2.1 The Aesthetics of Language: Literary Theory
The Obstreperousness of Poetic Language
In this study, the Russian Formalist notion of literariness is the key that opens the door to our analysis of the various aesthetic uses of language foregrounded in works of media art. Roman Jakobson coined the neologism literaturnost (литературность) for what he conceived of as the central “subject of literary scholarship” ( Jakobson 1973 , 62). The term is a variation on Alexander Potebnja’s poetičnost (поэтичность), translated into English as ‘poeticness’ or, more common, ‘poeticity’ (cf. Potebnja 1976 , 174). Both literariness and poeticity were used by the Formalists and continue to be used—often quasi-synonymously—in literary theory. Whenever poeticity is not equated with literariness, it denominates the linguistic specificity of the literary genre of poetry (cf. Van Peer 2003, 111; Philipowski 2011, 172). For an investigation such as this—which is not solely concerned with reflections of poetry in media art but considers aesthetics that could be described, more generally, as literary—the term ‘literariness’ is preferable.
Literariness suggests a certain quality within texts that “makes of a given work a work of literature” ( Jakobson 1973 , 62). Literary scholar Lutz Rühling situates the concept in the broader scope of aesthetics, arguing that literariness “is merely the text-related variant of a property that could be described as ‘aestheticity,’ an attribute that, in general, distinguishes objects of art from items that do not belong to the realm of art” (Rühling 2003, 26). Media scholar Frank Kessler emphasizes the concept’s validity beyond the realm of literature (cf. Kessler 2010, 61), a claim backed by the Formalist Boris Eikhenbaum, who summarized that the Russian Formalists aimed at “a general theory of aesthetics” (Eikhenbaum 1965 , 104). In so doing, “they narrowed the distance between particular problems of literary theory and general problems of aesthetics” (ibid.).
On the most basic level, literariness is defined by the dynamic between the automatization and deautomatization of language. This dynamic is not limited to language and literature; it has already proved fruitful for the study of film and can be transferred to the analysis of media art (cf. Benthien 2012). If what applies to the aesthetics of literature may also be valid for other forms of art, Russian Formalism can become a tool with which to perforate the borders between academic disciplines, a perspective that puts the fraying of the arts into the spotlight. This line of thought will be pursued later, after the basic concepts have been introduced.
Art as Device: Estrangement and Complicating Form
Formalism was guided by the question of which attributes define literary or poetic language. Generally speaking, the literary text distinguishes itself from nonliterary texts by its particular use of language. It is distinct from nonliterary texts because it activates the “aesthetic function” (Jakobson 1973 , 62) of language. This assumption, whose “importance [. . .] for the entire Formalist enterprise cannot be overstated” (Steiner 1984, 139), was later defined by Jakobson in Structuralist terms. Within his general model of communication, he distinguishes six functions of speech that exist, to a varying degree, in every utterance: referential, emotive, conative, phatic, metalingual, and poetic (cf. Jakobson 1960, 353–359). For instance, the referential function establishes a certain “set (Einstellung) towards the referent, an orientation toward the CONTEXT” (ibid., 353), whereas the poetic (or aesthetic) function focuses “on the message for its own sake” (ibid., 356). As Jakobson stresses, early Russian Formalism’s equation of a poetic work with a solely aesthetic function was too limited:
[A] poetic work is not confined to aesthetic function alone, but has in addition many other functions. Actually, the intentions of a poetic work are often closely related to philosophy, social didactics, and so on. Just as a poetic work is not exhausted by its aesthetic function, similarly the aesthetic function is not limited to poetic works. ( Jakobson 1987 , 43)
By mentioning philosophy and social didactics, Jakobson clearly recognizes how embedded literary artworks are in culture and, in a very important point for our study, extends the aesthetic function beyond the literary text. He recommends being aware of the different functions of a text while also focusing on the intrinsic function that “unites and determines the poetic work,” concluding: “From this point of view, a poetic work cannot be defined as a work fulfilling neither an exclusively aesthetic function nor an aesthetic function along with other functions; rather, a poetic work is defined as a verbal message whose aesthetic function is its dominant.” (ibid.)
Though dubbed ‘Formalism,’ Russian Formalism considered not form but rather the literary device as its central concept for the study of literature and art (cf. Eikhenbaum 1965 , 115; Jakobson 1973 , 63). The Formalists regarded a literary work as a unit, “a structured system, a regularly ordered hierarchical set of artistic devices” ( Jakobson 1987 , 44). Inspired by Broder Christiansen (cf. Christiansen 1909), the concept of the ‘dominant’ became a guiding principle for the Formalist study of literature to describe the hierarchy and functioning of the devices. As Jakobson claims: “The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components. It is the dominant which guarantees the integrity of the structure” ( Jakobson 1987 , 41). The dominant can take on various shapes and influence, structure, and subordinate all other elements of the artwork. Dominants can be found in individual artworks, for example in the use of intonation, the canon, or in a “set of norms of a given poetic school” (ibid., 42), or even in entire epochs ( Jakobson refers to music as the dominant that influences the Romantic and verbal arts). He thus makes clear that a dominant can also be “external to the poetic work” (ibid.). In our study, literariness is considered the dominant of the media artworks discussed.
Jakobson saw the internal relations in literary works—which are responsible for cohesion and density—as a result of parallelisms and equivalences, and established an influential structural model: ‘the horizontal axis of combination,’ which is characterized by relational contrasts and connectivity (one subject, one verb, one object); and the ‘vertical axis of selection,’ which is characterized by alternatives from which one has to choose (the grammatical subject of the phrase, for example). A brief look at the famous couplet in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” illustrates this model: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, | So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (Shakespeare 1986 , 85). On the horizontal axis, the words of each line are combined based on grammar, forming a syntagmatic unit. The two lines are also linked by the vertical axis: Their first similarity is the parataxis at the beginning of each line (“So long”) along with the sentence structure. Another similarity is their equal meter, and a third is the end rhyme. The two lines are further connected by a rhetorical comparison of the duration of life, and the self-referential mention of the ‘life-preserving’ qualities of the poem itself. The two images in lines one and two are united by a principle of selection: Shakespeare selected his specific formulae from a much larger—even infinite—spectrum of possible poetic images.
With his axiom, Jakobson aims to define the poetic function of language as establishing intensified relations of similarity and proximity between words and letters. These relations correspond structurally to the syntactic connectivity established by grammar. In poetic texts, however, linguistic entities are connected not only through grammatical relations alone but also through various other layers of equivalence and correspondence, such as sounds, letters, syllables, or phonemes (rhyme, rhythm, paronomasia, alliteration, anaphora, etc.), so that “[e]quivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence” (Jakobson 1960, 358). For instance, the second line of the Shakespeare sonnet consists of many identical vowels (lives, this, this, gives, life) that create coherence and emphasis. Jakobson gives numerous examples of such equivalences:
In poetry one syllable is equalized with any other syllable of the same sequence; word stress is assured to equal word stress, as unstress equals unstress; prosodic long is matched with long, and short with short; word boundary equals word boundary, no boundary equals no boundary; syntactic pause equals syntactic pause, no pause equals no pause. Syllables are converted into units of measure, and so are morae or stresses. (ibid.)
He continues to explain this dynamic with regard to the general phenomenon of parallelism (cf. ibid., 368f; Winko 2009, 387), for instance when formal correspondences are foregrounded and establish isotopic (i.e. semantic) relations. As Ralf Simon states, levels of equivalence can be formed between “elements that contribute to word formation (e.g. parts of speech, tempus, modalities),” “elements that contribute to sentence formation (e.g. sentence types, sentence elements, punctuation),” and “elements of phonology,” and they can also be found in “figures and tropes,” as well as “the iconicity of script” and “genre-specific features” (Simon 2009, 187). The various literary devices that establish correspondences within literature are also prominent within language-based media art. They can all become an artwork’s dominant, or contribute to the deautomatization of perception, the latter being a central concern of Viktor Shklovsky’s theory.
The concept of the device—‘technique’ in alternative translations—was put forth in Shklovsky’s seminal essay, “Art as Device” (or “Art as Technique”). Our study uses both translations, as each brings out different aspects of concern to our investigation into the literariness of media art. Shklovsky wrote his essay to refute the notion, as held by Alexander Potebnja, that poetry is essentially a form of thinking in images, with the metaphor serving to clarify “the unknown by means of the known” (Shklovsky 1965 , 6). In contrast, Shklovsky regarded a work of art as the result of devices or techniques “designed to make the works as obviously artistic as possible” (ibid., 8). Consequently, the poetic image is classified as one device among others (cf. ibid., 9). With regard to prose, the Formalists—Shklovksy and Yury Tynyanov, in particular—perceived the sužet (sujet) as the most important device and construction factor, weaving motifs and plot elements into a composed structure (cf. Brokoff 2014, 501; also see Chapter 4, Section 3). In “Art as Device/Technique,” Shklovsky proposes the now famous concept of the artistic devices of “ ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form” (Shklovsky 1990 , 6):
Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. ‘If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.’ And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (Shklovksy 1965a , 12)
Or, as another translation reads, this device has the power to liberate perception from the deadening effects of automatization:
Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. | If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. | And so, 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. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’ The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant. (Shklovsky 1990 , 5f)
This rich quote—reproduced here in its two common English translations—contains many of the key ideas that resurface in the writings of other Formalists and Structuralists: the emphasis on perception as central to the aesthetic experience, an experience made unfamiliar by using artistic devices in a particular way; the importance of materiality for the process of perception; and a socio-critical move against the dulling automatization of daily life. Shklovsky defended art’s potential to effect a “complete perceptual overhaul” (Lesič-Thomas 2005, 17). The concept of ostranenie (остранение) has been translated into “making objects unfamiliar,” the “enstranging” of objects, or “defamiliarization” (cf. Lachmann 1970, 228). It is also referred to as “estrangement,” “deautomatization,” or “alienation,” while Frank Kessler assumes the translation of “making strange” to be closest to the Russian term (cf. Van den Oever 2010a, 12; Kessler 1996, 52). Kessler takes into account both meanings of the concept of ostranenie, resulting from the different translations of the term. According to him, “making strange” refers to the estranging devices of an artwork; the notion of “defamiliarization” delineates the effect on the perception of the recipient, which is caused by the devices being ‘made strange’ (cf. ibid.). Shklovsky uses several narrative sequences by the novelist Leo Tolstoy as examples of how devices achieve defamiliarization. For instance, by not “call[ing] a thing by its name, that is, he describes it as if it were perceived for the first time” (Shklovsky 1990 , 6), or by observing a social interaction from the unusual perspective of an animal, so that “the objects are enstranged not by our perception but by that of the horse” (ibid., 8).
