Defamiliarization Or How Art Makes Things Strange

April 24, 2021 - 12 min read

I had a procrastination session on Monday evening. I was petting my mouse and sliding into the abyss of the internet, website by website, one wall of text after another, deeper with each consecutive click, guided by heavy arrhythmic vibes irking my eardrums. It is my guilty pleasure. I like looking for 'useless' knowledge — something that you are curious about right now and unlikely to need the next day.

You can call it mindless scrolling, but I call it 'research'.

This time my mouse was indulged with gentle strokes and touches because my mind was thirsty to learn something about Leo Tolstoy's approach to writing.

And that's why the internet and procrastination make a perfect couple. My procrastination sessions are rarely 'successful' and I end up feeling that instead of wasting my life like that I should waste it productively. But it gives me bliss when I stumble upon something obscure and enthralling. I virtually start running around my room screaming something unrecognisable like "Why does nobody talk about this?!". But maybe I’m just not punctual enough about discovering it.

My most recent finding, the catalyst for this essay, satisfies all those qualities.

Have you heard of the Russian word 'ostranenie'? It is an artistic technique that aims to present familiar objects in a strange and unfamiliar way to build a fresh experience of them.

This is something you don't have to know but I will tell you regardless. We are already in the same lifeboat, aren't we?

Perceptive efforts

"If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been." - Leo Tolstoy

The main idea is this. When objects and events become familiar to us, we stop paying attention to them. The same happens in language and art. When you read a text and object descriptions seem familiar to you, the perception is effortless for the brain and their sensation is weak, unlike when you encounter the same things for the first time.

To approach that, Shklovsky introduces an artistic device called ‘ostranenie’, or ‘‘defamiliarization’’, that aims to make objects unfamiliar, strange, like their first perception, and therefore evoke strong and new sensations.

Before we move to the description of how the technique works in general, and in writing in particular, I want to talk more about how we perceive information from a scientific point of view.

Our brain optimises for efficiency. It builds connections to minimise the energy required for processing new information. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman defines two systems, two minds, that shape our perception and choice.

System 1 is fast and automatic, it’s rather unconscious. It consumes less energy but we have less control over it. It's our animal brain. System 2 performs effortful mental activities that require attention, focus and concentration. It's our sapiens brain. Each system has individual abilities, limitations and functions.

Among many things, System 1 gives you the answer to 2+2, identifies a distance between objects, understands simple sentences, complete phrases like "bread and ...". System 2 also does many things but they have one common trait: they require attention, concentration and logic. For example, we use it to focus on the voice in the noisy room, to search memory for your phone number, count occurrences of the letter in a text, fill out tax forms. Anything you have to pay attention to cannot be done solely by System 1.

Most of the time, our brain uses System 1 to economise our attention and save energy. That's why habits and routines work well - they are almost free for your mind and feel effortless. This doesn't include only brushing teeth in the morning or drinking a glass of water after waking up, but also the way we perceive information.

The general law of perception - if something becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Compare riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, or speaking a new language for the first time versus doing it after a few years of practice. The difference is due to automation that happens in the brain. After an object or event becomes familiar, instead of System 2, our brain starts using energy-efficient System 1.

I took the quote for this section as a fragment from Leo Tolstoy's diary written in 1897. Here it is in context:

I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.

The benefits of automation are obvious. However, there are some implications that we rarely think of. Automation makes objects, actions and their descriptions ‘familiar’, easily recognisable up to being unnoticed. The first impression of things fade. We forget their essence and take them for granted. "And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war," wrote Shklovsky. ‘‘Defamiliarization’’ is what can make objects strange again.

Thinking in images

In language, we automate our speech contracting words and phrases to make it flow so some sounds are barely recognizable. We use metaphors, analogies and other image devices to simplify the understanding of concepts and make their perception automatic and seamless.

It works well because we substitute seemingly complex and unfamiliar things using familiar images. Recalling and reusing them for our brain is effortless.

Shklovsky defines two types of images:

For example, you walk down the street and see a man wearing an old hat drop his bag. You call the man: "Hey, old hat, you've dropped your bag". This is an example of a prosaic trope that uses the word 'hat' metonymically. But compare it to "This joke is old hat. I heard it ages ago". It is an example of a poetic trope, that uses the word metaphorically.

A poetic trope is a tool of poetic language. A prosaic trope is a superficial resemblance, such as calling a sphere or a head "a little watermelon". It is a device of thinking in abstractions but it has nothing to do with poetry.

The general law of perception works for both poetic and prosaic tropes. They economise our attention and help to conceptualise new information in terms we already understand. They convert unfamiliar into familiar approximating the inputs and convey ideas with fewer words. Herbert Spencer wrote in The Philosophy of Style, "As the basis of all rules designating the choice and use of words we find one and the same main requirement: economy of attention. . . . Leading the mind to the intended concept by the easiest route is often their only and always their most important goal."

That kind of imagery thinking is not only important in literature, poesy or writing in general, but cognition and language as a whole.

We think and communicate in images. Scientists analysed many languages and discovered that we use around one metaphor every ten seconds of speech. Images are fundamental for us to comprehend abstract concepts, such as love, joy, society and economy. 3

But when images become familiar and well-known, they start being less vivid, take less mental efforts and do not have the same effect. Orwell wrote about it in his essay 'Politics and English Language' in 1946. ‘A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image... Huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.’

