Oslo to Portland: Reversing the Process of Defamiliarization

31 July 2012


The Russian formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky introduced the term “defamliarization” to indicate that function of literature and art which is to make the familiar strange in order to see that which is most common in a new light. It is not only art that serves this function. Science often serves in the capacity of defamiliarization and forces us to see familiar aspects of the world in new ways. Travel may be considered a personal form of defamiliarization. I touched on this earlier in Being the Other when I wrote:

“…the ignorant traveler bumbles through the business of ordinary life in a foreign country, though the business of ordinary life feels quite extraordinary. The extraordinariness of the everyday is another familiar feature of travel, and this can be expressed in ways that are both illuminating and embarrassing.”

If travel is a form of defamiliarization, then returning from travel constitutes a kind of refamiliarization. I often thought of this when returning from my earlier travels, when I would be away for a month at a time, as it always felt difficult to resume the mundane details of mundane life; even after the most spartan and ascetic travel — and if I described my early travel to you, I think you would agree that it was pretty spartan — one does not easily fit back into one’s life at home. Thus travel is not only a defamiliarization of the world, it is also a defamiliarization of oneself.

If that weren’t enough, travel also involves a process of defamiliarization with one’s own expectations for travel. A bus stop is not an auspicious place to be dropped off in a new and unfamiliar country, but it is likely that the traveler will find himself or herself unceremoniously dropped off at a bus stop or staggering out of train station and wondering what comes next. The important thing here is that this is precisely what is new: one doesn’t know what comes next.

The expectations that a new traveler has for a distant land — derived from a lifetime of travel posters, glossy brochures, full color magazine spreads, films of the exotic unknown, and travel memoirs both witty and insightful — are likely to be disappointed by the same infrastructure of industrialized civilization that makes international travel quick, convenient, affordable, and accessible. The disruption to one’s schedule by travel is reduced to a day of sitting on an airplane and being shuttled between various lines and waiting rooms and officials examining papers.

Upon arrival at one’s destination, one travels through the outlying industrial development that inevitably surround airports, and after this one is treated to a view of the extensive suburbs that have swelled all the cities of the industrial age. It may not be until the next day, when one emerges from one’s hotel after a night recovering from the previous day’s travel, that one comes to the historic center of an ancient city and finally begins to see the objects of touristic pilgrimage, which by now seem rather small and insignificant when surrounded by a metropolis that has but little relationship to one’s tourist intentions. The only place that I can recall that was immediately striking upon stepping out of the train station was Venice, and that was in 1989 — by now its character may well have changed.

The refamiliarization of returning home involves this same process in reverse order: one detaches and disentangles oneself from the landscape and the people and the way of life to which one has quickly become accustomed, and indeed even fond of — itself a painful process, as it often feels like a betrayal of oneself to leave that which one has sought and finally found, so that departure feels like exile rather than being the opposite of exile — and one passes by degrees back into the infrastructure of industrialized civilization, back from the countryside, into the center of a capital city, then through its suburbs and its outlying industrial districts until one at last arrives at the forlorn landscape of an airport, with its steel and glass buildings and its asphalt tarmac… the very picture of bleakness and desolation, if ever there was an uninviting spectacle welcome one on one’s journey “home” (which we must now put in scare quotes because the prospect of return no longer feels like home).

The airport, a waystation for touristic pilgrims, has all the anonymity and neutrality one would expect from a transient space not intended as a place for any kind of familiarity at all, but rather a place to make the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar, or from the unfamiliar back to the familiar.

If the airport were not already enough of a shock, then there is the abrupt re-insertion into the matrix of ordinary life and work, the telephone ringing, errands to run, obligations to meet, and a life to be lived that no longer feels like one’s own.

Which is the more profoundly jarring and disturbing experience — defamiliarization or refamiliarization?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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