From the Archives: Sylvère Lotringer

MY '80s: BETTER THAN LIFE - Artforum International

As editor of Semiotext(e) for close to three decades, SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER has introduced American readers to Continental theorists from Gilles Deleuze to Michel Foucault, from Paul Virilio to Antonio Negri. But when it comes to the ’80s, Lotringer, who here recounts his passage through the decade, will probably always be remembered for his Foreign Agents series—those little black books through which the art world first learned the name Jean Baudrillard.

They are already purged of death, and are even better than life; more smiling, more authentic . . .
—Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (1983)

The ’80s began in 1983, with the publication of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, which propelled a kind of weightless nebula into culture just before a charge of Orwellian paranoia took over. At the time, there was this lingering anxiety: Would 1984 keep its appointment? The answer was no. The society of the spectacle had already become a society of spectators, and Foucault’s panopticon a Möbius strip. Everyone was waiting for George Orwell, but Baudrillard arrived instead.

Orwell envisaged a permanent war for peace, but by the ’80s we had “pure war”—politics itself had become war by other means. Ronald Reagan passed his Star Wars budget, domestic social programs withered, and the Soviet Union simply began to implode. But then came America’s turn to implode—in slow motion—and Simulations laid out the self-destruct program. The “precession of simulacra” and the “desert of the real” perfectly described the new landscape: The mirage preceded the image. America was there to hide the fact that it never existed. Was the president of the United States for real? Being an actor, Reagan seemed like a real person, but he was beyond fiction and reality, beyond good and evil. He was his own pure simulacrum. Ordinary people were no longer themselves either; they were being emptied out. While the poor had been tossed onto the streets, and so disappeared from social discourse, the non-poor cheerfully signed on for voluntary slavery. The “assembly life” replaced the assembly line. The ’80s were a nonstop carnival of Career, driven by the New Economy.

How did such an abrupt change in the social climate come about? Consider the course of art and the art world in New York. At the end of the ’70s, the city was still a dump, a pothole, and everyone was bracing for survival. But it was cheap, fluid, wide open. Artists were living as a kind of tribe. They were white, smart, and “pure,” professionally poor. There was a sense that they were in it together, participating in a privileged experience. Dwelling in cavernous downtown lofts, they made art that wasn’t meant to sell. (They talked about money all the time because they didn’t have any.) However, while artists were oblivious, living exclusively off concepts, developers were warehousing buildings, betting on the city’s ultimate recovery. In just a few years, the situation had reversed itself, as artists were flushed out of their hideouts and their work was placed in the hands of dealers: a rematerialization of art that coincided with a deterritorialization of the art world reaching all the way to the stock market. (In other words, artists’ work was now speaking the language of money.) One didn’t have to look hard to see flows of capital moving outward, swallowing new territories, wiping out entire lifestyles, and then spitting out clubs, galleries, luxury stores.

For me, this was the kind of phenomena that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari first mapped out in Anti-Oedipus (1972), which articulated the anarchy inherent in late capitalism, the multiplicity of its deterritorialized flows. The book directly registered the impact of the ideas of May ’68, upping the ante on Marx by observing that capital, far from being a purely repressive, ruthless mechanism meant to extract surplus-value, was constantly creating new values and new possibilities. And since capitalism absorbed everything, the trick was to counter it from within, redirecting its flows, ceaselessly moving ground. This created novel perspectives, more strategic than ideological: In order to examine more closely how late capitalism worked, Deleuze and Guattari abandoned traditional binary oppositions, class struggles, war machines, and party bureaucracies that were prone to fossilize. In France, of course, with its long history of overcentralization and bureaucracy, Deleuze and Guattari’s theories were pure science fiction. But on the other side of the Atlantic they were uncannily realistic: New York, as it moved toward the ’80s, was the laboratory of capital and natural destination for the two theorists, even though they’d never set foot in the city. All that was needed was a bridge. This is what I set out to provide by publishing a new magazine, called Semiotext(e).

