Viktor Shklovsky’s essay “Art as Technique,” published in 1917 and also known as “Art as Device,” became a foundational work for the Russian Formalist school, building upon the notion of estrangement, or using language to make the world appear strange. Terry Eagleton writes in “Literary Theory: An Introduction,” that “Formalism was essentially the application of linguistics to the study of literature” where “…content was merely the ‘motivation’ of form, an occasion or convenience for a particular kind of formal exercise” (3). Shklovsky yearned for a transformation of the way language described the world and the things within it: “As late as 1971, Shklovsky himself considered “Art as Device” his best article” (Tihanov 682). Lawrence Crawford states in his article “Viktor Shklovskij: Differance in Defamiliarization,” that for Shklovsky, “the function of art is the creation of perception, by the overcoming of automatization…” (210). In “Art as Technique,” Shklovsky interrogates the notion of habitual perceptions, criticizing the ways in which theories of practical language have been applied to poetic language, especially in regard to imagery. Galin Tihanov, in the article “The Politics of Estrangement: The Case of the Early Shklovsky,” examines Shklovsky’s theory in regards to its effectiveness within the field of literary theory. Tihanov states the position of two scholars, Iurii Tynianov and Roman Jakobson, who, in their 1928 theses on literary history, found that “Shklovsky’s concentration on the device and the internal dynamics of its (de)automatization [were] unproductive, of little system-building power, and too obsessed with isolated characteristics at the cost of neglecting complex intra- and extraliterary relations” (667). This criticism, especially the potential unproductiveness of the applicability of the theory of estrangement, is one which this article will seek to flush out.
Foundationally, the Formalists perceived works of literature as a subjective grouping of devices. Although the Formalists, “did not deny that art had a relation to social reality…they provocatively claimed that this relation was not the critic’s business” (Eagleton 3). They claimed, Shklovsky among them, that the difference between ‘ordinary’ language and ‘literary’ language could be found in the ways ‘literary’ language manipulated ‘ordinary’ language: literary language is a “‘deformed’ ordinary language,” “language ‘made strange’,” “language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual…” (Eagleton 3). This is a problematic assertion, as Eagleton points out: “The idea that there is a single ‘normal’ language, a common currency shared equally by all members of society, is an illusion” (4). The notion of an ‘ordinary’ language is problematic because, in part, language is always in flux. Since geographical, sociopolitical, and historical influences—to name a few—each impact the ‘ordinary’ language of an individual, there is an inherent and perpetual instability with regards to ‘ordinary’ language. It seems difficult, then, to create a theory based upon a deeply subjective, or at least volatile, notion. As Eagleton expresses, it would seem that, in regards to ‘estrangement,’ “there is no kind of writing which cannot, given sufficient ingenuity, be read as estranging” (6). Thus, the criteria for an in depth study of defamiliarization ought to be defined before any such analysis is conducted.
Shklovsky outlines the laws of poetic language in “Art as Technique,” concentrating on “the general laws of perception” (778). Shklovsky writes:
A work is created “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception. As a result of this lingering, the object is perceived not in its extension in space, but, so to speak, in its continuity. Thus “poetic language” gives satisfaction. (783)
W.G. Sebald, in his 2001 work, Austerlitz, uses a stylistic technique throughout the narrative that creates a controlled “lingering,” prolonging narrative perception, and thus the reader’s. Sebald’s character, Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian, is unaware of his lineage while being raised by adopted parents in Wales, after being sent on the Kindertransport to England, from Czechoslovakia, at a very early age. But upon awakening to the restless perennial questions of his childhood in the 1960s, he goes on a pilgrimage of trauma through post-Holocaust Europe. Suppressed memories, or a longing for nonexistent memories, align themselves with the void of existential yearnings.
