Eli Park Sorensen reviews Galin Tihanov’s impressive new work on the rise and fall of literary theory.

Galin Tihanov, The Birth and Death of Literary Theory: Regimes of Relevance in Russia and Beyond (Stanford UP, 2019), 272pp.

In The Birth and Death of Literary Theory, Galin Tihanov claims that literary scholarship emerging during the interwar years in Russia and Central Europe marked the beginning of what today is called literary theory. It is here that the study of literature breaks free in earnest from other master discourses or “regimes of relevance” (20), to use Tihanov’s term, such as philosophy and aesthetics. Locating the historical origin or birth of literary theory, Tihanov argues, allows us to understand its closure or death in the early 1990s.

Overall, this is an impressive book that elaborates a theoretical position Tihanov has been advocating for a number of years, as in his 2004 article “Why did modern literary theory originate in Central and Eastern Europe?” In this essay, Tihanov investigated the historical significance of the Formalists’ original claim of the linguistic autonomy of literary discourse, and the extent to which this claim subsequently came to shape literary understanding throughout the 20th century.[1] This kind of historical assessment is particularly welcome in today’s climate, where the academic field of literary studies has for some time found itself in an imminent crisis, or rather a contemporary field that in some sense never seemed able to escape the 20th century and its theoretical trajectories; a field that may be dead but doesn’t know it, like Freud’s figure of the dead father. By redrawing the contours of the original assumptions that formed the foundation of theoretical thinking about literature, Tihanov’s book offers to re-evaluate today’s discipline and the extent to which literary theory has any future relevance.

Russian Formalism emerged around 1915 with the formation of Moscow’s linguistic circle, and a year later in St. Petersburg, where people like Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Osip Brik, and Yury Tynianov would form the “Society for the Study of Poetic Language,” also known as OPOJAZ. Moving beyond traditional university doctrines, these young language and literature students sought new and more scientific ways to think about the literary, liberated from the aesthetic regime of symbolist poetics that then dominated literary studies. As Roman Jakobson would later put it, “The subject of literary science is not literature in its totality, but literariness, that is, what makes a given work a literary work.”[2] From this basic assumption, the Formalists developed a series of groundbreaking ideas about the specifically literary dimension of language, sharply distinguished from ideas of literature as a medium for the conveyance of ideas, emotions, etc. The goal was to create an approach to literature unaffected by context or social environment: an objective, universal, unbiased and scientific definition of what constitutes the essence of literary language.

While Trotsky’s famous objection to Russian Formalism—that the Formalists’ attempt to transcend their own bourgeois consciousness ultimately failed—is the one that often comes to mind when thinking about the desire to create an unbiased approach to literature, Tihanov’s book is a timely re-evaluation of the historical context of the movement, its originality and innovativeness, and above all its importance in terms of subsequent theoretical developments.

In one of the best chapters in the book, Chapter 1, Tihanov outlines how the background of war played a crucial role in Viktor Shklovsky’s understanding of literature. Similar to Ernst Jünger’s obsession with war as a form of revitalization of the habitual existence of life, Shklovsky believed in literature’s transformative powers, its ability to perform essentially the same task as the phenomenon of war, albeit without the terrible consequences of total destruction. What Shklovsky feared above all was the automation of life or habitualization that “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war,” as he writes in one of his most celebrated essays, “Art as Technique.”[3]

The now common objection to Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization is that there is no “essence” of literature, and that the linguistic exercise of “making strange”, which separates literary language from ordinary speech, is untenable. As Terry Eagleton argues, it is the institutional context that determines what is literary or not: “The language itself has no inherent properties or qualities that might distinguish it from other kinds of discourse.”[4] Tihanov’s book is not an attempt to vindicate Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie per se, but rather to outline the historical context from which it emerged, and to explain how it became invested with such redemptive force. To Shklovsky, literature could make a critical intervention far beyond areas of pedagogy and entertainment; he firmly believed in the ability of literature to fend off the slumbering dangers of routine, habit, lazy thinking, and ultimately the populist desire for war. The fact that literature ultimately failed to prevent the mass attraction of belligerent political ideologies, culminating with WWII, stands as a testimony not simply to the fact that Shklovsky put too much faith in the utopian idea of defamiliarization, but also to the ethical imperative with which many subsequent theoretical formations have attempted to justify literature’s significance.

Widely known as one of the leading international scholars on Bakhtin, Tihanov includes a lengthy discussion of the great Russian critic (Chapter 3) and his role in the formation of Russian Formalism. Some of this material is a reprise of Tihanov’s earlier work, but the chapter fits nicely into the structure of the present book. More importantly, Tihanov persuasively rejects the versions of Bakhtin as a Formalist so popular in Anglophone criticism, while at the same time reflecting on what this means in terms of assessing Bakhtin’s role in the later development of structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism.

