Off-Modern Svetlana Boym

The “Off-Modern” is a term-in-progress, a form of linguistic improvisation.

Off”—the tip of your tongue tenses without touching anything. You are just about to bite your lower lip and suppress idle talk. But then reluctantly you let the sound go through. “Off” comes out almost as a sigh of relief.

Today postmodernism is dead and we are not yet nostalgic for it. There is something preposterous in our contemporary moment which we do not know how to describe. I see in it not a conflict between modern and antimodern or a pure “clash of cultures,” but rather a clash of eccentric modernities that are out of sync and out-of phase with each other both temporally and spatially. Multiple projects of globalizations and “glocalizations” overlap but do not coincide. In this context of conflicting and intertwined pluralities, the prefix “post” is passé. At the end of the past century various thinkers mourned or celebrated the “ends” of history and of art, of the book and of humanity as we knew it. While the various “posts” succeeded one another like ephemeral post-it notes in the overdue book of life, many premodern myths took hold of the intellectual and spiritual territories.

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” follows a nonlinear conception of cultural evolution; it could follow spirals and zigzags, the movements of the chess knight and parallel lines that intertwine on occasion asymptotically. It was Viktor Shklovsky who proposed that cultural evolutions often develop sideways and the diagonal moves of the knight in the game of chess represents “the torturous road of the brave,” the road of estrangement, wonder, and dissent in difficult political times.

As we veer off the beaten track of dominant modern teleologies, we have to proceed laterally, not literally, and discover the missed opportunities and roads not taken. These lie buried in modern memory like the public transportation routes in American cities that embraced car culture a little too wholeheartedly. “Off-modern” has a quality of improvisation, of a conjecture that does not distort the facts but explores their echoes, residues, implications, shadows.

Off-modern art has both a temporal and a spatial dimension to it: some projects from different corners of the globe can appear belated or peripheral to the familiar centers of modern/postmodern culture. The off-modern has been embraced by international artists from India to Argentina, from Georgia to Cyprus, from Canada to Albania. For their peripheral situation reveals the eccentricity of the center, and asynchronicity questions the progress of cultural trends and artistic movements that are supposed to succeed one another like well-behaved citizens in the express checkout line. Yet the off-modern is not a new form of geographic determinism. The off-modern does not focus on the external pluralism and values of states, with their political PR and imperial ambitions, but on the internal pluralities within cultures tracing elective affinities and diasporic intimacies across national borders.

The off-modern “new media” address these pluralities and multidirectionality. They are not driven by the latest sales pitch but by a meditation on technology itself. At the same time, they are ludic, not Luddite. They reflect on the aging of technological progress itself. In our lives, high tech and low tech enter into illicit cohabitation, and we expend as much effort in disconnecting from intrusive techno-interfacing as connecting to it, so we try to go offline or visit the website to recover the fuzzy logic of human error.

The preposition “off” is a product of linguistic creativity and fuzzy logic. It developed from the preposition “of,” with the addition of an extra “f,” an emphatic and humorous onomatopoeic exaggeration that imitates oral speech. The “off” in “off-modern” designates both belonging to the critical project of modernity and its edgy excess. It signifies both intimacy and estrangement, belonging and longing to take off. In the 21st century, modernity is our antiquity. We live with its ruins, which we incorporate into our present, leaving deliberate scars or disguising our age marks with the uplifting cream of oblivion. The off-modern, then, is not antimodern; it is closer in fact to the critical and experimental spirit of modernity than it is to the existing forms of industrial and postindustrial modernization. In other words, it opens into the “modernity of “what if,” and not only modernization as it was.

The off-modern is not an “ism.” Rather, it is an alternative prism for vision and a way of understanding the preposterous aspects of the present and the past. The off-modern can be lighthearted, but it requires a deep conviction. This particular sensibility—really a Weltanschauung—crystallized and came to the foreground in the first decade of the 21st century, but we might discover some trans-historical elective affinities for it in earlier times. It is also a form of thinking through logos and pathos, memory and imagination, expanding the regimes of the sensible. Hannah Arendt proposed the term “passionate thinking” in opposition to “professional thinking.” Other viable oxymorons are welcome.

