A Tribute to Sylvère Lotringer
Edited by Donatien Grau
Sylvère Lotringer for the future
When someone passes away, we think about our remembrances of them. Often, we tend to think about ourselves. Ce sont toujours les autres qui meurent (“it’s always the others who die,” as Marcel Duchamp famously had inscribed on his grave). It speaks to Sylvère’s outstanding versatility and openness that so many and such different individuals can have strong remembrances of him. Whether it was as a scholar, a friend, a theorist, a conversation partner, a partner in crime, he taught the fortunate ones who knew him how to think, how to live, how to love—for these were quite often the same to him. We were there to receive his teachings. But many have not, and it will now be impossible to experience it in his direct presence—which in itself was quite something, in its presence and elusiveness. Therefore, I would like to articulate 10 learnings I received from Sylvère—as I am sure many did. Evidently, it is but a few extracts of what one could learn from him—not merely as historical discussions on the intellectual and artistic life from the 1980s to today. They are lessons one could use in the present—and the future.
Real authority does not aim for authority. Anyone who has met Sylvère knows he held authority. He had clear, bold ideas, thoughts, strongly-held opinions. He had remarkable charisma. Even in his ailing days, over the last few years, any appearance of him kept everyone still—whether people knew him or knew who he was, or whether they did not. Whatever authority he could manifest, he stood against the very notion of authority: in his theoretical work, he embraced Deleuze’s rhizome. In his editorial work at Semiotext(e), he advocated for the collective. The one time when he left the collective, and the collective contradicted his vision—the “Oasis” issue—he was unhappy, but he did nothing to act against those who went the other way. Such is the very premise of authority: it does stand outside of the collective, it does not impose itself upon the collective, it exists within the collective. True authority does not need to assert itself, nor to state its powerfulness. Sylvère was the most soft-spoken person one could find. He did not shout, nor did he try to impose his views. He did not ask for compliance or obedience. He just was. Authority is not the center around which everything would be organized. It is the electricity that animates the web.
Parties are not separated from life. They are not the sheer location of ecstasy, where one would completely leave one’s body and one’s life. Philosophical parties, in the way Sylvère experienced them, are theory. They are poetry. They pave the way to an expansion of how theory could be perceived—how it could be active in life. Life and thought are not separated: life in one’s work studio has to bring in some form of joy in order to be fully experienced. Equally, bodily expressions in a club can rank amongst the greatest of theoretical experiences. Sylvère understood that cohesion particularly well, for he belonged to both worlds at the same time. There was daylife and there was nightlife, but it was all one experimental attempt for the new. The heyday of New York nightlife was the heyday of French Theory: this is not a coincidence. The most profound philosophical challenges and the most performative demonstration of bodies, harmonies, and disharmonies somehow had something in common. Sylvère was the one who grabbed it.
There are no borders between the arts, as long as they are experimental. Amongst Sylvère’s early close friends were painters, musicians, performers, filmmakers. There was no medium-specificity to his artistic friendships: the medium was an ending, it was related to the financial value of commodification—all these being exactly the opposite of what Sylvère was interested in. He was interested in fluidity, in constant reinventions, where art and theory blended creatively. Everything he ever did was a political statement against fixation. It was not a statement against success: for example, Mike Kelley, already a successful artist in the ’80s, was also Sylvère’s fellow traveler. Mike Kelley embodied the very fluidity of art. There was nothing he could not touch. Value may have been there, but the experimentation was always present as well. That is what Sylvère looked for.
History is not the enemy. The enemy is those who do not believe in history. Sylvère’s entire life was defined at a very early age by the traumas of history. The murder of the European Jew, the crisis of World War II: those were his first days. The utopia of Israel came next. And then, the discovery of the dystopia it could also lead to. Sylvère saw everything from the point of view of history—which stemmed from his Europeanness. He was fascinated with the United States: that feeling was rooted in the feeling that the US had deprived itself the burden of historicity. And yet, when Sylvère saw America, he looked at it with the eyes of a historical character. Nowadays, there is a lot of talk of “post-history,” almost eschatological iterations of the “new world.” The truth is: every generation has tried to escape history. None have succeeded. Even if you negate history, you’re there, all along. Still today, Semiotext(e) publishes key authors of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Serge Daney or Guillaume Dustan—exactly like, in the 1970s and 1980s, it would reference key texts of the 1930s and 1940s.
The academe may be in peril, but it is a special world anyway. Sylvère’s relation to the academic world was complex. He loved to hate it, he hated loving it. He challenged its authority, he relished teaching. The very group that founded Semiotext(e) was made of graduate students. What’s more, Sylvère served as a professor at Columbia University for over 30 years. He was a legendary teacher. Rather than dismissing the importance of his role as a professor, he made sure that everything he taught would not be the mere matter of scholars, but in fact be relevant for each of his students’ lives. At the core, he was a profound believer in the power of the academic world. What he did was not set against this world: it was designed to change it from the inside. He went to the foundation of academe: teaching, sharing, thinking, researching, while not aiming to gain any form of institutional power. He addressed the spirit of the University. It was a molecular revolution. Let us not forget that “Schizo-Culture” took place on the campus of Columbia.
Interviews are a form of writing. Sylvère was a frequent and talented interviewer. When I started conducting interviews with him for what became a conversation book, he decided he wanted to interview me as well. His way of practicing interviews combined Interview Magazine and anthropology. From Interview as it existed in downtown New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he developed a principle of candidness. The interview had to tell the truth about someone. It was an art of truth that literary writing could never achieve. Furthermore, it stated the specialness of the person interviewed. If you’re interviewed, then you’re someone, so it seemed to say. But in his case, his “someones” were not the socialites of the moment. They were the “freaks,” the “weirdos,” the “creatives,” all of those who went too far even for Warhol. He did not only look into the margins of center—as Warhol did—but he went to the center of the margins. From anthropology, he developed the necessity for interviews to be scientific. He understood how they could form a sort of scholarship and lead to research—they could be research in their own right.
Absence is not the opposite to substance. “Shall you absent thee from felicity awhile … to tell my story,” as Hamlet says. This principle governed his life. He knew very well how to make himself absent, to pretend not to be present, in order to create substance. His appearance of absence, his way of removing himself, was a method to be even more present, and most importantly, to allow the other to be present. Whether as an editor, an interviewer, a writer on authors and subjects, a director, a teacher, a friend, he knew how to leave all the room in him for you to exist fully. This ability did not limit him. In fact, it allowed him to take on what each of these persons who had been through the rooms of his mind and soul had left there. Absenting oneself—giving the illusion of it—was only a way to be more present.
Never lose enthusiasm. Sylvère certainly never lost his. Sometimes, when he would see the way technology evolved, he would get stunned—even though he published the very Paul Virilio texts that predicted that change. Sometimes, when he saw the commodification of art, he would be upset—even though he published the very Jean Baudrillard texts that described it. Sometimes, when he saw the destruction of the creative, free New York he knew—both in cultural terms and in terms of urban planning—he would be a little nostalgic. But that feeling only lasted for a moment. Then, the urge to be the historian, to serve as a witness—as Celan said, “who is the witness of the witness”—took over, and he would act again. Every time he encountered an artist who broke the norm with reasons, he would do anything to help them. Whenever the possibility to share something had appeared, he would seize it. Up to my very last conversation with him, he kept the very same enthusiasm I heard him and others describe when he arrived in this world where “Strangers in the Night” was the only tune of the creative community.
Identity is a given, but it’s not the end of things. That’s true of individuals, of culture, of politics. Semiotext(e) published some of the most important books on diverse identities of the last 40 years—at the time, and still today, they were powerful manifestos. Still Black, Still Strong was a remarkable book to publish. Semiotext(e) has given an editorial home to those who do not want to abide by the domination of the white male heterosexual rule. Every form of identity has found its way there, but it was never merely essentialized. It was offered as a creative possibility, often a poetic one: one that would manifest itself in writing, in literature, in philosophy. As such, this identity was not the end: it was a beginning. Semiotext(e) itself gathers all those identities through the variety of books it publishes. It advocates for the dialectical albeit peaceful coexistence of all of them. Sylvère himself remained true to his origins. They were the scar of his life. But he became who he became. A starting point only makes sense if it leads you somewhere.
The utopia never dies. Sylvère understood that a utopia had to change, but that it would never end. For Semiotext(e), he chose his students, his friends, to participate in a vision that they would change and that would eventually become theirs. Thus, it would never end. He would often say to me, after going to an exciting event: “this is Semiotext(e), now!” thereby alluding to those great gatherings of the 1970s and 1980s. In Semiotext(e) itself, he allowed his friends and fellow travelers—whether Chris, Hedi, Noura, John, or many others—to take their role, to place their vision in this utopia, and build up on it. He understood that their exploration of and the persistent inquiry into the centers and the margins—they are so connected today—was the utopia. What Foucault called the “heterotopia” was not a contradiction to the notion of utopia: only in and through heterotopia could utopia appear, and perhaps become a reality. That’s what Bataille had aimed to do. It was what Semiotext(e) would do. Semiotext(e) is just another, special name for this utopia that connects art and life, love and thought, finds as much intensity in reading a book as in engaging with bodily endeavors. And for sure, Sylvère, this utopia never dies.
Now is a good time for coffee.
I read the text from Iris that tells me Sylvère just died. I’ve been expecting it since Sunday, when she texted that we should send our messages to him if we wanted to say goodbye before he passed. Expectation is different than the cold solidity of fact. Sylvère was always fascinated with death, and he’s been dancing a lifetime with it before he started dying from what finally wore down a body nearly relentless in endurance.
Although he wrote a PhD dissertation on Virginia Woolf, Sylvère’s academic specialization was in modernist avant-garde French literature, aesthetics, and politics, from Rimbaud and Mallarmé through Jarry, Artaud, Bataille, Simone Weil, to the Situationists and Guyotat. In an interview with Donatien Grau, Sylvère explains: “What interested me in Artaud was that he was destroying every value that was prevalent in the West.” Guyotat was also a great destroyer, trying to do what Rimbaud had done the century before. “He was not destroying society, but he was destroying himself in order to be able to destroy it in himself.” In the same interview Sylvère relates that death is something one must do to oneself to allow the unknown to emerge.
Sylvère’s parents were furriers in Paris during World War II and sent him and his sister to the countryside for safeguarding. There, in hiding, they were given names of other children, which was both a salutary substitution and a recognition of the frailty and illusory nature of a name. The children of Jewish immigrants from Warsaw to Paris take the names of the children of French peasants, the names of the territorialized, those living anchored to the earth, so as to escape certain death. (At the time, France was still for the most part an agricultural country.) Although other French intellectuals have come from the peasant class, Baudrillard or Bourdieu for example, and lost their class belonging by becoming intellectuals, they didn’t, in an origination, lose their name. For this as for other obvious reasons, the war was a structuring moment in Sylvère’s life, a primal scene of origins where death (the specter of the camps) was inextricably linked with survival through this abandon. Although the trauma of the war would continue to haunt him, it also launched a trajectory. From that time on, Sylvère was never bound by a name, by the boundaries of individual subjectivity and the social strata that informed it. He joined the ranks of the invisible.
I am here because of Sylvère. So are Hedi, and Chris, and Robbie, and so many others and many of you reading this. He brought together a generation—the New York avant-garde of the 1970s colliding with radical philosophies from post-1968 France—and then generations. His generations were always transversal, in discipline (the art worlds, the worlds of academia, the floating worlds of theory, etc.) and in time. He can be credited for making so many of us into what we would become. When I was his graduate student at Columbia he called my house one evening to ask me if I would translate the Deleuzian sci-fi novel Babylon Babies by Maurice G. Dantec. I said “yes” and spent the next six months doing that instead of working towards the degree. Being a translator is a way to remain invisible, to be one of the invisible. So is being an editor. Sylvère was one of the invisible, a “transmitter,” (or smuggler, a passeur) as François Cusset writes. 1
One day when I was an undergraduate, we were outside Hamilton Hall at Columbia, waiting for Baudrillard, whom Sylvère had invited to the class. At the last minute Baudrillard had decided against coming, and our small group, maybe five or six students, were listening to Sylvère as he smoked his pipe. I remember he bent over to light my cigarette (I thought it was cool to smoke at the time!) and burnt his hand.
Rather than the classes in literary analysis that I’d been used to, he introduced us to semiotics, experimental literature, literary criticism and philosophy (thinkers such as Bataille, Blanchot, Barthes, Deleuze, Guattari, Virilio…) in a sometime rambling monologue that broke my mind open. Sylvère explained that the absolute incomprehensible phenomenon that was Artaud was his embodying of the fascist plague heading straight to Europe in 1933, and that literature was in direct connection to the forces of history. Of course, when Artaud went to give a conference at the Sorbonne, he became the plague itself. Everyone left except for Anaïs Nin, and they went for coffee. I wanted to be Anaïs Nin to Sylvère’s Artaud.
Thin, somewhat rugged yet fine featured, Sylvère was a very striking person. He also had a limp which made you want to hold him or stay close, and which he developed from hip replacements after pole-vaulting in his youth. That day, going back to the French department and his office in Philosophy Hall, the both of us swaying slightly with the pull of his leg, he told me about Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, born lame and cast out of his family first by his mother Hera, and again by his father Zeus. He was the ugliest Greek god but married to Aphrodite. A blacksmith, and the god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, and artisans, Hephaestus crafted all of the tools of the gods. Some myths say that the fire Prometheus gave to mankind was stolen from the forge of Hephaestus. The limp, Sylvère said, was a mark of the earth, the shard of its material inside him.
Proofing the beautiful translation of Serge Daney’s writings (The Cinema House and the World) by Christine Pichini, I read a piece on Tanney’s film Jonas that speaks of families and generations. On the day Sylvère dies, and before we know it, Hedi and I text about him.
“Semiotext(e) will be 50 in two years. It’s such a special thing that Sylvère created and fostered. I don’t know, it makes me think of him.”
“Totally. He created a family, a place for real meaningful impact of culture, and for encounters. We should have a party.”
My text had the usual brevity of its medium and even as I send it I know it mislabels the freedom of assemblage that we are while doing justice to the binding power of our love. I say as much to Sylvère in a message Iris plays for him before he leaves this body. Does he die? When does he die? Is he dead or is that another slippage? Where is the mark of his departure on the earth? Has he now finally stopped dying?
Sylvère was a father to me, although he didn’t want to be. One day as he was showing me the first-floor apartment where his family lived in Paris during the war, he scoffed slightly when I told him. Theory could totally disintegrate you with its libidinal charge, then throw you into a dizzying whirlwind where you lost your bearings, your origin, your sex, and your family. When I was 18 in his class I would lose myself and stare deep and longingly at the wrinkles on his neck, transfixed. In the book of interviews with Donatien I read Sylvère’s announcement on Guyotat: “he had to systematically deregulate incest” like Rimbaud systematically deregulated the senses. Sylvère was both the father I’d lost at 16 and a second mother, for he was French like mine, and feminine. He was a very feminine person. And he did the work of care for so many people that perhaps he wasn’t always able to do it to the satisfaction of all. “He had to try to save himself a bit,” says Hedi with his usual understanding.
Was it because he was an orphan of history that he attracted orphans? I was two years orphaned when I met him; Hedi was orphaned in some sense (from his class, from the expectations of a man in the Arab world); Chris was a feminist who’d left New Zealand for America, whatever kind of orphan that is. And sometimes over the years I felt that Sylvère made me into an orphan. He inhabited the academy but severed many of us, his students, from it—Ariana Reines left in the first years of her dissertation, John Kelsey joined Bernadette Corporation, Ames Hodges became a translator, Olivier Jacquemond a writer, etc.—because there’s something rotten in the kingdom of Denmark—although we are lucky many stayed, or could get in—and the possibility it used to offer for fugitive planning has been much encroached upon. He would come to class high, for example, or not prepare. I would sometimes drop in to his office and he’d say, “Oh today’s not going to be so interesting; I wouldn’t bother coming.” He wasn’t worried about being a traitor to expectations of clarity and reason and logic and the exhaustion that supposedly comes with mastery. Theory was supposed to be used, not expounded, experienced, not lectured about. There is something dangerous about it. The home he made in it was Semiotext(e). This is our filiation and it keeps us orphaned from many of the structures our ambitions might obscurely pursue.
Daney writes that a generation is not bound by the same structures as the family. Family provides a point of origin—in the primal scene—and an assignation of sex—in the Oedipal complex (Daney didn’t do his critique of Oedipus in his short column for the Cahiers). A generation, he writes, is not created through a point of origin or an assignation of sex but through a fold of history. The fold that generated Semiotext(e) was 1968, the liberation of desire and subjectivities, worldwide decolonial movements and revolutions, feminist, Black power and Indigenous movements, the last shudder of labor movements, the thaw of the Soviet Bloc … It gave us an origin and it gave us desire. And yet, in 1968, Sylvère was in Australia. He had left France for a teaching job, not knowing he would miss the most important event of his lifetime. Did that absence crack open the door to the collective tremors and upheavals of history: Lefebvre and the Situationists echoing the Paris Commune of 1871, the long decade of the Italian years of lead, the history of the European avant-garde as the determined dismantling of existing modes of subjectivation and the exploration of radically new possibilities of affect and becoming? In any case, Sylvère subsequently worked for the diffusion of that vibratory plateau through space, time, disciplines, media, and over the Atlantic to a country where he would not have to hammer away at pre-existing social structures as much. Recreating that missing through the space and distance he inserted into the effervescence of a common thrust, linking it to other, unexpected actors and situations, theory became an unmoored and explosively (de)generative vehicle that spawned generations.
It’s impossible to name all of those who participated over the years; not only all of the editors, authors, translators, but also proofreaders, press interlocutors, audience members, friends. The list continues to grow, and invisibly…
As I’m dictating this into my phone there’s a car next to me with a kid who is sticking his head out the window. Sylvère was kind of like that, always sticking his head out of the window. There is that picture of him in the desert with his crazy hair creating a split halo around his head and strange ears. He didn’t necessarily want to be in the car (the problem of the institution, power…), but he was definitely going somewhere and enjoyed the ride. He was the most attuned discoverer of intellectual gems, the most precise collector and composer of encounters, the most sensible reader of whether something was worthy of interest. He was also the most adept dismantler.
“If you do not believe in it [reality] and it exists, you keep the benefit of the doubt, since there will never be any definitive proof of its existence, not more than that of God (moreover, if it does exist, given what it is, it is better to dispose of it).”2 Like his friend Baudrillard, Sylvère was a pataphysician. The science of imaginary solutions, pataphysics was founded at the turn of the 20th century by the French playwright Alfred Jarry. Pataphysics looks like nonsense when you don’t understand it. Pataphysics doesn’t look like anything or is unrecognizable until it’s too late and you’re out in the field or lost in the high seas or in the deep forest. Although a pataphysician will never tell you clearly what they are, they will take you off course to save you … from your own fascistic or rigid or competitive or capitalistic or power-hungry tendencies (put whatever term or nemesis you prefer in the blank). Actually, they are probably not even there to save you; you’ll need to do that for yourself. A pataphysician is not necessarily your friend and can make babies in your back, as Deleuze would say. Master of the chiasmus in the Situationist vein, Sylvère cracked open a maze. “Reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real.” With his humorous and decidedly caustic and unbeatable resistance to forms of authorized and authorizing knowledge, Sylvère was never a name-of-the-father.
One of Sylvère’s favored modes of production was the interview. He had a love affair with recording (cameras but also voice recorders). Although he performed the private model of the writer with interiority and point of view, I don’t know that he was completely convinced by it. He didn’t produce the way academics and writers are encouraged to produce, and perhaps his thought was too explosive and roaming to abide by the constraints of planning and development. The interview is a raw expression of fascination with the other in the shared danger of thought unfolding live. Semiotext(e) nurtured the thrill of that collective assemblage of enunciation. The term comes from Guattari. “A way to escape the logic of the signifier,” it underscores the fact that “the subject is no longer an isolated individual with its signifiers, but that they or it belongs to an assemblage where it (is) interact[ed] with a milieu and a group that produce a collective agency of enunciation in permanent evolution.”3
Given this ambition, how do you institute? First, you have to make sure that those participating love a project enough to do all the heavy lifting that will be required to materialize it. Second, you have to accept the dangers of the collective. In the preface to Anti-Oedipus (Deleuze and Guattari, 1972) Foucault writes something that I think applies to us inasmuch as we (might) have a political project: “Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to ‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse assemblages [agencements]. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.”
An editorial voice is multiple and not unanimist. Generations like families have their little dramas of power. We all suffer from established modes of validation (title, power, prestige, intelligence…). Part of the Semiotext(e) project and constitutive of the material shard it pricks in avenues of communication cannibalized by ideas of individual competition under capitalism is that we are not separate, individual units. We are not divorced from the collective assemblage that we enunciate within, neither are we silent to refrain and reframe how those enunciations are validated and valorized and empowered.
