Outside the Text

Sylvère Lotringer, who died last week, brought together French theorists, punk writers, and political insurrectionists through the avant-garde press Semiotext(e).

James Duesterberg
November 19, 2021
Sylvère Lotringer
Iris Klein

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SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER—critic, writer, professor of French, and the founding editor of the journal and press Semiotext(e)—died last week. Through his work with Semiotext(e), Lotringer is perhaps the figure most responsible for the popularity and influence, in the US, of “French Theory”—enigmatic and polarizing philosophical thought associated with figures like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Paul Virilio, and Jean Baudrillard.

A peripatetic thinker, Lotringer worked to link up some of the most important political, artistic, and cultural movements of the late 20th century. At the Schizo-Culture conference in 1975, he brought the French philosophers to the US for the first time and put them on stage with John Cage and William Burroughs, Black Panthers and Young Lords, punks and feminist activists. Through Semiotext(e)’s Foreign Agents series—“little black books” that sold for cheap and fit in a leather jacket or a handbag—he smuggled theory into the New York underground, where it shaped everything from post-punk music and avant-garde art to commercial film to left- (and right-)wing politics.

And yet, throughout his life, Lotringer preferred to remain in the background. He published little under his own name, and if “Sylvère Lotringer” rings a bell for the casual reader today, it is likely as the husband in Chris Kraus’s semi-fictional epistolary memoir I Love Dick, later turned into an Amazon series, in which he helps his wife write letters to seduce another man. “I have always been an editor,” he wrote, “in the sense that I’ve always assembled things that don’t exactly go together.” Lotringer was not interested in building monuments, but in making connections; his legacy is broad and dispersed, scattered amongst the currents of postwar culture. Most of his published work consists of interviews with theorists and artists, or interviews others conducted with him. “Since I don’t have an ‘I’,” he told one such interviewer, “what comes out isn’t mine.” But below the cool surface was all dynamism and intensity. “I don’t experience my emotions: I use the people and situations I encounter, like a lightning bolt, an electric zone,” he said in the same interview. “They make me feel things, because my own feelings, my own sensations, are too strong.”

For Lotringer, philosophy did something similar: It was not a way to capture truth but a way to change your life, a technique for breaking down the pieties and restrictions of tradition and identity, and living in the break. “Semiotext(e),” Lotringer liked to say, “was a disappearing act.”

was born in Paris in 1938, in the working-class neighborhood of Ménilmontant. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Warsaw, were furriers. When war broke out, the family escaped to a suburb of Paris, where Sylvère and his sister lived under assumed names with a Catholic family, while their parents hid in a shed. After the war, the family moved to Tel Aviv, where Sylvère joined Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth movement. “Most people grow [up] in a family, I grew [up] in a movement,” Lotringer recalled in a 2015 interview. At Bar Am, a kibbutz near the border with Lebanon, “we shared everything . . . socialism was a reality.” Though the Lotringers soon moved back to Paris, Sylvère maintained his involvement with Hashomer Hatzair for nearly a decade, and his involvement in other kinds of collective work would continue for the rest of his life. At the Sorbonne, he was elected president of the student body in his first year; he started a literary magazine, L’Etrave, organized lectures on structuralism, took part in protests against the Algerian War, and reported for Les Lettres Français, the journal of the French Communist Party.

After completing his dissertation on Virginia Woolf and taking a series of teaching posts around the world, Lotringer was hired as a French professor at Columbia University in 1972. He had missed the 1968 student revolts in France, and jumped at the chance to teach at a school where the American student movement had fomented. But by the time he arrived, Lotringer found the environment at the university stultifying and depoliticized: “The student rebellion was only four years [past] and no one dared [mention] it anymore.” At the time, American humanities departments had begun to absorb the theories of the first wave of French structuralists, thinkers who argued that language structures the world, rather than the other way around. These ideas had helped shape ’60s radicalism in France, but the American academy largely domesticated them in turn, assimilating ideas like linguistic deconstruction into conservative frameworks for literary analysis. In doing so, it refashioned literature into a new kind of master-discipline. If, as Derrida had argued, there was no “outside” to the literary text (“Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”), then literary theory could explain everything. Deconstructing a literary text was just as good as pulling up paving stones; the worst cop was the one in your head. Textualist theory claimed for radical thought the mantle of metaphysics, at the price of locking it up in the ivory tower.

