Ika, Defamiliarization, V-Effekt, and Uncanny Cans


During my discussions with the members of Radio Home Run in September 2016, the term ika (異化) frequently came up. This Japanese term describes how shifts in perception cause things to suddenly seem strange. As literary scholar Reiko Tachibana explains, the Japanese novelist Ōe Kenzaburō uses the term ika in his critical writings to describe his practice of making “historical events seem ‘strange’ and therefore open to reconsideration” (Tachibana 1998: 147). Tachibana adds that this term relates to both the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s technique of “defamiliarization” and the German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s more politicized technique of Verfremdungseffekt (V-effekt), which translates into English as a distancing or alienation effect (A-effect).


According to Kogawa, the terms ika (as in Verfremdung) and ika-koka (as in Verfremdungseffekt) actually relate to and build upon a number concepts that circulated in and around the Japanese cultural and philosophical spheres during the 1970s and 1980s. Literary, film, and theatre critics, as well as artists and creators, such as the absurdist writer and playwright Kōbō Abe, applied these terms to describe to concepts proposed by “Benjamin, Brecht, Frankfurt School, Russian Formalism, Mikhail Bakhtin, Viktor Shklovsky, Czech Structuralism and phenomenology from the perspective of Eastern Europe.”[3] Kogawa explains that one major catalyst for these terms was Roland Barthes’s 1964 book, “Essais Critiques,” which was translated into Japanese in 1972. According to Kogawa, “In this book, you can find Barthes’s creatively broad interpretation of Brecht that he linked with semiology/semiotics.”[4] A more comprehensive analysis of  ika and ika-koka would certainly help elucidate the way these terms were used by intellectuals and the members of Radio Polybucket and Radio Home Run in the early 1980s. However, in this paper, I will simply focus on these terms in relation to Shklovsky’s artistic technique of defamiliarization and Benjamin’s understanding of Brecht’s theatrical technique of V-effekt. With this cursory definition, I hope to lay the groundwork for further research in the future. 


In 1917, Shklovsky writes about art’s ability to make things appear strange in an essay called “Art as Device.” He explains that people usually feel at home in the world because repeated experiences of the same thing, in the same way, cause a person's perception to “function unconsciously — automatically” (Shklovsky 1991: 5). Shklovsky explains that these unconscious and automatic habits can be broken through an artistic device that he calls defamiliarization or ostranenie. He writes: “By ‘estranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’” (Shklovsky 1991: 6). According to Fredric Jameson, Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization significantly influenced a generation of producers to follow, such as Sergei Eisenstein, Sergei Tretiakov, and Brecht (Jameson 1998: 39).


In the late 1920s and 1930s, the concept that Brecht later came to define as Verfremdungseffekt (V-effekt) began accomplishing something similar to Shklovsky's defamiliarization in the theatrical realm. It made regular everyday incidents suddenly “appear strange to the public,” so that audiences could perceive the portrayed events critically from a new perspective. In particular, Brecht hoped that this interruptive technique would make bourgeois institutions, such as the theatre or the broadcasting industry, suddenly seem strange and inspire the public to reconfigure the relationships among audiences and producers within them (Brecht 1964: 91). According to his close friend, Walter Benjamin, Brecht's so-called epic theatre employed V-effekt in order to make the public feel less at home in the traditional German cultural apparatus, which had become familiar out of habit. Benjamin writes,


The task of epic theatre, Brecht believes, is not so much to develop actions as to represent conditions. But 'represent' does not here signify 'reproduce' in the sense used by the theoreticians of Naturalism. Rather, the first point at issue is to uncover those conditions. (One could just as well say: to make them strange [verfremden].) This uncovering (making strange, or alienating) of conditions is brought about by processes being interrupted. (Benjamin 2003: 10)


In 1936, Brecht adds that “classical Verfremdungseffekt produces [a] heightened understanding” that helps people uncover new social, technological, and political possibilities within habitual, familiar, and comfortable everyday experiences. By revealing that new possibilities exist, Brecht hopes to inspire the public to collectively reconfigure the material conditions of their surroundings, as well as their social position within the society and the cultural apparatus by becoming active producers in the material they consume and experience (Brecht 2000: 10).


As Nicholas Royle explains, both Shklovsky’s defamiliarization and Brecht’s V-effekt both have something in common with the uncanny or Das Unheimliche as discussed by Freud. This concept is later expanded upon by Heidegger to mean any “unhomely, not-at-home” feeling that occurs when things are out of the ordinary (Royle 2003: 4). While each of these concepts varies in nuance, they each revolve around the uncanny, which provides “a way of thinking about so-called ‘real life’, the ordinary, the familiar and everyday” from a different perspective (Royle 2003: 6). When the members of Radio Home Run and its short-lived predecessor, Radio Polybucket, participated in the phenomenology seminars of Professor Tetsuo Kogawa at Tokyo's Wako University during the early 1980s, ika and ika-koka were frequently discussed. These discussions not only helped Kogawa's students perceive the material conditions of their surroundings differently, they also revealed new possibilities for these conditions. This realization inspired Kogawa's students to become active producers, giving them a chance to manifest the possibilities they perceived as changed material conditions in reality.