In their work on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Monica Westin and George Kennedy resort to defamiliarization, a device coined by one of the leading figures of Russian Formalism, Viktor Shklovsky, to comment on rhetorical energeia. This connection is examined taking into account the recent trends in the scholarship on energeia to determine whether it is methodologically and metatheoretically productive. Drawing on the insights afforded by cognitive approaches to literature and embodiment, the gap between defamiliarization and energeia is bridged by how both devices tap into perception by triggering perceptual simulations.
In her survey of Aristotle’s uses of energeia in the Rhetoric and elsewhere Monica Westin posits the question of whether energeia is a “quality of language that successfully defamiliarizes and surprises” (2017, 255). She considers that it is indeed such a quality in its rhetorical sense for two reasons. First, energeia is “a making-present and a form of actualization that actively brings out a potentiality inherent in language that can only be understood in relationship to this dunamis of language” (Westin 2017, 258). Second, energeia is not to be conflated with enargeia, notwithstanding the synonymity between the two terms in practice since Antiquity: the former not only is the proper Aristotelian term, but also has a broader, more general scope than the latter, which is in turn often restricted to the “pictorial vividness” of ekphrases and similar stylistic devices (Westin 2017, 259).
Westin’s line of argumentation is indebted to George Kennedy’s translation and commentary of the Rhetoric. In his summary of Book III chapter 11 (1411b 24-1413b 2), he sets out how “[t]his chapter completes Aristotle’s discussion of devices of style that defamiliarize language and explains how they do so” (Kennedy 2007, 221). One of these stylistic devices that achieves defamiliarization is energeia, which he translates as “‘actualization’ or ‘vivification’.” (Kennedy 2007, 222). Kennedy’s stress on defamiliarization apropos energeia continues Aristotle’s thoughts on how poetic language ought to be; in Book III chapter 2 (1404b 1-1405b 33), Aristotle claims that “one should make the language unfamiliar” [δεῖ ποιεῖν ξένην τὴν διάλεκτον] (3.2.3 1404b 10-11).1
What calls my attention in both Westin’s and Kennedy’s discussions on energeia is their specific description of its effect and relationship to language. Scholars who have devoted their attention to Aristotle’s rhetorical energeia have often interpreted it by resorting to its narrower species, to bring or to set before the eyes [πρὸ ὀμμάτων ποιεῖν (3.10.6 1410b 33-34)] (Cope 1970, 110). It is the case of Richard Moran (2017, 56-57), Sara Newman (2002, 20), Ned O’Gorman (2005, 22) and Debra Hawhee (2011, 156-157), to name but a few. However, none of the above describe or comment on the effects of energeia as defamiliarization. Why then do Westin and Kennedy?
Commenting on Aristotle’s prescription for unfamiliarity, Kennedy signals that “[t]he view of literary language as ‘defamiliarization’ has been greatly extended in modern times by the Russian Formalist School, leading to Roman Jakobson’s famous definition of poetry as ‘organized violence committed on ordinary speech’” (Kennedy 2007, 198). By describing the linguistic effects of energeia as defamiliarization, Westin too is drawing on Russian Formalism. This posits the following questions: why is defamiliarization used to comment on energeia, and is it a useful tool for this purpose at all? In what follows, I aim to answer these questions by untangling and expanding the connection that Kennedy and Westin establish between Aristotle and Russian Formalism, and more specifically with the theorist who coined the term in question, Viktor Shklovsky. To do so, I will first explain defamiliarization as theorized by Shklovsky in his most influential text, Art as Device, followed by an overview of the treatment of energeia in the Rhetoric and in its contemporary scholarship. I will conclude by comparing them supported by a cognitive literary approach.
As a caveat before I proceed, it must be noted that my purpose is not offering a commentary on Aristotle’s Rhetoric, or at least not sensu stricto. Moreover, although there are alternatives to Kennedy’s translation, I will not delve into whether his and similar readings are the most correct or adequate ones: this paper does not bring forth a philological argument, but a metatheoretical and methodological one. Therefore, my focus is on the contemporary trends in the scholarship on rhetorical energeia—which moreover relies quite systematically on Kennedy’s translation—and my goal is to determine whether the case for defamiliarization chimes with such trends and whether it enriches our critical understanding of both defamiliarization and energeia on account of their comparison.
