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Poetic Justice: Viktor Shklovsky and Carl Schmitt

Peter Steiner (University of Pennsylvania)

Contradictions: A Journal for Critical Thought I, no. 2 (2017): 119–141

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Keywords: Viktor Shklovsky, Carl Schmitt, György Lukács

The paper explores a shared epistemological bias of Shklovsky’s poetics and Schmitt’s legal Dezisionismus: their privileging the singular over the ordinary. “The exception is more interesting than the rule,” Schmitt stated about the law in 1922. For, every legal judgment, he insisted, involves the indispensable moment of contingency insofar as it extends the same statute to diff erent and irreducibly unique situations. Shklovsky, quite similarly, endowed art with the capacity to defamiliarize our perception of reality made torpid by repetition: turning the usual into the unexpected.

Both theoreticians rebelled against the Positivistic tradition in their respective fields. Schmitt against Kelsen’s “pure theory of law”—an autonomous science of deductively arranged norms, each deriving its validity from appropriate higher norms, down to the ultimate Grundgesetz underlying and sustaining them. “The basic law,” argued Schmitt pace Kelsen, is always already something supra-legal that becomes incorporated into jurisprudence only retroactively. For initially it is but the expression of an unpredictable will of a particular “sovereign” who decides to suspend an existing legal system and establishes a different one. Such a coup d’état is not an act of legal nihilism but, on the contrary, a self-protecting measure intended to save the state from liquidation by its enemies.

Shklovsky critiqued the validity of Spencer’s postulate, popularized in Russia by Veselovskii, that art strives to economize our mental energy. Defamiliarization, he insisted, is wasteful, but for a vital reason: to resuscitate our relationship with the surrounding world that, without this intervention, would succumb to a deadening entropy. “Only the creation of new artistic forms,” wrote Shklovsky in “The Resurrection of the Word,” “can return to humankind the experience of the world, resurrect things, and kill pessimism.” Like the Schmittian sovereign, then, poets destroy literature in order to preserve it. They arbitrarily suspend worn-out artistic norms to inaugurate new ones capable of defamil-iarizing reality afresh.

doi: 10.46957/con.2017.2.7

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