific sections of his books that delve into this? or is it generally splattered about?

    • A little of both. He addresses it in a broad sense in the first chapter/essay, “Art as Device.” But he then goes on to address particular instances in later chapters. Those particular instances are of course historical instances. But we can learn from, and abstract principles from, those historical instances. It’s often true that the devices that generated innovation in 1925 will still generate innovation today.

      …Here’s a for example, since that’s somewhat abstract: in one chapter—I don’t have the text in front of me—he describes the innovation of “the zero ending,” or the practice of ending a story before a conventional—expected—denouement or coda. He’s describing an actual historical instance of some author doing that—I forget whom. But I abstracted that idea into my example above of The 400 Blows. So there are many ways a reader can use Shklovsky’s specific readings: one can revive the devices described (if they’ve fallen into disuse), or one can critically apply them to times and places Shklovsky didn’t describe.

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