Defamiliarisation, Ostranenie or making strange

Use for: Defamiliarization

Related terms: avant-garde; modernism; realism; plot (sjuzet); story (fabula); alienation effect; Brecht;

Defamiliarisation, Ostranenie or making strange is a literary device that was brought to attention by Victor Shklovsky (1991), a Russian Formalist, in an essay first published in 1917 entitled “Art as Device”, sometimes translated as “Art as Technique”. Formalism was a school of literary theory and analysis that emerged in Russia around 1915, devoting itself to the study of literariness, i.e. the sum of ‘devices’ that distinguish literary language from ordinary language.

The purpose of defamiliarisation is to put the mind in a state of radical unpreparedness; to cultivate the willing suspension of disbelief. We see and hear things as if for the first time. The conventionality of our perceptions is put into question. By ‘making strange’, ostranenie, we force the mind to rethink its situation in the world, to see the world afresh, and this requires an expenditure of effort (Wall, 2009: 20). A similar idea can be found in some English Romantic poets.

All vivid writing and art is to some degree defamiliarising. It could be argued, as does Wall (2009), that figures of speech aim to defamiliarize; to render the familiar unfamiliar in order to break with conventional perceptions. If those figures fail it is likely because they are either inept or clichéd. A cliché is a figure of speech which has had its time and become familiar, losing its power to defamiliarise.

Constantin Brancusi said that modernism in the arts had become a necessity because the techniques of realism were had become all too familiar.

In the period of Czech Formalism, Jan Mukarovsky further refined this notion of defamiliarisation in terms of foregrounding. A distinct Russian group is the ‘Bakhtin school’ comprising Mikhail Bakhtin, Pavlev Medvedev, and Valentin Voloshinov, theorists who combined elements of Formalism and Marxism in their accounts of verbal multi-accentuality and of the dialogic text.

If taken together, the Russian avant-garde and Russian Formalism might be seen to offer a coherent argument for linking modernist formalism with avant-garde social action. Thus, Shklovsky’s defamiliarisation or ostranenie suggests that formal innovations might have the consequence of revealing “false consciousness”. In this is the case, this conception of defamiliarisation closely resembles Bertolt Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt, or ‘alienation effect’.

In their studies of narrative, the Russian Formalists also clarified the distinction between plot (sjuzet) and story (fabula).


Behler, C. (2001). CB’s glossary for students. Available from [Accessed 6 March 2016]

Shklovsky, V. (1991). Art as device. In: Theory of Prose. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1–14.

Wall, A. (2009). A note on defamiliarization. In: Myth, metaphor and science. Chester, UK: Chester Academic Press, 20–22.

edited 24 June, 2016 by Allan Parsons