Steiner P. OPOIAZ and Bakhtin: The Decision Science’s Perspective

Russian version: Штайнер П. ОПОЯЗ и Бахтин: перспектива исследований в контексте теории принятия решений
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA

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The two approaches to human being goals and behavior, especially writer’s aims, are analyzed in the frames of  decision theory. Primarily the analysis is concerned with the theories of Shklovsky and Tynianov. It is  described how they conceived of the writer as a rational agent pursuing a specific goal, and of the means at his/her disposal to attain it. Their approached can be characterized as two distinct types of rationality: “instrumental” and “bounded”. In conclusion it is briefly juxtapose Bachtin’s view of human behavior to those held by the two OPOIAZ members and illustrate its similarity and dissimilarity with “strategic rationality” espoused today most vigorously by game theory.

Keywords: instrumental rationality, bounded rationality, strategic rationality, defamiliarization, decision science, write’s goals


Decision science (DS) is a relatively new discipline: the product of a crosspollination among mathematics, psychology, economy and a few other branches of knowledge. It studies how humans make their choices and purports to provide a “rational framework for choosing between alternative courses of action when the consequences resulting from this choice are imperfectly known” [North, 1986, p. 200]. In and of itself DS is a vast field of intersecting theories and methodologies that I can exploit only in an extremely limited manner.

Let me begin with instrumental rationality. Most students of Russian literature know this style or reasoning through the Chernyshevskian version of utilitarianism and/or from its scathing critique by Dostoevsky in “Notes from the Underground”.  Such an explanation of human behavior correlates the agent’s preferences with his actions and their consequences and equates rationality with the choice of means most suitable to satisfy intended ends. How does Shklovsky’s aesthetics fit this intellectual profile? At the onset of my paper, let me point out that Shklovsky was not altogether a consistent thinker and occasionally he was willing to redefine some of his most basic categories. Moreover, it is not altogether clear whether his theory of literary process is descriptive or prescriptive: a scholarly analysis of verbal art as is or a programmatic plea for what it should be. With this caveat in mind let’s turn to Shklovsky as an instrumental rationalist.

Which set of preferences does the writer’s creativity intend to satisfy? According to Shklovsky’s earliest pronouncement to this effect, it strives “to return to humankind the experience of the world, resurrect things, and kill pessimism” [Shklovsky, 1990, p. 40]. This must be done because our cognitive powers are dulled by the energy saving mental inertia with which we, again and again, attend the customary surroundings, so that we are no longer able to perceive reality in its authentic manifold heterogeneity. The artist’s goal is to change this undesirable state of affairs through the act of defamiliarization with art as his/her instrument to achieve it.

To act rationally, however, obliges the agent to select the most efficient means for the projected end and to do so, then he/she must have a sufficient amount of information about the task environment. Literary praxis, therefore, must be augmented by poetics, the discipline furnishing the author with a list of perception-changing techniques to choose from, a catalogue of literary devices enabling him to transform, with the utmost competence, the extra-artistic material into an aesthetic object. This prerequisite explains well Shklovsky’s avid interest in matters of literary know-how, his continuous forays into the realm of theory. The situation, however, turned more complicated in 1919 when Shklovsky changed his mind about the object of artistic defamiliarization, substituting automatized reality with the older artistic forms that lost their perceptibility due to overuse [Shklovsky, 1919, p. 120]. Let me explain.

As initially envisioned by Shklovsky, the best practice for “killing pessimism” was pretty straightforward. The author, compelled by the need to defamiliarize reality, incessantly strove to innovate the modes of its perception with the mastery of literary devices vital to this task. But his/her modus operandi changed considerably when entering into competition with other “makers of strange” and the defamiliarization of previous defamiliarizations became his/her overriding goal. Given the centuries for which this process of renewing literary morphology was in operation, the pickings have become slim nearing the point of marginal utility. A more radical invention was called for, “the invention of the method of invention” as Alfred Whitehead put it, and Shklovsky stepped up to provide it [Whitehead, 1926, p. 141].

The reason why the traditional literati were unable to improve the cost / benefit ratio of their enterprise stemmed from their “naiveté” (as Schiller understood it)-the lack of rational self-reflection. True, their narratives offered a counterfactual picture of the world, but the authors themselves seemed woefully ignorant about the sub-intentional cause of such a behavior-the imperative to defamiliarize. So they fallaciously attributed the representational strangeness of their works to exogenous motivations, whether madness, a non-human perspective, or a divine intervention gradually exhausting the readership’s credulity. The modernists, Shklovsky declared, must call the king naked and reveal to their audience what art truly is: a deviceful deformation of material for a specific perceptive effect. Their writings should lay the techniques of the craft bare to the audience’s direct inspection, erasing in this way the distinction between the material and the device, or, more precisely, making the devices themselves the material of artistic meta-manipulation.

