MODERNITAS reading report: Study "The Four Faces of Russian Formalism"

Review of PILSHCHIKOV, Igor (2023). "The Four Faces of Russian Formalism", in MRUGALSKI, Michal (et al.) (eds.). Central and Eastern Literary Theory and the West. Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 212-257

The critical reception of Russian Formalism can be divided into three large, differentiated periods. The first period extends from 1914 to 1939 and consists, within Russia, of a bitter polemical discussion for and against the theses of the school and, outside the country, in its enriching transfer to other national theoretical systems, especially Czechoslovakia and Poland. The second period extends from 1939 to the mid-eighties and is marked by an impoverishing interpretation of formalism as a mere precedent of dogmatic structuralism that entails the critical neutralization of a large part of the movement's most relevant theoretical contributions. Some key dates within this second stage are the lecture by Roman Jakobson at the Masaryk University in Brno entitled The Formal School and Contemporary Literary Science in Russia (1934), the monographs by V. Erlich (1955) and P. Steiner (1984), or the anthology prepared by T. Todorov (1966). The third period, which lasts until today, is characterized on the one hand by the inertial continuity of many ideas coined in the previous stage and on the other by a surprising variety of new interpretations and reading perspectives. If in the second period of reception the formalist tradition was considered as essentially closed, in the third one (with a leading role of Russian authors) it is observed as a fundamentally conflictive, problematic and open-ended heritage.

The persistent idea that Russian formalism arose from a combination of Opojaz and MLK is a hoax invented by the later Roman Jakobson to enhance his own contribution to the creation of the new theoretical movement and tilt its interpretation towards academicist and scientificist positions that did not originally belonged to it. During the 1920s in Russia, if we take into account the "perspective of contemporaries", this idea would have caused considerable bewilderment. At this time, the formalist proposals had an extraordinary diffusion and were lively discussed on numerous platforms and intellectual and artistic circles. As Irina Popova explains:

The formal school occupies a special place in Russian literary studies. All literary theory of the first half of the 20th century (be it academic theory, the works of O. M. Freidenberg, or the Circle of Mikhail Bakhtin) was constituted and recognized itself in counterpoint to the formal method. It can be said that the formal school found itself at the center of the new theory both thanks to its own program and, not least, thanks to the productive polemic against it (2017, Internet).

The MLK, indeed, starting from the year 1919 was one of these platforms in which formalist ideas were submitted to discussion and "productive polemic", but simply one more and, despite the presence in its sessions of formalist authors such as R Jakobson and O. Brik, is generally characterized rather by its unabashedly anti-formalist positions and its focus on the semantic component of artistic works. To avoid a very plausible confusion, from now on in this commentary we will speak of three Jakobsons: Jakobson I, Jakobson II and Jakobson III. Jakobson I is the formalist Jakobson, Jakobson II is the Czech functional structuralist Jakobson, and Jakobson III is the Jakobson who became one of the main representatives of the current of international structuralism in the second half of the 20th century, turned towards dogmatic and essentialist positions.

There are a number of reasons why Jakobson III's perplexing mystification of Russian formalism as a result of the combination of Opojaz and MLK continues to be routinely repeated to this day in textbooks and scholarly articles. In many cases it is due to lack of first-hand access to the texts and the force of the inertia of interpretations generated during the previous period of the critical reception, but it also happens that this description may fit the interests of particular researchers.

The scholar who in recent years has advocated this thesis with more solid arguments is Igor Pilshchikov, most recently in his article "The Four Faces of Russian Formalism" (2023). In this contribution, Pilshchikov argues that Russian formalism is a broad phenomenon within which four distinct trends can be distinguished: 1) the morphological formalism of early Opojaz, 2) the quantitative formalism of MLK (especially Boris Iarkho and Boris Tomashevsky), 3) the functionalist formalism of the 1920s, 4) the phenomenological formalism of the MLK (Gustav Shpet and his disciples). According to the author, these diverse lines share a series of basic postulates and common premises such as the immanent point of view opposed to previous heteronomist approaches, the effort to create an autonomous scientific discipline, the eminently formal type of consideration of literary facts and the initial methodological differentiation between poetic and practical language. The goal is to account for the heterogeneous character of the movement: "I hope to have demonstrated that Russian formalism was a multifaceted unity, and its diverse versions often overlap —not only chronologically, but also methodologically—, thus producing a stereoscopic image of the Russian formalism" (2023, 244).

Of course, the study carried out by Pilshchikov is masterful and extraordinarily clarifying in many aspects, but it poses nonetheless certain difficulties. In the first place, the distinction between "morphological formalism" and "functional formalism" is a new variation of the well-known "teleological narrative of progress" (J. Merrill 2023, 299), according to which the movement would have progressed from an initial naivety and theoretical inconsistency towards more consistent and judicious positions. The truth is, instead, that the Russian formalism of the Opojaz exhibits a theoretical evolution of extraordinary coherence consisting of the projection and deployment to various areas of analysis of the incitements already contained in the initial term of deautomatization. All the developments during the 1920s are rigorously based on the antinomic and hyper-historicist logic pointed out in the principle of Shklovskian deautomatization formulated in 1914.

