A Life in Theory: Sylvère Lotringer with Joan Waltemath
Sylvère Lotringer is professor of French literature and philosophy at Columbia University and general editor of Semiotext(e). He has a forthcoming book of interviews titled David Wojnarowicz: A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side, as well as an augmented version of Overexposed: Perverting Perversions. He splits his time between New York and Baja, CA.
Rail: We first met at some point in the seventies when you had already started publishing. I have some great memories of those early Semiotext(e) parties. What was your impetus in getting the magazine off the ground?
Lotringer: I didn’t get Semiotext(e) off the ground, it’s Semiotext(e) that got me off mine. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was looking for a way out of academia. The magazine became the ticket. My education was a casualty of the war, you see. I got my Ph.D. as a way of postponing the draft. Algeria was our Vietnam, and I wasn’t exactly keen on being sent there. I already was in the States when the peace was finally signed in 1963 and I decided to move around the world, picking up teaching jobs here and there. I spent May ’68 in Sydney, Australia, so I finally arrived in New York in 1972 hoping to catch up with the student rebellion at Columbia. Little did I know, it was already business as usual. So after a while I thought, this isn’t exactly what I want to do with my life . The best I could do was create, with some young academics, a magazine claiming to found a “materialist” semiotics. Semiotics, the science of signs in society, had been established on a linguistic model, instead of non-verbal signs, as it should have been. The answer to our query was simpler than I thought: I eventually turned to the visual arts. It took me two or three years before I got the magazine off the academic ground and gradually moved it towards the art world. I was lucky enough to hit the art world in the mid-70s, when it was still doing art, not business. At that time, artists had a life, not just a career. Some of them got interested in our project, and together we did the first issue, “Schizo-Culture,” that really put us on the map.
Rail: Wasn’t “Schizo-Culture” a big conference first?
Lotringer: Yes, we staged it at Columbia in 1975, and it turned out to be some kind of landmark. For the first time, major American artists like John Cage and William Burroughs met French post-structuralist thinkers Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Jean-Francois Lyotard; they were mostly unknown here until then except for Foucault. The magazine issue that came out of that time was about art and madness, trying to outplay the madness of capitalism by going further into it. This is what we’ve been doing ever since, first with the magazine, then with the book series called “Foreign Agents”(for a long time known as “the little black books.”) More secretly, “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. “Schizo-Culture” was published in 1978 when the three-day “Nova Convention” celebrating William Burroughs was spreading all over “downtown.” It was the last extravaganza of the American counter-culture we got involved with, because there never was one after that.
Rail: When did it all change for you?
Lotringer: “French theory” started catching on and it became something else. But everything else was changing anyway. We didn’t realize it yet, and enjoyed the ride, the club scene, graffiti, acid rock, neo-expressionist painting, then the East Village lifestyle. Actually that’s when business started kicking in: real-estate, stock-market, art-market. It is just around that time that French theory too became a speculation and lost touch with its initial impulse. It was all the more ironical when you contrast it with what other artists were doing at the time. Over the last thirteen years I have done interviews with all those who collaborated with David Wojnarowicz (Kiki Smith, Bill Rice, Carlo McCormick, etc.) and the book is just coming out with Semiotext(e) this fall. It perfectly captures this moment in time when the East Village started turning ugly, the media moved in, AIDS went on a rampage, and bigots tried to silence free-thinking. Like artists of the previous generation, David distrusted “intellectuals” for all the wrong reasons, and yet these became truer as “French Theory” became the rage. Although he had never read it, he was much closer to what we had intended to do with it than those who tried to appropriate it. David was political in everything he did, even if he didn’t use the word. Through these collaborations, it is his relation to the world that becomes visible, not just an individual’s career. David Wojnarowicz: A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side shows what a gifted artist can do when challenged to rise to the event. David responded with the violence of clarity to the hypocrisy, intolerance and negation of life that he could see creeping everywhere. He didn’t read the theory; he reinvented it, and many other things in the process.
Rail: What happened to the magazine after your initial encounter with the art world?
