Fluid Imaginalphabet: D is for Defamiliarization

In Art as Technique (PDF), the literary theorist, Victor Shklovsky, writes:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic…We apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object…fades and does not even leave a first impression; ultimately, even the essence of what it was is forgotten… And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony… The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, [removing] from objects the automatism of perception.

In other words, art involves the technique of rendering the familiar as unfamiliar, defamiliarizing the objects of perception in order to engender in your reader the experience of seeing something again for the first time.

While providing a “clear” description of a given object allows your readers to assimilate it into their conception of your fictional world, providing a defamiliarized description forces them to engage with the text, to wrestle with its strange and wonderful language before “getting on with it.”

Defamiliarization is the not the technique of turning your text into a riddle, however, and it should not be used for the sake of obfuscation. It should be used, instead, to draw your reader deeper into the world of your story.

In his novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner uses defamiliarization to describe the driveway of his main character, Police Chief Clumly:

He went up the gravel driveway to where his garage sat half-hidden under burnt-out lilacs and surrounded by high weeds. In the glow of the headlights, the weeds looked chalky white and vaguely reminded him of something. It was as if he expected something terrible to come out from their scratchy, bone-dry-looking obscurity—a leopard, say, or a lion, of the mastiff bitch that belonged to the Caldwells next door. But nothing came, and only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind had for a moment slipped into expectancy. He put the car away…

We all know what high weeds around a garage might look like, but had Gardner left his description at that, his readers would have hardly perceived them. The image is familiar, and our perception of the weeds would have been habitual, which means, nonexistent. By presenting the weeds as a potential source of danger, the hiding place of a dangerous animal, Gardner forces us to consider the weeds anew.

What’s more, Gardner not only defamiliarizes the weeds, he defamiliarizes his character’s perception of them as well. Chief Clumly’s perception of the weeds as a potential source of danger did not occur in his upper consciousness — “only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind” experienced the foreboding. Gardner does not throw the defamiliarized weeds away as a one-off perception; he uses it to defamiliarize the sensations experienced by his character. Gardner forces his reader to wrestle with the philosophical assertion that an individual’s mind contains a myriad of parts, two of which might be described as barbaric and philosophical. In order to even conceive of the author’s intent, the readers must engage with their own notions of the human mind, which forces them see these notions as if for the first time.

A couple of weeks back, I wrote that fiction writers need to eschew ambiguity when it comes to their sentence-by-sentence descriptions of a fictional world. Defamiliarization is a technique for doing that. If you don’t give your readers a new perception of the already familiar, you run the risk of giving them nothing at all.