Defamiliarization or ostranenie is the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance perception of the familiar. According to the Russian formalists who coined the term, it is the central concept of art and poetry. The concept has influenced 20th-century art and theory, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre, science fiction, hydrosophy, and New Testament narrative criticism; additionally, it is used as a tactic by recent movements such as culture jamming.

With the name of estrangement or defamiliarization, it is indicated to all those interventions on the artistic forms that aim to make them foreign to their own nature, thus creating in the recipients a feeling of alienation or, rather, to discover that they are usually alienated.

The Russian formalists, especially Víktor Shklovski used the word ostranénie (остранение) to refer to those ways of proceeding in literary language that aims to give a new perspective on the usual vision of realityby presenting it in different contexts to those accustomed to or by representing it in a way in which it is noted that the representation is a fiction – for example through exaggeration, grotesque, parody, absurdity, etc. -. This can generally be experienced on three levels: linguistic (for example, by resorting to unusual, abnormal stylistic words or forms ); the level of literary genres already defined but inserted in unusual schemes and the level of perception of reality creating unforeseen situations or relationships.

More than in traditional art, we find the use of the technique of estrangement in avant – garde art (from the beginning of the 20th century). Some similarity with the estrangement is found in the horrific of the Spanish Ramón del Valle Inclán, in Italy an exponent is Giovanni Verga. Very similar to estrangement is the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect) recommended by Bertolt Brecht for the theater. Although the effect of Brechtian distancing has as its difference with respect to the proper estrangement, the intention that the public does not identify with the representation, but always knows that it is a fiction.

The term “defamiliarization” was first coined in 1917 by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device” (alternate translation: “Art as Technique”). Shklovsky invented the term as a means to “distinguish poetic from practical language on the basis of the former’s perceptibility.” Essentially, he is stating that poetic language is fundamentally different than the language that we use every day because it is more difficult to understand: “Poetic speech is formed 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.” This difference is the key to the creation of art and the prevention of “over-automatization”, which causes an individual to “function as though by formula.”

This distinction between artistic language and everyday language, for Shklovsky, applies to all artistic forms:

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.

Thus, defamiliarization serves as a means to force individuals to recognize artistic language:

In studying poetic speech 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.

This technique is meant to be especially useful in distinguishing poetry from prose, for, as Aristotle said, “poetic language must appear strange and wonderful.”

As writer Anaïs Nin discussed in her 1968 book The Novel of the Future:

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.

According to literary theorist Uri Margolin:

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.

In other words, art presents objects from another perspective. It takes them out of their automated and everyday perception, giving them life in themselves, and in its reflection in art.

Shklovski argued that everyday life “lost the freshness of our perception of objects,” made everything automated. As a savior of that means alienated by automation, art makes triumphal entry. His technique of salvation would be to make objects strange “to create complicated forms, to increase the difficulty and the extension of perception, since, in aesthetics, the process of perception is an end in itself and, therefore, must be prolonged. “As you can see, the estrangement does not affect the perception, but the presentation of the perception. The process of representation, Shklovski calls it” reveal a technique. ”

In Romantic poetry
The technique appears in English Romantic poetry, particularly in the poetry of Wordsworth, and was defined in the following way by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria: “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.”

In Russian literature
To illustrate what he means by defamiliarization, Shklovsky uses examples from Tolstoy, whom he cites as using the 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.” As a Russian Formalist, many of Shklovsky’s examples use Russian authors and Russian dialects: “And currently Maxim Gorky is changing his diction from the old literary language to the new literary colloquialism of Leskov. Ordinary speech and literary language have thereby changed places (see the work of Vyacheslav Ivanov and many others).”

Defamiliarization also includes the use of foreign languages within a work. At the time that Shklovsky was writing, there was a change in the use of language in both literature and everyday spoken Russian. As Shklovsky puts it: “Russian literary language, which was originally foreign to Russia, has so permeated the language of the people that it has blended with their conversation. On the other hand, literature has now begun to show a tendency towards the use of dialects and/or barbarisms.”