It took me some time to reach that conclusion, and I had to overcome a few major hurdles. I had arrived in the city to teach at Columbia University just a few months after the publication of Anti-Oedipus, and, while I formed a study group in epistemological semiology almost immediately—with the likes of Wlad Godzich, Denis Hollier, and John Rajchman—it wasn’t until 1974 that I even considered the idea of publishing French philosophy. (I had been involved with “theory” in France from the start, studying with Roland Barthes and Lucien Goldmann at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes before structuralism took off in the mid-’60s and organizing lecture series with new critics and philosophers for ten years at the Faculté des Lettres of the Sorbonne.) In the beginning, there was almost no support. The original Semiotext(e) editorial board included ten people, mostly graduate students in French, who chipped in fifty dollars apiece to get the journal started. The publication quickly outgrew its academic ambitions, however, when it sponsored its first public forum: the 1975 “Schizo-Culture” conference on prisons (à la Foucault) and madness (Deleuze/Guattari), a gathering intended less to simply “debate” ideas than to reach out to the last vestiges of the ’60s counterculture in America. The event was also intended to include individuals outside the university—writers, artists, and activists—who were reflecting on society in less rational but often far more creative and perceptive ways than those within the academic sphere. To me, figures in America like John Cage and William S. Burroughs, both of whom participated in the conference, seemed the closest equivalent to French thinkers. They were “philosopher-artists” in the Nietzschean sense, deriving from their artistic practices a very incisive and clinical vision of the world.

The organization of the event went quite smoothly. Guattari convinced Deleuze to come with him to New York; they did so at their own expense. Foucault, who was teaching in Brazil, accepted an invitation to stop by on his way back to Paris. (Still working on his History of Sexuality, he was eager to have a look at a rare Jesuit manual on children’s education at the New York Public Library.) R.D. Laing happened to be touring New England and wanted to meet Foucault. Other participants were radical psychiatrist Joel Kovel, philosopher Arthur C. Danto, and activists Ti-Grace Atkinson and Judy Clark (a member of the Black Liberation Army who later participated in the 1981 Brinks holdup). They all knew and respected Burroughs’s and Cage’s work, as well as the idea that art and philosophy could go together—and that art could make a powerful contribution to reclaiming subjectivity.

But the conference unexpectedly escalated into the last-gasp “countercultural event” of the ’70s. Two thousand people attended what quickly devolved into a conflagration between Old and New Left: Activists, academics, feminists, and reconstructed Marxists argued for three days, sometimes violently. While Kovel was speaking, half the audience departed to listen to Foucault and Guattari; Atkinson chased Guattari from the podium. As for Deleuze, he managed to present an outline of his concept of the “rhizome,” which had not yet been discussed in print—but in French, very slowly, while drawing diagrams of root systems and crabgrass on a blackboard. Foucault, who was already known in America, looked on while his paper on infantile sexuality, an attack on radical academics who mistook their verbal pronouncements against repression for political action, was read aloud by a friend in English. When the lecture was over, members of Lyndon LaRouche’s Labor Committee instantly created havoc by denouncing Foucault (and Laing) as undercover CIA agents. In this climate, Semiotext(e) came into being as a cultural venture, and not just a semiotic outfit.

With “Schizo-Culture,” I became estranged from the university, but it drew me closer to SoHo and downtown circles. I started interviewing artists like Jack Smith, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Robert Wilson, Lee Breuer, and Douglas Dunn in Semiotext(e)—which served the double purpose of creating material for the magazine and making artists talk theory without them knowing it, giving me a new territory in which to work. The original editors began departing for various campuses throughout the country, and the new committee replacing them was made up of non-academics. Semiotext(e)’s publication of “Georges Bataille” (1976), “Anti-Oedipus” (1977), and especially “Nietzsche’s Return” (1978)—which featured texts by Derrida, Cage, Deleuze, Foucault, and Kenneth King—attracted artists, a number of whom showed up one day at my office at Columbia offering their services to design the magazine. Pat Steir, Michael Oblowitz, Kathryn Bigelow, Denise Green, Diego Cortez, and Martim De Avillez signed on, with the idea that a different editor would conceive each issue and, with the designers, execute every single element, from typefaces to visuals, column size to commissioning. Everything would contribute to the topic at hand. In 1978, we released the issue on art and madness, “Schizo-Culture #1,” a modified version of the conference. It sold out in three weeks.

