Purple Magazine
— F/W 2016 issue 26

Sylvère Lotringer

A student of Roland Barthes, a renowned professor at Columbia University for over 30 years, and a close friend of Félix Guattari, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Patti Smith, Mike Kelley,and many others, SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER has been immersed in the academic world of philosophy and French Theory as well as in the underground culture of downtown New York and LA. As the founder of Semiotext(e), first a suberversive magazine and then an influential publishing house, he has brought together some of the major thinkers and artistic forces in contemporary art, creating an intellectual context for all those involved in the creative sphere.

interview by DONATIEN GRAU
portrait by MARK SELIGER
paintings by PETER HALLEY

DONATIEN GRAU — You came from a Jewish Polish family, and you were a hidden child during World War II. After the war, you became part of militant Zionist groups. It seems to me that this experience — the feeling of belonging to a persecuted minority and the production of a community — has had a big impact on your life.
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — It did. I trained myself to surmount any situation. It wasn’t clear at the beginning that it would lead to what became my life, being involved in such things as I was. Of course, something biographical can “rhizomatize,” but it is only retrospectively that I can figure out what impact all those events had. I can now look at it from the outside. The strange thing was that coming to America, which I did eventually, was just the total reversal of what I had been taught in the movement. In the movement, the idea was to not become a leader, to not take things personally — everything was shared. The kibbutz was supposed to be a place where we share everything. You just give everything away when you arrive, and everyone is going to use it in community — your clothes, everything. It was a very radical kind of time for kibbutzim.

I have to go back to 1949, when my family was in Israel. We had such a hard time in France during the war that they said, “Why don’t we go to Israel?” So we emigrated to Israel in early 1948, ’49. The state hardly existed. I stayed there for about a year and a half. I went to school and learned Hebrew. And then my family couldn’t find a way of staying there. There was no infrastructure. There was no economy. On top of that, their job was to make furs. That wasn’t exactly the country in which to do it, although there was a little snow in Jerusalem that year. They couldn’t find an apartment. They said: “Look, we were dispersed during the war. We’re not going to be dispersed now in Israel. Let’s go back to Paris.” And so we did. In Paris, the first thing they did was to take me to the Zionist group, which was the same one they had been in when they were in Poland, in Warsaw. So the funny thing was that, in the movement, I was the only one who had ever been to Israel because at that time you didn’t take a plane. You had to go by boat: it was a whole thing. And none of the 200 people in the movement had been there. I was the only one who testified that Israel was not an invention. It existed. I became one of the leaders of this movement in France, but I realized that they were all afraid that if I stayed too long in France, I would get too interested in the university. I had to make a choice. Either I was going to the kibbutz and working the land, or I wanted to start my studies. And I didn’t see that there was a contradiction between the two. But people did see it that way. The philosopher [Georges] Lapassade was my examiner for the baccalaureate. He had me for the oral session; I had to go to it because I was too busy with the movement during the summer to prepare for the exam. The dissertation we had for the writing portion of the baccalaureate was on the topic: “What is the ideal?” And, of course, very few people had any sort of idea about ideals. But for me, it was not a philosophical problem. It was a very pragmatic one. I must have been so unproblematic about it that they flunked me in the first session — the June session. So I went to the second session.

I was coming from an experimental farm in the South of France, where we stayed for three months to learn how to deal with a kibbutz. It was very traumatic because everyone was supposed to leave right after; it was changing one life for the next. We were 17, 18, breaking off with our family — quite a commitment. I was torn apart. I spoke to Lapassade and asked, “What do I do?” And he said, “But you resign.” I said, “Resign?” The idea had never come to me because it felt like: do you resign from your parents? You can’t break things like that, right? I typed a letter of resignation, and I sent it to the movement, and they called me up, saying, “What a strange idea!” No one had ever done that, because we were all so very close. Then there was no way back. As soon as I entered the university, we were in the Algerian War, and I became very radical and very committed against the war. I went from eight or nine years in a Zionist group to being an activist against the Algerian War. I was in charge of L’Étrave, a magazine I created for first year students, and I also worked for Paris Lettres. I was in charge of these two magazines during the Algerian War. While I was a student, I was in charge of the Maison des Lettres. It was one of these beautiful old houses with fountains, everything. They were doing things, inviting people. That’s how I met Roland Barthes at the end of the 1950s, and a lot of others, whom I invited for lectures: Barthes, who was then a young sociologist, beginning to do work about fashion; [Jean] Starobinski; [Georges] Poulet; the people from Tel Quel, etc. I was putting panels together. They were coming every week or every other week. There was a group of writers from the Nouveau Roman [New Novel]: Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet. We were very involved and very political. I was brought up in a group, and I knew about groups. Félix Guattari wrote a book about groups. It has followed me all my life.

