Art as Technique

Shklovsky, Victor 2006[1917]. Art as Technique. In: Richter, David H. (ed.), The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Third Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 774-784.

Poetry is a special way of thinking; it is, precisely, a way of thinking in images, a way which permits what is generally called "economy of mental effort," a way which makes for "a sensation of the relative ease of the process." Aesthetic feeling is the reaction to this economy. This is how the academician Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky, who undoubtedly read the works of Potebnya attentively, almost certainly understood and faithfully summarized the ideas of his teacher. Potebnja and his numerous disciples consider poetry a special kind of thinking - thinking by means of images; they feel that the purpose of imagery is to help channel various objects and activities into groups and to clarify the unknown by means of the known. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 775)
This sounds reasonable, seeing as poetry is indeed more dependent on mental images than prose. To say that it is "thinking in images" on the other hand seems odd, as the material of both poetry and prose is still words, is it not? I'm reminded of this: "In answer to a statement by Degas that he was full of ideas but couldn't manage to say what he wanted to say in a poem, Mallarme's reply was: "My dear Degas, one does not make poetry with ideas but with words" (Valery 1939/1958: 63; in Waugh 1980: 60)
"Without imagery there is no art" - "Art is thinking in images." These maxims have led to far-fetched interpretations of individual works of art. Attempts have been made to evaluate even music, architecture, and lyric poetry as imagistic thought. After a quarter of a century of such attempts Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky finally had to assign lyric poetry, architecture, and music to a special category of imageless art and to define them as lyric arts appealing directly to the emotions. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 775)
Is this all that different from attempts to evaluate music, architecture, and lyric poetry as sign systems?
Or, as Potebnya wrote:
The relationship of the image to what is being clarified is that: (a) the image is the fixed predicate of that which undergoes change - the unchanging means of attracting what is perceived as changeable. [...] (b) the image is far clearer and simpler than what it clarifies. (Potebnya 1905: 314)
In other words:
Since the purpose of imagery is to remind us, by approximation, of those meanings for which the image stands, and since, apart from this, imagery is unnecessary for thought, we must be more familira with the image than with what it clarifies. (Potebnya 1905: 291)
It would be instructive to try to apply this principle to Tyutchev's comparison of summer lightning to deaf and dumb demons or to Gogol's comparison of the sky to the garment of God.
[Translators footnote:] Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873), a poet, and Nicholas Gogol (1809-1852), a master of prose fiction and satire, are mentioned here because their bold use of imagery cannot be accounted for by Potebnya's theory. Shklovsky is arguing that writers frequently gain their effects by comparing the commonplace to the exceptional rather than vice versa. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 775)
The whole point of "deformation" in this sense consists in the reversal of the technique: instead of explaining something extraordinary in terms of something ordinary so as to make it clear, something ordinary is explained in terms of something extraordinary.
Many still believe, then, that thinking in images - thinking, in specific scenes of "roads and landscape" and "furrows and boundaries" - is the chief characteristic of poetry. Consequently, they should have expected the history of "imagistic art," as they call it, to consist of a history of changes in imagery. But we find that images change little; from century to century, from nation to nation, from poet to poet, they flow on without changing. Images belong to no one: they are "the Lord's." The more you understand an age, the more convinced you become that the images a given poet used and which you thought his own were taken almost unchanged from another poet. The works of poets are classified or grouped according to the new techniques that poets discover and share, and according to their arrangement and development of the resources of language; poets are much more concerned with arranging images than with creating them. Images are given to poets; the ability to remember them is far more important than the ability to create them. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 776)
This is a crucial piece for understanding Tynjanov's theory of literary evolution: the words and images themselves don't change, but how they are used (e.g. the "technique" of their "arragement") does.
We know that frequently an expression is thought to be poetic, to be created for aesthetic pleasure, although actually it was created without such intent - e.g., Annesky's opinion that the Slavic languages are especially poetic and Andrey Bely's ecstasy over the technique of placing adjectives after nouns, a technique used by eighteenth-century Russian poets. Bely joyfully accepts the technique as something artistic, or more exactly, as intended, if we consider intention as art. Actually, this reversal of the usual adjective-noun order is a peculiarity of the language (which had been influenced by Church Slavonic). Thus a work of art may be (1) intended as prosaic and accepted as poetic, or (2) intended as poetic and accepted as prosaic. This suggests that the artistry attributed to a given work results from the way we perceive it. By "works of art," in the narrow sense, we mean works created by special technique designed to make the works as obviously artistic as possible. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 776)
This discussion predated, and possibly influenced, Mukarovsky's discussion of the intentional component of the poetic function. To make a piece of work as obviously artistic as possibly is quite possibly one of the interpretations of the "poetic function".