But that immediate embrace was a warning that caused me to set a different course for Semiotext(e) during the ’80s: Success was a sign that the group was becoming closed and too dependent on the opinions of art institutions. (Guattari had written extensively on subject and subjected groups, and I had thought a great deal about the concept.) A magazine like Semiotext(e) couldn’t afford to be in the position of fulfilling an audience’s expectations; it could only create new ones. So I cancelled a second “Schizo-Culture” issue, which had already been in the making, and subsequent issues were committed to shifting ground, to keeping everybody on their toes, deliberately losing some of the audience while gaining new readers. The first issue to follow, “Italy: Autonomia: Post-Political Politics” (1980), investigated the Italian mass movement that had been extending the project of 1968 by reinventing the rhizome politically across ideological divides, extending from the postmodernist wing in Bologna to the “Volci” collective—Marxist troglodytes with whom I squatted for a while in Rome, researching for the magazine. (The latter occasionally expressed their political frustrations by bombing at night.) Bolognese Autonomists like Franco Berardi, aka “Bifo,” who created the famous neo-Dada free radio “Radio-Alice,” were fascinated by techno-intelligence and its potential for popular resistance. They advocated, for instance, replacing street barricades (and old-fashioned confrontations with the police) with more abstract obstacles, like tinkering with traffic signals throughout the city to create huge traffic jams.

At the time, Autonomia had been almost crushed by the unlikely conjunction of the Communist Party, the Christian-Democratic government, and the Red Brigades; most of its original leaders were in jail. Semiotext(e) intended to draw the attention of the American Left to their plight, but the response was disappointing. No one dared touch the movement. So, wondering whether Foucault’s “Schizo-Culture” assertions about the armchair politics of academic radicals had been right after all, we immediately shifted focus to another topic that would make academics uncomfortable: sex. The “Polysexuality” issue (1981), instead of exploring gender, exploded every classification, creating ad hoc categories that defied any kind of exclusion—soft sex, corporate sex, liquid sex. Magazines dealing with sexuality typically include erotic pictures, so we deliberately featured none, offering only grainy photos of death-wish and death-drive catastrophes lifted from the press. The two cover images—a leather biker driving his bike, bare-assed, on the front; and a morgue picture of an already decomposing masochist impaled on a huge dildo, on the back—were just such pictures. The at-once too public and too private aspects of machinic sex appeared together.

IN SEMIOTEXT(E), WE BOUNCED THEORY against other primary material—pictures, interviews, and all kinds of “documents”—lifted straight from American culture. We wanted to avoid secondhand commentaries and so stimulate thinking in a different way, eliciting perceptual or pragmatic connections, something the previous decade’s artists had simply called “getting the information.” In other words, the publication operated on the model of “percepts,” unrefined blocks of sense and sensations that don’t have to be quoted or worn on one’s sleeve, but rather act directly on one’s sensibility and generate other projects. When I traveled to Berlin in 1982 to collaborate with Peter Gente and Heidi Paris, publishers of Merve Verlag, on “The German Issue”—which looked at the American “colonization” of the country after World War II—I discovered a different approach to that end. Gente and Paris were editing small books by the same authors as Semiotext(e), and, knowing that the major American publishers weren’t interested in Continental philosophy, I adopted this format in creating the Foreign Agents series of books. The explicit purpose was to finally present theory brut to America, just like champagne. Why have sparkling wine when you can get the real bubbly?

The first agents were unleashed in 1983—Deleuze and Guattari, Paul Virilio, and Jean Baudrillard—and the product was as American as a foreign project could be. The books were small, black, and thin; footnotes or other academic commentary were conspicuously absent. They could be read on the subway, a few pages at a time, like the newspaper: Their place was in the pockets of spiked leather jackets as much as on the shelves. Indeed, critics would often go out of their way to avoid quoting from them, returning to the original French texts or to more authoritative sources, as if there were something truly wrong with the volumes. They had a sleek, covert look and feel that happened to mesh with that moment of New York City perfectly, seeming to reflect the New World Order’s aesthetic: hard and portable, compact and cost-effective. They were light, but moving at light-speed, never giving the sense that one had time to slow down and scratch one’s head—they were already headed somewhere else.

The books were also like cumulative time bombs gradually released over the course of a decade, often absorbed at different moments and for different reasons than I would have expected. Deleuze and Guattari’s On the Line, which included their essay “Rhizome,” wasn’t read widely until the end of the 1980s—by which time French theory, from Derrida’s deconstruction to Lacanian psychoanalysis, had run its course in the art world and the academy. And so the pair’s ultimate reception in the United States had less to do with leftist positions than with the early days of the Internet, which their theories of the rhizome, a decentered, reversible model, uncannily anticipated. (The misreading was somewhat ironic, given that the Internet originally derived from a military technology intended to offset the effects of nuclear explosions.) A similar depoliticization occurred with Paul Virilio, whose name I had first heard mentioned among the Autonomists. It wasn’t primarily his obsession with war that first caught on in America but his stunning extrapolations of the disappearance of space and the effects of “real-time” communication on contemporary reality. Americans reading Virilio’s Pure War overlooked his dire predictions and instead saw his work positively and programmatically, as an exciting blueprint for the coming “post-human” age.