PETER HALLEY, Blind Pass, 2014, acrylic, Day-glo acrylic, and Roll-a-Text on canvas, 84 x 70 inches

DONATIEN GRAU — After traveling through Turkey, Australia, and America, in 1972 you arrived in a real city, New York, and began teaching at Columbia University.
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — I had already spent summers there working in the collection of the New York Public Library because they had manuscripts of Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, etc. I was actually getting more interested in English and American literature than in French. I was pleased to come to New York. The chair hired me because I was a good structuralist. For the first year, I was at Columbia and discovered the world of Columbia. It took me two years to discover downtown. Downtown and uptown had no connection whatsoever. Columbia had its problems, with Harlem close by. It was very dangerous, and you never went out at night at that time.

One year after I arrived at Columbia, I decided to go to France. One of the reasons they hired me at Columbia was the fact that I had organized summer schools in France for the various universities where I was teaching. I chose the place; I chose the teachers. And then we had students coming not just from Columbia, but also from other places. While I was in France, I invited people to teach who could help me compensate for those four or five years that I hadn’t been in France. I was one train late, you see? When I left France, you know, Barthes, the Nouvelle Critique [New Criticism] — that was really what the intellectual scene was about. What came out was very different: 1972 was Anti-Oedipus [Gilles Deleuze and Guattari], 1967 was [Jacques] Derrida’s De la Grammatologie [Of Grammatology]. So I arrived in a context that was fairly different from the one I expected. At the beginning, I invited formalists, but I became aware that there were other things happening in France. At Columbia, the chair, [Michael] Riffaterre, had created a group of semioticians whom we trained in a structural approach to literature. I started working with this little group. We were hovering between Guattari, [Julia] Kristeva, [Claude] Lévi-Strauss. We were also Althusserian, and we admired [Gaston] Bachelard. So we met and discussed all this. It was pretty intense. And then when I came back to France to teach the summer school, I discovered that I could take the students to the château at Cerisy. I resumed contact with people I knew from the Nouvelle Critique and Nouveau Roman. There was no American student in France at the time. My group of 20 Americans met people who had never seen an American student before. They were curious. Guattari was teaching at Reid Hall, then Deleuze made an impromptu visit — he came and told us about the fact that philosophy is there to intimidate young men. Of course I didn’t believe a word, but it gave me a certain idea of how to teach Deleuze. And then [Jacques] Lacan came by because he had heard about this place where Guattari and Deleuze were coming. So he came with a cigar and flirted with my students. Basically, it was a center of attraction because it was the first kind of extension of America in France. And so, even though I was teaching in the French department, I was in charge of teaching French literature and human sciences.