The conclusion ["poetry equals imagery"] stems partly from the fact that Potebnya did not distinguish between the language of poetry and the language of prose. Consequently, he ignored the fact that there are two aspects of imagery: imagery as a practical means of thinking, as a means of placing objects within categories; and imagery as poetic, as a means of reinforcing an impression. I shall clarify with an example. I want to attract the attention of a young child who is eating bread and butter and getting the butter on her fingers. I call, "Hey, butterfingers!" This is a figure of speech, a clearly prosaic trope. Now a different example. The child is playing with my glasses and drops them. I call, "Hey, butterfingers!" This figure of speech is a poetic trope. (In the first example, "butterfingers" is metonymic; in the second, metaphoric - but this is not what I want to stress.) (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 776)
Another congeniality with Mukarovsky. I wouldn't be surprised if this were the origin of the practical / poetic distinction. Note that what is here meant by "practical" is essentially "referential", "cognitive", "communicative", "ideational", etc. elsewhere. The aspect of being "a means of placing objects within categories" is a major part of this. Attracting the attention of a young child, on the other, is "appelative" or "conative", but this function has not yet been formulated (Bühler, a year later, in 1918).
Poetic imagery is a means of creating the strongest possible impression. As a method it is depending upon its purpose, neither more nor less effective than ordinary or negative parallelism, comparison, repetition, balanced structure, hyperbole, the commonly accepted rhetorical figures, and all those methods which emphasize the emotional effect of an expression (including words or even articulated sounds). (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 776-777)
Notice also that the "emotive function" does not yet stand on its own here. Also, there is a relevant contrast between English and Estonian translations: here all these methods "emphasize the emotional effect of an expression" while in the Estonian translation all these methods are equated with the notion of "figure" and is said to "intensify the perception of object (the work's own words or sounds can be the object)". That is, "emotional effect" is replaced with the auto-referential aspect of the poetic function. Yet this is also the case with Benjamin Sher's translation, in which the relevant passage reads that a poetic image is eqial to other poetic devices, and "equal to all these means of intensifying the sensation of things (this "thing" may well be nothing more than the words or even jsut the sounds of the literary work itself)."
But poetic imagery only externally resembles either the stock imagery of fables and ballads or thinking in images - e.g., the example in Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky's Language and Art in which a little girl calls a ball a little watermelon. Poetic imagery is but one of the devices of poetic language. Prose imagery is a means of abstraction: a little watermelon instead of a lampshade, or a little watermelon instead of a head, is only the abstraction of one of the object's characteristics, that of roundness. It is no different than saying that the head and the melon are both round. This is what is meant, but it has nothing to do with poetry. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 777)
I doubt if it has absolutely nothing to with poetry. In Jakobson's works you can probably find examples of just this kind of abstraction of characteristics used in poetry in the sense of selection.
The law of the economy of creative effort is also generally accepted. [Herbert] Spencer wrote:
On seeking for some clue to the law underlying these current maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them, the importance of economizing the reader's or the hearer's attention. To so present ideas that they may apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point. [...] Hence, carrying out the metaphor that language is a vehicle of thought there seems reason to think that in all cases the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its efficiency; and that in composition, the chief, if not the sole thing to be done, is to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest possible amount. (Herbert Spencer, The Philosophy of Style (Humboldt Library, vol. 34, New Pork, 1882), pp. 2-3.)
[...] Petrazhitsky, with only one reference to the general law on mental effort, rejects [William] James's theory of the physical basis of emotion, a theory which contradicts his own. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 777)
What is important for me here is that Spencer's quote contains some physical terms that may become important later on: friction could be the basis for the common Estonian translations, "tõrge", "takistus", "pidurdus". And inertia could be related to the word having, in the poetic function, a "mass" of its own. And we may also note the relevant difference between this and Benjamin Sher's translation, where the sentence about James reads, "Petrazhitsky dismisses James's theory, in which the latter presents the case for the corporeal basis of the effect". What effect, exactly? Eestikeelses (Vikerkaar-e) versioonis: "Üksnes viitega vaimujõu kokkuhoiu üldisele seadusele heidab Petražitski kõrvale talle põigiti ettejäänud James'i teooria afekti kehalisest alusest" (e.g. closer to Sher's version, although not "effect" but "affect" which probably was misspelt in Sher's text).