The best application of Shklovsky’s theory is his epistolary novel ZOO which makes a literary device its main hero [Noveishaia russkaya poezia, 1921, p. 11]. At first glance, ZOO is a collection of portraits of the famous Russian artist living in or passing through Berlin with a bunch of intimate letters between the author and Elsa Trioletea liberally thrown into this medley. Given its piecemeal composition, should the book be considered a novel at all? Shklovsky addresses the issue head on in “Letter 22” that outlines, for the audience’s benefit, a brief history of the genre [Shklovsky, 1923]. The art of the novel, according to this presentation, boils down to a concatenation of disparate short stories into a bigger whole. Therefore, its true history is nothing but the succession of methods employed by writers to achieve the desired holistic integration. The figure of Don Quixote, for example, served Cervantes as a convenient device for stringing together the miscellaneous events as episodes from his life, whereas Tolstoy used his main protagonists’ psyches to the same end.  But at the current moment, Shklovsky observed, the very idea of a connective tissue became automatized, endangering thus the sustainability of the genre itself. His own response to this historical challenge was as simple as it was ingenuous: he left the letters of ZOO purposely unconnected. For good reasons, though, Shklovsky assured his audience. Not only the letters, like all similar novelistic building blocks, had absolutely nothing in common, but, more importantly, connecting them would make ZOO a hostage of the past bereft of any defamiliarizing potential. By putting the novel’s indispensible device “under erasure”, so did Shklovsky’s argument go, he was able to save the genre. And in the process, he came up with a sizzling book raising, at the same time, the self-consciousness of Russian noveling a notch up.

As persuasive as it might look, the instrumentally rational explanation of human decision-making has been, for some last sixty years, losing its intellectual luster on the empirical grounds. Agents, its detractors pointed out, do not actually act according to its formulas. The most influential among them was Herbert Simon – the author of the concept of “bounded rationality”– that, he believed, was more apt to describe how real world choices are made than its instrumentalist counterpart. His famous metaphor compares “human rational behavior”, to “a scissors whose two blades are the structure of task environment and the computational capabilities of the actor” [Simons, 1990, p. 7]. It is the earthly imperfections of our mind that makes these figurative blades somewhat blunt, preventing us from truly maximizing the expected utility. We might not be able to gather, in a timely manner, sufficient information about the context of our action and/or lack the necessary quantitative proficiency to assay all variables. And, furthermore, even if we could somehow overcome all such hurdles, our well calculated behavior might still trigger unforeseen consequences. Yet, despite it all, we make decisions in a rational fashion, Simon insists. Only the rationality we employ is bounded rather than comprehensive, as the instrumentalists would have it.

How do the bounded rationalists go about their business? Quite pragmatically, I would say. Facing an actual task they resort to the “rule of thumb.”  In this way they arrive at a solution that might not be quite optimal, yet is fully “satisficing”, i.e., adequate to their practical needs. Furthermore, the decision-making process is rarely a singular, hit-or-miss shot. It takes place within a history-laden cultural context that guides all our behavior including the way we make choices. “The tradition of all dead generations”, need not just to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living” [Marx, 1963, p. 15].  It can also oblige them as a useful toolkit, a “fast and frugal behavioral mechanism that dispenses with individual cost-benefit computations and decision making”[Gigerenzer, Selten, 2001, p. 10]. Given the signal value the inherited rules play in forming our expectations some scholars prefer to do away altogether with the past participle of the verb “to bind” in characterizing this type of rationality speaking of “procedural rationality” instead [Heap, 1989, p. 46].

