The Hundredth Anniversary of Russian Formalism (1913-2013)

Moscow, August 25-29, 2013

From August 25 to 29, 2013, the National Research University Higher School of Economics and the and the Russian State University for the Humanities in cooperation with six other Russian scientific institutions in Moscow held an international congress on the occasion of 100th anniversary of Russian formalism. It was exactly in December 1913 that Viktor Shklovsky, who was 20 years old at the time, delivered his paper “The Place of Futurism in the History of the Language” at St. Petersburg’s art cabaret “Stray Dog.” This paper and essay, “Voskreshenie slova” [Resurrection of the Word, St. Petersburg 1914], became one of the fundamental contributions to a new theory of literature. It came to form the foundation of a new approach to art which did not take long to make its way into the newly-founded St. Petersburg’s OPOYAZ (Society for the study of the poetic language).

The history of Russian formalism testifies not only to the development of literary theoretical thinking of the past century, but also to the hopes and ambitions, as well as disappointments and failures, that have always accompanied advancement of this rational-critical movement in the study of literature and in other fields of the humanities. It is thus not only the theoretical concepts as such that play a crucial role for understanding the development and transformation of Russian formalism, but also the broader historical, political, social and cultural context in which those concepts arose. Naturally, the organizers of the congress were well aware of this and therefore had planned this event as a wide-ranging meeting of researchers from all parts of the world who are concerned with Russian formalism and who work in various academic fields in which Russian formalism has played a major role.

The congress was opened on August 25 on the premises of the Russian State University for the Humanities by a short paper delivered by Oleg Aronson on formalism as an approach that is neither linguistics nor philosophy. The paper also included a presentation of a new book by Russian theoretician Mariya Umnova: ‘Delať veshhi nuzhnye i veselye’: Avangardnye ustanovki v teorii literatury i kritke OPOJaZa [Doing Things Necessary and Joyful: Avant-Garde Instructions in the Theory of Literature and in Criticism of OPOYAZ, Moscow 2013]. This was followed by the projection of a documentary film by Vladimir G. Nepevnyj on the relationship between Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson: “Viktor Shklovsky i Roman Jakobson. Zhizn´ kak roman” [Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson: Life as a Novel].

An official opening ceremony took place the following day, on August 26. The opening lectures were given by the Rector of the Russian State University of the Humanities E. I. Pivovar, by V. A. Kurennoj for the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics and by Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, a major Russian linguist, semiotician and theoretician of film who was also the president of the congress. The main papers at the morning plenary session were delivered by Aage A. Hansen-Löve and Vyacheslav V. Ivanov. While Hansen-Löve dealt with the issue of logocentrism, which he pursued in Russian formalism and in Russian literary and cultural theory developed in the period from the so-called linguistic turn through postmodernism (“From Jakobson´s Linguistic Turn to Postverbal Mediality: Some Observations on Russian Logocentrism”), Ivanov focused on the possibilities and variations of formal approaches in science (“Formal System and its Interpretation in the Science in the XX‒XXI centuries”). Both papers sparked off intense debate in which views were exchanged on the issues of logocentrism, intermediality in formalism, media formalism, but also on considerations as to formal approaches in science in general and as to what is meant by so-called formal structure.
This opening section was followed by a four-day marathon of lectures and discussions (mostly delivered in Russian or English), which was divided into sixteen sections dealing with various historical and theoretical issues and aspects of Russian formalism. These sections included, among others: 1) Russian formalism in the European intellectual context; 2) The relationship of the theory of formalism and Russian avant-garde; 3) Formalist history of art; 4) Movement and transformation of formalist ideas; 5) Reception of formalist ideas in the West and in Eastern Europe; 6) Formalism and Tartu-Moscow School; 7) The theory of verse and theoretical poetics, 8) Formalists and folklore; 9) Victor Shklovsky and history of literature; etc.