Defamiliarization, or ostranenie, is a literary device that enacts a two-fold perceptual event: something habitual is made strange in a text in order for the reader to experience it anew in an enhanced, sensory way. It was coined by Viktor Shklovksy, one of the leading figures of the Russian Formalist School, being the head of the group OPOYAZ (Общество изучения Поэтического Языка, the “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”), founded in 1916 (Steiner 1984, 17; Berlina 2017, 2). The Formalist School was the first movement of literary theory of the twentieth century which aimed at studying literature as an autonomous field, via the study of the formal aspects of poetry and narration as the constitutive elements of the literariness of a text. Thus, the Formalists emphasized how a literary text is constructed over its content, rehearsing the goals of classical rhetoric and poetics (Domínguez Caparrós 2011, 33). Indeed, the first generation of the school was quite self-aware about their debt to the classical tradition, and especially to Aristotle (Liveley 2019, 110). As Genevieve Liveley points out, “like Aristotle’s Poetics, the objective of Russian Formalist poetics was to understand poetry ‘not in terms of what it is, but in terms of what it is for’” (2019, 112).
Defamiliarization is the main subject of Shklovsky’s theoretical manifesto of 1917, Art as Device, one of the most influential texts of the Formalist School (Berlina 2017, 23).2 This work displays the belief that there is a schism between poetic and prosaic uses of language, a division which is traced all the way back to classical rhetoric and Aristotle (Erlich 1973, 630; Ricoeur 2003, 19-20). In the Rhetoric, Aristotle explains that an orator, unlike a poet, “should seem to speak not artificially but naturally” [μὴ δοκεῖν λέγειν πεπλασμένως ἀλλὰ πεφυκότως] (3.2.4 1404b 18-19). In the Poetics, he notes:
Impressive and above the ordinary is the diction that uses exotic language (by “exotic” I mean loan words, metaphors, lengthenings, and all divergence from the standard).
[σεμνὴ δὲ καὶ ἐξαλλάττουσα τὸ ἰδιωτικὸν ἡ τοῖς ξενικοῖς κεχρημένη· ξενικὸν δὲ λέγω γλῶτταν καὶ μεταφορὰν καὶ ἐπέκτασιν καὶ πᾶν τὸ παρὰ τὸ κύριον] (1458a 20-24).3
In Art as Device, Shklovsky establishes an analogous distinction between “the language of poetry and the language of prose,” respectively epitomized by “the poetic image, as a means of intensifying an impression” and “the [prosaic] image as a practical means of thinking” (2017, 76). The latter is merely “a device of abstraction,” as “a watermelon instead of a round lamp shade, or a watermelon instead of a head,” while the former “is a way to create the strongest possible impression” by the means of poetic expression and rhetorical devices (Shklovsky 2017, 76-77). Shklovsky exemplifies his distinction with these contrasting cases:
Walking down the street, I see a man wearing an old crumpled hat drop his bag. I call him back: “You, old hat, you’ve dropped your bag!” This is an example of a purely prosaic trope. Another example. “This joke is old hat, I heard it ages ago.” This image is a poetic trope. (Shklovsky 2017, 76).
Shklovsky’s linguistic schism stems from his phenomenology of art: the given artistry of a work of art is a matter of its form being “perceived as artistic” (Shklovsky 2017, 75). This phenomenology is grounded in the division between prosaic and poetic images, which Shklovsky roots in what he labels as “the laws of perception” (2017, 79). These amount to the fact that routine perceptions tend to be automatized and integrated into an unconscious, procedural background, unlike uncommon or unique events. Automatization creates the condition for the apparition of “prosaic speech” and discourse, but at the same time it gravely endangers the subject’s perceptual attunement with the world (Shklovsky 2017, 79-80; Bulatova 2017, 163-64).
Art, however, “exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make the stone stony.”
The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the device of art is the “ostranenie” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception, as the process of perception is its own end in art and must be prolonged. Art is the means to live through the making of a thing. (Shkovsky 2017, 80)
Thus, defamiliarization is a device of poetic language which triggers “a special way of experiencing an object” as if it was the first time that we encountered it (Shklovsky 2017, 88), since “it disrupts the process of cognitive economy” (Bulatova 2017, 166) by bypassing recognition and appealing directly to the senses instead. This is consistent and consubstantial with the goal of poetic language, which also aims at vision.
