24. Estrangement and Meta

Tristram Shandy, a novel by Laurence Sterne, published in 1759:

Figure 1

– begins to tell about a priest named Yorick on page 22;

– Eugenius, a friend of Yorick, is introduced on page 27;

– on pages 28 and 29 Eugenius says goodbye to Yorick, who is on his death bed;

– Yorick dies in the first paragraph of page 30. In the second paragraph, we read that he is buried in the church yard and that Eugenius has placed an epitaph on the grave, saying “Alas, poor YORICK!” These words appear within a rectangular frame on the page, in the middle of an empty space under the second paragraph (Figure 1). In the paragraph at the bottom of the page, it says that the epitaph is read “ten times in a day” by people crossing the church yard.

Figure 2

– The 31st and 32nd pages of the book are pitch black (Figure 2).

The humorous novel Tristram Shandy constitutes a very important milestone in literature. In addition to being known for its unprecedented disorderly plot line, puzzling structure, unexpected stories, descriptions and word-plays, the work is regarded as the first example of a “meta novel.” The author, through linguistic and graphic “estrangement” techniques, doesn’t allow the reader to forget the facts that s/he is reading a text written by a writer, holding an object consisting of pieces of paper bound together and that reading is the act of eyeing the ink marks on paper.

The word “estrangement” (or “alienation”) is often associated with Bertolt Brecht and his idea of “epic theater.” It is true that Brecht has popularized the term but he was not the originator. Moreover, the term is not limited to theater.

[There have been several terms used in English for Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt,” including “defamiliarization effect,” “estrangement effect,” “distantiation,” “alienation effect,” “distancing effect,” “foregrounding.” I find “estrangement” to be somewhat clearer than the rest and closer to the term’s Russian original.]

The use of “estrangement” was first encountered in the writings of the Russian Formalists (especially of Victor Shklovsky) in their studies of the nature of artistic communication, primarily in literature. The Russian term, “ostranenie,” rooted in the word “alien,” is often translated as “making strange.” It implies the presentational methods in the arts that are used to create awareness of realities that are familiar, therefore, taken for granted and unquestioned.

In Victor Shklovsky’s view, estrangement is inherent in all art forms since the arts do not communicate through ordinary means: Artistic communication is and ought to be “strange” in order to intensify the process of perception. In other words, art aims at “distancing” the perceiver from the immediate subject matter for a better and wider “view.”

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. (…) After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways. (Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 20-21)

For Shklovsky, almost any attempt not to repeat the accustomed or the habitual in the arts can be seen as an effort to create estrangement. For instance, he saw Leo Tolstoy’s lengthy descriptions of an object or an event without using the common name for it as an estrangement technique. (“Art as Technique,” 21) Tolstoy’s works bear no contemplation over the formal aspects of the medium as in Sterne’s above-mentioned meta novel, but for Shklovsky irregularities in narrative style were just another method used for estrangement. Indeed, his essay analyzing the deviations in Sterne’s work ends with his famous teasing declaration: “Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel in world literature.” (Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, 170)

I think Shklovsky’s idea is problematic for not separating the “different” from “strange.” It is clear that a work of art ought to be different from the others to justify its existence. Uniqueness is an identifying requisite in the arts. Yet, a new feature can make the work only different, without being an element that paves the way to wider awareness.

Broadness of Shklovsky’s concept may be explained by his field of interest being language and literature. Prose is communicated as grapheme that occupy the paper or an electronic screen. The physical medium has almost no effect on the transmitted meaning. We don’t run into the integration of the “book-ness” of a book into the content that often (as in Sterne’s novel): irregularities can and do take place within the discourse. Variations in the distribution of grapheme in poetry represent a visual support to the discourse, at times building an estrangement effect.

Jacques Carelman: Coffeepot for Masochists

Estrangement in the arts is aimed at consciousness about some wider reality beyond the immediate content that is being communicated (in addition to making the work different). Particularly in nonverbal arts estrangement involves the laying bare of the medium, the exploration and exhibition of the established platform of the presentation. The focus on the meta dimension often serves as a springboard to reach a wider perspective or demystification concerning certain established norms.

To elaborate on the concept of “meta”: A chair is an object which we see and use several times a day. Based on our experiences and knowledge, we identify the chair when we see it. We know that it is to be sat on. We don’t need to know how a chair is made to be able to use it. We may call this the “consumer knowledge” or the “user knowledge” or, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “knowledge by acquaintance.”

If we want to repair or build a chair, then we have to step up to the second level and examine and learn how a chair is constructed. Knowledge at this level consists of information about the parts of a chair and the ways those parts are made and attached to each other. This knowledge is generally referred to as “procedural knowledge” or “practical knowledge” in epistemology and it is sufficient to construct a chair and to establish consistency in serial productions. 

We don’t need to study the chair as a phenomenon and pose the question “What is it that makes a chair a chair?” to be able to build a chair. But if we do, then that will take us to wider orders of knowledge, to “meta levels.” Success of those interested in building better or different chairs depends on their ability to think at those levels, to question the chair-ness of a chair and to approach the subject matter from a broader perspective. 