DONATIEN GRAU — But what led you to combine that? What became Semiotext(e) was going out of formalism, going out of semiotics itself, into a combination of the strange ways of life, as well as philosophy, psychoanalysis, politics. How did that crystalize?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — Well, it was happening in France. Philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology — all this work goes together. And that is exactly what I had done at the Maison des Lettres. So I just found myself having recreated the Maison des Lettres on my own. The logic was the same. There was again a group, at Columbia. We were all kind of on the left. We didn’t accept the tyranny of linguistics. All the students with whom I founded Semiotext(e) were graduate students. They were finishing their dissertation or were about to finish their dissertation. So after two years, they were looking for jobs all over the country. When I came back, the little group that we had put together was half gone. We had to change it and restructure it. And that led to the magazine. When we created it, I went to a few publishers, and I told them: “Look, I know all these interesting people in France. If you manage the magazine the way magazines would have been managed by a press in France, then I will tell you whom to publish.” And they had a look at some of the texts. They said: “No. It will interest a handful of intellectuals, specialists.” So we didn’t have a choice. We created a magazine. The first issue was mimeographed. I went to Mexico at the time for a month, and the issue was ready to be finished. And we collated around the table. Everyone would make the book — take a page and go around. That was also very collective. Someone in the group kidnapped the magazine before the magazine was published. So before it actually happened, I already had group problems. Since we were looking for a title, I said, “Well, it’s ‘semio,’ but it’s ‘text.’ So ‘semiotext(e).” No one understood what it was about, of course. Jack Smith once told me that the title was so disgusting: “Why did you choose a title like that?” The title is really what thinking is about.

Sylvere Lotringer, the provocative cultural theorist, at his home in Los Angeles

The way I saw it was that we had a group, but according to my view, the chief isn’t the important one in the group. He’s the one who doesn’t want to be chief, but he doesn’t have a choice because to be chief, you have to divest yourself of everything you own. And I always thought a group was like that. The chief is a mediator. He creates good vibes and makes choices. But I’m not constantly on top of them. And so the group I had in New York just made me think more about groups. I realized that to be a group without a leader in America is impossible. Everyone is so self-centered, so eager to get recognition. What happened right after the beginning was a warning that I had to make sure the group keeps being collective, would not be a group of people who’d be competing. I never liked competing. See, I’m very un-American. So I decided that I’d pay attention to the magazine, and I always gave each issue of the magazine to a different person. And they chose whom they were working with. It was democratic, but in fact, I made the major choices. Because someone has to do it. And if there isn’t someone to push people, nothing’s going to happen. So I got the idea at that time that yes, I could have a group, but I was working with friends. I wasn’t working with people who weren’t my equal.

DONATIEN GRAU — Semiotext(e), as a journal, was a platform that brought together artists and thinkers, which was very unusual at the time.
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — I didn’t know anything about art. In France, I would go to the Louvre. I was very good at drawing, so I took classes, but I had no sense of what art was. When I arrived in New York, I had no idea about art, so I was very open. And since my relation with my colleagues soured very fast, I was looking for some more interesting place. And there were lots of parties in New York. Actually, most of them were with South Americans, so I thought the only people in New York were South American. New York is fragmented. You could get a French community, a Spanish community, an English community. I met interesting people along the way. I was going to parties a lot because I was on my own. I had broken up with my girlfriend. I was alone and was just meeting people.

DONATIEN GRAU — But how did a Columbia professor go downtown and get to meet John Cage, Merce Cunningham, William Burroughs? How did that happen?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — William Burroughs I knew before I left. I had heard of William Burroughs when I was in front of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. When I arrived [in New York], I was looking for some sort of equivalent to Deleuze, Guattari, [Michel] Foucault, Lacan. I was looking for a cultural context. I had no context. At the university, which is the only context I had, you have excellent specialists, of course, but everyone is in their little department, in their little career, in their little values, etc. So I was just looking for something else. I didn’t know it would be the art world. But then New York at that time was very easygoing. You had the liaisons. People were sleeping with each other a lot, going to parties. There was a whole downtown culture. It was just pretty promiscuous. There were no rules, no regulations. You did what you wanted. You wanted to love people, you wanted to make love — it didn’t matter. Things could happen. And at all these parties I went to, I met some people who were interesting. It so happened that they were artists. Academics were not going to these parties. They were all artists.

PETER HALLEY, The Do-Over, 2016, acrylic, fluorescent acrylic, and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 76 x 60 inches

DONATIEN GRAU — How did you get to go to these parties? How did you hear about them?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — I think the first one was with a South American I met, and she took me to a number of parties with people from Peru, from Central America. But then I met other people, and I would just say, “Maybe that could be interesting for the group.” I met Pat Steir, who was the only one my age in the group, and her boyfriend for a long time was Sol LeWitt. She was part of the old SoHo, and she knew everyone: Philip Glass, Richard Serra. They were just friends. So while I was still at Columbia, and I was with the group there, I was more and more downtown. When I had the magazine, I told myself: “Okay, well, maybe I’ll do the same as I did before, which is: I’m going to interview these people. This way, I’m going to learn about them.” I like theory, but theory connected to something. I’m not a pure theorist or philosopher, as much as I am those things. I learned art with artists.

