Yuri Tynianov: Permanent Evolution. Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film

Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019, ISBN: 9781644690628 (hardcover), 9781618118417 (paperback), 378 pp.

Isabel Jacobs
Yuri Tynianov; Russian Formalism; Soviet literary criticism; avant-garde; film theory; evolution; parody; FEX; experimental film; montage; philosophy of history; structuralism.

Soviet critic, theorist and writer Yuri Tynianov (1894–1943) is still overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson. A well-rounded collection of Tynianov’s writings, skilfully translated and edited by Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, reintroduces him to English-speaking readers. Coming with an excellent introduction by Daria Khitrova, the volume was shortlisted for the 2021 AATSEEL Book Prize for Best Scholarly Translation into English. Permanent Evolution gathers some of Tynianov’s seminal writings on Russian poetry, literary theory, and film, many of them translated for the first time. Tynianov’s work was first republished in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s (Chudakova, Chudakov, and Toddes 1977), influencing theorists from Juri Lotman to Boris Groys. Permanent Evolution finally sets the ground for a global “Tynianov Renaissance.” The volume retraces Tynianov’s trajectory from the post-revolutionary years to the death of Vladimir Mayakovsky to whom he dedicates a brief, passionate obituary (Tynianov 2019: 293). In merely a decade (1919–1930), under the shifting climate of early Stalinism, Tynianov produced an impressive body of work that intervened into major discourses of the time, from philosophy of history and aesthetics to experimental film.

Divided into four main parts, the volume also includes a note from the editors-translators, an introduction, an appendix, a biographical note, a bibliography and an index. As I will further elaborate, this additional material, particularly the appendix and the editors’ extensive commentaries, are invaluable resources for both literary scholars and the general reader. The four parts are roughly divided by chronological order, highlighting some potential thematic clusters. While the structure loosely follows the development of Tynianov’s thought, the volume clearly emphasizes the interconnectedness of the different aspects of his work. I will later demonstrate how, for instance, Tynianov’s respective theories of cinema and literary evolution are intricately related to one another. Part One, “Theory Through History – Then” gathers some of Tynianov’s earliest texts on Russian literature, mostly dedicated to Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Pushkin. Part Two, “Theory Through History – Now,” covering the mid-1920s, includes “Literary Fact” (1924), “On Khlebnikov” and the first essay on film. Cinema remains one of the main concerns of Part Three, “Evolution in Literature and Film”, which develops Tynianov’s mature philosophy of evolution, as represented by his masterpiece “On Literary Evolution” (1927). Part Four, “Epilogue,” sheds light on the later texts, covering topics such as structural linguistics and parody.

Born into a Jewish middle-class family in eastern Latvia, Tynianov went on to study at Petrograd University. From 1918, Tynianov joined OPOYAZ (the Society for the Study of Poetic Language), a circle of literary scholars led by Viktor Shklovsky. Side-by-side with avant-garde poets, these ‘Formalists’ paved the way for modern literary theory. As Permanent Evolution reveals, Tynianov’s contribution to the movement was significantly more crucial and multifaceted than previous, scattered translations of his essays may have suggested. Today, Russian Formalism is still mostly reduced to famous catchwords such as ‘defamiliarization,’ coined by Tynianov’s colleague Shklovsky. Permanent Evolution finally brings to light Tynianov as a remarkable thinker in his own right. As the book’s title – a pun on Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’ – already encapsulates, Tynianov’s philosophy was driven by a peculiar interest in historical progress that mediates innovation and tradition. Rather than decoding texts as static machines, Tynianov suggested looking at what literature does; this is, to examine its dynamism, leaps and shifts. Or, in his words: “you can’t judge a bullet by its color, taste or smell: a bullet must be judged by its dynamics (Tynianov 2019: 158).