I want to talk about loyalty. I want to talk about treachery. I want to talk about love. Or maybe I don’t necessarily want to talk about loyalty or treachery or love but rather about the nearly 50 years of the enduring influence of this enunciative assembly in molding our existence(s) and our voice(s). Why treachery? Well, first, why loyalty? Sylvère was extremely loyal, to the point of providing a launching pad for authors to move to more established venues. As a child, Sylvère was given a saving name and so Semiotext(e) gave name and voice to many. Loyalty over the long duration. Loyalty to bringing dissenting voices close. Loyalty to discovering the most radical, transformative analyses on our present. Loyalty to shaking up established disciplines, established media, establish hierarchies of media and discipline and the distinctions between them that form the structure of fields of knowledge and reflect the infiltration of power in those fields. Which means treachery towards the bounds of enunciation. The self for Sylvère was in the recording device. The self for Sylvère was within the conjunction of disparate positions. The self was the pataphysical upheaval of power in systems of knowledge. Now unbound from his shard of material, his limp, his hugging close to the ground, that beautiful weight of gravity and tenderness of flesh which kept him close to the powerless and the outside, his intersticial self is speaking more silently, more expansively, more material now, more collective, more diffuse, englobing us in a post-mortem embrace so that we may delight in the shared enunciation: the dream of a utopian community. Once we are done impersonating the plague, the phantom game history makes us play, we go for coffee. Daney, writing about the same film Jonas, says that utopia is not the future. If utopia were probable, that would make it the object of futurists; if it were hidden in the present, it would be the object of dialecticians. Instead, utopia is an arbitrary projection into the future of what pleases us in the present, an extended childhood. And so Sylvère was held by the utopian name Semiotext(e), a name for (t)his present, (t)his past, and (t)his future.
- David Rattray, How I Became One of the Invisible (New York: Semiotext(e), 1992).
- Jean Baudrillard, Le pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du mal, op. cit., p. 131 (my translation).
Sylvère Lotringer and the Art of Radical Resistance
Sylvère Lotringer (1938–2021) was a well-known cultural theorist who founded and edited Semiotext(e), the publishing house that introduced French post-structuralism to America. His work with Semiotext(e) had a significant impact on the contemporary art of the ’70s and ’80s, especially Conceptual art and Neo-Conceptualism. It was also important to the development of my writing and art practice. Lotringer was committed to bridging art and critical thinking. He said in a 1990 interview that, “artists like John Cage and Merce Cunningham were the real thinkers in America and that their artistic practice came very close to French post-1968 theory.”1 Although he knew very little about art in the ’70s, he was inspired by their commitment to experimentalism. So, in 1974 along with some of his Columbia graduate students, he founded Semiotext(e) to begin a dialogue between French post-structuralism and art. He brought to the art world’s attention the theoretical writings of Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari among others. Lotringer believed the purpose of Semiotext(e) was to create a venue that would position postmodern critical theory outside of, but not entirely separate from, academia. He believed that entering a dialogue with artists would help keep the ideas of resistance and radical critique forefront in critical theory.
Lotringer was not bothered by the fact that artists often misunderstood the concepts they cite as the critical basis of their work. He felt that the history of knowledge was precessional, more rhizomatic than ontological; but there is an intellectual rigor that must be maintained in critical thinking to preserve its responsibility to the history of ideas. However, the guardrails that academia constructs to insure this often produce suffocating canons that resist invention. For example, he introduced the art world to the writings of Jean Baudrillard, whose theory of simulacra influenced ’80s Neo-Conceptualism, or as it was known, “simulationism.” Baudrillard complained that the artists who adopted his idea of simulacra didn’t understand it. But I believe this idea of getting it wrong was attractive to Lotringer because it contributed to the rhizomatic structure of the history of ideas. He believed the rhizome was a truer model of how ideas propagate over time than the traditional explanatory ontology that leaves little room for fissures and gaps. Therefore, he believed the conceptualizations of artists who were part of the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s were more radical than that of academics, and that radicalism was part of the French spirit. Encouraging the dialogue made sense to him. But Baudrillard had less patience with art and artists. In fact, after seeing the 1996 Venice Biennale, Baudrillard decided art was hopelessly superficial. In an article titled “The Conspiracy of Art,” Baudrillard warns us that based on the work in that show, we are now at the end of resistance, especially since capitalism can co-opt everything.2 In fact, Lotringer agreed with Baudrillard, not so much about artists, but certainly about the art world in the ’90s. “The art world has changed immensely over the last few decades,” he recounts in an interview with Jason Hoelscher, in ArtPulse, “At this point the art world is hardly different from any other corporation.”3
One of Lotringer’s earliest attempts to introduce theory to an American audience was in a 1973 review titled, “The Game of the Name,”4 where he reviewed Ferdinand de Saussure’s writings on semiotics and cognitive linguistics.5 In 1974 he published “The Two Saussures,” in volume 1 of Semiotext(e) where his linguistic theory was again introduced. Saussure’s writings, along with Roland Barthes, who Lotringer studied under in France, helped change how representation was defined in works of art. Writers and artists began to look at representation, through the art object itself or through the images it carried, as signs, not as just the psychological expressions of feelings. Notwithstanding Baudrillard’s suspicions of art, simulationism as a movement would be unimaginable without the introduction of the sign into discourse. We can now engage Baudrillard’s radical deconstruction of the original/copy binary which makes it possible to imagine in representation the paradox of the copy without an original.
Although he was a Swiss linguist, Saussure provides an interesting opportunity to talk about how French theory influenced my art practice and, in addition, the evolution of my thinking about issues of culture and politics with respect to race and identity. This second issue I will get into later. Reading Saussure and semiotics directly led to me reading Roland Barthes and other French post-structuralists. Lotringer’s perception of a relationship between art of the ’60s and ’70s and French theory was prescient. He foresaw a desire in the art world to change a basic belief about art advanced by modernism, that it was as a form, experience, and discipline fundamentally aesthetical. This was a critique of modernism levied by the radical avant-garde, which was ironic because the avant-garde owed its existence to modernism. But, as this push against aesthetics and for radical change took root over time from the mid-1800s to the 1970s it formed a rupture that produced two antagonistic set of ideas: one, that art at its core was a formal language where experimental change or radical shifts would remain within the domain of certain universal principles and be defined as aesthetic innovation. Here known artistic elements would be combined into something new yet recognizable.6 The other is Baudelaire’s avant-garde, the idea of constant change and the uncontainable present. Here, art was a psychologically-driven phenomenon whose evolution over time was more indeterminate and contingent.7 The reason is that the present as a moment in time is elusive and unpresentable, in other words the moment you try to think of the present, it has passed. Change became more a function of a process (contingency) than a state where an object appears new.
What the two views share is this belief in the avant-garde, that art is a radicalizing project. But the effect of this shared view also took two paths. With respect to the first, leading to a formal language, radical thinking allowed a greater level of rigor in eliminating those things that were not intrinsic to the idea of art. With respect to the second, it allowed a greater capacity to critique art as a set of possibilities whose form is in some sublime way coming into being, still to be determined. Greenbergian modernism is an example of the first path. The second path I believe is what Lotringer was attracted to; he saw evidence of resistance in the work and ideas of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, artists who were pushing the edges by dismantling the conventions of their practice.
With respect to my own entry into art, Lotringer’s presentation of the writings of Saussure was perhaps the most important to me. As a student I was attracted to Surrealism and began making these quite average paintings. But they sharpened my focus on what interested me, which were writers and artists who were thinking critically about the idea of art, not just the form, but our understanding of the practice. What can we say about an object that exists in an ocean of contingencies? I believe pushing the edges of what is possible is part of critical thinking, it certainly led me to Saussure.
In the early ’70s I began working with systems and numbers and developed a rule-based method to translate objects into mathematical patterns on a grid. My investigation focused on the mechanics of representation and its relationship to content formation, i.e., the acquisition of meaning. I wanted to critique the modernist idea that the practice of art was based on individualistic, subjective expression. The problem I had with this idea was that it formed a concept of subjectivity that is totalizing and absolute, not indeterminate, and contingent. The modernist subject is an entity that does not reside in the world but outside the world, transcending culture and politics. This presupposes an agent of the expression, a subject who expresses, usually identified as a feeling or an intuition. However, I embraced the post-structuralist idea that subjectivity is culturally constructed.
Saussure’s theory of language provided critical support for my argument. I found a correlation between his separation of the language system and speech, la langue et le parole, and my separation of form and image. For me, an object in the world or an image of one in a work of art can be seen as a pattern, an abstraction formed by the mapping of differences. In my work this pattern is visualized in the form of numbers. This correlates with patterns of differences, experienced as sound, that constitute the system of language. What I mean by this is that sound is the material form of linguistic communication, but that sound is, in the moment, prior to cognitive communication, noise. The larger pattern maps out a transition from noise to phonemes to words. The sound differences one hears in noise are not organized by a system, but when they are recognized as phonemes (but not yet words) that recognition is the product of a system that presupposes it and organizes it. With respect to the correlation with speech, there is, in speech, the conscious and simultaneous recognition of patterns as representations of something. This correlates with the organization of sound patterns (system) that convert noise to speech.
Although the critical domain of my work employs ideas analogically (between speech and visuality), the work is not a metaphor of these ideas. The analogy is different from the metaphor because the analogy forms a logical correlation, therefore a critical expression. On the other hand, the metaphor is formed by a relationship between two signs that is illogical, therefore aesthetic.8 The idea of the subject is linked to the idea of expression. I disable the role of the subject in the production of works of art, at least the transcendental subject of the Enlightenment whose judgments are aesthetical, by introducing a rule-based system that makes these judgments.
Here I forward the idea that the subject is a construction, and this places it within a political domain. The reason for my investment in the political can be explained. As a child I was fascinated by ontological questions, particularly those that sought to explain disciplines, laws, and customs, because I recognized early on that I was living under a system of segregation. As a teenager I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I learned from that novel that American white supremacist culture made Black people voiceless and invisible. I believed my interest in ontology grew out of the struggle to overcome invisibility, which is part of the normal process of enculturation for Black children and children of other oppressed minorities. This process is different from the one that whites go through because, for them, it is about merging into a visible and stable society. It was not about inventing a fiction that stands for normality and stability, as it was for Black folks. Society for Black folks was not visible. This is not to say Black folks are literally invisible, they are, as Ellison reminds us, metaphorically invisible. Black children are born into a culture that is visible to them, it is simply invisible to whites. As such, within the larger society, Black culture exists within the liminal spaces between boundaries and along edges. Enculturation is, for them, the social/political project to overcome invisibility. Raising these ontological questions brought meaning to my circumstance, but I had to learn how to ask the questions so that I could identify the institutional framework that perpetuated the disciplines, laws, and customs of racism and inspect the motivations of white people.
French theory examines the structures of Western institutions and their role in the formation of knowledge. Lotringer introduced us to the critical writings of Foucault, who challenged the idea that individual will plays a pivotal role in this process. Instead, preexisting social or linguistic codes exemplified by his discourse theory or the master narrative of Jean-François Lyotard determine what is acceptable as knowledge. French theory is a radical examination of these institutions and the codes they propagate. It is also an examination of these codes or structures that override human will in determining what is acceptable as knowledge. Often it reveals the dominance of certain ideas and institutions over others and who is or is not being served by them. There is a diversity of thought among theorists about how this all operates. For example, Foucault’s theory of discourse is more fixed, while Lyotard’s is more of a process. But what is common is the decentralization of the human will in this process.
I was drawn to this part of French theory because it provided a language to critique the idea of subjectivity as a code or construct rather than a psychologically-driven phenomenon. This distinction is important because the latter has been central to the idea of a work of art. This is not to argue that subjectivity is a myth. My argument was to redefine it, to show it to be more complex. Subjectivity is also a significant concept to me because it reflects on my lived experience, it directly addresses the ideas of identity and race.9 In view of that, I realized the critical language coming from French theory was limited in its ability to address a critique of identity and race that corresponded with my lived experience. Defining subjectivity as a set of codes, behaviors, and institutions, rather than an essentialist theory, addressed my problem with totalizing concepts, and this is good. There is a need to address racism as an institutional problem, not just an individual psychosis. At the same time, this definition did not allow a discussion of individual responsibility. Edward Said discovered this same dilemma while researching his book, Orientalism. Said was influenced by Foucault’s discourse theory in developing Orientalism, but he was criticized for doing this. The problem for some was that discourse theory, in disabling the role of human individual will in the accumulation of knowledge, absolved individuals of the responsibility of perpetuating colonialism. But Said did not embrace the absence of human will in criticizing orientalist ideology, institutions, and practices.10 He affirmed subjective agency because he recognized that although discourse affirms preexisting codes that individuals are born into, there is a choice to join the institutions that perpetuate those codes. He also redefined the minority subject as the self-in-exile. By this, the colonized subject or, to my mind, the racial subject were examples of subjectivities, multivalent because of their contingent relationship with a dominant culture that has a history of oppression. Said was an avowed humanist and recognized human agency. It could be argued that the refusal by some to recognize Said’s embrace of individual will, or that he failed to address the contradiction between discourse and human will, was itself an effort under the guise of preserving humanist value to preserve a system of colonial dominance.
This question of agency was also important to Lotringer. He believed that resistance was intrinsic to the idea of critique, which makes critique implicitly ethical and moral.
[Lotringer] traveled to Italy in 1979 to document the post-Marxist Autonomia movement … In the 1990s, he invited Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, a former Black Panther, to collaborate on the publication of an anthology of writings entitled Still Black, Still Strong. His interest in radical left movements is also reflected in his inclusion of two articles by former Red Army Fraction member Ulrike Meinhof in the Semiotext(e) reader Hatred of Capitalism.11
Politics and activism were major themes in Sylvère Lotringer’s writings and editorial projects. He describes modern culture as rhizomatic from the outside but, on closer inspection, driven by banks and corporations who control the discourse to meet their financial interests. He also criticized the art world for perpetuating similar features, including a centralizing economic force that is determinative. He concluded that the idea of resistance as a preoccupation of art has been mediated. In fact, in agreement with Baudrillard, he felt that resistance in art did not exist anymore and is not survivable in a mutating rhizomatic cultural space of the art world. Finally, just as he did with art and French theory, he brought together within the space of discourse French theory and political activism to bring new ideas to both.
- https://egs.edu/biography/sylvere-lotringer/ (2022)
- Lotringer, Sylvère, “The Game of the Name,” Diacritics, Vol. 3., No. 2, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press), 1973, pp 2-9.
- Schwarz, Henry and Balsamo, Anne, “Under the Sign of Semiotext(e): The Story according to Sylvère Lotringer and Chris Kraus,” Monoskop, p 206. According to the authors, Lotringer was hired at Columbia University to teach Semiotext, “…but he hated semiotics.” It was his way to begin introducing French radical thought to Americans. (Text found in the Monash University Library, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. https://monoskop.org/images/e/e7/Schwarz_Balsamo_1996_Under_the_Sign_of_Semiotexte_The_Story_According_to_Sylvere_Lotringer_and_Chris_Kraus.pdf
- Sers, Philippe and Eburne, Jonathan P., “The Radical Avant-Garde and the Contemporary Avant-Garde,” in New Literary History, Vol. 41, No. 4, What Is an Avant-Garde? Autumn, 2010, p. 847
- Lyotard, Jean Francois, The Postmodern Condition. (Research quote) p. 78-81
- Gaines, Charles, “Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought.” (Art Lies, Vol. 64. Winter 2009. P. 48). Please see my discussion of difference between metaphor and analogy: https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228029/m1/50/
- Pannian, Prasad, Edward Said and the Question of Subjectivity, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 2016, p.2
- Vandeviver, Nicolas, “Resisting Orientalism: Gramsci and Foucault in Counterpoint,” dissertation, Department of Literary Studies, Ghent University., p. 2. “Said’s critics commonly seem to take for granted that because of his explicit indebtedness to Foucault’s notion of discourse, his conceptualization and analysis of power must be similarly Foucauldian. Adopting such a Foucauldian stance on power means dismissing the individual human subject and its intentions and transferring agency to antihumanist institutional wills…”
- Ibid. https://egs.edu/biography/sylvere-lotringer/)
Irrational Equivalences: A Memoir of Sylvère Lotringer
I barely knew Sylvère, but Semiotext(e), the press he founded in 1974, published my last three books. Sylvère originally entered my consciousness in the trashiest of ways—through gossip about Kathy Acker, who sometimes made San Francisco her home base. Kathy was famously bigger than life. Even when you were eating Thai with her in a neighborhood hole-the-wall, she was bigger than life, complaining about her lovers with great aplomb. I don’t remember her talking about Sylvère, but everybody else did. In the San Francisco literary scene of the 1980s, dissecting the triangle between Kathy, Sylvère, and Chris Kraus was a source of delight and bonding. Recently, when I researched the rumors, it turned out that just about every detail of what I’d heard was incorrect. For instance, the seven-year affair between Kathy and Sylvère happened in the late ’70s before he’d even met Chris. The fact that it was all wrong makes the gossip more pure for me. Like Kathy’s writing, it transcended the quotidian. It wasn’t so much about actual people as these three colossal tropes who cavorted and competed across the all-time of myth. I imagine them gyrating in the clouds, lightning bolts flashing from pointer fingers.
And then there was the other myth—that Sylvère single handedly brought French theory to America. It was my opinion that in doing so he hadn’t done anybody any favors. In San Francisco, French theory was spouted with a sadistic elitism that I found enraging. And humiliating. I was a young writer without a shred of self-confidence trying to figure out how to put one word after another. I didn’t need this shit. San Francisco-inflected French theory was dehumanized abstraction—a puritanical approach, from what I’ve read and heard, at odds with Sylvère’s provocative intentions.
I could count on one hand how many times I met Sylvère. In the mid-’90s when I visited Chris in Los Angeles, she took me to Sylvère’s house, a humble little place somewhere near or in Echo Park. He wasn’t there. I remember standing in his spartan kitchen feeling an absence that was so poignant it was the equivalence of a presence. A sort of haunting. The first time I saw him in the flesh was outdoors, early evening. I’m walking up an incline across a large yard to greet him. I think it was some sort of party. The when and why and who took me there have evaporated. There’s just this blur of approachment and greeting. Iris, his wife, is wearing a turtleneck sweater tucked into jeans. And then he was at the book release for When the Sick Rule the World at Human Resources. Editor Hedi El Kholti told me that Sylvère liked my reading. He may have told me himself. I don’t remember. Hedi said I was sitting next to Sylvère. That I also don’t remember. In dreams there are people and magical beings and bleeps. The Sylvère of my psyche leapt across all three modes. What I remember as my final interaction with him actually happened a couple of years earlier, at the book release for Bruce Hainley’s Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face. Sylvère and I are standing in the bookstore at Mission Road, and he’s telling me about visiting Carolee Schneemann’s studio in New York. He’s impressed with Schneeman’s wildness, both in her person and her art. He smiles and laughs as he talks, affable in a way that reminds me of my father, like they could shoot the shit together, the professor and the carpenter.
Semiotext(e) has been around for nearly 50 years, and the press has an amazing track record for publishing books that remain relevant. That relevancy is a result of the passion Sylvère brought to the press and the passion he inspired in those he worked with. Boring editors sniff the air for what’s on trend. The best editors are risk-takers, visionaries who create space for new conversations. I’m thinking of T .S. Eliot at Faber & Faber, quietly birthing modernism. Sylvère promoted an atmosphere of exploration, encouraging co-editors to pursue their own projects, to develop their own aesthetics. Permission, perhaps, has been his greatest gift. There’s always been an openness to the press—instead of rigid aesthetics, one finds vectors of sympathetic interventions. A tagline on the back of the 1987 Semiotext(e) USA (one of the first places to publish my writing) reads “the journal denounced in the U.S. Senate for its advocacy of ‘animal sex.’” Sylvère didn’t edit this issue, but his support of such incendiary buffoonery opened a space, a sort of portal of hope. One doesn’t push boundaries alone. There’s a context and a support system that allows the work to make sense. Sylvère nurtured a culture of resistance where weirdo writing such as mine made sense. Editor Chris Kraus has referred to Semiotext(e)’s publication list as “genre deviant”—a labeling that both amuses and captures the dismissiveness of the mainstream towards alt presses.
On November 8, 2021, The New Yorker posted online Leslie Jamison’s four-page review of Bee Reaved—a collection in which I mourn the death of my husband of 33 years, writer Kevin Killian. During the year or so it took to finish the book I was kind of out of my mind—especially with the isolation of lockdown—and Hedi, my editor, was one of the main people to support me through the grieving process. He even enters the text at various points. The whole process was an echo-chamber of extradiegetic effects, and I doubt I would have finished Bee Reaved without all the intimacy and messy boundaries. Getting my book reviewed in The New Yorker was a coup both for me and for Semiotext(e)—it’s insanely difficult for smaller presses to get attention from the mainstream. Jameson even lauded the book’s deviance, both in form and content. It was as if The New Yorker had slipped out of its prescribed orbit and was hurling towards crash landing. My editors and I walked around stoked that we deviants might rule. Until we learned that the same day the review came out, Sylvère died. I curled up under my weighted blanket and cried. According to the irrational equivalences of my trauma, my death-obsessed book killed Sylvère. I killed Sylvère. The article praised my writing about Kevin’s death, which translated to being praised for Kevin’s death, and I felt pangs of self-violation. My book frightened me, like it was a whirlpool of death. Like anything could disappear. I’ve never looked at the review again.