Lotringer: We published a number of issues on subjectivity (“Ego traps”); on “Nietzsche’s Return”; on “Anti-Oedipus”; on “Georges Bataille”, etc. We occasionally put in some art in the magazine and, surprise, artists started showing up offering their help. I told them we didn’t deserve so much attention, but they knew better, of course. So we immediately enlarged the format to give them room to grow and make the magazine more visual. The group, mostly young artists, some very well-known by now, was rather disparate, painters, photographers, filmmakers, rock impresarios, but we all agreed that nothing would be “artistic” and second-hand, only first-hand material, including theory. No introduction or commentary (academics always eat their food pre-digested) but original texts and interviews, getting ideas from the horse’s mouth. We used pop artifacts not high culture, pictures not artworks (painting was passé, photography hadn’t been promoted yet), collages and no explanation. The magazine was made of displaced visual cues bouncing against untutored texts. We could treat our readers like adults, and have fun at the same time. It was up to them to get the hints, make their connections, think for themselves. That was food for thought unadulterated. Thinking never happens if you get it on a plate.
Rail: Having lived here for some years, I’ve become aware that there is only a brief moment when a constellation of people can come together and make something possible. Then you get the absorption. You have to break away, and then reconfigure. Very much like you describe your experience with Semiotext(e). You realize that once everybody grabs on, it’s time to step away.
Lotringer: “Schizo-Culture” sold out, 3,000 copies in three weeks, and it is true that we could easily have become an art magazine, got lush gallery ads and sunk under them, as happens to most magazines these days. We had already announced the publication of “Schizo-Culture II,” but I decided that we wouldn’t. We had no money to start with and produced issues on the cheap for a few years (but with high concept), getting some deals here and there to keep it going. But getting too close to the art world would have been the kiss of death. Our strategy must have been right because we remained a Trojan horse ever after, a foreign element even to our friends. We kept inhabiting the cracks between the art world, the radical world and academia, as we kept hovering between Europe and the United States, bringing out new material that artists, activists and young intellectuals could work with, and a certain way of looking at them. We kept building bridges and each time took them down with us. We kept changing focus deliberately, starting from scratch with each issue, changing teams as well on occasion.
We used different visual and conceptual strategies. For the issue on Italian terrorism (“Autonomia,” 1980), for instance, we stole the lay-out of a MIT manual in biology to give it a safe, clinical look; for the “Polysexuality” issue (1981), we chose hard-to-read computer caps to cool off the contents; we also displayed media images of disaster instead of sex. For “The German issue” (1982), we ran a wall of pictures, from Wall Street to the Berlin Wall, in the middle of the page with East and West changing sides all the time. Each issue took years to make, but they still had to come out ahead of time. The idea was: never give people what they want, or they’ll hate you for it. In New York, you learn that lesson pretty fast. We managed to lose readers that way, but constantly got new ones as well. Some are still around, and I guess younger ones too. Lately we have been reshaping things with Hedi El Kolti, our new editor and designer, starting a new series called the “History of the Present”, and introducing more texts on gay male sex and culture, some pretty daring texts, like the classic Tony Duvert Good Sex Illustrated that Bruce Benderson is translating, and the stunning Journal of an Innocent which will be out next year. This thing has been going on one way or another for some thirty-two years—can you believe it? That’s what happens when you expect something to die any time, and even would welcome the thought (it’s a lot of work). But it keeps going and changing as we all do.
Rail: As I remember it too, from the time, yours was really the first introduction of the French post-structuralist philosophers to the scene in New York. It had an incredible impact for almost ten years in changing the way people were writing and thinking about art.
Lotringer: Look, I didn’t want it to be “French Theory,” I wanted the magazine to be American. It’s all a big misunderstanding. My purpose wasn’t to introduce French thought to America, but to get America thinking along those lines ._ The idea was that it would get absorbed in the culture and used to figure out what capitalism is about, not “French intelligence,” or just art for that matter. Artists need to understand the world they live in, too, in order to make art. Americans don’t know what capitalism is, they don’t have the distance. They call it reality and see it on television. No wonder that American radicals, mostly academics, are still dreaming with Toni Negri that one day we will go through “to the other side.” (I prefer Paolo Virno’s _Grammar of the Multitude, less romantic, but more substantial). There’s no “other side” to capitalism, it is everywhere. Cut one tentacle from the monster and others grow faster on other limbs. Capitalism is crawling inside of us all too, the best and the worst, and we have to keep pushing its creative energy in other directions, dodging the reduction to commerce and self-interest.