Consequently, the work of art is “‘artificially’ created in such a way that perception lingers and reaches its greatest strength and length” (Shklovsky 2017, 93). Shklovsky explicitly identifies a precedent for his theoretical proposal in Aristotle, who is said to have claimed that “‘poetic language’ must have the character of the foreign, the surprising” (Shklovsky 2017, 93)—and indeed, he does say so in the Poetics and the Rhetoric, as I have already indicated. Henceforth, this defamiliarized language “puts brakes on perception” by calling attention to the perceptual moment itself (Shklovsky 2017, 94), thereby granting poetic language the power to mediate between art and life, language and world (Boym 1996, 515).
Unlike defamiliarization, energeia is a rather difficult concept to define due to its multifaceted nature and role in different strands of Aristotle’s philosophy, as Westin (2017), Rist (2019) and I (2022) have recently explicated. Nevertheless, the common denominator is that energeia must be understood in relation to its counterpart, potentiality [dunamis], since this dichotomy is repeatedly used by Aristotle to describe the movement of actualization of a given potentiality (Chen 1956). On this basis, energeia becomes one of the concepts that may bridge the gap between works as different as Metaphysics, Physics, De Anima, and the Rhetoric. That said, given that an exhaustive comparative examination of energeia across the Aristotelian corpus is a task whose scope exceeds the aims of this essay, I limit my attention to the treatment of lexical energeia in the Rhetoric and its contemporary scholarship in order to lay the groundwork for its comparison with defamiliarization.
In the third book of the Rhetoric, energeia is introduced in the context of Aristotle’s thoughts on urbanity [asteia] in style [lexis], specifically in chapters 10 and 11. Rhetorical urbanities, according to Aristotle, “create quick learning in our minds” (3.10.4 1410b 20-21). This is achieved “by means of bringing-before-the-eyes [pro ommatôn poiein, ‘visualization’]; for things should be seen as being done rather than as going to be done” (3.10.6 1410b 33-35). He then proceeds to instantiate cases of visualization in metaphor, antithesis and energeia, leading to the narrower treatment of bringing-before-the-eyes in chapter 11, where it is presented as a species of lexical energeia:
But it is necessary to say what we mean by bringing-before-the-eyes and what makes this occur. I call those things “before-the-eyes” that signify things engaged in activity. For example, to say that a good man is “foursquare” is a metaphor, for both are “complete”; but it does not signify activity [energeia]. On the other hand, the phrase “having his prime of life in full bloom” is energeia, as is “you, like a free-ranging animal” and “now then the Greeks darting forward on their feet.” Darting is actualization and metaphor; for he means “quickly.” And [energeia], as Homer often uses it, is making the lifeless living through the metaphor. In all his work he gains his fame by creating activity, for example, in the following: “Then to the plain rolled the ruthless stone,” and “the arrow flew” and [also of an arrow] “eager to fly” and [of spears] “They stood in the ground longing to take their fill of flesh,” and “The point sped eagerly through his breast.” In all of these something seems living through being actualized; for being “ruthless” and “longing” and the other examples constitute energeia. He applied these by using metaphor by analogy; for as the stone is to Sisyphus, so is the “shameless” one to the one “shamefully treated”. He does the same to lifeless things in his much admired similes: “Arched, foam-crested, some in front, but others upon others.” He makes everything move and live, and energeia is motion. (3.11.1-5 1411b 1-1412a 9)
After these words on energeia, Aristotle moves on to further discuss urbanities, now framed as the result of “metaphor and an added surprise; for it becomes clearer [to the listener] that he learned something different from what he believed, and his mind seems to say, ‘How true, and I was wrong’” (3.11.6 1412a 19-21). By extension, this observation also pertains to bringing-before-the-eyes and energeia as urbanities, although these two devices are not mentioned again in the Rhetoric after chapter 11.
According to Paul Ricoeur, these sections represent “the most enigmatic passage of the Rhetoric” (Ricoeur 2003, 48), evincing the challenge posed by energeia—as Fahnestock (2000, 170) succinctly puts it, rhetorical energeia “can only be approximately specified” by its desired effect, i.e., visualization as bringing-before-the-eyes. And yet, such desired effect holds the key for the critical understanding of energeia, as a significant part of scholarship of the last few decades has cogently argued. The tenor of these exegetic endeavours is broadly epitomized by Kennedy’s introductory notes to chapter 11: “This chapter completes Aristotle’s discussion of devices of style that defamiliarize language and explains how they do so. The explanation is consistent with his cognitive psychology as found in other words, including the Poetics and Nicomachean Ethics: the hearer ‘sees’ something in a different way and takes pleasure in learning” (Kennedy 2007, 221-22). Indeed, as I will now briefly summarize, the scholarship tends to interpret energeia along these lines to make sense of how, in Ricoeur’s words, “‘To place things before the eyes,’ then, is not an accessory function of metaphor, but the proper function of the figure of speech” (Ricoeur 2003, 38).
