Friday, April 18, 2008


What literature is, how it works, and why it is there at all, are some of the fascinating questions that the theory of 'foregrounding' tries to provide answers to. The term refers to specific linguistic devices, i.e., deviation and parallelism, used in literary texts in a functional and condensed way. These devices enhance the meaning potential of the text, while also providing the reader with the possibility of aesthetic experience. According to the theory of foregrounding, literature - by employing unusual forms of language - breaks up the reader's routine behavior: commonplace views and perspectives are replaced by new and surprising insights and sensations. In this way literature keeps or makes individuals aware of their automatized actions and preconceptions. It thus contributes to general creativity and development in societies. The theory of foregrounding is also one of the few literary theories which have been tested empirically for its validity. 1. FOREGROUNDING: THE TERM
The term 'foregrounding' may be used in a purely linguistic sense. It then refers to new information, in contrast to elements in the sentence which form the background against which the new elements are to be understood by the listener / reader. From this point of view the term bears resemblance to other (pairs of) concepts in linguistics, such as theme / rhyme, given / new, frame / insert, and subject / predicate.

In what follows, the term will not be used in this narrow linguistic sense, but as situated in the wider area of stylistics, text linguistics, and literary studies. There the term originates with Garvin (1964), who introduced it as a translation of the Czech aktualisace, a term common with the Prague Structuralists, especially Jan Mukarovsky, who employs it in the sense of the English 'actualization.' This suggests a temporal category: to make something actual (rather than virtual). Garvin's translation has rendered this temporal metaphor into a spatial one: that of a foreground and a background. This allows the term to be related to issues in perception psychology, such as figure / ground constellations ( a group of related ideas, things or people). It remains uncertain, however, whether this corresponds to what the Prague scholars had in mind. The English term 'foregrounding' has come to mean several things at once. First of all it is used to indicate the (psycholinguistic) processes by which - during the reading act - something may be given special prominence. Second, it may refer to specific devices (as produced by the author) located in the text itself. It is also employed to indicate the specific poetic effect on the reader. Furthermore, it may be used as an analytic category in order to evaluate literary texts, or to situate them historically, or to explain their importance and cultural significance. Finally, it is also wielded in order to differentiate literature from other varieties of language use, such as everyday conversations or scientific reports. Thus the term covers a wide area of meaning. This may have its advantages, but may also be problematic: which of the above meanings is intended must often be deduced from the context in which the term is used.
Outside literature, so the assumption goes, language tends to be automatized (a method of painting that avoids conscious thought and allows a free flow of ideas); its structures and meanings are used routinely. Within literature, however, this is opposed by devices which thwart the automatism with which language is read, processed, or understood. Generally, two such devices may be distinguished, those of deviation and of parallelism. Deviation corresponds to the traditional idea of poetic license: the writer of literature is allowed - in contrast to the everyday speaker - to deviate from rules, maxims, or conventions. These may involve the language, as well as literary traditions or expectations set up by the text itself. The result is some degree of surprise in the reader, and his / her attention is thereby drawn to the form of the text itself (rather than to its content). Cases of neologism (a new word or expression or a new meaning of a word), live metaphor, or ungrammatical sentences, as well as archaisms, paradox, and oxymoron (a phrase that combines two words that seem to be the opposite of each other, for example a deafening silence) are clear examples of deviation.

Devices of parallelism are characterized by repetitive structures: (part of) a verbal configuration is repeated (or contrasted), thereby being promoted into the foreground of the reader's perception. Traditional handbooks of poetics and rhetoric have surveyed and described (under the category of figures of speech) a wide variety of such forms of parallelism, e.g., rhyme, assonance, alliteration, meter, semantic symmetry, or antistrophe.


It should be noted that, although formulated in this way by the Prague Structuralists, the concept of foregrounding is not their own invention. In fact it was itself a further historical development of ideas generated by the Russian Formalists, most notably those connected with the device of estrangement (Russian prim ostranenije), as proposed by Viktor Shklovsky. According to Shklovsky, the purpose of art is to make objects unfamiliar, so that a renewed perception of them creates a fresh awareness in the beholder, beyond the stale routines of automatized schemes. Thus for Shklovsky and his fellow Formalists the devices used by writers are not merely there for ornamental reasons – they serve specific functions. Hence the concept of foregrounding is also a theoretical one, which was later exported to the West by such scholars as Roman Jakobson, Felix Vodicka, and Rene Wellek. The theory was further refined in British stylistics, most notably by Geoffrey Leech (1969) (On the continuity between Formalism and Structuralism, see especially, Erlich (1965), Fokkema (1976)).
Although in its present form the theory of foregrounding has been put forward most clearly in the twentieth century, its roots can be traced back to Aristotle's Poetics (ca. 335 BCE). Time and again, Aristotle emphasizes the fact that the literary text is made according to specific rules, and in this process, devices of deviation and parallelism play an important role. In Chapter 22, for instance, he states that the diction of the literary work must be 'distinguished,' and that this effect is arrived at through the use of unfamiliar terms, metaphor, strange words, or lengthened forms. Through the influence of Aristotle's work from the Renaissance onward, this view of literature has gained a wide dissemination in Western culture. The theory of foregrounding can be seen as a more precise and more systematic elaboration of these ideas.