The concept of poetic language encompasses “all literature that is deliberately structured to present an artistic impression” (Sherwood 1973, 28), including poetry, prose, and drama. Literary language is viewed in opposition to prosaic, functional, everyday language, whose main purpose is communication. From a phenomenological perspective, Maurice Merleau-Ponty has described everyday language as necessarily self-effacing in order to fulfill its communicative function: “The perfection of language lies in its capacity to pass unnoticed. But therein lies the virtue of language: it is language which propels us toward the things it signifies. In the way it works, language hides itself from us. Its triumph is to efface itself” (Merleau-Ponty 1973, 10). In daily communication, language needs to become transparent in service to its content, whereas artistic language strives for the opposite effect, opacity.
Shklovsky differentiates between poetic and practical language by looking at their “laws of expenditure and economy” (Shklovsky 1965 , 11), denoting different levels of perceptual energy demanded by a verbal expression. While ordinary language, as Rudolph Helmstetter puts it, is “over-hasty, hurrying ahead towards the intended meaning” with comprehension following suit, “[p]oetic language hinders, slows down and problematizes comprehension” (Helmstetter 1995, 34). Shklovksy himself explains this issue:
In our phonetic and lexical investigations into poetic speech, involving both the arrangement of words and the semantic structures based on them, we discover everywhere the very hallmark of the artistic: that is, an artifact that has been intentionally removed from the domain of automatized perception. It is ‘artificially’ created by an artist in such a way that the perceiver, pausing in his reading, dwells on the text. This is when the literary work attains its greatest and most long-lasting impact. The object is perceived not spatially but, as it were, in its temporal continuity. (Shklovksy 1990 , 12)
Art demands a higher level of energy from its recipient by slowing down the process of perception. Instead of tapping into the realm of the known by relying on ‘recognition,’ art enables ‘seeing’ as if for the first time. This opposition between recognition and seeing plays a pivotal role in understanding how media artworks create effects of literariness.
As Shklovksy concludes: “The language of poetry is, then, a difficult, roughened, impeded language” (Shklovsky 1965 , 22). The idea of a roughened form is related to the formula of making the ‘stone stony.’ The reader ‘stumbles’ over and pays attention to the words of the text. The resulting slow down of perception caused by the complicated form offers the chance of “observing language at work” (Helmstetter 1995, 34):
By staging ‘the word as word,’ poetic language draws our attention to the material, structural and relational qualities of the words themselves: the words do not carry their meaning within them; their meanings are assigned to them in speech. When language comes around to itself in poetic language, it loses its transparency with regard to the objects being signified (feelings etc.); it confounds the automatism of signification. (ibid.)
Poetic language is characterized as opaque, no longer serving a primarily referential function. Literary art and art in general are a means to experience the very process of creation or of becoming ‘something.’ This is most evident in certain works of media art that feature, for instance, an extreme use of devices such as deceleration or iteration.
A final point on the device of ‘estranging’ objects is the German translation of ostranenie as Verfremdung (alienation) because of the similarity to the well-known Brechtian concept of the same name (cf. Lachmann 1970, 229, 246 and 248). Brecht may have been aware of Shklovsky’s ideas and adapted them for his concept of the ‘A-effect’ in the theater, a question that is still discussed among scholars (cf. Kessler 1996, 52; Günther 2001; Robinson 2008; Brokoff 2014, 491). The potential relationship between these concepts is explored in Chapter 4, Section 2.
Poetics of Deviation
In order to perceive a defamiliarization of language, the recipient must be aware of that which has been made strange. In Formalist theory, everyday language is seen as literary language’s ‘other.’ In general, literary language may differ from everyday speech on three levels: pragmatics, semantics, and syntax. First, literary language uses signs differently depending on its pragmatic context. Second, it is characterized by the modification and extension of the way that the signs signify. Third, it is distinguished by anomalies in the syntactic combination of those signs (cf. Saße 1980, 698).
Some scholars consider the Structuralist notion of ‘foregrounding’ as one of the “resurgences” (Sternberg 2006, 126) of ostranenie. Indeed, in his essay “Standard Language and Poetic Language,” Prague School Structuralist Jan Mukařovský introduces the notion of foregrounding (aktualisace) as “the opposite of automatization” (Mukařovský 2007 , 19). A process of deautomatization makes conscious an act or utterance:
In poetic language foregrounding achieves maximum intensity to the extent of pushing communication into the background as the objective of expression and of being used for its own sake; it is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression, the act of speech itself. (ibid.)
This quote resembles two ideas that are included in Russian Formalist criticism. First, making the communicative act secondary echoes Jakobson’s notion of literature as language whose poetic or aesthetic function is dominant. Second, the idea of foregrounding an utterance that has no need to communicate may increase the awareness of the language’s material. Deviations from existing standards appear in many guises. Helmstetter rightly remarks that “poetization is not limited to the stylistic level [. . .], but can avail itself of a wide range of techniques” (Helmstetter 1995, 36).
Linguists as well as literary theorists have claimed that the idea of literariness as a poetic ‘deviation’ from standard language is relevant to both written and spoken texts (cf. Mukařovský 2007 , 20f)—which is important when examining audiovisual artworks and their oral performances of literary aesthetics. Mukařovský refers to the possibilities of foregrounding certain components through intonation (cf. ibid., 19f). Literariness generated through foregrounded iteration is, for instance, prominent in Gary Hill’s video Mediations, in which the plosives of the uttered sentences are stressed, or Bruce Nauman’s menacing Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (see Chapter 3, Section 1). Another example offered by Mukařovský is the inclusion of foreign words in everyday language: “Words originating in slang, dialects, or foreign languages, are, as we know from our own experience, often taken over because of their novelty and uncommonness, that is, for purposes of foregrounding in which aesthetic valuation always plays a significant part” (ibid., 25). This device is most common in media artworks that utilize two different language systems at once, as in Shelly Silver’s digital film 5 lessons and 9 questions about Chinatown.
Apart from everyday language, Jakobson views poetic language as embedded within a set of different contexts, “the existing poetic tradition, the everyday language of the present time, and the developing poetic tendencies with which the given manifestation is confronted” ( Jakobson 1973 , 58). These contexts developed into the concept of ‘backgrounds’ in later Formalist and Structuralist theory. The differing qualities of literary language from these backgrounds have been established as a ‘poetics of deviation’ (cf. Levin 1971) in literary studies. Mukařovský remarks:
The violation of the norm of the standard, its systematic violation, is what makes possible the poetic utilization of language; without this possibility, there would be no poetry. The more the norm of the standard is stabilized in a given language, the more varied can be its violation, and therefore the more possibilities for poetry in that language. And on the other hand, the weaker the awareness of this norm, the fewer possibilities of violation, and hence the fewer possibilities for poetry. (Mukařovsky 2007 , 18)
Mukařovský acknowledges literature’s force by tying it to a strategic violation, a rupture or destruction of a standard form of language. The latter is the norm that forms literary language’s “background” (ibid., 18), enabling the identification of the deviation. He further stresses that ‘deviant’ literary language may nevertheless use components of standard language elements “against which the distortion of the other components is reflected” (ibid.). Without elements that are standardized or automatized, there is no effect of deautomatization or foregrounding. Harald Fricke emphasizes the importance of the norm when he argues that poetry, for instance, cannot always be identified with aesthetic complexity and ‘complicatedness’ alone because a strategic lack of these features could be perceived as especially ‘poetic’ in that it defies the genre expectations and consequently deautomatizes the recognition of aesthetic norms. A text is considered poetic “if it establishes a relationship that would not exist without this deviation” (Fricke 1981, 101). In other words, literary devices are not ‘aesthetic’ on their own but need to brush against a norm to create aesthetic effects.
Norms and backgrounds may concern everyday language as well as the literary tradition, rules, and expectations brought about, for instance, by the literary canon of a given time. Norms and deviations are subject to change, a point that resurfaces throughout Russian Formalist and Prague School Structuralist criticism, and becomes the prominent element guiding the Formalists’ later investigations into literary history and the changing of devices. They were well aware of the fact that ‘art’ and ‘non-art’ are not stable categories but vary according to time, culture, and perspective. As Jakobson emphasizes:
Of course, the marks disclosing the implementation of the aesthetic function are not unchangeable or always uniform. Each concrete poetic canon, every set of temporal poetic norms, however, comprises indispensable, distinctive elements without which the work cannot be identified as poetic. (Jakobson 1987 , 43)
Similar to Mukařovský, Jakobson stresses the temporality of poetic norms as well as the dependence of literary language on the guidelines of the canon. According to him, a norm or tradition is defined by a certain dominant, it is the “shifting” (ibid., 44) of this dominant that is the stimulus of literary evolution or, more neutrally stated, change. The shifting of the dominant results in “a shift in [. . .] hierarchy” (ibid.) of the artistic devices. Artistic innovation emerges against an established background, and art always stands in a dialectic relationship between a simultaneous preservation and breaking away from tradition (cf. ibid., 46). The changing dominant also affects the relationship between the arts, making the boundaries porous. The reader (or listener or viewer) therefore needs to consider two things: “the traditional canon and the artistic novelty as a deviation from that canon” (ibid.). Attributes not regarded as valuable by a former tradition may be assigned value by new schools (cf. ibid., 45).
