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…
The new sentence, like all other “new” phenomena and movements (the New Criticism, the New Novel, the New Narrative, dozens of New Wave movements in film and music) keeps getting older and older—it is, in fact, roughly as old as I am, if you date it from 1977. Such is the danger of naming anything new. But what made the New Sentence something novel way back in its youth, in the late 1970s and early 1980s?
An aside, though, before we begin: I’m rather fond of tracing out lineages and influences. This may create the impression that I don’t believe that anything’s ever new. Quite the contrary! We are surrounded by innovation—however, I believe that it rarely (if ever) arises out of thin air, and that it represents less of a break with the past than we might think. An extremely novel effect can come about through the recombination of preexisting influences and materials. Or: a simple shift in an artwork’s organizing dominant (to use Roman Jakobson’s term) can create something exceedingly innovative.
Allow me to attempt to demonstrate with the new sentence, first described (to my knowledge) by Ron Silliman in his 1977 essay titled after it. This long and complex essay advances several arguments: much of it, for instance, is devoted to criticizing the lack of a coherent concept of the sentence in linguistics, philosophy, and literary criticism. Along the way there are numerous intriguing observations, such as:
If we argue—and I am arguing—that the sentence, as distinct from the utterance of speech, is a unit of prose, and if prose as literature and the rise of printing are inextricably interwoven [here Silliman is following a line of thought borrowed from Viktor Shklovsky], then the impact of printing on literature, not just on the presentation of literature, but on how writing itself is written, needs to be addressed. This would be the historical component of any theory of the sentence. (73)
It’s a very familiar story: Romanticism began in 1798 and ended in 1900, when it was replaced by Modernism. …Although maybe it wasn’t replaced until 1901; it must have taken a while back then, in those days before cellular phones and email, to “get the memo,” as we say today. How long did it really take for everyone to hear that they were to stop making Romanticist works, and start making Modernist ones? Why, in some of the outlying regions, Romanticism may have limped on until 1902—even 1903!
Pinpoint the year when Romanticism died, or when Modernism perished. Can you have two eras at one time? Some have argued that Postmodernism is over; have you heard? Stop making Postmodernist art! It’s sad; I liked Po-mo; I’ll miss metatextuality (plus I had a killer idea for a story that became self-aware, and demanded the right to vote). But there’s also an upside: no more Shrek movies! (Well, not after this year’s Shrek Forever After.)
All of this begs the question: What happens to eras? And what are they? Surely they exist—Modernism happened—and if they exist, they must have beginnings. Right? Modernism surely began at some point. Do they also have endings? When Modernism started, what became of Romanticism?
Let’s see if we can’t find out.
The qualities of the new sentence:
1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;
2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;
3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;
4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;
5) Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled;
6) Primary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
7) Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, the sentence level or below.
I first heard about this book approximately six years ago, in my first semester of graduate school at U Nebraska, when Marjorie Perloff (then president of MLA) came to Lincoln to give a talk that would end up being a formative moment in my education. That was where I first learned about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, first heard the name Christian Bök, and first experienced a poem by Charles Bernstein — Perloff shared a particularly brilliant one called “Every Lake Has A House” (which you can listen to Bernstein read here).