Oddly enough, the first “bubbly” was Baudrillard, whose own politics were incredibly erratic. Like every French intellectual in good standing from Roland Barthes on, he started on the Left. In fact, Baudrillard’s two books that had already appeared in America, The Mirror of Production and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, were published by the Telos Press, a Frankfurt School-minded house in New York. Eventually, however, his attacks on the “Divine Left” (mostly the French Communist Party) won him support on the Right—which he lost quickly by embracing America, a country that fascinated him because, unlike France, it had no history or intellectual hang-ups. America was Utopia realized: hyperreality on a cosmic scale. (Indeed, although Baudrillard and Virilio were on opposite poles “ideologically”—Virilio wanted more reality and Baudrillard wanted none—their work overlapped in America, where a vision of the “trans-political” began to take form.) Still, Baudrillard was an extrapolator, not the nihilist that most people in France believed him to be. At worst, he was an agent provocateur, poking his adversaries and then stepping aside to let them hang themselves on their own guitar strings (power was a black hole that one should always let others occupy). At best, he was a poet and metaphysician, straining his intellect to reach the limits of an argument for no other purpose than its own integrity. Although Deleuze and Guattari despised his views, Baudrillard happened to be the kind of creature that they celebrated in Anti-Oedipus: deterritorialized and divinely irresponsible. A French Jeff Koons. They simply couldn’t accept that anyone would take a “schizo-walk” through their own ideas.

I had taken a walk on the beach with Baudrillard the first time we met, at UCLA in the late ’70s. He already knew well California (and the “desert of the real”), having been invited by Fredric Jameson to teach at UC San Diego before. We talked about Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Baudrillard’s scathing response, Forget Foucault (1977), had created a stir in France, since he attacked all the “Nietzscheans” (including Deleuze and Guattari), whom he accused of preserving the very notions of centralization they claimed to reverse—and showed along the way that power in Foucault’s work and desire in Deleuze’s were mutually exclusive. None of them took kindly to Baudrillard’s pamphlet, but I thought his argument deserved serious consideration, even though I didn’t quite agree with it. I was also interested by the way in which Forget Foucault piggybacked on Foucault’s “spirals of power” in order to exterminate it. This was, I thought, brilliant, and would be the best introduction in America to Baudrillard’s strategy of paroxysmal reversal. But when I offered to publish Forget Foucault, Baudrillard quipped, “Maybe we should call it Remember Foucault.” Little did we know. (By the time I would figure out how to publish the essay without antagonizing my friend Guattari, Foucault had died, making the project impossible.) So we decided to publish Simulations instead.

Some six months after the book came out in New York, I organized a Baudrillard lecture tour at a few Ivy League schools, and it was a disaster. No one showed up. So I suggested going back to the art world, which was always on the lookout for ideas—and it was a walkover. German and Italian neo-expressionist painting, once threatening to New York art, was foundering, and young Americans, from Richard Prince and Jenny Holzer to Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, were ready to take charge. Baudrillard’s Simulations arrived right on time to buttress these artists’ claims and give an aura of theory to what was, for the most part, a shrewd move by art in the direction of the media and advertising industry. For a few years, “appropriation” was the rage, as if it were possible to employ the Situationist strategy of “detournement” from within the cultural industry. Debord knew better and steadfastly refused to condone anything artistic—a position that was largely overlooked at the time in the revival of Situationism in the art world—but Baudrillard was, if anything, more hostile. He denied the possibility of any kind of critical stance, having given up on “critique” much earlier as being complicit with what it denounces. For him, critique always precedes what it criticizes. Nevertheless, “simulation” was taken up by artists as a smart re-appropriation of tainted social signs, a form of market criticism meant to “demystify” the media and consumer society, while these artists, in fact were giving these media signs the seal of art. No wonder the media loved them. Soon Artforum seized upon Baudrillard’s name and added him to the masthead as contributing editor; a few months later, in Paris, he told me that he had never been asked. He had only vaguely heard about some sudden promotion in a magazine he’d never heard of—but he wasn’t upset. There was a twinkle in his eye. I realized that Baudrillard had finally arrived in America.