Since literary language is connected to prosaic language as well as to other literary works, the allegation that Russian Formalism is an essentialist theory is baseless. Victor Erlich points out how many of the more radical statements that proclaim the autonomy of art must be viewed as strategic polemics of a young school of criticism rather than as claims that should be taken literally (cf. Erlich 1980, 77). During the early stages of Formalism, literariness was clearly marked as intrinsic, ruled by a literary artifact’s “immanent laws” (Jakobson 1973 , 62), whereas later Formalism developed more nuanced arguments. Boris Tomashevsky, for example, points out that a “writer always considers the reader” (Tomashevsky 1965 , 63) and that “the changing, day-to-day interests of the audience” (ibid., 64) and “ ‘real’ themes” (ibid.) must be taken into account to produce relevant artworks. Shklovsky’s emphatic statement of art as the antidote for an automatization of perception that devours ‘everything, even the fear of war’ is also far from a proclamation on the aestheticist autonomy of art. Cristina Vatulescu strongly emphasizes the link of ostranenie to revolutionary politics and the conditions brought about by the police state of the Soviet era (cf. Vatulescu 2006). Though this political stance is not the specific focus of our study, it is important to counter still widely prevalent misunderstandings that have led to prejudices against the theory.
The Palpability and Performativity of Poetic Language
As noted with regard to Shklovsky’s turn of phrase, making the “stone stony,” linguistic deviations in literature are often accompanied by increased attention to the ‘material substance’ of the representation as well as to the performance of speech. If the reader or listener is made aware of the signs by stumbling over the roughened form of the text, the form is perceptible “not psychologically, but in a physically concrete sense” (Brokoff 2014, 489). To describe this perceived materiality, Jakobson coined the formula “palpability of signs” (Jakobson 1960, 356). This consists of two levels of meaning: the ‘tactile quality’ of signs and the sensory effects brought about in the viewer. Jakobson emphasizes the aural effects of poetry and refers primarily to oral language, contrary to most literary theory. This focus resonates in Roland Barthes’s notion of the ‘grain of the voice,’ which describes how the voice as material exceeds the sheer linguistic level of communication (cf. Barthes 1977 and Chapter 3, Section 1). Jakobson describes a physical response to the form of the poetic text: “Form exists for us only as long as it is difficult to perceive, as long as we sense the resistance of the material, as long as we waver as to whether what we read is prose or poetry, as long as our, cheekbones ache’.” (Jakobson 1973 , 59).
Difficult and at times even unpleasant, form is perceivable in media art both from the perspective of the viewer, who is often overburdened with myriad impressions of sound and images, and from the perspective of the performer, who is affected by ‘aching cheekbones,’ as in Vito Acconci’s video Open Book, in which the artist utters words with his jaws spread wide open (see Chapter 3, Section 1). Overall, poetic language can be perceived as such if it is ostentatious or if it intentionally creates deviations from norms, a heightened awareness of the materiality and structure of language (cf. Jannidis 2003, 326f)—an ‘aesthetic surplus’ that exceeds the communicative function.
The materiality of palpable signs often results in a self-referentiality of language by addressing its “own structural principles, the conditions of its production and reception, or its mediatedness” (Von Rosen 2003, 327). Self-referentiality is a dominant aesthetic device in media art, emphasizing the materiality of language as well as the properties of media technologies. Mukařovský explains this auto-referential dimension of poetic language with the process of foregrounding:
The function of poetic language consists in the maximum of foregrounding of the utterance. Foregrounding is the opposite of automatization, that is, the deautomatization of an act; the more an act is automatized, the less it is consciously executed; the more it is foregrounded, the more completely conscious does it become. [. . .] In poetic language foregrounding achieves maximum intensity to the extent of pushing communication into the background as the objective of expression and of being used for its own sake; it is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression, the act of speech itself. (Mukařovský 2007, 19)
The foregrounding of speech or script creates a heightened awareness of sound, syllables, letters, or the process of production itself. Mukařovský points out that there are different modes of deautomatization and, consequently, foregrounding, “carried out by lexical selection (the mutual interlarding of contrasting areas of the lexicon) [or] by the uncommon semantic relationship of words close together in the context” (ibid., 20). Helmstetter links self-referentiality to Jakobson’s concept of the poetic function:
Poetic language makes the linguistic features that are latent in language use [. . .] manifest, ‘palpable’ (Jakobson) and observable. Poetic speech makes an impact by way of its noticeable difference to the norms, habits and automatisms of everyday speech; it emphasizes what is being said—but simultaneously ties it to the means and possibilities of saying. (Helmstetter 1995, 30)
In this quote, Helmstetter refers to Jakobson’s formula as well as to his idea of the ‘poetic function’ of language. As noted earlier, Jakobson states that the supremacy of the poetic function establishes literariness. The main task of the poetic function is then to “focus on the message for its own sake” (Jakobson 1960, 356; cf. Hansen-Löve 1978, 119f; Helmstetter 1995, 31), that is, on the materiality of the signs in which “the word is felt as a word, and [is] not a mere representation of the object being named” (Jakobson 1987 , 378). In other words, language loses its transparency. His central point is that poeticity “is not a supplementation of discourse with rhetorical adornment but a total re-evaluation of the discourse and of all its components whatsoever” (Jakobson 1960, 377). Shklovksy also emphasizes that “[p]oetic language differs from prosaic language in the perceptibility of its structure” (Shklovksy in Steiner 1984, 147). Through its focus on perception, the poetic function “deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects” (Jakobson 1960, 356). Media art often thematizes this split. However, in some cases the poetic function may even destroy this dichotomy altogether, and the sign itself becomes the object.
Self-referentiality is thus a central feature of literariness. Analyzing Russian Futurism, Jakobson explores the notion of the self-sufficient, “self-developing, self-valuing” word, which makes “visible” the “verbal mass” of language (Jakobson 1973 , 61f). He further states that this phenomenon is not restricted to the realm of literature only but also includes plastic arts with regard to a “shaping of self-sufficient visual impressions” (ibid., 62), or music and dance. This notion of the self-sufficient expression is related to the special artistic device obnazenie priëma, the ‘laying bare’ of a device. A device is laid bare when “[t]he artistic form is presented simply as such, without any kind of motivation” (Shklovsky 1965 , 27). In Formalism, each element in a work of art serves a specific function, has a motivation, and Tomashevsky outlines three types: the ‘compositional motivation,’ which describes the “economy and usefulness of the motifs” (Tomashevsky 1965 , 78) and means that every element serves a purpose in a literary text; the ‘realistic motivation,’ which is an “element of ‘illusion’ ” (ibid., 80) but is also ‘real’ and has a certain “lifelikeness” (ibid., 81), allowing for “nonliterary materials” (ibid., 84) to enter the artwork; and the ‘artistic motivation,’ which includes defamiliarization, ensuring that the inclusion of extra-literal material is “justified artistically” (ibid., 85). The laying bare of devices is a special case of artistic motivation. As both Shklovsky and Jakobson explain, in a state of automatized recognition, objects are perceived as if “enveloped in a sack” (Shklovsky 1965 , 11) or as if “covered by a veneer” (Jakobson 1973 , 69). This is also the case with aesthetic devices: over time, recipients become so used to them that they lose their power. The artist must lay bare the devices to make them perceivable again. Kessler regards obnazenie priëma as a meta-device with which art reflects on its own conditions: “Art observes itself, becomes its own subject matter, without any need for any extra-artistic motivation” (Kessler 1996, 55).
In literary theory and aesthetics, this strategy is referred to as self-reference, auto-feedback, and self-mirroring. The most relevant—and often overlapping—terms are ‘potentialization,’ mise-en-abyme, and metalepsis. The term ‘potentialization’ signifies an iteration of aesthetic signs (Fricke 2007, 144). In the visual arts, this phenomenon is especially prominent in modernism and postmodernism; in literature, it was exemplified as a concept in German Romanticism as well as in experimental avant-garde and modernist works. Fricke distinguishes between two main forms and two subcategories of potentialization: first, ‘graded iteration,’ where a sign relation is repeated on a higher level (e.g. a singer plays a singer in a play or film)—subdivided into ‘infinite iteration,’ where the graded iteration cannot come to a close, (e.g. a circular song or poem) and ‘recursive iteration,’ which comes about by means of a technological feedback loop (e.g. a mirror in a mirror, the video image of the monitor)—and second, ‘paradoxical iteration,’ where a sign relation is projected back on a higher level, violating the logic or hierarchy (e.g. a painter is painted painting the person being painted or a fictive character that invents its author; cf. ibid.). Striking examples of different types of iteration in media art are discussed in Chapter 3, Section 1. Mona Hatoum’s So Much I Want to Say is, for instance, a case of paradoxical iteration: We hear the artist’s voice repeating the artwork’s title, which creates a tension between her proclaimed wish to provide information and the simultaneous withholding of information.
The figure of mise-en-abyme stands for a literary recursivity, where at least one element—be it of the content or a formal feature—appears analogously on a subordinate level (cf. Wolf 1998, 373). Every story within a story or every play within a play can be considered as mise-en-abyme. In any case, “a relation of homology or resemblance is required” (ibid.). Mise-en-abyme structures appear, for example, in the video installation Moved Up Moved Down by American artist Jill Scott in which the artist is depicted moving up and down a gigantic staircase (see Chapter 4, Section 1).
In narratology, metalepsis is understood as a shifting or transgressing between the diegetic and the non-diegetic world: “[A]ny intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe (or by diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc.) [. . .] produces an effect of strangeness that is either comical [. . .] or fantastic” (Genette 1980, 234f; cf. Thon 2009, 86; Morsch 2012, 100). A strong case of metalepsis occurs in Dieter Froese’s video The Piece in the Country (Failure Piece #2), in which the artist appears as commentator who describes the process of making the video (see Chapter 4, Section 3).
On a more general level, self-referentiality is also relevant when it comes to literary genres, which we focus on in Chapter 4, “Literary Genres in Media Art.” The explicit reference to a genre, for instance in a paratext, prompts specific expectations. The conventions of the genre can be fulfilled or disappointed, and in any case the genre produces a frame that enables the perception of deviations that may be acknowledged and interpreted (cf. Krah 2005, 10).
Self-referentiality is also central to the theory of performativity. This theory considers linguistic utterances as either ‘constative’ or ‘performative’: For the former, the criterion is truth or falseness; for the latter, it is success or failure (cf. Bohle and König 2002, 13). A speech act is executive and features a reference to itself: It articulates exactly what it simultaneously performs through the articulation (for instance, the illocutionary act accompanying a baptism; cf. Austin 1962). Certain deeds are performative in that they are executed through language and in the act of speaking. According to John Austin, “explicit performative utterances” (ibid., 58) consist of specific grammatical features: a first-person subject, a second-person object, and a verbum dicendi in the aspectual neutral form of the present tense. Performativity occurs when speaking and acting coincide, which is especially evident in explicitly performative verbs that belong to the speech acts of declarations, as in the notorious ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife.’
