Viktor Shklovsky, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the invention of a narrative device: Implications for a history of ethnographic theory

Giuseppe Tateo


The advent of Malinowski’s ethnographic theory is inscribed in a wider modernist environment, which set the ground for the emergence of new epistemological projects. Viktor Shklovsky’s attempt to inaugurate a scientific study of literature was one of these. The article juxtaposes Shklovsky’s early works (“Art as device” and Resurrecting the word), where he interprets the descriptive style of Lev Tolstoy, with Malinowski’s experiments with storytelling and narrative technique (in Argonauts, but also in his letters to James Frazer). These two intellectual projects have common ancestors (folklore studies and comparativism), arose in the same modernist age, and came into contact again when, later on, structuralist theory redefined both linguistics and anthropology. The likeness between the respective scientific endeavors posits an immediate question: why is Russian formalism left out when anthropologists reconstruct their disciplinary kinship diagram? Not merely an attempt to spot non-Western European traces in the history of social anthropology, the paper considers Shklovsky’s contribution to contemporary debates on ethnographic writing.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/711694