COLUMN: Defamiliarizing Ourselves

Today we run the risk of becoming too familiar with things. For us at Boston College, this can mean getting sucked into the “college bubble.” For others, whether older or younger, it can mean getting too entrenched in the normal, the expected, the unsurprising. Obviously, for many, this can be offset by travel, new jobs, changing relationships, etc. But, on the whole, we do run the risk of becoming too familiar with things-as-they-are.

By way of illumination, let me share with you a story from a friend. Rev. Robert Imbelli shared with me a short anecdote of Pope Pius X about familiarity-once, the pope noticed a man quickly shuffling back and forth in front of the tabernacle in a church. The man gave little regard to the tabernacle, not genuflecting or bowing or showing any sign of respect as he passed it. In response, the pope quipped, “That man must be either an atheist or the sacristan!” The point of the joke obviously being that familiarity can breed (unintentional) disregard.

In our daily lives we are often caught up in the familiar routines we have. We go to class, get dinner with the same folk, watch the same shows, listen to the same music, and do the same things on the weekend. We simply fall into the routine trap of everyday life, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

But we run the risk of things becoming just too familiar-of us losing sight of the uniqueness, individuality, or otherness of people, places, and things. This fact extends beyond our routines to our opinions, values, and beliefs-thus, our political affiliations become routine; our moral lives become code books, manuals as dense and impersonal as the operating guide for a Mac or PC; our faiths devolve into ritual motions; our friendships become chores; our opinions on everything from world matters to state elections to the recent PTA meeting all become a homogenous heap of singular mindset. In short, we become governed not so much by our reason or our heart as by our routine.

So I propose we defamiliarize. How do we do that? Or, what does that even mean?

Defamiliarization is a term that was coined by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984). Essentially, the goal of defamiliarization is to revitalize a given artistic object. Any form of art is liable to become habitual or over-familiar, but by defamiliarizing (ostranenie, “making strange”) the art form can regain its potential to stimulate and provoke. As Shklovsky, in his 1925 essay, “Art as Technique,” put it, “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”

But this concept of defamiliarization extends beyond the literary and visual arts. Its socio-anthropological ramifications run deep. Our “social cognition,” Judith Howard explains in her article of the same name, is our automatic classification of things we perceive-our habitual act of placing everything we encounter into its appropriate, preexisting category. And it is an all too routinized process. In this way, our very lives become formalized realities. If we were to be cliche and say that our lives are canvases on which everything is painted, then our collective life would probably be something like The Last Supper, Starry Night, or the Mona Lisa-an all-too-familiar work of art (the analogy is imperfect for obvious reasons, but the sentiment holds true if we consider these pieces of work over-familiarized in Western consciousness). Every moment of our lives ought to be the last brush stroke on The Creation of Adam, or the final polished niche of the statue of David.

What, then, are we to do? My proposal is simple. We defamiliarize. We need to recover the mystery of life, of all the things that have become mundane, quotidian, and otherwise usual to us. We need to again see the awe of our lives-everything that constitutes our daily, religious, occupational, or political lives. If we re-evaluate, re-consider, or re-classify our decisions, beliefs, opinions, behaviors, and more, we will appreciate why we hold those very things so dear. Or we will change (hopefully for the better).

Permit me to share a personal example. Every week I attend Mass. And at every Mass there is a moment where the congregation claims to “join the heavenly host in their unending hymn of praise” of God, singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth is full of your glory…” For me, as I am sure is the case for many of my Catholic brothers and sisters, this prayer, the Sanctus, can become simply a routine. It is “just what we say every week.” But, for me, this has changed in the past year, as I have been studying liturgical texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls. In these, the Scrolls community calls upon the heavenly hosts to praise God so that the people might join the angels in worshipping Him. In learning about this other worshipping community and their attempts to commune with the divine through the use of similar prayers, I have come to more fully appreciate my own tradition’s use of the Sanctus. We are not simply saying words. It is not “just what we say every week.” It is a beautiful and transcendent moment in which my church is truly sharing in the praise of the highest heavens, offering to God the sweet aroma of our prayer, as the Dead Sea Scrolls community might put it.

When we defamiliarize, we see the world in its beauty again. The process is not a one-time thing. It is continuous. And it may contain some hard work. But if we constantly defamiliarize ourselves to the new and the old, we will always appreciate the fullness of things. The point is not to change as much as to appreciate. To reflect on life is to experience the fullness of life. There is a lot we would have differently, I am sure, but there is just as much that we let go by us with little notice-beautiful little things that deserve all the awe and affection that we give to the masterpieces of art and giants of literature. If we can defamiliarize these things, why should we not be able to defamiliarize ourselves?

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.