DONATIEN GRAU — And who were the artists you were most interested in?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — Well, I was always interested because I didn’t make choices. There was post-minimal, and there were the conceptual artists. I was willing to accept anything because I didn’t have any preconceived idea of what art should be. Look at all the French philosophers who wrote about art: it was always on Classical art. They had no idea what was going on. Deleuze quotes Patti Smith because he came to the States for the Schizo-Culture convention, and then met Smith and Allen Ginsberg.

The answer is that it was very pragmatic. Most of the people in the group had no idea what I was talking about. But it was something that no one knew — it was a very good incentive. So they started reading Lacan. And I had the same idea: to do things with downtown. I put together an issue on Nietzsche because I realized that Nietzsche wasn’t known in this country. He was known as someone who writes nice little stories for kids. It was too romantic. And this was associated with a total misrepresentation of Nietzsche: the others who knew about Nietzsche thought that he was a Nazi. So I thought, “Let’s clear the slate, and let’s have a special issue on Nietzsche.” The first book I published in Semiotext(e) was not a French book. It was an American book. It was the book by Cage and the musicologist Daniel Charles called For the Birds. I read the book, and I said, “Wow, this is putting together Zen Buddhism and Nietzsche.” When I read this book — it was a book of interviews — I realized that there was the connection: he’s American, but he works in music, and the music is based on Nietzsche, and all sorts of these Eastern philosophies. And I realized, reading Deleuze and Guattari, that it was much more connected to Eastern philosophy than to the philosophy they developed in Europe. So I went to see Cage, and I said: “Well, I’m doing an issue on Nietzsche. Would you like to contribute to it?” He said yes and sent me a piece. But before I left, he said, “You’re French.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Do you play chess?” I knew enough to know that Cage had played chess with Marcel Duchamp, so I said, “Yes, yes, of course I play.” So: “We should play one of these days.” But I was really afraid of going back. So I didn’t call him back. And after a few weeks, he called me, and he said, “When are we playing chess?”

DONATIEN GRAU — At that time, you brought together philosophy, music, dance, art. Can you tell me about those interactions?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — First of all, Americans had heard about semiotics. Artists were interested in semiotics, communication. But they didn’t know what it meant. One of the reasons so many people came to the Schizo-Culture conference was that a friend at the Village Voice, a friend of friends, put in an ad for Semiotext(e), and he said, “It’s a Semiotext(e) event about semiotics.” So we got all the people coming, all the artists. Artists always want to know, and to know about things before the others. They heard about semiotics, but they didn’t know what it was. So a lot of people came just for that reason. The others came for political, philosophical reasons. But yes, there was no event like that, blending music, dance, art, philosophy. My idea was that the magazine had a very limited audience. I realized that my audience was the people we knew. So we printed 300 or 400 copies, which were gone in two weeks. I then realized that the magazine needs to have people. In the ’70s, there were very few artists. But at the same time, there were very few people other than the artists. It was a time when the art world was changing from the inside and from the outside. From the outside, it was the Italian and German neo-Expressionists coming to conquer New York between ’80 and ’82, and then the neo-conceptualists reacting and re-establishing the balance for the Americans.