‘Performative’ is an attribute of symbolic actions that are characterized by the fact that they perform what they are simultaneously naming. It is about a special form of constitutive activity, where a symbolic action transcends the borderline between sign/non-sign and thus receives a world-changing power—although this is not to be interpreted as a kind of magic. [. . .] Performative uses of signs always feed on the permeability between the symbolic and the non-symbolic. (Krämer and Stahlhut 2002, 57)
Such a self-reflexive performance of art is seen, for example, in John Baldessari’s video performance I Am Making Art, in which the artist recites the title sentence to ridicule and reflect on the conventions of making art (see Chapter 3, Section 1).
Ambiguity and the Split Sign
Another source of literariness are the ambiguities and polyvalences of signs. Helmstetter regards literary language as largely dedicated to unleashing the possibilities of signification, language’s richness of connotation (cf. Helmstetter 1995, 33). The literary production of ambiguity results in a diversification of meaning. Mukařovský also values the duality between the figurative and the basic meaning of a word as a moment that produces “semantic breaks” (Mukařovský 2007 , 29). Ambiguity thus becomes a potential source of defamiliarization.
According to Jakobson, “[t]he supremacy of poetic function over referential function does not obliterate the reference but makes it ambiguous” (Jakobson 1960, 371). With his notion of the ‘split sign’ (cf. Simon 2009, 189), Simon is referring to Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “internal dialogism” of the polyphonic word (Bakhtin 1981, 326) that is also reflected in Julia Kristeva’s concept of poetic language, with the poetic word being “polyvalent and multi-determined” (Kristeva 1986, 65). The ambiguity of poetic signs is grounded in the often indecisive tendency towards figural or literal signification. The power and dominance of the poetic function also leads to a re-modeling of Jacobson’s other five functions (cf. Simon 2009, 202): They also become “poeticized” (ibid.). Especially in poststructuralist positions, the generation of meaning is understood as an act of permanent suspension or deferral (cf. Winko 2009, 384), which has in this regard been compared to Russian Formalism (cf. Crawford 1984; Speck 1997).
Ostranenie, as one of the hallmarks of literary language, refers to the subversive potential of language, as it can disturb our perception or overthrow norms and traditions. The ambiguity of literary language also contains this potential. Closely related to the phenomena of linguistic enstrangement and ambiguity are utterances that work with ‘heteroglossia,’ a term referring to the use of several languages or levels of language. The concept originates from Bakhtin’s theory of the novel, in which he focuses on the ideas of ‘dialogism,’ ‘double-voiced discourse,’ ‘hybridity,’ and ‘heteroglossia.’ The Bakhtin circle initially criticized Russian Formalism. However, Kristeva regards Formalist thought as its “starting point” (Kristeva 1973, 105) to then “shift the basis of the Formalist poetics” (ibid., 106). This shift is towards a strong emphasis on the historical background, the speakers and their contexts, and viewing literature and ideology as connected (cf. ibid., 105f). Bakhtin analyzed literary discourse as the “concept of a language which a speaker carries with him and/or of a speaker becoming himself within the language” (ibid., 108). Dialogism is then, in Kristeva’s words:
the term which indicates that the discourse belongs doubly to an ‘I’ and to the other, that Spaltung [split] of the speaker [. . .]. The dialogic sees in every word a word about the word, addressed to the word; and it is only on condition that it belongs to this polyphony—to this ‘intertextual’ space—that the word is a ‘full’ word. The dialogue of words/discourses is infinite [, it] does not have a fixed meaning. (ibid., 109)
Bakhtin establishes the idea of an author being in dialog with his or her characters (cf. ibid., 110) as well as with other literary works and authors; the fundamental polyphony that results from these multidimensional dialogs makes a number of voices and connected ideologies heard (cf. ibid., 113). Kristeva highlights the subversive power of this understanding of text: “The (polyphonic) text has no ideology of its own. It is an apparatus for exposing and exhausting the ideologies in their confrontation” (ibid., 114). This idea is closely tied to Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia and hybridization. Bakhtin uses the term ‘hybridization’ “to describe the ability of one voice to ironize and unmask the other within the same utterance” (Young 2002, 20; cf. Benthien 2015, 289f). He characterizes this literary phenomenon of so-called “double-speech” as follows:
What we are calling a hybrid construction is an utterance that belongs, by its grammatical (syntactic) and compositional markers, to a single speaker, but that actually contains mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two ‘languages,’ two semantic and axiological belief systems. We repeat, there is no formal—compositional and syntactic—boundary between these utterances, styles, languages, belief systems; the division of voices and languages takes place within the limits of a single syntactic whole, often within the limits of a simple sentence. (Bakhtin 1981, 304)
Bakhtin calls this form of hybridity “intentional.” Its counterpart is termed “organic hybridity,” a form of unconscious (or non-intentional) hybridity, which tends toward fusion: two or more cultural codes that merge into one, turning into a new linguistic code whose ‘deviation’ is no longer perceived. Organic hybridity is, in contrast to intentional hybridity, non-dialogical (cf. Bakhtin 1981, 360). Robert Young has emphasized that Bakhtin’s “doubled form of hybridity” gives a “model for cultural interaction” (Young 2002, 22) that corresponds to the idea of (literary) norm as deviation, as discussed earlier. He considers organic hybridity as being “in conflict with intentional hybridity, which enables a contestatory activity, a politicized setting of cultural differences against each other dialogically” (ibid.). Bakhtin emphasizes that intentional hybridity aims at presenting—and at the same time linguistically performing—cultural conflicts. Within a single discourse, one voice may unmask the other, which may destruct or undermine authority.
According to Bakhtin, dialogism is most prominent in the novel—but it can also be extended into the realm of (narrative) media art. He states that the writer or narrator can use language as a tool, not to “speak in a given language” but to speak “as it were, through language” (Bakhtin 1981, 299):
Thus a prose writer can distance himself from the language of his own work, while at the same time distancing himself, in varying degrees, from the different layers and aspects of the work. He can make use of language without wholly giving himself up to it, he may treat it as semi-alien or completely alien to himself, while compelling language ultimately to serve all his own intentions. (ibid.)
Bakhtin mainly refers to 19th-century novels and uses the language of ceremonial speeches, official banquets, or court language to parody specific, often old-fashioned or reactionary modes of speaking (cf. ibid., 303). Media artworks that deal with cultural and linguistic conflicts, such as Trace Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (see Chapter 4, Section 3), demonstrate the critical potential of the concept.
The general term for these various forms of defamiliarized speech is the Grecism heteroglossia, which is defined as “another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way. Such speech constitutes a special type of double-voiced discourse” (ibid., 324). Andrew Robinson argues that “[i]n a situation of heteroglossia, the dominant perspective, or one’s own perspective, is itself defamiliarised” (Robinson 2011, n.p.), through juxtaposition with other, competing perspectives. This effect of defamiliarization echoes the Russian Formalist’s notion of estrangement. Furthermore, with regard to the notion of foregrounding the materiality of signs, heteroglossia may serve as a way of sharpening one’s awareness of the utterance, as well as of the language material itself by making it strange. In media art, the phenomena of heteroglossia in the sense of using multiple languages within an artwork— raising the issue and concerns of translation—often play a central role. Several works analyzed later in this book employ both different languages and different modalities of language. They combine visual, acoustic, and iconic elements of these languages and address as well as demonstrate fundamental differences between them. The works use aesthetic means to reflect the complexities of translation and understanding in different languages and sign systems. In doing so, they commit to a strategy of conceptually overwhelming the viewer with the simultaneity of languages and modalities and foreground the fragility of translation and the question of translatability in itself.
Our final focus in this subsection is Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality, which also offers a transition to the next subsection and its discussion of intermediality. Generally, Kristeva is seen as having developed intertextuality as an interpretation of Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism, and the concepts are often treated synonymously. Andrea Lešić-Thomas argues that even though Kristeva introduced Bakhtin to the academic world in the 1960s to establish her concept of intertextuality, they in fact developed “very different concepts” belonging “to different conceptual worlds” (Lešić-Thomas 2005, 3). What is more, she astutely draws connections between Kristeva’s concepts and Formalist concepts in spite of Kristeva’s disparaging comment on Formalism as “a discourse on nothing or on something which does not matter” (Kristeva 1973, 104). She claims that “‘intertextuality’ probably owes as much (if not more) to the ideas of Shklovsky, Jakobson, and Tynyanov as to those of Bakhtin” (Lešić-Thomas 2005, 3). The reasons lie in Kristeva’s act of replacing Bakhtinian ‘intersubjectivity’ with ‘intertextuality’ (cf. ibid., 5), a strategic omission according to Lešić-Thomas in the rise of poststructuralist thought and her own stance on it (cf. ibid., 6). Kristeva’s consideration of “writers, readers, cultural contexts, history and society” as “ ‘texts’ and ‘textual surfaces’ ” (ibid., 5) is problematic when presented as having a direct lineage to Bakhtin, since it removes the subject, agency, and intentionality—central to Bakhtin’s thought—from the theory. In addition, it moves her toward Russian Formalism, which did not focus on authorial intentionality or the voice of the author.
