This Russian term of literary analysis refers to the experience of having the familiar and commonplace made strange or alien. Such a process of estranging those experiences which are ordinarily taken for granted, challenges the perceiver to re-engage their significance and perhaps discover new or unexpected meanings. As an aesthetic device, the process of ostranenie permeates the fine arts of the West in the course of this century. Otherwise ordinary and unexamined experience are made strange or unfamiliar in a variety of ways, most blatantly through changing the context of the familiar experience, though it may be accomplished quite subtly, simply through the use of a new and vivid metaphor. What is most striking about the use of ostranenie in this era is its application to the aesthetic processes themselves, as artists challenge our familiar ways of relating to paintings, plays or novels.
The first use of this term is attributed to literary critic and Russian formalist, Viktor Sklovskii, in his 1916 essay, "Art as Procedure," in which he describes a process of "defamiliarization." Underlying this concept is an assumption that "normal" perception is familiar and can be described as a "process of `algebrazation. Either objects are assigned only one proper feature ... or else they function as though by formula and do not appear in cognition." Shklovskii differentiates this commonplace perception from aesthetic perception using speech as his example. Ordinary speech is "economical, easy, proper ... the `direct' expression of a child." The purpose of such speech, in Shklovskii's mind, is to communicate with as much transparency as possible. This is in contrast to "poetic" speech, which defamiliarizes and disorients: "The technique of art is to make objects `unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult."
Even though Shklovskii refers to "normal" perception, he is not so much saying that there are different kinds of perceptions, as that perceptual experiences can be distinguished as congruent (and therefore unattended) or dissonant (and therefore challenging and requiring attention). Experience and expectation determine which is familiar and which not. The implicit role for the artist is to estrange the familiar, to challenge our expectations in such a way as to get us to pay attention, to see anew. One of the interesting corollaries of Shklovskii's idea is that of the invisibility of the commonplace: "they do not appear in cognition." Familiarity breeds a particular form of contempt in his mind. It is the contempt of not seeing. It is not even a process of ignoring, since that suggests some action on the part of the viewer. Common perception, it might be inferred, is a kind of blindness. It is the poet's or the artist's role to open eyes.
A commitment to a similar role for the artist is vivid in the Western visual art movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning blatantly with Dada and Surrealism and visible earlier in the aesthetics of the Impressionists, who, after all, were interested in challenging the familiar ways in which we see things. Harold Rosenburg spoke of a form of ostranenie in his book, "The Anxious Object," in which he discussed those works of art in which the process of representation challenges our perception of that which is represented. This may happen in the appropriation of the familiar to be placed in a new and dissonant context, as Marcel Duchamp does with his readymades. Or it may be changing some perceptual aspect of a familiar object, such as scale, texture, material, color, etc., as in the art of Claes Oldenburg. Or it may be in the form of subverting our expectations of paintings themselves, as in the work of the Action Painters or Frank Stella's concentric squares. Ostranenie is equally evident in the Western theater of this century, where conventions, such as the "fourth wall," have been subverted and used to create unexpected experiences for theater-goers.
While the use of this device can be merely clever and the resultant disorientations little more than shallow thrills, Shklovskii, and many artists who have followed in this vein, certainly saw a more serious purpose. It would be well to recall the historical context in which Shklovskii put this idea forward. In the revolutionary Russia of his time, there was a fervent belief in the power of art to conduct social change. More contemporarily, Deanne Bogdan, in a recent book, claims a moral purpose in the experience of ostranenie. She describes it as that which "clarifies values by destabilizing ordinary existence - the making strange of reality," art which opens eyes through a process of decentering consciousness. Though it is not clear that Shklovskii would share Bogdan's view of ostranenie as a tool for values clarification, there can be little doubt that he saw it as a political, and potentially revolutionary, process.
Bogdan, Deanne. Re-Educating the Imagination: Toward a Poetics, Politics, and Pedagogy of Literary Engagement. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1992.
Shklovsky, Viktor 2007. Art as Technique. V. Ñ. Â. ßeik, ed. Literature, Criticism, and Works of Art on Vahid's Webs1te. Accessed Jul 10, 2009 from http://www.vahidnab.com/defam.htm.