Semiotext(e) was created just at the end of the ’70s. In the 1970s, all the artists were doing other things: Sol LeWitt was sponsoring Kathy Acker because she had no money. It was a small community. Everyone knew each other and each other’s work. So I learned about someone also through someone else. But constantly, the people who were the most interesting turned out to be these artists. That’s why I decided to meet them, not by chance. I went to see Phil Glass, who’s a friend of my friend Pat Steir. And she’d say: “Go and see Phil Glass. He’s a very good musician.” No one knew Phil Glass at the time, really. And Steve Reich, and so many of these people. They were known in an artistic circle, not outside. So I talked to them, and Phil Glass said, “Oh, but you should know Jack Smith.” I said, “Who is Jack Smith?” He’d say, “If you want to know about the American Surrealists, go and see Jack Smith.” So I went to see Jack Smith, and it turned out to be something completely different. He’s the first artist who told me, “Look, you’re interested in art. I can tell.” I started getting to know people who were kind of artists or weirdos. There was a whole downtown full of them. It was the club people; I was meeting them in clubs. Along the way I met Stefan Eins and Diego Cortez, who was not a Latino but took the name of a Latino to get a grant from the university. He was Mr. Punk. King of downtown. The Ramones had already started in the States before their tour in London. Diego had a finger in every pie. He was manager of the real hardcore punk. He was doing graffiti with kids’ drawings. I moved in with him, and we had a big loft in the Fashion District. I was going out with him to the Mudd Club or to Max’s Kansas City, and not only would bouncers not check him out, but they were unfolding the red carpet.

DONATIEN GRAU — You did the Schizo-Culture conference. It wasn’t the time of counterculture anymore. You said that even if your magazine was to be sold to three people, it was being done for 200 million. How did you engage with culture?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — The work I did wasn’t cultural work. It was the idea that I could live with nothing, and I could live with no one. It was paradoxical. Of course, I lived with a group constantly. But the idea was that I had to be ready. It was a personal experience much more than a cultural one. After we published one or two of the really substantial issues, people paid attention. I wanted to have an issue on nomadism. But I wasn’t sure that we weren’t more nomadic in New York than we were in the desert. So I went to the desert, and I spent nearly two weeks in the desert with the Tamajaq. I thought I would do something with that, but in fact, at that time, it was kind of getting late. I didn’t want to make another issue of the magazine. So I asked a group of people to do it. And then they made an issue of Semiotext(e) that was exactly the reverse of what we did. We usually had 400 or 500 pages. They made something that was 120. We had very functionalist aesthetics for the layout, and they had it very aestheticized. I said: “You’re free to do what you want. I don’t want to influence you. So do it.” And I didn’t realize that every time a group gets together, it becomes a group because people become antagonistic. So after a while, they developed an antagonism toward me. So when they finished the mock-up of the magazine, they came and gave it to me, and I wasn’t exactly pleased. I told them, “You made the magazine for people in the East Village, but in order to publish issues of Semiotext(e), I have to aim at 200 million Americans, and then 1,000 or 2,000 readers would be possible.”

Most people started reading it because it circulated. And some of them took extreme measures. There were some artists who stopped making art because they had read [Ferdinand de] Saussure before. Michael Oblowitz, who was also working with Semiotext(e), had a big Lacan book under his arm when he was teaching his classes. And he said, “I don’t know why people are afraid of me.” It’s snobbery in a good and bad way. In America, they always want to be first, but they are very open to embracing things, which is exactly the reverse of what was happening in France. In France, culture is for the elite. Culture is something separate. In New York, I was kind of lost, but I discovered that to be on your own is such an incredible experience. I was just like anyone else. I didn’t have to know Foucault’s sources to be able to understand his work. In a way, it was also a possibility of starting out, which was something totally new for me. The idea is always: when you don’t live in your country, then you create a floating island. That’s how you can survive. I realized very early on that if I had to survive in the American culture, where I felt so different from them, I had to create a kind of puzzle of people, who created a context for the culture, with the culture that existed.

DONATIEN GRAU — Now Semiotext(e) is a bit of a mythical thing in American intellectual and artistic history. What do you think you achieved with Semiotext(e)?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — People didn’t read the magazine. They were dancing with the magazine. All these clubs that we were going to — those were our readers. The issues often had themes, the theme of the night [for example]. When we were publishing a book, I would come up with a theme, and then people were coming for Semiotext(e) in a club. The fact that we’d been making all these events was maybe different from any other magazine because we were already a cultural magazine. We created events. We published artists. But what was important for me is the fact that whatever I did, I didn’t want to belong anywhere. That’s why I wanted to reach the culture at large and not be an academic, not be an artist, not be a lmmaker, and not be one thing. Same thing for my career. I published all the chapters that could have ended up in my book on the theory of the novel. Each was a different century, so that I could never be cornered and put somewhere. Basically, I always wanted to escape. When you escape, you just go someplace you don’t know in advance. And I was going to some other place. I was always attracted to the other place. I had to learn something along the way. It’s not heroic. Culture was not something I had. Culture is something I built. And it was easier to build a culture in the States, where nothing is closed. I had holes everywhere. But holes aren’t so bad because you can ll them in any way it happens. It happened along the way. But no one could tell that I was a fake.

