Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Case for Russian Formalism

The Russian Formalist school of criticism has, for several decades now, been greatly discredited. There is good reason for this: at their worst, they totally ignored the role that the reader, society and history played, making claims, as Vladamir Propp made about fairy tales, that there is no difference between novels other than their use of the device.

Clearly, this is problematic. What differences there are stems from the culture that surrounds the work. It would be impossible to claim that the work is completely divorced from the place where it came.

That said, the claim that device (the form used, the structure of the work) and materials (the words and content) are inseparable when searching for meaning is not a baby that should be thrown out with the more asinine bathwater. There is something valuable to examining the device used.

An anology might help here: image that the material (the ideas) of an artists are people, and that the device (the structure of the work) is a building. Once the material is seen in the device, there becomes an order, a manageable collection the the material. That is not to say that anything is fixed; the material is people, milling about the device. But there is only so far that the material can wander. Even in the most architecturally postmodern building, there is a limit to where people can go; so it is true for literature: even in the works that most challenge their form, there is a limit to the pushing.

Taken without the device, though, you just have a group of people milling around, not going anywhere, wandering in free space.

To push the image even further, it begs the question of whether you can have people without a space? If the work building here is to stand for a space that occupies, then clearly there would never be a time when people just stand in open space. Even in a field, there are boundaries to where that field starts and stops.

In essence, you can never have materials without a device. Sometimes the device is less present (people in a field); other times, the device has a more intrusive meaning that requires the reader to notice (people standing in the Guggenheim Art Museum). Regardless, the device, the place where the material is found, needs critical attention.

The immediate problem here, though is defining these devices. Since Structuralism, there has been a constant attack on definitional arguments, and some of this comes with good reason. A definition to tightly wound would limit the number of works, especially those that experiment with the form. In this post-structuralist, postmodernist, deconstructionist era, the definition needs to be able to stretch around those prime examples, as well as the more experimental version, but still say something that is worthwhile.

Here again, it might help to re-imagine the construction of genres. Often times people want to claim a genre exists separate of the work (see my note on Genre Criticism in Comic below), and this approach will always fall apart under scrutiny. Instead, the critic should build the genre from the work upwards. From the works, what family similarities can be found.

Here is where (Russian) Formalism becomes helpful as a means of talking about genre. The formalist were interested in finding the smallest bits of structural meaning (signs of meaning). These small parts could be collected as genre resemblances.

For example, with long and short form comics, what sort of similarities exist in the device? Clearly, short-form comics tends to be published in other mediums, such as a newspaper, comic anthology or magazine. Long-form comics are free-standing publications. That device difference is important to distinguish. If we understand everything to be a sign, the sign of the production are clearly different, and thus need examination. There are also narratological elements that are inherent in the devices, such as type of diegetic. Most comics tend to be heterodiegetic, in that the narrator is completely absent from the narrative. There are a few ways to bring the narrator into the narrative, but these methods require more space than the short-form comic is allowed. Because of this, the narrative type tends to be strictly heterodiegetic for short from comics, while long-form comics can move between hetero- and homodiegetic narrative instances. This is not to say that all long-form comic blend the diegetics, but long-form comics have the space to do so.

There is more to say here, but my mind is piling up with ideas, so I will stop now. More later.

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