PRINT February 2022


Sylvère Lotringer, ca. 1990.

HEDI EL KHOLTI: A lot of the obituaries written about Sylvère expressed the notion that he didn’t write a lot, or enough—that he regretted not having written The Book. McKenzie Wark, in her beautiful obituary for New Left Review, talked about Sylvère having written other writers instead. I love the sentiment, but I almost want to disagree. As I was reorganizing my bookshelf this week, I kept finding things Sylvère wrote. Just stumbling on them. There’s one in the 1997 ArtCenter publication Asteroid Impaired, called “Ball of Fat,” that riffs on the Maupassant story “Boule de Suif.” It starts like an oppressive dream that slowly comes into focus and relates a traumatic episode during World War II where his mother barely escaped being deported in the Vél d’Hiv roundup of 1942.

CHRIS Kraus: Yes, that’s a beautiful piece.

HEK: And there’s a long story called “Never Any Ever After,” which was published in 1994 by Pataphysics with prints by Brigitte Engler, where a narrator recounts a visit to Dachau as a young student with his friends. The story takes a completely unexpected turn and ponders the notion of negative monuments, their function, and what sorts of effects they should produce in the people who visit them—a question Sylvère investigated further in Crepuscular Dawn [2002], one of his books of conversation with Paul Virilio. And my favorite, one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote, “Étant Donnés,” which was published in the reader for Documenta 14 in 2017. And it goes on and on. It’s not that he didn’t write much. It seems to me to be more a question of publishing than of writing.

CK: A more “professional” writer would have gathered the pieces up and put out a collection every few years.

HEK: And they’re all so personal and thematically interconnected. It might be about all the other demands that happen when you’re publishing a book—the promotion, etc.—that have nothing to do with writing.

Peter Orlovsky, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Victor Bockris, John Giorno, Sylvère Lotringer, and James Grauerholz at Burroughs’s Bunker, New York, 1980. Photo: Marcia Resnick.

CK: And the interviews that Sylvère did . . . You almost have to explain that, because interviews have become such a different thing now, cheap content, a quicker way of promoting a book than reviewing it. He prepared for these interviews for months. Like William S. Burroughs, whose interviews he collected and who saw the interview as a form of literary text, Sylvère took these discussions very seriously. They were encounters. And he didn’t just edit them—he cut them up, moved things around, completely reconfigured the text into a dramatic shape. It wasn’t just a tepid, airless exchange. It was a challenge, a meeting of minds.

HEK: And a lot of them are the only interviews of real breadth that exist for certain people, the only known instance of some artist describing their work in depth. There was the long interview Sylvère did with Jack Smith in the 1970s, or with Rammellzee in the early ’80s, or the conversation with David Wojnarowicz that became the center of Marion Scemama’s 2018 documentary [Self-Portrait in 23 Rounds: A Chapter in David Wojnarowicz’s Life, 1989–1991]. No one else would have done these interviews with such care.

CK: Sylvère always had this reverence for writers and writing. One of the happiest times in his life was riding around Britain when he was nineteen on a moped with a tape recorder strapped to the back, interviewing people like Vita Sackville-West, John Osborne, Leonard Woolf, T. S. Eliot. But for the rest of his life, he felt as if he’d fallen short. The big book that would if not redeem then at least convey the trauma he’d lived through never got written.

For a long time, he talked about writing a single book that would explain that the crazy modernist writers he taught at Columbia—Artaud, Simone Weil, and Céline—were harbingers of the Holocaust. That they experienced personal premonitions of history in the most visceral way.

But you’re right: All these smaller pieces are connected. The ideas recur and add up to something much larger. He was a rhizomatic writer.

He wasn’t just “promoting” French theory; he embodied it. As he moved between the different worlds of French intellectuals and downtown New York, he just naturally became a transmitter. He didn’t have a plan. He had enthusiasm. —Chris Kraus

HEK: Yes, sometimes in a very oblique way. But he did write an essay, “The Miserables,” on Georges Bataille, Robert Antelme, Weil, Marguerite Duras, Dionys Mascolo. . . . It’s about fifty pages long. It was one of twenty-eight publications we produced for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

CK: That piece was incredible.

