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Estranging Objects and Complicating Form: Viktor Shklovsky and the Labour of Perception

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In Viktor Shklovsky’s essay “Art as Device” habitual perception is described as a dangerous practice, which renders one insensitive to the experiences of modernity. Importantly, the subjects’ automatized relationship with the surrounding world disrupts their ability to engage with objects. Rather than being experienced through the senses, the object is recognized through an epistemological (preconceived) framework. As a result, Shklovsky argues, “we do not see things, we merely recognize them by their primary characteristics. The object passes before us, as if it were prepackaged.” By making the usual strange Shklovsky’s technique of estrangement promises a relief from an alienating, consumerist experience of modernity, which “automatizes the object” instead of enabling perception: “in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.” In this article I trace the development of Shklovsky’s views on literature and the arts as an alternative way of experiencing objects in his writings during and after the Russian Revolution. I will pay particular attention to the relationship between things and words in Shklovsky’s writings produced during his exile in Berlin in 1923. The publication of the Berlin-based magazine Veshch/ Objet /Gegenstand in 1922, shortly before Shklovsky’s arrival, signals a rejection of both recognition and observation as passive consumerist practices. Instead, the manifesto published in the first issue of the magazine invites its readers to create new objects, which here is inseparable from the creation of new social formations. I will argue that Shklovsky’s 1923 writings provide a rethinking of the word “object” in society, literature and the arts. The function of art is not to “express what lies beyond words and images,” in other words, not to point to a referent that exists as a ‘real’ object, but rather to create a world “of independently existing things.”

Affiliations: 1: The University of Warsaw (Uniwersytet Warszawski),


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