The history of the transition from Russian Formalism to the broader European contexts of structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism is somewhat less illuminated in Tihanov’s book, and perhaps something that many readers would have liked the skilled pen of Tihanov to develop further since one might profitably argue that it is precisely within this transition itself that literary theory in the modern sense is “born”—that is, within this fertile cosmopolitan space of local ideas suddenly being released into an international orbit of heterogeneous schools of thought and disciplines, e.g. Russian Formalism coupled with Swiss semiotics.

However, from a different perspective, Tihanov’s focus on a predominantly Russian historical context is one of the truly pioneering aspects of this book. Along the way, the reader gets a wealth of interesting anecdotes and mini-biographies, which testifies to an impressive amount of archival work. At times, one gets the feeling that the book’s overall argument (the birth-death narrative arc) loses itself in peripheral and largely forgotten trajectories such as the chapter on the Russian philosopher Gustav Shpet (Chapter 2), and the history of the Semantic Paleontology movement (Chapter 4), but the way in which the narrative perspective of Tihanov’s book oscillates between microscopic studies of very specific sites and a grand scale history of literary theory is ultimately rewarding. With towering figures like Shklovsky and Bakhtin, this oscillation of perspective works extremely well, not least because the ideas and influences of these theorists have travelled far beyond their site of origin.

When Tihanov connects local histories with the grand history of literary theory, the book demonstrates literary scholarship at its best. In some of the book’s most well-written passages, especially in Chapters 1 and 5, Tihanov reflects on the historical identity of literary theory as one intimately linked with exile and dislocation, and how these experiences came to shape ideas about literary autonomy. In Chapter 5 in particular, Tihanov investigates the trajectories of Russian writers in exile; it is here, hovering in this void of loss, far away from the passionate ideological struggles taking place in the newly formed Soviet Union, but also distanced from and alienated by the experience of being immersed in new environs, that the intensity of literary language vibrates in all its foreignness, freed from parochial national sentiments. Tihanov here discovers some of that early energy that has subsequently guided literary theory as a movement that from the very beginning oriented itself towards global coordinates, towards new horizons, new relationships, and new constellations, and hence new offspring, descendants, and heirs.

Fittingly, Tihanov’s book ends with an epilogue that addresses one of the dominant literary paradigms in today’s academia: world literature. Shklovsky and many amongst the Russian Formalists already insisted on the translatability of literariness across narrow linguistic boundaries. This idea thus directly links itself to the project advanced by David Damrosch and his rather peculiar argument that in literary translation, something valuable in terms of literariness might be gained.

Here, however, we arrive one of the lacunas in Tihanov’s book – something about which it has, for good reasons, very little to say. The simple fact is that the history of literary theory also bears witness to an epic failure, at least to the extent that we follow Tihanov’s persuasive account of its historical origins—namely, the project of systematically defining literature’s differentia specifica. One can only join Tihanov’s lament about the loss of literature’s importance in today’s climate, although one wonders in retrospect whether it was not precisely this single-minded, quixotic desire to identify an idea of literary autonomy, first envisioned by the Russian Formalists, that lay down the coordinates of a fatal course towards ever more wild orgies of textual meaninglessness, aporias, contradictions, impossibilities, and self-immolations, after which nothing was left but hedonistic forms of enjoyment as ways to cope with a regime of total irrelevance. Enter world literature as the ideal son the Russian Formalists always wanted but never had: a gargantuan body of textual constructs cut loose from any local commitments and randomly stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster, simultaneously dead and alive, uncannily reaffirming the distinctiveness of the literary in any language, culture, or period.

Tihanov has written an excellent book that provides a plethora of substance for reflection, and most importantly reminds us of the time when literature and the study of literature was taken seriously to an extent that to most readers today seems like an act of defamiliarization in itself.


[1] Tihanov, Galin. “Why did modern literary theory originate in Central and Eastern Europe? (and why is it now dead?)” Common Knowledge 10:1 (2004): 61-81.

[2] Jakobson, Roman. Noveyshaya Russkaya poeziya [Recent Russian Poetry]. Prague: Tipografija ‘Politika’, 1921. 11.

[3] Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Eds. Lee T. Lemon & Marion J. Reis. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 12.

[4] Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. London: Blackwell Publishing, 1996. 5.

Eli Park Sorensen is Assistant Professor of English literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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