Critical Paper on Enstrangement in a Dada Poem

Dada and Shklovsky

by Hanna Fern (Author)

Essay 2010 9 Pages

Didactics - English - Discussion and Essays


Enstrangement in a Dada poem

“literary language [is…] a kind of
linguistic violence”

Terry Eagleton, Introduction: What is Literature?

This critical paper is dealing with the Shklovsky’s device of “enstrangement” and the formalist aspiration to defamiliarize language that has become “automized”. I argue that the

deviance from the linguistic norm finds a peak in the devoid of meaning in sound poetry, yet that by using “verses without words”, a deeper meaning of the poem is created. To support my thesis, I will firstly present the problem of an “automized” language to explain the need for a new way of writing and perceiving literature, poems and art. In a second step, I will explain which linguistic devices were used by Russian formalists and exercise them on the poem “Karawane” by Hugo Ball. As a last step, I will draw a parallel to contemporary media theory and show that Russian formalism is still relevant today.

The problem language faces is that we get used to it and lose the ability to really perceive the words and their meaning in the way they are. The outcome of this habitual dealing with language is that “all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously - automatically” (Shklovsky 1998: 5). This automatism describes the blunting of our senses and perception. The Objects or images we are exposed to regularly “acquire a status of ‘recognition’” (Shklovsky 1998: 6) and there is no need to experience the objects new every time we encounter them. Shkovsky calls this state “automatized perception” (1998: 6). The consequence of this process of automatization of language and perception is that “the object fades away” (Shklovsky 1998: 5) and we are unable to really understand or perceive the word in the way it is.

Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky has become well known for his essay “Art as Device” published in 1925 in his work Theory of Prose, where he introduces his concept of ostranenie (enstrangement) in literature. Enstrangement, also translated as defamiliarization[1], describes the process that “endows an object or image with ‘strangeness’ by ‘removing’ it from the network of conventional, formuslaic, stereotypical perception and linguistic expressions” (Sher 1998: xix). By making the object or image strange, the observer has to mentally work in order to understand the meaning. The aim of the act of enstrangement is therefore to “make perception long and ‘laborious’” (Shklovsky 1998: 6).

Shkovsky and the Russian formalists wanted to “make the stone feel stony” again by offering a new perspective on the stone in literature. In this sense, the word “recognition” gains its literally meaning back. The prefix “re” implies a consecutive awareness of the world around us and leads us to cognize the objects again and again. Although Shklovsky’s device of enstrangement seems to make the object strange and unconceivable, it does indeed the opposite. By enstranging the object the observer has to deal with it in a more intensive and “laborious” way than normally. In this sense the paradox is that by making an object or an image look strange or unfamiliar, the observer’s attention is caught and he is lead towards a real recognition and familiarity of the words.

The devices of enstrangement are “sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative technique” (Eagleton 1983: 4), those aim at intensifying ordinary every day language as they are “a set of deviations from a norm” (Eagleton 1983: 5). By rejecting the norm and using a language contrary to the common use, the reader is lead to “re-cognise” the text as such. Eagleton even calls the usage of these devices “linguistic violence” (1983: 5) through which our language and perception is set free. This “linguistic violence” represented in an abnormality of language makes the object “more 'perceptible'“(Eagleton 1983: 4).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Image 2: The Black Square by Malevich

Accessed in the 10th June 2010



[1] Benjamin Sher who translated Shklovsky’s “Art as Device“strongly rejects the translation of the Russian neologism osteranenie as defamiliarization due to its wrong implications of the actual meaning of the word. Enstrangements does not make the word unfamiliar, but leads beyond the border of familiarity to recognition. (Introduction p. xix)


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University of Basel
critical enstrangement dada shklovsky


  • Hanna Fern (Author)



Title: Critical Paper on Enstrangement in a Dada Poem