Defamiliarisation and the Estrangement Effect in Literature

WHAT IS DEFAMILIARISATION?

[Defamiliarisation is] taking something and trying to see it anew and then noticing what you might not have seen before.

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To defamiliarise is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. Defamiliarisation is one of the writing techniques in the Modernist’s toolkit. By presenting something as unfamiliar to an audience, storytellers and artists require the audience to look at it afresh. Defamiliarisation challenges the audience.

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.

Anais Nin (1968)

The term “defemiliarisation” was coined by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device” (1917). He called it “ostranenie“, which may also translate to “making it strange”.

HOW IS IT DONE?

MAKE USE OF POETIC LANGUAGE

Storytellers sometimes write in everyday prose, but at the other end of the spectrum we have highly poetic language. Highly poetic language defamiliarises.

‘Multivocality’ is another language related defamiliarisation technique. When a single work contains a multitude of ‘voices’ (dialects, idiolects, familects etc.).

The more foreign the language, the more defamilising it’ll be. (Peak ‘foreign’ is when the storyteller uses actual foreign language.)

SWITCH TO AN UNUSUAL POINT OF VIEW

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877) was written it in the last years of Sewell’s life ‘to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses’. The story is written from the horse’s first ‘person’ point of view. In fact, Black Beauty was the last of the great first person narratives in the Listen-to-my-life series. Readers were used to reading about horses from the point of view of humans — by imagining what it’s like to be a horse, Sewell successfully defamiliarised her readership. The book Black Beauty laid the foundation for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

This form of defamiliarisation is not limited to children’s books; Tolstoy also wrote a book from the point of view of a horse (Kholstomer).

Sticking to horses for a minute, BoJack Horseman says a lot of new things about contemporary life (depression, asexuality and so on) by making use of a horse as main character, surrounded by other animal characters. There are many reasons storytellers make use of animals instead of humans in stories, and can seem odd when the ‘animals’ are 100% anthropomorophised (animal only in form).

Defamiliarisation is one reason a storyteller may choose animals as main characters.

Futurama makes use of aliens to defamiliarise.

Some stories focus on the ‘oddballs’ of society — social outcasts who enable the Normals to see their unquestioned customs from a new/satirical point of view. Eleanor Oliphant is an excellent example. A similar but Japanese example is the main character of Convenience Store Woman. These two characters see the world differently than most. They are the sort of people many would shun in real life. But the novels require us to empathise with them, and as we better understand their worldview, perhaps we become more tolerant of difference ourselves. The other useful function of the oddball main character: We see the ridiculousness of everyday life.

TV and film offers less opportunity for interiority than the written word, but the character of Doc Martin is another example of the defamiliarised oddball, shining a light on human foibles as they commonly emerge at the local doctor’s surgery.

UTILISE AN UNUSUAL SETTING

Setting, likewise, exists on a continuum between realistic and total fantasy. Fantasy exists partly to defamiliarise our own environments, requiring us to critique what we had previously taken for granted. In this way, fantasy is really about the real world.

Another major defemiliarisation technique: Don’t let the audience forget they are watching fiction. Don’t encourage them to become fully absorbed in the story. We have a word for this: metafiction.

UTILISE THE CARNIVALESQUE

Carnivalization‘ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.

An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but which say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)

An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but is often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books. (The children! The children! Won’t somebody think of the children!)

JUXTAPOSE

There are various ways storytellers can juxtapose.

Bathos is one kind of juxtaposition:

Bathos is a story-telling technique that follows serious ideas with the commonplace or ludicrous. The juxtaposition of these ideas creates humor.

TV Tropes

Here’s a fairly complete list of them.

MAKING IT META: THE ESTRANGEMENT EFFECT

Based on the Viktor Shklovsky’s ideas about defamliarisation, you’ll hear some similar terms.

Not surprising, perhaps, German language has a word which means “making strange something that is known or familiar”: Verfremdung.

Verfremdungseffekt = Estrangement effect.