We might be living at the edge of an era when the accepted cultural myths of late capitalism and of technological or digital progress no longer work for us. We are right on the cusp of a paradigm shift, and to anticipate it we have to expand our field of vision. The logic of edginess is opposed to that of the seamless appropriation of popular culture, or the synchronicity of computer memory. This is a logic that exposes wounds, cuts, scars, ruins, the afterimage of touch. Its edginess resists incorporation and does not allow for a romance of convenience. Clarification: the off-moderns are edgy, not marginal. They do not wallow in the self-pity or resentment that comes with marginalization, even when some of this is justified.

To be edgy could also mean avoiding the logic of the cutting edge, even if the temptation not to is great. If you are just “off” the butcher’s knife “on” the cutting edge you will end up obsolete before you are examined. The logic of the cutting edge makes you part of the bloody action movie so common in contemporary popular culture, where tears and affects are only computer generated. Edginess takes a longer duration of time. Only at the risk of being outmoded could one stay con-temporary.

Outtake: in praise of “off”

“Off” is colloquial and particular—not abstract and equalizing the way “post” was. It is somewhat untranslatable. Let each language find its own version of being “off” and being modern at the same time.

To a nonnative English speaker, “off” sounds like child’s talk, somewhere between a game and language: if you did not know what “off” meant you could almost guess it. Sometimes there is more mouth than meaning there. If immigrants talk among themselves in their native language, the twittering pidgin mother tongue that through years of exile becomes a hybrid and hyphenated American, “off” would be one word they would use in English: Sabes, el tipo es un poco “off”; nu ona nemnogo “off. “Off” is odd.

“Off” is the little gift of a preposition cocreated by users of language in the past two centuries.1 I hear in it the traces of foreign accents—in ouch, ouff, bo, oi, ay.

“Off” suggests a dimension of time and human action that is unusual or potentially off-putting and embarrassing. It either describes something too spontaneous (“off the cuff,” “off-handed,” “off the record”) or too edgy (“off the wall”), verging on the obscene (“off color”) or not in sync with the pace (“offbeat”). “Off” is about life caught unawares. It is extemporaneous and humane.

A history of words containing “off” suggests a parallel modern history. “Off-color” referred first to the price of gems—to the industrial exploitation of the distant corners of the world and a democratization of jewelry. Off-color gems were the cheaper ones. If the high modernist museum was a white cube—the pure space of the temple of art—the off-modern museum has to be off-white. It is a different space, more offbeat, with dimensions of spontaneity and excess that do not fit the narrative of display. “Off” introduces a moment of chance—it is both distancing and defamiliarizing—but also casts a short shadow next to the outlines of things. The off-modern space is where off-putting things are at home.

And yet, to be off is not to be “out” or “anti.” Being off is a balancing act and a form of virtuosity. You are never completely off the hook. You have to exercise a special attentiveness, the vigilance of sense, the virtuality of imagination and engagement in worldly practice—not to be confused with the virtual interfacing in which the main physical relationship is between you and the tender buttons of your PowerBook.

The off-modern acknowledges the syncopes and the off-beat movements of history that were written out from its dominant versions, edited by the victors, who cared little about the dignity of the defeated.

“Off” plays optical tricks with nearness and distance. “Off” first signified “far away,” reinforcing this meaning of the original word “of,” but then this meaning weakened, and the word came closer instead, sharpening the edge of things or suggesting an unpredictable lateral movement. “Off” does not enter into a clear binary opposition with anything, except in expressions like “lights on” or “lights off,” the latter meaning the same as “lights out.” But in our case, being “off” is very different from being “out”; it does not open into a dark space, but into the multifarious world of luminous shadows and sun-blicks. Off-modern has a quality of on-going improvisation.


1 / The history of the preposition “off“ is recent and modern. By ca.1200 as an emphatic form of O.E. “of“ (see “off“), employed in the adverbial use of that word. The prepositional meaning “away from” and the adj. sense of “farther” were not firmly fixed in this variant until the 1700s, but later they left the original “off“ with the transf. and weakened senses of the word.


Adopted from Svetlana Boym, The Off-Modern Condition, forthcoming. See also “Nostalgic Technologies: Notes for the Off-Modern Manifesto” at