HEK: Maybe given the heaviness of the subject, the difficulty of writing about the Holocaust, it makes sense to parcel it out in small pieces. And I also think there’s a kind of humbleness about this, given his distaste for the “Holocaust Industry”—the sentimental movies and books he would bemoan sometimes. There’s a reticence and care that fits the impossibility of the subject matter, that makes me think of Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie [2015]. I found a Nietzsche quote that Sylvère uses in “Facing the Camera” that almost comes across as a warning or a guide for his own work: “History is always in danger of being a little altered or touched up and brought closer to fiction.”

CK: That’s really true.

HEK: So I think the book exists, disseminated in these small magazines, circulated among friends. There’s something beautiful about that.

CK: I think you and I operate the same way. Someone asks you for something, and it becomes a prompt to write something you might otherwise not have written. Especially if it’s someone you like, who you have a dialogue with. It’s almost as if you’re writing it for that person.

Sylvère’s one commercially published book, Overexposed [1988], actually seemed the farthest away from his interests. It was a series of interviews with an aversion therapist who claimed to be able to “cure” pedophilia.

HEK: I don’t really agree. I think Overexposed was very close to his interests, a post-’68 investigation of the systems of power, the systems of control, that govern sexuality. One of the reasons I really loved working with Sylvère all these years is he’s maybe the only heterosexual man I ever met who I felt was completely comfortable with my being gay.

CK: Really?

HEK: I mean, I don’t know. I’ll have to rephrase that. What I mean is that back in the ’90s—it might be different now—I always felt, even with the most “liberal” straight men, that if you were to scratch the surface, you’d find a minuscule, almost imperceptible, visceral disgust with homosexuality. Sylvère had completely worked out a kind of freedom around sexuality. I think he explored it in the “Polysexuality” issue of Semiotext(e). Those questions were very important to him. So many people have told me that “Polysexuality” changed their lives—the artist Bill Jones, for example. It’s a foundational document for a lot of people. And I feel like Overexposed is a continuation of that work.

CK: I see that. All these obituaries that have come out are great, but they haven’t brought into focus the person we knew. Each of them was describing a person in relation to a culture, or to the world of publishing, or to the world of the New York Times

HEK: As if he was just a cultural promoter. The mainstream publications, especially, implied that he fell short of their conventional ideas of success, when in fact he was constantly active in culture.

CK: He wasn’t just “promoting” French theory; he embodied it. As he moved between the different worlds of French intellectuals and downtown New York, he just naturally became a transmitter. He didn’t have a plan. He had enthusiasm.

HEK: This idea of culture as liberatory, of thoughts, books, etc. as tools of emancipation, not as instruments by which to seize power.

Cover of Semiotext(e) 4, no. 2 (1982). “The German Issue.”

CK: He was very smart about power when he was working on the magazine Semiotext(e). Do you remember he said somewhere that there has to be a leader, because if there’s not, there’s a constant struggle for power under the surface of everything?

HEK: It’s something he talks about in his conversation with François Aubart and François Piron [2017]. He describes a model inherited from Dada, where the best collective is the one that doesn’t exist. Among the three of us, when we worked, no one wanted to be the leader.

CK: There was no need. Among the three of us, it’s been easy to work together in a fluid and conversational way.

HEK: One of the first times we met was right before Christmas at your place in Crestline [California] in 2000. That night, Sylvère showed me all of the seminal Semiotext(e) issues for the first time. “Autonomia,” “Schizo-Culture,” “The German Issue.” We sat in the living room, looking at them really carefully. And they were such a revelation.

Sylvère’s interviews, and every issue of the magazine, and later the books, were ways of approaching a subject from multiple angles, not necessarily to draw sweeping conclusions. They were also a way of meeting people and creating these nomadic groups. —Hedi El Kholti

Cover of Semiotext(e) 3, no. 2 (1978). “Schizo-Culture.”

CK: Did they remind you of magazines that you had found in Europe?

HEK: No. They had a unique sensibility and a kind of boundless curiosity. They reminded me of things that had come after them, cultural developments they predicted or paved the way for. I saw how they were a point of origin for a lot of things. The mix of high and low, the design . . . We talked that night about how they really needed to be republished.

CK: The high-low mix Sylvère created in “Schizo-Culture” [1978] was so singular. I don’t think anyone has really recaptured it. I mean, it’s been absorbed. It’s become kind of a received aesthetic. But there was something so original about it. Because the low was really low. It wasn’t cosmetic. It wasn’t just a collision of French intellectuals and downtown New York. It was, like, prestige meets pariahs. He put people in the magazine he found interesting who no one else took seriously.