In an essay first published in 1996, Richard Moran, in the context of his analysis of Aristotelian metaphor, reads energeia as a narrowing from “the representation of movement, to the representation of something alive, to the more specific trope of personification” (Moran 2017, 56). Although his reading is not free from drawbacks, as Newman (2002, 3-4) has noted, Moran nevertheless raises an important point: “Aristotle’s gloss of pro ommaton poein in terms of energeia explicitly relates this virtue of metaphor not only to what is imagistic, in motion, alive, and animated, but also to what is fully present and fully actualized” (Moran 2017, 56). On this basis, he makes the case for a multilevel reading of pro ommaton poein: on the one hand, something in the words of the speaker is made to move, actualised, enlivened and so on; on the other hand, this movement is replicated in the mind of the hearer. Hence, he asserts that ultimately the point of energeia and bringing-before-the-eyes is “to get one’s audience to do various things, to imagine in a lively fashion that involves much associating, connecting, and emotional responding. By contrast, a frigid style is lifeless in itself and fails to move us” (Moran 2017, 59).
Taking her lead from Moran and Kennedy, Sara Newman (2002) explains that Aristotle’s discussion of bringing-before-the-eyes as a species of energeia suggests that metaphors, and rhetoric more generally, “activate cognitive mechanisms on the part of their listeners,” although such cognitive process is not laid out explicitly in the Rhetoric (Newman 2002, 3-9). To support her line of argumentation, she draws an analogy between perception as described in De Anima and bringing-before-the-eyes in the Rhetoric that evinces the status of the latter as a “form of energeia that has the potential to actualize the imagistic force within metaphors and thus prompt sensory response in their audiences” (Newman 2002, 17). This point allows her to qualify the inclusion of energeia within the list of urbanities that create quick learning: just like “perception enables people to recognize the form of things but not to understand what these forms are and do,” bringing-before-the-eyes “is a kind of energeia that prompts sensory awareness in those who experience metaphors, but is not the element which causes understanding, judgment, or belief in those individuals” (Newman 2002, 22).
In his research on Aristotle’s notion of epideictic as a function of discourse, Ned O’Gorman (2005) also draws a crucial link between rhetorical energeia and cognition by finding in phantasia “a tie between his art of rhetoric and his psychology and phenomenology” (O’Gorman 2005, 16). His claim is that phantasia allows scholars to bridge the gap between these disciplines due to the mediation operated by the visual in both “art and reasoning” (O’Gorman 2005, 18). According to his analysis, the nature and products of phantasia in De Anima and those of lexis in the Rhetoric mirror each other in terms of both their form, “that is, their dynamic and visual aspect,” and power, “that is, in their capacity to affect opinion and emotion through the production of images” (O’Gorman 2005, 22-26). On these grounds, it is possible to understand how rhetorical energeia generates perceptual and psychological responses.
Following the steps of Newman and O’Gorman, Debra Hawhee (2011) brings forth a theory of “rhetorical vision,” underscoring how the combination of the principles of Aristotle’s Rhetoric with those of De Anima and Parva Naturalia evinces the direct interaction between language and the senses at a stage prior to that of metaphor and knowledge, thus resulting in a “communicative synesthesia” where words shape perception (Hawhee 2011, 140-141). In this theoretical context, bringing-before-the-eyes and energeia are both “[t]he lifeblood of lexis” and “the leading stylistic strategies for tapping phantasia and stirring the pathē,” enabling a collaborative adjustment between the movement in the words of the speaker and in the minds of the hearers in similar terms to those suggested by Richard Moran (Hawhee 2011, 153-155).
Monica Westin (2017) also sets out to understand rhetorical energeia against the backdrop of its multifaceted uses in Aristotle’s philosophy. Connecting the dialectics of actualization and potentiality in the Rhetoric, De Anima, Metaphysics, and the Physics, she makes the case for rhetorical energeia as “a making-present and a form of actualization that actively brings out a potentiality inherent in language that can only be understood in relationship to this dunamis of language” (Westin 2017, 258), which would in turn explain how energeia can surprise and defamiliarize by eliciting responses in the minds of an audience, thereby embedding her argument into the lines of research of Newman, O’Gorman and Hawhee (Westin 2017, 259-261).
