When Calvin Payne decided to release a book documenting his research into the history of manhole and sewer covers in Sheffield he got an unusual amount of media attention. A national tabloid newspaper called him “The Drainspotter”—running an article with the tagline ‘Sheffield man spends his time taking pictures of manhole covers – it’s not very exciting but he thinks it’s grate’. The article’s semi-smarmy tone frames him as an eccentric in pursuing an unconventional but ultimately inconsequential pastime. But Payne is much more than a good old English eccentric—he is subversive. In trekking around Sheffield, staring down at something tens of millions of people walk over idly their whole life, Payne is dragging us through a process of defamiliarisation—rendering the familiar ultimately unfamiliar whether he means to or not.
The drive to defamiliarise punctuated philosophy throughout the 20th century, from Michel Foucault’s genealogies of complex social structures like sexuality and crime/punishment to feminist thinkers who unpacked gender roles. The development of theories of space and place at the same time shared this preoccupation with defamiliarisation—the Situationist International’s psychogeography is the most blaring example.
Defamiliarisation as a theoretical motif certainly didn’t have its genesis in Viktor Shklovsky’s 1917 essay Art as Technique, but he was certainly one of the first to distil the concept from art and crystallise it as a useful framework for future investigations.
And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important…
After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it -hence we cannot say anything, significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways.
Read the full essay here, in which Shklovsky further elucidates the concept by drawing on examples in the work of Pushkin and Tolstoy.
The concept of defamiliarisation seems especially pertinent to the study of hidden geographies and unmediated space, the very bread of butter of Metal and Dust.