Austerlitz returns to Prague, his place of birth and location of his early childhood, to uncover his past. It is the trauma of his self-discovery, uncovering his own position within the context of Holocaust devastation, which causes perpetual moments of defamiliarization; Sebald, through Austerlitz, rejects “the process of “algebrization” and “the over-automatization of an object” (Shklovsky 778). Upon returning, he has droves of moments where he feels as if he has already been to the places he visits. These moments of ‘déjà vu’ are littered with elements of defamiliarization, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar, grounded in objects and physical places—books and libraries, train stations, church towers, concentration camps, faces. The concentration camp mentioned in the text (and shown in photos) is Theresienstadt, or Terezin, which the Nazis presented to the outside world as a kind of model ghetto. As Austerlitz inches closer to his answers, cities become unrecognizable as they are distorted by the narrator’s overwhelming sensation of a complex form of ‘déjà vu’, which are moments that potentially display the surfacing of suppressed memories. Marianne Hirsch states in her article, “The Generation of Postmemory,” that “the loss and confusion” of Austerlitz, “his helpless meanderings and pointless searches, and the beautiful prose that conveys absence and an objectless…all this, combined with blurry…photographic images, speaks somehow to a generation marked by history to which they have lost even the distant and now barely ‘living connection’…” (120). Sebald’s work is littered with material objects, including photographs, but these objects collide with the narrator’s earliest, seemingly fragmented memories, and the sociopolitical forces of National Socialism which force him into his detached geographical, psychological, and familial life. Thus, the world that Austerlitz floats through becomes dizzying as these elements amalgamate; defamiliarization emerges as a method of illustrating a seemingly incomprehensible trauma. The use of images throughout the text—photos, sketches, and paintings—further enhances the attempt of “recover[ing] a sensation of life, to feel things…” (Shklovsky 778).
Dora Osborne, in “Blind Spots: Viewing Trauma in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” examines how the “images work as blind sports that at once resist and enhance understanding by provoking the reader/viewer to look askance” (518). Looking “askance”—suspiciously, doubtfully—only contributes to the “difficulty and length of perception” (Shkovsky 778). In Austerlitz, it is not just language which becomes impeded, but language in conjunction with images. The trauma Austerlitz encounters stirs images lurking in the subconscious to rise into consciousness; fragmented memories of people and places become clues when these same people and places are rediscovered: “The images inserted into the text work as supplements to what is narrated, but they work dialectically, carrying at once a lack and surplus of meaning…Through looking at the images we become witnesses to events that are irrevocably past” (Osborne 518). The reader’s perception of the narrative is manipulated by the images. The imagination is hijacked by the text, through the photographs, and the reader is forced into this text-image format upon turning the first page of the novel. It is as if Sebald toys with the reader as he describes the raccoon on page four: “the only animal which has remained lingering in [Austerlitz’s] mind” (4). Austerlitz sits beside a stream, watching the animal, philosophizing on the “unreal world in which it had arrived,” considering how its “strikingly large eyes” are similar to that of “certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking” (4-5). His thoughts on the similarity of these intense glances are shown to the reader. On the bottom of the fourth page are two images, each of a different set of eyes; one appears to be a raccoon, the other an owl. On the top of the fifth page, inserted between lines of text, are two sets of eyes, the images formatted in the identical way of the raccoon and the owl, of what appears to be men in intense thought, presumably a painter and a philosopher. The reader’s imagination, typically responsible for projecting the imagery on the page, is dominated by the writer, Sebald, as the narrator, Austerlitz. Because these images are impossible to ignore while reading, at least completely, Sebald has taken a greater authoritative control of the narrative—for better or worse.
Sebald, through Austerlitz, indirectly acknowledges the presence of these photographs when he discusses the nature of images and history as a foundation for the later discussions on the perception of time. Austerlitz spends a number of pages conveying the pedagogy of history, concentrating on Andre Hilary, a teacher of Austerlitz who “was familiar with every detail of the Napoleonic era” (69). It was Hilary who taught Austerlitz about the battle of Austerlitz. He and his classmates, “saw the black clouds of smoke…the cannonballs flying past above the heads of the troops…the glint of bayonets…” and they “even seemed to hear the heavy cavalry clashing…and felt (like a weakness sensed in [their] own bodies) whole ranks of men collapsing beneath the surge of the oncoming force” (71). History, in Hilary’s classroom, was transformed from the study of lifeless characters and events into sentient individuals functioning within a world as authentic as the classroom from which they studied. History was no longer an inconceivable medium contemplated within the imagination, but rather a tangible actuality, amalgamating the imagination—led by the subconscious—and the conscious. Sensory perceptions were used in an attempt to relive the events of the past. Austerlitz states: “Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet discovered” (72). If Hilary’s notion of the history-image complex, articulated to Austerlitz, is then applied to Sebald’s own work, Sebald is informing the reader that the images inserted throughout the novel are merely distractions from the ‘truth’, which must be found somewhere else, within what is left: the text itself. True meaning is thus found outside of preconceptions. And yet, if the study of history is based upon preconceptions—accounts of events to someone who was not there, and paintings and photographs in the same form—then it would seem that there can be no truthful or meaningful study of history; there is no history at all because it becomes convoluted in the present by the “preformed images” of the past. Learning anything meaningful about the past is, essentially, inconceivable.