Most recently, in the context of my work on the classical arts of memory, I (forthcoming) have also made the case for a cognitive reading of rhetorical energeia based on its connection to metaphor and the central role granted to mental images in Aristotle’s rhetorical and psychological thought. I argue that, considering the sensory origin of metaphor—as described in 3.2.13 1405b17-19—, it results in an artificial incidental perception which is further strengthened by energeia, since the latter enables the speaker to bring the former before the eyes of the audience and therefore to kickstart a cognitive event. Hence, energeia warrants the perceptual apprehension of metaphor, which in turn produces learning and other cognitive effects when the visual stimulus is processed and further actualised in the imagination as a mental image in combination with memory, thus mirroring the associative processes of mnemonic recollection described in De Memoria et Reminiscentia—which pertinently overlap and support rhetorical composition and comprehension.
The bottom line is that a significant part of the recent scholarship reads Aristotle’s rhetorical energeia as a device which operates on two levels. The first level is the one strictly described by Aristotle in the Rhetoric: the words of the speaker present situations, objects and people engaged in movement and action. The second level, although not explicitly laid out in the Rhetoric, is nevertheless implied in the text and warranted by Aristotle’s broader philosophical thought, as the scholarship has emphasised: the words of the speaker elicit specific, cognitive responses in the minds of the hearers, who will “see” the referent of the former’s words before their eyes because energeia actualizes the inherent potentiality of language to actively engage with perception, ultimately resulting in some form of learning. This provides sufficient grounds to elaborate a productive comparison with defamiliarization, both being linguistic devices whose explicit aim is to interact with perception.
Defamiliarization, Energeia, and Perceptual Simulation
With the previous premises in mind, I propose a metatheoretical and methodological connection between defamiliarization and energeia that not only enriches and advances the case for the former to comment on the latter suggested by Kennedy and Westin, but moreover supplements the insights afforded by the contemporary scholarship on both concepts. That said, it must be noted that other scholars have previously attempted to link the thought of Aristotle with that of Shklovsky. Critics like Boym (1996), López Eire (2002), Sanmartín Ortí (2006), Porter and Tiscornia (2013), Bartling (2015), Geng and Wei (2016) and Sáenz de Zaitegui Tejero (2017) have commented on the self-declared influence that the Poetics exerted on Shklovsky’s thought regarding poetic language. In this line, Berlina (2017, 93) points directly in her annotation of the text to the notion of xenikon as it appears in the Poetics 1458a 20-24; Liveley (2019) also illustrates Shklovsky’s point in connection to the Poetics, although she elaborates it with regards to other aspects of the Poetics that can be traced in Shklovsky’s thoughts on plot and structure elsewhere.
That Shklovsky was a reader of the Poetics is not in question. Besides his paraphrase of the Poetics in Art as Device, Shklovsky revisits this treatise in later works. For instance, commenting on the Odessa steps scene of Battleship Potempkin in Five Feuilletons on Eisenstein, he says that the stairs “are organized according to laws cognate to Aristotelian poetics: a new form gave birth to dramatic peripeteia” (Shklovsky 2017, 365). In the late Energy of Delusion, he states that “[t]he poetics Aristotle created were based on an analysis of tragedies that employed myths” (Shklovsky 2007, 136), followed by a reflection on the subject of tragedy and the role of plot reversals in the Poetics.
However, the critics who have attempted to read an Aristotelian precedent not in Shklovsky’s thoughts on the nature of poetic language, plot and narrative, but rather in the concept of defamiliarization, have often missed the target. Rossbacher (1977) considered defamiliarization to be an offspring of the Aristotelian “sense of wonder”, τὸ θαυμαστόν. Although this is a concept that appears in the Poetics—“In tragedy one needs to create a sense of awe” [δεῖ μὲν οὖν ἐν ταῖς τραγῳδίαις ποιεῖν τὸ θαυμαστόν] (1460b 11-12)—Rossbacher (1977, 1042) refers in his paper to the use of this concept in Metaphysics Book I: “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize” [διὰ γὰρ τὸ θαυμάζειν οἱ ἄνθρωποι καὶ νῦν καὶ τὸ πρῶτον ἤρξαντο φιλοσοφεῖν] (982b 12-13, trans. Tredennick) (Aristotle 1933). However, the only reason why Rossbacher seems to take up this concept is because Schopenhauer quotes this passage in the chapter “On Man’s Needs for Metaphysics” of The World as Will and Representation. On the other hand, the Poetics is nowhere to be found in Rossbacher’s analysis. Thus, he fails to argue his case either extensively or convincingly other than to say that “[t]o break down the barrier of automatic perception is to awaken man’s admiratio in the Aristotelian sense” (Rossbacher 1977, 43).
