Formalism attempted to find the object of a science of literature. Saussure - regarded by many as the father of structuralism - also posed this problem in semiotics. To this purpose he put forward a methodological distinction between langue (the system of rules governing the relation of speech utterances), parole (speech utterances themselves) and langage (language as speech--understood to be constituted by the former two and to include all aspects of verbal activity). He proceeded to erect langue as the proper object of linguistics, and discarded the possibility for linguistics to start with an analysis of either langage or parole on the grounds that the former had no inner unity and was not autonomous, whilst the latter was inessential, accessory and more or less random.
"In our opinion, there can be but one solution to all these difficulties (difficulties entailed in taking langage as the point of departure for analysis): we must first and foremost take our stand on the grounds of language (langue) and accept it as the norm for all other manifestations of speech (langage). Indeed, amidst so many dualities, langue alone appears susceptible to autonomous definition, and it alone can provide the mind a satisfactory base of operations". (Cours de linguistique générale,(1906-1911), Payot, 1975, p. 24)
Saussure also ascribes to utterance (parole) what is changing in language, and in this sense he excludes the possibility of taking utterances as the object of synchronic linguistics, for the latter must be concerned with 'the logical and psychological relations that bind together coexistent terms and form a system, such as these relations are perceived by one and the same collective mind'.
Saussure discards the diachronic level of analysis because he is utmostly seeking scientificity and can see no way for the structure of langue to be explained and given rules with reference to determinations which lie outside of it. The philological source and historical genesis of parole are insignificant to all conventions that regulate the relation of the signifier to the signified and which make meaning possible.
question of whether the level of linguistic analysis has to be diachronic
(an analysis of historical change and development of language) or synchronic
(an analysis of language as a static system of rules, as it exists at
any point in time) is critically taken up by formalist thinkers such
as Bakhtin and Volosinov.
Volosinov and Bakhtin are the main exponents of Russian formalism, who tried to solve the problem of diachronic analysis in linguistics. Volosinov vehemently accuses Saussure of being unable to account for 'change' and the polysemanticity of the word. He charges him with abstract objectivism. Saussure believed that language stands to society as the utterance stands to the individual, hence turning the latter into a mere accident and random element of the system under analysis. Volosinov's criticism focuses on the contextual development of abstract objectivism, that he regards as a conservative trend that follows a saturated period of creativity, and tries to counterpose to Saussure's dismissive treatment of the speech act his thesis according to which the utterance is actually a social phenomenon and ought to constitute the main object of linguistic analysis. As Bakhtin puts it:
'Every concrete utterance of a speaking subject serves as a point where centrifugal as well as centripetal forces are brought to bear. The process of centralisation and decentralisation, of unification and disunification, intersect in the utterance; the utterance not only answers the requirements of its own language as an individualised embodiment of a speech act, but it answers the requirements of heteroglossia as well; it is in fact an active participant in speech diversity.' (The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, p. 272)
Contrary to Saussure, precisely by virtue of the fact that utterances partake both to the 'unitary language' - Saussure's systematisable langue - and social and historical diversity of verbal activities, 'it is possible to give a concrete and detailed analysis of any utterance, once having exposed it as a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of two embattled tendencies in the life of language'. Bakhtin accuses systematic linguistics of suppressing heterodossia, and describes the dynamics of living language as those of a centripetal force represented by the drive towards unitary language and that of heteroglossia, always an opposing power, representing a centrifugal force and the dialogic power of language. In fact, in studying folklore, Bakhtin searches for the expression of heteroglossia in the novel.
Volosinov introduces the idea of the relation between speaker and listener as constitutive of meaning. He asserts that the use and meaning of language are reciprocally determined by 'whose word it is and for whom it is meant'.
More importantly, in trying to found a science of literature, formalism posits the question of what makes a text literary. The interesting answer, which was later to influence a whole range of literary and theatrical productions, was that it is its ability to defamiliarise experience. The concept of defamiliarization is crucial both for its inherently relational nature and also for its ability to convey the sense of literariness as a function.
Defamiliarization does not reveal the world as it really is but merely constitutes one distinctive form of cognition amongst others. Literature then is also a practice of transformation of existing forms of cognition that shape our perception of the social world. This is crucial since the aim is to 'return the object from 'recognition' to 'seeing', as well as to break with the primacy of the role assigned to the author in literary criticism. Hence, against realism and 'reflection theory', Jakobson asserts that the text signifies reality rather than reflecting it. Literature then needs to be regarded as a historical rather than aesthetic category. Bakhtin's work concentrates on the Renaissance and folk humour. He analyses forms of defamiliarization from within politically and ritualised 'discrowning' of official ideology. Bakhtin moves beyond formalism and stresses the importance of diachronic analysis in a materialist understanding of literature and with Volosinov criticises the linguists' obsession with dead languages and regards it as a symptom of their need to constitute a unity out of the multiple and heterogeneous.
It could be argued that Saussure's linguistics and its focus on the synchronic analysis of language stemmed from the need to oppose the tendencies towards a philosophy of origins that characterised the main project of his time in the constitution of a continuous evolutionist theory of Indo-European language.
'The victory of one reigning language (dialect) over the others, the supplanting of languages, their enslavement, the process of illuminating them with the True Word, the incorporation of barbarians and lower social strata into a unitary language of culture and truth, the canonisation of ideological systems, philology with its methods of studying and teaching dead languages, languages that were by that very fact 'unities', Indo-European linguistics with its focus of attention, directed away from language plurality to a single proto-language - all this determined the content and power of the category of 'unitary language' in linguistic and stylistic thought, and determined its creative, style-shaping role in the majority of the poetic genres that coalesced in the channel formed by those same centripetal forces of verbal-ideological life.' (M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 1986, p. 271).
Bakhtin and Foucault - albeit in different ways - work towards seeking an alternative to both the primacy of a philosophy of origins and an a-historical 'scientific' abstraction in linguistics (abstract objectivism) by means of a methodological reflection and practice of a modified historical analysis of linguistic discourse formations that can account for the materiality of language and its effects in a relation of interiority with socio-political epistemic modifications. They do so respectively through the notions of: dialogism and heteroglossia for Bakhtin, and statement and archive for Foucault.
Later on with Roland Barthes, the Tel Quel group and more importantly through Brecht's use of defamiliarisation in theatre, formalism is revisited, even though its methodological and theoretical preoccupations are dismissed as Kantian. But we should not mind that because, together with the Annales School, these people helped to redefine our understanding of how reality is constituted.