The Theory of the "Formal Method"

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Boris Eichenbaum 1886-1959

The Theory of the "Formal Method"
The worst, in my opinion, are those who describe science as if it were settled.'


The so-called formal method grew out of a struggle for a science of literature that would be both independent and fac­tual; it is not the outgrowth of a particular methodology. The notion of a method has been so exaggerated that it now sug­gests too much. In principle the question for the Formalist' is not how to study literature, but what the subject matter of literary study actually is. We neither discuss methodology nor quarrel about it. We speak and may speak only about theoretical principles suggested to us not by this or that ready-made methodology, but by the examination of spe­cific material in its specific context. The Formalists' works in literary theory and literary history show this clearly enough, but during the past ten years so many new questions and old misunderstandings have accumulated that I feel it advisable to try to summarize some of our work—not as a dogmatic system but as a historical summation. I wish to show how the work of the Formalists began, how it evolved, and what it evolved into.

The evolutionary character of the development of the formal method is important to an understanding of its his­tory; our opponents and many of our followers overlook it. We are surrounded by eclectics and latecomers who would turn the formal method into some kind of inflexible formal­istic system in order to provide themselves with a working vocabulary, a program, and a name. A program is a very handy thing for critics, but not at all characteristic of our method. Our scientific approach has had no such prefabri­cated program or doctrine, and has none. In our studies we value a theory only as a working hypothesis to help us dis­cover and interpret facts; that is, we determine the validity of the facts and use them as the material of our research. We are not concerned with definitions, for which the latecomers thirst; nor do we build general theories, which so delight eclectics. We posit specific principles and adhere to them in­sofar as the material justifies them. If the material demands their refinements or change, we change or refine them. In this sense we are quite free from our own theories—as sci­ence must be free to the extent that theory and conviction are distinct. There is no ready-made science; science lives not by settling on truth, but by overcoming error.

This essay is not intended to argue our position. The initial period of scientific struggle and journalistic polemics is past. Such attacks as that in The Press and the Revolution3 (with which I was honored) can be answered only by new scientific works. My chief purpose here is to show how the formal method, by gradually evolving and broadening its field of research, spread beyond the usual "methodological" limits and became a special science of literature, a specific ordering of facts. Within the limits of this science, the most diverse methods may develop, if only because we focus on the empirical study of the material. Such study was, essen­tially, the aim of the Formalists from the very beginning, and precisely that was the significance of our quarrel with the old traditions. The name formal method, bestowed upon the movement and now firmly attached to it, may be tenta­tively understood as a historical term; it should not be taken as an accurate description of our work. Neither Formalism as an aesthetic theory nor methodology as a finished scien­tific system characterizes us; we are characterized only by the attempt to create an independent science of literature which studies specifically literary material. We ask only for recognition of the theoretical facts of literary art as such.

Representatives of the formal method were frequently reproached by various groups for their lack of clarity or for the inadequacy of their principles—for indifference to gen­eral questions of aesthetics, sociology, psychology, and so on. These reproofs, despite their varying merit, are alike in that they correctly grasp that the chief characteristic of the For­malists is indeed their deliberate isolation both from "aesthet­ics from above" and from all ready-made or self-styled gen­eral theories. This isolation (particularly from aesthetics) is more or less typical of all contemporary studies of art. Dis­missing a whole group of general problems (problems of beauty, the aims of art, etc.), the contemporary study of art concentrates on the concrete problems of aesthetics [Kunst­wissenschaft]. Without reference to socio-aesthetic premises, it raises questions about the idea of artistic form and its evo­lution. It thereby raises a series of more specific theoretical and historical questions. Such familiar slogans as Wolfflin's "history of art without names" [Kunstgeschichte ohne Nahmen]4 characterized experiments in the empirical analysis of style and technique (like Voll's 5 "experiment in the compara­tive study of paintings"). In Germany especially the study of the theory and history of the visual arts, which had had there an extremely rich history of tradition and experiment, occu­pied a central position in an studies and began to influence the general theory of art and its separate disciplines—in par­ticular, the study of literature. In Russia, apparently for local historical reasons, literary studies occupied a place analogous to that of the visual arts in Germany.