Narrative plots can also be defamiliarized. The Russian formalists distinguished between the fabula or basic story stuff of a narrative and the syuzhet or the formation of the story stuff into a concrete plot. For Shklovsky, the syuzhet is the fabula defamiliarized. Shklovsky cites Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as an example of a story that is defamiliarized by unfamiliar plotting. Sterne uses temporal displacements, digressions, and causal disruptions (e.g., placing the effects before their causes) to slow down the reader’s ability to reassemble the (familiar) story. As a result, the syuzhet “makes strange” the fabula.

One example is the principle of depicting things by Leo Tolstoy (as an example, he cites a description of the opera in the novel War and Peace ):

On the stage there were flat boards in the middle, on the sides there were painted cardboards depicting trees, a canvas on the boards was stretched behind. In the middle of the stage were girls in red corsages and white skirts. One, very thick, in a silk white dress, sat especially on a low bench, to which green cardboard was glued on the back.

They all sang something. When they finished their song, the girl in white went to the prompter’s booth, and a man in tight-fitting silk trousers with thick legs, with a feather and a dagger came up to her and began to sing and shrug.

A man in tight trousers sang alone, then she sang. Then both fell silent, the music began to play, and the man began to fingering the girl’s hand in a white dress, obviously waiting for the beat again to start his part with her. They sang together, and everyone in the theater began to clap and scream, and the man and woman on the stage bowed.

The alienation effect (V-effect) is a literary stylistic device and the main component of epic theater according to Bertolt Brecht. An action is interrupted by comments or songs in such a way that all illusions are destroyed by the viewer. According to the theory, he can take a critical distance from what is depicted.

The essence of alienation essentially consists in making familiar things appear to the viewer in a new light, thus making contradictions visible in reality and enabling a more critical and conscious perception of what is shown.

The plot is e.g. interrupted by comments or time jumps. Characters step out of the role and turn to the audience to discuss what has happened.
Alternative options for action are shown that would have been open to the protagonists under other circumstances. This “means that the viewer no longer sees the people on stage as completely unchangeable, uncontrollable, helplessly delivered to their fate. He sees: this person is so and so, because the conditions are so and so. And the conditions are so and so because people are so and so. But it is not only conceivable as it is, but also different as it could be, and the conditions are conceivable differently than they are. ” (Bertolt Brecht)
Stylized language: It is spoken partly in verse. Sometimes the individual scenes are preceded by banners (e.g. in the life of Galileo ) in which the action is anticipated. The aim of this is to direct the viewer’s attention not to the course of the piece, but to the way in which the plot is pushed.
The stage design is often economical, with few props used. Street clothes are often used instead of contemporary costumes.
The actors themselves must keep a certain distance from their role so that the audience cannot perceive the protagonists as figures of identification. This avoids a one-sided influencing of the viewer, the way or the motives of the protagonist can be viewed critically by the viewer.
The characters often have a similar character, are “nobody” or “everyone” figures, which can be interchanged and follow exemplary behavior. There are hardly any emotions, the epic theater only examines them from the outside.
The viewer is confronted with contemporary socio-political problems, which are mostly the cause of the actions of the individual figures. This is intended to “activate” the viewer; H. be asked to intervene in politics and society.
The narrative runs in curves, so it is not linear or chronological.
Other means are the inclusion of a choir as a commentator (see Aristotelian drama ), the use of signs, songs (or songs) and new media (projections, slideshows, short film sequences, etc.). The use of dialects can also be understood as a V-effect.

Aristotelian notion dramas
Brecht contested an interpretation of the Aristotelian concept of drama that was common at the time. His ideas about the Aristotelian were strongly influenced by late 19th century doctrines, such as an interpretation of catharsis in the sense of empathy or the authority of stage naturalism against which he rebelled.