Lotringer, always restless, wanted out. Some of his students were part of the city’s burgeoning downtown scene, and Lotringer began going to early punk shows at CBGB and art openings in SoHo. During the summers, as the director of Columbia’s Paris study-abroad program at Reid Hall, he made contact with the new wave of French post-structuralist philosophers and leftist thinkers—in particular Felix Guattari, the radical psychoanalyst and director of the La Borde clinic, who became a lifelong friend.

Within a year of taking the job at Columbia, he had broken up with his first wife Lucienne, a translator; begun dating a graduate student (with whom he had a daughter, Mia); moved from New Jersey to the Lower East Side; and shed his professorial Nehru coat for a studded leather jacket.

Semiotext(e) emerged from the frustrations and desires of this post-’60s malaise. Lotringer, together with graduate students and other young professors, founded the collective in 1973 as a study group and journal with the mission of “exploring alternatives in semiotics.” Though the first issue mentioned an affiliation with Columbia, the university never supported the journal, and Lotringer soon distanced himself further from academia and aligned with the nascent downtown underground. Writers Kathy Acker and Duncan Smith; artists Pat Steir, Denise Green, and Ross Bleckner; filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Oblowitz; and Basquiat’s agent Diego Cortez, among others, would meet at Lotringer’s downtown loft to lay out collage-like issues covering sex, madness, politics, and culture.

Semiotext(e)’s first major event was the Schizo-Culture conference. Staged during the depths of New York’s crisis years, just weeks after the city had almost declared bankruptcy, the event has become the subject of legend: LaRouchists accusing an indignant Foucault of being a CIA asset; Guattari groupies and feminist writer Ti-Grace Aktinson’s fans engaging in hand-to-hand combat; Deleuze sketching out, for the first time, his famous “rhizome,” a figure for decentralized, nomadic thought. While the immediate effects of the conference were muted—most of the French thinkers did not catch on in the US until much later—in retrospect it marked a major cultural and political shift. This was the beginning of the turn toward neoliberalism, and the global collapse of the political imagination that accompanied it. The logic of capital had become so pervasive that it no longer made sense to talk about evading or attacking it. How, then, to build—even to imagine—something different from the status quo?

For the Semiotext(e) thinkers, the only way out was through. What if, Deleuze and Guattari suggested, instead of “withdrawing from the world market” you could “go further . . . ‘accelerate the process’” of capitalist production until it came apart, or became something else? In his introduction to a 1977 issue of the Semiotext(e) journal devoted to Deleuze and Guattari—the first appearance of their joint work in English—Lotringer wrote of this turn among the new French thinkers, who were “no longer moving against the grain, but rather pushing the logic of Kapital further than it ever allowed itself to be led—to its breaking point.” It was in America, with its “free floating and shifting borders, its impenitent pragmatism and its unrestrained energy,” that they sought out “another face of revolution.”

This logic of ironic complicity risked becoming, as Semiotext(e) author Jean Baudrillard would later put it, a “fatal strategy.” Staying ahead of the curve required a fugitive approach—a way of evading your own success, a constant act of entrepreneurial self-invention. “In his own way, Sylvère was a brilliant businessman,” said filmmaker Orson Oblowitz, a mentee of Lotringer’s whose father Michael was a friend and collaborator in the ’70s and ’80s. “At the same time, the idea of something becoming popular is his worst nightmare.”

