Off-Modern Detours in Architecture and Thought

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    An Error has an Aura- Reading Boym's "Nostalgic Technology: Notes for an Off-Modern Manifesto"

    Patrick McAndrews
    Mar 27, '17 3:24 AM EST

    Technique, at its most fundamental core, is a procedure of errors. It is the conscious sacrifice of precision and accuracy in some areas to the exclusion of others and as Svetlana Boym relates, “avant-garde artists and critics used the word “technique” to mean an estranging device of art that lays bare the medium and makes us see the world anew,”(1). So technique cannot be understood as an instrument for divining the objective truth of a thing, each rendering process has its own errors and ‘out-takes’. The process of any techne is the reinterpretation of a predecessor (a source of inspiration, perhaps) insofar as it creates new meaning.

    So often we think of technique in the context of reproduction; how do I produce what was in my head, manifesting that conception into some sort of physical space. We also think about what mode of reproduction will best represent the task we wish to take on.  In this context technological errors can easily combine with the errors of thought and process; “Techne, after all, once referred to arts, crafts and techniques. Both art and technology were imagined as the forms of human prosthesis, the missing limbs, imaginary or physical extension of the human space.”(1) Boym seems to suggest that the errors we so often see in our productions (or reproductions) are unavoidable. They are the byproduct of our errors of logic, our human nature multiplied from our intentions in this moment and in the errors in technology to represent the way the printer ink head processed the image for reproduction inappropriately, or the paper feed was too slow, allowing the ink to run over the same location with multiple layers of information. This ‘broken-tech’ produces mistakes and “… error has an aura,”(1).

    Fundamentally, an error is less a mistake in the product and more a hesitation in our conception of the product. We hold nostalgia for the primitive element hovering in our imagination, the grand building to be constructed or modeled, the beautiful photograph to be printed. But truly, that perfect picture, that perfect building may not be possible; we long for a thing, a place, that “…no longer exists or most likely, has never existed,”(1). What remains is an auratic ‘out-take’, something not fully intended, but never fully separated from the nostalgic idealism of that original conception.

    Boym’s body of work largely revolves around the subject of nostalgia; she writes extensively about the possibility or more realistically the improbability of a true homecoming. Nostalgia is, after all, often the creation of false memories and obstruction or destruction of tragic memories for the preservation of others. For Boym, the techne has been overtaken by technology at the expense of culture. As she relates, Hollywood has taken advantage of technology to create special effects, “If artistic technique revealed the mechanism of conscience, the technological special effect domesticates the illusion and manipulation.”(1) Here, artistic technique, a cultural production laden with hefty doses of reflective nostalgia, is flung aside for the more direct use of techniques out of context in the production of a restorative nostalgia. The focus has shifted from using technique as a frame for cultural ideas to an obstruction, an illusion of cultural idealism in the form of corporate capitalism and consumerism. This isn’t new; “… the advertisement culture appropriated avant-garde as one of the styles, as an exciting marketable look that domesticates, rather than estrange the utopia of progress,”(1). Here we must understand that there is a difference between style and technique. Style can be the embellishment of technique, but it almost exists for its own sake. It is less a manner of production or inquire and more a manner of producing something with the false sense of perfection or completeness. It tends to leave a mark of shallow intrigue. Where technique places emphasis on process, style is the focus on the perception (either by technique or illusion) of completeness and finality.

    Style can never truly be techne; technique seems to be the ultimate path for innovation. For Boym, the amateur artist exhibits all the touchstones for techne innovation; “the amateur artists aspire neither for newness nor for a trendy belatedness,”(1). This is not to say that all non-professional users don’t fall prey to stylism. One only needs to visit Instagram and its menagerie of filters to understand the depth and breadth of style’s mimicry in popular media. Rather, Boym seems to point to the amateur as someone without extraordinary special interest. The amateur artist does not need to be in vogue to sell a photograph or a magazine. Boym’s amateur artist explores with techne (and the development of craft and technique) like an “immigrant from the disintegrated homeland…often they cross the border illegally and like the diasporic repo-men try to repossess what used to belong to them, reconquer the space of art,”(1). So rather than be trendy, painstakingly new, or “in”, Boym sees another way, “…not to be out, but off. As in off-stage, off-key, off-beat and occasionally, off-color,” to be off-modern.(1) The off-modern, like the amateur, is almost a playful conception. It plays off of Viktor Shklovsky’s ‘knight’s move’, a diagonal move between expected choices. The knight’s move is not conventional and hard to predict, it is ludic.