In contrast to identification in an “Aristotelian theater” that speculates on catharsis in the sense of empathy with actors and spectators, the epic theater relies on the effect of the alienation effect. Instead of empathizing with the figures shown, alienation should lead to an argument between the actor and the viewer with the figures. Alienation creates a distance between the audience, actors and played characters. Set design and equipment, as well as the way of playing, serve this goal. The viewer’s attention should be drawn to the meaning of the game, for the purpose of critically examining the piece (interpretation instead of identification).

“To alienate a process or a character simply means to take away the obvious, self-evident from the process or the character and to generate amazement and curiosity about it To alienate means to historize, to represent processes and people as transient”

Brecht hoped to show political and cultural changes by showing alternative solutions.

He rarely used classic heroes as main characters in his works, but mostly figures that appear ambiguous to the viewer (e.g. Shen Te, a good-natured prostitute who takes on the role of an unscrupulous man, or Mother Courage, a worried mother and at the same time opportunistic businesswoman) with whom you cannot identify more closely and with whom you cannot be enthusiastic from the outset. This distance is intended to maintain the viewer’s objectivity.

The familiar should be recognized in the alienated; this requires active but distant (rational instead of emotional) participation of the viewer. He should identify himself as affected in order to draw conclusions for his own life or to intervene in the political and social conditions of his time.

The main text is the essay The Epic Theater by Bertolt Brecht. In this, Brecht argues that the classic scheme of the drama such as B. from Sophoclesis outdated, because the way of watching does not stimulate thinking, but only encourages compassion and experience. However, he sees the actual task of the theater in instructing the audience, encouraging people to think and consequently also taking active action. The critical-rational component in Brecht’s concept should not be overestimated by simply identifying it with numbness. Brecht saw his concept less as a teaching method of theater, but primarily wanted to make the pleasure and the carnivalesque, ambivalent fun of the conditions in the real world accessible.

According to the Frankfurt theater scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann, Brecht did not in any way cause a revolution in the theater, insofar as the fable remained the central element of all dramas and productions and, like the other avant-garde artists of his time, he was only looking for new staging strategies, For Lehmann, the abandonment of the fable, as performed by post-dramatic theater, marks the decisive turning point in theater.

Related concepts

Shklovsky’s defamiliarization can also be compared to 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 Shklovsky calls “perception” can be considered a matrix for production of difference.

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 a “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.

The Uncanny
The influence of Russian Formalism on twentieth-century art and culture is largely due to the literary technique of defamiliarization or ‘making strange’, and has also been linked to Freud’s notion of the uncanny. In Das Unheimliche (“The Uncanny”), Freud states that “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar,” however, this is not a fear of the unknown, but more of a feeling about something being both strange and familiar.

The connection between ostranenie and the uncanny can be seen where Freud muses on the technique of literary uncanniness: “It is true that the writer creates a kind of uncertainty in us in the beginning by not letting us know, no doubt purposely, whether he is taking us into the real world or into a purely fantastic one of his own creation.” When “the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality,” they can situate supernatural events, such as the animation of inanimate objects, in the quotidian, day-to-day reality of the modern world, defamiliarizing the reader and provoking an uncanny feeling.

The Estrangement effect
Defamiliarization has been associated with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Verfremdungseffekt (“estrangement effect”) was a potent element of his approach to theater. In fact, as Willett points out, Verfremdungseffekt is “a translation of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovskij’s phrase ‘Priem Ostranenija’, or ‘device for making strange'”. Brecht, in turn, has been highly influential for artists and filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer.

Science fiction critic Simon Spiegel, who defines defamiliarization as “the formal-rhetorical act of making the familiar strange (in Shklovsky’s sense),” distinguished it from Brecht’s estrangement effect. To Spiegel, estrangement is the effect on the reader which can be caused by defamiliarization or through deliberate recontextualization of the familiar.