In a narrow understanding of text, intertextuality refers to the relationship between literary texts. From this perspective, Lešić-Thomas claims that “[i]t can hardly be argued that it was Bakhtin who invented ‘intertextuality,’ since the question of relations between texts was one of the main problems occupying the Russian Formalists since the mid-1920s” (ibid., 7). By omitting Bakhtin, Lešić-Thomas puts Kristeva and Formalism in direct relationship to one another. The Formalist theory of the ‘background’ of other texts thus becomes an early version of a “theory of what we now term ‘intertextuality’ ” (ibid., 8). Formalism was engaged in an early version of a “comparative, historical study of literature,” (ibid., 10) and Kristeva’s ideas regarding intertextuality as “a mosaic of quotations” and considering “any text [a]s the absorption and transformation of another” (Kristeva 1986, 66) echo Formalist approaches to literary ‘evolution.’ As mentioned earlier, Formalism regarded literary development as the deviation from a given tradition or norm, and assumed that certain devices gained a different value and function at a certain time (cf. Tynyanov 1987 , 155). The deviation from the norm as a main feature of literature, causing literary innovation, resembles several of Kristeva’s ideas:
We can see Kristeva’s concept in the Formalists’ idea that the changes in literature come about through parody and writers’ literary reaction to each other; in the idea that ‘differential quality’ determines the nature of literary phenomena and that the structure of a text cannot be understood if studied in isolation; in the idea that, as Kristeva puts it, a literary text is a structure which does not exist autonomously, but develops in relationship to another structure. (Lešić-Thomas 2005, 15)
Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality may therefore be linked to the Russian Formalist concept of the background, recalling both Bakhtin and Shklovsky. Strikingly, Lešić-Thomas regards Shklovsky’s theory of ostranenie as far more groundbreaking than Bakhtin’s and considers the connection between Kristeva and Formalism as stronger (cf. ibid., 17). If a literary work can be examined only against the background of a norm, “[a] literary text is thus intertextual in its essence” (ibid., 14). Moreover, the Formalist Tynyanov clearly alludes to the manifold ties between literary elements, and his argument is reminiscent of Kristeva’s intertextuality: “An element is on the one hand interrelated with similar elements in other works in other systems, and on the other hand it is interrelated with different elements within the same work” (Tynyanov 1987 , 154). A work of literature—or art in general—is thus defined by internal as well as external connections. While the former create cohesion and density, the latter establish bonds with other artworks and extra literary elements—contemporary and past.
The interrelationship of these concepts is of great importance to an analysis of the literariness of media art, as it is a phenomenon situated at the intersection of the arts. Russian Formalism is a theory that aims at an understanding of interrelatedness, not only between literary texts themselves, but also—as the next subsection demonstrates—between literature and film. Together with Kristeva’s notion of intertextuality, this leads to the concept of intermediality, which is concerned with the relations between the arts. Intermediality, though a much later theory, may be viewed as having emerged from Formalism: This is a ‘bottom up’ approach rather than one that places intermediality uneasily on top of Formalism to prove a point. The theory of intertextuality is especially important to Chapter 5, “Works of Literature in Media Art,” which regards media artworks that overtly and covertly draw on literary texts.
2.2 Literariness Beyond Literature: Transdisciplinary Perspectives
Literariness and Ostranenie in Audiovisual Arts
The aim of this study is to explore how language is made strange in works of media art and to account for how this defamiliarization affects the audience. The previous section introduced literariness as a concept that refers to the aesthetic qualities of literary texts and also established Russian Formalism as a theory dedicated to the development of a general aesthetics. The concept of literariness considers the aesthetic features of an artwork, such as the foregrounded use of speech or the inclusion of written texts. Other characteristics of media art, however, are involved in the process of defamiliarization: montage, camera perspective, sound and music, or a combination of multiple media that strains the viewer’s perceptive capacities. Therefore, this section moves from the domain of literary theory to the field of audiovisual media theory. While recent film and media theory has focused on ostranenie as the prominent aesthetic feature described by Russian Formalism, we consider it as one of the manifold aspects of literariness. Ostranenie describes artistic techniques of ‘making strange’ that are not essentially tied to one medium or art form.
When considering the origins of the concept, it becomes clear that even though the Russian Formalists largely used literary texts to exemplify the aesthetic techniques of estrangement, they may very well have been influenced by the disruptive experience of early cinema. Ostranenie can thus be considered a theory concept, exploring the “perceptual potential of new technologies and techniques” (Van den Oever 2010b, 33). Early film had a tremendous impact, often creating shock or astonishment (cf. Gunning 1995, 119), and it also influenced literary writing (cf. Marcus 2007). That influence was reciprocal, as adaptations of literary works were prevalent in early film (cf. Phillips 2010; cf. Leitch 2007a, 22). Therefore, ostranenie may be considered a theoretical approach mediating between the arts. This study uses both concepts of literariness and ostranenie as go-betweens, as levers to shift perspectives between the literary and linguistic features of media art and the perceptual qualities derived from other audiovisual techniques of estrangement. This perspective allows an encompassing analysis of how devices of language, image, sound, or montage work together to shape an aesthetic experience.
The first part of this section considers Russian Formalist writings on film to illustrate their connection to the idea of ‘making strange.’ Furthermore, certain elements of the media art experience related to ostranenie are better explained by more recent film and media theories, which also often refer to Formalism. We link these to ostranenie as part of an ongoing reinvestigation of this notion in order to identify its “relevance for cinema and media studies” (Van den Oever 2010a, 11). This allows for a productive approach to questions related to intermediality, which are also discussed later on. As a transmedial concept that features in both linguistic and non-linguistic art forms, ostranenie demonstrates how different arts use different means to disrupt a transparent perception.
Russian Formalism and Film
The emergence of the concept of ostranenie in 1917 was likely influenced by the advent of early film. Later, the Russian Formalists applied their literary poetics to the art form of cinema. A comprehensive collection of essays on film, edited by Boris Eikhenbaum, was notably titled Poetika kino (1927). By analyzing film in comparison to literature, or even by understanding film as a specific kind of language, the Formalists sought to make a case for an appreciation of film as art. Shklovsky—who authored numerous essays on film, a book on the film director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, and also worked as a screenwriter—refers to literary genres when he differentiates between the ‘film of prose’ and ‘film of poetry’ (also see Chapter 4, Section 1):
They are distinguished one from the other not by rhythm, or rather, not by rhythm alone, but by the fact that in a poetic film the technical-formal features predominate over the semantic features. The composition is resolved by formal techniques rather than by semantic methods. Plotless film is poetic film. (Shklovksy 1973b , 130)
In contrast to his writings in which he uses ‘prose’ in the sense of ‘prosaic’ practical language, Shklovksy here describes the different formal principles of two filmic genres in regard to literary genres. Whereas the dominant device in the film of prose is the restructuring of fabula into sužet (cf. ibid.; also see Chapter 4, Section 3), the film of poetry is dominated by formal devices: for instance parallelism or double exposure, which create ‘poetic images’ with “multi-faceted significance” and an “undefined aura” (ibid.). Prose and poetry are, according to Shklovksy, the two aesthetic poles between which any film is situated. If one wants to follow Shklovksy’s scheme, works of media art are broadly to be situated in the realm of poetry. In many works of media art, formal devices are foregrounded, whether it be with a focus on the use of written or spoken language or due to a defamiliarizing montage of images or sound. Moreover, multiple technologies are often involved in rendering the experience opaque, as in multi-channel or multimedia installations. Implied in this is a performative potential of the formal elements of the artwork to renew perception. Shklovksy’s aesthetic poles can be equated with two ends on a perceptual continuum that shifts between an automatized, transparent perceptual experience and a deautomatizing perceptual impact.
Eikhenbaum approaches the “Problems of Film Stylistics” by explicitly referring to Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization, reminding readers:
Art draws on those aspects of everyday life which have no practical application. Everyday automatism of language use leaves masses of phonetic, semantic and syntactic nuances unexploited—and these find a place for themselves in verbal art (Viktor Shklovsky). (Eikhenbaum 1974 , 8)
Two aspects of this quote stand out: First, Eikhenbaum also transfers a literary category— zaum’—to the realm of cinema. Second, he implies that film is a verbal art. The notion of zaum’ refers to the ‘transrational’ poetry of the Russian Futurists (see Chapter 3, Section 1), that is, to a form of poetry using the excess nuances of language—or any human expression for that matter. Liberated from the bondage of habitual everyday communication, the zaum’ elements constitute the material of literature and art, and may even be foregrounded, laid bare. Yet art brings these elements into a specific form threatened by conventionality: “The constant disparity between the ‘trans-sense’ and language—such is the internal antinomy of art, regulating its evolution” (ibid., 9). Eikhenbaum calls the trans-sense essence of cinema ‘photogenic,’ to be observed whenever “method and style” render familiar objects unfamiliar on the screen, and thus enable the viewers to “see things anew” (ibid.). He links the concept of zaum’ to the idea of the filmic photogénie, brought forward by Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein (cf. Delluc 1920, Epstein 1988 ), a concept that describes film’s ability to help us see familiar objects in a new light. Film was said to have become an art form when it evolved from a mere recording device into an artistic ‘language’ that defamiliarizes the natural perception of things. For Eikhenbaum, as for other Formalists, montage is the central device for achieving ‘seeing’ in contrast to mere ‘recognition,’ to pick up Shklovsky’s distinction from the previous section once more. In order to analyze the specificity of the language of film, Eikhenbaum approaches the problems of cinema stylistics by relating montage to syntax and highlighting the importance of the viewer’s internal speech:
For the study of the laws of film (especially of montage) it is most important to admit that perception and understanding of a motion-picture is inextricably bound up with the development of internal speech, which makes the connection between separate shots. Outside this process only the ‘trans-sense’ [zaum’] elements of film can be perceived. The film viewer must perform the complex mental labour of connecting the frames (construction of film-phrases and film-periods), a form of labour practically nonexistent in everyday life where the word covers and eliminates all other means of expression. He must continually form a chain of film-phrases, or else he will not understand anything. [. . .] Film viewing is accompanied by a continual process of internal speech. We have already grown accustomed to a whole series of typical patterns of film-language; the smallest innovation in this sphere strikes us no less forcibly than the appearance of a new word in language. To treat film as an absolutely non-verbal art is impossible. Those who defend cinema from the imitation of literature often forget that though the audible word is eliminated from film, the thought, ie, internal speech, is nevertheless present. The study of the particularities of this film-speech is one of the most important problems in cinematic theory. (Eikhenbaum 1974 , 14)
Internal speech is an analogy for the cognitive processes in the viewer’s mind needed to connect successive frames—a task inherently different from everyday experience. Eikhenbaum’s formulation of cinema stylistics includes questions of the film phrase, the film period, but also the film metaphor (cf. ibid., 70), which the viewer combines in order to understand what he or she sees. Once this mental connecting process is disrupted, the filmic medium is laid bare. Eikhenbaum’s considerations anticipated subsequent semiotic theories of film, for instance those developed by Christian Metz or Raymond Bellour. As Kim Knowles correctly remarks, one needs to distinguish between “language in the cinema” and “language of cinema” (Knowles 2015, 46). While the latter constitutes a central topic of Structuralist semiotics, our investigation into the literariness of media art is primarily concerned with the first, that is, the occurrence of different forms of language use in the audiovisual arts.
