Defamiliarization or ostranenie is 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. A central concept in 20th century art and theory, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre, and science fiction, it is also used as a tactic by recent movements such as Culture jamming.
Defamiliarization of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all devices. And with defamiliarization come both the slowing down and the increased difficulty (impeding) of the process of reading and comprehending and an awareness of the artistic procedures (devices) causing them. (Margolin 2005)
The technique appears in English Romantic poetry, particularly in the poetry of Wordsworth, and was defined in the following way bySamuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria: "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar [. . .] this is the character and privilege of genius."
In more recent times, it has been associated with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation effect") was a potent element of his approach to theater. Brecht, in turn, has been highly influential for artists and filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer.
Verfremdungseffekt: The distancing effect
The distancing effect, more commonly known (earlier) by John Willett's 1964 translation the alienation effect or (more recently) as the estrangement effect (German: Verfremdungseffekt), is a performing arts concept coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht "which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer." Brecht's term describes the aesthetics of his epic theatre.
The distancing effect is achieved by the way the "artist never acts as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him [...] The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place" (Willett 91). The use of direct audience-address is one way of disrupting stage illusion and generating the distancing effect. In performance, as the performer "observes himself," his objective is "to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work" (Willett 92). Whether Brecht intended the distancing effect to refer to the audience or to the actor or to both audience and actor is still controversial among teachers and scholars of "Epic Acting" and Brechtian theatre.
By disclosing and making obvious the manipulative contrivances and "fictive" qualities of the medium, the actors alienate the viewer from any passive acceptance and enjoyment of the play as mere "entertainment." Instead, the viewer is forced into a critical, analytical frame of mind that serves to disabuse him or her of the notion that what he is watching is necessarily an inviolable, self-contained narrative. This effect of making the familiar strange serves a didactic function insofar as it teaches the viewer not to take the style and content for granted, since the medium itself is highly constructed and contingent upon many cultural and economic conditions.
It may be noted that Brecht’s use of distancing effects in order to prevent audience members from bathing themselves in empathetic emotions and to draw them into an attitude of critical judgment may lead to other reactions than intellectual coolness. Brecht's popularization of the V-Effekt has come to dominate our understanding of its dynamics. But the particulars of a spectator’s psyche and of the tension aroused by a specific alienating device may actually increase emotional impact. Audience reactions are rarely uniform, and there are many diverse, sometimes unpredictable, responses that may be achieved through distancing.