Formalism, Simplified


Filippo TommasoMarinetti

The Background:

19th century Russian criticism was largely didactic. It was , primarily a weapon of liberal and later revolutionary opposition to the tsarist regime.


Towards 1890 (i.e. the end of 19th century), there came the symbolism with Dimitri Merezhkovsky and Valerii Briusov. So, for the first time criticism became partly aesthetic , which took into its consideration the “suggestion” of words, the personal mood of poetic themes. Some , like Vladimir solovev saw in symbolism an opportunity for Russian religious thought, as symbolism provided the magic of revelation of higher values.

But then many saw symboliusm as a revival of Romanticism (as it opposed to Realism and Naturalism).


During such a period, there raised a group whose statements were based upon classicism under the name of “Clarism” and “Acmeism”. They were also more like Paranassians, who stress on clarity and emphasize upon objectivity and concreteness. In addition, during this period Marxism came to front, being formulated in the writings of Plekhanov and Lenin. And this Marxism was a kind of revival of didacticism and return to the taste of 19th century realism.


Thus, the battle lines were drawn in 1910, as aestheticism, symbolism, Marxism confronted one another sharply. By this period the whole Europe (non-British), had been undergoing drastic change in literary theories, with a blurring distinctions among them, under the name of “Futurism” (Italian evolution) and Modernism is somewhat old term dating back to the middle ages in England. But in about a 1887, the form Die Moderne became a slogan of writers, whom we would classify as naturalists. But then this term modernism used widely, for instance , in Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson’s The Modern Tradition (1965) and in Irving Howe’s Literary Modernism(1967).


As far as “Futurism” is concerned, it developed in italy towards the beginning of 20th century. In 1909 the major manifesto of futurism was published by Filippo Marinetti in Le Figaro (1909), which advocated the complete breakup with the tradition and aimed at new forms, new subjects and new styles in keeping with the advent of the machine age. They advocated the dynamism, the machine and speed, the patriotism and splendour of war. This towards 1920, became more aggressive and Fasistic as it created movements like Dadaism and expressionism.


In Russia this futurism along with “Cubism”, “Dadaism”, “Surrealism” and other Avant-Grade groups(Avant-Grade is a term coined BY Gabriel –Desire Laverdant in 1845 ) put their effect on the groups who were opposed to symbolism and aesthetic values in literature.


Following 1909’s manifesto of Italian futurism (by Fillippo Marrinetti), in 1912 the notorious manifesto ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Taste’ (signed by david Burlink, Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov) was published stating to “throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and all others overboard from the steamship of modernity”.


In 1926, roman Jackobson established the Prague school, which was influenced by this spirit (as well as by the Italian futurism). And this school believed in the rejection of organic, biological, “beautiful” form in favour of abstract, geometrical , stylized art and the machine. Other schools and linguistic groups like OPOIAZ (Scociety for the study of poetic language established in 1919) supported this, under the label of ‘Formalism.’.


The Russian formalists were primarily interested in the way that literary texts achieve their effects and in establishing scientific basis for the study of literature.








The formalist theory can be grouped under the following main categories:


  1. The evolution of form:

The formalists collapse the distinctions between the form and content. They consider ‘form’ to be the result of two operations: (i) Deformation (ii) Organization.


Deformation means the change achieved by poetic language in contrast to the language of prose, patterning by the sound repeatations  and figures. But all the ‘devices’, must be used (e.g. like ‘plot’ in a novel is a device) in a systematic manner, or in other words organized.


Thus Russian formalists first studied the sound patterns, meters and compositional forms.




  1. attack on poetry as “thinking images”:

visualization or the images in the context of poetry was according to the formalistic view useless. According to the formalists the visualization of any “metaphor” is not necessary. Rather the poem achieves its effects by the use of sound patterns, grammatical parallels and contrasts.



  1. theory parallel to New criticism of America:

Formalists redefined the social function of art: “the purpose of art is to make us see things, not to know them. Art is there to awaken us from our usual torpor” . this reminds us about the theory of John Crowe Ransom’s insistence on the contrast of science and art, art being assigned the function of returning’the world’s body’ to us.




  1. art is a puzzle:

formalists view art as a jigsaw puzzle. Frame stories such as The Arabian nights with their constant delays and disappointments adventures and mystery stories, detective novels with their riddles and surprises serve as example. This shows that formalists were more concerned with the form than the aesthetic human values.




  1. the process of “automization” :



Formalists rejected the usual literary history as a ragbag of uncoordinated facts. As Norman Jakobson says:



The old literary historians remind us of policemen who in order to arrest a certain individual , arrest everybody and carry off everything from his lodgings and arrest also anyone who passed by on the street. The historians of literature use everything – the social setting, psychology, politics, philosophy. Instead of literary scholarship, they give us a conglomeration of homogeneous disciplines.


(Reprinted in Selected Writings 1979)





and formalists solve this problem by the process of “automization” – focousing on poetic diction and its evolution by wearing of f the novelty. Thus formalists put the study of the actual work of literature into the centre of scholarship.




Present status:



Many believe that formalism is analogus to the NewCriticism movement of America. But this is not true. Though many points match or resemble in both movements, the essential difference lies in the differences in ethos and emphasis. While formalists were aiming in being revolutionary, the other one lays stress on the tradition. Formalists were associated with more on science than in the interpretation.


The movement of Formalism died in 1930’s just 10 years after its birth , but it influenced the coming movements like Structuralism of Ferdinand de Sassure.




The above post is taken from the book “A Beginner’s Guide to Modern Critical Theory ” by Samir K. Dash , First Ed (c) 2005.
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One thought on “Formalism, Simplified

  1. thanks for ur valuable guidance sir , because there was always some jumbling me with formalism and new criticism , because of their treatment with language of poetry and prose. and i also comprehend the concept of poetry as a thinking image. best luck for ur tutorials. there r really a weapon against misconception about criticsim and theoy. thanks sire .

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