Kevin was well loved, so when he died in June 2019, expressions of mourning flooded my social media feeds. This went on for days. Kevin’s death was a very private experience for me, and it was intolerable to have all these poseurs co-opting it. I would bitch to whoever would listen that person X was pure enough to have a right to express their grief, whereas person Y’s display was an attention-grabbing offense. Two-and-a-half years later, I’ve come to accept that all expressions of grief are valid. There is no one official version of a person. It’s more like we’re each a collection of shards, and different shards pierce different people, and even a fleeting connection can be impactful. I’ll say it again—Sylvère fostered a culture that made my writing possible. That’s my shard.
Sylvère had an amazing capacity to exude sweetness and a playful sharp edge. He was an amazing man, sophisticated and kind. I am grateful I knew him. He was deeply interested in the world. He shared his intellectual adventure with everybody. That’s what he wanted I believe. He was generous. He made a party of knowledge.
After Sylvère died I read Étant Donnés, his memoir of his childhood during the war. He had never told me this story. Sometimes what we most love about our friends are their secrets.
In an unpublished interview, we couldn't agree about sex. I kept insisting that sex is what music does, it takes you beyond yourself. Sylvère kept replying that in this country, America, sex is a metaphor for everything, it becomes a means of control.
I’ve always been a Sylvère Lotringer fan. I will always treasure my Pure War black book and the “Autonomia” Semiotext(e). They still have the price stickers from St. Mark’s Bookshop on 8th Street on them. So when my best friend Arto Lindsay told me Sylvère was coming down to Rio, I knew I had to do something to surprise him in return, for all the surprises his work had brought into my mind/life.
So I invited Sylvère to a baile funk in Rocinha. People say that Rocinha is the biggest favela in South America. Its population is around 200,000 or more. We rode up Rocinha’s First Avenue, the one that crosses over the mountain, on mototaxis, the typical local transportation. It was a Sunday afternoon and the sun was setting on the beach behind us. The precarious road was totally crowded with a swarm of hundreds of mototaxis speeding through a sea of people tsunamiing in from all sides. Drug lords and policemen both carried machine guns. When we arrived at the gate to the baile our bodies shook with the mega-heavy and super loud bass from the sound system. Sylvère screamed: “It’s Babylon!” It really was. He was so happy, so energized. I am glad I had the opportunity to live this Biblical scene with him.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Although I of course knew of Sylvère since the ’70s, I came to know him only in the 2000s. I thought of him not only as someone who made French theory available to a US public, but also as a practicing example of the entire schizo-analysis era.
Everything he did was touched by that aura of living theory—the “Foreign Agents” series, Semiotext(e), his work with Banff, and more.
“It wasn’t planned, I didn’t have a plan”
Was it an accident it was not planned no one cared the downtown crowd didn’t enjoy it and the notion of talent theory was in question classic push back club she said thought talk a contradiction to active body sport action this is not the case she said let’s start over it caused a wave possibly the movement she said it was to connect them with them this was not the clear objective he said I was simply moving roaming from here to there he called me a line connector she said it was a move towards humility he said to unravel the ego creativity the act of regurgitating of the given he she said but he said my roaming with stop motion to observe and play was an action to connect bring about thought twilight as a form of expression the dialogue let’s call it dialectic trick was the form as in sculpture from the results of connecting them to them
The view from the outside
The right place from here to there at the right wrong time
The wrong place here there at the right time
The right place at the wrong place the wrong time
The wrong place here right place at the wrong time
To bring about change to realize what
The desire he said to what to connect
A motion without clear intention roaming from there to here
The accident always he said
The connecting of thoughts
The connecting of them
He said that without saying it that he was interested in the unraveling of the ego
She said what are you talking about
He said well the ego is the construction of the human absurdity
He said the ego is responsible for the absurdity
He said again what are you talking about
She said did you check your so-called ego act at the door
She said really reality
Stumbling on the path toward his door
So I thought
His Allusive construction
Sylvère illuminated entire worlds for anglophone audiences, one after another, not just importing an entire tradition of 20th century French continental philosophy to the United States, but the left politics of 1970s Italy and the left politics of 1970s Germany, and the role of madness in art and in biopolitics. Semiotext(e) had just reissued its phenomenal reader of Autonomist writings (Italians who are experts on the subject still tell me it’s the most complete publication of its kind), when I started working on my novel The Flamethrowers. I’m not even sure I would have fallen so headlong into Autonomist history without that publication’s reappearance.
In a general creative landscape his presiding spirit is big: Sylvère influenced the way that theory, art, and literature might function to interrogate old structures, old ideas, with bravura and creativity. There are so many people whose lives were shaped by him, including my own, of course. Would the great art writer and artist John Kelsey be who he is without Sylvèreas his mentor? Would the poet Ariana Reines be who she is, if she had not been Sylvère’s student? My closest friend, when she was 18 and a bohemian hobo, went all the way to New York City, just to crash Sylvère’s office hours at Columbia and try to meet him. He inspired that kind of thing, but he wasn’t a guru: he was too assiduous in his own method of ruthless interrogation to accept such a role.
On a personal level, he was always really nice to me, and to my husband, the writer Jason Smith, who has his own association with Sylvère and Semiotext(e). The day I learned Sylvère had died, Hedi El Kholti reminded me of a Thanksgiving we had together at my and Jason’s house. I suddenly could recall the expression on Sylvère’s face at the table: open, serene, but also like he had everyone’s psychoanalytic number. He always seemed soft and mild and also to be absorbing the countless ways other people enjoy their symptoms, or don’t.
In three years, we’ll be coming up on the 50th anniversary of the legendary and legendarily chaotic 1975 Schizo-Culture conference that Sylvère organized at Columbia, which included outlaw writers like William Burroughs and Kathy Acker and French theorists Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, as well as anti-psychiatrists like my uncle Joel Kovel, who said his panel was “abolished” as a performance by its organizer, Félix Guattari, but that Joel read his paper anyhow. The last time Schizo-Culture had a big anniversary event I worried that there was something precious and almost conservative in such careful commemoration of the deep past. Sylvère himself had said, “I didn’t want Schizo-Culture to become fashionable, and forgotten like everything else.”
Sylvère’s death is a huge loss. It’s difficult to imagine the future without him. But I believe he has left us with certain usable tools, to question and interrogate, to never over-domesticate what should be rough, and unassimilable. His ideas should function like a book whose dust jacket is made of sandpaper: to provide friction and resistance, to disrupt in a way the word should mean, but no longer does.
I first met Sylvère through the playwright Richard Foreman, and their longstanding friendship typified the deep exchanges with artists that so thoroughly informed his work. Sylvère ducked in, out, and around the artworld for five decades, shapeshifting, typically from a healthy distance. Our own intermittent discussions centered initially on New York in the 1970s, in which the theatrical spectacles of Foreman, Jack Smith, Stuart Sherman, along with much else that Sylvère immersed himself in, seemed to materialize the seismic shifts that he and others were then transcribing. Of New York at that time, Sylvère states, “‘Schizo-Culture’ was about living in New York, in which I saw French theory’s wildest extrapolations realized, or at least mine. Being in New York until the early ’80s was like living in theory, madness included.”1
Along with his adoration for William S. Burroughs’s verbal decimations, Sylvère saw the performed eradication of language altogether. Says Richard Foreman:
Partially under the influence of the French structuralists and poststructuralists, I began to entertain the possibility that objects were simply crossroads for a multitude of inputs from the culture and from our unconscious … My goal was to evoke that network of codes and associations, and so the plays became complex rhythmical interweavings of the visual, aural, and ideational material.2
Sylvère’s formulation of a “materialist semiotics” that rejected language and instead sought a language of objects themselves, informed the infamous “Schizo-Culture” issue of Semiotext(e) and a citywide series of performances, screenings, and talks in 1978.
I was deeply saddened by the news of Sylvère's passing. Not only has his communion with radical artists helped to inform mine, but his keen perception of art's evolving potentiality to prescribe and reflect society proves ever prognostic.
- Joan Waltemath, “A Life in Theory: Sylvère Lotringer with Joan Waltemath,” The Brooklyn Rail, September 2006.
- Richard Foreman, Unbalancing Acts: Foundations for a Theater (TCG, 1993).
Even though I met Sylvère only four-and-a-half years ago, I have been aware of what became known as “French Theory” since the early ’70s, growing up in France, getting an Art History degree and a Diplôme National des Beaux-Arts, before moving to the US in 1978. And I discovered Semiotext(e) in the early ’80s, when I was asked to give a lecture on post-structuralism at a University of Houston Art Department graduate seminar. But my association with Sylvère did not come through academia. We were neighbors in Baja, living on either side of the Punta Banda peninsula, near Ensenada. And this is pretty much how our friendship started, as two French expats living in Mexico.
His wife, Iris, and mine, Nancy, love taking brisk walks with their dogs on dirt roads around here, but Sylvère and I preferred long strolls on the beach, most of the time deserted, where our conversations followed the rhythm of the waves. I valued his sharp take on so many issues and, because of his alert mind, I enjoyed the way he would, in a radical fashion, flip a subject to address its opposite. I remember how shocked I was when he pointed out to me that what I considered straight realism in my work could just as well be qualified as hyperrealism.
He passed on to me his intense interest in Hanna Arendt’s ideas, lending me her books, as we watched Margarethe von Trotta’s film. And even though he asked me to help proofread his last manuscript, The Man Who Slips, our relationship was not centered around philosophy; it really encompassed all of life. I will miss his luminous smile which made his eyes glow, the way a child’s smile could.
We shared a love of oysters, and greatly appreciated the small Kumiai oysters raised just south of here. My skills as a shucker came in handy when Iris, Sylvère, Nancy, and I had leisurely lunches on their terrace overlooking Bahíade Todos Santos.
The last year, with his health declining, I spent many afternoons with Sylvère on that same terrace, sometimes not saying much, but simply enjoying the sea breeze in the Baja California sun, appreciating what life had to offer us.
Even if his passing left me with a sense of rudderlessness, I feel privileged to have been able to share these few years with Sylvère, and thankful that he allowed me to become close to him. I was able to appreciate him not only as a brilliant mind, but as a wonderful human being.
What I shared with Sylvère was more than an intellectual connection; it was an internal connectedness to life, manifested through minutiae such as a walk on the beach or a few dozen oysters.
I only met Sylvère a couple of times, but each time it was memorable. I had missed a first opportunity to meet him in 2014 when he launched the reprint of the “Schizo-Culture” issue of Semiotext(e) in Paris at castillo/corrales, the gallery/bookstore I was running with a group of friends at the time. I wasn’t there, and I can’t remember why. The way Sylvère described the political agency of the 1970s fascinated my friends and I and seemed very much to apply to what we, navigating a small artist-run-space, felt intuitively about the ambiguity and the aspirations of our times: “The ’70s were the beginning of the rhizome years. Counterculture broke up […] Everyone had to proceed under the assumption that there was no integrity to their group, that movements were forced to mutate into something else. Yet it was clear that this was not something to bemoan” (S. Lotringer, “Schizo-Culture,” 1978).
Sylvère was definitely not someone who was inclined to regret or lament, and I feel that is the way he should be remembered. He had been trained as a typical structuralist in the French university of the 1960s, having Roland Barthes as a PhD director for his dissertation on Virginia Woolf and being acquainted with writers and thinkers such as Nathalie Sarraute, Julia Kristeva, Félix Guattari, and Jean Baudrillard. He could easily have become a distinguished member of the French intelligentsia, and one can wonder why he chose instead to leave France and travel around the world before settling at Columbia University in the early 1970s. By then, he seemed more interested in transmission than production, as much as he was curious about the culture he was discovering in New York. Very soon after, he gathered some students and pushed this group to collectively produce a cheap paperback magazine: Semiotext(e) was born and would never stop. Intrigued by his words on the making of groups and the collaborative aspect of his publishing practice, I invited Sylvère again in 2017 to the art school where I was teaching, in Lyon. With my colleague François Aubart, who is also a publisher and an art writer, we had initiated a book club devoted to Semiotext(e) publications where a dozen students were reading and reviewing books, and discussing with us what we could guess about the politics and strategies of Sylvère’s publishing house over time.
All this provided a set of questions and almost a table of contents for Sylvère when he came to Lyon, in May 2017, for three full days of interviews. He would tell us almost chronologically about his life, from his studies in Paris in the 1960s to his career in the US from the 1970s onward. He would talk to us about how he turned away from the academic world to take more interest in the art scene in the mid-1970s, and how he took distance with the art world when he felt it had moved from underground to mainstream in the 1990s. In a way Sylvère was too sensitive to the movements of the world to become a specialist, so he became an editor; instead of writing his grand oeuvre, he spent most of his lifetime putting people together, making them talk and record what they had to say, and connecting the separate worlds of radical politics, philosophy, and art. Plugging things was part of his vocabulary, borrowing this expression from Deleuze and Guattari, who he published through Semiotext(e), as he did with Michel Foucault, Paul Virilio, and later with Peter Sloterdijk, Franco Berardi, and Maurizio Lazzarato. Being in the US was his advantage for putting together these thinkers who otherwise would have not been able to sit in the same room in France. Sylvère remained a “foreign agent” as he liked to define himself. He felt like a Frenchman when in the US, and it was only when in France that he would realize he had become an American. When his then-partner Chris Kraus reproached him for only being interested in men, he invited her to create a collection of books for the generation of women writers in the 1980s who were experimenting in blending poetry and prose while blurring the boundaries of fiction and life report. The “Native Agents” series piled up on his “Foreign Agents” collection and associated the names of Lynne Tillman, Eileen Myles, Dodie Bellamy, and many more with Semiotext(e). “When we make a mistake, we compensate by adding something, not by removing something,” said Sylvère.
We didn’t wait too long before we asked Sylvère about how he managed to keep a publishing house alive and relevant throughout four decades, and especially how he has made a point of working collectively all along. He told us:
The idea was to create a group of people who never meet and nobody rules. The model for this concept was Dada. There were all kinds of people surrounding us, with their singularity, their own trajectory. They would penetrate the group, occupy whatever position, but the group does not really exist: it is an avant-garde cloud. We do not necessarily share the same way to appreciate things, but we do have shared spaces. And since we have different sensibilities, it is rare that we argue on what we want to publish. […] The project comes first. The point is not what we are, but what we do. We try to get rid of whatever can put a project on hold, whatever weakness we can have. Nietzsche writes about active and reactive forces. We welcome whatever can contribute to improve our project and we try to avoid whatever looks like an obstacle. It is exactly like life is!
Sylvère’s concept of collectivity was fundamentally anarchistic, in the sense given by Catherine Malabou in her recent book on anarchism and philosophy: a political idea that gives itself its own shape without any command. Anarchism was not a utopian ideal for Sylvère, but a very pragmatic and efficient form and method of action. The spirit of Dada inspired him, as much as the experiments in psychiatry run by Félix Guattari at the La Borde clinic and the radical left groups in Italy in the late 1970s. Sylvère spent some time with them and in 1980 published an issue of Semiotext(e) on “Autonomia,” a form of “post-political politics” as he defined it. Sylvère’s post-political assumption could sound controversial to our critical ears but was eventually premonitory:
I always believed that institutional critique was a waste of time, and I think the same for critique in general. Why? Because people like Trump saw it as an opportunity and took the space. The art world was full of its radical positions, but as a matter of fact, it created a world remote of politics. A closed world, not even aware of it. Meanwhile, the right wing installed networks and did a real job. We can see the consequences today.
The last time I saw Sylvère was in the winter of 2018. He was in Paris, staying in the apartment of Jean Baudrillard’s wife near the statue of Honoré de Balzac by Rodin. He was jet lagged and had a toothache. We had to complete his interview so that we could start editing it for a book. Despite the fatigue, he lit up when we asked him to talk about his friends Diego Cortez, Martim Avillez, and Kathryn Bigelow. Sylvère was faithful in friendship, and he spoke tirelessly about old friends, explaining what he learned from them and how they lived and worked together.
As I was apologizing to him that the book was still not ready on New Year's Eve 2020 because I had been too busy, he wrote: “I can testify to the ravages of perfection. Go at your pace.” So long Sylvère, et à bientôt.
The Man who Disappeared
I find myself writing about Sylvère, someone I loved dearly, under the influence of the COVID virus which I have just succumbed to, but also in that strange nomadic state of moving to a new house, and I can’t help feeling that this is entirely appropriate and something Sylvère would have found amusing but also philosophized about in that free-flowing renegade way of his I found so intoxicating.
“Affects are like the plague,” Sylvère often quoted from Artaud, “they come from the outside,” and his death occurred in the midst of one such “plague” with many comrades, especially in Italy, lost to it, though not Sylvère.
Nietzsche wrote that for art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication. Sylvère instinctively understood that with any subject put his way. It was joyful and often induced a kind of giddiness in those witnessing it, akin to childlike glee. Many people I introduced him to said they fell in love with him immediately or felt they knew him all their lives.
As I found myself packing and unpacking many boxes of books in my move, I kept falling upon essays by Sylvère tucked away in long forgotten volumes—the beaten-up copy of Semiotext(e)’s “Polysexuality” issue, slipped surreptitiously to me and a fellow student by a blushing philosophy professor many years ago in Ireland (an arrestable offense at the time), with notes and short texts by Sylvère tucked into its pages. Each serendipitous discovery of a text by Sylvère embedded in a book from a shard of time with its own passions, political fervor, and literary affections carried with it a singular pang of loss.
How could this man who spoke so eloquently about disappearance in conceptual terms and called the film I produced with him on Artaud’s pilgrimage to the Aran islands The Man who Disappeared, now be disappeared himself?
Unpacking a library (as Benjamin reminded us) has become a process of unpacking a multiplicity of “Sylvère-effects” on and in my life.
Deleuze, in Spinoza:Practical Philosophy, wrote that Spinoza was “a philosopher who commands an extraordinary conceptual apparatus, one that is highly developed, systematic, and scholarly; and yet he is the quintessential object of an immediate, unprecedented encounter, such that a nonphilosopher, or even someone without any formal education, can receive a sudden illumination from him, a ‘flash.’”
Surely Sylvère was a true Spinozist in this sense?
To witness him thinking on his feet was exhilarating and made one understand his own passion for encounters—for ideas and thoughts formed out of the vital energy of forces engaging with new problems and new people. Sylvère had a grace with language, a talent for the aphoristic turn of phrase that obliterated clichés. Life for him (as with all Spinozists according to Deleuze) became a long affair of experimentation. And yet death was his favorite subject.
The first time I met Sylvère in person in 2008, after admiring his writing, publishing, and politics for many years, was for an interview I did with him for a film I co-directed with Fergus Daly called The Art of Time, about the complex temporalities in contemporary art and film.
Sylvère spoke about death with such excitement and lightness that I understood death was his abiding companion, always present in his thought. He said at the time:
Death is everywhere but it’s not recognised as such and I think now we don’t let people die, we want them to be maintained against their own will, because we hate to see people go, and for the good reason that there’s no reason to go because there’s no reason to come in to start with. So, why should we hasten to get away?
He was laughing as he said it. I loved him instantly and we became immediate friends working on seven different projects together.
When asked about his desire to disappear, Sylvère, in an interview with Jonathan Thomas in 2015, connected it to what he experienced as “a child living through World War II”:
Basically I felt like I wanted to keep a low profile. Or I could bring this back to Marcel Duchamp and The Blind Man, to the process of disappearing as an artist. For him it was a method, and for me it became a method too, but it was basically a feeling that it was amazing that I was still alive another day. I’m already dead, I thought at the time, so every day that I live, I survive it.
I remember crying as Sylvère told me about how he was frequently beaten up as a child of Polish immigrants in Nazi-occupied Paris, arriving home from school with a bloodied face. He was slight and often appeared frail in the years I knew him, but the image of him as a small child whose family had escaped the most brutal fate only to endure other brutalities and humiliations was too much.
Sylvère, I should note, was one of the most gentle people I have ever met. His way of being present with others drew on this gentleness but also a more profound desire on his part to do with modes of being and subtle strategies of de-subjectification.
Interviews, he said, were his way of existing as a multiplicity. His passion was for “live contact with people who think, who don’t always think on paper but who think all the time.” His interviews with Virilio and Baudrillard demonstrate beautifully this summoning of thought as a performative act.
His aim was to “decipher what was going on and to discover it with another person, and then somehow to bring them to realize things that they may not have thought before.”