Even Alexander Veselovsky acknowledged the principle of the economy of creative effort, a theory especially appealing in the study of rhythm, and agreed with Spencer: "A satisfactory style is precisely that style which delivers the greatest amount of thought in the fewest words." (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 777)
Vt. Tõnjanov ja "värsirea tihedus".
And Andrey Bely, despite the fact that in his better pages he gave numerous examples of "roughened" rhythm [...]
[Translator's footnote:] The Russian zatrudyonny means "made difficult." The suggestion is that poems with "easy" or smooth rhythms slip by unnoticed; poems that are difficult or "roughened" force the reader to attend to them. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 777)
затрудняю - raskepäraseks tegema
These ideas about the economy of energy, as well as about the law and aim of creativity, are perhaps true in their application to "practical" language; the were, however, extended to poetic language. Hence they do not distinguish properly between the laws of practical language and the laws of poetic language. The fact that Japanese poetry has sounds not found in conversational Japanese was hardly the first factual indication of the differences between poetic and everyday language. Leo Jakubinsky has observed ["O zvukakh poetischeskovo yazyka", Sborniki I (1916): 38.] that the law of the dissimilation of liquid sounds does not apply to poetic language. This suggested to him that poetic language tolerated the admission of hard-to-pronounce conglomerations of similar sounds. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 777)
I stand corrected: the distinction between poetic and practical language was originated by [Y]akubinsky. Here's an excerpt from the quoted essay, "On the Sounds of Poetic Language":
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 particular purpose is in the background (although perhaps not entirely hidden) are conceivable; they exist, and their linguistic patterns acquire independent value. (Jakubinski 1916; in Lemon & Reis 1965: 108)
This is most likely where notion that poetic words "aquire a weight and value of their own" (e.g. autonomy) comes from.
If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us. Such habituation explains the principles by which, in ordinary speech, we leave phrases unfinished and words half expressed. In this process, ideally realized in algebra, things are replaced by symbols. Complete words are not expressed in rapid speech; their initial sounds are barely perceived. Alexander Pogodin offers the example of a boy considering the sentence "The Swiss mountains are beautiful" in the form of a series of letters: T, S, m, a, b. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 778)
Since William James in Russian Culture is of no help here (dealing only with how William James influenced the theory of trans-sense language, zaum), I'll turn to James himself. At one point he quotes a very accessible passage by the French psychologist and philosopher Léon Dumont:
Every one knows how a garment, after having been worn a certain time, clings to the shape of the body better than when it was new; there has been a change in the tissue, and this change is a new habit of cohesion. A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset more force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism. The overcoming of their resistance is a phenomenon of habituation. It costs less trouble to fold a paper when it has been folded already. This saving a trouble is due to the essential nature of habit, which brings it about that, to reproduce the effect, a less amount of the outward cause is required. The sounds of a violin improve by use in the hands of an able artist, because the fibres in the wood at least contract habits of vibration conformedd to harmonic relations. This is what gives such inestimable value to instruments that have belonged to great masters. Water, in flowing, hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before. Just so, the impressions of outer objects fashion for themselves in the nervous system more and more appropriate paths, and these vital phenomena recur under similar excitements from without, when they have been interrupted a certain time." (Dumont [Revue Philosophique 1] 1876: 324; in James 1890: 105-106)
Another relevant passage concerns the aspect of habit becoming "unconsciously automatic":
Man is born with a tendency to do more things than he has ready-made arrangements for his nerve-centres. Most of the performances of other animals are automatic. But in him the number of them is so enormous, that most of them must be fruitful of painful study. If practice did not make perfect, nor habit economize the expense of nervous and muscular energy, he would therefore be in a sorry plight. As [the British psychiatrist] Dr. [Henry] Maudsley says:
If an act became no easier after being done several times, if the careful direction of consciousness were necessary to its accomplishment on each occasion, it is evident that the whole activity of a lifetime might be confined to one or two deeds - that no progress could take place in development. A man might be occupied all day in dressing and undressing himself; the attitude of his body would absorb all his attention and energy; the washing of his hands or the fastening of a button would be as difficult to him on each occasion as to the child on its first trial; and he would, furthermore, be completely exhausted by his exertions. Think of the pains necessary to teach a child to stand, of the many effocts which it must make, and of the ease with which it is last stands, unconscious of any effort. For while secondary automatic acts are accomplished with comparatively little weariness - in this regard approaching the organic movements, or the original reflex movements - the conscious effort of the will soon produces exhaustion. A spinal cord without [...] memory would simply be an idiotic spinal cord. [...] It is impossible for an individual to realize how much he owes to its automatic agency until disease has impaired its functions. (Maudsley [Physiology and pathology of the mind] 1867: 69-70)
The next result is that habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed. (James 1890: 113-114)
There's enough interesting material here to merit a comparison with Shklovsky.
