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Refamiliarizing Viktor Shklovsky

  • Cannon Schmitt
Extract

My title is paradoxical, possibly wrong. Refamiliarizing means reintroducing the once known but since forgotten on the assumption that familiarity fosters understanding. The logic on view inheres in the root word, “familiar”: “known to a person from long or close association.” But Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984), enfant terrible of the Russian Formalists from the second decade of the twentieth century right to the end of his long life (another paradox), contests that logic. Defamiliarization, his most significant contribution to literary theory, posits that more familiarity with flogging, sex, or the custom of burying the dead—his examples, to which I will return—results in less rather than more of a sense of what they are. In a consequential opposition, Shklovsky claims we lose the ability to see what we encounter frequently; we come instead merely to recognize it by its outlines, “as though it were enveloped in a sack.” To see it again, to see it in all its particularity, requires the disorientation that arises when the familiar appears before us as precisely, if temporarily, unrecognizable. Since I aim to render strange, to remove the sack, this little essay should of course be called “Defamiliarizing Viktor Shklovsky.”

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References
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Victorian Literature and Culture
  • ISSN: 1060-1503
  • EISSN: 1470-1553
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