There were more than 120 papers presented at the conference (127 registered). To hear all of them was clearly impossible, since individual sections were taking place simultaneously – in some cases as many as four at a time. The publication “Russkij formalizm 1913–2013” [Russian Formalism 1913–2013], which was available already at the congress and which contains the basic theses and abstracts of individual papers (a 280-page volume!), gives a general idea as to the breadth and diversity of the topics. Even though the organizers had originally announced that they were not planning to publish any conference proceedings, it seems that they have finally managed to obtain funds and will be able to publish a selection of the papers delivered at the congress.

As far as individual sections and papers are concerned, there were a number of overlapping or recurring topics and interpretations. Nevertheless, however unlikely it may seem (after so many years of interpretations and reinterpretations of Russian formalism), in nearly every case the lecturer presented some new and interesting insight or interpretation. This can be attributed both to the fact that the conference was attended by a number of outstanding scholars from all around the globe (in addition to those mentioned above, P. Steiner, J. Levchenko, D. Tokarev, G. Tikhanov, C. Brandist, I. Pilshchikov, M. Lotman, R. Bird, D. Ulicka, T. Skulacheva and others) and also to the very topic – Russian formalism – which still seems to be inspiring and attractive, even one hundred years on.

This was evident already from papers from the first thematic section, “Russian Formalism in the European Intellectual Context of Its Time,” delivered by P. Steiner, G. Tikhanov, I. Kliger and C. Brandist. In his lecture “Art, Law, and Science in the Modernist Key: Shklovksky, Schmitt, Popper,” Steiner asked the question as to how it is possible that the concept of “ostranenie” (defamiliarization), even though usually defined very vaguely, is one of the best-known formalist notions. Other key scientific-theoretical terms share a markedly similar fate, in particular Schmitt’s notion of “decisionism” and Popper’s concept of singular “falsifiability.” Galin Tikhanov, in his contribution “Revisiting Russian Formalism: Modernity and the Significance of Language,” focused on the role of Russian formalism in the context of late modernism, epistemologically related to positivism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. He paid special attention in particular to the question of the importance of language for formalist theory. Craig Brandist centered his paper, “Formalism, Sociological Poetics and the Role of the Veselovskij Institute,” around the historical and sociological poetics of A. N. Veselovskij (to some degree a precursor of Russian formalist techniques), focusing in particular on Veselovskij’s interpreters and successors. Ilya Kliger dealt with the materialist conception of literary history in “Modernity, Memory, Tradition: Towards a Materialist History of Literary History.”

In addition to the first plenary session, with papers by A. A. Hansen-Löve and V. V. Ivanov (already mentioned), two other plenary sessions took place with papers presented by John E. Bowlt (“Vasily Kandinsky and the Formal Method”), Eero Tarasti (“On the Origins of the European Semiotics ‒ the Contribution of Russian Formalism”), Catherine Depretto (“Shklovsky in France: Translation and Reception”) and Marietta O. Chudakova (“O Shklovskom: fenomen sovetskogo pisatela i sovetskogo uchenogo” [On Shkovsky: The phenomenon of Soviet writer and Soviet scientist]. The congress was closed with a reflection by V. V. Ivanov concerned with how to write a formalist prosaic text (documented on the example of Russian writer Vsevolod Ivanov).

Many publications tend to present Russian formalism as a closed matter, a movement that advocated an analytical approach to literature, language, drama, film, etc. which, already in the 1920s was “replaced” by the structuralist concepts of the Prague School. To a certain extent, this is no doubt true, even though Russian formalism was to see a “renaissance” in the 1960s, having a substantial impact on the shape and development of literary and cultural theory during the second half of the 20th century.

A significant jubilee is always a suitable occasion to look back and assess the gains and losses. The Moscow conference played a vital role in this respect. It not only reflected the famous past of Russian formalism and its most important representatives (V. Shklovsky, R. Jakobson, Y. Tynyanov, B. Ejchenbaum, B. Tomashevskij, etc.), but it also pointed out numerous topical problems, the potential for development and application of formalist and neo-formalist approaches in the contemporary fields of literary theory, narratology, theatre studies, film studies, etc. as well as in the area of culture.
    The program and website of the congress are available on the Internet at 

Ondřej Sládek,
Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague

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