Secondly, as far as the "quantitative" and "phenomenological" lines are concerned, it basically consists of the re-establishment by other means and for other purposes of the equation "Russian formalism = Opojaz + MLK". In another paper, Pilshchikov and Tomaš Glanc refer to a revealing opinion of A. M. Shapir: "The Opoyaz became the symbol of Russian formalism, known throughout the world. However, the fundamental work on the creation of a new philology was carried out by the MLK" (quoted in Pilshchikov and Glanc 2017). It turns out that the interpretation of Russian formalism developed during the second period of critical reception, however biased it was, generated a certain symbolic capital that positioned the movement as the mythical origin of the discipline of literary theory. Jakobson III's gambit to integrate the MLK into the school now serves to transfer this symbolic capital to extraordinarily innovative and interesting authors such as Boris Iarkho and Gustav Shpet, who indeed would deserve more attention in Western academy, but that have nevertheless substantial theoretical discrepancies with the basic tenets enunciated by the authors of the Opojaz.

This reintroduction will no doubt prove frustrating for many contemporary researchers after several decades of efforts to dispel the ruse initially concocted by Jakobson III. However, at the same time, it might well serve to reach a compromise and foster a valuable reconsideration of the wider theoretical profile of the epoch as a whole.

In recent years, Russian formalism has been placed in different theoretical constellations, clearly differentiated from the one proposed by Pilshchikov. It is worth mentioning the volume published by Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov Persistent Forms. Explorations in Historical Poetics (2016), in which Russian formalism is integrated into a tradition that has its origins in A. Veselovsky and also includes authors such as Bakhtin, V. Zhirmunsky, O. Freidenberg or M. Gasparov; and S. Ushakin's monumental anthology The Formal Method: Anthology of Russian Modernism (2016), in which formalist authors appear side by side with the leading names of the Russian artistic avant-garde. The premises enumerated by Pilshchikov are excessively broad and do not allow to sufficiently disaggregate his definition of Russian formalism from many other movements and theoretical schools of the time, including those indicated by Kliger-Maslov and Ushakin. In addition to the phenomenological and quantitative lines, these premises make also possible to incorporate into the definition of formalism many other currents of literary and aesthetic studies, both in Russia and in Western Europe.

In this sense, Pilshchikov's arguments could facilitate the recognition of a wide immanentist dominant, of a truly "stereoscopic" nature, which began to take hold in the last years of the 19th century both in artistic creation and in philological and aesthetic studies. Formalism (Russian and European in general) would be a broad movement that encompasses several decades of the continent's cultural history, and within this broad movement Opojaz and the MLK could be situated as two opposite theoretical poles. The dogmatic structuralism of the second half of the 20th century would be the conclusion as well as the distortion of this broad formalist paradigm, in the sense of an abandonment of the formal level of analysis towards the search for static underlying entities, located at a greater ontological radicality. (This displacement, in turn, could lead to a reflection on the current paradigmatic moment, and the possibility that it has overlooked some of the most exciting possibilities of the founding rupture that the post-structuralist moment entailed).

In this way, one could speak of a broader Russian formalism and a broader European formalism than what both terms usually refer to, and this could shed light on the theoretical configuration of the period. But, be that as it may, it would still be necessary to adscribe a special significance to the contributions of the Opojaz. The theoretical approaches of Shklovsky, Tynyanov, Eichenbaum, and also Jakobson I, are included within the broader formalist paradigm of the epoch, but at the same time they mark a point of extreme radicalism that is not completely subsumable within the wider shared assumptions of the moment.

According to L. Doležel, the discipline of poetics from its founding by Aristotle to the Prague Circle and to the present is characterized by the uninterrupted continuity of a certain way of considering literary works that the author calls the "mereological tradition". The two fundamental features of this mode of consideration are the organicity of the works and the symbolic reference. According to the first, artistic works are a special type of ensembles that are characterized by their closure on themselves and the particular density of the internal organization that this closure enables. According to the second, artistic works manage to suspend the arbitrariness of everyday language and reach some kind of superior reference. Both traits are characteristic of practically all currents of literary theory during the 20th century: symbolism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, stylistics, hermeneutics, reception aesthetics, structuralism, polysystem theory, Marxism, and others.

Russian formalism or Opojaz (and Jakobson I) is instead characterized by the opposite traits of neglecting the level of analysis of the work, in favor of dynamism and displacement, and undermining of symbolic artistic reference, in favor of a type of strictly materialist ontological revelation. For this reason, it cannot be considered as belonging to the mereological tradition of Western poetics —and, indeed, Doležel raises important objections against the fundamental tenets of the school (1997, 82)—. Both Czech functional structuralism (Jakobson II) and dogmatic structuralism (Jakobson III) are variants that fit within the mereological tradition, although they do so in drastically different ways. Czech functional structuralism is historical, sociological, semiotic, relativistic, attentive to the internal dynamism of works and to the conflictive displacements they can occupy within internally stratified aesthetic and social systems. One of its main features is the openness towards different horizons of interpretation while safeguarding the structural identity of the work codified in the immanent dimension of the "artifact".

Cristian Cámara Outes


DOLEŽEL, Lubomír. (1997) Historia Breve de la poética. Madrid: Síntesis.
MUKAŘOVSKÝ, J. (2000). Signo, función y valor. Estética y semiótica del arte. Plaza y Janés Colombia: Bogotá.
(2007). Studie, vol. I., Brno: Horst.
PILSHCHIKOV, Igor (2023). "The Four Faces of Russian Formalism", in MRUGALSKI, Michal (et al.) (eds.). Central and Eastern Literary Theory and the West. Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 212-257.
—and GLANC, Tomaš (1917). "Russkye formalisty kak nauchnoe soobshestvo", in POPOVA, Irina (2017). "Bakhtin i formalisty: ob odnom niezamechennom sluchae sblizheniia", in PILSHCHIKOV, Igor and LEVCHENKO, Jan (eds.). Epokha ostraneniia. Russky formalizm i sovremennoe gumanitarnoe znanie. Moskva: NLO.

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