Others such as Sáenz de Zaitegui Tejero (2017) have claimed that defamiliarization is a modern form of Aristotelian catharsis. She argues that catharsis is based on seeing known events anew, and thus it is the foundation for Shklovsky’s account of defamiliarization (Sáenz de Zaitegui Tejero 2017, 103-105). This cannot be the case. To begin with, catharsis is generally understood to be the purification or the purgation of the emotions of pity and fear aroused by tragedy—[δι᾿ ἐλέου καὶ φόβου περαίνουσα τὴν τῶν τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν] (Poetics 1449b 26-27). However, catharsis is not merely a consequence of tragedy, but one of its purposes (Lucas 1968, 273; Halliwell 1995, 17-19). Therefore, catharsis cannot be put in relation with defamiliarization. First, because catharsis is an emotional and ethical reaction, whereas defamiliarization is a perceptual device. Second, and more importantly, catharsis is an end, whereas defamiliarization is a means—the point of defamiliarization is that it enables the goal of art, vision.
Some in the Aristotelian and in the Formalist fields have linked the Aristotelian notion of xenikon to defamiliarization, which is a more common connection than the previous ones (López Eire 2002, 41; Berlina 2017, 25; Liveley 2019, 113). However, this analogy is also unproductive. Yes, poetic language must have an air of foreignness—both Aristotle and Shklovsky stress that. However, in both Aristotle and Shklovsky, this foreignness seems to correspond to a characteristic of poetic language and a desideratum thereof, rather than a specific device as defamiliarization is.
Energeia, on the other hand, is a more productive choice not only if one is to look for a possible, historical precedent of defamiliarization in the works of Aristotle, but also one that justifies the usefulness of the later concept to analyze the ancient one in its rhetorical dimension mutatis mutandis. It is true that this parallelism is not unpolemical nor unproblematic. One could object that Shklovsky never read the Rhetoric, let alone the De Anima or the Parva Naturalia, where Aristotle brings forth his psychological thought. At least, there is no explicit proof of it in his works. Some might be content to settle for the connection between xenikon and defamiliarization since it is a verifiable intertext between the Poetics and Art as Device, despite the deficiencies of tying these two concepts together.
Others might retort that rhetorical energeia, in its narrow sense, is a device at the service of metaphor, and thus its main function is to contribute to the aims of the latter, such as using a familiar referent to make something that is unfamiliar known to the audience (3.2.7-15 1405a-b). Indeed, as Aristotle emphasizes later in the Rhetoric, “metaphor most brings about learning” [ἡ δὲ μεταφορὰ ποιεῖ τοῦτο μάλιστα] (3.10.2 1410b 13) and urbanities aim to “create quick learning in our minds” [ποιεῖ ἡμῖν μάθησιν ταχεῖαν] (3.10.4. 1410b 21). How is defamiliarization to be reconciled with energeia as an urbanity and as a companion to metaphor, if defamiliarization’s explicit end is perception while urbanities produce learning? I will shortly address these objections. That said, the benefits of comparing energeia with defamiliarization ultimately outweigh the possible disadvantages and concerns.
My central claim is that both energeia and defamiliarization enact active processes which exploit the potentiality of language to elicit a sensory response: energeia acts on language to bring something before the eyes of an audience, but so does defamiliarization, whose aim is “to create a special way of experiencing an object, to make one not ‘recognize’ but to ‘see’ it” (Shklovsky 2017, 88). Although their closely related visual goals provide sufficient grounds for their comparison, the gap between energeia and defamiliarization is best bridged by paying attention to how they prompt visualization. To do so, the insights afforded by the field of cognitive literary studies and embodied cognition provide a privileged vantage point to examine the underlying mechanics of these devices, which in turn allows to qualify my initial claim.
I further claim that energeia and defamiliarization prompt visualization because they trigger perceptual simulations. Recent research on the relationship between meaning and embodied cognition suggests that there is empirical evidence that when we hear or read action verbs and descriptions of sensory and motor actions, as well as when we retrieve conceptual information of the actions, agents and objects engaged in these, the parts of the brain responsible for perception and motricity are pre-reflectively activated in order to process what we are hearing or reading; this results in multimodal perceptual simulations that rely on and provide sensory, motor and introspective information (Bolens 2012/2018a/2018b; Ostarek and Vigliocco 2017; Barsalou 2008).
