Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour

Committee Members

Ilya Kliger

Lev Manovich

Martin Elsky

Subject Categories

Aesthetics | Comparative Literature | Digital Humanities | Russian Literature | Theory and Criticism


Russian Formalism, Digital Humanities, literary evolution, Yarkho, Moretti, McLuhan


The interest of this dissertation is how our understanding of literary development—as gradual or revolutionary; self-governed or socio-politically determined; like or unlike biological evolution—informs the status, meaning, and value of literature and literary studies. The dissertation shows how this problem—most pressing in our post-logocentric age—was addressed at the dawn of contemporary literary theory by the Russian Formalists. The latter are compared with Distant Readers, i.e., the Digital Humanists from, or conducting research in dialogue with, the Stanford Literary Lab: Franco Moretti, Matthew Jockers, Ted Underwood, William Benzon, and others.

This dissertation argues that both Russian Formalism and Distant Reading were brought about by a big bang of data: Big Data proper for Digital Humanities, and in the case of Russian Formalism, the abundance of literary and linguistic facts that nineteenth-century positivists amassed yet failed to explain through a universal linguistic or literary theory.

This study analyzes important overlaps between Russian Formalism and Distant Reading (mainly in chapters 1, 3, and 4)—such as their “geometrical” (distant and pattern- rather than “content”-centered) interpretation of meaning in literary development. At the same time, the dissertation construes some fundamental differences in the models of literary development as per Russian Formalism and Distant Reading, culminating in the following problems: success as an indicator of systemic change (chapter 4); humor as a challenge to any formalist reading (chapter 5); and disputed agency in literary development (chapter 6).

A major contribution of this dissertation is the critical introduction of the recently rediscovered Formalist Boris Yarkho, who anticipated Distant Reading by decades in his quantitative, statistics-driven, application of evolutionary biology to literature. The figure of Yarkho makes it possible to discern fundamental discrepancies, in values and methods, within Russian Formalism—primarily between Yarkho and the group of Viktor Shklovsky (chapters 1 and 2). These discrepancies spotlight the bifurcation points for contemporary literary scholarship, including literary scholars grouped under the umbrella term of Digital Humanities. To this end (differentiating the various strands of formalism), the dissertation establishes a pattern of scholarship represented by the intermedial formalisms of Shklovsky and Marshall McLuhan (chapter 6), distinct from both the proto-structuralist and “biostatistical” interpretations of Yarkhovian and Jakobsonian Formalism, as well as their analogues in Distant Reading.

This comparison is not merely of abstract concern. The differences are heuristic, i.e., capable of enabling different kinds of literary scholarship—as with Yarkho’s specific methods of genre analysis; Shklovsky and McLuhan’s recategorization of the significance of the person vis-à-vis the medium; or their deliberately partial study of media through personal involvement in the form of essayistic writing, which leaves no theoretical inclination neutral and “vacuous,” but endows it with a cash value (an important category of this dissertation, borrowed from William James).

Juxtaposing the best-known Russian Formalists of Shklovsky’s group with Distant Readers (mainly Moretti), Yarkho, and Marshall McLuhan (regarded as a “Russian Formalist” of the digital age), this dissertation rewrites the institutional history of Russian Formalism and gives a history to Distant Reading. Distant Reading meets its precursors, to embrace or rebel against, from now on compelled to deal with “the anxiety of influence.” Russian Formalism as a theory faces a new, digital, challenge on its home field.