The paintings, photographs, and textual accounts of history are indicted by Austerlitz as conspirators in the falsification of the past. And it seems that the remainder of the narrative serves as a pilgrimage for Hilary’s truth—the “elsewhere…somewhere as yet discovered” that Austerlitz articulates. A few pages later Austerlitz states that in his photographic work that he “was always especially entranced…by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long” (77). The film, slowly coming onto the page, is not reality, but a representation of reality; it a shadow takes the same form as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” If one tries to create reality out of the representations of reality, no trace of reality is left. Representations of reality, of history, are tiny illuminations of the whole. History is a dark, infinite rainforest studied by people stumbling around with flashlights, capable of examining only microscopic areas, unable to accurately recreate the whole, so the pieces are put together and speculated upon, and the speculative whole is recreated. Dora Osborne states:
Sebald’s writing is characterized by its attention to detail of relationship, his so-called “Beziehungswahn.” But crucial to the reader’s task is establishing whether these details are held together or whether they have been irrecoverably shattered upon the impact of traumatic experience. The heavily freighted dialectic between the rooted relationship of a now lost family and the links between the similarities and associations of memory, explored in a more dynamic network, is never fully resolved, but returns to haunt the text. (520)
This dialectic threaded throughout Austerlitz may never be “resolved,” but it builds, with ever-present complexity, as the text continues. The notion of the inability to grapple with history—on a collective scale—is then dealt with on an individual basis with Austerlitz’s own trauma. The past seeps into the present as the future unfolds around it. And Austerlitz tells us this, and the rest of his story, through the protagonist who reader gains very little knowledge about.
Marianne Hirsch, in her article, “The Generation of Postmemory,” examines the term “postmemory”—it’s definition and origins—while providing a detailed analysis of “the cultural postmemory work” of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Sebald’s Austerlitz. She states that, “Austerlitz himself has no memory of his childhood in Prague, which was erased and superseded by the new identity he was given when he arrived in Wales and was raised by Welsh adoptive parents” (119). It is unclear, even by the end of the novel, whether Austerlitz has suppressed memories which surface when he revisits sights of his childhood, or whether he has no recollection, whatsoever, of his childhood in Prague. Yet, some moments of defamiliarization in the text that exemplify the ‘déjà vu’ that Austerlitz experiences suggest a vague recollection, or suppression of childhood memory.
This potential conveyance of suppression is defamiliarized further through the way in which the narrative of Austerlitz is constructed. Hirsch writes that “the conversations in the novel are intragenerational, between the character and the protagonist, both of whom (we assume) were young children during the war…” (119). The narrative is dominated by the story of Austerlitz, but it is told by the protagonist, a different, unnamed character. As the novel progresses, it is, at times, difficult to determine whose story is being told. Yet, for both characters, as Hirsh states, the past is linked in similar ways:
The past is located in objects, images, and documents, in fragments and traces barely noticeable in the layered train stations, streets, and official and private buildings of the European cities in which they meet and talk. Standing outside the family, the narrator receives the story from Austerlitz and affiliates with it, thus illustrating the relationship between familial and affiliative postmemory. And as a German, he also shows how the lines of affiliation can cross the divide between victim and perpetrator postmemory. (119)
Thus, the story of one individual’s experience with the Holocaust—one “Czech Jew”—is conveyed to the reader by the “perpetrator”: the “non-Jewish German.” Both men are members of the generation of postmemory, and the story, which greatly becomes a philosophical perspective on history, is one which grapples with trauma and postmemory by defamiliarizing it.