If seen through this lens, energeia and defamiliarization elicit immersive, pre-reflective sensorimotor responses, since they constitute a purposeful use of language that dynamically enacts the vivid cognitive resonance of visual and motor experiences, thereby impacting and shaping the reader’s engagement with the texts (Bolens 2012: 25-27; Cave 2016, 80-81; Anderson and Iversen 2018: 577-578), at play when one reads the examples from Homer and Tolstoy adduced by Aristotle and Shklovsky respectively. This explanation is consistent with Hawhee’s “rhetorical vision” which articulates “the ways that language interacts with vision directly” via energeia (2011, 141-142), and with Newman’s diagnosis that “‘bringing-before-the-eyes’ is the lexical species of energeia which prompts the audience to visualize images within the persuasive process, making possible though not yet activating human understanding and reflection on the issues these images involve” (2002, 22). Both Hawhee’s and Newman’s accounts are perfectly valid for describing the action of defamiliarization, and these are further subsumed under the cognitive umbrella of perceptual simulation.
This cognitive approach facilitates the comparative reading between defamiliarization and energeia and points to the way in which the pre-emptive objections which I raised are to be tackled, starting by the relationship between energeia, metaphor, and learning. As Aristotle brings forth in 3.10.2 1410b 13, metaphors have an epistemological claim to knowledge, being moreover “a central element in Aristotle’s cognitive system” (Kirby 1997, 547). However, that is not the role of energeia, for energeia does not belong to the level of knowledge where metaphor operates. It is true that for Aristotle vision and understanding are intimately and causally linked, and yet they are hierarchically differentiated—“It is evident, therefore, that perceiving and understanding are not the same; for all animals partake of the former, but only a few of the latter” [ὅτι μὲν οὖν οὐ ταὐτόν ἐστι τὸ αἰσθάνεσθαι καὶ τὸ φρονεῖν, φανερόν· τοῦ μὲν γὰρ πᾶσι μέτεστι, τοῦ δὲ ὀλίγοις τῶν ζῴων] (De Anima, 427b 8-10, trans. Miller) (Aristotle 2018).
Thus, energeia, in its rhetorical sense and as an extension of rhetorical vision, properly operates at the pre-reflective level of sense-perception; from there, a chain reaction follows at the levels of phantasia, memory, and finally thought (Murphy 2002: 217-218; Newman 2002: 22). This qualifies energeia’s classification as an urbanity, which in turn creates learning. Precisely because energeia as bringing-before-the-eyes operates at the level of sense-perception, it is knowledge in potentiality, but not in actuality: it indeed can create learning, but it is not knowledge or learning itself. Therefore, that it can be actualized into knowledge at the service of metaphor does not mean that it takes direct part in that knowledge. On the contrary, it just provides both an object and a condition of possibility for knowledge at the same level as other sensory phenomena.
Defamiliarization is helpful here as a tool for commentary because its modus operandi mirrors that of energeia. According to Shklovsky, defamiliarization is a device of poetic language which causes estrangement by calling attention to the poetic image and its form, making the act of perception more laborious and purposeful: defamiliarization prompts the audience who experiences it to see, it brings phenomena in front of their eyes anew. From a cognitive perspective, defamiliarization makes perception more laborious because it weaponizes the perceptual simulations elicited by the text in order to bypass our cognitive economy, therefore challenging our procedural memory by triggering “the activation of unpredicted sensorimotor configurations” (Bolens 2012, 16-17). Hence, just like energeia, defamiliarization triggers the simulation of a pre-reflective, bottom-up sensory experience; this elicits the creation of a new, ad hoc route of meaning which in turn may force the reader to reassess the estranged object at a higher-order, reflective level (Tarnay 2010, 151-152; Cave 2016: 34; Bolens 2018a: 62; Berlina 2020: 55). Analogously to energeia, this may ultimately result in a “a pleasurable experience of learning, through the creation of new meanings and understandings” (Westin 2017, 254).
