Miall & Kuiken, 1994

Miall, D. S. & Kuiken, D. "Foregrounding, Defamiliarization, and Affect: Response to Literary Stories." Poetics 22 (1994): 389-407.
Miall & Kuiken (1994) point out a gap in the empirical studies of literary comprehension: the investigation of the effects of literary style, or, more precisely, how foregrounding affects readers. The authors provide an overview of theoretical principles in the Theory of Foregrounding in order to justify such a study. They comment on empirical implications and explore the issue further by assessing the relationship between foregrounding and its effects upon readers who differ considerably in experience in literary reading.  
The basis of their study stems from theories initially formulated by Coleridge and Shelley in the 19th century and later developed by the Russian Formalists and the Prague Structuralists. It is important to stress that there has not been an intended continuity in the foundation principles of the Theory of Foregrounding. For Shklovskij (1917), art is seen as a process whose function is to know the sensation of objects and to see the world anew. The device whereby this is achieved is defamiliarization. Art deautomatizes our perceptions by making the forms difficult, unfamiliar, prolonging the length of perception and emphasizing the new meanings and the emotional effects of the forms. The process of perception has, then, an aesthetic end in itself. It is such aesthetic effect which defines the function of poetic language, where foregrounding is highly structured, systematic, and hierarchical (Mukarovský, 1964 [1932]). In literary language, foregrounding concentrates on the disruption of everyday communication, which becomes secondary. As a consequence, foregrounding enables literature to present new meanings with an intricacy and complexity that ordinary language does not allow. Foregrounding, as proposed by the Russian Formalists, is realized mainly by means of two stylistic devices: deviation and parallelism (Jakobson, 1987) and is a pragmatic concept that refers to the interaction of author, literary text and reader. The material presence of devices of foregrounding leads the readers in their textual interpretation and satisfies their aesthetic needs. Thus, it is inferred that aesthetic appreciation depends on readers' engagement with foregrounding. Such principles generate hypotheses to be tested empirically. Evidence shows that foregrounding might be related to certain effects, such as strikingness, reading time, and affect, the two latter still requiring detailed examination.  
By means of four studies in which segment by segment reading times and ratings were collected from readers of three different short stories, Miall & Kuiken (1994) not only provide empirical support for linguistic components, but also for psychological ones. As for the testing of linguistic aspects, they confirm and extend to prose Van Peer's (1986) previous observations as they investigated the relation between responses to foregrounding and qualities such as strikingness, importance and discussion value. They found a relation between foregrounding and reading time, strikingness, and affect. Analyzing the segments of the stories for the presence of foregrounded features at the phonetic, grammatical, and semantic levels, they improved on the analytic method proposed by van Peer, introducing a finer quantification of the scores, turning these index scores into standard ones (i.e., z-scores). As a result, they could compare different distributions, augmenting the analytic possibilities of studying the effect of foregrounding on readers.  
Also concerned with investigating the psychological process a reader undergoes when encountering foregrounding, Miall & Kuiken (1994) propose that a central part of the constructive work required by readers of a literary text is initiated at the moment they react affectively in response to stylistically remarkable elements. They propose the notion of refamiliarization, a process which has been described by Harker (1996) as the readers' "reattentional activity". The problem is that this concept overlooks the contribution of feeling. Refamiliarization refers to "an intra and/or extra textual revision or re-evaluation in order to discern, delimit or develop the novel meanings suggested by the foregrounded passages" (Miall & Kuiken, 1994: 394). For example, a reader may recall other passages in the text or memories of his or her own to extend or embellish a metaphor. They propose that, "in general, such reconsideration of the text surrounding foregrounded features will be guided by the feelings that have been evoked in response to those features. . . . The feelings accentuated while reading foregrounded passages sensitise the reader to other passages having similar affective connotations." (1994: 395). In other words, they propose that the novelty of an unusual linguistic variation is defamiliarizing, defamiliarization evokes feelings, and feelings guide "refamiliarizing" interpretive efforts (p. 392).  
Miall & Kuiken (1994) provide evidence that response to foregrounding is independent of literary competence or experience. This way, they suggest that foregrounding achieves its effects in relation to norms of language use outside of literature, rather than norms established by especially trained communities with particular understanding of the literary, as stated by Fish (1980). They question the assumption of contemporary literary scholars that there is nothing intrinsically literary about literary texts. Finally, they suggest the sequence defamiliarization-feeling-refamiliarization as distinctive to the literary domain.  
