An Archaeology of the Theory of Ostran(n)enie
Russian Formalism’s foundational manifesto, Viktor Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique”, revolves around the Russian neologism ostranenie, best translated as making strange. The very inception of “Art as Technique” was part of the cultural reception of early cinema in Russia, as I argue, referring to Yuri Tsivian’s famous study with this title. Furthermore, I argue that two related contemporary phenomena inspired Shklovsky to coin this neologism ostranenie: the techniques used in the early so-called film shows, which exploited the new performative and expressive potential of the Lumière Brother’s cinematograph to make humans and objects look strange; and the avant-garde performances created by Shklovsky’s Futurist friends, who were inspired by these early film shows and exploited and celebrated the special evocative and expressive potential in their poetry performances to create something similarly strange. In this essay I intend to create a better understanding of Shklovsky’s “Arts as Technique” as a “theory of ostrannenie” which emerged more or less directly from the avant-garde celebration of the “strangeness” of the early film shows. To this end, I will present fragments of a cultural archaeology of the then-new medium, film; and an excavation of its initial novelty and estranging effects.
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