New Criticals

The New Yorker begins all of its obituary headlines with the word “POSTSCRIPT.” The postscript is, we know, a piece of writing that appears after a letter’s sign-off and signature — “post-scriptum” in the orginal Latin, or “written after." It’s an extra bit of news, an aside. I wonder, when paper-and-ink was the thing, if the postscript wasn’t also a technological innovation of sorts: Without easy editing tools, you’d have to rewrite a letter from scratch if you forgot to mention something – much easier to just tack it on the end. The New Yorker is deploying their “POSTSCRIPT” a little differently, in witty deference to the lives of thinkers and writers whose last words, like Professor Boym's, have been written.

Professor Boym’s obituary, though, is different. It begins “POSTCRIPT” – the second “S” is missing. The word on the page, especially in The New Yorker’s distinctive typeface, has the quality of an optical illusion. It took several seconds of staring and a side-by-side comparison with another New Yorker obituary for me to confirm the misspelling. I took a screenshot.

Since I first learned of her death, I’ve checked daily to make sure that it hadn’t been fixed (as of September 21st, it hadn’t). It’s a thrilling typo, one with the charge of a secret: What wouldn’t have meant anything hovering above another name takes on special resonance over Svetlana Boym’s.

Professor Boym collected glitches like this, these moments of naturally occurring détournement. By linking such moments, and demonstrating their seemingly elective affinity, she illuminated an alternative history of the 20th century. She was able to demonstrate how, in Walter Benjamin’s words, “what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”