The Russian Formalist school of literary criticism and linguistic studies emerged shortly before the Russian revolution. The Moscow Linguistic Circle was formed in 1915; the St. Petersburg Society for the Study of Poetic Language (Opoyaz) in 1916. These two groups launched a savage polemical attack upon existing academic orthodoxy: neo-grammarians, symbolists, psychologists, sociologists, historians of ideas. They found their allies among the futurist poets—Brik, Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky—and they consolidated their ideas by introducing new concepts from outside Russia: in particular, they drew heavily on the work of De Saussure (referred to in the sixth of the theses that follow) and Husserl. The Moscow Group, whose most dynamic member was Roman Jakobson, tended to be more interested in Linguistics; the Opoyaz group was made up mostly of literary historians.
The Bolshevik Revolution created a vacuum into which the Formalists promptly stepped. They soon constituted the leading school of literary studies in the Soviet Union. Their main centre of activity was the Petrograd Institute of Art History, where such leading Formalists as Eichenbaum, Shklovsky, Tomashevsky and Tynyanov all worked. However, the Revolution also meant that Formalism became increasingly criticized by orthodox Marxist writers. The most important critiques of Formalism were made by Trotsky, Bukharin and Lunacharsky. In order to defend themselves the Formalists were compelled to elaborate their theoretical positions and put forward views on such topics as the relationship between social life and literature, which in their enthusiasm for discussion of such literary devices as parody or alliteration they had previously ignored. In the theses that follow the stormy disputes surrounding the Formalists are cryptically evoked particularly in the conclusion of the last thesis.
The Formalists gradually came under increasing pressure. Jakobson left Moscow in 1920 and went to Prague. The others who remained began to engage in a cautious polemic with their Marxist critics.
Discussion turned around the conflicting claims of ‘evolutionary’ and ‘genetic’ explanation, the problem of ‘monism’ and ‘pluralism’ and the nature of ‘diachronic’ and ‘synchronic’ studies. The Formalists—prominently Eichenbaum—argued that whereas Marxism adopted an evolutionary approach to social and economic questions, when it came to ideology it adopted a genetic approach, explaining ideological phenomena in terms of extrinsic social and economic phenomena. But while this line of argument revealed a weakness in orthodox Marxist thought it did nothing to clarify the Formalist approach. Later various possible lines of attack were hazarded. Shklovsky first claimed that Formalist criticism was technological, explaining the craft and mechanics of poetry. Next, however, he developed a theory that ideology and literary genres were in tension with each other and that the deformation caused by this tension was the province of the literary critic. Eichenbaum adopted a more subtle approach and began to interest himself in the literary market, the sociology of publishing and so on, looking for
Much the most interesting attempt at a re-statement of the Formalist position came from Jakobson and Tynyanov in 1928. They transformed the evolutionary approach of Eichenbaum into a structuralist approach influenced by De Saussure. De Saussure defined a diachronic order as one in which each ‘moment’ can only be understood in terms of all those which have preceded it: in a bridge game, the meaning of any trick depends on all the tricks before it and cannot be understood without knowledge of them. In contrast, a synchronic order is one in which the meaning of any moment is inherent in the present: it is co-extensive with the relationship of all the existing data to each other. Thus, at any move, a game of chess is always comprehensible without reference to any of the previous moves. For Jakobson and Tynyanov, each synchronic system was correlated with other systems. But to avoid the reductionist connotations of such terms as ‘level’ (‘economic level’, ‘political level’ of a society) and to suggest dynamic movement, they used the term ‘series’ to delimit each field of enquiry. This usage has nothing to do with Sartre’s concept, discussed elsewhere in these pages.
However, the Jakobson-Tynyanov theses—lapidary and compressed—were the culmination of a movement which was near its end. In 1930 Shklovsky recanted; the other Formalists were soon silenced. Tynyanov took to writing historical novels; he died in 1943. Jakobson stayed in Prague till the war, going ahead with the work already begun of transforming Formalism into Structuralism. Then he emigrated to the United States; he now teaches at Harvard and mit. It was largely through Jakobson that the Formalist contribution to intellectual history was kept alive: he became a crucial influence on Levi-Strauss, with whom he collaborated on a study of Baudelaire’s poem Les Chats. Today Formalism is once more beginning to receive the recognition it deserves: Tynyanov’s memoirs are being serialized in Novy Mir; a collection of Formalist writings has appeared in France and a study has been written and recently re-published in the Netherlands by Victor Erlich. It is time that this growing interest spread to Britain too.