Like Freud, he was bringing the plague. With its offhand, fictional mode, its outward simplicity and sly ironic twists, Simulations apparently managed to do what no other theory had done before, and what Semiotext(e) had tried to achieve all along by other means: getting the ideas across, not just the lingo. Here was a book of pop philosophy that didn’t require any special skills and yet remained tantalizingly elusive. It made its readers feel intelligent. Maybe most of them didn’t quite get what Baudrillard was setting them up for, but didn’t the title say it all? They didn’t have to look any further. Displaying the book, or hijacking it for their artwork, was enough. One participated in its special aura: Simulations became a kind of fetish, a protection against the anguish of having to produce original art in an era of artistic inflation and total reproducibility. Critique comes easy when one doesn’t have much to say: All one had to do now was find an “angle.” Artists didn’t realize that for Baudrillard, an artist in theory, the only available course was to provoke thought.

In part, Baudrillard’s instant success must have been due to the mutation of the small ’70s art world into a major, market-oriented profession sanctioned by prestigious art schools, wealthy galleries, and formidable museums. The pressure was enormous and the chances of being picked up slim—a situation that created something of a panic among wannabe artists flocking en masse to New York with the blessing of their families. They could hardly have been prepared to appreciate the subtleties of a philosopher who was staging his own disappearance through a conceit that resisted interpretation. Instead, they rallied under his name and goaded him to respond in kind: If Artforum had done it, why couldn’t they? Little did they know that the “symbolic exchange” as Baudrillard practiced it in his writing, as well as in his life, was the exact opposite of an urbane exchange. It gave nothing in return but inexorably led to something fatal—catastrophic—for those who dared call on it.

And many did. Within two years, Simulations had seemingly been read by every artist in New York; the book was our bestseller, bankrolling our operations, and Baudrillard’s influence was still growing, as were the desperate attempts to use him (fortunately an impossible task). By 1987, Baudrillard was asked to deliver the prestigious Lecture on American Art and Culture of the Twentieth Century at the Whitney Museum, and it sold out months in advance. (At the same time, forty artists—including Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, and Tim Rollins—presented an “Anti-Baudrillard” show at White Columns that targeted less Baudrillard himself than those who sheepishly accepted the idea that the “real” wasn’t here any more and had renounced politics.) With hundreds of eager artists having been unable to attend the Whitney lecture, I arranged a remedial talk by Baudrillard at Columbia, and they rushed uptown to attend it. It was, in a sense, “Schizo-Culture” in reverse: Madness now had moved to the art world. Baudrillard was asked what he thought about the “Simulationist school of painting,” and he simply dismissed the claim. “There can’t be any Simulationist school,” he said, “because the simulacrum cannot be represented. This is a complete misunderstanding of what I wrote.” His blunt rejection immediately made the rounds of the entire country. One of my colleagues at Columbia, unimpressed both by Baudrillard’s talk and by the crowd’s unseemly demand, commented, “I don’t know what they expect from him. He talked about nothing.” The artists’ homage to Baudrillard had been a hysterical demand for security; they had asked Baudrillard to assume on their behalf a power that they didn’t have, and he simply pushed them into the black hole. This is what the art world itself had become: It had ceased to be the world of art and was just a simulation of itself, just as the art it produced had become a simulation of art, multiplying its signs at the expense of originality. Uncannily, Simulations had managed to reveal that the panic-stricken production of art in the ’80s had become a deterrence to art itself.

We were pleased by all the attention, of course, but also worried. Unlike France, where people are constantly fighting obstacles, America has a way of destroying everything positively, by giving you an overdose of what you want. It was becoming urgent for us, once more, to shift paradigms. If French theory was becoming dangerously popular, we had to find its equivalent somewhere else—in America. Chris Kraus, a downtown filmmaker who had been involved with the St. Marks Poetry Project and the “New York School of Writing,” came up with an idea. Why not, in the face of French theory, publish the American equivalent in writerly terms—non-mainstream American writers who were deliberately using an “expanded I” to break down the narcissistic self, this famous “individual” on which American culture was mythically based? At the end of the ’80s, just before Camille Paglia started bashing “rigid foreign ideology,” denouncing wholesale the dangerous seduction of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents series was launched, starting with Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black and Ann Rower’s If You’re a Girl. Yet again, we moved on.

Sylvère Lotringer is professor of French literature and philosophy at Columbia University and general editor of Semiotext(e).

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