The question should be asked whether foregrounding devices are universal. Few authors are explicit on this point, though in general the assumption seems to be that the answer should be positive. The presumed ubiquitous (very common) nature of foregrounding devices should not be taken in the sense that they all occur in literature all the time, but rather that various forms of parallelism and / or deviation do seem to form an integral part of the literatures of all known languages, cultures, and historical periods. If that is so, then the concept is a useful tool for analyzing and studying literature, both in the case of individual texts and in general. In a series of reading experiments it proved to be possible - on the basis of the theory of foregrounding - to predict responses of readers to a number of texts. And this was the case regardless of readers' background or training. Research confirmed that readers' attention is drawn by deviations , that these deviations cause readers to process the text more slowly that they cause an increase in affective responses to the text , that they enhance aesthetic appreciation, and change readers' perception of the world outside the literary text (Van Peer 1986; Miall & Kuiken 1994; Hakemulder 2004). There are still several questions that remain to be answered. For example, when readers focus on the way a text is written rather than on its content, would this be a matter of convention or purely an effect that can be attributed to text properties? In other words, do readers process more carefully because they think literary texts are supposed to be read more carefully, or are they somehow forced by the text? Some research shows the influence of convention (Zwaan 1993). Others studies, however, reveal that it is indeed foregrounding that cause such effects (Miall & Kuiken 1994 and 1998). Miall (1995) discusses how some research results in neuro-psychology can be interpreted as support for the foregrounding theory. Researchers found that metaphors were rated as reflecting more intense speaker emotions than literal expressions. But contrary to what foregrounding theory would predict, no significant differences in responses to conventional and novel metaphors were found.


All this does not mean, however, that the notion of foregrounding is without problems. First of all, the relation between foregrounding and the evaluation of texts remains unclear; does the presence of foregrounding devices increase readers' sense of value of the text? There is but partial evidence for the existence of a relationship between these. A more serious problem is the lack of a systematic inventory of devices and their relative importance. There is also terminological vagueness: are different terms, such as 'estrangement', 'defamiliarization', 'deautomatization', 'foregrounding', etc., synonyms, or do they correspond to slightly different psychological processes? In this respect, the similarities and differences with the more general (philosophical) notion of alienation through literature also should be clarified. One would also welcome a more precise description of the way in which the theory of foregrounding differs from other but similar theoretical constructs: Brecht's theory of Verfremdung and similar notions in Surrealism, the Theater of the Absurd, and in existential literature – or the notion of aesthetic distance.


The concept of foregrounding has been made use of most in textual analysis. It is a useful tool to describe particular characteristics of the text, or to explain its specific poetic effects on the reader. And it may fruitfully be employed to establish a link between purely linguistic description and the functioning literary texts in a culture at large. There is more to the concept of foregrounding than analyses of individual literary text, though, and its importance should certainly not be reduced to this contribution.
Foregrounding has also been a useful concept in the study of visual arts and spectators' responses. (e.g., Krampen 1996; Hakemulder in press). In general the term is refers to drawing spectators' attention to some element in the film by means of unusual filmic devices. Wollen (1982) uses the term to define counter-cinema (opposing mainstream cinema); for him it describes spectators' focus on processes of construction of meaning. Examples would be fixed positioning of the camera, and the deformation of familiar objects through filters, mirrors, and extreme close-ups.
It will be apprehended that foregrounding devices may - because of their very use - lose their defamiliarizing potential, and thus stand in need of constant replacement. In this way history can be viewed as a continuous wavelike substitution and renewal of the devices and processes by which foregrounding operates.

Rishi Kumar Nagar


Tracy said...

Thank You Mr. Nagar, for your amazing insights on Foregrounding as a concept of stylistics study. I am a final year undergraduate of English Literature at the University of Lagos and your work has been most helpful. Tracy Nneka Nnanwubar -

hoda said...

Dear Mr.Nagar,
I;m a ms student and my field is foreground/background. your post is very helpful. would you please guide me more?
by regards,
Hoda Zare

shailly said...

Many thanks Mr Nagar

Your post is brilliant and very helpful.It would be great if you could explain Foregrounding with few examples.

Douglas said...

thank u Mr Nagar for your amazing insight but would help if u would use helpful example

James D. (Jim) Dvorak said...

Good post. Thanks.

Shankar Mokena said...

Nice coverage on foregrounding..thanks for such a good postings.

sanjukta said...




Anonymous said...

Thankyou so mch Mr Nagar,its very helpful,m really thankful to you,god bless u.

DHRUBA said...

what do you understand by foregrounding discuss its role in the analysis of a literary text

Please send me the answer of this qustion on my email id

thank you sir

Glory jacobs said...

Thank you sir for such brilliant analyses i would appreciate some examples too. God bless.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Nagar
That's a good article, but not written or compiled by you. This is by authors Peer, W van and Hakemulder, J (2006) Encylopaedia of Language & Linguistics (2005) (ed) Brown, Keith.
Nowhere in your verbatim copy of this article have you acknowledged that this is not your work. This is a sad reflection on your scholarship.
D. K.

Navera Rahman said...

this is an excellent article . after groping a lot ,finally i could have a very clear vision of foregrounding ,when i came across your essay . its simply understandable ,while narrating a very complex theory of foregrounding.Thanks