This German term was coined by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and defined later by Gerhard P. Knapp, University of Utah in the article Verfremdungseffekt (2006). Knapp’s paper helped the word catch on.

Some people translate Verfremdungseffekt into English as “alienation effect”. “Alienation” isn’t a great translation due to its connotation of being “put off”. Storytellers who make use of these effects are not aiming to put audiences off. (What storyteller wants to do that?) Instead they are aiming to get audiences thinking critically about the work.

Since the original German is a bit of a challenge to remember and spell, many shorten it to “V-effekt”. As you can see, it’s a fairly recent term. Before 2006, English speakers used a different translation — in 1964 John Willett translated Bertolt Brecht’s term as “distancing effect”. Both “estrangement effect” and “distancing effect” are different translations of the same German word.

But what is it, and how is it different from Viktor Shklovsky notion of defamiliarisation?

Verfremdungseffekt” is used to describe storytelling techniques which deliberately ask an audience discard the idea that the ‘reality’ of the stage is a true representation of reality.

These days, plays and film have different basic functions: Plays make use of all sorts of distancing techniques, whereas the proximity of the camera to character, combined with editing techniques, means modern film is better suited than the stage to creating immersive verisimilitude.

Basically, V-effekts refers to the techniques which make a fictional work meta. V-effekts include:

  • breaking the fourth wall by having a character talk directly to an audience
  • reminding a theatre-goer that they are sitting in a theatre, perhaps by using minimal backdrops
  • stories within stories (moving through diegetic levels)
  • prologues

The point of metafiction and the V-effekts which create it: Audiences are not meant to feel overwhelmingly emotionally invested in the story. Rather, we are meant to sit at a distance and consider the moral questions/dilemmas/politics/ideologies of the story in a more intellectual way.

FOR DISCUSSION

Bertolt Brecht was a little suspicious about stories (specifically plays) which drew their audience in and made them feel things deeply. He considered such plays manipulative. He felt that if an audience was sucked in to a story, this lulled them into a dull, unthinking, zombie-like state. This state could switch off the critical faculties.

Brecht (1898 – 1956) had good reason to think people needed to switch on their critical faculties and keep them switched on. He lived in a time which required Germans to either go with or actively resist Nazism. Too many failed to resist. Brecht saw how emotion (e.g. fear) can be dangerously contagious. Also, someone who strongly empathises emotionally is not necessarily good in understanding another’s perspective. (They’re too busy feeling and don’t have the spoons to understand.)

It’s useful to make a distinction between types of empathy. Brecht wanted his audiences to feel cognitive empathy for his characters, but not necessarily affective empathy: He wanted audiences to understand the plight of characters, but not to feel their plights deeply.

  1. ‘Manipulative’ has negative connotations. Is it ‘manipulative’ for a work of fiction to create real emotion in an audience?
  2. Can you think of examples of stories which made you feel deeply and also made you think about real world issues?
  3. Think about your favourite stories. Do they make use of V-effekts? Or do you prefer stories which aim to immerse you fully inside a fictional world?
  4. Can you think of any fully immersive stories which succeed in conveying a hugely problematic ideology, made worse by the very fact that the stories themselves are so good?
  5. As much as Brecht despised fully immersive stories, he tried his darndest to write an intellectually engaging play in Mother Courage and Her Children. Audiences loved the play, but Brecht accidentally created a highly empathetic character in the stubborn old woman. Is it even possible to write a good story without requiring the audience to immerse themselves in it, and align themselves with the fictional characters?

CONTRAST WITH

The modern writerly ideal of full immersion is exemplified in the definition of fictional dream, below:

Fictional dream. The illusion that there is no filter between reader and events, that the reader is actually experiencing what [they are] reading. The stronger the fictional dream, the more immediate the story. Disrupting the fictional dream is usually bad. Pointless digressions, expository lumps, lists, turgid prose, unrealistic characters, or a premise with holes in it, all disrupt the fictional dream. (John Gardner)

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