As the narrative moves forward, through both time and page progression, Austerlitz goes to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, on the outskirts of London. Austerlitz states: “Time… was by far the most artificial of all our inventions…” (100). Due to the trauma Austerlitz has been inflicted with, his perceptions of human existence, of human consciousness, have been fused with the unfortunate events of his life. The knowledge of his family’s demise during the Holocaust continues to expand with the forward movement of the novel, and it is the knowledge of their mortality that must be seen as impacting his philosophic perceptions. He reverts back to the discussion of time, asking a string of questions. It is unclear whether these questions are rhetorical, deeply philosophical, or an amalgamation of the two:
Could we not claim, said Austerlitz, that time itself has been non-concurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything. And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction? (100-101)
It does not matter, to Austerlitz, that decades have passed since his emigration from Czechoslovakia. His existential questions continue to go unanswered, spurring only more questions which have no answers. The trauma Austerlitz endures due to his intimate connection with postmemory forces him to ask more abstract questions and create more abstract metaphors as ways to both phrase these questions and perceive the trauma-stricken world he is forced to occupy. The result is a deeply complex stream of perceptions, written in timeless prose that seems more archaic than contemporary—a method of defamiliarizing trauma that only grows with the added injection of photographs throughout the narrative. Time has not healed Austerlitz, but has rather plagued his mental ponderings: “I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood…” (101). Austerlitz, as a well educated and intelligent middle-aged man, attempts to deal with his trauma through logic, but his logic breaks down when he tries to make sense of his world because his logic is dictated by the very trauma he attempts to comprehend. He continues, stating that he tries to keep himself away from current events in the hope “that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was…” (101). And yet, he understands that if he finds that “all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true” then “that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and neverending anguish” (101). This “bleak prospect” is the world he has chosen to live in. And it is the “everlasting misery and neverending anguish” that are constructed throughout the entire novel. It is his inability to recognize this notion, this trauma, that is the cause of defamiliarization—impeding perception, prolonging interpretation and suspending meaning.
Approximately halfway through the novel, Austerlitz decides to follow a man in a turban into a remote part of a train station. He admits being unable to explain what causes him to follow the man, stating, “We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious” (134). The remainder of the scene consists of Austerlitz exploring the strange area of the train station, meandering into the Ladies’ Waiting Room “which had obviously been disused for years,” slowly bringing the concrete actualization of his abstract statement regarding slight inner adjustments to fruition. He utilizes metaphors to forcefully slow the pace of the narrative. When entering he feels “like an actor who, upon making his entrance, has completely and irrevocably forgotten not only the lines he knew by heart but the very part he has so often played” (134). His perceived identity has been shattered by the ambiance of the room. He stands in the room, “beneath a ceiling which seemed to float a vertiginous height, unable to move from the spot…” (135). On the surface, it is just a dusty old waiting room in a train station, but Sebald, through Austerlitz, prolongs the description, aligning the sentiments of Austerlitz with the place itself, creating a dizzying effect for the reader, using the word “vertiginous” to further defamiliarize this sensation: the light, bright near the ceiling, looked as if it were “being absorbed by the walls” as it sank lower, “as if it merely added to the gloom and were running down in black streaks, rather like rainwater running down the smooth trunks of beech trees or over the cast concrete façade of a building” (135). Austerlitz does not simply see an old waiting room: his past experiences and emotions collide with his sensory perceptions, making the waiting room appear unfamiliar—outside of time, within some form of collective memory, and spiritual, if not divine.
Austerlitz sees “curious trajectories which violated the laws of physics” as “huge halls open up” with “pillars and colonnades leading far into the distance”: “vaults…brickwork arches…stairways and ladders” (135). It would seem that Austerlitz is hallucinating, but these visualizations can also be seen as an alignment of subconscious manifestations with conscious experience—the flourishing imagination colliding with mundane reality. Eagleton writes that within our “routines of everyday speech, our perceptions of and responses to reality become stale, blunted, or, as the Formalists would say, ‘automatized’. Literature, by forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, refreshes these habitual responses and renders objects more ‘perceptible’” (3). Our perceptions of reality are impacted by past experience; reality is shaped by past experience in our own, individualized form of ‘ordinary language’. In this scene, as Austerlitz sees “Tiny figures who looked…like prisoners in search of some way of escape from their dungeon,” Sebald aligns this uniqueness of perception—the subconscious and the conscious—through what appears to be a hallucination, but is no more than a haunting day dream, the foundation of which is built upon the ‘déjà vu’, or surfacing of suppressed memories that Austerlitz experiences from seeing this particular room in this particular train station (135). The only way for Sebald to accomplish this is through defamiliarization. The scene is prolonged. The language itself is archaic, existing outside of time, or being timeless, which mimics the sensation that overtakes Austerlitz; the prose form consists of long, winding sentences. Austerlitz’s subconscious is attempting to speak to his conscious self. The longer Austerlitz stares up at this light and these images, “the more [he] felt as if the room…were expanding, going on for ever and ever in an improbably foreshortened perspective, at the same time turning back into itself in a way possible only in a deranged universe” (135). It is this deranged universe that Sebald is attempting to convey.