Shklovsky, I argued elsewhere, conceived of the modernist writer as “a sovereign” in Carl Schmitt’s sense of this word. It “is he who decides on exception” [Schmitt, 2005, p. 5] – the defamiliarizing transgression of literary norms-sine qua non of verbal art. Other Formalists, however, objected strenuously to Shklovsky’s unrestricted view of the individual agency in literary process. Most prominent among them was his friend and a fellow OPOIAZ’s member, Yurii Tynianov. Tynianov’s theoretical outlook resembled that of the proponents of bounded rationalism insofar as in literature, he insisted, external conditions and, above all, collectively inherited rules and procedures make the author’s choice of formal means toward aesthetic ends subpar. As a distributive institution, literature is born out of unintended consequences and the agent’s power to alter it unilaterally is negligible. Clearly aiming at Shklovsky’s instrumentalism Tynianov wrote: innovations, “arise on the basis of ‘accidental’ results and ‘accidental’ deviations”, not a conscious will. “In a manner of speaking”, he continued, “every defect, every ‘mistake’, every ‘aberration’ from a normative poetics is, potentially, a new constructive principle” [Tynianov, 1977, p. 263].

But even if the author could estimate all aesthetic consequences of his/her action optimally adapting the morphology of his/her work to the desired effect, the structure of task environment would interfere with this design. Here lies the second difference between Shklovsky and Tynianov. For the former, literature was an autonomous field governed by the fully endogenous algorithm of defamiliarization which, Shklovsky seemed to believe, can be fully controlled. For the latter, the literary field was always already embedded within a larger sphere of culture in general – “the system of systems” [Ibid. pp. 283] in his parlance. Such a cultural totality follows its own structural regularity exogenous to literature and impacts its immanent development. Which, needless to say, injects a good measure of indeterminacy into any literary decision-making. To wit: the transition from Classicism to Sentimentalism in Russian letters around the turn of the 18th century – at first glance a purely literary affair par excellence-was, in fact, Tynianov illustrated, ineluctably intertwined with the overall shift in the dominant communicative setting taking place in Russian society then. The displacement of the top-down formal court by the personal and playful salon cultivating the art of polite conversation was clearly a transformation that had nothing to do with literary conventions per se but significantly modified them notwithstanding [Ibid. P. 261].

What is the literary author’s goal, according to Tynianov? His answer to this question is a nuanced version of the Shklovskian defamiliarization. The writer, according to Tynianov, aspires to generate a “dynamic speech construction”, i.e. an utterance in which the reader feels the struggle for domination and subordination among textual components [Ibid. P. 279]. And, needless to say, it is only a matter of time before this precious effect to elapse. The two main sources of uncertainty under which artists must make their morphological decisions were mentioned above. The ultimate benchmark of success-the gauge for measuring the degree of novelty-is the set of interpersonal procedures over which they have no control. These rules and regulations, moreover, are a moving target not only because effective defamiliarizations are impacting them constantly but also because cultural upheavals may, at any moment, cancel their validity. Given this fluidity, can the artists act rationally at all?

Yes, according to Tynianov but in a bounded manner, through a flexible approximation. Studying the strategies of the authors who, against all odds, managed to influence tradition, Tynianov pinned down the slippery figure of irony as the best bet. This is so because the structure of a literary work is a delicate balance between two extremes. To be recognized as literary, it must be iterative, regurgitating tried and true poetic formulas. But in doing so, it cannot simply replicate other works. Epigonism, in the Formalists’ eyes, kills art. At the same time, however, the newness must not be radical to the point that the text, for originality’s sake, would be shorn off all literary attributes. An ad hoc calibration, of redundancy and entropy through parody suites well, in Tynianov’s opinion, this dual task. The parodists latch themselves onto the system of literary norms via a text that already belongs to the tradition only to “extract it from the literary system… [and] to dismember it as a system” [Ibid. P. 292]. After being dissolved into its constitutive components, the parodied text is reassembled but with new elements, clearly incongruous with the rest, replacing some of the original ones. Nekrasov’s juvenile parodies of Lermontov’s romantic poems are good illustration of this hybrid technique. They crossbred “elevated rhythmical-syntactic figures” retained from the venerable senior with dissonant “’low’ vocabulary and themes”. And though rather marginal in his oeuvre, Nekrasov’s parodies paved, in Tynianov’s view, the road toward the prosaic character of Russian civic poetry in the 1850s [Ibid. P. 18].