    Boym furthers her argument of techne through a discussion of shadows; Benjamin’s ‘Short Shadows’ becomes a means to discuss how absence can frame and announce presence. Here, we can see the poetic quality of shadow as a techne; shadows are often used to reveal a hidden dimension. They can provide depth and knowledge through the selective omission of light, “broken-tech art is an art of short shadows,”(1). In essence, broken-tech as a means of techne utilizes technological techniques without the predisposition to fetishize the technology (the tool). Longer shadows border on excess, becoming the element for attention rather than mere frame. For Boym, long shadows are a sort of fetishized stylism, or ‘conspiratorial simulation’. Like Hollywood special effects, long shadows obscure enough to produce enigma, to suggest plot or narrative; the creeping murderer’s shadow is always long, overbearing, and ripe for narrative tension. On the other hand, short shadows “…turn our attention to the surfaces, rims, and thresholds.” (1) Svetlana Boym’s own artistic work captures this quite well, her ‘Self Portrait#1- Leaving Santa Barbara (2003)’ illustrates the power of the short shadow to highlight a surface’s qualities rather than its own.(2) Boym does not rely on pre-programmed PhotoShop effects or filters because they betray the short shadow mentality. She relies on the technique of her own troubling shooting; making her own amateur mistakes and learning from them. The long shadow is further fetishized by the loss of trust in the quality of pictures to show the true nature of the subjects. We seem to inherently assume a narrative nature of imagery rather than as eyewitness testimony. But this leaves a disturbing residue, we hardly seek the truer nature of the imagery, despite our knowledge of the witness tampering, we rarely look further than its established narrative.

    The fetishization of style here is akin to long shadows and restorative nostalgia. This latter element comes up throughout Svetlana Boym’s works; restorative nostalgia is the yearning to redirect the future to an idealized location in time or place. It becomes a relatively destructive force of conspiracy because it is simultaneously creating an idealized memory while removing anything that does not fall within that conspiratorial narrative. These discarded elements are the ‘out-takes’, the auratic evidence of the nostalgic simulation. A stylistic narrative is meant, like the long shadow, to obscure the reality of the situation, to hide the techne. Yet, if we look hard enough, this false narrative can rarely fully discard the evidence. Boym points to the hypnotic nature of the International architectural style as it has been enacted throughout the globe; “These buildings, often indistinguishable from one another…. Compose an outmoded mass ornament of global culture.”(1) Yet, that is only the initial, skeptical eye. When we look deeper, the imagery shows more signs of the ‘out-takes’. Minor variations of construction and habitation are visible throughout including lampshades, dusty curtains, flowerpots and the many satellite dishes. As Boym relates elegantly, “the inhabitants of these buildings dream of elsewhere, homesick and sick of home.”(1)

    The amateur artist is forever delaying their homecoming. They have taken the knight’s move into a new arena, immigrants to a new realm. Their every step could be said to be an outtake. But each production is a standalone feature and each element has an aura and techne. Boym’s conception of the amateur artist as the likely purveyor of the off-modern mentality is striking. Broken-tech art is the hacking of a tool into an instrument. It forces through will or serendipity, the machine beast to bow not only to our intellects but also our playful imaginations. This ludic techne is reflective nostalgia, the creation of new through the interpretation of past experiences and memories.  It forces us to see the importance of now, not as an out-take or practice for the future, but as an individual element. Even architects practice the sort of long-shadowed restorative nostalgia that comes with tricks of perspective and light, the details that seek to bend physics for a pure form that can never truly exist. Boym’s manifesto urges us to explore the world around us with techne, to playfully explore without fear of making mistakes.


    (1) Please refer to for the full text.

    (2) Please refer to for imagery from the Boym’s webpage.

    Works Cited

    “Nostalgic Technology: Notes for an Off-modern Manifesto,” Svetlana Boym, accessed March 21, 2017


    • "Productive contamination" is what Jenny Sabin calls it in the podcast.

      Mar 27, 17 10:20 pm  · 

      Love the word "auratic", never come across it before! Also, aren't "style and technique" more obviously different?

      For instance, one is a noun, the other can also be a verb?

      As for whether "the tool" = technology? Seems like technology can be "soft", vs. way "the tool" is generally hard. Not in Freudian/phallic terms, as much as in terms of hard vs soft infrastructures. Or ecosystem services...

      Finally, re: "restorative nostalgia" how would that be different than rewilding? Less Next-Nature, perhaps?

      Mar 28, 17 8:23 pm  · 

      The links to Boym's texts here and on the Harvard site, where I used to access them, are dead- do you have live links you can share?

      Nov 11, 19 7:45 pm  · 

      Hello andrewfoster; Sorry for the delayed response. You can find this article here:

      Apr 23, 20 2:36 pm  · 

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About this Blog

off-NARRATIVES: is a space for the exploration of detours in architecture and design discourse. The blog's inception is in alignment with the "off-modern" perspective; drawing from the works and teachings of the Svetlana Boym among other writers and thinkers in the 20th and 21st centuries. off-NARRATIVES: seeks to contribute to contemporary architectural discourse through observations, essays, book reviews, serial narratives, and other works of original research and theory.

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