Svetlana Boym

BoymMemorialI was deeply shocked and saddened to learn last year of the death of Svetlana Boym. A few weeks ago, at the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting at Harvard University, I joined colleagues, friends, and family for a session of “Readings in Memory of Svetlana Boym.” Below is my brief contribution to the commemoration of a brilliant scholar.

I first encountered Svetlana’s work, while writing my honours dissertation on Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Her book Death in Quotation Marks was, at that time, a revelation. It opened my mind to the complex intermingling of everyday life and literary fact in Mayakovsky and in Russian literary theory from Viktor Shklovsky to Lidiya Ginzburg and Yuri Lotman. Svetlana’s book also introduced me to the field that would become my own: comparative literature.

I spent the 2003–4 academic year at Harvard University, where I was closely connected to the Slavic Department and so was finally able to meet Svetlana. My book, A Common Strangeness, owes a great deal to her response to a talk I gave that year and to her subsequent invitation to me to contribute to a special issue on estrangement that she edited for Poetics Today.

In my talk, I quoted a passage from Svetlana’s essay “Estrangement as a Lifestyle” where she writes of Shklovsky harbouring “the romantic and avant-garde dream of a reverse mimesis: everyday life can be redeemed if it imitates art, not the other way around.” She commented afterwards that she had come to revise her view. Indeed, in The Future of Nostalgia, she adds a qualification: “Yet estrangement does not allow for a seamless translation of life into art, for the aestheticization of politics or a Wagnerian total work. Art is only meaningful when it is not put entirely in the service of real life or realpolitik, and when its strangeness and distinctiveness is preserved.” Here, Svetlana echoes Walter Benjamin’s caution against the aestheticization of politics, while also worrying––as a child and student of Soviet culture––about the politicization of art for which Benjamin called in the same breath.

In my memory, I can still see Svetlana sitting in Café Pamplona just off Harvard Yard engaged in an intense and raucous discussion with conceptual artist and poet Dmitri Prigov, who famously turned his own life into a literary fact. This memory might lead me to speculate that Svetlana lived life with the same persistent questioning of everydayness and strangeness that I find in her writings––from the Russian opposition between everyday grind and spiritual existence to the relationship between artistic and political freedom. “But,” as Svetlana warns, “responsible theorists should not speculate about unrealized twists of plot. They only try to see how fiction is made, not how life is made.”

I’m glad that Svetlana did not heed her own half-serious admonishment. Without her exploration of the relationship between strangeness and everydayness, art and life would be much the poorer.

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New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium

The first 2016 meeting of the New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium will take place at the University of Otago, Dunedin, on Friday 19 February, between 10am and 5pm.

Participants in our February 2016 meeting may choose to contribute a paper for discussion (max. 4,000 words; max. of four papers to be discussed in the day), but we also welcome participants who will read and provide feedback on the circulated papers.

If you are interested in participating, please write to Jacob Edmond:

The NZMSC is open to academics and independent scholars working on any aspect of modernism, broadly defined. For further information, see the NZMSC website.

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What in the World Was Postmodernism?

Plywood mural by Michael Hewson in Christchurch.

Plywood mural by Michael Hewson in Christchurch.

I’m looking forward to the “What [in the World] Was Postmodernism?” symposium, which will be taking place here at the University of Otago in Dunedin over the next three days. The symposium is convened by my colleague David Ciccoricco and includes keynote addresses by Simon During and Brian McHale.

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Asia in New Zealand Lives

cover_jas_dec2014I want belatedly to draw attention to the publication of “Asia in New Zealand Lives,” a special issue of the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, edited by Henry Johnson and myself, and to thank the contributors for their diverse and insightful essays on prominent New Zealanders, including Nancy Kwok-Goddard, Vic Percival, Anand Satyanand, and Edmund Hillary.