DONATIEN GRAU — And did you have a feeling at that time in New York that there was something like an avant-garde?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER— We didn’t call it a counterculture anymore because that was the 1960s. For us, it was more like the last of the avant-gardes. In France, an avant-garde is a literary avant-garde; it includes painting, too, because people have to live off something. Here, the idea that the avant-garde was a group of guys simply didn’t work. So you have all sorts of people, and they all kind of went to each other’s events. Dancers were not just dancers. At the time, it was a community where they were the very, very informal participants in the arts scene. The avant-garde, to me, was more the rock avant-garde. It was the Rolling Stones and all the other bands. The first milieu was punk. And punk wasn’t political — they were against politics. But they were very much into music, popular music. So I got involved in both right away. I had never heard rock before I arrived in New York. I had never smoked dope. I think that’s what made something possible: I didn’t have preconceived ideas of what should exist and what shouldn’t exist. I just followed what interested me. And it happened. It happened to be the time to do it. Pat Steir and her friends were part of the old art world. And the old art world had nothing to do with the punks. It’s only at a certain date, when there was a turn from neo-Expressionism to neo-conceptualism, that the art world started feeling a bit threatened by what was happening on the punk scene. I saw the first artists go in hiding to their first punk concert in the East Village: Richard Serra and Vito Acconci. There was a changing of the guard. Punk and popular culture were taking over from the classical, artistic avant-garde. There was a floating moment, which is when we started publishing the books. Neo-Expressionism brought painting to New York, something that could be sold. At the time, prior to that, the little art world could exist on its own. There were three or four galleries, which did not sell anything. And then all that changed.

Semiotext(e) was not that known, but known enough to be part of that. I was very tolerant. I liked going to clubs, and I liked having a joint here and there and trying just about everything. But I also liked the neo-conceptualists. Even more, I liked the post-minimalists, the conceptualists. I’m not making any of it exclusive. For one reason, because I don’t really absorb things emotionally. So I can accept things that don’t go together. It’s ne with me. The only culture I couldn’t reach was mine. That was a problem. But I didn’t know that was a problem. I’m constantly exposed to different things, and somehow I just try to get the best of it. And then I discovered there’s something that could be done. So, basically, putting together philosophy and art is something that I experienced, right at that time. The philosophers we were bringing in had no idea what art was. They were not trained that way. I was Americanizing the French philosophers, and they were philosophizing the artists.

DONATIEN GRAU — You were very engaged with downtown nightlife. Can you tell me about that?
SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER — It was strangers in the night. People I met would be strangers, and I would get to know them. Like foreigners — the Foreign Agents series, which we created with Semiotext(e). A “foreign agent” is the administrative phrase for a spy. And those spies are the people I wanted to be with. It was the person I was. I wanted to have a sort of covert action. Even parties were part of that — a covert action to the intellectual world. I wanted to create a special America. New York, such as it was at the time, I totally adhered to. Schizo-Culture, for me, equals New York. That’s it. That’s what I was thinking. New York is a place, with Columbia, academia, artists, Harlem, music, dance, art — there was so much to take in and bring somewhere else. That’s what I did. The fact that I was a stranger to all was very helpful. I had no prior connection. People I met, I met them not because they were part of this or that, but just because I liked their work or I liked them. It was more pragmatic, and that’s why I felt I was more American than the Americans because the Americans were not pragmatic enough.


[Table of contents]

F/W 2016 issue 26

Table of contents

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY


purple TRAVEL

purple PHILO

purple SEX

purple NIGHT

purple STORY


Subscribe to our newsletter