Ostranenie: On Shame and Knowing

Go to book’s site at punctumbooks.com


Ostranenie, the term for defamiliarization introduced by Russian writer and critic Victor Shklovsky, means, among other things, to see in strangeness. To see in strangeness is to participate in an illusion that is more real than real. It may be achieved by (re)presenting the surface as the substance, the play as the thing, or by examining (from exigere: to drive out) what is present before one’s eyes. Ultimately, ostranenie means confessing one’s complicity in making known what is known.

M.H. Bowker’s Ostranenie: On Shame and Knowing is a meditation upon the moment of a mother’s death: a moment of defamiliarization in several senses. The body of the work consists of footnotes which elaborate, by exegesis, by parataxis, and sometimes by surprise, the intimate and often hidden relationships between parent and child, illusion and knowledge, shame and loss. These elaborations raise questions about the power of the familiar, the limitations of discursive thought, and the paradoxical nature of the interpersonal, political, and spiritual bargains we make for the sake of security and freedom.

Ostranenie treats the personal relationship between the author and his mother in both direct and oblique ways. In a candidly unsettled examination of this relationship and its influence upon the reflections and concerns of the author, the reader is invited to experience a family, a disintegration, a psyche, and its defamiliarization, from the perspectives of both an adult and a child.

Praise for Ostranenie

“While Ostranenie takes its title from an obscure Russian term for feelings of defamiliarization, and while its form foregrounds the cerebral, footnotes pushing poetic text off the page, and while its author is shamelessly intellectual, dropping, for instance, “Verfremdungseffekt” in the book’s first fifty words, and while we might thus expect coolness, austerity, or flippancy from such a set of particulars, quite the opposite is true: this is a deeply moving book about the experience of grief, about how our books do and don’t prepare us for it, about how our closest human connections are both alienating and familiar, how grief takes us out of ourselves and returns us to ourselves. Bowker comes through the books and thinkers and languages to a very human place, as if to say,why shouldn’t thinking also make us human? And, why is this a surprise?  Required reading for grad school people from working class roots.”

Ted Pelton, Starcherone Books

Reviews of Ostranenie

Powers, A.T. 2016. “Review of Ostranenie: On Shame and Knowing, by M.H. Bowker.” Prick of the Spindle: A Journal of the Literary Arts.