PRINT April 2010



Jean Baudrillard giving a Whitney Museum of American Art Distinguished Lecture on American Art and Culture, Asia Society, New York, 1987. Photo: Jeanne Trudeau.

LAST MONTH, I was invited to participate in a round-table celebrating the legacy of Semiotext(e)—that small press begun in 1974 and responsible for introducing so many European theorists to American readers—on the occasion of its archives’ donation to Fales Library at New York University. My prescribed task was straightforward enough: to discuss the imprint’s influence on art during the past three decades. As luck would have it, however, I fell victim to a flu, and so instead of conveying my thoughts to an assembled audience, I found myself ruminating on the subject at home in bed, the gentle delirium of my fever seemingly echoed and amplified by the swirling gusts of winter’s last storm outside.

Perhaps there was something fitting about this psychological correspondence, though. Over the years, I’ve been struck by the claim—made repeatedly by the press’s founding editor, Sylvère Lotringer—that the intellectual models proposed by the theorists Semiotext(e) first brought to these shores (Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault) came off as so much science fiction in Europe but were the stuff of everyday life in the United States. As Lotringer wrote in these pages in 2003, Deleuze may have theorized schizo-culture and the flows of capital at the University of Paris VIII, but such postulations were validated only by the dynamics of real estate and the cultural economies of New York decades ago. Staring out my window last month, then, I thought that any stocktaking of Semiotext(e)’s influence on art must account for the ways in which its philosophers have rendered ideas experiential—or even theatrical. How else should one consider the example of Baudrillard, whose Simulations (1983) had the effect of reflecting the art-world system back on itself? Through his very elusiveness and opacity, he demonstrated how art—by virtue of its unique matrix of symbolic and economic capital—continually demands and then posits ever newer forms and fashions of philosophical authority. “The art world was looking for a prophet,” Lotringer observed, “and [Baudrillard] gave them one.”

Yet the question of “influence” as it was formulated by the NYU panel’s organizers suggests that the answer here is a historical one and, by extension, implies that the time for theoretical discourse has passed—or, at the very least, that critical theory as an active force is on the wane. Is this the case? Certainly, there are formidable observations to that effect in the current issue. In a group of texts devoted to Claude Lévi-Strauss, for instance, art historian Thomas Crow notes that the late anthropologist’s writing “brings home the core importance that structuralist thinking still bears for any systematic understanding of the visual arts that would go beyond the fragmented cases and anecdotes that have become the art-historical norm.” Taking note of this somewhat damning assessment of the contemporary field, an editor cannot help but think warily of canned references to philosophers in any number of art-critical texts either seeking the sheen of incisiveness or performing tactical maneuvers on the page. While totalizing theories of previous eras were themselves problematic in their monolithic character, at least they were theories: propositions prising conventional wisdom apart, suggesting that things are not necessarily what they seem. (And it is only through rigorous application of such an overarching structure, as Crow concludes, that we can glimpse in the objects of art a “higher and wider plane of existence.”)

It was this push toward larger questions about the everyday contours of art—its elemental, living structures—that likely made Baudrillard’s episode in art most worthwhile. By making art chase its own critical tail, in a sense, he made uncomfortably visible the ways in which art seeks—and then sometimes creates, or is too willing to believe—its own answers. But his was only a part of a far larger project, and in considering what critical theory’s role was decades ago, it is essential to read such provocative gestures (and the underlying impulse toward inducing instability) in tandem with other journals emerging at roughly the same time as Semiotext(e), such as October and Screen. They took a quite different approach—how could it have been otherwise, given Lotringer’s theory-in-life predilection for unedited interviews with philosophers in pocket-size books lacking room for footnotes?—but from our vantage now they seem co-conversants of a sort, even odd bedfellows: potential adversaries that nevertheless shared the same analytic concerns. (To borrow a formulation from Lévi-Strauss, the traits are reversed, perhaps, but the meaning is conserved.) And their collective project demands, even in these inhospitable times, renewed consideration of theory’s place in contemporary art. For the fecundity of the mass of ideas they produced ensures that they cannot long lie dormant, and so those earlier constructs occupy, again, a nascent place in our culture. Indeed, sifting through or simply considering the decades-old artifacts of these publications—such as the archives recently deposited at NYU—one is tempted to cite another author in these pages, Mark von Schlegell: “Husked in the decay of the public space its brilliant covers once plumbed, the paperback revolution nests comfortably inside deteriorating human habitations.”