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Defamiliarization or ostranenie (остранение) is the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. A basic satirical tactic, it is a central concept of 20th century art, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre, and science fiction.



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 (also spelled Shklovskij) 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 everyday 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).

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