From New World Encyclopedia

Defamiliarization or ostranenie (остранение) is the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way (literally "making it strange"), in order to enhance perception of the familiar.

The term was first coined in 1917 by Victor Shklovsky (or Shklovskij), one of the leading figures of the movement in literary criticism known as Russian Formalism. Formalism focused on the artistic strategies of the author and made the literary text itself, and not the historical, social or political aspects of the work of art, the focus of its study. The result was an appreciation for the creative act itself. Shklovsky was a member of OPOYAZ (Obshchestvo izucheniya POeticheskogo YAZyka—Society for the Study of Poetic Language), one of the two groups, with the Moscow Linguistic Circle, which developed the critical theories and techniques of Russian Formalism.

Defamiliarization is a central concept of twentieth century art, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre, and science fiction.


Shklovsky introduced the concept of defamiliarization in his seminal essay, “Art as Device” (often translated as “Art as Technique”)[1]. The essay begins with the famous dictum, "Art is thinking in images." The notion that art is characterized by the use of images represents a "time-honored notion, dating back to Aristotle and upheld in modern times by critics so dissimilar as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Cecil Day Lewis, George Plexanov, and Herbert Read"[2]. In Russian literary criticism, it was the major premise of the dean of literary critics, Vissarion Belinsky, but had become such a commonplace notion that Skhlovsky claims, "The phrase may be heard from the mouth of a lycee student"[3].

In the essay Shklovsky argues that such a shopworn understanding fails to address the major feature of art, which is not to be found in its content but its form. One of Shklovsky's major contentions was that poetic language is fundamentally different than the language that we use everyday. “Poetic speech is framed speech. Prose is ordinary speech–economical, easy, proper, the goddess of prose [dea prosae] is a goddess of the accurate, facile type, of the 'direct' expression of a child” [4]. What makes art is not the "image," or the idea, which can easily be expressed in prosaic form just as well as in poetic form. This difference is the manipulation of form, or the artist's technique, which is the key to the creation of art.

The image can be given a prosaic presentation but it is not art because the form is not interesting, it is automatic. This automatic use of language, or “over-automatization” as Shklovsky refers to it, causes the idea or meaning to “function as though by formula” [5]. This distinction between artistic language and everyday language, is the distinguishing characteristic of all art. He invented the term defamiliarization to “distinguish poetic from practical language on the basis of the former’s perceptibility”[6].


The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of 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.[7]

Defamiliarization serves as a means to force individuals to experience the everyday, the ordinary in new ways through the use of artistic language. The artist creates a shift in the normal, anticipated form of perception and by so doing reveals the world anew.

In studying poetic speak in its phonetic and lexical structure as well as in its characteristic distribution of words and in the characteristic thought structures compounded from the words, we find everywhere the artistic trademark – that is, we find material obviously created to remove the automatism of perception; the author’s purpose is to create the vision which results from that deautomatized perception. A work is created “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception. [8]

According to Shklovsky the technique is meant to challenge the reader's (or viewer's) expectations and jar their sensibilities. As a consequence, the reader is forced to see from a different perspective and appreciate the form of the text and not just its content or meaning. As Aristotle said, “poetic language must appear strange and wonderful” [9].

Defamiliarization of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all devices. And with defamiliarization come both the slowing down and the increased difficulty (impeding) of the process of reading and comprehending and an awareness of the artistic procedures (devices) causing them. [10]

Defamiliarization in Russian Literature

To illustrate what he means by defamiliarization, Shklovsky uses numerous examples from Russian literature. As Shklovsky notes, 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy uses this technique throughout his works. “The narrator of “Kholstomer,” for example, "is a horse, and it is the horse’s point of view (rather than a person’s) that makes the content of the story seem unfamiliar”[11].

In the nineteenth century, the aristocracy spoke primarily French, not Russian. Shklovsky notes that Pushkin, who is generally credited with creating the Russian literary language (which is the basis of modern Russian, used the technique through the use of different dialects.

"Pushkin employed folk speech as a special device of arresting the reader's attention precisely in the same way that his contemporaries interspersed Russian words in their everyday French speech (see the examples in Tolstoi's War and Peace." [12]

Literary Antecedents

The technique is not confined to Russian literature, nor is the theory without precedent. The English Romantic poets made extensive use of it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, (1817), made the following observation about the poetry of William Wordsworth: "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar […] this is the character and privilege of genius."


Defamiliarization is one of the key concepts of Russian Formalism and Shklovsky is one of its most important theorists. Its influence would be widely felt in both twentieth century art and literary criticism.

It has been associated with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation effect") was a potent element of his approach to theater. Brecht's technique, in turn, has been highly influential for artists and filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer.

In literary criticism it would provide an important precursor to the development of both Structuralism and Post-structuralism.

Defamiliarization and Différance

Shklovsky’s defamiliarization is one of the many sources of Jacques Derrida's concept of différance:

What Shklovskij wants to show is that the operation of defamiliarization and its consequent perception in the literary system is like the winding of a watch (the introduction of energy into a physical system): both “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence. Considered against the general and functional background of Derridian différance, what Shklovskij calls “perception” can be considered a matrix for production of difference. [13]

Since the term différance refers to the dual meanings of the French word difference to mean both “to differ” and “to defer,” defamiliarization draws attention to the use of common language in such a way as to alter one’s perception of an easily understandable object or concept. The use of defamiliarization both differs and defers, since the use of the technique alters one’s perception of a concept (to defer), and forces one to think about the concept in different, often more complex, terms (to differ).

Shklovskij’s formulations negate or cancel out the existence/possibility of “real’ perception: variously, by (1) the familiar Formalist denial of a link between literature and life, connoting their status as non-communicating vessels, (2) always, as if compulsively, referring to a real experience in terms of empty, dead, and automatized repetition and recognition, and (3) implicitly locating real perception at an unspecifiable temporally anterior and spatially other place, at a mythic “first time” of naïve experience, the loss of which to automatization is to be restored by aesthetic perceptual fullness.[14]


  1. Lawrence Crawford, “Victor Shklovskij: Différance in Defamiliarization.” Comparative Literature 36 (1984): 209-219. 209. (February 24, 2008). ISSN 0010-4124
  2. Victor Erlich. Russian Formalism: History Doctrine. (Mouton De Gruyter; 4 Sub ed. (1965) 1980. ISBN 9027904502), 173-174
  3. Viktor Shklovsky, "Art as Device" in Theory of Prose, translated by Benjamin Sher, (Dalkey Archive Press, 1990, ISBN 0916583643)
  4. Shklovsky, 1990, 20
  5. Shklovsky, 1990, 16
  6. Crawford, 1984: 209.
  7. Shklovsky, 1990, 16
  8. Shklovsky, 1990, 19
  9. Shklovsky, 1990, 19
  10. Uri Margolin, “Russian Formalism.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 9780801845604), 2005
  11. Shklovsky, 1990, 16
  12. Shklovsky, 1990, 13
  13. Crawford, 1984: 212
  14. Crawford, 1984: 218

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Crawford, Lawrence. “Victor Shklovskij: Différance in Defamiliarization.” Comparative Literature 36 (1984): 209-219. February 24, 2008. ISSN 0010-4124
  • Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History Doctrine, 173-174. Mouton De Gruyter; 4 Sub ed. 1980 (original 1965). ISBN 9027904502
  • Margolin, Uri. "Russian Formalism." In The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0801845604
  • Shklovsky, Viktor, "Art as Device." In Theory of Prose, translated by Benjamin Sher, 20. Dalkey Archive Press, 1990. ISBN 0916583643
  • Shklovskij, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” InLiterary Theory, An Anthology, Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1998.


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