William Drenttel | Essays

Defamiliarization: A Personal History

In 1977, I wrote a college thesis about Michelangelo Antonioni. Fueled by illusions of scholarship, I attempted to evaluate this great Italian filmmaker through the lens of Russian formalist literary criticism. Out of nowhere, I single-handedly discovered that Antonioni's films were about strategies of defamiliarization. Of course, his films were also movies with complicated characters, a distinctive milieu, and emotional resonance. These aspects of his filmmaking, however, were not the focus of my analysis: defamiliarization was a more overtly academic approach, and applying an obscure Russian literary theory to movies was enough to get me an A-.

Thus ended my career as a film critic.

I was studying European Cultural Studies, but I wanted to focus on film history and criticism at a university without a film department. I was allowed to study film only if I could find a collaborating department. Looking back, I was an early test pilot for what would become "interdisciplinary studies." Along the way, I studied film in relation to French history (the films of Louis Malle); art history (Jean Vigo); and finally, literary criticism (Michelangelo Antonioni).

Antonioni's films are evocative of a specific period in cinematic history: L'Avventura (1960), L'Eclipse (1962), Red Desert (1964), Blow-up (1966), and The Passenger (1975); they boasted stars like Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider; they evoked the angst and sexual freedom of the 60s; and they were broadly released in art-cinemas that (most likely) would not fare well in today's marketplace. At their core, these films sought to challenge (yes, defamiliarize) many basic expectations of the cinema.

Meanwhile, I was not yet aware of the literary tsunami brewing at the Sorbonne and at Yale, a revolution that would ultimately apply literary criticism to every single discipline on the planet. Structuralism, semiotics and deconstruction — brought to life through the writings of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault — were not yet even remotely on my radar screen. I recently asked Jon Snyder, my roommate from college (who went on to graduate study at Yale and, subsequently, became a professor of comparative literature), when he first became aware of the new French criticism? Jon reported first hearing of Foucault, Oulipo, and Perec in the fall of 1974 while studying in Paris; first bcoming aware, in 1975, of a seminar on Foucault, Barthes, and Lacan, and a German seminar on hermeneutics that ferociously attacked semiotics and deconstruction; read Barthes, and the Russian Formalists who inspired him, in the spring of 1976; and later that fall, started graduate school at Yale where he went on to study with Jonathan Culler, Harold Bloom, Frederick Jameson, Umberto Eco, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, among others.

So when did graphic design recognize these ideas? I assumed, wrongly, that the answer would be quite late. (After all, Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller published "Deconstruction and Graphic Design: History Meets Theory" in an issue of Visible Language edited by Andrew Blauvelt in 1994.) Lorraine Wild recently reminded me of her history of graphic design in Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse. In this essay, she discusses the 1977-78 group project to design "French Currents of the Letter," again a special issue of Visible Language, featuring "eight difficult essays on post-Structuralist French ecriture...and the design of the journal attacks the visual 'transparency' of the text." Interestingly, the person fluent in these theories brought in to give the students "a crash course on the theoretical background" was Daniel Libeskind, then head of Cranbrook's architecture department. By 1980, many of these ideas had become incorporated into the graphic design program under the direction of Katherine McCoy. (Rick Poynor has also written, and illustrated, this story in No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism.)

Years pass: structuralism and deconstruction all come. (And go.) Our vocabulary is all the richer for it, and we've shaken many myths along the way: we've learned to question the finality of a text; the permanence of the author; the very notion of a single perspective and its impact on narrative.

Yet many of these questions still remain unanswered. How do we speak about graphic design? What is our critical vocabulary? I'm not proposing an answer to these questions here, yet on a number of occasions I have found myself returning to this theory, wondering if, in fact, there is something in the discipline of defamiliarization that might occasionally serve us well in design criticism.

It's an easy concept to grasp: artists make things noticeable by making them look strange — i.e., different from our normal ways of seeing things. I like the simplicity of this notion because it only requires understanding two things. First: what are the means by which one makes things look strange? And second: what is the expected context that one is challenging in order to make something noticeable? In other words, evaluating the success of the defamiliarization requires understanding the means by which the expression is fresh AND the degree to which the context has been subverted.