The term “meta” primarily indicates something being about itself. For example, “meta-communication” means communication about communication. If a computer is to multiply a number by another, it has to be given the numbers (quantitative information) and the procedural information necessary to accomplish the task. Beyond these there lie a third, even a fourth order of knowledge which consist of the meta information used to create and design the computer and its operating system (Watzlawick, 52-53, 260-261).

There is an often repeated critical view which says that people tend to focus on “the particular” and do not see “the universal,” as in the expression, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Particularly in the modern period, assessment and comparison of things from comprehensive perspectives have been seen as essential for the betterment of the world.

“… a phenomenon remains unexplainable as long as the range of observation is not wide enough to include the context in which the phenomenon occurs. Failure to realize the intricacies of the relationships between an event and the matrix in which it takes place, between an organism and its environment, either confronts the observer with something “mysterious” or induces him to attribute to his object of study certain properties the object may not possess.” (Watzlawick, 20-21)

Similar to a tree in the forest, every “particular” bears hints about and points at its “universe,” which goes unnoticed unless an out-of-the-ordinary stimulus activates the consciousness. It can be said that “meta art” assumes the role of the activator by pointing at its own reality, by laying bare its own platform to open the way to larger awareness. 

For example, every painting that consists of a common rectangular or square canvas displays a unique image. From Shklovsky’s point of view, it can be argued that all content within the frame is a statement about the art of painting since it is the result of certain choices made out of an endless number of options: It is what it is not. Yet, to be able to go beyond being different and to evoke estrangement, it seems to be essential for the work to raise questions about its physical reality. This may include pasting of objects on the canvas, painting on uncommon surfaces or, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 “White Painting (Three Panels),” covering of large rectangular canvasses end to end with white paint. Such meta works (“strange” when they are created for the first time) incite the mind to reach beyond the immediate content and reflect on matters such as the nature of an image, the difference between looking and seeing, subjectivity in perception, etc.

Man Ray, The Gift, 1921 (editioned replica 1972)

In this respect, the meta aspect of a work of art has been a major criterion considered in evaluations in the modern period. The work has been expected to be aware of its reality, to point at it, to make it or involve it in its subject-matter. Lack of the meta dimension and transparency in a work of art has been seen as a shortcoming. This may perhaps be explained by the general discontent with behind-the-scene manipulations and demands for openness, honesty and truth in the second half of the twentieth century.

Naturally, the estrangement methods employed to point at the meta level are culture- and matrix-dependent as in all forms of communication. To go back to the chair example above, let’s say that an installation artist wants to draw attention to the “chair-ness” of the object by distorting its shape and interfering with its function. The degree of the interference will be determined by the cultural codes of the targeted viewers and the context of the presentation: long nails sticking out of the seat, which may be found clever in one setting or period, may be seen as simplistic and banal in another. 

Another example: Let us imagine that a work of art is aimed at inducing contemplation over the paradoxical function of the walls, as both protective and obstructive structures. Even where the object and its function are so simple and universal, estrangement ideas would vary significantly from culture to culture: obstructive function may imply social isolation in one society and imprisonment in another.

Regarding the writer and theater director Bertolt Brecht, who is often associated with “estrangement”:

Brecht based the concept (which he may have learned from the Russians) on the German word for estrangement, “entfremdung” (for instance, Karl Marx has used the word when writing about the alienation of the worker to himself/herself when s/he turns into a tool of production). What makes Brecht’s term a bit different from the Russians’ is his addition of “effect” to it: “estrangement effect” (Verfremdungseffekt). What Brecht meant with the word “effect” has been debated quite a bit: Does it imply the desired effect on the audience or the method to be followed by the performers? I believe he meant both.

The concept of “epic theater” proposed by Brecht as an alternative to conventional dramatic theater was the result of an ideological criticism. Brecht opposed the presentation of a linear narrative and an imaginary location to spectators who passively peep through an imaginary “fourth wall.” In Brecht’s leftist ideology, the dramatic bourgeois theater subdued the intellectual dimension and used exploitation of emotions towards affirming the status quo. (Benjamin, 150-152)

Brecht’s strategy in confronting dramatic theater was to reveal the “theater-ness” of theater (which has traditionally been concealed for the sake of illusory effect) and display its components. Brecht’s estrangement effects are tools used to achieve this goal: actors’ switchings between being themselves and being a play character, abolishment of the “fourth wall” by acknowledging and making use of the presence of the audience, playscripts consisting of episodes as opposed to chronological narratives, etc. 

Yet, Brecht did not include the meta dimension in the subject-matter, the components of the platform were not assigned metaphorical functions. His approach can be seen as the transformation of the conventional theater environment into a forum where sociopolitical issues were brought up and discussed. In other words, Brecht did not discuss the topics over theater, he discussed them at the theater. He did not have objections to the theatrical structure and its components (standard theater space and stage, delivery of memorized text, play characters, acting, singing, etc.), he objected to the ways dramatic theater made use of those components.