Although semiotic theories have been highly influential in the field of film studies, their implications will not be further elaborated on, as this study is neither concerned with the development of an encompassing model of media art nor interested in perpetuating the notion of moving image art as language (for a detailed presentation and critique on the question of film language, cf. Elsaesser and Poppe 1994; Stam 2000, 107–122; Gaut 2010, 51–60). However, using film language as a metaphor for the perceptual qualities of film can be useful: If language has to be as transparent as possible for the purpose of communication, it becomes opaque once its features have been made unfamiliar or when some of its devices are highlighted. In comparison, once a film’s immersive potential is disrupted by foregrounded elements or devices that have been made strange, its content—in the sense of a transparent illusion of a fictional world—retreats to the background. At the same time, viewers perceive the filmic material, cinematographic devices, or even the technological apparatus involved in the creation of moving image art.
The Formalists theorized film in a period when it transitioned from being ‘silent’ to including verbalized speech, and some of them regarded audible actors as an impurity of the cinematic art. They worked to analyze how a ‘purely’ visual albeit time-based art form could bear a resemblance to poetry and prose. They shared a focus on montage as a central cinematic device with Soviet constructivist directors such as Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, who explored montage under the hypothesis that it appeals to viewers and may influence them emotionally or somatically (cf. Bordwell 1972, 14; Sobchack 2004, 55). The idea behind this is that specific devices cue specific responses in the viewer, an idea adopted by cognitive film theory (cf. Bordwell 1985) and Neoformalism.
Technology as Device
Shklovksy’s theory not only centered on the aesthetic devices of film, but also considered techniques in the sense of technology (cf. Van den Oever 2010b, 55). As Annie van den Oever points out, he also uses the term priom, which is translated as ‘device’ or ‘technique,’ to refer to the perceptual effects of the new technology of film. Thus, ostranenie does not apply to only the formal, aesthetic elements—the techniques—of an artwork, but also to the artwork’s material base and to the technology involved in creating a perceptual effect. Technique and technology are consequently both involved in the creation of artistic effects. Based on this, technology itself can become a device of defamiliarization.
In the realm of media art, the historical context of an artwork’s technology becomes an important factor in considering its defamiliarizing effects. Van den Oever attributes these to emerging technologies in particular, which bear a special “perceptual potential” (ibid., 33). As previously mentioned, she regards the concept of ostranenie as inherently linked to the experience of early cinema. This period can be considered as medium-specific, and it is marked by medium-sensitive viewers, who went to the cinema in order to experience the effects of the new medium rather than the content of the film itself (cf. Van den Oever 2011, 9). Tom Gunning describes new technology’s defamiliarization of perception as follows: “A discourse of wonder draws our attention to new technology, not simply as a tool, but precisely as a spectacle, less as something that performs a useful task than as something that astounds us by performing in a way that seemed unlikely or magical before” (Gunning 2003, 45). New technologies trigger a sense of wonder in the viewer, and artists often explore their perceptual impact. When we look at media art, it is often illuminating to consider which technology is employed at which point in history: Is the work situated within the emergence of early video technology or the rise of digital recording devices, or does the artwork make use of technologies that are considered old or ‘obsolete’ as device? As Gunning explains, the sense of wonder can diminish over time as the viewer’s perception becomes automatized. However, just as “wonder can be worn down into habit; habit can suddenly, even catastrophically, transform back into a shock of recognition” (ibid., 46). In this way, the striking effect of old technologies may be renewed and employed from a new standpoint.
The Poetics of Neoformalism
An opponent of understanding cinematic art as language is film scholar Kristin Thompson, who states that the “Formalists’ writings on cinema are of little use” for her study (Thompson 1981, 31). Instead, she draws heavily on their theory of literature, in particular Shklovksy’s “Art as Device/Technique,” and baptizes her new approach to the study of film ‘Neoformalism’: “Neoformalism as an approach does offer a series of broad assumptions about how artworks are constructed and how they operate in cueing audience response. But Neoformalism does not prescribe how these assumptions are embodied in individual films” (Thompson 1988, 6). By referring to the construction of artworks and the viewers’ response, Thompson hints at the central passage in Shklovsky’s essay (cf. Thompson 1981, 32; Thompson 1988, 10), referred to in the previous section, where he claims that the central function of the arts is “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known”; in the passage he also introduces the respective artistic techniques, “to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception”—the latter because he considers the process of perception as “an aesthetic end in itself” (Shklovksy 1965a , 12). The key concept Thompson derives from Shklovksy is ostranenie, here translated as ‘defamiliarization.’ Neoformalism is of particular interest to our study because it shares the understanding of Russian Formalist poetics as general aesthetics: “[T]his view of the function of the artwork as a renewal of perception through defamiliarization can be applied to film, since it is basic to all artforms” (Thompson 1981, 33; cf. Thompson 1988, 11). However, Thompson focuses on feature film, not media art, which is why not all of her findings apply to our investigation.
According to her, the advantage of Formalist (and Neoformalist) thought is that the purpose of artworks is understood as a defamiliarization of habitualized perception. Consequently, the split between form and content that prevails in communicative models of art is avoided. A work of art is not simply a neutral messenger with the sole purpose of delivering specific content (cf. Thompson 1981, 33). Rather, meaning has to be understood as one formal component among others, as material, specifically as a “work’s systems of cues for denotations and connotations” (Thompson 1988, 12). Denotation can be referential or explicit, referring to either recognizable phenomena of the real world or more abstract notions that nevertheless explicitly pervade the film. Connotative cues form implicit or symptomatic meanings and therefore demand interpretation. Though meaning may be defamiliarized in a work of art, it can also add to the deautomatization of perception, as meaning is only one device among others (cf. ibid., 15).
Thompson understands ‘device’ quite literally as any of the various elements that make up a film, such as editing, mise-en-scène, and framing, but also a theme or repeated word (cf. Thompson 1981, 26; Thompson 1988, 15). Defamiliarization is not an effect of one single device but “ultimately depends on their being combined to create a difficulty of perception” (Thompson 1981, 28). Neoformalism also adopts the notion of the dominant from Formalism:
The dominant determines which devices and functions will come forward as important defamiliarizing traits, and which will be less important. The dominant will pervade the work, governing and linking small-scale devices to large-scale ones; through the dominant, the stylistic, narrative, and thematic levels will relate to each other. [. . .] The work cues us as to its dominant by foregrounding certain devices and placing others less prominently. (Thompson 1988, 43f)
Consequently, in this interplay of devices, each has a specific motivation. Drawing and expanding on the concepts of Boris Tomashevsky, Thompson differentiates between four basic motivations: compositional motivation, realistic motivation, artistic motivation, and transtextual motivation (cf. ibid., 16–21; the first three were introduced in Tomashevsky 1965 , 78–87; also see Chapter 2, Section 1). Devices with compositional motivation ensure the unity of the work, for instance the narrative causality. The compositional motivation might even be regarded as a universal principle of structuring time-based arts, which is also embodied in the famous advice allegedly given by playwright Anton Chekhov: “If in Act 1 you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act” (Rayfield 1997, 203). Realistic motivation relates devices to one’s experience in the real world, whereas the recognition of transtextually motivated devices depends on one’s knowledge of other artworks, such as the conventions of literary and filmic genres. If a device lacks all of these motivations, then its inclusion is justified by artistic motivation. A special case of the artistic motivation that Thompson adopts from Shklovksy’s discussion of Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristam Shandy is the so-called baring of the device. The ‘device’ was established in the previous section as an effect that occurs when the aesthetic function of an element is foregrounded in a way that an artwork’s form as such is made strange and thus becomes the center of the viewers’ perception.
The original concept of literariness specifically delineates an aesthetic quality derived from the disturbance of the everyday use of language in literature and the violation of previous literary norms. The concept of ostranenie is particularly important in this regard, as it functions as an aesthetic strategy that affects a renewed perception, and is as such subject to historical change (cf. Kessler 1996, 55; Kessler 2010, 61). Russian Formalists and Neoformalists draw specific attention to the devices that form works of art while also considering the impact of the recipient’s activity and the historio-poetic setting in the construction of art: “[T]he work’s devices constitute a set of cues that can encourage us to perform certain viewing activities; the actual form those activities take, however, inevitably depends on the work’s interaction with its and the viewer’s historical contexts” (Thompson 1988, 25). In this perspective, an artwork is not a fixed entity with stable characteristics; it comes into being only in the act of perception. Perception is never neutral, never ideal, but relies on the mental operations of the viewers (cf. ibid., 25–35). Consequently, the deviant aesthetics of artworks—their power to disturb habitualized recognition and effect a new sense of seeing—can unfold only in relation to the experience and knowledge of the viewers and against the background of specific artistic paradigms: Deviance depends on established norms.
Neoformalism refers to these established norms as “backgrounds” (Thompson 1981, 47; Thompson 1988, 21), corresponding to Formalism and Structuralism. Three basic backgrounds can be differentiated: the everyday world (which is especially important in reference to realistically motivated devices); the everyday use of language or, with regard to moving images, the practical use of film; and other artworks. For Neoformalism and the related approach of ‘historical poetics’ (cf. Bordwell 2008; Kessler 2010, 64), the style established by classical Hollywood cinema is the most important artistic background for film analysis, which is to some extent also important within the context of this study (see also Chapter 4, Section 3). Classical cinema (circa 1910–1950) has shaped the viewing skills and expectations of the audience, delivering a viewing experience with minimal disruptions—despite and because of its very sophisticated and heavy use of cinematic devices. From a simplified perspective, narrative mainstream films are works that simulate maximum transparency and aim to turn the screen into a window, and this effect of transparency is guaranteed by sustained conventions (cf. Elsaesser and Hagener 2008, 29).
