Sylvère Lotringer made book publishing safe for dangerous ideas

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I never knew Sylvere Lotringer, although I admire it. By the time I started hanging out on the fringes of New York’s art and writing world, he had already withdrawn from any active involvement with the newspaper. Semiotext, which he founded at Columbia University in 1974. I was aware of the basic narrative, which began with the Schizo-Culture conference Lotringer organized in 1975, bringing together French semioticians with set designers from Manhattan : Michel Foucault and William S. Burroughs, Gilles Deleuze and Jean Cage. Two years later, the event, a chaotic cultural melee, was commemorated in a special issue of “Semiotext (e)”. After all this time, it remains an exhilarating reminder of the kind of excitement a post can spark.

Semiotext (e) was devoted to this kind of provocation, whether as a periodical – issues continued to appear sporadically in the 1990s – or as the independent publisher it has become. By the time Lotringer died on November 8 in Mexico at the age of 83, he had seen his anarchic project evolve, unexpectedly, into an institution: innovative, confrontational, gleefully anti-commercial. “Never give people what they want,” he once observed, “or they’ll hate you for it. It could have been a mission statement or a manifesto, so perfectly did it evoke the flavor of his work.

This work included writing – Lotringer was the author of books and monographs on Antonin Artaud, Nancy Spero and David Wojnarowicz, among others – and also editing; in 1983 he launched the Foreign Agents label of Semiotext (e). The impulse was twofold: to present French theorists to American readers (the first title was to Jean Baudrillard) while stripping away the critical devices that have trapped – or tamed – the incendiary ideas.

“Footnotes or other academic commentary were clearly missing,” Lotringer later recalled. “They belonged in the pockets of studded leather jackets as well as on the shelves. It was publishing, to borrow a phrase from the Scottish novelist Alexandre trocchi, as “the invisible insurrection of a million spirits”.

I was one of those readers in a leather jacket, with little interest in academy mechanics. These small, thin titles of foreign agents struck me with the force of secret messages, written in a language I was desperately trying to understand. My favorites overlapped with my fascinations: Derek Pell’s “Assassination Rhapsody,” an absurd deconstruction of the Warren Report; and “Behold Metatron, The Recording Angel”, by Sol Yurick, best known for his novel “The Warriors», Which depicts a spooky New York beset by sectarian gangs.

Published in 1985, “Behold Metatron” was more of a book of reflection than of narrative, a work of non-fiction that offered a premonitory vision of a world transformed by data. “The old Philosopher’s Stone,” he wrote, “could convert base metals into gold. From now on, humans, real estate, social relations are converted into electronic signs transported in an electronic plasma. The dream of magic control has never been exorcised.

Like Yurick, Lotringer was smart enough to remain a moving target. In 1990, he again extended Semiotext (e) with the Native Agents series, which he co-edited with his then-wife, writer Chris Kraus. Among the titles they presented were “Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black” by Cookie Mueller and Anne Rower‘s gorgeous “If you’re a girl.” These remain among the most transcendent and transgressive works of personal narrative that I know of.

“It seems strange how all the embarrassing female-type stories seemed to pop up in my mind, then in my writing,” Rower confesses on the first page of his book. “… I want to make a collection of it and call it ‘If you’re a girl. When a friend asks her if her book will be about pre-pubescence, she gets “immediately on the defensive”:

“No, I said,… it’s, you know, a state of mind. “

Sylvère Lotringer in New York, 1992. (Bob Berg / Getty Images)

With that casual but also sharp voice, Rower highlights the impetus behind Native Agents, which Kraus would describe as “a new form of female subjectivity.” Whether it echoed – or reflected – the work of the postmodernists was part of the point, a strategy for bringing their radical notions of subjectivity into play outside the walls of the academy. Perhaps the apotheosis of such an aesthetic is the epistolary autofiction of Kraus in 1997 “I like cock”, Originally published as a Native Agents title and later adapted for Amazon TV. The irony of this move from Semiotext (e) to Amazon, edge to center, only validated the sensitivity of the imprint, its intention not only to blur but also actively to eradicate lines. Theory, personal story, television – they were all part of the cultural landscape, available to be appropriate, mixed, mixed and matched.

Lotringer understood this. He saw artistic creation as a collective practice in which collaboration can yield unexpected results. This meant letting others edit the journal: Jim Fleming, whose publisher Autonomedia has distributed Semiotext (e) books for more than two decades; Peter Lamborn Wilson, who in his 1991 exegesis “TAZ” developed the idea of temporary autonomous zone, a freed space (Burning Man is an example) which allows, for a moment in any case, to push back the hierarchies of control. The issues they helped to raise, notably “Semiotext (e) USA” (1987) and “Semiotext (e) SF” (1989), remain exhilarating in their resistance to conventions, their intention to ignite. Kraus became the co-editor of Semiotext (e), in a partnership that lasted longer than marriage, and in 2001 she and Lotringer moved to Los Angeles, where they once again reinvented themselves.

In the process, I lost track of Lotringer, although many books he edited continue to occupy my shelves. Lynne tillman, David Rattray, Eileen Myles – these writers and others have changed the way I think about storytelling and editing and the way an artist navigates the world. Something similar could be said of Lotringer, who had an imagination and vision broad enough to encompass them all. “At this point,” he said in 2015, “the art world is no different from any other business, except that it is more directly related to finance. He created a world of glamor and luxury unmatched anywhere else. Yet rather than despair, he saw it as an opportunity: “The resistance”, he concluded, “begins at home”.

Ulin is the former editor and literary critic of The Times.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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