The formal method has attracted general attention and become controversial not, of course, because of its distinc­tive methodology, but rather because of its characteristic at­titude towards the understanding and the study of technique. The Formalists advocated principles which violated solidly entrenched traditional notions, notions which had appeared to be axiomatic not only in the study of literature, but in the study of art generally. Because they adhered to their princi‑/ 869/ ples so strictly, they narrowed the distance between particu­lar problems of literary theory and general problems of aes­thetics. The ideas and principles of the Formalists, for all their concreteness, were pointedly directed towards a gen­eral theory of aesthetics. Our creation of a radically uncon­ventional poetics, therefore, implied more than a simple re-assessment of particular problems; it had an impact on the study of art generally. It had its impact because of a series of historical developments, the most important of which were the crisis in philosophical aesthetics and the startling innovations in art (in Russia most abrupt and most clearly defined in poetry). Aesthetics seemed barren and art deliberately denuded—in an entirely primitive condition. Hence, Formalism and Futurism seemed bound together by history.
But the general historical significance of the appearance of Formalism comprises a special theme; I must speak of something else here because I intend to show how the principles and problems of the formal method evolved and how the Formalists came to their present position.
Before the appearance of the Formalists, academic re-search, quite ignorant of theoretical problems, made use of antiquated aesthetic, psychological, and historical axioms and had so lost sight of its proper subject that its very exis­tence as a science had become illusory. There was almost no struggle between the Formalists and the Academicians, not because the Formalists had broken in the door (there were no doors), but because we found an open passageway in-stead of a fortress. The theoretical heritage which Potebnya and Veselovsky 6 left to their disciples seemed to lie like dead capital—a treasure which they were afraid to touch, the brilliance of which they had allowed to fade. In fact, au­thority and influence had gradually passed from academic scholarship to the "scholarship" of the journals, to the work of the Symbolist critics and theoreticians. Actually, between 1907 and 1912 the books and essays of Vyacheslav Ivanov, Bryusov Merezhkovsky, Chukovsky,' and others, were much more influential than the scholarly studies and dissertations of the university professors. This journalistic schol­arship, with all its subjectivity and tendentiousness, was supported by the theoretical principles and slogans of the new artistic movements and their propagandists. Such books as Bely's Simvolizm (1910)8 naturally meant much more to the younger generation than the monographs on the history of literature which sprang up from no set of principles and/870 /which showed that the authors completely lacked both a sci­entific temperament and a scientific point of view.
The historical battle between the two generations [the Symbolists and the Formalists]—a battle which was fought over principles and was extraordinarily intense—was there-fore resolved in the journals, and the battle line was drawn over Symbolist theory and Impressionistic criticism rather than over any work being done by the Academicians. We en­tered the fight against the Symbolists in order to wrest poet­ics from their hands—to free it from its ties with their sub­jective philosophical and aesthetic theories and to direct it toward the scientific investigation of facts. We were raised on their works, and we saw their errors with the greatest clarity. At this time, the struggle became even more urgent because the Futurists (Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, and Mayakovsky),9 who were on the rise, opposed the Symbol­ist poetics and supported the Formalists.
The original group of Formalists was united by the idea of liberating poetic diction from the fetters of the intellectu­alism and moralism which more and more obsessed the symbolists. The dissension among the Symbolist theoreti­cians (1910–11) and the appearance of the Acmeists 10 prepared the way for our decisive rebellion. We knew that all compromises would have to be avoided, that history de­manded of us a really revolutionary attitude—a categorical thesis, merciless irony, and bold rejections of whatever could not be reconciled with our position. We had to oppose the subjective aesthetic principles espoused by the Symbol­ists with an objective consideration of the facts. Hence our Formalist movement was characterized by a new passion for scientific positivism—a rejection of philosophical assump­tions of psychological and aesthetic interpretations, etc. Art, considered apart from philosophical aesthetics and ideolog­ical theories, dictated its own position on things. We had to turn to facts and, abandoning general systems and problems, to begin "in the middle." with the facts which art forced upon us. Art demanded that we approach it closely: science, that we deal with the specific.
The establishment of a specific and factual literary sci­ence was basic to the organization of the formal method. All of our efforts were directed toward disposing of the earlier position which, according to Alexander Veselovsky. made of literature an abandoned thing [a res nullius].11 This is why the position of the Formalists could not be reconciled with other approaches and was so unacceptable to the eclectics. In rejecting these other approaches, the Formalists actually rejected and still reject not the methods, but rather the irre­sponsible mixing of various disciplines and their problems. The basis of our position was and is that the object of liter­ary science, as such, must be the study of those specifics which distinguish it from any other material. (The sec­ondary, incidental features of such material, however, may reasonably and rightly be used in a subordinate way by other scientific disciplines.) Roman Jakobson formulated this view with perfect clarity:
The object of the science of literature is not litera­ture, but literariness—that is, that which makes a given work a work of literature. Until now literary historians have preferred to act like the policeman who, intending to arrest a certain person, would, at any opportunity, seize any and all persons who chanced into the apartment, as well as those who passed along the street. The literary historians used everything—anthropology, psychology, poli­tics, philosophy. Instead of a science of literature, they created a conglomeration of homespun disci­plines. They seemed to have forgotten that their essays strayed into related disciplines—the his­tory of philosophy, the history of culture, of psy­chology, etc.—and that these could rightly use lit­erary masterpieces, only as defective, secondary documents.12