Theory for Sylvère was always about doing something, always about activating the unthought.
Once I told him of how my copy of the 2014 MIT Schizo-Culture volume (around which I had curated a few projects with Sylvère) had been stolen by someone on the metro in Paris after a talk Sylvère did at the castillo/corrales art space. He was thrilled (as was I) at the thought that someone might be “infected” by their illicit gains and it might even change the course of their life. Effects are like the plague…
Sylvère was a fugitive at heart and a line from the Sidney Lumet film The Fugitive Kind befits his legacy:“Wild things leave skins behind … tokens passed from one to another, so that the fugitive kind can follow their kind.”
My greatest pleasure was in creating scenarios in which Sylvère could pass such tokens on through encounters with fellow fugitives—those who at times might have maintained academic roles but resisted containment, and those who always evaded disciplinary confinement: artists, musicians, writers, outsiders, even animals.
A treasured memory of such an encounter was when I brought Sylvère to the Aran Islands to film The Man who Disappeared and I arranged for the hiring of an enormous and, as it turned out, one-eyed workhorse whose owner shared his animal companion’s cyclopean misfortune following a fishing accident. Sylvère’s immediate affinity with horse and fisherman was transparent and his cajoling of the horse and his extraordinary rider, the performer Jeremy Hardingham (playing a naked Mexican incarnation of Artaud), into a freezing Atlantic was proof of his magician’s powers. The horse stared intently with that one eye at Sylvère as he provoked Jeremy into a feverish delirium of Artaudian glossolalia.
We broke into the now-abandoned house that Artaud stayed in in 1937 and our first encounter was with a dead cat strangely and almost taxidermically preserved on an old sofa. Sylvère smiled that disarming smile of his as if to say “what else did we expect?”
On our first trip to the island we discovered, as we boarded the boat, that we would be accompanied by the coffin of a young man killed in a car accident in Australia who was being brought home for his wake. The entire island stood on the pier in silence as we sailed in and Sylvère felt it was a revelation and invocation of the forces of death he and Artaud always kept so close.
I think too of Sylvère meeting Brendan Behan, when he was dispatched by Louis Aragon to Dublin from Paris as a young man, to interview the wild Irishman. Sylvère spoke of how Behan advised him on affairs of an amorous nature whilst surrounded by leftover chicken bones scattered on the floor. He gave me the recording of that extraordinary meeting.
Sylvère’s encounters were indeed Zelig-like—he seemed to have met or befriended so many great thinkers or writers of the 20th century.
In the projects I curated with and for Sylvère, I sought out friends whom I felt would create some new frisson of thinking or artistic, collaborative vitality with him. I invited Kodwo Eshun to meet with him as part of the Schizo-Culture exhibition I curated with David Morris in London and Sylvère was smitten by Kodwo’s beautiful negotiation of complex ideas and his linguistic elegance. Later Sylvère, some schizo-stragglers, and I were treated to one of Anjalika Sagar’s legendary soirées at the Otolith Group base in London accompanied by a midnight feast.
Likewise, my invitation to Simon O’Sullivan and David Burrows’s Plastique Fantastique to perform had Sylvère in raptures at their realization of a wildness of experimentation he craved and aspired to himself.
In Paris, Sylvère and I shared memorable and tender conversations with faithful philosopher/artist comrades Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson. An event I curated in Galway brought my good friend, the Joycean scholar and leading Irish intellectual, Luke Gibbons—a long time admirer of Semiotext(e)—together with Sylvère and, as predicted, they felt an immediate bond.
The actress Olwen Fouéré, who graciously agreed to perform in Sylvère’s film as Artaud at my request, said she felt she had known Sylvère forever and the mutuality and depth of their understanding around performing Artaud’s writing was palpable. But other crucial and intense friendships were formed with Irish collaborators: the filmmaker Dean Kavanagh, who shot much of The Man who Disappeared as a favor for Sylvère (along with Maximilian Le Cain and Vivienne Dick), and the wonderful Irish art studio director Jacinta Lynch, who befriended Sylvère when she contributed generously to the Schizo-Culture weekend of events.
My most precious memories of Sylvère are of walking with him in Paris, London, Berlin, the Lower East Side of New York, and on Inis Mór—both of us playing with ideas and conjecturing. Sylvère said he was interested in everything to do with diagnosing the future, and being with him as he did so effortlessly was a privilege.
I watched him spontaneously run down a hill on Inis Mór having just risked death standing on the edge of a cliff at the 3,000-year-old fort of DúnAengus (as I held onto his light frame convinced he would be blown into the wild Atlantic waves below).
I sat with him on a hill outside Southend Airport when we missed a flight from London to Dublin after he fell and cut his head in Liverpool Street station and the train departed without us. He was thrilled at the stolen few hours we suddenly had thrown at us by fate and we talked about the hill and the plants and the politics of airports as we lay staring at the planes ascending and descending.
Sylvère was the best companion when things went awry.
He knocked a tooth out in Berlin when I was with him once—walking into a glass door at the HKW when participating in the Berlin Documentary Forum, and our search for a dentist the next day was one of the most pleasurable city rambles I have ever had.
My last encounter with him was in LA in 2019 with his beloved partner Iris, on his balcony overlooking his lemon tree, where I talked to him about a coyote I had encountered in Death Valley and he spoke about his second home in Mexico and a book he wanted to finish on Emil Cioran. I gave him a reputedly magical stone full of holes called a Hag stone or Druid’s stone from a beach in the west of Ireland which seemed to delight him.
Baudrillard said “dying is pointless, you have to know how to disappear.” His loyal friend Sylvère has now disappeared beyond the multiple disappearing acts of his magical life and his loss is painful for many.
One text I found when unpacking my books was his beautiful essay “Barthes after Barthes” published in Frieze in 2011 on Barthes’s last book The Preparation of the Novel.
On the day of his death, Barthes left on his typewriter an unfinished text entitled “One Always Fails to Speak of What One Loves.” This realization made it all the more urgent for him to delegate “the discourse of affect” to characters, as his illustrious predecessors had done. They would allow him to express his devotion openly, make sure that those he loved wouldn’t disappear, that they would not have lived and suffered “for nothing.”
To those of us who loved Sylvère, yet recognize from reading Proust and Barthes’s thoughts on love that Sylvère was so much more than any single figure—let us now not fail to speak of our love for him in all its tenderness and complexity.
Sylvère was my advisor at Columbia. The French Department assigned me to him. His name had an aura of fame, but I didn’t know what he was known for. There had been a day when newly admitted PhD students had to stand up one at a time and announce our research interests. When my turn came, my mind was blank. “I am interested in women and martyrdom,” is what came out of me. A novel of the 19th century would have said I ejaculated this sentence, and the shame I felt after saying it would justify the term.
When Sylvère was teaching his eyes glowed very bright and he seemed to be in direct dialogue with the writers he loved and their visions. He had a quality of not seeming to give a shit about or even particularly notice the present, or the living people sitting in front of him. When he taught Simone Weil, or Antonin Artaud, or Charles Baudelaire, or Gustave Flaubert, he was in something of a shamanic state—invoking. He was never on time for class. You didn’t really need to do the reading. I think he wouldn’t have minded had someone actually been able to engage with him, but few students had the courage or the intelligence to do so. I don’t remember ever saying much.
But he took notice of me after he read me, and to this day I can tell you Sylvère was the most profound, psychic, insightful, and penetrating reader I have ever encountered. I understood, from what he wrote on my essay, that he not only grasped the shape of my intelligence and what I was trying to say, but he understood, psychologically, what I was scared of, and that it was a kind of fear, not a lack of precision or insight into the text, that prevented me from actually articulating a thesis it would then take courage and strategy to defend.
I did not stay at Columbia very long. My brother was going through a mental breakdown and had physically attacked our mom; he wanted to kill her, he wound up in the hospital at Columbia-Presbyterian—I think it’s been renamed since then. My graduate studies were really about reading Sylvère’s modernists—the visionaries of mass death, madness, sexual excess, and utter purity—and visiting my brother in the mental hospital. When I told Sylvère I was going to quit Columbia, he tried to talk me out of it, which I respected him for. He felt I should have some kind of protective structure in my life, since I didn’t have any kind of father to speak of.
That year there was a mass transit strike and because I lived in Bushwick and I was a drug addict I decided to spend a few days in the Butler Library, carefully meting out my bumps of yellow blow, reading and working on an essay on Simone Weil that was giving me a lot of trouble. That’s when I first dug into I Love Dick, and I also discovered Dodie Bellamy. I looked up Kathy Acker because Chris Kraus’s old bio said she was working on a biography of her.
I Love Dick genuinely changed my life, and I recognized that one of Sylvère’s great gifts, perhaps even his greatest, was the capacity to midwife great talents into being. I think he could see the form of an artwork the way Michelangelo could see human figures in raw chunks of marble.
I got to meet Chris at a talk that Jean Baudrillard gave at the Maison Française. I was working on my first book, The Cow, and she is the first real writer who showed any interest in it. Chris’s novel Torpor was in galleys. Inspired by Georges Perec’s Les choses, Torpor was a hilarious and moving account of a disintegrating marriage, and also happens to be a very rare account of what a child survivor of the Holocaust turns out to be like.
Both my maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and for me, working with Sylvère and then meeting Chris while shuttling between a live-work artist loft in Bushwick, Columbia’s Department of French and Romance Philology, the psych ward at Columbia-Presbyterian, and my schizophrenic mom’s apartment, which, incidentally, I gave to her—it was a family affair.
I am certain I could not and would not exist as a writer if I had not encountered Sylvère, Semiotext(e), Chris’s novels, the swirl of post-structuralist thought, science fiction, paranoia, S&M, and, now that I think about it, the darkest of Jewish humor, circulating through the whole enterprise. This is my lineage. These are my people.
The French educational system, like French gardening, is highly stylized and overly domesticating in its effects, but there is something extreme and rare about the wild minds it does produce every now and again. I don’t mean to credit the French educational system with Sylvère’s brilliance, but I do want to acknowledge that there is a precision in that extremity that I miss very much nowadays.
Something I always loved about Semiotext(e) books is that they were full of typos, as if to teach the reader that it is what flows through writing that is important, more so than surface perfection. Flow my tears, the policeman said. I also loved the combination of pathos and glamor that characterized the project. These artists were not hiding from the culture or merely wishing to escape it; they had a canny determination to participate in the world, but a refusal to take it too seriously. But what they were serious about, fundamentally, was a certain deep fidelity to art, and a craving, I guess, for what Bataille would call the Absolute, or Weil would call God.
I don’t know exactly how to separate the philosophers and artists Sylvère was in dialogue with from his collaborative projects with Chris and Hedi El Kholti at Semiotext(e). Chris of course brought her own totally crucial perspective on first-person narratives by women into that realm, and I could write a whole essay—somebody please hire me to do this—on what Hedi El Kholti’s sensibilities as an artist and editor have brought to the enterprise.
For whatever reason, I’m coming back to the subtitle of Semiotext(e)’s first David Wojnarowicz book: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side. That’s a joke, obviously, but true to the heart of things. The chauvinistic pretensions to completion and mastery that Culture and its true believers and guardians have to possess, on the one hand, in order to get anything real accomplished, and on the other, a deep sense of the total ridiculousness of ever being able to definitively account for a life, a neighborhood, a time, a handful of relationships, a body of work—that changed everything.
Sylvère changed everything for many artists, and I am one of them. My roots are in the Holocaust and in the Old World. I visited Chris once in Montparnasse, at Sylvère’s sister’s apartment, and I also know the old Jewish neighborhood where his mother lived, where Sylvère grew up. The only reason I speak French, actually, is the Holocaust, because my Polish grandparents met in a displaced persons camp in Brussels, and spoke French to my mother and uncle in the first years of their lives. His thinking and the archipelago of artists and philosophers with whom he conversated and trafficked, answered both my need for roots and a prism of some kind through which to understand what was going on in the US, or what it meant for me to be American, something I’ll probably never stop trying to figure out.
He was not a gooey or cloying sort of person and I don’t particularly think he gave a shit about me, but I know what it meant for me, as a tormented young person, to have found myself within range of the powerful ray of his thought. I hope he’s partying with all his brilliant friends in the afterworlds.
27, rue de Trévise
The second time I went with him to Paris, Sylvère brought me to his mother’s apartment. The first time, he stashed me in a small nearby hotel: I wasn’t officially his girlfriend yet, and he was very cautious, sensitive as to how his mother might react to any news about his New York life. His life, apart from his twice-yearly visits, was of course a complete mystery to her, an image totally constructed from Sylvère’s reports. It was a kind of covenant between them. Actually, she didn’t care that much about what, to Sylvère, comprised his life: his work, his reputation in the international art and intellectual worlds, his writing or his tenure at Columbia (his father once bragged to an associate that his son Sylvère was a primary school teacher in New York)—she only cared that he still cared for her, and that he was healthy, fed, and housed. Happiness might be a stretch.
The apartment was at 27, rue de Trévise in the 9th Arrondissement near the Folies Bergère and the Bourse: a set of dark and narrow streets in between rue La Fayette and Boulevard Montmartre, that were still, then, populated mostly by Sephardic Jews. 19th century walk-up apartment buildings lined the streets, with a few tiny shops clustered around the corners: a tabac, a hardware store, a menswear tailor, an epicerie.
At least once a day, his by-then–84-year-old mother Denise Lotringer (née Doba) climbed three steep double flights of stairs with grocery bags. She lived alone. Sylvère’s father, Claude, was in a care home, where he’d already been for years, suffering from Alzheimer’s. A huge, enlarged black-and-white photograph of him, taken in a studio, hung in the living room above the non-working fireplace. He was a timid, gentle, and retiring man and Sylvère’s greatest fear was that he might be too much like his father. Trusting, optimistic, Claude had been cheated in small business deals time and time again.
Eventually, Claude and Denise settled into running a tiny nearby grocery store. Sylvère remembered his father waking up at dawn to haul vegetables from the wholesale market at Les Halles in a three-wheeled cart. He and his sister Yvonne helped out at the store, doing homework in between selling cans of mackerel and potatoes.
In the early 1960s while Sylvère moved around Lolita-ville from one small Midwestern college to the next in search of tenure, his sister rescued their parents from this fate. Married to an electrician with whom she had two children, she worked in a real estate office as a secretary. During the postwar construction boom that forms the backdrop of Godard’s movies of that time, she managed to buy a number of newly built, own-your-own apartments in a Paris-adjacent suburb south of the city. Her parents sold the grocery store and for the next 15 years, before Yvonne bought out the entire agency from her boss, her parents helped her manage the apartments. Yvonne was short, blonde, driven, charming, beautiful: a bundle of avidity who looked (at least to me) just like Hanna Schygulla as Maria Braun. She loved looking at contemporary art, Michelin-starred restaurants, Madonna, architecture, history, family, running, fashion, cooking. She called Sylvère “ma petit frère.” Unlike their parents, she was proud of his accomplishments. Yvonne never resented his flight from the family scene, although all his life he moved underneath a cloud of guilt. Yvonne died, relatively prematurely, of a rare cancer in 2010 and in a very real sense, a part of Sylvère died at that time, too.
There were two bedrooms in the rue de Trévise apartment: his parent’s bedroom, which was in fact an expansion of the narrow hallway, a mouse stuck in the body of a snake, ending with a former closet converted into a washroom with a sink and makeshift shower; and Sylvère’s room, the only bedroom that had windows and a door. A toilet had, at some point, been installed in a former hall closet opposite it. During that first visit in 1985, we slept on the daybed that had been his childhood bed. His bedroom—down to the bust of Beethoven painted zigzagged black and white—had been almost entirely preserved for the nearly three decades that had passed since he’d moved out. Before getting married, Yvonne slept in the living room on a fold-out couch, since replaced by a Regency-style sofa with plastic covers. From that time on, no one used the living room. There was a tiny kitchen with a miniature gas stove, and a dining room adjacent to his mother’s bedroom, with a television, where she spent most of her days.
I mention these things because I think they inform a lot of Sylvère’s values and his sensibility. When he wrote and lectured on Marcel Mauss’s gift economy (“a gift is never free”) he knew exactly what Mauss meant. Sylvère was one of Jean Baudrillard’s greatest interpreters and champions, but the thing he remembered first about the philosopher was his peasant background; the way that Baudrillard’s entire family fled their village during the German invasion with all their belongings piled onto a cart. He was acutely aware of privilege and lack. Sylvère witnessed the postwar first-world transition from an agrarian/industrial society of small lives and limited expectations to global hyper-capitalism’s unfathomable promise, loneliness, and misery and he felt it viscerally. This knowledge informed everything: his intelligence, his kindness and his guilt.
“Do you ever think about history?” I asked him once when we’d been together for a while. He answered, “All the time.”
Magic Mountain was the name of a theme park in Valencia, California, three miles north of California Institute of the Arts. I never actually went to Magic Mountain while studying art and critical theory at CalArts in the ’90s. I preferred to leave it hypothetically suspended over the semidesert landscape that makes up the Santa Clarita Valley region. Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, too, loomed large in my imagination—the story of a young hypochondriac, Hans, who witnesses the horrors of WWI from the top of a Swiss mountain sanatorium on a visit to his tubercular cousin. Hans, soon to be diagnosed with a serious illness himself, will still end up on the battlefield. I had arrived from Europe with close-to-no exposure to American mall- or pop culture; by contrast French-born Sylvère Lotringer, who was teaching at CalArts at the time, seemed to have miraculously adapted to the flighty simulacrum defining Los Angeles and its surroundings.
“The German Issue,” published by Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) imprint in 1982, was one of the most thought-provoking publications I had encountered prior to meeting Sylvère in person. I grew up in West Germany in an artistic and literary household in the ’70s—the contributors to “The German Issue” were familiar: Alexander Kluge, Heiner Müller, Fritz Teufel, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, to name a few. My aunt was a close friend of Ulrike Meinhof, one of the leaders of the Red Army Fraction (RAF), whose members vehemently fought against residual fascist tendencies in Germany in the ’70s. Her red rain boots remained at my aunt’s house long after Ulrike died at Stammheim, a maximum-security prison. The circumstances of her death remain a mystery, along with the alleged suicides of her comrades Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, and Jan-Carl Raspe.
Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’s documentary film on German concentration camps, was screened in my elementary school class along with other documentaries on a weekly basis. The weight of history was, and still is, undeniable in Germany. Growing up, the Holocaust was perpetually on my mind. Even in the air-conditioned bunker-like architecture of the California Institute of the Arts, the images still felt fresh. It was eight years after “The German Issue” had been published, and 45 years since the end of WWII, that Sylvère and I discussed the inevitability of everything—neither negative nor positive—experienced being measured by us in relation to the Holocaust. We discussed Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, and others who had fled to Los Angeles from fascist Europe. The concept of the city began to make more sense to me now.
An overt agent, working in bright sunlight as a quasi-ambassador to French theory on the West Coast, Sylvère invited Félix Guattari to CalArts in 1991 to what turned out to be one of Félix’s last lecture before he passed away the following year. Equipped with a borrowed video camera from the school, I managed to capture the final lecture and discussion between Sylvère and Félix. The one-hour-and-fifty-minute long documentation shows an auditorium filled to the last seat. This was partly due to the fact that A Thousand Plateaus, co-authored by Félix and Gilles Deleuze, had become sort of a bible at CalArts. Despite Sylvère’s simultaneous translation attempts, the lecture on “Subjectivity,” held mostly in French, was not easy to follow, yet without doubt, justified the cult status of contemporary French theory.
“Good & Evil” was the theme of the first issue of the magazine that I published in New York after finishing grad school. Inspired by Jean-Paul Marat’s L’Ami du Peuple, Semiotext(e), and the Evergreen Review, FAT Magazine was a conceptual artwork in the guise of a tabloid. Critical theory and semi-pornography stood side-by-side, while fiction served as journalism and vice versa. Sylvère contributed an essay entitled “The Art of Evil” to the first issue. His text contemplated the differences between WWI and WWII authors and poets such as Artaud, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Bataille, and the ripple effect the Holocaust had on modernism and cultural production during, after, and even before it took place.
When such writers as Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Céline, and Simone Weil embodied "the passions and contradictions of European society, they imbibed the madness, violence, hatred and humiliation which were about to rock Western civilization, unleashing atrocities on an unprecedented scale.None of these writers were even aware of the Nazi genocide. Yet from the mid 1920’s until well into the war their work seems to anticipate the Holocaust, responding to it from a distance, “like victims signaling through the flames.”1
This historical ripple effect was central to my numerous collaborations with Sylvère—lectures and catalogue essays that he contributed toward my exhibtions—that continued over the decades.
