Tag: Boris Tomashevsky

Is Formalism still Relevant?

Posted April 12, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 2 Comments

Yuri Tynianov

In a time of revolution a new form of literary theory also emerged. Russian Formalism was an influential school of literary criticism that involved a number of influential scholars including Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, Vladimir Propp, Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Boris Tomashevsky and Grigory Gukovsky. The movement may have been short lived from the 1910’s to the 1930’s but it played a big part in influencing modern criticism, including structuralism and post-structuralism.

The idea of Formalism is to study the mode, genre, discourse and forms of literature. Ignoring the social or cultural influences, Formalism choices to analyse the structure rather than analyse the meaning behind it. The approach takes a more scientific look at literature over the others at the time, but still influenced by other schools of thought like Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories and Symbolism.

While I don’t know much about literary theory, the concept of Formalism has been on my mind lately, and even been the subject of an interesting debate on Twitter. While this an out-dated school of thought, I do believe it is a useful form of literary criticism. While I wouldn’t recommend focusing on Formalism, it can serve as a basis into diving into the world of literary criticism. I have to wonder, is it just my university or does Formalism get taught as an early concept in other English lit courses?

By developing a basic understanding of mode, genre, discourse and forms, it allows us to ask questions we may not normally ask. Why is the text written in one perspective over another? What does the form say about its content? How does paradox, irony, ambiguity, or tension work in the text?  The idea is to help to develop critical thought, giving students a basis to work with.

Formalism is not a term used in the current subject I’m taking; it’s called Approaches to English Literature but the concept is the same. However recent trends in academic literary criticism suggest that maybe Formalism making a comeback. While I would never focus on Formalism, I think it is a useful skill to learn; I believe there is a use for this school of literary criticism. It may only be to develop skills needed for future studies. What are your thoughts on Formalism? Do you believe its useful or making a comeback? If you’ve studied it, do you believe it helped develop critical thinking?