I used to organize lectures at the Sorbonne in the late fifties, already bringing up the new ideas to my fellow French students: Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, etc. Theory in France in the late 60s and 70s was some kind of an artwork, a conceptual creation in its own right. But it didn’t come out of the blue; in fact it involved a lot of people, a well-trained intelligentsia reaching way back. The elite French academic system hadn’t yet broken down, swallowed by a media culture made in the USA. That’s “American Theory” in France for you. Like art, theory needs a nurturing context, and the need for it. Not just a desire to be included. French intellectuals reacted creatively to the eruption of consumerism in France. They tried to stop it short in ‘68 and failing that jumped onto the saddle, trying to go places with it intellectually, eager to see where it would take them. It was a bumpy ride, but suddenly it was as if society was opening up in front of our very eyes, and we quickly got ourselves the proper conceptual tools to poke at it. We finally overrode a Marxism that had gone on automatic, but kept Marx by the hand. There was a huge momentum at the time, say between 1965 and 1977, and a sense of urgency, thinking all this through. The language of “theory” may sound baroque at times to foreign ears, but it was just a short-hand to very long ideas. Concepts were meant to open society up like a surgeon’s knife, and we knew that the patient could well be dying any second. Look at what happened to the art world in just a few years. We were supposed to have all these great conceptual knives lying around, crying to be used (the death of the author, etc.) and what did everyone do with them—cut themselves a piece of the cake. So you’re right: theory had an incredible impact for almost ten years and changed the way artists and critics dealt with art. They all became dealers.
Rail: How did you anticipate theory would be received?
Lotringer: I didn’t want people to gargle on hard theories, I expected them to turn thinking the other way in order to realize who they really were, and what could be done in a world that’s fast running away from us. Capitalism and technology never sleep. They are not wasting any time ransacking the entire planet, merely giving us a few toys to keep us busy. At no other period in history have we needed ideas more than we do right now. So it is not just a matter of people catching on with exciting ideas for ten years and then moving to the next hot thing. Unlike many French theorists themselves, I never minded living with contradictions, sleeping with the enemy as we all do here. Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, one fight. They keep overlapping in so many ways, raising interesting questions that way too. They just provide different takes on the same phenomenon, Nietzschean perspectivism. We share the same monster, and it goes unimpeded in every possible direction, so why not confront it from different sides? I don’t have to forget anything, let alone Forget Foucault (a great book all the same) or substitute “competing” theories, (Multiculturalism, Gay studies, etc.) for an update. Theory is all genders and all cultures at the same time. Like Proust’s ways, everything communicates if you follow it through long enough. The “other side” is like a Möbius strip—you have to keep on the same track and it takes you places. We’re on it for the long haul or not at all, changing things along the way to keep on target. Short-attention span doesn’t lead one anywhere, leap-frogging—so to speak—just means repeating the same mistakes. As Roland Barthes used to say, if you don’t read the same book twice, you’ll keep reading it everywhere.
It’s like the media, always showing the same image at full speed so people don’t get bored, or have the time to think (it’s the same thing). Boredom is the most important concept there is in America. I tried to show it in my book, Overexposed: Perverting Perversions (it is now being republished by Semiotext(e) with major additions). It is not just true for sex, or sexual deviants (they are subjected to a “boredom therapy” meant to get them rid of their desires). People keep running away from their lives in the hope of getting one someday. There is no “other side.” History is written in the present tense, however imperfect, and that’s all there is. Ideas always need to be engaged somewhere in order to exist at all.
Every history is a history of the present. You don’t know what it is made of beforehand. You don’t even know what you are capable of before you do something. You have to discover it when you are on the way. That’s what I expected art to be too, and it is no different at heart from politics. David Wojnarowicz discovered that thin line in the midst of it all and just went for it. The simplest ideas are the hardest to come by.
Rail: You can’t look for them, you have to see where you are going.