As theorized from the perspective of ostranenie, the oscillation between transparency and opacity, familiarity and disruptive strangeness, is subject to the historicity, the “diachronic dimension” (Kessler 2010, 73) of aesthetic developments in artistic productions. This observation is also central to David Bordwell’s historical poetics, a category of his Poetics of Cinema (cf. Bordwell 2008)—the title of which adopts the Russian Formalists’ publication Poetika kino. Beginning with the meaning of poiesis—‘active making’—the approach analyzes film with regard to the principles behind its construction: The emphasis is on how a film has been made as well as “its functions, effects, and uses” (ibid., 12). That approach not only closely describes a work of art but also considers the conventions influencing its production and the historical context, with these categories all subject to change (cf. ibid., 15). Historical poetics describes “the effort to understand how artworks assume certain forms within a period or across periods” (ibid., 13) and may shed light on the question of why an artwork’s defamiliarizing potential may weaken or even gain strength over time. However, as Bordwell explains, ‘poetics’ can and have been used as an approach toward other media, as in Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music (1942) or Tsvetan Todorov’s Poetics of Prose (1971; cf. ibid., 12), and therefore may well be transferred to works of media art. For example, the pace of a video from the 1980s, though perfectly in line with its contemporary standards, may appear unnaturally slow to a 21st-century viewer. As Frank Kessler states: “Any defamiliarizing device is bound to turn into a habitualized one as time goes by, so to the readers or viewers of later generations, it may indeed appear as an utterly conventional feature” (Kessler 2010, 78). This illustrates how form “is an inherently historical category” (ibid., 63). Therefore, when looking at works of art and their defamiliarizing effects, the historical context must be taken into account (cf. Bordwell 2008, 22).
Literariness Between Media
The previous section on Russian Formalism discussed intertextuality as a concept already rooted in the Formalists’ writings that describe relationships between literary texts. In the context of this study, literariness itself needs to be considered from related perspectives, namely that of intermediality and transmediality. Literariness denotes the aesthetic of literature, the quality that renders the medium of language—transparent in its necessarily familiarized use in everyday life—opaque and perceptible. The examination of literariness in media art considers how literary and poetic forms are figured in media art and how the intermedial correlations between literature and media art affect the viewer’s perception. Considering strategies of estrangement from this perspective uncovers similarities between techniques employed in literary texts and works of media art. It may also demonstrate how similar effects are brought about by very different techniques to teach us about commonalities regarding the effects on the viewer. As such, ostranenie is a transmedial phenomenon. In general, ‘transmediality’ is a term for “phenomena that are non-specific to individual media,” that “appear in more than one medium,” and highlight “palpable similarities between heteromedial semiotic entities” (Wolf 2005, 253). Jens Schröter has named the phenomenon “formal or transmedial intermediality” (Schröter 2012, 20–26) to refer to structures (e.g. narrative, rhythm, or seriality) that are not essential for a singular medium but are devices shaping a variety of arts and media. This understanding of intermediality is useful when it comes to concrete analyses, yet, as Schröter points out, it has its problems with the specifics of media and is subsequently highly paradoxical:
This becomes clear specifically in those types of analyses that on the one hand are based on transmedial common grounds of different media, while on the other, however, they presuppose a hierarchical relation between these media. This hierarchy is always implied when it is maintained that a certain procedure has been transferred from one medium to another—for example when talking of a ‘literarization of the cinema.’ (ibid., 24)
On one hand, a device or structure has to be media-unspecific enough to occur in the context of another art form. On the other hand, it also has to be specific enough to allow for recognition as ‘alien’ (cf. ibid., 24f). To navigate the wild waters of essentialism and hierarchy, Schröter proposes to tackle (not solve) this paradox by taking a historical stance. This is achieved by assuming a historically first emersion, without mistaking a chronological order for an inevitable genealogy.
If, however, literariness denotes the aesthetic use of language, its resurfacing in media art needs to be considered as a phenomenon of intermediality. Depending on the notion of ‘text’ and ‘media,’ the terms ‘intertextuality’ and ‘intermediality’ are sometimes used synonymously, as in the approach of Robert Stam, who uses ‘intertextuality’ as an inclusive term when investigating film adaptations (Stam 2000). Aage Hansen-Löve’s study on Russian modernist art was one of the first to differentiate between intertextuality and intermediality. With intertextuality, he refers to monomedial correlations within a single art form, for instance literature or silent film, whereas intermediality denotes correlations of artistic productions of different art forms (cf. Hansen-Löve 1983, 291 and 294). With the expansion of investigations into the various phenomena of hybrid artistic productions that transcend traditionally distinct art forms, intermediality is more often used as an umbrella term that “designates those configurations which have to do with a crossing of borders between media” (Rajewsky 2005, 46).
Irina Rajewsky fosters an understanding of intermediality “as a category for the concrete analysis of texts or other kinds of media products” (ibid., 51). For the purpose of investigations into ‘medial configurations,’ she proposes three subcategories: ‘medial transposition,’ ‘media combination,’ and ‘intermedial references.’ She refers to a popular example of medial transpositions— film adaptations of novels—in which the literary work is conceptualized as “the ‘source’ of the newly formed media product, whose formation is based on a media-specific and obligatory intermedial transformation process” (ibid., 51f). Such medial transpositions are also encountered in the context of media art; however, their adaptation processes differ largely from mainstream film, for example with regard to the ‘fidelity’ to the source, so that a more varied vocabulary is required (which is developed in Chapter 5). Rajewsky explicates her second subcategory with regard to plurimedial art forms such as theater or opera: ‘media combination’ indicates that “at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation [. . .] are each present in their own materiality” (ibid., 52). In media art, we find media combinations in mixed-media works, for instance the installation In Search of Vanished Blood by the artist Nalini Malani, which combines video projections, rotating cylinders, and drawings (see Chapter 5). Rajewsky’s third subcategory, intermedial references, includes both mere thematic references—when a literary text refers to a piece of music or a painting, for example—as well as the structural adoption of media-specific aesthetic techniques: for instance, the application of filmic devices such as “zoom shots, fades, dissolves, and montage editing” in literature (ibid., 52). She emphasizes that in this case, in contrast to the second subgenre, it is “by definition just one medium—the referencing medium (as opposed to the medium referred to)—that is materially present” (ibid., 53).
This book considers a spectrum of such intermedial references, from short clues to literary genres to the overall thesis of the ‘literariness’ of media art, which denotes structural adoptions of literary techniques. Regardless of whether literariness is considered a case of intertextuality, intermediality, or transmediality, it implies crossing borders. Yet, speaking of borders comes with fundamental implications: It assumes a line being drawn where one medium ends and another begins, evoking aspects of medium specificity that, however, are simultaneously negated by the concept of intermediality. The term itself seems paradoxical: Approaching intermediality verbatim, Oleg Gelikman highlights the strange recursive identity of the term, as ‘inter’ and ‘media’ both denote ‘between-ness’ (cf. Gelikman 2011, 1).
To address relations between media, it is also useful to refer to the concept of ‘remediation,’ introduced by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, who consider media as interconnected, as forming a network structure “continually commenting on, reproducing, and replacing each other” (Bolter and Grusin 2000, 55). Remediation does not imply a teleological narrative of improvement but instead stands for a multi-directional exchange, in which “[a]ll currently active media (old and new, analog, and digital) honor, acknowledge, appropriate, and implicitly or explicitly attack one another” (ibid., 87). Bolter and Grusin define remediation as “the representation of one medium in another” (ibid., 45). Put in this way, media art can be considered as the remediation of literary aesthetics, or even of entire literary works (examined in Chapter 5).
With regard to our study, Bolter and Grusin’s notion of media operating according to a “double logic” of remediation is especially useful. It implies that media oscillate between ‘immediacy’ and ‘hypermediacy’—or transparency and opacity. Immediacy describes the state of a medium representing ‘as if through a window,’ thus evoking the impression of a “transparent, perceptual immediacy, experience without mediation” (ibid., 22f), a simulacrum of “unmediated presentation” (ibid., 30). The contrasting strategy results in a state of ‘hyper-mediacy,’ which the authors consider to be the counter-pole of immediacy (cf. ibid., 34 and 37), when the material medium-as-technology is perceived: “In the logic of hypermediacy, the artist [. . .] strives to make the viewer acknowledge the medium as a medium and to delight in that acknowledgement” (ibid., 41f). The viewer becomes aware of the medium itself, which consequently interrupts the seamless transparency of the representation. The terms of immediacy/transparency and hypermediacy/opacity align with some of the fundamental concepts of literariness and defamiliarization. As the perception of media constantly shifts between the two poles, media artworks oscillate between a state of foregrounded materiality and short impressions of transparency. Moreover, transparency may be linked to Eikhenbaum’s concept of inner speech: The effect occurs when the viewer connects the impressions of the screen in his or her mind, unaware of being mediated. The moment of disruption occurs when an element is foregrounded and the formation of inner speech is hindered, when a device is laid bare and renders the medium opaque.
Bolter and Grusin’s concepts can also be correlated with those of media theorist Ludwig Jäger, who introduces the idea of ‘transcription’—or ‘transcriptivity’—to describe a medial process quite similar to remediation. Unlike Bolter and Grusin, Jäger’s terminology is rooted in linguistic and semiotic terminology—legibility, language, script—but also aims at an encompassing media theory. According to him, significance is established “by way of different means of reference that in an epistemological sense do not antecedently take place between sign systems and the world but that mainly on the one hand are executed between diverse (mediated) sign systems and on the other also within the same sign-system” ( Jäger 2010a, 78). Jäger understands transcriptions as being “in the mode of intra- and intermedial referentiality of signs to signs, or of media to media” and, consequently, “as the respective transition from disruption to transparency, of de- and recontextualization of the signs/media in focus” (ibid., 82).
The analyzed media artworks alternate on various levels between phases of transparency— “as that state in the process of media performance in which the respective sign/medium disappears, becoming transparent regarding the contents it mediates”—and phases of disruption, when “focusing on the sign/medium as the (disrupted) operator of meaning” (ibid.). A certain element—here, the aesthetics of literature—is isolated from its context, which hinders transparency and redirects the focus to the medium as disrupted operator. Jäger claims that disruption is not a defect of communication but “that aggregate communicative state in which the sign/ medium as such becomes visible and can therefore be semanticized” ( Jäger 2010b, 318). It thus becomes apparent that Jäger’s concept of disruption corresponds to several relevant concepts: Shklovsky’s device of ostranenie, Jacobson’s palpability of signs, and also Bolter and Grusin’s notion of hypermediacy.