To apply and strengthen this principle of specificity and to avoid speculative aesthetics, we had to compare liter­ary facts with other kinds of facts, extracting from a limit-less number of important orders of fact that order which would pertain to literature and would distinguish it from the others by its function. This was the method Leo Jakubinsky followed in his essays in the first Opoyaz collection, in which he worked out the contrast between poetic and practi­cal language that served as the basic principle of the For­malists' work on key problems of poetics. 13 As a result, the Formalists did not look, as literary students usually had, towards history, culture, sociology, psychology, or aesthetics, etc., but toward linguistics, a science bordering on poetics and sharing material with it, but approaching it from a dif­ferent perspective and with different problems. Linguistics, for its part, was also interested in the formal method in that what was discovered by comparing poetic and practical lan­guage could be studied as a purely linguistic problem, as part of the general phenomena of language. The relationship between linguistics and the formal method was somewhat analogous to that relation of mutual use and delimitation that exists, for example, between physics and chemistry. Against this background, the problems posed earlier by Potebnya and taken for granted by his followers were re-viewed and reinterpreted.
Leo Jakubinsky's first essay, On the Sounds of Poetic Language, compared practical and poetic language and formulated the difference between them:
The phenomena of language must be classified from the point of view of the speaker's particular purpose as he forms his own linguistic pattern. If the pattern is formed for the purely practical pur­pose of communication, then we are dealing with a system of practical language (the language of thought) in which the linguistic pattern (sounds, morphological features, etc.) have no independent value and are merely a means of communication. But other linguistic systems, systems in which the practical purpose is in the background (although perhaps not entirely hidden) are conceivable; they exist, and their linguistic patterns acquire independent value.
The establishment of this distinction was important both for the construction of a poetics and for understanding the Fu­turist's preference for nonsense language as revealing the fur­thest extension of the sheer independent value of words, the kind of value partially observed in the language of children, in the glossolalia of religious sects, and so on. The Futurist experiments in nonsense language were of prime significance as a demonstration against Symbolism which, in its theories, went no further than to use the idea of instrumentation to in­dicate the accompaniment of meaning by sound and so to de-emphasize the role of sound in poetic language. The problem of sound in verse was especially crucial because it was on this point that the Formalists and Futurists united to confront the theorists of Symbolism. Naturally. the Formalists gave battle at first on just that issue; the question of sound had to be dis­posed of first if we were to oppose the aesthetic and philo­sophical tendencies of the Symbolists with a system of pre-/871/cise observations and to reach the underlying scientific con­clusions. This accounts for the content of the first volume of Opoyaz, a content devoted entirely to the problem of sound and nonsense language.
Victor Shklovsky, along with Jakubinsky, in On Poetry and Nonsense Language, cited a variety of examples which showed that "even words without meaning are necessary" He showed such meaninglessness to be both a widespread lin­guistic fact and a phenomenon characteristic of poetry. "The poet does not decide to use the meaningless word; usually 'nonsense' is disguised as some kind of frequently delusive, deceptive content. Poets are forced to acknowledge that they themselves do not understand the content of their own verses." Shklovsky's essay, moreover, transfers the question from the area of pure sound, from the acoustical level (which provided the basis for impressionistic interpretations of the relation between sound and the description of objects or the emotion represented) to the level of pronunciation and articu­lation. "In the enjoyment of a meaningless 'nonsense word,' the articulatory aspect of speech is undoubtedly important. Perhaps generally a great part of the delight of poetry consists in pronunciation, in the independent dance of the organs of speech" The question of meaningless language thus became a serious scientific concern, the solution of which would help to clarify many problems of poetic language in general. Shklovsky also formulated the general question:
If we add to our demand of the word as such that it serve to clarify understanding, that it be gener­ally meaningful, then of course "meaningless" language, as a relatively superficial language, falls by the wayside. But it does not fall alone; a con­sideration of the facts forces one to wonder whether words always have a meaning, not only in meaningless speech, but also in simple poetic speech—or whether this notion is only a fiction resulting from our inattention.
The natural conclusion of these observations and prin­ciples was that poetic language is not only a language of im­ages, that sounds in verse are not at all merely elements of superficial euphony, and that they do not play a mere "ac­companiment" to meaning. but rather that they have an in-dependent significance. The purpose of this work was to force a revision of Potebnya's general theory, which had been built on the conviction that poetry is "thought in im­ages." Potehnya's analysis of poetry, the analysis which the Symbolists had adopted, treated the sound of verse as expressive of something behind it. Sound was merely onomatopoetic, merely "aural description." The works of /872/ Andrey Bely (who discovered the complete sound picture that champagne makes when poured from a bottle into a glass in two lines from Pushkin,14 and who also discovered the "noisomeness of a hangover" in Blok's repetition of the consonantal cluster rdt) were quite typical.15 Such attempts to explain alliteration, bordering on parody, required a re-buff and an attempt to produce concrete evidence showing that sounds in verse exist apart from any connection with imagery, that they have an independent oral function.