Lotringer: That’s what we did in the mid-’80s. It quickly became too good to be good. We had it all made, and who wants it? It’s always someone else tripping on you. We started distancing ourselves from this sudden embrace pretty early on, but not from theory. We began looking instead for an “American Theory” that would be in the making, unaware. We found it in the first person female narrative. Narratives, in the United States, are usually hopelessly confessional (we started dealing with that very early on with the “Ego Traps” issue). Chris Kraus created the new “Native Agents” series to investigate subjectivity that wasn’t turned inward (there’s nothing there but trouble), rather turned outward and capable of providing a vision of the world as it is, not as it is supposed to be. It was a snub at those who love thinking to be outlandish and “incomprehensible” in order to feel legitimate. What the existence of “Native Agents” really meant is that thinking can be found everywhere, not just in theory books. It is in the eye (I) of the beholder and you have to keep it focused. I dreamt that American culture was open-ended, experimental, hand-to-mouth, “pragmatic.” I wanted philosophy to be that way. I didn’t realize that there was an underside, more mindless and cynical. Philosophy was used pragmatically, but not the way I expected it to be. Not in order to think things through, only to improve one’s status, boost one’s ego, feed the lingering anguish of being left behind, of not being part of the “in-group.” It was not just going back to school, but going to high school. Everybody started getting crazy about the theory. Some artists even stopped making art, thinking they should have read it all, from Ferdinand de Saussure to Derrida, before picking up the brush again. Others, more casual, displayed theory on their jackets and kept it there until they changed their clothes.
Rail: There has to be a desire to look beyond the surface layer.
Lotringer: I agree, but desires are not innate, they come from somewhere. They can also be fabricated like everything else. Wanting to be the first to grab something, or the first to junk it, whatever that is, theory included, is a powerful desire too, but it has nothing to do with thinking. And it’s still going on today, of course, just getting a little thin at the elbow, like everything else. At the time theory took off in New York, in the early ’80s, a new wave of young artists were coming onto the scene and it became pretty crowded there. What was their desire? It was to be recognized, to belong somewhere. They desired to peg their fate on some glamorous He-Male philosopher, Foucault, Baudrillard, anyone really that could fit the job. And they wanted to get a pre-cooked artistic identity to boot. They didn’t even have to read the entire book for that, only the title. With Simulation, the first book by Baudrillard that we published in 1983, as part of the new “Foreign Agents” series, they thought they had found The Man. Overnight they became bona fide simulationists and started making claims on Baudrillard. Beware of unwanted disciples, Nietzsche warned. There’s always a catch to instant adulation. Look, it was their problem, not mine. We also published two other books in the new “Foreign Agents” series that year, On the Line by Deleuze and Guattari and Pure War by Virilio. With the three of them, not just one, we managed to map out the entire decade. Virilio caught on because people thought he was an advocate of technology, which was coming strongly to the fore. Actually Virilio was trying to size up the threat. And we had to wait for ten more years (that made twenty) before people started paying attention to Deleuze, and subjecting him to the same treatment. You always end up paying for attention. You may lose your sense of purpose, and what else is there? It’s never worth going out of your way to get it.
Rail: Today, when I was looking at your books again, specifically the last two you published, The Conspiracy of Art by Baudrillard, and your dialogue with Paul Virilio in The Accident of Art, I was thinking about your descriptions and reflections on the art world, and I could see art disappear in the face of business.
Lotringer: Sure, and it may even already have, so we are fast losing the sense of what it was capable of. Art wasn’t really meant to be adhered to so eagerly by everybody. For a long time there was a sense that art was resisting something: tradition, accepted ideas, ingrained prejudices. It was a fight to impose another vision of what art could be. The audience had to adjust as best it could and try to make sense of it all. Andy Warhol was iconoclastic when he started calling art his famous Brillo Boxes. Now art has become sacred in the most vapid way. Anything a bit new is instantly drowned under inflated praises or turgid curatorial language, which is what’s left of theory. There’s a creepy feeling about it all, as if there was some kind of collusion going on, everybody trying too hard to be ecstatic about art. As if everyone was on Prozac, worrying that their supply might suddenly run dry. It’s euphoria on the verge of a nervous breakdown. No one seems to believe their eyes that it could be so fucking good, artists jumping from plane to plane for the next Biennale in Bulgaria, and the art market in Singapore. Everyone feels like they are a fake, and the entire situation is. It’s collective forgery, the ultimate artwork. That’s the kind of “conspiracy” Baudrillard was talking about in his book: art turning corporate, but still claiming its exception. I’m not really complaining about that. Actually I’m not complaining at all. This is not my business if art is wallowing in greed and hype. Jack Smith used to say that what is done with the art is what gives it meaning. I don’t know if art should have a meaning at all, but now it definitely has one. Cave people had their art, and so did painters in the Quatrocento. All I can say is that we have the art that we deserve. And if it is not possible to get it in any other way, then we have the art that is not possible.
