Semiotext(e)’s Schizo-Culture

Back cover of Semiotext(e) 3, no. 2 (1978), announcing unrealized “Schizo-Culture 2” issue.

There’s always an energy that is slightly to the side, and vast. And without fees or tariffs. Not to say that it’s without cost. Think of Tesla’s scheme of harnessing electricity freely from the surrounding atmosphere. Rhizomatic years. Where are we now? The ’60s were a grand movement called counterculture, perhaps ending in ’68, or maybe in ’69. . . . The ’70s were the beginning of the rhizome years. Counterculture broke up. You cannot overestimate the effect of infiltration, COINTELPRO. 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. . . . There’s something to it, there is still juice here . . . even better juice, it’s undeniable, because you can feel it. . . . You get juiced by it. Everybody, everything is underground. That which is aboveground is spectacle, is control, is apparatus. That which is underground is what? Is life . . . is concept unchained. . . . This is romantic for sure. The ’70s were probably more romantic than the ’60s. Surveillance only means that they will never see everything, that in some sense they were leaving you even more alone. More free, though not in the awful, vainglorious way that the word free so easily brings to mind. Control—Burroughs talked about it, Foucault talked about it. . . . Deleuze and Guattari were doing something about it and did not really talk about it. Schizo-Culture, not counterculture . . . not any kind of culture . . . breaking it down. But it seems every person there was fighting for something.

BEFORE THE FOREIGN AGENTS SERIES and the Native Agents series, and all the books it has published, Semiotext(e) was known as a periodical whose point of origin, displayed on its title pages along with a phone number, was “522 Philosophy Hall, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027”—the office of Sylvère Lotringer, its general editor. It was the journal of a collective that was interested in countering the theoretical primacy of language (over other systems of signs) in the prevailing conception of semiotics, a hot field at the time. Or rather, this is what Semiotext(e) had been until it became the magazine that electrified New York’s cultural underground in the late ’70s and ’80s, making profuse connections via a circuitry that seemed to exist between the cracks. Not nonrational but maybe extrarational. Semiotext(e) subjected itself to the New York of that moment and simultaneously plugged into post-’68 French philosophy, which was then pretty much unknown in the US, thus tapping into enough energy to outrun its own identity and become something undescribed, perhaps unintended—political, desiring, all-seeing, broken—a publication that was seductive, indigestible, and yes, dangerous, at a time when it was clear that the bottom had dropped out of the culture/counterculture paradigm of the ’60s.

“Schizo-Culture” (Semiotext[e] 3, no. 2 [1978]) was the breakthrough issue that, as Lotringer explained, “consummated the magazine’s rupture with academe.” The issue’s contributors included a kind of who’s who of the city’s downtown art scene (Jack Smith, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker) alongside key figures of what would come to be known as “French theory” (Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard). It also featured a delirious essay about markings on the savage body, by one Alphonso F. Lingis; an intimate interview with a member of an all-female street gang in the Bronx; and a detailed history of behavior-modification programs inside US correctional institutions (post-Attica), written from inside by prisoner activist Eddie Griffin. Gary Indiana has said that reading “Schizo-Culture” was one of the things that made it clear to him that he would inevitably move to New York. The magazine’s pages (designed by Kathryn Bigelow and Denise Green, among others) often ran two texts against each other in jarringly different fonts, or, at times, in confoundingly similar ones, playing on the popular idea of schizophrenia as split personality. The reader was constantly propositioned with images or drawings whose connection to the neighboring words was not always definable (witness the snapshot of a bodybuilder, old-school, his face unperturbed, among the pages of Foucault’s interview). Many had a pronounced s/m bent. The images had their own access to or resonance with the text but were not subordinate to it, exemplifying Semiotext(e)’s pointed departure from some French-inspired academic trends such as deconstruction. Lotringer writes, “Deconstruction had such a huge impact on the American academy because it sent academics back to the text. It was no surprise that Semiotext(e) lost some of its audience after the publication of the Schizo-Culture issue. . . . [A]cademic readers, who are not trained to think visually, were nonplussed.” Nonetheless, the issue sold out its first printing within three weeks, and remained in print until 1983.

