Ostranenie, Kenosis, and Dialogue: The Metaphysics of Formalism

Alexei Bogdanov, University of Colorado

In The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928) P.N. Medvedev/M.M. Baxtin noticed that the Formalists used the apophatic method of definition. Four years prior to that discovery, Trotsky accused the Formalists of being “the followers of St. John” who “believe that ‘In the beginning was the Word’.” Almost a hundred years before Formalism, Coleridge had suggested that the poet’s task is “to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural” because “in the consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” 

Defamiliarization (ostranenie) is one of the central concepts of the Formalist doctrine and the focal point of this paper.  I extend the philosophical implications of ostranenie in the direction suggested by Coleridge and Medvedev/Baxtin, to the point where they meet with the notion of kenosis, which has recently been discussed in a collection of essays entitled Baxtin and Religion. I argue that if the metaphysical core of the Baxtinian theory of dialogue is the traditional Christian mythologem of a living self-emptying God, the Formalist reasoning is likewise informed by the “radical Christian” mythologem of an empty, dead God of human experience, as propagated by Thomas Altizer. In the first decades of the twentieth century, various literary, philosophical and critical applications of this mythologem were made possible by the corresponding ideas of Nietzsche.

Kenosis means the self-emptying of God’s son who is the Word, i.e. the Word attains a physical form, then dies and is resurrected, thereby changing the believer’s perception of the world. “The Resurrection of the Word” is also the title of Šklovskij’s programmatic essay dealing with ostranenie. The word whose flesh/form was resurrected by the poet follows the functional pattern established by the Word, but in the Formalist context the preexisting form is considered dead. In Baxtinian terms, ostranenie must be seen not as a complete self-annihilation of the preexisting verbal form, but rather as its self-renunciation. It undergoes a transition on the plane of representation and signification that involves the participation of the other (reader) who experiences this shift (sdvig) as an instance of Being-as-event. Such participation is revelatory and therefore involves a third – the Other. For Šklovskij, the main effect of ostranenie is vision that is understood in a positivist way, as new sensory experience. 

The mythologem of a dead Logos allows no insight into the dialogic nature of the poetic word; the apophatic method in the case of Formalism is dictated not by the indefinability of the Other, but by the presumed emptiness thereof; the human ratio is caught in the Dionysian cycle of death and rebirth of forms. Thus, in the absence of a clearly established philosophical position, Formalism faces the same challenge vis-ŕ-vis negative theology as Derrida’s deconstructive thinking sixty years later.