In recent weeks, I have found myself thinking about the work of some of the designers discussed on Design Observer through the lens of defamiliarizaiton; personally, it has helped me get pass all the hero worship and annihilation.

[NB: The sources for "Russian Formalism" are primarily the writings of Victor Shklovsky, Boris Tomashevsky, and Boris Eichenbaum from the 1920s. In English, the standard source for the original writings is Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (or in paperback). Here is Shklovsky: "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....to create a special perception of the object." There is a example of Tolstoy making "the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object" and describing flogging without ever naming it. Or of creating a "lingering" effect by making things that force the reader (viewer) to look again, precisely because there is something strange that takes time to perceive or to understand. Further sources are: Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction and Russian Formalism: A Metrapoetics.]

Posted in: Education , Graphic Design, History, Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [3]

Defamiliarization -- or, to use the less familiar and hence, perhaps, more beautiful term ostranenie -- is a very exciting area. I've tried to apply it in the context of explaining the appeal of Japan and in the context of making music.

It can be related to Duchamp's idea that art (like a good puzzle or game) requires delay or to Cage's use of chance as a way of making the listener pay attention to sound itself (a single note) rather than listening out for familiar sequences (patterns of notes) and their conventional associations. Ostranenie is about delaying recognition in order to let the audience enjoy for a little longer the pleasures of cognition, and of perception. To allow them to see something as if for the first time, like a baby. Because we live in a world where people rush to the label before looking at the painting, and want the explanation before they've allowed themselves to savor the mystery. (Critic Dennis Donoghue did a great series of Reith lectures on this, 'The Arts Without Mystery'.)

One thing that's often struck me is that things must be made strange without resort to conventions of strangeness (the 'uncanny', the otherworldly, the futuristic). It's better to skew familiar things, give them an attractive edge of strangeness and freshness. I'm thinking of the novels of Nicholson Baker, the paintings of John Currin, the performance art pop group Fischerspooner, early Raygun magazine layouts... hell, everyone's tried it!

The question the ostranenist (and I don't if anyone would want to put that on their passport as an occupation!) has to ask himself is this: 'Is strange really where I think it is?' Because there's nothing so shore-huggingly embarrassing as trying to do strange and only getting halfway there.

Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the most important names in cinema, and despite that I'm willing to say he's important as well in other disciplines: art, literature, photography and why not graphic design?
For me, Zabriskie Point was the beginning of an ambitious graphic design project, wich revealed to me that graphic design has much more to do with film making than I actually thought.
In New Media Culture in Europe published in 1999 in Amestardam, someone wrote: «If Leonardo were alive he would be a graphic designer», wich makes me think of the benefits and desavantadges of design literature. On one hand it would be a lot easier to reach a big audience, and to make designers interact. But wouldn't we just acomplish a sistem to label projects that could end up being "interdisciplinary"?

The question you raise early in your piece about the usefulness of literary theory as a model for graphic design discourse is one that I confront daily as I struggle to produce a graphic design thesis entitled "REORIENTATION" (although after reading your post I am tempted to change the title to REDEFAMILIARIZATIONISM). In this project I find myself eqaully compelled to, on the one hand, engage with critical theory as a way to deepen my argument and on the other, to take the piss. I am inspired by reading Kristeva or DeBord for example, but I am also quite sure I wouldn't want to make a career out of it, and after working my way through a particularly difficult passage I am haunted by the suspicion that my work as a designer might only require the synopsis from the back of the book. A single page of deCerteau's "The Practice of Everyday Life" taught me more about graphic design than a year long subscription to Eye but that's probably because I mainly look at the pictures in Eye.

I recently encountered the work of the artist Marcel Broodthaers who makes a very compelling argument that critical theory is used by artists simply as another way of adding value to their work - a kind of intellectual gilding to dazzle patrons even less familiar with the texts than the artists themselves. I became immediately and deeply suspicious of the latest draft of my text which ends with, "and so my work becomes a graphic membrane through which Bahktin can imagine a dialogue with Bloom and Kristeva can swerve from Barthes, where representation is put in conversation with itself and Baudrillard..."

Is critical theory useful for graphic design? In small doses perhaps.
Dmitri Siegel

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