Svetlana Boym (1959–2015)

Svetlana Boym.

AN INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED literary scholar and fiction writer who in recent years also became known as a media artist, Svetlana Boym held the position of Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Svetlana had remarkable vitality, tangible curiosity for the visual world, and a vibrant passion for ideas. Her imaginative thought was equally at home with words or images.

Attention to cultural memory and estrangement characterized her work, especially her much-acclaimed scholarly books The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001) and Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Yet Svetlana’s way of looking at the past was not nostalgic in the traditional sense. History attracted her because it could reveal potentialities not yet expressed and thereby lead to potential futures. Walter Benjamin’s angel would inspire her to look back while always thrusting forward.

With different forms of writing, Svetlana pictured the landscape of the ruin, the everyday, the banal, the marginal, the gap, the missing link, and the transit space. She liked to reveal the unseen that hides in full view. Her gaze—equally literary and critical—brought to light the “unmemorable” and enhanced the “unmonumental.” This perspective also shaped her artistic process as a photographer. Some of the images she made, flickering for sixteen seconds in syncopated slow motion, would hover as mnemonic ghosts. Offering flashes of memory in movement, these pictures were touches of phantasmagoria.

Fond of cultural flânerie, Svetlana took particular pleasure in world traveling and in writing on urban archaeologies. She believed cities were cosmopolitan communities, where individuals from diverse locations could enter relationships of mutual respect despite their differing points of view. Such relationships included intellectual friendships—the kind that nourished us both—often struck up across borders.

Having grown up a child of the Soviet Union, Svetlana felt compelled to revisit in writing the city of her own birth. Picturing Leningrad, she described life in communal apartments, all the while reflecting on walls and windows, bridges and museums. One of her last projects was to trace the journey of her migration to uncover a concealed aspect of Jewish and Soviet histories. The force of her writing would take the reader to her hidden transit camp—a gulag on the outskirts of Vienna. But, despite the dark implications, Svetlana would refuse to make this project, or anything else, sound heavy. Always ironic and playful, she even claimed that chance and serendipity had led her to discover the address of the camp, hiding in full view on an old envelope.

Svetlana liked to pretend that her best discoveries in art—as in writing—came as errors. She would pull a photograph off the printer at the wrong time and, voilà, a reflective effect of double exposure or a trace of her hands would appear. But no, this was not a mistake. The kind of error Svetlana practiced was rather a form of erring. Her so-called error was a departure from defined paths, a deviation from principles, and it was bound to wandering. An act of navigation off the main course of modernity, Svetlana’s wonderfully “erratic” scholarly and artistic investigations were determined forays in the land of the “off modern.” Making brilliant lateral moves in the side alleys of critical modernity and experimenting with its nostalgic technology, this woman would even dare to go embarrassingly astray in pursuit of the dazzling creative excess that eccentrically lies off center.

Giuliana Bruno is a writer and Emmet Blakeney Gleason Professor of visual and environmental studies at Harvard University.