A Brief Note on Formalism

“…one needs to remember that the rate at which various ideological superstructures evolve does not need to necessarily coincide with the rate at which the base develops.”
–Viktor Shkolvsky, 1930 (from a wonderful translation by Maria Belodubrovskaya)

If only more film, media and cultural studies people kept this in mind and pondered its implications for causal history. I am constantly reminded of the fact that so-called “formalism”–its history and ideas–is not as well-known as detractors and even supporters suppose. And this newly translated piece by one of its founders in literary studies reminds us of that. The research program first laid out a set of analytical tools to clarify a theory of functions for artistic devices, and then explored questions of social history. It did not ignore social history. And what does the social history of literature show? That when we factor social-cultural developments into our explanations, a clearer picture of artistic “evolution” emerges:

“Literary evolution needs to be understood not as a continuous flow and not as an inheritance of certain assets, but as a process that is accompanied by a succession of contesting forms, by a reconception of these forms, and by leaps, breaks, and so forth.”

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