PRINT February 2022


Diego Cortez and Jimmy DeSana, advertisement for Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” issue.

IF THERE WAS ONE THING Sylvère Lotringer despised, it was a professional. Or so I fully grasped once over breakfast in spring 2019, when we found ourselves at his Los Angeles home discussing the continuing “Yellow Vest” demonstrations in France—which, until the pandemic’s onset, had the uniquely alchemical capacity to bring together factions both far left and far right.

“The Jacobins return,” I remember Sylvère saying quietly, a sly smile betraying his conviction that the distant past’s populist radicals never actually departed but had only been slumbering for a while. His wry visage didn’t surprise me. It was precisely when such contradictory circumstances undercut everyday assumptions—when society’s orderly, rationalist camouflage seemed at risk of giving way—that Sylvère, typically, was most provocative and most incisive, and seemingly most at home. An antiauthoritarian adage for our times may well be that “this is not normal,” but Sylvère was more apt to say that the very ideation of “normalcy” is problematic, as any normative principle, or assumption, is bound to the entrenchments (and interests) of ideology. Only when things are not “normal” do we begin to get a hint of reality and of possibility, allowing ourselves to be truly present, as opposed to dwelling within the undisturbed field of our own presuppositions and projections, or those of others. (Here one must recall Sylvère’s youth as a Jewish child hidden from the Nazis in the French countryside during World War II—and perhaps recall as well his assertion that the atmosphere and attitude of French theory have something in common with science fiction. It was not entirely surprising to me that he decided at one juncture in the 2000s to consult with military think tanks when considering the next lines of flight for theory, given that its task was, in his words, to “think the unthinkable,” whether in regard to war, ecological disaster, or the very shapes society might yet take.) The glimmer in Sylvère’s eye on this morning was the same I’d seen in one of his classes long ago, when he sought to convey to his students the speculative disposition underlying the intellectual path he championed throughout his life, from his involvement with the student movement against the Algerian War onward: “While the plane is flying, all seems well, and you don’t think about it. Only when the plane starts falling from the sky do you realize what’s been in play all along.”

Sylvère was interested in ideas as they might be trafficked into the world.

I knew Sylvère harbored a similar skepticism regarding the academy, although it long provided him with both deep friendships and a continuous base, beginning when he penned a dissertation under Roland Barthes on Virginia Woolf and continuing through his professorship at Columbia (where I would first meet him) and beyond. Decades ago, he wrote against scholars’ predilection for deploying models such as poststructuralism and deconstruction to give answers and fix perspectives and protocols, instead of pushing boundaries and looking perpetually to open different fronts for questions. Even so, as our breakfast conversation continued, I was taken aback by what Sylvère said next: that the protests made clear to him how the character of philosophy in France had radically shifted, becoming the stuff of “celebrification.”

This, I thought, was a pretty bold statement coming from someone who had famously introduced Michel Foucault to American audiences at the “Schizo-Culture” conference in 1975 and then Jean Baudrillard to the art-lecture circuit in the mid-’80s. (Even if Baudrillard, according to Sylvère, had intended his introduction to be a game of “cat and mouse” for an art world seeking another tidy critical model to extend its avant-garde credentials.) Yet when I pressed Sylvère on this point, he took one of the most somber tones I’d heard from him. Yes, he replied, theorists and philosophers were still addressing cultural developments, but almost exclusively from inside the academy, and even then at an intellectual remove. In other words, while thinkers were meeting expectations and refining the consistency of their ideas—while they were being consummate professionals—the basic reason for pursuing philosophy seemed to have been forgotten. Here, I realized Sylvère was echoing something he had articulated nearly twenty years before, when he’d sought to distinguish his own embrace of “theory” from the sequestered practice of philosophy, setting hypotheticals and speculative analyses in motion, as opposed to perfecting ideas within the lecture hall: “Lovers of theory would serve only for what Nietzsche expected history to serve—for life and action, and not as a way to avoid both.” Ideas by themselves—valued in their own right—would never be enough. To borrow the moniker of Semiotext(e), they also had to be agents. And, to cite Sylvère’s inspiration, Deleuze, any book also should be a machine. You don’t simply think theory—you “do” it.