Morse and Redko’s new translation brilliantly unveils the dynamic and versatile nature of Tynianov’s thought. Without losing the idiosyncrasies of Tynianov’s style, the editors-translators succeeded in rendering his writing into elegant, clear theoretical prose. As a result, Tynianov’s project reappears as a strikingly relevant contribution to the contemporary study of cultural transformation. One example is Tynianov’s famous text “On literary evolution” (1927). Although familiar to English readers since the 1970s (Matejka and Pomorska 1978), the new version in Permanent Evolution sheds quite a different light on Tynianov’s terminology and his main ideas. For instance, as convincingly argued in the “Appendix,” the editors decided to introduce the notion of ‘shift’ as a concept that can refer to Tynianov’s view on “different kinds of interrelations within literary works, literary systems, and literary evolution overall” (Tynianov 2019: 158). ‘Shift,’ thanks to its “open-ended and capacious” nature, captures both the meaning of the Russian terms smena (change, alteration, length of time, succession) and sdvig (a more abrupt, violent shift). Accordingly, the shift of systems in the process of evolution “can be slower or more abrupt depending on the historical period” (Tynianov 2019: 281). Further, I argue that the concept of ‘shift’ not only allows for a whole spectrum of meanings, but also manages to abolish some of the Darwinist connotations in Tynianov’s theory of evolution. Where previous translations speak of “science”, “history”, “mutation”, “order” and “social conventions” (Matejka and Pomorska 1978: 66-78), Morse and Redko evoke “scholarship”, “historicity”, “shift”, “series” and “everyday life.” The result is a dynamic theory of cultural evolution, closer to poststructuralist epistemes and Thomas S. Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts” than it is to Darwinian literary studies.

Forecasting structuralism and cultural semiotics, Tynianov viewed culture as an open system, interacting with other systems; a dynamic organism in flux, with a fluid center and an active periphery. In the dialectical process of historical evolution, as the manifesto “Literary Fact” (1924) elaborates, there is no fixed ontological definition or “quintessence” of literature. Instead, literature emerges at the borders of different systems, with “literary facts” congregating at the peripheral edges. Certain authorial styles or literary periods resemble more “a zigzag line that is being continuously broken” than a closed system (ibid.: 159). This theory of nomadic evolution is further developed in “Problems of the Study of Literature and Language” (1928), co-authored with Roman Jakobson. Drawing on Saussure’s structural linguistics, Tynianov redefines evolution here as a “structural law” that has to be examined in the light of different interrelating “structures”. One of Permanent Evolution’s eye-opening moments is its emphasis on the visionary potentials of Tynianov’s thought. As Khitrova recalls in the “Introduction,” Shklovsky saw cultural evolution analogous to the growth of a tree: “the youngest branch makes its way to the center – there it becomes automatized (worn out and faded by use) – and then a new branch comes to the fore” (ibid.: 19). Unlike Shklovsky’s tree, Tynianov’s view on history is non-linear, open-ended and “continuously broken.” Prefiguring constellations that later resurface in French philosophy in the 1960s, Tynianov has a kinship with Deleuze and Guattari. Like their ‘rhizome,’ Tynianov’s model of evolution represents a non-hierarchical multiplicity of nomadic growth. With his interest in the complex entanglements of evolution, as the volume continually emphasizes, Tynianov was in many ways ahead of his times.

In fact, Permanent Evolution’s true gems are Tynianov’s texts on cinema, reflecting also his own adventures in the Soviet film industry. Here, the reader can explore some of the finest writing on early experimental film in the Soviet Union. And again, the editors’ footnotes allow rare insight into Tynianov’s terminology, textual references and biographical details. In “Film – Word – Music” (1924), echoing Hegelian-Marxist terminology, Tynianov defines cinema as “abstract art” because it destroys – from Latin abstractus, “drawn away” – the concrete totality of experience (ibid.: 231). While theater maintains the cohesive unity of time and space, film fragments time and space through montage. Cinematic time is epic and fluid; even the actor’s body is broken down into its components, isolated gestures, fragments of speech, voice and facial expressions, detached from the whole of reality. Tynianov’s text vividly grasps the shock effect that early silent film had on contemporary audiences. As soon as the music stops, all you can see are “pits of the gaping, speaking mouths [which] are excruciating. Look closely at the movement on screen: how heavily the horses are leaping in that emptiness! You can’t keep watching them running.” Cinema, Tynianov concludes, is “poison”, an “unhappy invention” and “a pathetic compromise” (ibid.: 233). Only a year later, Tynianov was already unreservedly excited by the potentialities of this new art form. Now working as a screenwriter and script consultant at Sevzapkino, later Lenfilm, Tynianov wrote “On the Screenplay” (1926), reflecting on the challenge to liberate screenwriting from literature.