This point is crucial to further dispel the doubts about the suitability of comparing energeia and defamiliarization. As I suggested earlier, a possible objection is that energeia, insofar as it works alongside metaphor as an urbanity, familiarizes the unfamiliar through visualization. However, insofar as energeia is listed precisely as an urbanity, its ultimate goal seems to be instead the one described by Aristotle in 3.11.6 1412a 19-21. Indeed, as Kennedy (2007, 221-222) interprets it, the point is that “the hearer ‘sees’ something in a different way and takes pleasure in learning.” This pertains to defamiliarization too; as Tarnay (2010, 150-151) suggests, defamiliarization may be explained as “the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar,” which renders it a “didactic tool.” On this basis, defamiliarization does not run counter to the movement of familiarization proper to metaphor, since the former encompasses the latter in its deep structure: a familiar referent is made unfamiliar in order to render it familiar again in new and heightened ways which surpass the initial, automatized acquaintance through its renewed perceptual apprehension—which in turn may give way to a situation where, using Aristotle’s words, “it becomes clearer [to the listener] that he learned something different from what he believed, and his mind seems to say, ‘How true, and I was wrong.’” (3.11.6 1412a 19-21).
The above foregrounds another common thread which bridges the gap between energeia and defamiliarization: although neither device operates at the level of knowledge, they may elicit new knowledge as their perlocutionary outcome, since both devices mediate the relationship between language and world by triggering specific cognitive responses that interact with our perception and phenomenological attunement with the latter through the former. Granted, the self-declared goals of each device, although closely related, are ultimately different: for Aristotle, “language can bring things into being and allows the rhetor to transfer a vision to an audience—‘putting it before the eyes’ and making them experience it as though it is real” (Westin 2017, 258); for Shklovsky, the point of defamiliarization is to make the audience visually experience things not only as if they were real, but also, and more importantly, as if they were being experienced anew. Arguably, defamiliarization goes beyond energeia; and yet, in spite of their different scope, their procedural nature as devices that rely on and induce perceptual simulations, whereby the words in a text bring something before the eyes of an audience, remains the same.
All things considered, it is possible to conclude that Westin’s and Kennedy’s use of defamiliarization as a tool for the commentary of energeia not only overlaps with the contemporary scholarship on the latter, but moreover enriches and furthers our critical understanding of both devices on account of their comparison when expanded with the insights afforded by contemporary research on embodied cognition and literature. On that note, I would like to finish by further underscoring why this is a productive and useful theoretical and methodological comparison for the field of classical rhetoric and that of contemporary literary theory.
From the perspective of the scholarship on Aristotle and rhetoric—whether intended for someone who is not well-versed in Aristotle’s thought, for someone who is not specialized in Classics, or for someone closer to modern literary theory—the concept of defamiliarization is helpful to describe and comment on the process and goals of energeia and bringing-before-the-eyes which are so relevant in Rhetoric Book III with the benefit of theory’s hindsight. On the other hand, this methodological comparison is also helpful for those working on modern literary theory in general and Russian Formalism in particular. First, because it furthers our insight into the relationship between Aristotle and one of the intellectual fathers of the school, Viktor Shklovsky; second, because it allows us to critically reassess previous attempts in the intellectual history of the discipline to connect defamiliarization with various Aristotelian concepts; and third, because it provides a useful tool for tracking a historical precedent of a very influential theoretical device which, as Shklovsky himself admitted late in his life, was unoriginal (Shklovsky 2017, 273).4 Last but not least, the metatheoretical comparison between energeia and defamiliarization is fertile ground for cognitive literary scholars too, since it allows to expand the research on perceptual simulations in literature from a rhetorical, theoretical, and historical perspective. Although each iteration is a product of its time with its own idiosyncrasies, strengths and limitations, together they bear witness to rhetoric’s and literature’s historical exploitation of the ecosystem of word, world and mind.
All quotes are taken from Kennedy’s translation of the Rhetoric (2007). For the Greek text, Kassel (1976).
I am using Alexandra Berlina’s translation of Art as Device (2017). Erlich (1980) and Steiner (1984) explain the importance of the concept for the Formalist school as a whole. For the reception and influence of ostranenie across different artistic and theoretical movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, see van der Oever (2010), Pötzsch (2011) or Spiegel (2008).
I am using Halliwell’s edition and translation of the Poetics (1995).
Shklovsky considers Novalis to be one of his most direct predecessors (Shklovsky 2017, 272). See Ginzburg (1996) for a possible debt to Marcus Aurelius, Bogdanov (2005) for the theological underpinnings of defamiliarization, Robinson (2007) for the presence of the concept in the German tradition, and Chernavin and Yampolskaya (2019) for its connection to the philosophy of Edmund Husserl.
I am sincerely grateful for the generous suggestions of Ned O’Gorman and the anonymous reviewers.
The project that gave rise to these results received the support of a fellowship from “la Caixa” Foundation (ID 100010434). The fellowship code is LCF/BQ/EU20/11810016.