Rail: If business is the envelope that art is reflecting, is the role of the individual voice obsolete?
Lotringer: No one can afford to be that special anymore. Individual voices are business too. They are now custom-made and mass-produced. The system needs “individuals” to speak in its own voice and these kind of voices can be heard everywhere, picking up the cues. We live in a ventriloquist culture, but we don’t know anymore whose belly it is all coming from, who’s speaking, or whether there is someone on the line. And it is true across the board. Every barrier that used to protect singular voices or discrete activities is now breaking down. Art now can be found everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The idea has lost its luster (if everything is art, what is art?) and yet it is more glamorous now than it has ever been .We can’t invent something that doesn’t correspond in some way to the kind of society that we’re stuck with, for better and for worse. And sometimes the worst is the better because at least we can identify it for what it is turning into. Recently Caligula, the LA art magazine, flippantly organized weekends teaching artists how to go about their careers and make the right contacts. Art programs are starting to offer classes in that direction. This is healthy in some sick way. If art is turned into a business, at least we know what art can be. Because it’s becoming more and more difficult nowadays to differentiate art from what it is not. And there may be a reason for that: art isn’t that different anymore from the rest, and that’s why young artists are flocking to art schools like never before: just to make sure that what they do will still be identified as art. As there’s less and less difference in the art itself, art institutions and the networks that support it have become the only valid criteria for art to be acknowledged as art. Last July an exhibition was held in Israel called Goods to Declare—MFA International. The staff from fifteen art schools internationally participated. And General Motors Robert Lutz declared: “I see us as being in the art business. Art, entertainment, and mobile sculpture, which coincidentally, happens to provide transportation.” Keeping in mind the responsibilities their graduate students would have to take in the world (it has become one with the art world) the organizers commented: “Corporate recruiters are hiring recent MFAs from distinguished schools, not to make art, but to be thinkers, innovators and change agents in a new creative economy.” A similar thing happened to theory in France at the end of the 70s when the “New Philosophers” (Bernard-Henry Levy, Alain Glucksmann, etc.) were being hailed by the French press as the next new thing. Deleuze saw in it the beginning of a new era, a return to the idea of an author, simplistic dualisms, big empty concepts. It was literary or philosophical marketing. From now on, he wrote in “About the New Philosophers and a more general problem” (in Two Regimes of Madness, Semiotext(e), 2006) it wouldn’t be necessary to read the books themselves, only arrange for articles in the press, interviews, conferences, radio and TV programs, media controversies to draw public attention, etc. All this, he added ironically, “doesn’t prevent it from being a profound modernism, an analysis that perfectly fits the landscape and the market…” While theorists like Roland Barthes were advocating “the death of the author,” the media simply rushed in to occupy the place and set up authors to their liking, by the same token establishing itself as an arbiter of thinking. Deleuze called this: The Horror. What happened then is for everyone to see: it was the end of “French Theory” in France as an intellectual movement. A similar horror is happening to contemporary art. Art is not made by artists anymore, but by gallerists, reviewers, interviewers, gossip columns, orchestrated by rich collectors and backed both by powerful banks and enterprising art institutions with global reach. In this state of induced weightlessness art institutions have increasingly stepped in to substitute their own criteria of judgment based on pedigree (the kind of art school attended), fame (the artist’s name), promotional potential (reviews, catalogues), supply and demand (available collectors), etc. to create an “artistic product” that is going to be peddled around from group shows to solo shows to mid-career shows and biennales all over the world, each time adding in value and “recognition.”
