Sunday, February 21, 2010

Formalism and Structuralism. . .Missing Out on the Magic

Vincent Van Gogh - Trees And Undergrowth, Paris, Summer 1887

Vincent Van Gogh - Trees And Undergrowth, Paris, Summer 1887 - Art Prints and Posters 

Formalism posits that "literary language consists of an act of defamiliarization" (Rivkin and Ryan 3).  Through defamiliarization, the 'normal' perspective is opened to something new, something out of the ordinary  For the Formalists, literature opens eyes through the defamiliarization of language, through the use of literary devices that 'dresses' up the ordinary.  Hence, their study focuses on the literary devices present in an artful text. 

But if we were to focus always on formal methods, won't we miss the big picture.  If we were to focus always on the particulars, won't we miss experience. 

Perhaps, the same questions apply to Structuralism.  Like Formalism, Structuralism thinks of literature as something more than it seems.  Structuralism "refuses the 'obvious' meaning of the story and seeks to instead to isolate certain 'deep' structures within it, which are not apparent on the surface" (Eagleton 83).  Structuralists are focused on the 'signs' within the text; signs that have some deeper meaning other than what they are.

While elements, devices, language do contribute to the message, I think that focusing on those things will sometimes mean missing out on the big picture.  I believe that art, whether written, drawn or spoken, should be experienced as a whole and not in parts. 

A great example is the examination of Van Gogh's Trees and Undergrowth.  Upclose, no real picture is visible.  All that are discernible are brushstrokes varying in colors and degrees.  But from afar, a picture forms.  Trees and leaves, branches and roots begin to emerge.  The whole emerges and beauty becomes more apparent.

While Van Gogh's brushstrokes in itself might mean something, meaning is more obvious from a distance.  Putting everything together as a whole makes more sense than isolating parts into units. 

Meaning is derived not from isolation but rather from socialization, from dialogic relationships. A picture is created not because its parts are isolated from each other but because the parts form a whole, each part dependent on each other to create meaning.

Perhaps, Bakhtin's theory that everything is social and dialogic, receiving and giving meaning through relations with an other makes more sense.  Certainly, brushstrokes only makes sense through connection and blending.  As parts, they cannot make a whole.  Unified they create for a magnificent picture.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2008. Print.
Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Introduction: Formalisms. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. Print.