These essays help to complicate understandings of an increasingly diverse Aotearoa / New Zealand society, going beyond the population statistics that tend to dominate public discourse around multiculturalism in New Zealand. They offer a historically grounded and rich account of, in the words of our introduction, “the dynamic interactions among a web of different Asian cultures and traditions that have helped shape the lives of all New Zealanders.”

All articles in the issue are freely available for download here.

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Vanessa Place and the AWP

Contrary to the AWP’s statement regarding the removal of Vanessa Place from the AWP Los Angeles 2016 subcommittee, Place’s tweeting of Gone with the Wind is not “explained” in my pieces on Jacket2. (I cite but don’t discuss the twitter feed.) I do discuss other works by Place that draw on Gone with the Wind, but my commentaries are hardly an endorsement: “a performance of that racist ideology’s stifling of other voices” (; “a white author, repeating this caricatured imitation of black speech” ( Place’s Gone with the Wind work is about racism in US literature and society. But that doesn’t stop it from being racist and offensive. Those who defend Place miss the point. Place’s work rightly provokes outrage; it therefore also garners attention. The question is: is this attention to racism or to Place? (For a very smart analysis of race, social media, and the attention economy in the US today, see Justin Simien’s Dear White People.)

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Prigov’s concrete poems get bigger

Photo: Margarita Chistova One of Dmitri Prigov’s Stikhogrammy (poemographs or versographs) about which I write in A Common Strangeness has been blown up to the size of a multistory apartment building as part of an art project in Belyaevo, an area in Moscow closely associated with the late artist and writer. You can view some great images of the resulting work here. I’ve blogged previously about Prigov’s series of concrete poems here and here.

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Ripples in language

Dmitri Prigov, 18-я азбука: Камень и круги на воде (18th Alphabet: Stone and Circles on Water), courtesy of the Centre for Artists’ Publications, Weserburg, Bremen and the Estate of Dmitri Prigov. Photograph by Bettina Brach.

Дмитрий Пригов, 18-я азбука: Камень и круги на воде (Dmitri Prigov, 18th Alphabet: Stone and Circles on Water), courtesy of the Centre for Artists’ Publications, Weserburg, Bremen and the Estate of Dmitri Prigov. Photograph by Bettina Brach.

Stone and Circles on Water (Камень и круги на воде) is the eighteenth in Dmitri Prigov’s series of poems built around the Russian alphabet, or azbuka, and the work that for me most clearly encapsulates Prigov’s “iterative poetics,” about which I’ve recently written in Russian Literature. I’m posting a photograph of the work here (courtesy of Bettina Brach and the Centre for Artists’ Publications, Weserburg, Bremen), along with an edited version of my remarks on the piece in the hope that this extraordinary work of art might reach a broader audience.

Prigov’s book describes and depicts a stone dropped into a pool. The book or work of art overlays five textual iterations, five carbon-copies––each with a circle of increasing diameter cut out––on top of the original typescript sheet, inverting their order so that the nearly illegible bottom layer precedes the others, while the original layer lies at the bottom and is visible only through the smallest hole at the centre––the point where the stone hits the water. Prigov thereby utilizes the samizdat mode of small-scale multi-copy reproduction as his mode of production. The samizdat mode of reproduction necessitates thin paper, which here allows the overlaid layers to show through each other, further adding to the smudged look of the text and so to the illusion of the blurring produced by a ripple passing over formerly smooth water. The stone’s trajectory is described by the vertical movement of the text down the page from a to ia (a to z). The text describes the stone striking the face of the water in the center before touching the bottom of the pool at the bottom of the page––a movement emphasized by the columns of alphabetically ordered initial letters and the “ėto” that follows in most lines (an effect made possible by the zero-kerning of the type-script medium). Just as the work gains power from the intersection of its inter-media iterations––at the point where the vertical axis of the text and the outward and circular axis of its visual appeal meet––so the moment of the stone’s impact becomes a metaphor for such intersections, a unique instant in time frozen between iterating movements and between the two-dimensional image and three-dimensional sculpture produced through the medium of the samizdat book.

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