Forget Foucault, written by Jean Baudrillard, and republished by Semiotext(e) in 2007, notoriously contributed to Baudrillard’s mounting fame when it was first published in 1977. At the time, after finishing the text, Baudrillard mailed the essay to Foucault in an affront, demanding a response—a provocation Foucault did not fall for. 20 years later, in an accompanying interview in the reprint, Sylvère turned the table slightly on Baudrillard, quizzing him on his speculative theories on the works of Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, etc. The cover of this historically significant Semiotext(e) edition displays one of my artworks, which Sylvère once described as:
What Freud implied is that the Wolfman was watching an obscene parental scene through the open window, and this is probably what we, consumers, must look seen through the eyes of Meckseper’s objects. Straight-faced and self-contained, like so many Egyptian hieroglyphs, the various objects standing there (they also stand for human relations) seem eager to deliver a message. Their arrangement, in any case, suggests the existence of a secret grammar—many of the same items, plungers, stockings, underwear ads, fashion pictures or bare asses (“We’re Open,” a sign says) etc., freely migrate to other installations. If Capital could ever lie on a couch, this would definitely be its dream-work, or its worst nightmare.2
Since then, my sizable collection of Semiotext(e) books, “Native Agents” and “Foreign Agents” alike, have traveled with me from city to city, apartment to apartment, as some of the few constants in my life. It’s hard to imagine a world moving forward, labyrinthine and ominous as things stand, without Sylvère shedding light on it for us all.
- Lotringer, Sylvère, “The Art of Evil,” FAT Magazine, 2004, pp. 8-10.
- Lotringer, Sylvère. The Josephine Meckseper Catalogue No. 2. New York and Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2006, pp. 10-15.
Stranger in paradise
Sylvère Lotringer is a stranger, a stranger to life as we know it and to our clear-cut world. So much a stranger, ontologically speaking, that the past tense of a posthumous tribute, a biographical obituary, would never work here: he is a stranger, forever.
He who has coined so many words, concepts, fluxes, and combos, seems to have had his own name coined by the strange god of strangers: in French it reads like the redundant juxtaposition of the Other (l’autre, Lotr…) and the Stranger or the Foreigner (étranger, étringer…), slightly misspelled.
Sylvère is a stranger, but the most familiar, gentlest, and friendliest of strangers—maybe as gentle and friendly as only a stranger can be.
Along with a few others I have had the chance—the honor, one would say—to build and maintain, throughout a 30-plus-year-long period, a tender and crucial friendship with him, endlessly nourished by the strangest (for that matter) of causes: we kept multiplying and diversifying the reasons to run into each other, pretending to not do this on purpose. As a very young employee of the French Embassy’s cultural services, I channeled to him French-government allowances to pay for the many (ill-paid) translators of Semiotext(e); as a book agent for French publishing in New York, and later on as an insider of early 21st-century French intellectual circles, I recommended works for publication and often sold him the English-language rights of so many contemporary radical French texts; as a late-blooming scholar I devoted my PhD dissertation to the history of Semiotext(e) and the book derived from it (luckily translated into 13 languages), to the largest phenomenon of French theory in America as he understood it; I lectured and taught in art schools and institutions in several countries along his lines, in his filiation, in full complicity with his line of thought; I introduced him to the few French mavericks I thought would interest him, and he introduced me to some of the many free spirits he has befriended in his long life; one of my books, aptly renamed How the World Swung to the Right: Fifty Years of Counterrevolutions, was translated into English and published in the US under his wise guidance as part of Semiotext(e)’s “Intervention Series.” On a more intimate note, we would have lunch and discuss Artaud, politics, melancholy, and our respective personal disillusions whenever he would visit Paris or I would (more rarely) hop to LA throughout the last 20 years of his life. I could extend this list further and further.
I owe him the few paradoxes which have shaped my entire itinerary: an existential reading of Deleuze; a passion and wariness vis-à-vis the art world; an admiration for a certain written style when it amounts to radical irony (in the fashions of Jean Baudrillard or Paul Virilio); a profound respect for, yet an old disenchantment about, the many dead-ends of radical leftist politics; the awareness that you can never really stand outside of the universe you rhetorically denounce or practically deconstruct, whether it is late capitalism or a heteronormative love life; the idea that theory is often better practiced and understood by a musician, a night-goer, or a live performer than by these saddening academics Nietzsche used to call “the men of resentment”; the notion that exile, as uncomfortable as it may be over decades, and the feeling of neither belonging to an origin nor to an adoptive place, are the closest you can go to a lucid life, if not to truth itself, this most mesmerizing of all lies; the certitude that success is always undeserved and narcissistic gratification always born from some sort of misunderstanding.
And off the beaten tracks of these now-familiar Lotringer paradoxes—which, like anything else in his life, he didn’t own nor invent, but borrowed and disseminated—I also had the chance for more festive or less-controlled encounters with him: a three-day extravaganza in the Nevada desert under the spell of magic mushrooms and gambling shamans (The Chance Event, 1996); a Thanksgiving party in his strange country house in upstate New York which lead to a feminist dispute in a local pub and smoking weed in the forest at night; a night-long celebration of his German counterpart Peter Gente in a pre-war Berlin theater, more psychedelic and deliciously chaotic than any other event I ever attended; winter dinners with my wife and I in dim Paris bistros where the most personal feelings and unmentionable memories could be shared, but always unwillingly.
And yet, all through these years, each and every time he has remained a stranger—not that a more personal or closer relationship with him would have made him less of a stranger, because he was a stranger in a very intimate and soft way, he had the full presence and generous companionship of a stranger. He might have been, for me, the closest friend and safest ally from the World War II generation, he might have ended up calling me “mon grand” with an inimitable fatherly tenderness, we both might have had trajectories and networks which intersected so often despite the generational difference—still, he did remain a stranger, in the very same way (to stick to his discreet yet decisive obsession with World War II) that someone holding your hand while dying in the ugly barrack of a Nazi death camp, or someone who joined the Resistance with you and is about to go get killed, remain strangers, human strangers, with a nobility and dignity that very few other signifiers do carry.
Stranger—including to himself. The term “escape artist” could be an invention of his, as he has taken so far, at lengths unknown to most people, the art of escaping ceaselessly from what he pretended he was, from what he thought he had become, from what he made everyone believe he possibly stood for. His love affair with the US possibly starts here, before being a matter of politics and history, of escaping from Vichy France and an Old World dishonored forever by fascism and colonialism: it starts with his need to not be where you’re expected, to reinvent oneself time after time for the sake of it (rather than for optimal self-management, which he hated), to deceive coherence and erase all traces. Few people have moved so often from one circle to another. He moved from Zionist leftism, his teenage base, to literary modernism, in his Sorbonne years, then to Lacan and deconstruction, in the 1960s, and soon after to the hardly compatible lessons of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizo-analysis and Baudrillard’s simulationist nihilism—settling there for good, while still hiking, from time to time, to the remote lands of Italian autonomia, French anarchism, proto-queer theory, experimental literature, avant-garde modernism, playful pataphysics, and ethnomethodology, while remaining silently anchored, whichever his other errings could be, in the dual secret zones of the Jewish hidden child he had been during the war (and somehow remained until its end) and of Antonin Artaud’s unsurmountable madness. Good luck finding your way among these many routes. No geographer of the mind could ever map such a hectic, multilayered, subjective territory.
And Sylvère’s art of never being where he was supposed to be often took on more straightforward forms: his metamorphosis (in attitude, clothing, hairstyle, and more) from Barthesian petit-bourgeois in Paris to intellectual punk of New York’s nightlife; his way (maybe his desire) of letting the Semiotext(e) collective go adrift in no specific direction and of letting the Semiotext(e) journal itself being taken hostage by a different tribe issue after issue; his ambivalence in regard to the university (which he mocked and dodged for 50 years while never leaving his tenure position at Columbia); his amateur yet highly demanding relation to writing and filmmaking; even the way his country house in upstate New York got confiscated and squatted-in for months by his own neighbors; his pleasure at being more American than European, more French than academic-American, more German than Italian, more Jewish than Western, and his larger ability to get lost in between, to disappear within intervals and cracks—between the two banks of the Atlantic Ocean, between sexual tendencies, between art forms, between contradictory influences and references, provided you don’t stay somewhere, you keep playing with reversible identities and moving borders (no wonder why he spent the end of his life residing a few miles away from Tijuana, Mexico). It all goes in the same direction: towards placelessness, invisibility, owning nothing, the letting go of everything, the un-taking of power and of identity roles.
Of course his childhood in Vichy France, having to hide far away from his family under another name, does play a major role here, associating from day one, in his view, the ability to survive with the necessity to trick identity and stability—and the impossible identity of secular Jewishness as well as his own fear that one day or another Vichy will start again in France (a candidate in the current presidential campaign such as Éric Zemmour does prove him right, sadly enough) are indeed the two driving forces behind the key choices he has made, of settling across the Atlantic, of befriending melancholic jokers, of serving the blurry needs of “theory.” But again, it goes beyond biographical rationality; it touches on other scales, both smaller and larger, on micropolitics, on faciality, on lines of flight, on imperceptible behaviors, on infra-subjectivity, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s strange lexicon. These weird scales are the ones that come to my mind when remembering Sylvère; I can list the many occasions in which I got to see him and spend time with him, alone or with dozens of people, but if I go into the details of each single occasion then he slips away, away from memory, away from grasp, away from a possible narrative—whether he was there but busy discussing with other people; he had insisted on a time and place to meet but was late or absent or present-absent; he was alone talking to me but about something neither he nor I really knew about; or whether just his face, his broad and kind and witty and open-ended face, did express something deeply but at the same time was looking at you in a way that helped him withdraw from expression what his face did express.
These, and many more, are the various reasons why Sylvère enjoyed the twin roles of intruder and deceiver, the symmetrical arts of surprise and dissimulation, so much. It tells us why he took so much pleasure in going front stage but always behind the masks of the many great artists and thinkers he was voicing out, in ventriloquizing foreign philosophers on American soil, in speaking the best idiomatic English with his inimitable French accent, in becoming a character in a successful TV series which bore his name but so little of his personality, or just in setting up crazy events or simple appointments which never ever took place as expected—Foucault indicted as a CIA agent (and Deleuze as a macho pig!) in 1975, or a 1978 colloquium on Burroughs attracting thousands of youth along with Timothy Leary and the B52s, just two of the most famous examples of a pattern which has been his signature all along, even when he was limping at age 75 on a Paris sidewalk for a meeting he had requested but that we both knew wouldn’t be at all what we expected.
And at the end this is also why the object, as psychoanalysts would have it, is so hard to grasp, why it escapes every attempt at locating, narrating, identifying it. To make this long story short, just imagine you have to tell someone who has never heard of Sylvère Lotringer why exactly this peculiar man was the object of such long and laudatory obituaries after he died, from Artforum to the New York Times, Le Monde to the LA Times. Well, good luck. Mediating between cultures, teaching and disseminating philosophy from one continent to another, translating and publishing radical little books, converting generations of Columbia students to theory, introducing Deleuze to Black Panther activists or Foucault to William Burroughs, playing chess with John Cage or discussing the end of literature with T. S. Eliot, none of that, as great as it sounds, suffices to explain why someone can be remembered the way Sylvère is today. This probably is his greatest achievement: to be remembered that way without anybody really being able to say why. The very mystery which his entire life and work was devoted to exploring (the deception of identity, the enigma of power, the impossibility of writing, the playfulness of form, the ever sliding of interpretation, all in one) remains a posthumous mystery, ready to be continued and re-elaborated on by others until the end of time. Without any undertaker, biographer, expert in obituary, or commentator of what’s no longer ever having the last word, ever producing the medical examiner’s statement that this person lying here is no longer alive, he did trick all of us, and we love him all the more. And in pretending he’s dead, he keeps tricking us, and enjoying it.
Shaun Caley Regen
In thinking about Sylvère, I realize that he was one of the most influential people that I knew in my 20s. I just went to my bookshelf and noticed that “Polysexuality” is missing, again. I am destined not to have my copy due to theft. “Autonomia,” the “German Issue,” “Oasis,” “Men Loving Boys” (that one always threw me a little bit—and I can’t imagine how that one would play today). And more. These were all a kind of touchstone of dystopic otherness, and one that allowed all of us to find one another in our self-proscribed universe. Sylvère was a kind of legend. His class, Sex and Death, was before my time, but notorious. I met him at Columbia in 1983 after studying two years in Paris (initially through Reid Hall and later through the French university system). A classmate, Andrew Perchuk, and I signed up for his Artaud class. His accent, generosity, and enthusiasm for Antonin Artaud were infectious. I remember a lot of Heliogabalus, Maria Izquierdo, Carl Dreyer, and slightly maladroit young adults soaking up opiate madness and everything Artaud had ever written. One of my favorites was The Monk, and once I thought it would make an incredible period film (which I dreamed I would produce). It is the only class in college where I received an A+. I was a very good Artaud student. Later, Sylvère and I were students in a writing class taught by Walter Abish. Neither of us had a writer’s ego, and I remember someone like Siri Hustvedt was in the class (I pretty much imagined it was her, and it probably was not), who was a great writer. She had none of the shyness or shame of reading one’s own words aloud. As a side note, the other brilliant writer in our midst at Columbia was Hilton Als—so we had some fierce competition. Sylvère and I became friends and I did some unofficial and unpaid translating for him for Semiotext(e). He was generous with introductions, and between the Polyphonix festival and an Autonomia conference in Montreal and much, much more, a world was opened to many of my idols, crushes, and fascinations. Whether it was Alain Robbe-Grillet, Félix Guattari, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Kathy Acker, Bifo (Franco Berardi), Lizzie Borden, Michael Oblowitz, and so many others. I don’t remember if the introductions came directly through Sylvère, or if it was just a world that I hungrily embraced and inhabited and in Zelig fashion just ended up places. I attribute a lot of this to Sylvère and his profound generosity of connecting people.
I think the last time I saw Sylvère we had dinner with Kathryn Bigelow at Red Medicine in Los Angeles. Sylvère suggested we become the Occasional Friends Club, since everyone is so busy and maintaining friendships can seem near impossible. I remember Sylvère paraphrasing Paul Virilio four decades earlier: with speed, all points become a line. I like to think that for Sylvère his line has relaxed, and that he is shining and twinkling brightly down on all of us. All of his generosity, curiosity, and passion for ideas and sharing them. Our benign Heliogabalus.
Memory and nostalgia: two things Sylvère Lotringer would have been deeply suspicious of. Yet, those are the lenses I have to approach this appreciation: memory, because most of my interactions with Sylvère took place more than 35 years ago; nostalgia, both for my own youth and for an intellectual culture and a New York that no longer exists. In this spirit, I have not done any “research,” so the accuracy of this account should be deeply questioned. By the time I took my first class with Sylvère, it was common knowledge, at least among students interested in literature, that Columbia was trying to fire him. This obviously had a tremendous appeal for a certain type of student, and nearly all of my friends took at least one Sylvère seminar. I do not recall whether Sylvère taught, or was allowed to teach, undergraduate courses, but the four classes I took with him were all graduate seminars. My experiences in Sylvère’s classes contrasted with my first attempt to take a graduate class as an undergraduate. My friend David and I had tried to take a hermeneutics seminar offered by John Frank Kermode. There were 10 of us sitting in the seminar room when Kermode walked in and greeted each of the eight graduate students by name, utterly ignoring that David and I were sitting there, and then made the pronouncement, “I think we can get a book out of this seminar.” It was an enormously long 90 minutes before the seminar took a break and David and I could slink away.
When I asked Sylvère if I could take his graduate seminar, he just shrugged. Sylvère had no interest in the rules of the academy, I think he gave all his students A’s, but he could be a trenchant critic. In his Céline seminar, I wrote my paper using the author’s trademark ellipses. Sylvère’s sole comment was that a writer needed to earn each of those little dots. It is mostly embarrassing to think back about the juvenile work I produced for Sylvère, but he was at least amused by my contribution to his Sex and Death seminar, for which I wrote about teen Satanic death cults, illustrated with photos cut out from heavy metal magazines. The four seminars I took with Sylvère broke down roughly into two that focused intensively on a single author—Céline and Artaud—and two that introduced me to the French thinkers Sylvère was promoting and translating in the United States. The Céline seminar was one of the most memorable classes I have ever taken. Sylvère was quite elegant in reconstructing interwar France and the imaginary of the United States that produced Journey to the End of the Night, and incisive in detailing the development of Céline’s style of fragmented, incomplete sentences. It was both thrilling and repugnant to read Céline’s anti-Semitic pamphlets, we read in Xeroxed copies, either because they had not yet been published or because Sylvère did not want us to actually buy them. It was an extremely valuable lesson that Sylvère refused to separate the pamphlets from Céline’s novels, but his judgment about the connection between politics and literary achievement was ambiguous. He correctly asserted that Céline’s art needed a reviled other—which became the Chinese after the Jews—but I also remember the story he told of Jean-Paul Sartre saying after WWII that an anti-Semite could never be a good writer. Later, in the same interview, when Sartre was asked who the greatest French writer was between the wars, he replied, “Céline, of course.”
It was through Sylvère that I first read Derrida, Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Virilio. This was determinative of my early academic career and while these authors play a less prominent role in my current art history, a grounding in their work is probably the most important aspect of my intellectual formation. One of the more crucial things that Sylvère did was not to hold up these theorists as icons, but instead to recognize them as people who could be engaged and argued with. He frequently invited these figures to Columbia and to his classes whenever they were in town, and while I never remember reading anything Sylvère wrote at the time outside of Semiotext(e), he was a funny, biting, and erudite discussant. This is not to say that I found all of Sylvère’s intellectual engagements compelling. At the time I was studying with him, his two most important interlocutors were Baudrillard—though even in the early 1980s Sylvère was skeptical of Baudrillard’s celebrity—and Virilio, two writers that I never had much use for.
For me and for my friends who cared about such things, Semiotext(e) was the journal, far more central than more respectable publications like Critical Inquiry and October. The “Polysexuality” issue in particular was a revelation, as it introduced many of us to concepts like non-binary indendities and intersex people. Its combination of science fiction, humor, and anarchy, all in its schizo methodology (if a stolid word like methodology is even appropriate) was beguiling. We were probably too unsophisticated to understand the implications of this for the thoroughgoing rethinking of gender over the last 40 years, but we talked endlessly about previously unheard categories—Police Sex, Corporate Sex, Discursive Sex.
Bald, badly dressed, and with a mustache that seemed a bit ridiculous in the 1980s, Sylvère was not cool in the traditional sense, at least to us, but the world he inhabited was intoxicating. I was not a frequent visitor to his loft, but the possibility of seeing writers and artists you admired, and the occasional Red Army Faction or Red Brigades member, defined what we thought of as downtown culture. In what may be a fever dream, I remember a performance in which Sylvère sat on a chair having his head shaved, while live rats were set loose in the audience. It was this combination of risk, intellectual curiosity, art, and music that for me defined the era and Sylvère, far more than the introducer of “French Theory,” was one of the most important creators of this Weltanschauung—he also had a lot of German friends.
When I erupted in Sylvère’s life in 1983 for a fortnight he must have felt that it was a remake of Zazie dans le Métro. I had bargained with my father Félix Guattari for a trip to NY for my 19th birthday: he had picked up his phone, certainly waking up Sylvère on the end of the line, to ask him if I could stay with him, soon. Sylvère had fully forgotten when I rang the buzzer at his Fulton Street loft, at midnight one day. He realized I was going to roam the streets, naïve and uncontrollable, tried to take me to his classes at Columbia in the daytime and to parties in the evenings, took me to invitations to clubs at night, Area and Danceteria. Also, he sent me to plays off Broadway, hoping to have a break for a few hours while knowing where I was and that I was alive. But most of the time, he lost track of me.
When he was off work, he would kindly invite me to walk to Chinatown to shop with him. We would cross the smelly and run-down Fulton Fish Market. The spring air was ice cold but vivifying. His young daughter, Mia, would walk along his slight limp, his luminous gaze and smile. Sylvère soon detected I loved pastries as much as he did, so after we had purchased chicken breasts, he would take me to a sidewalk near Canal Street where shoe repair was done immediately, next to a silent Chinese lady selling hot, little, round home cakes she would cook in a metal waffle pan.
We would also cross the street to Little Italy and he would buy me a sfogliatella, I had never heard about them before that.
He declared that I was “La plus new-yorkaise des parisiennes.” His friend and roommate Martin called me Guattarelle.
And it became a tradition: each time we would meet once I moved to New York a few years later, we would go to a pastry shop downtown, often De Robertis on 1st Avenue.
Sylvère was very affectionate, always. He kept in regular touch, making sure I was alright.
Over the years, we had those intense moments when my father came from Paris to give conferences at Columbia. We were so invariably happy to see Fèlix, both of us; it was so special to walk down the streets with him and drive him around. Fèlix Guattari loved New York and rejoiced at all times, wishing he was living there.
During those moments, when Fèlix was around, we silently shared something else Sylvère and I. We were suddenly standing on a bridge it seemed, powerfully embodied by the visitor: between French Theory and France, between languages, between presence and loss, unspoken pain and solace of the exile, between identities: the old one kept away, the new one forged in New York.