In class, initial discussions stemmed from the argument that "foregrounding may occur in normal, everyday language . . . but it occurs sporadically, without systematic design. In literary texts, on the other hand, foregrounding is structured: it tends to be both systematic and hierarchical . . . [it] enables literature to present meanings with an intricacy and complexity that ordinary language does not normally allow" (Mukarovský, 1964: see Miall & Kuiken, 1994: 390). According to Carter (1999), ordinary language can be highly creative and display literary properties, such as advertisements, for instance. If it happens, and if foregrounding may also be structured in instances of everyday discourse, how can we distinguish the limits between "literary language" and creative "ordinary language"? What is "everyday / ordinary language"? Some authors, like Eagleton (1983), go to an extreme, arguing that "anything can be literature". It all depends on the intention of the reader, on how one chooses to read a text. Class discussion on this topic led to the possible argument that advertising language, for instance, is interested and aims at manipulating a targeted audience. Differently, "literary language" is ambivalent in interesting ways and is disinterested. Consequently, its effects on readers are possibly different from the ones provoked by "creative ordinary language". It may lead to self-modifying experiences, for instance, which may not occur with creative uses of "everyday language". Whether this is a matter of the intention of the reader, or how one approaches a text, or of how readers are chosen to read a text (Carter, 1999), for aesthetic or manipulative purpose, is, however, an unresolved question, and topic for further empirical investigation.  
In "literary language", foregrounding is structured and, according to the Russian Formalists and Miall & Kuiken (1994), the material presence of devices of foregrounding leads the reader in their textual interpretation and fulfillment of their aesthetic needs. Discussions in class raised the issue that response to foregrounding may not necessarily lead to positive aesthetic responses. Sometimes foregrounding may lead to frustration and dissatisfaction. Berlyne (1970) suggests that novelty and complexity can be responsible for the arousal of hedonic values. His experiments demonstrate that pleasingness and interestingness increase with novelty, but only up to a certain extent. The increase of novelty thereafter leads to the decrease of hedonic feelings. The hypothesis that foregrounding can be associated with novelty is, then, problematic. The possibility of measuring the "quantity of foregrounding" needed to provoke aesthetic pleasure was discussed. A "maximum of foregrounding" may cause dissatisfaction. Is such measurement feasible? One possible empirical work that would be helpful in collecting evidence in this direction would be to test whether the effects of foregrounding on the reader change during rereadings of the same text and investigate how different these effects are.  
The next topic for discussion was Miall & Kuiken's (1994) suggestion that foregrounding achieves its effects in relation to norms of language use outside of literature, rather than norms established by especially trained communities with particular understanding of the literary. The extent to which such a claim can be considered valid was questioned. It is possible that one is familiarized with the language, but not with the literary form, such as a reader reading haiku for the first time with no previous literary training. If one is not familiar with the conventions of such a mode of poetry, will the effects of foregrounding be noticed anyway? Is it possible to say that foregrounding will be depicted by readers independent of their literary training? Would the argument that levels of foregrounding, or clines of foregrounding, are perceived by readers depending on their literary competence be more appropriate? Is it possible to show that the more competent the reader, the more foregrounding can be perceived? Despite such considerations, strong empirical evidence (Miall & Kuiken, 1994; van Peer, 1986) conducted with readers who differ considerably in experience in literary reading still seems to support the claim that foregrounding may achieve its effects independent of literary competence. Such an assumption does not seem to be refuted so far.  
The last point for discussion concerned the tension foregrounding / backgrounding and the relation between the two as creating the expressiveness of works of art (Ostrower, 1986). When we focus on the study of foregrounded elements, we automatically presuppose their relation with backgrounded ones and the focus will depend on the nature of the text we work with. However, whether it is possible to investigate each one separately and the implications as well as gains of such study are a matter for further investigation. One final observation is that the article triggered a fruitful debate in class, when many unresolved questions could be commented on. It demonstrates that many issues around the theory of foregrounding are still intriguing and thought-provoking and it is an area deserving systematic research.  

Berlyne, D.E. "Novelty, complexity, and hedonic value." Perception & Psychophysics, 1970, vol.8.

Carter, R. "Common language: Corpus, creativity and cognition." Language & Literature, 1999, vol.8.

Eagleton, T. Literary Theory: an Introduction. Oxford, Blackwell, 1983.

Ostrowe, F. Universos da arte, 3rd ed. Rio de Janeiro: Campus, 1986.

Document created November 3rd 2005