Overabundance, Excess Emptiness, and Retreat of Synthesis
In media art, Shklovsky’s ‘roughened form’ may be directly linked to the language that is employed; yet it may also be created by non-linguistic elements, such as disharmonic sound and noise, the emphasis on duration, or the foregrounding of media technology. Viewers are often confronted with ‘too little’ or ‘too much’ input. They may observe, for instance, one phrase being repeated for minutes, as in Holger Mader’s video Ich suche nichts, ich bin hier, where a young man constantly shouts nothing but the two lines of the title (see Chapter 3, Section 1). In contrast, a multimedia installation that addresses several sensory channels simultaneously may cause information overload.
Such phenomena have been addressed in postdramatic theory, whose parameters as described by Hans-Thies Lehmann often apply to media art as well. Lehmann characterizes postdramatic theater as the conscious subversion “of the classical aesthetic ideal of an ‘organic’ connection of the elements in an artefact” (Lehmann 2006, 88). Both media art and postdramatic theater frequently aim at causing a “stimulus overload” (ibid., 95) through a “play with the density of signs” (ibid., 89). Postdramatic theater, like media art, violates conventionalized norms of ‘sign density,’ either by presenting an excessive, overabundant “plethora” of simultaneous signs or, on the contrary, a conceptual emptiness, as if nothing at all is happening (ibid.). Such aesthetic devices may result in a “retreat of synthesis” (ibid., 82) or experiences of “overwhelmment” (Rebentisch 2012, 184), characteristic of media art as well, especially for multi-channel installations.
Particularly with regard to interactive or multimedia installations, bodily perception is related to both space and action, since the audience needs to navigate through the artwork. The synchronicity of multiple levels of signification is an important feature, especially if the aesthetic signs are presented in a mode of “parataxis” and “non-hierarchy” (Lehmann 2006, 86). This implies that not one component of the artwork is set as dominant, but that the non-hierarchy of the elements in fact becomes the dominant guiding the artwork. With regard to literariness in media art—as briefly discussed in the previous section—it is, for instance, the plurality of languages in their different modalities or sign systems that may constitutively overwhelm recipients. The theory of postdramatic theater also takes into account the activity of the recipient and his or her bodily self-awareness. Lehmann speaks of an “irruption of the real” (ibid., 99) through a violation of the dramatic fiction or a breaking of the theatrical frame—for instance, if the recipient perceives the real passing of time or the actual physical presence of the actors. This corresponds to the disruption often experienced by the viewer of media art through its strategy of hypermediacy, opacity, or foregrounded materiality, which is perceived as confrontational and non-immersive.
Medial Opacity and Perception
According to film scholar Robin Curtis, immersion must be understood as a two-way process between an artwork and the viewer. On one hand, the aesthetic object demands that the viewer combines the signals that address multiple perceptual channels. On the other hand, the viewer needs to direct his or her perceptual and empathetic capacity towards the object (cf. Curtis 2008, 97). This echoes Eikhenbaum’s concept of inner speech as well as film theorist Vivian Sobchack, who insists on the activity of the viewer. Along with her observation on the perception of film, the media art experience can be considered a dialog and dialectic between viewer and artwork (cf. Sobchack 1992, 23). Immersion may be perceived as an immediate, direct experience. However, Sobchack stresses how this is primarily a case of transparency:
[D]irect experience is not so much direct as it is transparent—either because we are primarily intending toward the world and our projects and not toward our modes and processes of perception and expression or because we are historically and culturally habituated so that what is given to us in experience is taken for granted rather than taken up as a potentially open engagement with the world and others. (Sobchack 2004, 5)
Here, transparency arises from historical and cultural habitualization. Therefore, it is always important to acknowledge both the artwork’s historical framework and the viewer’s cultural context. Media art playfully challenges viewing conventions, making the audience aware not only of perception itself but—as the specific focus of literariness demonstrates—also of the mechanisms of language.
When investigating the phrasing that Russian Formalists use to describe the effects of literary language and defamiliarization, one cannot ignore the frequent use of metaphorical language, as in Jakobson’s description of ‘aching cheekbones’ that result from the literary experience, as well as Shklovsky’s phrase ‘make the stone stony.’ Strictly speaking, these are poetic descriptions of a literary or artistic experience. On closer examination, the terms that are used—‘aching,’ ‘feeling’—hint at an experience that, when understood by the words’ literal meanings, is geared towards the recipient’s senses. In fact, as Sobchack and the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue, metaphorical or figural language is often shaped by physical, bodily experience (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 206; Sobchack 2004, 68).
The viewer’s sensorial dimension is a crucial factor in the experience of media art and especially important to consider when regarding media art’s means of defamiliarization. The most vivid example is perhaps a multimedia installation that engages viewers visually and aurally, asking them to negotiate their position to the artwork spatially and maybe even featuring interactive surfaces that can be touched. In contrast to the cinema, the period of time spent at an installation is not predetermined. The viewer may enter and leave the installation as she or he pleases. Installations work with this structure of temporal candidness and thus reflect their own modes of presentation and reception (cf. Rebentisch 2012, 185). Similarly, visitors respond according to their proximity to the art objects and decide—in the case of an interactive installation—whether to participate actively in the work by touching screens or other elements.
While ‘touch-based’ interactivity in particular leaves no doubt about an artwork’s sensorial address to the viewer, film critics like Sobchack or Laura Marks emphasize the sensorial experience of watching or listening alone and the “body’s essential implication in making ‘meaning’ out of bodily ‘sense’ ” (Sobchack 2004, 1). Informed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Sobchack shifts the focus of film studies from psychoanalysis and Marxism—emphasizing either the inner or outer conditions of the viewer—to an “embodied” (ibid.; Sobchack 1992, 8f) viewing experience that may account for both “the body and consciousness, objectivity and subjectivity, in an irreducible ensemble” (Sobchack 2004, 1 and 4; cf. Sobchack 1992, 8f).
Media art can be regarded as related to the principle of phenomenological inquiry, which is aimed at encouraging the viewers to become aware of and reflect on the use of language. Sobchack claims that “this attentiveness to language is also aimed at really listening to and reanimating the rich but taken-for-granted expressions of vernacular language and of rediscovering the latter’s intimate and extensive incorporation of experience” (ibid., 5). Media art contributes to a revitalization of language and awareness, and connects the linguistic and sensorial aspects of this experience. Sobchack describes how these two are often handled separately: “Too often, however, language [. . .] is used to banish and disavow experience. On the other side, experience would banish language as inadequate to it” (Sobchack 1992, xvii). Media art can be seen as making us aware of how the body and language “inform each other in a fundamentally nonhierarchical and reversible relationship” (Sobchack 2004, 73). The concepts of literariness and ostranenie both enable a focus on the linguistic as well as audiovisual aspects, and are useful mediators and levers for shifting between perspectives.
Marks draws on Sobchack’s ideas in her development of a theory of ‘haptic visuality,’ implying that “vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes” (Marks 2000, xi). Similar to theories of embodied vision, the concept considers the entire impact of the cinematic experience. Expanding on art historian Aloïs Riegl’s distinction between optical and haptic visuality (cf. Riegl 1985 ), Marks notes how the experience of audiovisual arts may be embodied and geared towards sense perception, which is not only limited to optical vision and acoustics (cf. Marks 2000, xiii); it is embodied vision, meaning that the body is involved in the process of perception and in creating meaning (cf. ibid., 145). Touch is a sense strongly addressed in Marks’s theory of ‘haptic images’ that trigger the viewer’s memory of touch by defamiliarizing the visual layer of perception:
Haptic visuality is distinguished from optical visuality, which sees things from enough distance to perceive them as distinct forms in deep space: in other words, how we usually conceive of vision. Optical visuality depends on a separation between the viewing subject and the object. Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. (ibid., 162)
As Marks claims, optical visuality is stimulated by transparent images. Haptic visuality, in contrast, is caused by images that would be categorized as opaque, such as images with low, grainy resolution or extreme ‘zooming in,’ so that the object itself cannot be discerned. It is thus not a matter of technology but a characteristic of a certain kind of vision. In other words, “optical perception privileges the representational power of the image,” whereas “haptic perception privileges the material presence of the image” (ibid., 163). The viewer’s vision may oscillate between both states, yet haptic images “encourage a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image” (Marks 2002, 3). Since media art oscillates between states of transparency and opacity, Marks’s approach accounts for its enormous sensorial impact: “Haptic images can give the impression of seeing for the first time, gradually discovering what is in the image rather than coming to the image already knowing what it is” (Marks 2000, 178). Opaque, haptic images (or sounds) have the defamiliarizing potential to refresh the viewer’s perception. Although they do not provide an immersive experience, haptic images may possess a special kind of attractiveness and pull the viewer towards them to appreciate the experience of the image itself, which Marks links to desire (cf. ibid., 184). This goes so far that the viewer engages with the artwork as object rather than buying into its illusionistic representation (cf. ibid., 190).
Chapter 2 has brought together different perspectives from literary, film, and media theory to illuminate several aspects of literariness and ostranenie. Among the most important concepts introduced were Jakobson’s notion of the poetic function of literature, creating density and self-reflexivity, and Shklovsky’s understanding of literature as employing devices of ‘making strange’ and ‘complicating of form’ to renew perception, or the laying bare of a device. Our interdisciplinary expansion has demonstrated that literariness is a concept that goes beyond literary theory, discussing related ideas from other disciplines. Starting with an overview of the Russian Formalists’ writings on film, we gave special consideration to the film studies approach of Neoformalism and its focus on the defamiliarization of backgrounds. We also discussed theories of intermediality, which was proposed as an artistic device that affects the viewer and fuels an aestheticized perception. We also introduced more recent concepts from media theory, such as remediation and transcription, which both address questions of medial exchange and transformation. Throughout this book, literariness and ostranenie serve as transmedial tools to examine media art’s configurations of language along with its non-linguistic devices. This encompassing interdisciplinary theoretical foundation has established the art object as a strong, even obstinate counterpart to the viewer, perceived in its particular materiality and mediality.