Feb 13, 2013
Defamiliarization, Again for the First Time
Will WilkinsonA year or so ago, I listened to a Tin House podcast, a recording of a fascinating lecture on "defamiliarization" by Anthony Doerr, who usefully lays out a number of the themes of his talk in an interview in Fugue (and don't miss this great handout):
I argue to my students that (in most cases) verbal repetition has a blunting, even soporific effect. When a writer writes that, say, a character has her "heart in her mouth" or "a surge of adrenaline" or her "eyes sparkle," then a reader, seeing combinations of words he has seen thousands of times before, glosses over the phrase, rather than seeing a vivid image. Over time a reader gets "habituated" to commonly-seen combinations of words like sidelong glances, and glinting eyes, and "a chill ran up my spine." This is true of phrases, and it's true of narrative structures, too. Popular narrative structures which have been repeated often enough to be familiar can also have the same blunting, sleepy, familiar effect. How many evil villains are physically scarred? How many films end in a kiss? How many protagonists have a wise old grandfather? And this is fine! I'm not suggesting that this isn't perfectly acceptable. I'll go see the new Spiderman movie, or the new James Bond....A lot of care is taken so that the viewer does not get shaken up in any significant way. So familiar sentence constructions and familiar stories offer something safe and comfortable and sometimes our brains crave safe and comfortable. But I do think that the role of art is to show us the familiar world in an unfamiliar way--to shake us up. The guy I always quote when I get asked about this stuff is an old Russian commisar named Viktor Shklovsky, in an essay he wrote called "Art as Technique." "Art exists," Shklovsky says, "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."I'm glad Doerr takes care to note, following Shklovsky, that cliche influences not only the reception and effect of language, but also the apprehension and effect of structure, and indeed of all "techniques" or "devices" of literary construction. What's most striking to me about Shklovsky's famous essay, from which our current ideas about "defamiliarization" largely derive, is Shklovsky's novel theory that the function of art is to restore to human experience what is lost in the mind's relentless drive toward efficiency--toward the most economical use of its budget of mental energy and attention. This is so striking because Shklovsky's assumptions about the way the mind works, in 1923, turned out to be so congruent with contemporary cognitive psychology. The thrust of Shklovsky's prescription--the defamiliarization or "enstrangement" (making strange) of that to which we have become inured through "automatization"--is most compelling in the context of his factual assumptions about the mind. Here's what he says leading into the passage Doerr quotes:
Writers like us--writers trying (and usually failing) to make art--are trying to use words, maybe the most used and familiar elements of daily life, and we're trying to combine them to create transcendent aesthetic structures. We're trying to employ language in ways that helps a reader see life in some "defamiliarized" way. Always, for me, art is slightly strange. Strangeness is what helps us crack apart our old eyes and see the world in a slightly new way. ...
In the process of algebrizing, of automatizing the object, the greatest economy of perceptual effort takes place. Objects are represented by one single characteristic (for example, by number), or else by a formula that never even rises to the level of consciousness.... 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.Shklovsky runs together at least two distinct mental processes, but it would be shabby to blame him. "Algebrization," the use of physical tokens (bits of sound, marks on paper) to express abstract, general concepts referring to broad classes of particulars certainly has something to do with "the economy of perceptual effort." But when it comes to the perception of the actual world (as opposed to the mental representation of the world imagined in a text), that economy perhaps has more to do with "habituation"--diminishing sensitivity to repeated or unchanging stimuli. Habituation (a.k.a. "adaptation" or "extinction" or "acclimatization" or "fatigue" or "stimulatory inactivation"), is an incredibly general psychological process. Habituation's why you hear the air conditioner click on, but you soon don't hear the hum; why the water feels frigid but then feels "fine"; why last year's tired silhouettes don't grab the dandy's eye. Habituation's why a luxury car ultimately contributes very little to our sense of well-being. You just stop noticing how great it is. We notice change. At any given moment, much of what you "see" in your visual field isn't what's out there as it is right now; it's somewhat stale information retrieved from memory. Why continually "re-draw" the unchanging elements of a scene? The fact is that our brains, as big and beautiful as they are, have fixed computational limits, and simply can't handle the load of extravagantly total attentional presence. We couldn't possibly get along without the economies of habituation. We don't have the bandwidth, processing power, or memory to be awake always to everything. But habituation has obvious costs, as Shklovsky so poignantly observes. Habituation is zombification. Insofar as we are creatures of routine, we literally stop noticing our lives. So suppose we follow Shklovsky and Doerr in the idea that the point of art is to make us alive to what we've stopped noticing by making it strange--to fight the effects of habituation with defamiliarization. Okay. But notice that there is a difference between defamiliarizing our experience of the world and defamiliarizing our experience of reading. Shklovsky and Doerr both slide a bit too easily between the two ideas. Doerr says that "a reader, seeing combinations of words he has seen thousands of times before, glosses over the phrase, rather than seeing a vivid image." I don't believe it! Habituation to a combination of words doesn't suggest that those words will fail evoke a "vivid image." That gets the logic of habituation wrong. Habituation to a combination of words suggests not that we become unaware, or become aware only hazily, of what the words denote. It just means that we stop noticing the words. We process them easily. They get out of our way. We go fast. If words are atoms, and phrases (some of them clichés) are molecules, then defamiliarization of the world occurs at the compound level. It's a matter of higher-order combinatorial juju. You can make something pulsing and surpassing strange out of an ingenious combination of shopworn tropes. Conversely, you can state the boring, obvious, and banal in startlingly original terms.