The first test came with Semiotext(e)’s Foreign Agents series, which broke the French theorists out of the academy, taking excerpts and interviews and publishing quickly in cheap paperbacks without footnotes or commentary. By the mid-’80s, Baudrillard’s Simulations was a hit in the art world, selling 20,000 copies and leading, in a mis-en-abyme of postmodern irony, to million-dollar artworks about the impossibility of original works of art. The Foreign Agents series did its job all too well; French theory’s cool abstraction had become a carte blanche for any number of political or artistic claims. In 1990, Lotringer pulled the plug on the series.

In recent decades, Semiotext(e)’s influence has been most visible through the literary style honed by Native Agents, a series edited primarily by filmmaker and writer Chris Kraus, who was Lotringer’s partner from 1988 through 2005. Since 1990, the series has published writers like Eileen Myles, Kathy Acker, Cookie Mueller, and Kraus herself. This work—located somewhere between narrative fiction and essay, at once intimate and cool, confessional and abstract—has been foundational to the contemporary American version of the genre often known as autofiction. Initially an underground phenomenon, several Native Agents writers have more recently gained traction, perhaps because the voice in these works, first-personal and yet somehow depersonalized, uncannily anticipates the memetic subjectivity of the social media era.

Semiotext(e) found its greatest publishing success when The Coming Insurrection, a revolutionary pamphlet written by French anarchists during the 2008 financial crisis, made its way onto Fox News, where Glenn Beck spent multiple segments warning his viewers about it. “This started in France, and now it’s about to come here to America,” Beck exclaimed, gesturing with the little black book. “I knew people like this were going to show up.”

, Lotringer did not speak about his experience as a child in occupied France. When I talked with a friend and colleague of his from his early days at Columbia who was herself a Holocaust survivor, she was stunned even to hear that he was Jewish. But in his last years, Lotringer began to write and speak with increasing frequency and urgency about his wartime experience, and to connect it to his later work. Having survived, for three years, on a borrowed name, he learned early on that identity is something at once powerful and elusive; deceptive, perhaps, but therefore all the more essential. “Judaism—not in the religious sense—is ninety percent of who I am,” he told an interviewer in 2018. “At the same time . . . my relationship to Judaism is completely in shambles because I would have had to understand things twenty years earlier than I did.”

Artist Iris Klein, Lotringer’s partner since 2006, says that “Sylvère in fact wanted to dedicate his last period of writing to his Jewish roots . . . to step back and look at what he experienced as a person, and not only in the abstract sense.”

In a manuscript left unpublished at the time of his death, Lotringer wrote:

I am the war, and nothing else. Others—everyone—may not realize that they are like me. War never stops . . . I care for the sentence inscribed on my flesh more than anything else because everyone else has it too, buried under layers and layers of skin.

The style of thought promoted by Semiotext(e) has been blamed, over the years, for many things. Those on the right have blamed it for obscurantism and the death of truth, not to mention gender trouble, campus communism, and overall moral decay. Marxists accuse it of revisionism and lifestyle anarchism, the aestheticization of politics, and the waning of socialist struggle.

But the persistent ambiguity of French theory—its resistance to being pinned down, and seeming ability to mean anything at all—is in the end part of its point. For Lotringer and his milieu, the fundamental claim of “theory” is that the unconscious, the realm of dreams and delirium, of trauma and desire, is not a private matter but deeply political. In other words, that the personal is political, and vice versa. And when desire and politics short-circuit, things get murky: it becomes difficult to distinguish between description and advocacy, what you see and what you want. That, of course, is the thrill—of getting swept up, overtaken by things. This is the nomadic glamour that radiates from the Semiotext(e) name. The feeling is elusive and yet, more and more these days, pervasive. You can find it in a nightclub, in art, and sometimes, in politics. What it used to be called is the sacred.

James Duesterberg has written for The Point and Brooklyn Rail and is currently working on a book about structuralism and the postwar political imagination. He lives in New York.