Tuesday, January 18, 2011


In Viktor Shklovsky's view, art resists and overturns the deadening effects of habituation. As our "perception becomes habitual," he argues, "all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic" and as a result "we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions [. . .]. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack" (15). Art promises to recover the sense of immediacy and wonder that habit slowly erodes: "The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known" (16).

Habit, Shklovskky suggests, threatens everything: it "devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war" (16). This deadening effect is clearly political: if we do not see work as it truly is, for instance, and do not resist the exploitation that it entails, it is because we accept it as simply a matter of routine. Equally, if we become immune to the fear of war then political leaders can indulge their aggressive impulses. Everything becomes indifferent; apathy reigns.

Art as a technique of defamiliarization, then, renews our capacity for perception and allows us to feel once again the true vitality of things in all their strangeness and apparent incomprehensibility. It jolts us out of our habitual ruts and "prick[s] the conscience" (16).

Yet however much the effect of art's denaturing of perception (perhaps better, its capacity to return our perception to its apparently natural, untutored and pre-habitual state) is ultimately shocking, it's worth noting that Shklovsky is not proposing some kind of "aesthetics of shock." There is nothing particularly sudden about the realization that art provides; we have to work at it. Dehabituation is a slow process.

For the "technique of art is [. . .] to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception" (16). Shklovsky imagines patient readers (and viewers or audiences) who are prepared to mire themselves in apparent incomprehensibility in order gradually to improve (again, or to recover) their capacities of perception.

There is then some distance between what Shklovsky advocates and at least some of the techniques associated with the avant-garde: Buñuel's razor in Un chien andalou, say, whose effect is immediate and visceral; or the scandal of a Duchamp ready-made such as the urinal presented as a "Fountain" to be set alongside the canon of European art. These provocations may rely on upending our expectations, but they do not quite have the pedagogical effect that Shklovsky seems to expect. Note for instance that his example, from Tolstoy, requires almost a page of quotation; and he tells us that to show how defamiliarization works in War and Peace "it would be necessary to extract a considerable part of the four-volume novel" (18).

So I wonder if it might not be better to think of defamiliarization, at least in Shklovsky's version, as a rehabituation? We need new habits of perception, or of working through "difficult, roughened, impeded language" so that "the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception" (19). Does this not require us to learn how to read (again), with new forms of attention that themselves have to become habitual, if not necessarily routine.

But of course the risk is that these new habits do become routine. To transpose slightly what Shklovsky is saying: if theory is difficult precisely so as to open up the text and our perception both of art and of things in themselves (or our sensation of them), then theory restores vitality to literature. But the danger is when these acquired habits themselves become routinized. In which case, perhaps, we need a new, meta-theoretical account of theory itself.

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