The history of nostalgia might allow us to look back at modern history not solely searching for newness and technological progress but for unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads.
Sometimes serendipity works in loops, as it did last week when I returned to Valencia, visited a bookshop I had saved on my previous trip, and stumbled upon a book I had long wanted to read: Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia.
The book is an incredible piece of work. Boym takes “nostalgia” and observes the phenomenon from all sides, as if spinning an object around in her hands. She’s wasn’t just a curious observer but also a lucid writer, packing each sentence full of detailed observations and cultural references.
Early in the book, Svetlana Boym introduces the term “off-modern” to understand the role nostalgia plays in the development of the modern condition.
There is in fact a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorporates nostalgia, which I will call off-modern. The adverb off confuses our sense of direction; it makes us explore sideshadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narrative of twentieth-century history.
I love this idea of focusing on the non-obvious, the things that didn’t or almost happen. Boym’s obituary in The New Yorker1 mentions her fascination with “shadowplay”—presumably all those histories often overlooked.
Instead of fast-changing prepositions like “post-,” “anti-,” “neo-,” “trans-,” and “sub-,” which try desperately to be “in,” I propose to go off: “off” as in “off-kilter,” “off Broadway,” “off the path,” “way off,” “off-brand,” “off the wall” and occasionally “off-color.” “Off-modern” is a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project. It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side alleys of modern history at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic, and technological narratives of modernization and progress.
Off-modern, then, isn’t so much an epoch, or a movement, but a way of viewing the modern world, while carefully considering each side of it.
it opens into the “modernity of “what if,” and not only modernization as it was.
Tragically, Boym passed away from cancer in 2015, and the “postscript”, as the magazine calls their obituaries, tells of a person whose wide-ranging interests and curiosities charted a very unusual life. It ends with a quote I’ve been turning over in my head all week: “Her personal Web site has for some time stated that Svetlana Boym ‘lives parallel lives that sometimes cross.’ Many lives ended on August 5th.”↩︎