- AfterimagesSvetlana Boym’s Irrepressible Cocreations
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To most people Svetlana Boym was known as a writer: a prolific writer of books marked by originality, insight, and irreverence for intellectual pieties, no matter how fashionable. The media artist side of her that diacritics presents in this issue was chronologically last of her artistic personas. A whole string of these bifurcated the bio blurbs at the end of Svetlana’s monographs. In the first, Death in Quotation Marks (1991), she introduced herself as a playwright and assistant professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. In the second, Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (1994), she was also a writer and filmmaker. In her third, most well-known monograph, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), she was again a writer, and this time, full professor at Harvard, but also, as the back cover blurb reminds us, “a native of St. Petersburg who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” “Native” was a word she would have pronounced with an accentuated accent and that she wore as a mask, as another persona. For the record, she did not just write monographs. There is also a novel, Ninochka (2003), that she rewarded herself with writing after receiving tenure at Harvard. After she became a novelist, she also collaborated on a book on Kosmos, the Russian space project and the photographs of its ruins.1 (“Jacob,” her then research assistant recalls her saying one day, “go to the library and find me all the good books on Kosmos.”)2 Her creativity was hard to contain and performative—the whole world was her stage—thus all her authorial and artistic personas. It is just at the end of Another Freedom (2010), her last monograph, that she introduced herself to readers as a media artist.
Svetlana’s biographies were not accidental inconsistencies but sustained exercises in self-fashioning, and lately, she told me during our last conversation, self-editing. “There are writers with biographies and writers without biographies,” she often quoted Boris Tomashevsky’s quip as an intriguing prelude to her influential critique of “the death of the author.”3 She launched that critique as the polemic of her dissertation (overseen by Barbara Johnson and formalist scholar Jurij Striedter) in the 1980s, when “the death of the author” had congealed into critical dogma. In the ensuing book, Death in Quotation Marks, she explored the mythologies of the modern poet and critic, including his/her figurative and literal deaths, arguing that the “relationship between texts and life remains a vitally critical issue.”4 She pioneered then her signature critical genre, a writing that would “allow for the incorporation and superimposition of ethical, historical, biographical, and textual issues.”5 At the same time, the book already contains, smuggled inside academic prose, fragments that presage her much later artist’s manifestoes and practices:
I wish to preserve the difference between text and life and to avoid subjugating one to the other. In order to open and explore this space of difference we have to trace the ways in which the artistic constructs can, on the one hand, form and inform ordinary experiences and, on the other hand, be deformed and defied by them. This double movement invites us to see literariness or a creative aesthetic impulse in everyday life and to liberate these aesthetic experiences from the confines of “literature” and literary institutions. At the same time, it helps us to deaestheticize literature somewhat and defamiliarize again the violence, pain, and love that it contains.6 [End Page 99]
So it is fitting to consider Svetlana’s art in relation to her writing and to her biographies, her crafted fashioning and editing of herself. Far from any sort Gesamtkunstwerk—a concept she detested, these were cocreations, whose contingent coexistence inspired thoughts on difference and a heightened sensitivity to the beauty of cracks, hinges, border lines, and transit zones.
Cocreation was a concept she developed and lived for many years; she theorized it at length in her last book, equating it with freedom.7 Among her cocreators were the people around her as well as thinkers, artists, and philosophers with whom she engaged passionately. For her digital art...