Senior Project Advisor

Walt, Melissa J.

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1995


Literary language, Literary theory


The twentieth century has witnessed an unprecedented interest in formal innovation in the arts. Twentieth-century literary texts are increasingly self-reflexive, breaking traditional literary forms in order to draw the reader’s attention to the linguistic strategies by which meaning is conveyed. Critics as well as artists have become increasingly interested in the quality of literariness, in what differentiates literary language from ordinary, day-to-day language. The Russian Formalists were one of the first schools of literary criticism to develop a coherent theory that identifies specific qualities of literature and their effects on the reader. For the Formalists, literary language offers a fresh perspective on reality by disrupting the forms of ordinary language and slowing the process by which a reader gets meaning from words. Because of its emphasis on revolutionary techniques. Formalist theory is particularly applicable to avant-garde art. The work of the American poet E.E. Cummings exemplifies Formalism’s impeded literary language. Cummings’ revolutionary typographical and

visual techniques disrupt not only ordinary language but traditional literary language, concealing the text’s meaning in a sort of linguistic puzzle. Decades later and a continent away, the Chinese artist Xu Bing takes the idea of impeded perception a step farther. With his installation A Book from the Sky^ he confronts would-be readers with a false writing system. In doing so, he does not just slow the reading process, but suspends it in the moment before perception. By disrupting the forms of ordinary and literary language, Cummings and Xu Bing cause the reader to reconsider ordinary language, ordinary thought patterns, and the very ability of language to mediate the individual’s interaction with society and with reality.


Modern and Classical Languages

Subjects - Topical (LCSH)

Linguistic analysis (Linguistics); Formalization (Linguistics); Graphic design (Typography)

Subjects - Names (LCNAF)

Cummings, E. E. (Edward Estlin), 1894-1962--Poetic works--Aestetics; Xu, Bing, 1955- --Aesthetics


student projects; term papers




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