HEK: That’s very inspiring.

CK: No one will include a pariah now. There are certain forms of the low that are acceptable, others that aren’t. It was very courageous. And that was a great benefit of working noncommercially. He could do whatever he wanted without making concessions.

HEK: Things he or we published were so often published at the wrong time. Sometimes the wrong time turns out to be the right time.

CK: Things have their own rhythm, and that rhythm comes from our own relationships as editors to each project. Semiotext(e) mostly flows through personal relationships. Sylvère had long-standing friendships with all the French theorists he published. And the Italians, too—Christian Marazzi and Franco Berardi were lifelong friends, and they introduced Sylvère to other theorists. Semiotext(e) has never been a matter of receiving agented work and bidding on the projects you think will be winners.

HEK: I love the way Sylvère maintained these lifelong friendships with people in France. And how they’d keep him informed of interesting books that were coming out. Once, in 2003, we met at his mother’s place in Paris, and then he took me to meet Hubert Tonka. Do you remember him?

CK: He was a great friend of Jean Baudrillard’s, who Sylvère was close to.

HEK: So we went to see Hubert Tonka, who had this atelier with a printing press and a shop where he and his partner, Jeanne-Marie Sens, sold beautifully produced books under their Sens & Tonka imprint. We spent some time with him, and I understood something then, that Sylvère would actually have been very happy if we’d gotten a little printing press in LA and made the books ourselves, selling them through the mail or whatever. There was a romance to that. The smell of ink, the feeling of being in an atelier. We made that beautiful book with Tonka, the 2011 anthology of Utopie magazine.

CK: It’s the romance of remaining true to the vision of happiness you have in your late teens or early twenties. Sylvère’s priorities never changed. Without being irresponsible, he managed to live a student or post-student life into his eighties.

HEK: Totally. Sylvère’s interviews, and every issue of the magazine, and later the books, were ways of approaching a subject from multiple angles, not necessarily to draw sweeping conclusions. They were also a way of meeting people and creating these nomadic groups that shifted from project to project. The whole notion of publishing didn’t matter to him as much as the books he brought to the press, which were essential to him. Projects like the “Autonomia” issue and, later on, the Black Panthers book Still Black, Still Strong [Still Black, Still Strong: Survivors of the US War Against Black Revolutionaries, by Dhoruba bin Wahad, Assata Shakur, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, edited by Jim Fletcher, Tanaquil Jones, and Sylvère Lotringer (1993)].

I think he always loved everything he did. You know, we never had a disagreement about what to publish. But the things that were closest to his heart post-2000 were publishing Amira Hass [Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land (2003)] and Shlomo Sand [The Words and the Land: Israeli Intellectuals and the Nationalist Myth (2011)], the books about Israel.

Cover of Semiotext(e) 3, no. 3 (1980). “Autonomia.”

CK: That was transformational for him. It took him so long to finally break up with Israel.

HEK: And the Amira Hass book was the breakup letter. But he explained to me that he would only publish criticism of Israel written by Israelis. Two more recent books that really mattered to him were Houria Bouteldja’s Whites, Jews, and Us [2017] and Sadri Khiari’s The Colonial Counter-Revolution in France [2021], both incredible reckonings with the legacy of colonialism and systemic racism in France.

CK: And he was so excited to publish the books by Sergio González Rodríguez [The Femicide Machine (2012), The Iguala 43 (2017), Field of Battle (2019)] and Sayak Valencia [Gore Capitalism (2018)]. Spending time in Baja California, he wanted to find his own connection to Mexican culture and politics. I think what we’re both saying is Sylvère’s projects follow his life. They amount to an intellectual autobiography, not a record of best guesses about what will do well two years from now.

Sylvère and I had an ongoing conversation that began when we met and never stopped. And then you entered it almost twenty years ago, and it became the three of us.

Cover of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick (Semiotext[e], 1997).

HEK: When I first read your novel I Love Dick [1997], I saw it as an amazing collaboration that embodies a lot of what Semiotext(e) does. There’s this line, “Life is not personal—”

CK: From Deleuze.

HEK: Sylvère approached I Love Dick in a really impersonal way, publishing it as if it were a book about other people, written by other people. He treated it as a book and an object, which I thought was really amazing. At first, it was surprising to me.