Sebald attempts to capture the unique, incoherent, chronologically broken, personalized stream-of-consciousness through Jacques Austerlitz. Austerlitz is obsessed with time—the connections between past and future—and this, predominantly, is due to trauma. Marianne Hirsch writes that within Austerlitz’s search, “familiarity anchors, individualizes, and reembodies the free-floating disconnected and disorganized feelings of loss and nostalgia that thereby come to attach themselves to more concrete and seemingly authentic images and objects” (120). Austerlitz has a dream, literally, of returning to his childhood flat in Prague when his parents enter, who, if they were alive, would be close to one-hundred years old, but he finds them “in their mid-thirties at the most” (Sebald 185). The reader is thrown into a universal dream sequence: the location, in the dream, is projected exactly as it exists in memory, but the people are a hybrid creation—a manifestation that springs into existence from the collision of the conscious and subconscious. Austerlitz continues to defamiliarize the event, not only through language, but through verb tense, conveying the dream, and the rumination on the dream, in the present tense, thus making it difficult to establish any sense of progression of thought. It is unclear how long ago he had the dream. Did he come to his conclusions immediately after, or at some point between the dream and the present, which could, potentially, be decades or only days?
Austerlitz states that his parents “talk to each other in the mysterious language of deaf-mutes” (185). He may mean sign language, yet the phrasing impedes a reader’s perception, prolonging interpretation, and instigating doubt. He then states that his parents, in the dream, take no notice of him, and he suspects that they “are about to set off again for the place somewhere in the mountains where they now live” (185). It is this concrete dream sequence that causes Austerlitz’s thoughts to drift to the abstract notion of time. He states, “It does not seem to me…that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry…” (185). For there to be “laws governing the return of the past” one has to believe in the past’s ability to return—an unclear and abstract concept that only attains clarity through the specificity of the scene: Austerlitz is referring to the past’s ability to return within the depths of the subconscious, within dream.
Austerlitz’s discussion of the return of the past is an interrogation of the subconscious. The trauma that Austerlitz has experienced is one of separation. He was isolated from the life he was born into because of the rise of National Socialism. His detachment from his family and country of birth was forced, and his identity—his origin—is trapped within this past, the reality of which seems to have been obliterated from any earthly existence, and thus it only subsists within his fragmented, imperfect mind. Austerlitz acknowledges that the past can return through dreams, or at least subconscious manifestations that surface, most notably, during dreams. This dream is used to convey the trauma, which is simultaneously defamiliarized. Austerlitz uses the term “stereometry,” a specific term used in physics when a more ordinary one could have been substituted, and he continues to elongate the passage, stating “…we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead…,” flipping the more conventional notion of the dead being unreal in the eyes of the living, and continues, stating, “that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision” (185). The dead are alive to Austerlitz. This seemingly delusional perspective goes almost unnoticed at this point in the novel because Austerlitz’s trauma has shaped his worldview: logic has been manipulated by the trauma he has endured.
Viktor Shklovsky’s notions of defamiliarization and estrangement have faced an onslaught of disparaging criticism since the theories were first depicted, in their entirety, nearly a century ago in the essay “Art as Technique.” As Terry Eagleton points out, estrangement can be found in any text if one looks closely enough. Yet, through the progressive innovation of the novel, defamiliarization ought to be redefined in the context of twenty-first century literature. W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz is one example of contemporary defamiliarization. Sebald believed that art can no longer be created without taking the Holocaust into account. This belief, which is elaborated upon by Dora Osborne’s notion of postmemory, demands a distinct narrative approach. In order to express how a generation comes to terms with such catastrophic events of the past, Sebald is responsible for conveying, through an individual, the collective experience of an entire generation of Europeans. Jacques Austerlitz’s story may not be evocative of the European experience as a whole, but perhaps what is representative of this European plight is Austerlitz’s search for answers. The post-Holocaust experience is different for each individual, and Sebald takes on the responsibility for conveying this inimitability by defamiliarizing Austerlitz’s perceptions, highlighting the deep-seated trauma of the individual inherent within his logical faculties, which may just be reflective of an entire generation.
Crawford, Lawrence. “Viktor Shklovskij: Difference in Defamilliarization.” Comparative Literature 36.3 (Summer, 1984): 209-219. Web. 20 March 2011.
Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29.1 (Spring, 2008): 103-128. Web. 20 March 2011.
Osborne, Dora. “Blind Spots: Viewing Trauma in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies (Seminar) 43.4 (4 November 2007): 517-533. Web. 27 March 2011.
Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” 1925. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Comp. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 775-84. Print.
Tihanov, Galin. “The Politics of Estrangement: The Case of the Early Shklovsky.” Poetics Today 26.4 (Winter, 2005): 665-696. Web. 20 March 2011.
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in Summer 2019 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is a Lecturer in the English Department at Seton Hall University, and is the founder and managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.