How can screen versions of literary classics be more than illustrative? Tynianov tried to solve this problem when developing an experimental adaptation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” for the avant-garde film collective FEX (“The Factory of the Eccentric Actor”), founded in 1921 in Petrograd by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. In “On FEX” (1929), an intimate homage to the collective, Tynianov recalls how he would drop by the studio to “lecture the actors on Gogol” (ibid.: 291). Not at least thanks to Tynianov did Kozintsev and Trauberg’s “The Overcoat” become a legendary example of early Soviet experimental film. FEX, in Tynianov’s view, gained a unique “freedom of genre, a sense of tradition as non-obligatory, and the ability to see paradoxes” (ibid.: 290). The same could be said about Tynianov’s unique writing style. Just like FEX, Tynianov was more interested in parody’s comedic dynamics than “monumental epics” (ibid.). The intimate relationship between Tynianov’s project and early Soviet experimental film becomes even more evident in “The Foundations of Film” (1927). Analyzing the formal composition of film shots, Tynianov explores how montage makes meaning. Cinema, Tynianov argues, does not represent the visible world as such but rather “its semantic interrelations” (ibid.: 247). Providing a model for how our mind works and culture evolves, cinema is thus a unique thought-experiment. The camera-eye transfigures the visible world, creating “film time” through movement, camera angle, close-up, rhythm, and shot duration. Montage allows for the “evolution” of plot, interrelating shots in a “jumpy” succession that is analogous to the shifting nature of literary evolution.

Permanent Evolution both opens and closes with a text on parody. And indeed, parody might be the conceptual frame holding Tynianov’s work together. More than a satirical device, for Tynianov, parody is the dialectical mechanism of evolution itself. In Tynianov’s first published article, “Dostoevsky and Gogol. Toward a Theory of Parody” (1919/21), parody shifts the values in a system by overthrowing an element’s existing function. In Gogol and Dostoevsky’s works, parody rearranges and repeats old elements, – classical poems, trivialities, proverbs, foreign words, stylistic devices, names, refrains – thereby disrupting their initial effect. Similar to Freud, Tynianov considers jokes social phenomena, refreshing our perception and creating a shared cultural space. Through strategic stylizations, parody opens up several layers of hidden meaning in a text; in short, the stronger its parodic qualities, the more polysemous a work. Written only a decade later, at the end of Tynianov’s career as a literary theorist, “On Parody” (1929) further explores parody’s relation to literary evolution, interrelating the main motifs of his work. By the end of the 1920s, Tynianov’s poor health and the increasing persecution of ‘Formalists’ reduced his scholarly activity. His creative writing, on the other hand, began to flourish in the 1930s. At this point, Permanent Evolution leaves off, and another story begins.

Spending his last years in Moscow, Tynianov died from multiple sclerosis in December 1943. By then, Formalism was already dead. Soviet critics, including Mikhail Bakhtin, famously denounced Tynianov as an apolitical ivory-tower theorist who took refuge in art while the world was on fire. Permanent Evolution powerfully demonstrates how ideologically outdated such a view is today. To the contemporary reader, Tynianov’s various interests and style, blending literary gossip, satire and close readings, are truly refreshing. Written against the white noise of ideology, Tynianov’s texts remain “quiet rebellions” (ibid.: 9), instigating a restless, open-ended thought process. Reflecting the broad scope of his project, the collection reveals several new paths of establishing Tynianov as a key figure of twentieth-century intellectual history; as a visionary forerunner of French postmodernism, an early theorist of experimental film, and a courageously undogmatic thinker. In times like ours, suspicious of satirical excess, Tynianov’s vision of a “dogma-free world” feels curiously adventurous.

Isabel Jacobs
Queen Mary University of London


Isabel Jacobs is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her research explores the work of Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève. Other interests include global intellectual history, philosophy of science, semiotics and audiovisual research. She holds a M.A. in Russian and East European Literature and Culture from UCL SSEES and a B.A. in Philosophy and Slavic Studies from Heidelberg University, Germany. She is a contributing editor at the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog. Her work has appeared in Studies in Eastern European Cinema, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, East European Film Bulletin, Phenomenological Reviews and Calvert Journal.


Chudakova, M .O., Chudakov, A. P., and Toddes. 1977. Poetika. Istoriia literatury. Kino. Moscow.

Matejka, Ladislav, and Pomorska, Krystyna. 1978. Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. Ann Arbor.

Tynianov, Yuri. 2019. Permanent Evolution. Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film. Translated and edited by Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko. Boston.

Suggested Citation

Jacobs, Isabel. 2022. Review: “Yuri Tynianov: Permanent Evolution. Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film.Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 14. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2022.00014.297

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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