CK: His participation in that project was such a gift. He saw how hopeless I felt at the time, after my feature-film project failed, and it just made him happy to see me excited and energized by something again. So instead of feeling rejected, he decided to become part of it. It was a difficult time for him as well—the end of a sabbatical year in which he hadn’t done what he’d hoped to do. So why not jump into this giddy, delirious game? It wasn’t a considered decision—it was an impulse.

HEK: Yes, and a lot of the themes that were present in the books Semiotext(e) was doing at that point cohered in that book. It was a synthesis.

CK: There was also a lightness and wit that was so much Sylvère. He was the master of the bad pun. And he made cartoons and funny little drawings. And he liked to make jokes. And that was the ultimate revenge against the tragedy of history and the Holocaust, to not take anything that seriously. That was his way of having power.

HEK: Yeah. I know. He always said, “It could be worse.”

CK: [Laughs] Right. And this willingness to create a caricature of yourself—the Spurned Lover, the Dumb Cunt—a self-deprecating humor, which is maybe a little harder to convey now that everything takes place online and is taken so literally.

Sylvère Lotringer, New York, 1976–77.

HEK: But I’ve got to say, what happened between you was pretty inspiring. The friendship you kept all those years, and the way you kept the press going.

CK: It was so important to me, Hedi. When I started writing, Sylvère was always my first reader.

HEK: Sylvère gave me a book by René Lourau at some point, Autodissolution des Avant Gardes. Instead of publishing all the manifestos from the beginning of various movements, the book collects all the resignations—

CK: The breakup documents.

HEK: The documents that show why things need to end. Which is really interesting. Because, you know, things should end. And they should have ended with Semiotext(e). And I don’t know why they didn’t. In an interview, Sylvère said it’s because we didn’t have the courage to end it. Which was probably true. We weren’t courageous.

CK: [Laughs.]

HEK: So it kept going. I think one of the reasons it’s hard to end it is because of the friendships we have that continue through editing and publishing the books. All the conversations Sylvère and I had about every book. Whenever I wanted to publish something, whether it was something he was interested in or not, Sylvère paid attention. He’d read at least part of it, and we’d have a discussion. He met me in my desire for it and would always say something really insightful, revelatory. He came to every event and screening when he was in town, and I loved his generosity and enthusiasm when we’d discuss how things had gone afterward. So continuing the press was continuing the collaboration and the friendship. The pleasure he had in working with us, that never ended.

CK: There’s this thing Sylvère used to say, a pejorative he’d use about some people, especially in France and New York—that a person was “merely intelligent.”

HEK: What do you mean?

CK: It implies that intelligence itself is useless if there isn’t a politics behind it, a humanity, a greater vision or love. And he really lived that.

HEK: Yes.

Semiotext(e), 28 Publications for the Whitney Biennial, 2014, walnut, rope, steel, twenty-eight pamphlets, 96 × 72 × 6". Installation design: Jason Yates. From the Whitney Biennial 2014.

CK: The Semiotext(e) project you made for the Whitney Biennial, the twenty-eight pamphlets commissioned from people we’ve worked with before—it’s amazing the way they animate one another, like separate cells within a single organism. So many people came to New York for the opening, probably the most Semiotext(e) collaborators who’d been in the same place at the same time. So the project spread out over time beyond the three of us and became a larger community.

HEK: I want to end with this quote from a Baudrillard book Sylvère edited [The Agony of Power, 2010], which makes me think of him and his relationship to power: “Power itself must be abolished—and not solely because of a refusal to be dominated, which is at the heart of all traditional struggles—but also, just as violently, in the refusal to dominate. Intelligence cannot, can never be in power because intelligence consists of this double refusal.”

CK: He found power and the struggle for power really boring.

HEK: Yeah.

CK: And people could never understand that about him.

HEK: And I think that’s why this thing that he started almost fifty years ago still goes on.

CK: Because the stakes are so low, and nobody cares about most of these things now anyway. So if you’re going to do them, why not aim for the greatest pleasure, fulfillment, and beauty? Why torture yourself with personal politics? There’s no certainty about where any of it will go, so you may as well do exactly what you want, and for the most pleasure. 

Chris Kraus is a writer, a critic, and a coeditor of Semiotext(e). She lives in Los Angeles.

Hedi El Kholti is a writer, editor, and artist based in Los Angeles. He is a coeditor of Semiotext(e). 

Sylvère Lotringer, Hedi El Kholti, and Chris Kraus, P.P.O.W, New York, October 28, 2006.