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The Revelations of Estrangement: SF and the Displacement of Ostranenie

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life…” Viktor Shklovsky

“For the apparent realism, or representationality, of SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us ‘images’ of the future-whatever such images might mean for a reader who will necessarily predecease their ‘materialization’-but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization” – Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, p. 286.

I begin this week with one simple quotation, taken spectacularly out of context, and a very complex one that hits the mark like grapeshot at point-blank range (and with about the same subtlety). I discovered the work of Viktor Shklovsky, one of the premiere Russian Formalist thinkers, only a couple of years ago, but his ideas have cracked open and lit up some corners of the literary experience for me in profound ways. What unites his quotation and the long one from Jameson is that they both deal with the practice of ostranenie, of alienation/defamiliarization/estrangement (depending on your translation and intentions). Estrangement, the effect generated by a literary narrative that creates conceptual distance from the literal and commonly-accepted and thus permits imaginative transport, is the device we use to turn everyday words and stories into art. Ostranenie is the term that Shklovsky (thought he) coined for this process. As he puts it:

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. 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” (from his essay “Art as Technique”)

What he is referring to is a much older idea emerging from several strains of thought, most of them Romantic. This is a way to think of “enchantment,” for example. In Shklovsky’s formulation literature is a process of seeking, accepting, and struggling with defamiliarization, with overcoming both habitualization and alienation through the creation of newness and strangeness in meaning and perception. As Trevor Pateman characterized Shklovsky’s idea, “the job of art is to resist the automatism of perception, its encapsulated unperceptiveness, in order to restore the world and ourselves to life.” Ostranenie is the process of making the familiar strange, of reminding us that it is strange and that what we accept of the world is just one way of seeing life.

Estrangement is present in all literature, as is the potential for transport of a particular sort. Every work of fiction is an attempt to create a world that the reader travels to, following the writer’s words as the pathway to that world (or sometimes worlds). Sometimes it’s a form of Verfremdungseffekt, of critical estrangement (China Miéville is a fantastic example of this). But more often SF literature is about an interaction of defamiliarization and symbolic integration, a cognitive dance of enigmatic deep play and recognizable impossibilities. It is a series of encounters and an ongoing, uneven process. We use estrangement to exercise our imagination; as Michel Foucault put it: “”The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs, from book to book, in the interstice of repetitions and commentaries…” Estrangement is not an attempt to negate reality, but to find different vantage points for making sense of it, for seeing what we miss and what we lack.

Fantastika in general is a highly estranging literature, and SF in particular is interested in defamiliarizing “reality” in ways that reflect back on our ideas of the real. But, as Jameson points out, most SF is not interested solely, or even primarily, in prognostication. Much of the literature strives to create a type of estrangement that is interested not in the texture and experience of the present but in reflecting on those things by proposing alternatives displaced in time, location, and probability. Sometimes these alternatives are extrapolations of the possible, and sometimes they embrace the impossible. But the goal is a form of estrangement that tries to change our view of the present. It may be profound or playful, grounded or exaggerated, but the estrangement that emerges from most SF, that is created in the collaboration between text and reader, is one of displacement.

This occurs through the process of defamiliarization that Jameson notes as the hallmark of SF literature. Dislocation, reorientation, immersion; these are all aspects of engagement with SFnal literature. We are encouraged to accept outlandish propositions and follow detailed arguments of how things come to be. But, again, this is what all literature strives to do; in fantastic literature, a rupture occurs that demands the reader collaborate with the story not as an observer but as a co-conspirator. We are not just asked to look at a rock with fresh eyes, but to rethink what a rock means. We are asked as readers to share and believe in a peculiar sort of revelation that is designed to change not just how we look at the world, but our very notion of what “the world” is.

That idea of restructuring our experience of the present, as Jameson put it, is accomplished by resetting what is familiar and normal. Often this resetting emerges from the use of a particular convention, sometimes from a surreal breach of convention, sometimes from an innovative rethinking of the conventional. But what each moment of estrangement works to create is an instance of revelation that extends or intensifies the defamiliarization process. This process of defamiliarization through rupture breeds comfort and disruption in varying amounts; that may seem contradictory, but many a cracking adventure story requires a severe break from “the real world” that has some resonance with the most profound existential severance from the everyday. Escapism, after all, is just a form of estrangement that we seek out explicitly in a narrative.

This is why SF literature carries the potential to help us “recover the sensation of life.” Not by reminding us of how stony a stone is, but by giving us the chance to dream of stones unlike the ones beneath our feet. That revelation can be refreshing and enlightening, can help us find new ways to feel and see. It gives us permission to seek out the unexpected and the opportunity to reflect on the everyday and possible –the essence of the familiar– and realize how strange the world might really be.

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