NOW THE ISSUE RETURNS as an uncanny double—two very different volumes side by side in a box set newly released by Semiotext(e), which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. One of them, labeled Schizo-Culture: The Book, is a rebooting of the original issue, with a new introduction by Lotringer and added visuals at the beginning. The other, titled Schizo-Culture: The Event, is a reconstruction of something that had been deliberately mislaid, or laid by, for nearly four decades, until now.
As it turns out, the magazine issue owes its existence to a legendary conference of the same name that took place three years earlier, on November 13–16, 1975, at Columbia University, organized by Lotringer and his Semiotext(e) colleague and friend John Rajchman. “For what seemed to be hours standing on the sidewalk in front of Teachers College,” Lotringer recounts, in one of the many stories and portraits in his truly surprising introduction to The Event, “Foucault vented his furor and frustration at the conference. It was a scandal, he said; he had never seen a worse audience before; New Yorkers were horrible, the conference a sham, etc. And then he said bitterly that it was ‘the last counterculture conference of the ’60s.’” Foucault had just been denounced as a CIA hireling by a knowledgeable provocateur from Lyndon LaRouche’s Labor Committee, whom Lotringer recognized as a former colleague of his own from Swarthmore College. The audience, unfamiliar with Foucault, had started to close in on him angrily and ask if this was true, and he made the mistake of denying it vehemently. I won’t go into details here; suffice it to say that Foucault got the last laugh a day later when a similar disruption was attempted again.

The Schizo-Culture conference exceeded the ideas and intentions of everyone involved, and then, like any act of theater, disappeared into thin air. American participants included Judith Clark (a former member of the Weather Underground who is now serving a sentence of seventy-five years to life for her involvement in the Brink’s robbery of 1981), Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Burroughs, John Cage, and radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson. R. D. Laing was there from the UK. French panelists included those mentioned above plus, notably, FrançoisPeraldi, who later edited the journal’s “Polysexuality” issue (Semiotext[e] 4, no. 1 [1981]), and Félix Guattari.

The French thinkers, having the air support of the history and discipline of philosophy (including Lacanian psychoanalysis), were collectively fluent in the total immersion in concept—in fact were pursuing a kind of poetic practice within that immersion and fighting their way out of it. Their high-gear creation of concepts eventually proved wonderful for American artists and writers. Likewise, the American underground scene, where intellectually complex artists “manage[d] to get there without relying on language,” as Lotringer puts it, was something lionized and coveted by the French philosophers. Lotringer relates that Deleuze, who detested traveling but loved Anglo-American literature, was only prevailed upon to cross the Atlantic by the promise that he and Guattari would “meet the Beats and shake hands with Bob Dylan and Patti Smith,” and would get to stay in Jack Kerouac’s cabin in Big Sur. And Foucault, at a Schizo-Culture evening panel that he was supposed to share with Burroughs, excused himself thus: “I wish to turn my time over to William Burroughs, who is here today and I could never waste a minute talking while we could be hearing Burroughs speak!”

Lotringer’s introduction to The Event is a kind of field guide to the large, open territory that follows—a reconstruction of the conference itself, assembled from audiotapes, interviews, and other sources, taking varying textual forms. The delivery of Lyotard’s “Sur la force des faibles / On the Strength of the Weak (Group Translation),” for example, involves so many characters (with frustrated audience members deciding they could do a better job of translating than the team assigned to the task) that its transcript resembles a play in two languages. One participant, Claudine Eizykman, remembers that the talk “took place in great tension with the public as the subject required intense concentration, and the author’s struggle with his demonstration of the paradox of the liar was brought to fruition by sharing the anxiety and intensity of a thought in the making.” This is from the striking end text by David Morris (who edited the volume with Lotringer). Morris also includes this anecdote from Joel Kovel, a member of the antipsychiatry panel:

Félix [Guattari] was to chair, and he came and explicitly said “I am the chair of this panel and I abolish this panel!” And that really infuriated me . . . he asked people to follow him, so a considerable number of people got up and left the audience and I just said “listen, I worked hard on this and I don’t care what you guys do, but I’m here to read my paper” . . . and I just read my paper.

Schizo-Culture repeatedly dared not to exist, which may account for the nagging, fertile quality of impossibility that it still holds. Lotringer tells Morris that he had never wanted to document the conference: “I was weary of the way theory was being quickly co-opted and flattened out mediatically. I didn’t want Schizo-Culture to become fashionable, and forgotten like everything else.” His act of jarring the event out of its time seems only in keeping with the event itself—an untimely gathering even when it occurred, “more powerful,” he tells Morris, “for what it still had in store than by its immediate impact.” In a way it’s more real now than it was when it happened.

The Event is a book, a made thing. It reminds me of Plato’s Symposium, written entirely in dialogue form (perhaps due to Socrates’s contempt for books), which opens with one person imploring another to tell everything that happened and everything that was said at a certain drinking party some thirty years earlier. It’s not enough to know the gist of it. The story stays ahead of its own significance, and stays alive that way. Undigested. And the things said by the protagonists often reach quite outside the frame. The book called Schizo-Culture: The Event can be taken as this kind of story work. The tidy box that it comes in is funny—a schizo-box. And the schizo is in and out of its box.

Jim Fletcher, a founding member, with Richard Maxwell, of the New York City Players Theater Company, recently contributed an essay to the Bernadette Corporation catalogue 2000 Wasted Years (2014).