It all started in the ’80s with museums curators usurping the role of the artist and turning exhibits into a creation in their own right. And why not? “Postmodernist” artists were claiming that their art didn’t belong to them, but to their viewers, merely obscuring their work to make sure that it resisted the first cursory look. Now artists are turning into curators of their own works, or rather managers of their own brand-name. The name-of-the-author (of any gender) has replaced the name-of-the-father famously coined by Jacques Lacan. Artists now can claim the paternity of their own artistic identity in partnership with the media-machine that manages their career to everyone’s satisfaction. No wonder art is losing its artistic identity and can be found at work everywhere, engulfed by advertisement, performing in politics, entertained by entertainment. Art “innovators and change agents” are now being sent to the outer world the way sociologists used to be sent to factories with the mission of easing boss-worker tensions and making the workers’ unbearable life more tolerable. But they will hardly be the only ones to be working at it, the entire society is geared to that, from Hollywood to the entertainment and advertising industries, not to mention politicians polishing their act at the expense of politics, all making art for the “new creative economy,” pushing products on happy consumers, or better yet: turning consumers themselves into a product, satisfying their desires even before they begin to surface in what still passes for collective consciousness.
Rail: Do you think that art works today pale in relationship to the past?
Lotringer: No, I don’t mean that at all. I could as easily say the contrary. Among all the works that are produced everyday and simultaneously exhibited in all the art venues available worldwide, it could even be that there is better art than ever existed before. But this is not the point. It is impossible any more to evaluate art independently of the new environment that has been created. And this environment makes it impossible to consider anything as a privileged object. Of course, you can always stop dead and focus on a particular work for a while, and I do it occasionally (I have written catalogue essays like everyone else), as one suddenly focuses on a piece of information on the evening news, but it is immediately replaced by some other news, other works already claiming attention, or the same space in the gallery. From the point of view of the gallery wall, there isn’t much of a difference between one kind of art and another. The same goes for the art system as a whole, which doesn’t allow for anything to stand out for too long. Art is not in the era of mechanical reproduction any more, but in the era of mass consumption. In a consumer society art is being consumed like any other product, and the mass circulation and consumption of art changes entirely its status and reception. Art isn’t exactly a commodity, but it assumes all its characteristics, and it is more and more difficult for anything to retain any kind of singularity for too long. This ambiguity also serves the art business well because it can always claim that there’s something special to art at the same time that it makes it impossible to retrieve anything singular from it. But this would still belong to the kind of argument developed around the “society of the spectacle,” and we already are much beyond that. When Virilio talks about speed as the major shaping factor of our societies, he isn’t just talking about how fast one can go, but of the specific impact speed has on our entire environment. It isn’t just that we can travel faster, or communicate instantaneously, but everything that goes with that. When one walks by foot, what one sees of the surroundings is not just slower, it is entirely different from what one would see from a fast car taking the same itinerary, let alone a plane. Speed takes us on a trip of its own where the value of things, and their perception is entirely changed. So it is with art. When we look at one work, one can’t ignore anymore that hundreds of artworks are being made at the same moment and exhibited in the most unlikely places. There’s an aesthetic pollution of art in every way similar to the pollution of distances. Globalization makes things look small, even if they try to stand tall. One doesn’t look at any of it in the same way. The world interferes with our perception. It was the same with theory after it was so massively appropriated by a horde of fickle fans. Deleuze’s ideas didn’t become less interesting or generous after people started raving about them, but it took me a lot more effort to keep them fresh in my mind. Similarly, the art environment has expanded at the expense of art and it is becoming impossible to enter a gallery and not see the writing on the wall.
Joan Waltemath grew up on the Great Plains and now lives and works in New York City. Her abstract paintings focus on constructing spatial voids using harmonic progressions and non-traditional, reflective pigments in oils. Drawing has long been at the root of her artistic practice, serving as a means of abstract thinking. Her works on mylar and paper use diverse wet and dry materials. Shown in New York, Chicago, Portland, London, Basel, and Cologne, her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. She is the recipient of numerous grants including Creative Capital, and the Pollock-Krasner award. She has written extensively on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She taught at the IS Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union from 1997 to 2010 and at Princeton University. She is currently the Director of MICA's LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting.