Friday, February 18, 2005

Troubling Binaries in Shklovsky's "Art as Technique"

In his essay “Art as Technique,” Victor Shklovsky proposes the process of defamiliarization as a method of creating art and viewing reality in order to challenge the traditional understanding of poetry and imagery as quickly comprehensible. Along with this proposition of defamiliarization comes a system of binaries with which Shklovsky emphasizes the separation of the poetic from the practical in terms of imagery and perception. This system of binaries troubles Shklovsky’s argument in his attempts to reverse the direction of the causal relationship between poetic and practical and to modify the meaning of objects through imagery, both processes he deems necessary for the defamiliarizing of perception. Upon thorough examination of the many binaries throughout the essay, one discovers the troubled nature of the originating binary. Shklovsky’s inherent disregard yet seeming demand for the binary separation of art (or text) and reality troubles the rest of his separations. As thinking in binaries often proves natural, easy, and fruitful to both critics and readers, Shklovsky’s inconsistent yet required system mirrors the reader’s futile attempt to perfectly sort out a text.

Both Shklovsky’s preliminary refutations of the accepted definitions of imagery (Potebnya) and perception (Spencer, etc), and the “technique of defamiliarization” suggested in the title of the essay beckon the establishment of a system of binaries (723). In using the ideas of opposition and “defamiliarization” as the respective premise and purpose of the essay, the basal inspirations, Shklovsky’s need for binaries seems inherent in his thinking.

Through the juxtaposition and opposition of his ideas with others’, namely those of Potebnya and Spencer, Shklovsky creates the binary of self and other, promoting his ideas and their corollaries over those of the other. In beginning the essay with a quotation he plans to refute throughout the essay (“ ‘Art is thinking in images’ ”), the oppositional nature of the work takes a prominent place from the very first line (717). When Shklovsky continues the line, “This maxim…is nevertheless the starting point for the erudite philologist who is beginning to put together some kind of systematic literary theory” he indicates both his competitor and himself, both of whom are starting from the same notion, only Shklovsky provides its refutation. The refutation itself occupies the first three pages of the text, continuing until he suggests that “If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic,” the statement that leads him to propose the technique of defamiliarization (720).

Likewise, defamiliarization itself, the subject of the essay, suggests a binary in both its name and its application. The word “defamiliarization,” not found in common dictionaries , relies on the reader’s synthesis of the generally known word “familiar” with the prefix “de-” to create its opposite. It is only through a familiarity with the opposite of Shklovsky’s definition that one can understand “defamiliarization,” starting just as the essay does by defining its opposition to a binary. Quite similarly, it is only through the familiarity of an object that one can decide it should be or can be defamiliarized. This directional movement from the broad to the precise characterizes the ideal technique of artistic perception suggested by Shklovsky, a reversal of the practical or prose perception, in which one begins with the precise and characterizes it, through perception, as broad (as with the movement from the specific signified to the general signifier in naming; see Figure 1). In the case of practical perception, one is so familiar with the object that one sees it “as though it were enveloped in a sack. …[One sees] only its silhouette” (720). Though one is looking at an object with many unique characteristics, one perceives only the simplified “silhouetted” version of an object, seeing just enough to identify it and shout out the signifier, as one would to a shadow while chained in the depths of Plato’s Cave. Shklovsky calls this perception algebraic or automatized. Only through the recognition of this abstracted, algebraic, over-familiar perception can one begin to defamiliarize, as when Tolstoy realizes he’s forgotten if he had dusted the divan (720). Instead of perceiving the specific object and attributing to it a general form (as with practical name recognition in the Cave), one perceives the specific first as a general, recognizes automatization and then (reversing the directional movement of perception) reforms the general into its specific, oftentimes in through literary writing. Shklovsky calls this act of defamiliarization poetic perception. In these two opposing perceptions Shklovsky emphasizes the separation of the poetic and the practical.

Shklovsky suggests one outline a system of binaries with the statement, “The range of poetic (artistic) work extends from the sensory to the cognitive, from poetry to prose, from the concrete to the abstract: from Cervantes’s Don Quixote…to the broad but empty Don Quixote of Turgenev; from Charlemagne to the name ‘king’…” (720). In this extensive list of pairs, presented in corresponding order (poetry, concrete, Cervantes, Charlemagne to prose, abstract, Turgenev, king) Shklovsky suggests a binary system, comprised of a world of opposing sets of two . He associates this system with the previously established binary of Shklovsky’s ideas versus the others’. By calling Turgenev’s Quixote “broad but empty,” Shklovsky expresses a clear affiliation, inserting the abovementioned “self” and its corollaries into the system. In synthesizing his statements throughout the essay one may construct the set of relations presented in Figure 1.

While most of Shklovsky’s ideas can be easily mapped onto this system, the relation between the two sides is not always strictly oppositional. However much Shklovsky may suggest their disparity to the point of accepting one and dismissing the other (as with Potebnya and Spencer), the binary system exists because of an initial relationship and interaction between the two sides (as with the cognitive origin of the word “defamiliarization”). Likewise, Shklovsky definitively determines the “purpose” of both imagery and art to be the interaction and exchange between the binary terms: “[T]he general purpose of imagery,” Shklovsky writes, “is to transfer the usual perception of an object into the sphere of a new perception—that is, to make a unique semantic modification” (725). This statement reveals a number of methods with which Shklovsky breaks with his own system. In simply using the word “transfer,” Shklovsky suggests a physical movement or exchange from one side of the binary to the other, from one sphere of perception (practical, for example) to another (poetic). The “semantic modification” suggested here refers to changing the meaning of an object. In examining Figure 1, one realizes that an object, the signified, can only be modified through perceiving it practically as a signifier. This step away from the object toward the signifier (the signified’s signified or meaning in this case) is the initial “usual perception of an object” in the semantic modification Shklovsky suggests. In this same directional step the object may be transferred into the text.

However, the transferring of object to artwork is necessarily a poetic process, one not capable of being represented in this simple system of directional binaries. The second step is to transfer this perception back onto the initial side through poetic perception. By following the circular path of perception from the signified to the signifier and back to the signified, a semantic modification occurs. Whereas simple practical signification stops at the signifier or the name of the object, defamiliarizing perception continues back to the object itself. In coming full circle, one may compare the initial practical movement with the secondary poetic movement and synthesize a new perception of the signifier in its transitional position between one and the same signified. In this way, the broad nature of the signifier is challenged, or at least recognized with every perception. An example: You see a handsome car that looks nothing like all the others on the street, perhaps one you have never seen before but would like to have. You say as it drives by, “Now that’s a car!” By referring to the important specific signified with a general signifier, you are acknowledging that this car has changed your understanding, semantically modified, of the word “car.” However, this whole process ties the system of binaries up in knots. A signified must signify itself, thereby becoming a signifier (while necessarily remaining a signified).

On the other hand, Shklovsky attests that “[an image’s] purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object” (723), contradicting his suggestion above that imagery produces a “semantic modification.” In this contradiction of the purpose of the image, each argument lies on either side of the binary (imagery as cognitive [“semantically modifying”] or sensory [“specially perceived”]). However, both sides come to meet and mingle in their suggestion that one attains a special or new perception of an object through imagery.

The notion of attaining a perception of an object through imagery further confuses Shklovsky’s binary system in terms of the perceiver. As “objects” (i.e. material entities one can sensorially perceive) do not exist in texts, to which Shklovsky, as a literary critic, is supposedly referring (and to which he does refer) throughout the essay, he must then be referring to one’s experience in material reality. With this conclusion, yet another binary, between the text and reality, is set up, as if only for the purpose of becoming problematic. So, as objects can be perceived only by a viewer in reality, and imagery is necessarily a function of a text and its author, the suggestion of perceiving an object through imagery implies the middleman of the artist as a go-between for the perception of reality. In both of the quotations on semantic modification and special perception, one can easily replace the words “images” or “imagery” with their creator, “the artist”; in this convoluted kind of metonym, the artist’s creations are an extension of himself, and can stand in for him. The quotations would then suggest that a ‘special or new perception of an object is attained through the artist.’ This idea may be related to Shklovsky’s political understanding of the artist as liberator, however one cannot so easily forgive his unconcerned substitution of reality for art.
The tendency to bring in conceptions of reality in an essay about art presents itself throughout the piece. Shklovsky explains automatism: “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” (721). In this sentence he refers to an undefined first person plural. One may assume he refers to readers, himself included, but the reader is neither interested in reality (as by his appellation “reader” he presumably concerns himself with the text) nor interested in “saying anything significant about [the object],” as his main function and goal is reading, rather than writing or speaking . This “we” refers to none other than the artists who both perceive reality and transfer it into words and imagery. Shklovsky’s Tolstoy fits this description perfectly: “He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time…” (721). Tolstoy both perceives (“sees”) the object and says something about it. Thus the technique of defamiliarization is assigned to the artist, and refamiliarization assigned to the reader so that she may modify her understanding of objects through art.

In referring so frequently to reality in an essay entitled “Art as Technique,” Shklovsky reveals to the reader his tendency to both polarize and confuse. Just as endlessly cyclical as the inescapable reliance on the signifier in the ‘stoniness of a stone’ or the ‘artfulness of an art work,’ the process of signification involved in the study of language cannot so easily separate the signified from the signifier (720, 718). With the complete separation of art and reality, which results from the opposed nature of poetic and practical perception (on which Shklovsky bases his essay’s contradictory conception), paired with the instinctive relation of art with reality (based on his notion of the artist’s role in society), Shklovsky negatively demonstrates through his problematic binaries the impossibility of absolute classification in language. Like the author, the reader must surrender her conceptions of binaries if she is to consent to Shklovsky’s tacit understanding of the inextricable link between art and reality.