Hence Sylvère was interested in ideas as they might be trafficked into the world. First and foremost came his oft-cited observation that French philosophers of the ’60s and after found a material, and televisual, reality for their speculative ideas in the United States. (Indeed, Sylvère’s anecdotes about Deleuze and “flows of capital” leapt to mind recently when I heard the patriarch of Succession admonishing his daughter that “the lines are always moving; there are no lines.”) Yet this cosmopolitan impulse famously figured into the very design of Semiotext(e)’s books, which were meant to fit in the pocket—and which, moreover, were “stripped” of any academic devices such as footnote citations that might lend them scholarly credibility. It was also at the root of the 1978 Nova Convention, which Sylvère organized not only to resuscitate the career of William S. Burroughs, but also to cast the writer as a philosopher by another name and a different measure, recruiting composers and musicians from John Cage to Blondie to perform alongside presentations by theorists. This proved an early iteration of Sylvère’s belief that ideas must “remain in disjunction,” with different cultural spheres brought into proximity to reflect their “singularities.” On the one hand, this implied that models of critical thinking were now meant to offer a kind of customizable tool kit as opposed to all-encompassing concepts; on the other, as he said, the premise ensured that one would never be “caged” in any single arena.

The impulse was found as well in such Semiotext(e) publications as Still Black, Still Strong: Survivors of the US War Against Black Revolutionaries (1993) and its active advocacy for wrongfully jailed Autonomia Operaia leader Antonio Negri—Where were the other academic presses when it came to such engagements? he would ask—in addition to Sylvère’s legendary interviews with figures such as Jack Smith, whose artistry was explicitly bound up with the pressures of capitalism, whether these assumed the guise of landlord or lobster. (If Sylvère was infinitely intrigued by the various ties of American cultural production to real-estate speculation and the abstraction of capital, Smith was the artist-philosopher of landlordism.) Sylvère’s long-standing preference for the interview over the written essay or scholarly tome could be attributed to the priority he gave to ideas as they existed among people. In this sense, he was a practitioner of oral history with the goal of rewriting that discipline’s parameters. (Though I recall as well working closely with him on a text for Artforum’s 1980s issues, where he enthusiastically sent me dozens of versions, nearly hourly, forcing us in real time to restitch and reroute the words line by line into a narrative. Schizo-culture is not merely a concept, I remember thinking.) But most telling regarding his perspective, to my mind, was his deep admiration for Simone Weil—who took her thought to the factory floor, aiming to see how the routines of the working day would imprint her ability to think and the basic phrasing of her writing. As Sylvère would say, Weil wasn’t satisfied talking “about” anything; she had to be of it. Thought was never apart from the body and whatever forces were in dialogue with it systemically. Per Burroughs, the notion that “language is a virus”—language as something steeped in material life—was more than a rhetorical conceit.

Poster for the Nova Convention, 1978.

A recent obituary in the Los Angeles Times quoted Gayatri Spivak saying that Sylvère’s contributions would never have any scholarly influence, and that he was himself a kind of primary text. I suspect Sylvère might have agreed, though perhaps not in precisely the same spirit as Spivak’s observation. I think of how he cited Deleuze’s impulse to “leave philosophy, but as a philosopher,” which Sylvère extended to Cage’s desire to “leave music, but as a musician.” This departure suggests the desire for a different sort of legacy, one rooted not so much in past achievement as in possibility. As he would say of theory, “Something goes wrong, goes right, an accident turns your life in an unpredictable direction. It ceases to be something personal and becomes a kind of experiment in which the world around you participates.” Yes, he would “do” theory, but always in the service of creating and sustaining the chance to do something else.

I recall how once, after I gave a lecture at an academy in China, a group of around twenty students approached me to say thank you. Not for my words, mind you, but for having published a conversation in Artforum between Sylvère and Negri about the legacy of May ’68—which, one student said, had made them “realize a different communism was possible.” One could sense how the ideas’ impact was absolutely palpable, though who can say what these students did next. Whatever the case, if this text was indeed a machine, Sylvère, will remain the ghost within it. 

Tim Griffin is a contributing editor of Artforum living in Los Angeles.