The rest of the time a lot of those facts existed but transformed: separated from roots, kept aside, explored by writing in order to intensely lead one’s life and devenir. Which in Sylvère’s case was an existential revenge led with the utmost elegance and intellectual brilliance.
Sylvère Lotringer: The Alchemist Takes to the Road
There are people who not only influence culture, but actually change it. Semiotician, academic, writer, publisher, editor, and provocateur, Sylvère Lotringer, who died on November 8, 2021 at 83 years old in Ensenada, Mexico, went beyond that; he changed people. He changed me.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Sylvère Lotringer, founder of the influential journal Semiotext(e) and its publishing imprint, flung open the doors to America’s 21st century through the sheer force of his enthusiasm.
Sylvère Lotringer, Parisian born on October 15, 1938, was a Holocaust survivor, one of the “hidden children” sent as a child to hide in the countryside under an assumed name with French peasants, an experience that would lead him to a lifelong fight against dominant power structures.
Sylvère was not an imposing figure. He was slight of height; wiry with a ready, disarming grin; light on his feet with a mercurial intellect.
Sylvère radiated curiosity and maintained an open mindedness and a visible desire for connection and coalition at all times.
The image that comes to mind as I write this is a dusky evening in 2008.
The Los Angeles sky was pale violet over a garage in Echo Park. The garage’s door was half open to the street. Sylvère and Semiotext(e) editor Hedi El Kholti had talked me into going to see a band Sylvère was excited about. Tiny Creatures was a literal hole in the wall on Alvarado, close to the Hollywood Freeway. Someone named Ariel Pink was performing there that night. I stood between Hedi and Sylvère.
I watched Sylvère. His face was in rapt, pleasurable concentration watching a group of scruffy 20-to-30-year-olds beat on their instruments in a cacophonous re-enactment of a 1980s East Village noise band.
I was 57 years old, Sylvère was 70, and Hedi was 41.
“Not being able to play is not enough,” I said, paraphrasing Gore Vidal’s remarks on the Cockettes’s 1971 NYC debut.
“Seriously! This noise band thing was boring the first two times around,” I continued, expecting Sylvère to comment. Instead he just tilted his head towards me, listening while his twinkling blue eyes stayed on the band.
I watched him enter the dissonance, a threshold into his own thoughts. When they stopped playing, the band and audience, a sparse group of 20- and 30-somethings, milled around inside and out on the street.
A little while later Ariel Pink came up to me and after sparring with me for a while about music, art, and Andy Warhol, he said, “You know, you’re pretty cool for an old person.” “Really?” I replied, “Exactly how many old people do you know?” Pink seemed taken aback by my question and didn’t answer. Then I asked him, “How old are you?” “29” he answered. “Hmm,” I replied, “You know, 29 is really not that young. You better get ready. It’s going to go by fast now.” Again, I thought Sylvère would chime in and comment, but he just stood there listening and observing us, smiling. He just held the space, his blue eyes steady. He didn’t rescue either of us.
Minutes later, a lean, wide-eyed young man, his hair shorn like an androgynous Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, approached me, his baby boy strapped to his chest. They moved as a unit. He introduced himself as Jason Yates. His little boy was named Echo. He shyly pointed out that some of his drawings were still up from his show, Fast Friends Inc., from the month before. Years later, in 2014, Jason Yates would design a sophisticated wood-and-leather installation for Semiotext(e) at the Whitney Biennial. The sleek works were easily the most refined pieces at the Biennial that year, manifesting both a minimalist and somehow erotic representation of Semiotext(e).
I don’t remember where I originally met Sylvère, but it was through my friend, the East Village filmmaker Chris Kraus. It was sometime in the mid-to-late ’80s, probably at her apartment on Second Avenue. She had been telling me about Sylvère for a while, but by the time I met him their relationship had shifted from casual to serious.
Chris’s description and her explanation of Sylvère—a French professor at Columbia University, a semiotician who taught a course on Anton Artaud and was on a first name basis with all the leading French theoreticians—was a bit opaque for me. Still, I was unprepared for the leather-jacketed, whimsical, elfin man whose thoughtful bright blue eyes bored into mine as he warmly clasped both my hands in his. I had never heard of semiotics at that point, but from the moment I met Sylvère he did two things that no other public intellectual I ever met, ever did. He made it clear that he was eager to know my thoughts and opinions, patient with my anxious incoherence around academics, and he communicated with me, eye-to-eye, without ever talking down to me, and without any intellectual power play.
Over the next 30 years I never heard Sylvère talk down to anyone.
Sylvère’s curiosity and interest permeated everything he did. Every meeting I ever had with Sylvère, from my first to my last, was drenched in an acceptance of me as a distinct person, as a worthy intellect, as a respected source for Sylvère’s own investigations.
May I tell you how rare this is? The empowerment it wrought in me? The freedom of thought and expression that it opened in my mind? May I take a moment to tell you how fraught with anxiety intellectual expression is for the autodidact? We don’t come with the cliff notes or the ready, wordy framework that BAs, MAs, or PhDs confer. Sylvère respected the native intelligence of the untrained mind as much as an educated one. He understood that the untamed jungle of native intellect offers different pathways than the roads trod by formally educated minds.
Sylvère surfed the edge of creative thought itself. He would claim thinking for himself no more than a surfer would claim the ocean. If you take the time to read his interviews with fascinating people (an education in itself ) you will understand how little Sylvère stood on ceremony. How little he needed to be the expert. It was as if he clung to a beginner's mind in his approach to everything.
Sylvère’s thinking processes were translucent. He allowed you to see the workings of his mind and this is in part what made him a great teacher.
In 1995, Sylvère invited me to Columbia University to his class on Artaud where I first filled the classroom with clouds of cigarette smoke and then, after the students took their seats, tortured them by asking them if Sylvère slept with all his students or just the pretty ones. Sylvère’s assistants rose up against me and threatened to stop my performance but not Sylvère, who stood up clapping his hands in delight, energized by the jagged possibilities of the moment. This was the 1990s, perhaps impossible to imagine in today’s censorious academic climate. He was thrilled by the bold impropriety of the questions spoken out loud. You could see he was in his comfort zone, teeter-tottering between embarrassment and excitement, delighted and pleased by how far I would go in order to create a theater of cruelty in his class on Artaud.
At a time when the not-for-profit theater world treated me as a dangerous outsider and New York’s theater critics functionally ignored my work in spite of my sold-out shows or painted me as a ditsy lightweight, Sylvère (and Chris Kraus) respected me as an innovative theater maker, an art worker of cultural resistance, and as a working class intellectual and invited me to share stages with artists and philosophers who were world respected, allowing me to comment publicly on giants like Artaud and Simone Weil.
In 1996 Sylvère held a symposium at New York’s Drawing Center on Artaud. Looking back on the participants Sylvère curated, it reads like a mythological 20th century happening: Baudrillard, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Nancy Spero with John Kelly, Deb Margolin, and me, among others, performing.
The night I performed, Sylvère invited me to have supper with Jean Baudrillard before the show. I sat across from him, this man who was worshiped by the trendy Soho-esque hipsters whose intellectual pretensions annoyed me. We spoke easily and after a while I blurted out, “I thought I was going to dislike you, but it’s the people who follow you that I hate.” Baudrillard looked up from his plate and smiled, “Yes, I know what you mean.” He said, “I hate them too.” I glanced at Sylvère who looked proud as if I had hit a cultural home run.
In 1997 Sylvère came on Steal This Radio, the East Village pirate radio show I co-hosted with political journalist Al Giordano in an East 7th Street squat. Hyper-gentrification had been building in the East Village and Lower East Side since the riots of 1988. We—a ragged group of mostly leftover ’60s and ’70s radicals—had been demonstrating against armored police attacking East Village squats and privately-owned tenements, while the new class of pierced, tattooed, chai-latte-drinking Gen X-ers and NYU students lounged in the cyber coffee houses that popped up on Avenue A and along First Avenue, unwilling to be recruited into housing demos or any confrontation with police.
Thrilled to be on pirate radio in New York at this critical moment, Sylvère spoke about his disappointment at having missed the front lines of the 1968 Student Rebellion in Paris, sequestered as he was in a teaching position on the other side of the world in Sydney, Australia.
Sylvère was blunt about how he had experienced the same lack of student engagement I was speaking of when he transferred to Columbia University in the early ’70s. “It was only four years later but it was as if the ’60s had never happened,” Sylvère said of student life at Columbia University in the era that saw the rise of the MBA and MFA.
It was this dissatisfaction which led Sylvère to create the campus experiments mixing French theoreticians, semioticians, and philosophers with downtown, East Village, New Wave, No Wave, and punk artists at events like Schizo-Culture and the Nova Convention.
As we talked, Sylvère affirmed my fears that wholesale youthful rebellion had been co-opted as a consumer act, that rebellion itself had been commodified. Just dress the part—get some tattoos, shred some clothes, and listen to alt rock. “But where are we going?” I cried out in desperation, “What can we do now?”
Sylvère’s blue eyes were tranquil as he covered my clenched fist with his open hand and replied calmly, “It’s all in the cracks now, Penny. It’s still there but now it’s in the cracks.” This phrase continued to guide me for the next 20 years right up into the present.
In 2017 at Artist Space (at Hedi El Kholti’s suggestion) Sylvère asked me to host the event for the publication party of Schizo-Culture, a two-volume boxed set of the lectures and ephemera from the event Sylvère hosted at Columbia in 1975 and the publication that followed in 1978 which featured stars of the French intelligencia: Deleuze and Foucault, along with William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Jack Smith, among others.
I MC’d the event, introducing each reader. In the middle of the evening a thought burst through my consciousness as I fully realized the role Sylvère had played in the change in downtown New York culture from the 1960s to the 1980s.
“Sylvère,” I called out in front of the crowded room, “You are the one who brought academia and theory to downtown art and it ruined everything!”
A wide grin broke out over Sylvère’s face as he shrugged his shoulders in that most Gallic of gestures, tossing his head merrily from side to side. He considered my words and laughed out loud, as the rest of the room got quiet. My remark was just another idea, another thought, another possibility. He did not feel challenged, he did not feel attacked because Sylvère Lotringer possessed the most valuable skill any artist, philosopher, or intellectual can have: the ability to contain a conflict.
My debt to Sylvère is enormous. The power of someone who believes in you is immeasurable. He had a hand in who I have become. I will never get over losing him.
To Sir with love.
The first time I met him was in a freight elevator, that kind of huge, rusty, creaky, and stumbling elevator that you can find in those buildings on 52nd Street in Manhattan. He was limping a bit, like the elevator, and speaking all the time with his strong French accent. It was February 1980, during my first stay in New York City, escaping the Italian gloom and looking for the future. Christian Marazzi was in the van of the elevator with Sylvère and me.
Sylvère was some years older than me, and in that period he was attempting a very daring intellectual action. Daring it was: inserting French philosophy, mixed with Italian radical activism, in the American cultural landscape of those years, while New York was recovering from the financial crisis of the ’70s and darkly teeming with incomprehensible signs on the walls and in the sky.
He invited me to the presentation of the Italian issue of Semiotext(e), titled “Autonomia.” A few days later I went to the launch of the magazine, in a Midtown bookstore with shelves of precious dark wood, the rooms filled with young artists, No Wave musicians, and the kind of charming wasters who had been attracted to the metropolis as the past industrial solemnity was crumbling and giving way to a kaleidoscope of aesthetic and existential experimentations.
I stayed in New York City for six months, then went back to Italy, then back to New York, back and forth for three years, uncertain where I wanted to have a rest. But the rest never came.
One day, a police officer invited me to the Central Building of the FBI.
In those days Sylvère came to visit me, in the small apartment on the Second Avenue, and he told me that he worried about me and also about himself.
He was right to worry, because Bob Arctor, the FBI agent who politely received me in his office on that morning in March 1983 told me exactly what Sylvère was worrying about.
I spoke first, bluntly: “What do you want from me? I am just a musical writer and I’m going every night to some No Wave music club and I write articles about the cultural scene of the city. So where is the problem?”
“Yes, yes” Bob told me, smiling nicely. “We are happy that European intellectuals come to New York, but you know … there is something I would like to ask you. You meet all those Italian and French intellectuals, and we are interested in knowing what they talk about, what new things are happening in European culture … so why don’t you come to visit me in Long Island? We’ll have dinner together, and you can tell me something about the news from the Old Continent. Right?”
I replied nicely: “I’m not sure that I want to talk with you about post-structuralism and that kind of strange thing. Let me think about it.”
He did not stop being nice and concluded: “Just don’t tell people about this friendship that is certainly blossoming between you and me.”
The next day I prepared my luggage, I went back to Bologna, and I did not put my foot on American soil for the next six years.
I told everything to Sylvère before going to the airport.
In the winter of 2007 I was staying in London and, out of the blue, Sylvère made an appointment with me just in front of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. We walked in the snow for a while speaking about the Postmodern sufferings of the soul. Then he published The Soul at Work.
The last time I met him was in a small bookstore in Bologna. He was presenting the new edition of “Autonomia,” this beautiful reprint with a thick cardboard cover. A small audience of students was listening to him with complicit amazement. His voice was hoarse, he was playing more than ever at being Mephistophelian. We discussed Baudrillard, the dark prophet, and Guattari, the schizo creator of conceptual devices.
In the last few years I have been thinking of Sylvère in Baja California, looking at the ocean and breathing the wind blowing from nowhere.
So tender, so wild.
Dall'Italia mi avevano chiesto di raccogliere firme nel mondo artistico newyorkese in segno di solidarietà con i compagni del movimento dell'autonomia arrestati il 7 aprile 1979. Non sapevo da che parte incominciare, non conoscevo nessuno, ma una amica comune mi presentò Sylvère, che allora insegnava alla Columbia University e, soprattutto, da tempo si muoveva con autorevolezza intellettuale nei meandri della New Wave. Fu lui a farmi conoscere Diego Cortez. Fu subito un sodalizio. Noi tre insieme ci mettemmo immediatamente a lavorare per il numero monografico di Semiotext(e) “Autonomy. Post-Political Politics,” che uscì nel 1980. Di Semiotext(e) avevo visto qualche numero, ricordo in particolare “Nietzsche's Return” and “Schizo-Culture” (1978), con gli scritti di Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Bataille, Derrida, i filosofi francesi che Sylvère tradusse e importò per primo negli Stati Uniti. Con “Autonomy” negli Stati Uniti si incominciarono a conoscere Toni Negri, Paolo Virno, Franco “Bifo” Berardi. Questa globalizzazione del pensiero critico la si deve a Sylvère. Da quel momento in poi, fino all'ultimo, la mia amicizia con Sylvère non si è mai interrotta, anche se abbiamo vissuto lontani l'uno dall'altro per la maggior parte della nostra vita. Ci scrivevamo, non molto, ci vedevamo, quando lui veniva in Europa a trovare i suoi famigliari in Francia o i suoi amici in Italia. Era un lavoratore intellettuale, un militante, instancabile, estremamente rigoroso, aveva un metodo di lavoro certosino che gli era stato inculcato a scuola dai gesuiti. Difficile stargli dietro, la sua energia cognitiva sembrava infinita, la sua curiosità culturale andava in mille direzioni. Ed era così dolce, così amico, così presente sempre. Sapeva aiutare senza parlare, sapeva parlare senza pesare. Ha attraversato il nostro tempo con discrezione, potenza e amore.
From Italy, I had been asked to collect signatures in the New York art world as a sign of solidarity with the comrades of the autonomia movement arrested on April 7, 1979. I didn’t know where to start—I didn't know anyone—but a mutual friend introduced me to Sylvère, who was teaching at Columbia University at the time and, above all, had long been moving with intellectual authority in the maze of the New Wave. It was he who introduced me to Diego Cortez. It was immediately a partnership, an association. The three of us immediately started working together on the monographic issue of Semiotext(e): “Autonomia: Post-Political Politics,” which was published in 1980. I had seen a few issues of Semiotext(e), I remember in particular “Nietzsche’s Return” and “Schizo-Culture” (both 1978), with the writings of Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Bataille, Derrida, the French philosophers that Sylvère first translated and introduced to the United States. With “Autonomia” in the United States, we came to know Toni Negri, Paolo Virno, Franco “Bifo” Berardi. We owe this globalization of critical thought to Sylvère. From that moment on, until the very end, my friendship with Sylvère never stopped, even though we lived far from each other for most of our lives. We wrote to each other infrequently, we saw each other when he came to Europe to visit his family in France or his friends in Italy. He was an intellectual worker, a militant, tireless, extremely rigorous; he had a meticulous working method that had been instilled in him at school by the Jesuits. It was hard to keep up with him, his cognitive energy seemed endless, his cultural curiosity went in a thousand directions. And he was so sweet, so friendly, always so present. He knew how to help without talking, he knew how to speak without weighing. He crossed our time with discretion, power, and love.
Carole Ann Klonarides
I was very aware of Sylvère when we both lived in New York City in the ’70s and ’80s. Mainly, I knew of him through other people: his partner Chris Kraus, Julia Heyward (Duka Delight), Diego Cortez, Betsy Sussler, Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson, and the CoLAB group. He, and Semiotext(e) were legendary in the downtown New York art scene—when publications came out there was always an impressive gathering that brought together the most interesting mix of artists, poets, cultural theorists, politicos, and “others.” Paul Virilio’s Pure War was very inspirational to the video art community, of which I was a part. I loved How to Shoot a Crime, the film/video that Chris and Sylvère made. Richard Prince gave me my first Semiotext(e) publication, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, and Chris gave me Erje Ayden’s Sadness At Leaving; although quite different, both books left a lasting impression.
But I really got to know Sylvère, the person, his past history, and his brilliance, when I moved to California. We both taught at ArtCenter in Pasadena and for the first time I heard him lecture. I can’t say it was a lecture, more like a metalogue, his labyrinth brain twisting and turning the information but always keeping the thread. A wonder to behold. At that time (the early ’90s), Sylvère was introducing visiting friends/theorists to Los Angeles (Sylvère and Chris brought Baudrillard to LA and organized an event at Whiskey Pete’s Casino in the Nevada desert, and Jacques Derrida was teaching at UC Irvine). LA became Sylvère’s new mix lab and rhizome and many benefited from his generous nature of sharing thought and creative ideas.
In the early aughts, I moved next door to a building that Chris and Sylvère owned in MacArthur Park, and when they split for good, he and his new partner Iris Klein moved next door. That is when I got to know the hilariously witty Sylvère; he could be very cutting when you were the brunt of the joke, but often you didn’t know it. We shared many dinners reminiscing about our days in New York, went to art events, performances, screenings, and readings, and eventually worked together creatively, which for me, was a privilege. My experience was unique but many worked and played at the Lotringer/Klein apartment on any given day. I could hear Gary Indiana screaming from their porch, or run into Pierre Guyotat coming out their door. Iris, an artist, used her photography skills, and artistic eye, in addition to helping Sylvère transcribe his lectures, and organize his vast archive. Michael Oblowitz, a student of Sylvère’s at Columbia and a known early-New York No Wave filmmaker, had worked with Sylvère on film projects; his son Orson was Sylvère’s editor on his film about Antonin Artaud, The Man Who Disappeared. After looking over the rough edits of this film and much discussion, a coveted gift was given to me from Sylvère, his book Mad Like Artaud.
In advance of the Semiotext(e)’s 40th anniversary and publication of Schizo-Culture, The Event, The Book, Sylvère asked me if I would help him reorganize the Schizo-Culture conference that took place at Columbia University in 1975. A book launch and reading was already planned to take place at Artists Space in New York, but Sylvère wanted to re-present the film screenings and performances. This was a daunting request—it was hard enough to get institutions to support such an undertaking, no matter how significant, with less than a year to develop it. I underestimated Sylvère’s clout in the New York art world. With the help of Klaus Biesenbach at MoMA PS1, I was put in touch with Jenny Schlenzka, Associate Curator of Programs. She enthusiastically programmed a day of performances at PS1 as part of Sunday Sessions, that included Alan Vega (his last performance), Gary Indiana with Walter Steding, Jim Fletcher, Julia Heyward, Kim Gordon, Richard Hell, John Giorno, Ann Rower, and more, with Penny Arcade as the emcee. It was a lot of work and at times tensions ran high, and egos flared, but the smile on Sylvère’s face was worth it. He had done it.
Jenny contacted MoMA’s film department so I could reprogram Cine Virus, a film program organized in 1978 by Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Oblowitz, at the time Sylvère’s students at Columbia. Many of the films had not been screened since then, and some could not be found, but the majority were, and restored (and in some cases collected) by MoMA for this event. It included films by Bigelow and Oblowitz, Michael McClard, Eric Mitchell, Bruce Conner, Tina L’Hotsky, and at the suggestion of Sylvère, an intermission live reading of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. The one night screening was sold out. Cine Virus was additionally presented by Bérénice Reynaud in Los Angeles’s Redcat Theater as Cinema is a Virus From Outer Space. I am very proud of this achievement and so appreciative that Sylvère gave me the opportunity.
