Discuss the term ‘dominant’ in formalism

The dominant is a concept of some importance in the literary theory of formalism developed in the Prague School of linguistics and thus of later provenance than Russian Formalism. Roman Jakobson defined it in 1935 as ‘the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components’. The dominant gives a work its Gestalt, its organic unity; thus bringing about the unified whole of a work.

The concept of ‘the dominant’ can be seen to emerge as a development and response within the Prague School to Shklovsky’s earlier definition of ‘defamiliarization’ in Art as Technique. Whereas Shklovsky has suggested that form or technique was in itself a defamiliarizing agent, later Formalists, including Yuri Tynyanov writing in the 1920s, stressed that the defamiliarizing effect of a device depended on its function in the work in which it appeared. Thus a work may include some automatized elements which are subordinate to the defamiliarizing or foregrounded elements. This foregrounding of a group of elements comes to be seen later by Jakobson as ‘the dominant’. The dominant emphasizes the distinction between those formal elements which function to defamiliarize and those which function passively. This view of the literary text as inherently dynamic and dialectical is developed in the work of the Prague School; to acknowledge that a device that was once defamiliarizing can become automatized is to recognize one aspect of the momentum in literary history. Both Russian Formalism and the Prague Linguistic Circle refine their theories through acknowledging the fact of literary history.

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