Conveying something through images assumes that everyone perceives it in the same way. However, it isn't true in reality. That's probably the difference between good and bad images. Each of us can attach different meanings to different mental models or can get them literally.

For example, if you say somebody “you are my rock”, one could think of “rock” like stone, a solid foundation you can rely on, the other – as a genre of music, often associated with freedom and courage. In different contexts, said by different people, the same phrase can have completely different interpretations. Therefore the effect of one image on two people might be drastically different and your pursuit of simplification will work the opposite way.

Artfulness of objects

Viktor Shklovsky considered the way art describes an object more important than the object itself. He, together with other Russian formalists, studied literature breaking it down into devices and techniques that allow us to depict reality in desirable ways. In that sense, any piece of art you consume gives you a new perspective on quotidian things and therefore defines them again for you. "Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artefact itself is quite unimportant," wrote Shklovsky in ‘Theory of Prose’.

But if the author describes objects and events in a way already familiar to us, their perception becomes easy and effortless. We automatically recognise objects and the original sensation of them cannot be restored nor the new sensation can be built.

Shklovsky suggests "enstranging" objects by complicating the way they are described. It is beneficial because the process of perception is a process of experiencing the artfulness of an object, as Shklovsky wrote, and you cannot truly experience it without sufficient intellectual efforts. But you can make objects unfamiliar to the reader, "defamiliarize" them, provide the reader with a fresh view free from the automatism. It extends the perception and makes it "laborious". That’s the essence of ‘ostranenie’ - ‘defamiliarization’.

To illustrate how it works, Shklovsky analyses how Leo Tolstoy’s uses ‘‘defamiliarization’’ in his writing. He often describes objects and actions as if we experience them for the first time. He avoids known names of its parts in describing the object and instead names them like they are parts of other objects.

One of the examples Shklovsky provides is Tolstoy's short story 'Kholstomer'. It features the technique of ‘defamiliarization’ used in narrating from the perspective of a horse. Here are its thoughts on the human's concept of private property:

I understood well what they said about whipping and Christianity. But then I was absolutely in the dark. What's the meaning of "his own," "his colt"? From these phrases I saw that people thought there was some sort of connection between me and the stable. At the time I simply could not understand the connection. Only much later, when they separated me from the other horses, did I begin to understand. But even then I simply could not see what it meant when they called me "man's property." The words "my horse" referred to me, a living horse, and seemed as strange to me as the words "my land," "my air," "my water."

In this case, the story demands ‘defamiliarization’ and acts as an important aspect of it. But you can find many examples of Tolstoy applying the technique in his work, especially in the last ones, when it isn’t required by the narrative.

Here's how Tolstoy employs ‘defamiliarization’ in describing the theatre performance:

The middle of the stage consisted of flat boards; by the sides stood painted pictures representing trees, and at the back, a linen cloth was stretched down to the floorboards. Maidens in red bodices and white skirts sat in the middle of the stage. One, very fat, in a white silk dress, sat apart on a narrow bench to which a green pasteboard box was glued from behind. They were all singing something. When they had finished, the maiden in white approached the prompter's box. A man in silk with tight-fitting pants on his fat legs approached her with a plume and began to sing and spread his arms in dismay. The man in the tight pants finished his song alone; then the girl sang. After that both remained silent as the music resounded; and the man, obviously waiting to begin singing his part with her again, began to run his fingers over the hand of the girl in the white dress. They finished their song together, and everyone in the theatre began to clap and shout. But the men and women on stage, who represented lovers, started to bow, smiling and raising their hands.

'Ostranenie' isn't a technique invented by Tolstoy. Shklovsky says it can be found in any place where an image applied. But the image shouldn't aim to help us recognise the object. Instead, it should aim to create a special vision of it, a special way of experiencing the object.

It is similar to how you try to retell your dreams to someone right after waking up. You often don't have an explanation and quick terms for what you have just seen and things in the story of your dream appear to be fresh in the perception. A similar effect is reached when a time traveller from the past starts describing unfamiliar objects in the present.

Shklovsky provided many other examples. If you want to dig deeper into that, I'd suggest reading his essay in full. Although Shklovsky writes about its application in literature, in different ways, we can see the similar effect achieved in other media, and life in general.

Forgotten experience

“I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” ― Joseph Campbell

In my previous essay, I shared Giorgio De Chirico's painting The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon. It is his first painting in the style of quiet and enigmatic old towns. The painting depicts a part of Florence's Piazza Santa Croce with oversimplified details. The main things we see are the almost empty square, the plain facade of the Basilica of Santa Croce and the headless statue right to it.

De Chirico painted it during recovery from a serious illness. He had been to the Piazza Santa Croce before, but this time he saw it differently, it appeared to be ill as he was. So he painted the Piazza with that in mind, not focusing on the Basilica or any other objects, but focusing on his perception and vision of it instead. He provided us with the opportunity to experience it today in the same way he felt it one hundred years ago.

I bet there are many photos or realistic paintings of the Pizza with masterful shadowing, attention to colours and details. But what De Chirico gives us is a new and fresh perspective on it. Just like Shklovsky wrote, "And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony."

Automated perception dilutes the original sensation of things so it gets lost in time. Art wakes us up from the conventional way of seeing things and shows us the mundane distorted through the eyes of an artist for whom every created piece of art is a projection of a unique view of reality, beautiful and grotesque in its pristine strangeness.

P.S. Huge thanks to Luke Burgis and MediaWisdom for their extremely helpful comments on the draft.

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