I was just one of an international, vast network of individuals who benefited from Sylvère’s genius and generosity. For me, the pre-internet experience of in-person commingling of like minds and creative talent has passed, and one of the greats has gone with it. I miss Sylvère but take comfort in knowing that his teachings and projects have spawned a new way of thinking for generations to come.
I’ve been thinking about Sylvère every day since he passed away. We were friends for 42 years. When Sylvère lived with Chris around the corner from us on East 7th Street in 1987, he would stop by à l’improviste to visit David and me. On one of these occasions he was looking at a painting on plywood I had just finished when he saw the animal skins stretched on the walls of his father’s furrier workshop in Paris appear in the turquoise and orange pattern that incorporated the veins of the wood in the composition. He didn’t mention it that evening. I remember the emotion in his voice when he told me later on that he was writing a story inspired by this painting. He went on to write Never Any Ever After, a beautiful work of auto-fiction, unraveling memories of his childhood as a hidden child during the Nazi occupation, a trip to Germany visiting a concentration camp with his clueless friends, weaving it to the present in New York. There is a fabulous scene set on a bench in Washington Square, with descriptions of the park and its inhabitants during a heat wave on a summer day, and a peak into the swirling mind of the main character, Sol, who can’t stop thinking about the Holocaust. Sol goes home to his girlfriend, a painter, whose creative process he observes in her studio and recreates. Except for a chosen few friends who read it when it was published by Pataphysics with my prints in 1994 and other friends who came to his reading-performances in two shows I had 11 years apart, his book remained a treasure. In 1999, in my show at PØST, Downtown Los Angeles—a building full of art shows curated by artist Habib Kheradyar where the elevator was turned into a performance space—David, who had organized his editorial team at PAPER magazine to take a few days off to join me on this trip with Esther, our two-year-old daughter, and my parents, was quick to realize he should turn on his video camera as Chris started introducing Sylvère and me, explaining, to a room full of people how Never Any Ever After came about, our friendship, the ecology of our lives, the East Village. In Paris, our friend the poet Emmanuelle Guattari and her family, the poet Michel Bulteau, and artist Joseph Nechvatal were there. Emmanuelle’s son Elie who was just eight years old was videotaping the reading. Gisèle, Elie’s younger sister, was drawing at a small table. It was an intimate event.
The last time Sylvère came to New York with Iris Klein, his beautiful wife, for the premiere of Marion Scemama’s film in David Wojnarowicz’s show at the Whitney. He expressed his regret that he had kept a book he was proud of in a drawer. I wish I had found a way to reassure him. Being kept hidden, as Walter Benjamin would say, is proof that it is a treasure. With Chris’s unconditional support every step of the way, Sylvère’s poetic prose came into existence as an excerpt in the pages of Pataphysics magazine in 1993 with my prints. Our project looked great. The whole issue was a class act. It was a moment. Sylvère had brought me around to Roger Caillois’s book The Writing of Stones. For Caillois, the markings in stones were pure wonder, as if nature was imitating art. It connected to a vast field of research in a group that was formed in Paris, The College of Sociology, Leiris, Bataille, Caillois, at the edge of Surrealism, in between the two wars, Sylvère’s turf. In conversations about my paintings, Sylvère pushed me to go further with the markings in the plywood sheets. It culminated with my show Traces écrites at the Gordon Pym & Fils gallery on Rue de Seine in Paris, 20 years later; a small survey with works in wool, cardboard, and paper, that included a new series of rubbings of sidewalk graffiti. I went back to painting on
plywood again last year. I took a long but productive detour. A poet at heart, Sylvère was on the lookout for the presence of wonder. I was honored that he showed up at my opening in Paris. I cherish the note he left in my guestbook: “Pour ton oeuvre enfin résumée sur quelques murs. Splendide!” Emmanuelle was inspired to write her first catalogue essay. She had brought flowers, a vase, and cookies. The late Gottfried Tollmann, the gallery director, who had studied with his godfather Joseph Beuys, knew how to throw a party. He had brought cases of wine from his own vineyard in the South of France. He had also installed a table in the middle of the gallery to play chess during the opening with Alex Jordanov and others who dared to challenge him. A good friend of David and mine from the New York of the ’80s, the Inrockuptibles grand poobah Bernard Zekri, came with his family. The art historian Véronique Goudinoux, author of uvrer à plusieurs, a family friend met in Brittany; my parents; my uncle and his wife; my sisters; my niece; and friends were there. Sylvère met them. He caught up with his homies: old friends and family of the late Guattari; Marion and François;, Emmanuelle and her husband Nicolas. He had a long conversation with a friend of my sister, a professional translator. Maybe for a few minutes he had put his troubles away. He was in Paris for his ailing sister. He was beside himself. I had met his sister Yvonne in New York. We took a walk in Tompkins Square one day, the three of us. They were tight. Was he thinking about what they had been through together? How his courageous Parisian school teacher in the Resistance had saved their lives by providing him and his sister, the only Jews in the school, with someone else’s identity papers? I remember Sylvère sitting at the table in our dining room on Avenue B telling the story about looking for Serge Bonnat whose name he had borrowed during the war. It was not the first time he was telling me the story but he had my attention. He was a good storyteller. We first crossed paths in Paris in 1979. We had a mutual friend, Annie Ratti, a friend of Felix Guattari who was an art student at the Beaux-Arts School like me. I was curious about philosophy and I was auditing Deleuze’s class at Vincennes. For Deleuze and Guattari, the unconscious was a factory that produced all kinds of things, events, feelings, situations. Building communities through the arts was an act of resistance. Their philosophy had direct applications in daily life. When Sylvère came to visit Rue des Rosiers, he brought an issue of Schizo-Culture as a gift. In the Downtown arts community, artists, musicians, writers, performers were working across disciplines. A student from the Beaux-Arts school was a doorman at The Palace. I saw Iggy Pop perform there. New York was like that. The following year, I arrived in New York to attend the Whitney Program.
When Iris kindly reached out to tell me that it was time to say goodbye, I had just found in a file cabinet in my new studio the first version of The Man Who Slips. I had been thinking about him. I realized reading it that he had written Never Any Ever After in separate building blocks in
no chronological order and assembled his book like a construction game. Over the years, Sylvère would bring photocopies of what he wrote or the books Semiotext(e) published. These were his gifts. At times, when he was working on an essay on art, we would meet in a café to talk about it or go look at art. When he embarked on his big Artaud project for shows at MoMA and the Drawing Center, I was honored to introduce him, at his request, to my friends Kiki Smith and Nancy Spero. Yesterday, in our country house in Phoenicia, I found a copy of “Immaculate Conceptualism,” his fabulous essay on Jeff Koons’s controversial exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery that was published in Artscribe. “The first authentic ‘primitive’ of the virtual irreality world we pretend to inhabit. Playboy and Playtoy of the Western World. All in one.”
“Koons anticipated Baudrillard.” He could back it up. The sociology of philosophy was his expertise. It was written on a typewriter. That’s how long ago it was. It inspired The Matrix.
When Sylvère and Iris moved his archives out of his office at Columbia to the Fales Library, he sent me the last three copies of the first edition of Never Any Ever After. May your wish, for your French poet friend to whom we gave a copy in Paris hoping he would translate it, come true. RIP Sylvère. With love.
“Flee, my friend, into your solitude! I see you deafened with the noise of the great men, and stung all over with the stings of the little ones.”
–Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
How does one unpack the infinite—the refractive index of simulation—Oedipus and Anti-Oedipus—The Story of the Eye—measuring the architecture of fear cemented into the concrete bunkers of Calais—Madness and Civilization—a Las Vegas of the mind mirroring mediocrity's thinly veiled smoke screen—the mythology of striptease—a shotgun flash and Blood and Guts in High School—there is no paranoia without reason—Schizo-Culture in the streets of 1970s New York—Heliogobalus, high priest of the sun—transgression—regression—suppression—The Theatre and its Double, Artaud—the Word Image Virus, William Burroughs—the energy of death—a cruel shadow of finality comes to claim us all…
It was the afternoon, I was sitting in a darkened theater in the Film division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University; screening Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer. (I had appeared from South Africa and received a grant to study post-graduate film and theory at Columbia University.)
Suddenly the door opens, and a tall dark-haired woman appears out of the blinding sunlight. She wears a blue-and-white striped sailor shirt, a black leather biker jacket, black jeans, and black biker boots. I’m dressed identically…
She introduces herself: “Hi, I’m Kathy”—
Kathryn Bigelow and I were both enrolled in Peter Wollen’s “Signs and Meaning in the Cinema” class—we had a rudimentary knowledge of semiotics and critical theory and with Peter’s encouragement we were soon auditing tangential classes like Edward Said’s course on Orientalism and found our way to the dynamic French Department where Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, and various other intellectual luminaries were conducting seminars and the most radical, seditious, and energetic classes were being provoked (rather than taught) by a charismatic young professor, also wearing a black biker jacket, Sylvère Lotringer.
Smoking Gitanes, with an impish smile and an incandescent crown of fair-haired curls, Sylvère was speed rapping in heavily accented English and shards of French. Absolute focus was required by us non-fluent French speakers, just to understand what the fuck he was talking about. But Sylvère’s high-octane electric delivery accompanied by in-person readings with underground writers like Kathy Acker (also wearing a black biker jacket and a smile filled with glistening silver-capped teeth) was revelatory.
Sylvère’s classes were filled with quotations from Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, Virilio, Georges Bataille, Nietzsche.
A massive repudiation of traditional semiotics as espoused by Derrida and Barthes and Eco and a critical assault on orthodox radical literary theory (and film theory) and the post-Althusserian, post-Freudian, post-Lacanian tradition, which Peter Wollen was teaching Kathryn and I in our Masters of Fine Art and Theory program.
Suddenly we were reading Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze’s Masochism, Bataille’s Story of the Eye, and thrown into the intellectual maelstrom of multiplicity and desire, creativity and subjectivity, in a universe where “all the traces and echoes of God in the god-like structures of the unified human subject” are eviscerated.
At night Sylvère was hanging out with dominatrixes, theorists, and psychoanalysts—the likes of Terence Severin, Michel Foucault, and François Peraldi—at downtown gay BDSM clubs like the Mineshaft and with punk rockers, downtown artists, and his new roommate Diego Cortez at the ultimate hipster hang-out of the late 1970s, The Mudd Club.
My side hustle was as the Director of Cinematography for radical gay German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim, and by the time Sylvère came into Kathryn and my lives, I was a veteran of filming in every gay and BDSM sex club across the United States—ours was a match made in a non-existent heaven!!!
Sylvère’s extra-curricular activities had him engaged in an ongoing contretemps with his superiors in the French Department at Columbia University—an antagonism that endured throughout his academic career. Fortunately for him, he had obtained tenure early in his career.
Three years before Kathryn and I turned up in Sylvère’s theory class; Sylvère and one of his post-graduate students, John Rajchman, were in the nascent stages of producing a magazine entitled Semiotext(e)—following the riotous and successful Schizo-Culture conference in 1975.
I had become friendly with Diego Cortez during my circumnavigations of the downtown art/club scene—Sylvère was still sharing a loft with Diego in Midtown Manhattan when Sylvère invited Kathryn and I to join Diego, Martim Avillez, and Denise Green in feeding our mutual anarchic-design desires on that delicious corpse, designing editions of Semiotext(e) Journal along with an illustrious crew of downtown artists including Ross Bleckner and Pat Steir and Richard Serra.
We had all started work together on the “Schizo-Culture” edition of Semiotext(e).
I would accompany Sylvère with my 35 mm Nikon camera, taking still photographs as he interviewed Jack Smith—partially dressed in drag on the subway and in his Lower East Side apartment—for the famous “Uncle Fishook” article, and William Burroughs seated behind his industrial gray desk in the Bunker, his apartment/studio that was converted from an old YMCA locker room on the Bowery.
I remember taking 35 mm black-and-white photographs, with my Nikon F, of Sylvère spray-painting the word “Schizo” in black on the walls of Pat Steir’s loft—I then made a high-contrast line shot of the Schizo photograph in the dark room and superimposed it over another line shot of a photograph of stock market ticker tape columns—this became the famous Schizo cover.
“Schizo-Culture” was an outré counter-culture success and Sylvère decided we would recognize that with a festival celebrating William Burroughs.
It was to be called the Nova Convention and every downtown star from Burroughs himself to legendary poet/rockstar Patti Smith would perform and Kathryn and I would curate the cinematic celebration with a program entitled “Cine Virus.”
As if we didn’t have our hands full organizing the show, Sylvère decided that it was time for he and I to collaborate on a film together.
By then Sylvère was auditing the film class that Kathryn and I were teaching at Columbia. We called it “Deconstructing the Cinema,” and we, with Sylvère in attendance, were doing precisely that!!
Kathryn and I had both managed to hustle up money to direct our first feature films, so I had an editing room in the Film Center Building on 630 9th Avenue.
I had two flatbed film-editing machines in there and Sylvère and I used one of them to edit a found-footage documentary on human sexuality entitled Too Sensitive To Touch, that along with Burrough’s Towers Open Fire, became the centerpiece of the Cine Virus concept. Both films were cinematic deployments of Burroughs’s “Cut Up” technique.
Sylvère and Diego and I went on to design the “Autonomia” issue. By then our classes at Columbia had devolved into months-long late-night design sessions at Martim Avillez’s South Street Seaport loft, where Sylvère was then residing. He had some unresolved issue with Diego and the heavy lifting on the design committee of Semiotext(e) was now in the hands of Martim, Kathryn, Denise Green, Pat Steir, and me.
In a simulacrum of simultaneity, I was still documenting the downtown gay BDSM scene with Rosa von Praunheim. One of our documentary films of that period was entitled Death Magazine, an avant-garde, sexualized investigation into death and dying in pre-AIDS America—the subject was a forensic specialist, a Jean-Pierre Lahary who worked at the Museum of the New York City Medical Examiner at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.
Lahary was an expert in forensic reconstruction and was working on crime scene reconstruction and airplane crash site reconstruction. Interviewing him and filming him at work was my daytime gig. At night I was working with Sylvère and Kathryn and the Semiotext(e) team on designing the legendary “Polysexuality” edition of Semiotext(e).
Sylvère was fascinated by my descriptions of the interior of the Museum of the New York City Medical Examiner, access was reserved for medical professionals, and it became a New York City scandal when it was discovered that our film crew had gained access to this inner sanctum of the medical profession.
The museum was a collection of highly charged fetishistic artifacts, each of which had been the result of an unusual death that required admission to the Bellevue Hospital morgue: the preserved, tattooed skin of 19th-century New York City prostitutes; the embalmed, disfigured corpses of airplane crash victims with the books they were reading embedded in their distorted faces; mounted across a massive wall were rows of hypodermic syringes, each needle had injected a fatal “hot-shot” of heroin. The morbidity of the place was overwhelming and each display depicted actual artifacts from decades of crime and misfortune. My interviews with Lahary seemed to represent psycho-analytic transference for him. He would call me late at night to tell me about some new airplane crash site he was forensically investigating or from some heinous crime scene.
Naturally I transmitted all these conversations to Sylvère and François Peraldi, who was editing the edition. During one of my filming sessions with Lahary, he presented me with a gift: a glossy black-and-white crime scene photograph he had taken of an impaled masochist in a motel room in Miami. The photo was terrifying in its finality, and I took it to Sylvère and François in hopes of having them unpack the loaded effect it was having on my psyche.
After much discussion, Sylvère decided that it would become the back cover of the “Polysexuality” edition of Semiotext(e). For me, it is the image that most represents my Semiotext(e) era.
Sylvère and I both shared an affection for the music and personality of the downtown sonic artist known as Boris Policeband. Boris combined an anarchic Burroughsian “cut-up” sensibility with a John Cage-like brilliance for integrating found sounds off of various live broadcasts from various shortwave and police CB radios processed through sine wave generators. When we were programming the “Polysexuality” event at the Kitchen, we programmed Boris as the main musical act; the Semiotext(e) band!!!
The “high-point” of our artistic collaboration was the design of “The German Issue” of Semiotext(e), which coincided with our mutual experimentation with grass and cocaine.
Ironically emulating Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” we were wandering through the Wall Street streets at dawn; high on grass and cocaine; photographing desolate, empty Wall Street before the daily descent of the angry automatons of capitalism into the desiring machines of capital, for “The German Issue.”
We celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Nova Convention with a reprisal of the Cine Virus film program at REDCAT and MoMA, with a full art, music, and performance program at MoMA.
In 2013, after my son Orson had graduated from Emerson College with a degree in film and photography, Sylvère had become a fan of Orson’s first published photography book and his first feature film. He decided to collaborate with Orson on Sylvère’s unfinished Artaud film, The Man Who Disappeared.
They worked together for the next two years, during which time Orson turned down a scholarship to Columbia University’s Film and Media Studies graduate program, preferring to spend his time studying and working with Sylvère. Sylvère called Orson his “final student.” They maintained an intimate friendship that endured until Sylvère’s passing.
During the later years of our friendship, Sylvère’s interest in his Jewish roots and the period he spent hiding from the Nazis in France as a child was reignited. Although we both shared a mutual hatred of fascism we had never discussed in any detail, Judaism, the Holocaust, or that we both spoke Hebrew through all the years of our friendship. Now, in the later years of his life, he would recount his memories of hiding from the Nazis as a child and living in Israel and break into Hebrew phrases at our favorite Silver Lake Mexican restaurantwith Orson.
Sylvère’s impish smile and unfailing sense of humor never left him, even towards the end, when we shared our final meal together at that restaurant with my Orson.
Sylvère, his eyes clear blue as ever, but in the throes of a progressive neurological disease, was having some difficulty articulating, but was still pressing on with the thought that the theories that he had espoused, especially Baudrillard’s notion of the simulation and the simulacrum had in some way influenced ideologues on the right, especially those propagandists who sought to discredit language and science and truth with their puerile gaslighting of information in concepts like “fake news.”
Ironically it was the “word/image virus” that Burroughs had described and Sylvère had taught as a critical tool of linguistic and social and cultural criticism and Foucault had delineated as a technology of control in the deployment of medical science as a means of social control in The Birth of the Clinic, that was now being turned against itself in a banalised, popularist, moronic, “deconstructionist” attempt at discrediting liberalism, anti-fascism, and racism and popularizing neo-fascist ideology, that had Sylvère most concerned.
It was as if, in a cruel twist of fate, the fake cities of Baudrillard’s Las Vegas simulacrum had come to be believed as the “real thing”!!
Sylvère’s last words to Orson and me—wracked by a degenerative disease and barely able to articulate a sentence were—“It was not supposed to end this way.”
A few months ago, I found a journal from 1979 which opens dramatically sometime in January with: “Sylvère traumatized me. I haven’t felt this vulnerable for a long time.” I’d shown him pieces of my film, Born in Flames, while it was still raw, unfinished, and untitled, and though I don’t remember exactly what he’d said, it was critical. Still, “traumatized” was clearly an exaggeration: later in the journal I admit his remarks had forced me to question where I was going with the film.
We’d had a little “thing”—more a skirmish than an anything serious—but all I remember about it now is the way Sylvère’s razor-sharp hip bones dug into me and that his young daughter, Mia, an elfin four-year-old, would appear at inopportune times. Sylvère would always attend to her immediately and I felt lacking. I think I was terrified of children then. I don’t remember who ended our relationship but it was probably him because in a February entry, after I’d been to the Mudd Club to meet a female love interest, I wrote: “Saw Sylvère. Black leather head to toe. His head shaved. He looked incredible. Tried to make it apparent I was with A. He left the same time we did—with a girl named Susie. She’s cheery, pretty, blonde … If that’s what he’s into…” It later transpired that Susie was Mia’s mother, and that she and Sylvère were just friends by that point. The only thing he’d told me about her at the time was that she was “younger” than I was—something he would continue to comment on over the decades when describing girlfriends and future wives over dinner at his favorite LA haunts like Les Freres Taïx, his mischievous blue eyes betraying the pleasure he got from this provocation. I remained determined to not give him a reaction, especially when he questioned me about my work, though I knew he was genuinely interested and would have helped any way he could.
In the last few years, we found it harder to communicate above the noise of restaurants. He’d clocked in more hours than I had listening to live music in New York and I suspected he was starting to lose his hearing. During dinner, we somehow managed to answer what we guessed was the other’s question, sometimes comically out of sync. It didn’t matter: Sylvère had this steady, penetrating gaze that made him look like he was trying to decode a puzzle. At his 80th birthday party, held by Mia, who now had kids of her own, I finally met Susie—still pretty, but also smart and funny. Sylvère brought something to show me: a canister of film I’d taken of him and Mia with my Bolex in Coney Island in 1978, but he’d opened and overexposed it years before. I didn’t remember that day. I was touched that he’d kept it and puzzled about this outing with Mia. Had we taken the subway there or driven? Why had I given the film to Sylvère to develop instead of taking it to a lab myself?