But how does Mikhail Bakhtin fit into this scheme? To juxtapose his view of human behavior with Shklovsky’s and Tynianov’s, let me recycle Ernest Gellner’s categories he coined to describe European intellectual history. In the 19th century, according to Gellner, the Continent was dominated by two mutually irreconcilable epistemologies:  the individualistic / atomistic one-the brainchild of the Enlightenment-and the collectivistic / organic, one linked to Romanticism [Gellner, 1998]. According to the former, cognition is an empirical process in which an isolated individual aggregates distinct bits of external information into a rational whole while solely private interests, unfettered by any conventions, guide his/her actions. According to the latter, we are always already integral components of a cultural whole. What matters is the social fabric holding everybody together rather than the beheld subjects. Who we are and how we think is a function of these collective mental representations knowing no authorship or ownership about which we can do nearly nothing. It is not difficult to identify Shklovsky’s instrumental rationality as a variant of the individualistic paradigm and Tynianov’s bounded or procedural one as of the collectivistic paradigm.

Bakhtin’s interactive approach, I would like to contend, offers a way out of the dilemma presented by these two antinomic paradigms. His key concept-the dialogue-manages to cast quite a different light on how we act. It salvages the concept of subject condemned to death by the collectivists without, at the same time, relapsing into the extremes of the Robinson Crusoe-like individualism propagated by the atomists. From its particular vantage point, we are autonomous and self-interested entities, yet not necessarily windowless monads unconnected to a social whole. This is so, Bakhtin argues, because human nature is above all interactive: our selfhood cannot be fully constituted without the mediation of others. We are but agents in ongoing transactions through which we traffic all fungibles, including words. Our actions might be self-seeking but, insofar as they must reflect (whether directly or indirectly) the intentions of the partners / rivals with whom we engage, our decision-making cannot be totally self-confined. Inevitably, it must transcend the limits of a single consciousness, containing within itself prefigured reactions of the co-participants as well as their projected secondary and tertiary feedbacks, etc.  Outside this unfolding reflexive loop, so Bakhtin’s argument goes, the quintessence of the human existence cannot be grasped at all.

It would be wrong, however, to present Bakhtin’s transactional concept of human behavior as an intellectual white elephant. An analogous claim about the mutual interdependence of agents in the decision making process-their “strategic rationality”– was put forward by others as well. I am foremostly referring to game theory that since the 1944 publication of John von Neumann’s and Oskar Morgenstern’s epoch-making book has emerged from mathematics as an overarching inter-disciplinary matrix across an ever-growing array of social sciences [Neumann, Morgenstern, 1944]. Yet, this obvious similarity should not blind us to he fact that Bakhtin and game theorists seem to be talking at cross-purposes. The unfinalizability of dialogue is for Bakhtin the gateway to freedom [Bakhtin, 1979]. The meaning of a word is as infinite as is the number of the contexts it can enter-actually or potentially-and cannot be ever fully determined. The game theorists, on the other hand, “rely on the instrumental version of rationality… where each player’s strategy is a best response to each other player’s strategy” [Heap, 1989, p. 46]. Optimally, the game should lead to a maximum efficient equilibrium payoff for the participants and their rejection of all other inferior strategic choices. To increase the predictability of the outcome, the agents’ freedom must be limited. This, of course, is no surprise for “in game theory”, as the current Greek Minister of Finances put it, “determinism is more than byproduct; it is an ambition” [Varoufakis, 1991, p. 185].

Yet, and this is my concluding point, the opposite drifts of the two transactional models of human behavior need not to prevent us from looking for their potential overlap. For Bakhtin, the indeterminacy of dialogue cannot be absolute for this would negate any answerability of the interlocutors, their moral responsibility for what they do. Which obligation Bakhtin confirms several times in his “Philosophy of the Act”. Such accountability, one might surmise, cannot but involve a moment of rationality making, in one way or another, the agent’s behavior predictable to himself and others, even if this moment is as indiscernible as “the glimmer of a lamp before the sun” [K filosofii postupka, 2003, p. 30]. By the same token, the technocratic dream of finding exact mathematical formulas for all human interactions is, what it is-an unrealizable utopia which game theory cannot deliver. Rather than a tool of perfect rationality, two students of game theory observed about the intellectual utility of their discipline some twenty years ago, it should be understood as a method for subverting this very concept: “If game theory does make a further substantial contribution, then we believe that it is a negative one… we believe that [it] reveals the limits of ‘rational choice’ and of the (neoclassical) economy approach to life” [Heap, Varoufakis, 1995, p. 2].


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Received 9 April 2015. Date of publication: 22 June 2015.

About author

Steiner Peter. Ph.D., Professor of Slavic Literature, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA.
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Suggested citation

Steiner P. OPOIAZ and Bakhtin: The Decision Science’s Perspective. Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya, 2015, Vol. 8, No. 41, p. 12. (in Russian, abstr. in English).

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