And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. "If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been." And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. 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. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 778)
How habitualization devouls clothes, specifically, is evident in Dumont's passage: "a garment, after having been worn a certain time, clings to the shape of the body better than when it was new". This, apparently, is bad. Yet when it comes to the aspect of prolonging the perception, there is a related idea in William James:
Within the psychic life due to the cerebrum itself the same general distinction obtains, between considerations of the more immediate and considerations of the more remote. In all ages the man whose determinations are swayed by reference to the most distant ends has been held to possess the highest intelligence. The tramp who lives from hour to hour; the bohemian whose engagements are from day to day; the bachelor who builds but for a single life; the father who acts for another generation; the patriot who thinks of a whole community and many generations; and finally, the philosopher and saint whose cares are for humanity and for eternity, - these range themselves in an unbroken hierarchy, wherein ecah successive grade results from an increased manifestation of the special form of action by which the cerebral centers are distinguished from all below them. (James 1890: 23)
The distinction between "machine-like", automatic, immediate impulses and more highly intelligent action consist the length of the "loop-line". In this sense habitualized life is non-existent, even animalistic, while deautomatized life is intelligent, aesthetic.
After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it - hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways. Here I want to illustrate a way used repeatedly by Leo Tolstoy, that writer who, for Merezhovsky at least, seems to present things as if he himself saw them, saw them in their entirety, and did not alter them.
Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding parts of other objects. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 779)
Describing, instead of naming, is one means of estrangement (making strange).
Tolstoy uses this technique of "defamiliarization" constantly. 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 2006[1917]: 779)
Another way, which really amounts to the same thing, is to change the point of view. I say that it amounts to the same thing, as the horse is not supposed to know "the accepted names of its parts", whatever it may be (the institution of private property).
Anyone who knows Tolstoy can find several hundred such passages in his work. His method of seeing things out of their normal context is also apparent in his last works. Tolstoy described the dogmas and rituals he attacked as if they were unfamiliar, substituting everyday meanings for the customarily religious meanings of the words common in church rituals. Many persons were painfully wounded; they considered it blasphemy to present as strange and monstrious what they accepted as sacred. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 781)
If that does not touch upon the "code selection" aspect, I don't know what does.
Now, having explained the nature of this technique, let us try to determine the approximate limits of its application. I personally feel that defamiliarization is found almost everywhere form is found. In other words, the difference between Potebnya's point of view and ours is this: An image is not a permanent referent for those mutable complexities of life which are revealed through it; its purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object - it creates a "vision" of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 781)
But can't you know an object through a "vision" of it?
We have supplied familiar English examples in place of Shklovsky's word-play. Shklovsky is saying that we create words with no referents or with ambiguous referents in order to force attention to the objects represented by the similar-sounding words. By making the reader go through the extra step of interpreting the nonsense word, the writer prevents an automatic response. A toad is a toad, but "tove" forces one to pause and think about the beast. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 782; translator's footnote no. 26)
Could this be the case with "tresses" in Powys's sonnet?
And in my article on plot construction I write about defamiliarization in psychological parallelism. Here, then, I repeat that the perception of disharmony in a harmonious context is important in parallelism. The purpose of parallelism, like the general purpose of imagery, is to transfer the usual perception of an object into the sphere of a new perception - that is, to make a unique semantic modification. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 783)
This may go a long way towards clarifying whether deautomatization concerns perception or (re)presentation.
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 componded 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. As a result of this lingering, the object is perceived not in its extension in space, but, so to speak, in its continuity. Thus "poetic language" gives satisfaction. [...] The common archaisms of poetic language, the intricacy of the sweet new style [dolce stil nuovo], the obscure style of the language of Arnaut Daniel with the "roughened" [harte] forms which make pronounciation difficult - these are used in much the same way. (Shklovsky 2006[1917]: 783)
More of the same. Now to write my letter [lugejakiri] to Shklovsky.


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