During Sylvère’s last few months, when he was in Mexico, he spirited away his phone from his caregiver while his wife Iris (beautiful, brilliant—and yes, younger than I am) took some rare moments away from his bedside to do errands. He speed-dialed me—along with everyone else on his list—and asked whether I would come and visit. I promised I would. I was planning to when Iris sent me news of his death. Besides telling him how important he had been to me and how much I loved him, in my own way, I wanted to ask him about that day at Coney Island and why he’d kept the overexposed film. I wrote to Iris to ask if she knew. She sent me photos of Sylvère in his ridiculously over-crowded office at Columbia University, and the two of them loading boxes into a huge truck along with an explanation:
Sylvère did not like to throw away things, he just added to the stacks. In 2009, we sieved through all the material he worked on throughout his life—every folder, every book, every bit of film and audio—and divided it up between LA, Mexico, and the Fales Library, where the Semiotext(e) archive is housed.
So it makes absolute sense that Sylvère still had your canister of film. He held you in great esteem as a filmmaker as well as a precious person and surely was tickled that he had a film from you of Mia. So there was no way he would throw your film away even if it was accidentally exposed decades ago and most likely now reveals shapes in saturated colors swirling over phantom shadows of a silhouette of Coney Island.
One of the last times I saw Sylvère was at a Q&A (Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch) at a theater in Westwood. He came up afterward, that grin, almost like a proud parent, and those eyes with their dazzling light. I was always a bit intimidated by him and even now, putting thoughts on paper, he was this towering figure in my life. He was both a teacher and an icon. An instrument of revelation upon revelation.
As a graduate student at Columbia University, Sylvère provided me a total immersion into the French Structuralists, Deleuze, Guattari, Kristeva, etc.—it was an experiential exploration that transforms the way you think. Permanently. The concept of “self” redrawn, and virtually all perception. That was Sylvère’s influence. His signature, the trace that he leaves behind. Nothing is dead. In fact, he is very much alive.
In 1978 I made a short film, The Set-Up. A rough, crude attempt to three-dimensionalize an ideological divide. Sylvère provided a semiotic analysis in real time that became the voice-over spine of the film. At the end of The Set-Up, Sylvère references the ’60s. He spoke about how we perceived the enemy at that time as being outside oneself, the “other,” the government, the system. He concludes that’s not really the case at all; reactionary ideology is insidious, “we reproduce it all the time.”
I’ll miss his words; his soft, furry, accented voice. He always understood, coded or decoded, what I was attempting to do on a deeper level than even I understood at the time. I will not only miss his analyses but also his treasured friendship.
Sylvère and I met at Columbia. I was teaching French and working on my PhD, androgyny in French 18th-century literature, which I never finished. He was married and left his wife. We started living together the summer of ’73 while he was teaching at Reid Hall, and then in New York in my apartment. That year, Columbia had hired me to be Sylvère’s assistant, not knowing we were living together. We went to Mexico for Christmas and completed the first issue of Semiotext(e) upon our return. Our daughter Mia was born nine months later. Sylvère got a grant to write a book on the Nouveau Roman (Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, etc.) so we moved to Paris for the year, then back to New York with Mia the summer of ’75. I eventually fell out of love, but never stopped loving. In ’76 we split up and became best friends—traveled together, slept in the same bed, just cuddling. We often went out or would run into one another at various clubs. Before I started working at Saturday Night Live in the summer of ’82, we went to Amsterdam to do the subtitles for Sylvère’s movie, Too Sensitive To Touch, then on to Berlin where there was a Semiotext(e) event. We stayed in Heiner Müller’s apartment. I’m heartbroken he is gone. For me, he was a gentle soul who cocooned me in his love, smoothing out my sharp edges, something I never felt before or since. Thank you, Sylvère, for your love and for Mia.
Souvenirs de Vichy
In the spring of 1972 I was living in Rome and I received a letter from Case Western Reserve University inviting me to teach a seminar on Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille for its summer program in France. The letter was signed: Sylvère Lotringer. I don’t remember if I had encountered the name previously. It’s not excluded. But I hadn’t met the person, and had no real idea of who he was.
I didn’t answer right away. First of all, not being an academic yet, the idea of leaving Rome in order to spend six weeks of my summer in France teaching for American students wasn’t particularly appealing to me. Moreover, having taught philosophy in a French high school for a few years before the conference, the mere idea of introducing either Bataille or Artaud in the classroom sounded, to say the least, slightly abusive to me.
A second letter followed which gave me the explanation of this unexpected invitation: in the middle of the six weeks, there was going to be a one week break during which the program (students and faculty) would attend a conference on Artaud and Bataille that Philippe Sollers had organized at the cultural center of Cerisy-la-Salle, in Normandy. Having just edited the first two volumes of Bataille’s complete works, I had already been invited and had accepted to present a paper at this conference. Sylvère, who was a regular of these Cerisy events, got the idea of inviting me after reading my name on the program. Of course, my intention to decline his summer school on the basis of my previous engagement at Cerisy was no longer holding and, caught in a trap of my own creation, I ended up accepting. The same letter provided some other pieces of practical information. One of them was the location of the summer session: it was to be held in Vichy, in some vacated sports facilities. Vichy France, yes. That’s where I met Sylvère.
I didn’t know that he was Jewish. It didn’t even cross my mind that he could be. But it came out in our very first conversation. My first words when entering his office were some ironic remarks about the strange choice of Vichy for a summer school. Vichy was in the air. 1972 is the year Paxton’s landmark Vichy France was published in English and in French translation simultaneously.
First, a word on Vichy.
There are two versions of Vichy: Vichy the referent (the geographical Vichy, the Vichy of the Vichyssois, of the eaux de Vichy, of the pastilles de Vichy, etc.), and Vichy the signified (the historical and political Vichy, the Vichy of Pétain, and of the Vichystes). It is not easy to accommodate this bifocal identity. And, if there is one thing the miraculous properties of its mineral waters cannot cure, that’s what historians were starting to refer to as the Vichy syndrome. Except for its name, practically nothing reminds the visitor that, between 1940 and 1944, Vichy had hosted a history for which it hadn’t been planned.
This small, elegant, and boring provincial spa, settled on the foothills of the Massif Central, had (and probably still has) a recognizable but discreet bourgeois charm, with its art nouveau architecture, its flocks of valetudinarian habitués strolling across the parks with the cup required for their daily doses of mineral water hanging from their wrists in a small straw basket, but also its gambling casino, its horse race tracks, its kiosks where dancing or classical music were performed live after dusk. Had it not been for the repulsive and tragic events that followed France’s military debacle, it would have been the perfect setting for a musical comedy. One could even fantasize an Offenbach operetta whose curtain would open with the July 10, 1940 chorus of the panicked Assemblée Nationale endowing Maréchal Pétain with the Pleins pouvoirs in the kitschy set of its local papier mâché opera.
Being practically the same age (Sylvère, barely older, was born in 1938, myself in 1942), we shared a lot of tastes and interests, and we became quite close rapidly. I have the best recollection of these six weeks. Of course, one way or another, whatever the initial topic of our daily conversations was, Vichy always lurked in the proximity, ready to intrude. Begging, like a demanding child, to be part of whatever topic we had started with, their context ended up becoming their leitmotif.
I had heard about the “enfants cachés” (as they are called now) of the Occupation, but hearing Sylvère—with his high pitched, affectless voice, and the unassuming smile that practically never left his face—talk about the way he and his sister lived for two or three years in hiding under false names in a Catholic family somewhere in a Parisian suburb throughout the four years of the Occupation, gave new weight to the word “survivor.”
All the obituaries that were published after his death have mentioned that he was one of the thousands French—or, by the way, not necessarily French—“enfants cachés” of the Occupation. One of them added an anecdote: once, having been sent to get milk at the grocery store, Sylvère uttered his name. Had he told me about this episode? Quite possibly. But I don’t remember. These conversations go back more than 50 years, and some of my memories of them may be overlapping with those of Sarah Kofman’s.
Sir James Frazer, and Freud after him, wrote extensively about the taboo of proper names in primitive societies, but this taboo was a collective defense against the return of the recently departed: as if mentioning his name would be equivalent to calling him. That name was then tabooed for the whole clan for a specific amount of time, as one must defend society against its dead. The taboo to which the “enfants cachés” (but also their parents) were subjected to during the Occupation entered, of course, a totally different logic, almost the reverse: it was a defense against a society that didn’t recognize Jews’ right to live. It was an individual experience.
To start, the tabooed name is the child’s own (the child’s and his parents’). And the child should be prevented, by any means, from uttering it because that would allow others to repeat it, putting his own life (together with that of his parents’) at risk.
In 1940, when the Occupation started, Sylvère was two-years-old. When did his parents make the decision to hide themselves and their children? Probably in July 1942, as many Jewish families did, after the Vel d’Hiv roundup. He would have been three-years-old, verging on four, which is a crucial age for the linguistic development of the child who is just starting to experiment with the first person, learning the difference between nouns and pronouns, exploring new modalities of referring to himself, between expressing a demand by means of an energetics of the voice (screaming) or the syntactic articulation of a sentence.
How was the situation described to him? How was he told that he should never, never, in any case indulge in the pleasures and satisfactions that this still-in-process conquest just allowed him to enjoy? That he should in no case indulge in that discovery (a sort of linguistic mirror stage in which Lacan always rooted the function of the I)? What words did his parents manage to use in order to give him a sense, to communicate and “justify” the urgency of that imperative to him? How did they protect the child from feeling? To have the child accept that this bare, unjustifiable interdiction to use his newly discovered self-reference—be it an alienation or not—was tantamount to an amputation. How did they answer his unrelenting pourquoi? Why this? Why that? Why shouldn’t I? Optimistic child psychoanalysts such as Françoise Dolto insist that parents should never leave any of their child’s questions unanswered. It is a situation where the confusion of tongues between the adult and child is unavoidable. How does one manage to cushion the trauma of this linguistic amputation?
One can only wonder what childhood psychologists would say about the conflict ingrained in this situation. On the one hand, parents are anxious to protect their child’s life in a world where being Jewish could be tantamount to a death sentence. On the other, they’re anxious not to communicate their anxiety about the child, to shield them from their own anxiety, the mere knowledge of the existence of anti-Semitism, from the existence of evil, the knowledge that being Jewish could expose them to the hatred of anti-Semites. They would like to spare their child the knowledge of the existence of evil.
But this unusual protectiveness is perceived like a screen that hides something uncanny: the child cannot help but perceive in it the foreboding that something is hidden from him.
It is impossible to overestimate the traumatizing effects of such a taboo at this early stage of the formation of the child’s identity, and particularly in what regards his acquisition of the pronominal function (around age three). The first person doesn’t come first: it comes last, but leaves first. It is one of the most fragile and most superficial of all the linguistic functions, the one the child acquires last and which aphasiacs lose first. The theoretical and practical construction of subjectivity. A schize between first person and third person. That’s when the three-year-old is just starting to construct sentences using the first person and, at the same time, he is told, in the most forceful and frightening way, that he should never, never utter his name.
Walter Benjamin wrote: “I do not wish to divulge them.” Writing about himself in the third person, he continues, “He locked them within himself. He watched over them as once the Jews did over the secret name they gave to each of their children. The latter did not come to know it before the day of their attainment of maturity.” Gershom Scholem has a slightly different version. In his commentary of Benjamin’s “Agesilaus Santander,” he mentions “the personal angel of each human being who represents the latter’s secret self and whose name nevertheless remains hidden from him.” According to this version, every Jew has two names but he knows only one. Both, however, are Jewish.
One could also mention Yerushalmi’s writing about the practice of the Marranos in the Iberian peninsula. They waited until puberty before telling their children that they were “observing the law of Moses,” because “they were afraid that, at an earlier age, while playing with their schoolmates they just might begin to talk, and these in turn might go and blabber to their parents, and these might go to the Inquisition and denounce them.” In that sense, no parent would tell a child about them being Marranos in order to prevent them from being taken off guard, from doing what Sylvère did probably inadvertently, by some kind of slip of the tongue. In order for them not to risk entering into a hide-and-seek or a “guess what?” game, they should know only one name, their so-called Christian name or, to say it in French, their “nom de baptême.”
A difficulty with identity. Refusal to be identified. Threat of being identified. He did not want to belong anywhere. An allergy to identity.
Without claiming any causal relationship, this resonates very deeply with the intellectual interests of Sylvère’s literary personality. In his interview with Donatien Grau: “I came to a place [America] where I don’t have any identity … since I don’t have an I.” The paradoxical desire to master one’s non-identity. The fiction (to my knowledge, its totally undocumented and nobody else ever alluded to it; but was Sylvère’s invention really and ultimately a fiction for him?) that Artaud, with his Turkish ancestry, was a Marrano who couldn’t remember his name. “He was neither a Christian, nor an Anti-Christian; he was worse: a Jew who was not able to tell his name.” As if the very fact that he didn’t want (wasn’t able) to tell his name was an indication of his being Jewish.
Benjamin was fascinated with the Kabbalah anagrams. There is an inevitable association with the Kabbalah, made obvious by his huge investment in Saussure’s unfinished research on the anagrams in Latin poetry, first published by Starobinski. In fact, it may be linked to the inspiration for Semiotext(e). The semiotic resistance to language and to logocentrism unleashed in Sylvère’s work makes sense, since one focuses on the fact that what is at stake in the Saturnian verse is the concealment, the camouflaging, of proper names (Scipio, Caesar, Aphrodite, etc.) disseminated and encrypted in one or two of its lines. It’s after all quite remarkable that Sylvère would devote two of the very first issues of Semiotext(e) to it. And we shouldn’t forget the encrypted swastika whose fragments were disseminated (Kabbalah), scattered like the pieces of a puzzle throughout the layout of the journal’s “The German Issue.”
Couldn’t one read the interview as a genre that allows him not to be the subject? The self-effacing interviewer who gives voice to the other.
A split exercise or an exercise in splitting. As Freud says, one can have pleasure without feeling it. The schizo; double edge; oscillation between more and less.
On one hand, denunciation of the ego traps you, and you should never let oneself be trapped in the Hegelian fight for recognition. The ego traps. The “terror of identification,” the terror of being identified, about which Blanchot writes apropos André Gorz’s Le Traître, talks of being submitted to a verification of identity. There is nothing more ominous in films that deal with the Vichy period than the moment when a policeman tells the character we identify with, “Follow us, on va procéder à une simple vérification d’identité”: that’s the death bell.
“Not be an academic, not be an artist, not be a filmmaker, not be one thing … I didn’t want to belong anywhere.” But it is a place of ambiguity, between being imposed with an identity (like a stamp on one’s ID card) and not having any identity paper. It was both negative (not being identified as being Jewish) and positive (not being identified). Not being one, which can mean being more than one, being two, or even more, like the schizo. But there is also the-less-than-one, the zero degree of identity.
As if he really believed in the simplicity of the ego cogito. Double identity. Double personality. The possibility of playing a double game, to always have some lines of flight just in case, a way to escape.
But at the same time there is no simple ego cogito. The ego is always already split.
The 1972 Cerisy Conference, a place very overdetermined. As I realized reading his interviews with many overdetermined moments, lignes de fuite, that’s where he met the French writer Pierre Guyotat: who was trying to “get rid of himself, get rid of the Je, get rid of the I.”
“Having them speak, rather than speaking about them”.
The gesture of willfully imposing on Artaud an identity.
Let’s go back to Vichy. In one of his interviews with Donatien Grau, Sylvère refers to our 1972 encounter: having been away for five to six years, he says, “I was totally cut off from the theory scene. When I came back [to France], I created these schools [like the Vichy summer school] in order to be able to take the classes, to catch up on what was developing at that time, which was totally different from what was happening before.” And, indeed, I vividly remember him attending my classes, all of them, endowing me with an authority I was not sure I deserved, which I found very intimidating at first, but out of the classroom we followed up on had the texts and topics. A lot of our conversations would be follow-ups of the texts we had read, inspiring our exchanges in front of the students, who were taking notes most studiously and asking questions.
The question was, why did he suddenly feel that he had to learn about Artaud and Bataille? Artaud and Bataille were part of what he had “to catch up on.” Their posthumous emergence in the early 1970s marked a deep change in the French cultural and literary world.
Sylvère, who had started as a specialist of the novel (through Lukacs and his French translator, Lucien Goldmann, who was his first advisor), regularly attended the “décades” that were devoted to the “nouveau roman” at Cerisy. Lucien Goldmann called it “the novel without a character” (“un roman sans personage”). The question was whether the novel could survive without the personage. Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, each in his or her own way, experimented with how far they could go with this amputation. Could there be an action without an identifiable actant? How would the novel survive when the support of a proper name had been withdrawn from it, the shadow of character reduced to mere initials or replaced by pronouns which, against the grain of their grammatical function, no longer have an antecedent, are no longer anchored in a name that could reclaim ownership, property.
But in 1972, the nouveau roman were running out of steam, along with the publication of their complete works of writers who had been marginalized (in and by Surrealism in particular) during their lifetime. I won’t dwell into that cultural break. Which is what Artaud and Bataille were signaling.
1972 was also the year of the publication of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. I don’t think that Sylvère had read it when we parted at the end of the summer school. I returned to Rome, and Sylvère to the US, no longer for Case Western Reserve in Cleveland but for Columbia, where he had been offered a position with tenure. One cannot underestimate what his discovery of New York owes to Anti-Oedipus and, vice versa, what his reading of Anti-Oedipus owes to New York: they were made for each other. The Schizo New York. (I remember him telling me, a year later when I decided to spend time at Yale, that it was “the best guidebook about America, you absolutely must read it before coming if you want to understand anything about New York,” and, in fact, I read it under the pine trees of the Pincio, before boarding the plane.) Sylvère’s America will stand for a long time.
He hijacked Robbe-Grillet’s Projet pour une révolution à New York and turned it into the libretto of the Anti-Oedipus, so to speak. “It was like living in science fiction. Everything that the French had already thought I experienced on a daily basis.” Anti-Oedipus as the key to the American way of life. So America, like a body without organs, didn’t need theory, because it was theory embodied. New York and me. But that was the case because Americans didn’t care about theory (one couldn’t imagine anything like American theory, that would be a contradiction in terms).
“One doesn’t cure neurosis, one changes a society which cannot do without it.” That’s the anti-Oedipal revolution that Semiotext(e) was supposed to bring in New York. The revolution that would make it more of the same, the same but exposed. The same and its double. A shift from the defeatism of neurosis that begs to be cured to the affirmative schizophrenia. That is: the production of an open quantity of lines of flight. A capitalism without strictures.
In fact, that psychoanalysis had become the last sexual pleasure available to mankind.
I lived in the States for a long time without really knowing New York; I lived in California and heard about New York essentially through Sylvère’s ecstatic descriptions. He had found himself. New York was his, New York was him.
New York was the only place to which he thought he would be able not to belong. Because New York belonged to him. I don’t think I ever knew his New York.
A world in which the means-ends connection no longer works. A clear nihilism. A resistance to choosing, to choice. To choose between.
The schizo. The schism. The schize. The discovery of schizo, which poses major resistance to psychoanalysis, resistance as an acting out, analysis being, by definition, always almost interrupted. To transform neurosis into schizophrenia, the point of disjunctive synthesis. S’envoyer promener. Psychoanalysis into schizoanalysis. Failures of disjunctive synthesis. Splitting. The force of the disjunctive synthesis. A resistance to the Oedipus model. The double nationality: being twice a foreigner, on both sides.
I moved to the States one year later, in 1973. Sylvère, who had started the Semiotext(e) project with John Rajchman, Mario Gandelsonas, Wlad Godzich, asked me to join. My only real contribution is the special issue on Bataille where, next to some postwar articles by Bataille (such as the one on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea), first appeared the translation of Derrida’s “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without reserve” by Alan Bass. The issue had a quite striking cover that represented a map of Place de la Concorde, in the center of which (instead of the obelisk) an oversized phallic guillotine was stabbed, following Bataille’s historico-political fantasies. But the issue came out too late to allow us to celebrate it together. I had already left New Haven for Berkeley, where I was becoming an academic, while Sylvère was exploring Downtown’s clubs (les “boîtes,” les “caves”) and the art world.
For a long time, we would keep exchanging letters, he would occasionally visit me in Berkeley and he would be my guide when I visited New York, once or twice a year. But, when I moved to the East Coast, he moved to the West Coast. An unfortunate criss-crossing. The last time I saw him was at the opening of the Semiotext(e) archives at Fales Library in Bobst. I knew that he was now living in Ensenada, on the Pacific coast of Baja California. A few weeks ago, going through my Semiotext(e) collection—which I think is complete—a sheet of paper with the letterhead of the Ensenada Best Western fell from “The German Issue.” I have the feeling that I didn’t really know the American Sylvère, but here is my great memory of Vichy, which I am most happy to send you—from New York.