Mittwoch, 30. September 2009

Aesthetics & Estrangement

I'm not sure why it hasn't occurred to me before that Kant's aesthetic theory can be understood in relation to the Russian formalists' concept of ostranenie ('defamiliarization', 'making strange'). The idea that literary language (for example) is language used in such a way that it is remarkable or unusual, that we are led to consider things in a new light. Kant's ideas about beauty are of course part of a larger theory of how we form judgments about the world. Beauty is thus essentially about understanding; the beautiful is what seems immediately comprehensible and yet resists comprehension. It seems appropriate that one of the examples of the beautiful that he gives is the arabesque, with its Oriental (and hence, exotic, strange) associations.

This is of course only one reading of Kant. Where the Formalists differ most significantly from Kant is in the idea of making strange. Kant's aesthetic object derives its beauty from some inherent quality of the thing, and thus it tends to feel rather static. Ostranenie carries with it a sense of renewal, of transformation. Beauty as an unveiling, a stripping away of the ordinary.

Certainly this is part of the very personal appeal which learning languages has always had for me. The challenge of reading texts in another language makes one more sensitive to things which one would otherwise take for granted.

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