Leo Jakubinsky, in his essays, provided linguistic sup-port for [our arguments in favor of] the independent value of sound in verse. Osip Brik's 16 essay on Sound Repetitions il­lustrated the same point with quotations from Pushkin and Lermontov 17 arranged to present a variety of models. Brik doubted the correctness of the common opinion that poetic language is a language of images:

No matter how one looks at the interrelationship of image and sound, there is undoubtedly only one conclusion possible—the sounds, the harmonies, are not only euphonious accessories to meaning; they are also the result of an independent poetic purpose. The superficial devices of euphony do not completely account for the instrumentation of po­etic speech. Such instrumentation represents on the whole an intricate product of the interaction of the general laws of harmony. Rhyme. alliteration, etc.. are only obvious manifestations, particular cases, of the basic laws of euphony.

In opposing the work of Bely, Brik, in the same essay, made no comment at all on the meaning of this or that use of allit­eration, but merely affirmed that repetition in verse is analo­gous to tautology in folklore—that is. that repetition itself plays something of an aesthetic role: "Obviously we have here diverse forms of one general principle, the principle of simple combination, by which either the sounds of the words or their meanings, or now one and now the other, serve as the material of the combination" Such an extension of one device to cover the various forms of poetic material is quite characteristic of the work of the Formalists during their initial period. After the presentation of Brik's essay the question of sound in verse lost something of its urgency, and the Formalists turned to questions of poetics in general.

The Formalists began their work with the question of the sounds of verse—at that time the most controversial and most basic question. Behind this particular question of poetics stood more general theses which had to be formulated. The distinction between systems of poetic and practical language, which defined the work of the Formalists from the very be-ginning, was bound to result in the formulation of a whole group of basic questions. The idea of poetry as "thought by means of images" and the resulting formula, poetry = im­agery, clearly did not coincide with our observations and con­tradicted our tentative general principles. Rhythm, sound, syntax—all of these seemed secondary from such a point of view; they seemed uncharacteristic of poetry and necessarily extraneous to it. The Symbolists accepted Potebnya's general theory because it justified the supremacy of the image-symbol; yet they could not rid themselves of the notorious theory of the "harmony of form and content" even though it clearly contradicted their bent for formal experimentation and discredited it by making it seem mere aestheticism. The For­malists, when they abandoned Potebnya's point of view, also freed themselves from the traditional correlation of form and content and from the traditional idea of form as an envelope, a vessel into which one pours a liquid (the content). The facts of art demonstrate that art's uniqueness consists not in the parts which enter into it but in their original use. Thus the no­tion of form was changed; the new notion of form required no companion idea, no correlative.
Even before the formation of the Opoyaz in 1914, at the time of the public performances of the Futurists, Shklovsky had published a monograph, The Resurrection of the Word, in which he took exception partly to the concepts set forth by Potebnya and partly to those of Veselovsky (the question of imagery was not then of major significance) to advance the principle of perceptible form as the specific sign of artistic awareness:
We do not experience the commonplace, we do not see it; rather, we recognize it. We do not see the walls of our room; and it is very difficult for us to see errors in proofreading, especially if the ma­terial is written in a language we know well, be-cause we cannot force ourselves to see, to read, and not to "recognize" the familiar word. If we have to define specifically "poetic" perception and artistic perception in general. then we suggest this definition: "Artistic" perception is that perception in which we experience form—perhaps not form alone, but certainly form.
Perception here is clearly not to be understood as a simple psychological concept (the perception peculiar to this or that person), but, since art does not exist outside of percep­tion, as an element in art itself. The notion of form here ac-quires new meaning; it is no longer an envelope, but a com­plete thing, something concrete, dynamic, self-contained, and without a correlative of any kind. Here we made a deci­sive break with the Symbolist principle that some sort of content is to shine through the form. And we broke with aes­theticism—the preference for certain elements of form con­sciously isolated from "content"
But these general acknowledgments that there are dif­ferences between poetic and practical language and that the specific quality of art is shown in its particular use of the material were not adequate when we tried to deal with spe­cific works. We had to find more specific formulations of the principle of perceptible form so that they could make possi­ble the analysis of form itself—the analysis of form under-stood as content. We had to show that the perception of form results from special artistic techniques which force the reader to experience the form. Shklovsky's Art as Tech­nique, presenting its own manifesto of the Formalist method, offered a perspective for the concrete analysis of form. Here was a really clear departure from Potebnya and Potebnyaism and, at the same time, from the theoretical principles of Symbolism. The essay began with objections to Potebnya's basic view of imagery and its relation to con-tent. Shklovsky indicates, among other things, that images are almost always static:
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