Four Decades of Semiotext(e)

The radical journal and independent publisher has long been an open-ended enterprise, the product of innumerable people and their own tangled itineraries

Visual from the ‘Schizo-Culture’ conference, Columbia University,  New York, 1975

Visual from the ‘Schizo-Culture’ conference, Columbia University, New York, 1975

The epigraph of Semiotext(e)’s collection Hatred of Capitalism reads ‘To the Memory off an Era (1974–2002)’. At least that’s what it says on my copy, ripped off from somewhere online, a PDF of an ebook or OCR’d, typos and all. Although you wouldn’t know it, it really has been nearly 40 years since the beginning of Semiotext(e), the radical journal and independent publisher. Timing has never been their strong point: even at the time, the period 1974–2002­ spread beyond the limits of the press’s historical existence. The original collective actually got together in 1973, and Hatred of Capitalism arrived in 2001, toasting a memory of the future.

Perhaps it would be better to start in the middle. Again, this arrived early, with the 1975 ‘Schizo-Culture’ conference in New York on prisons and madness – an explosive encounter between French thinkers (including Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault), American artists and writers (like John Cage and William S. Burroughs) and radicals (such as Judy Clark and Ti-Grace Atkinson). It blew up then quickly disappeared, but looks in retrospect like the buried centre of the press’s activities ever since. Still, that was a long time ago. Before the dust settled, Semiotext(e) was already elsewhere: with political prisoners or Los Angeles punks; squatting with post-Marxists in Italy; or growing up gay in Morocco.

Semiotext(e) is a group of three: Sylvère Lotringer, Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti. Lotringer has been around since the beginning, Kraus joined in 1990 and El Kholti in 2004, and the press is a collision of their separate and shared interests, which span theoretical fictions, feminist manifestos, queer histories and much more. They are usually associated with the rise of ‘French Theory’ (an all-American creation) and the wild success of books like Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations; published by Semiotext(e) in 1983, it has reportedly sold more than 20,000 copies. But the reality is more complicated – a mix of high theory and low culture, ‘theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession’. In fact, the press could be better understood as a complex sensibility all its own: no wonder it's been invited to next year’s Whitney Biennial to participate as an ‘artist’.

Far from the work of any single individual, Semiotext(e) has long been an open-ended enterprise, the product of innumerable people and their own tangled itineraries. Another key name is Jim Fleming, their co-editor for nearly two decades and still an instrumental figure within ongoing anarchist publishing collective Autonomedia, which also merged with Semiotext(e) from time to time. Looking through the archive at New York University, I made a long and intriguing list of ‘lost’ issues – many guest-edited, some of them more-or-less complete – on everything from nomadism and panic to right-wing evangelists and flesh-eating bacteria. Other issues were kidnapped en route – the earliest edition of the journal, a collection of papers on semiotics, was hijacked in a paranoid group dispute, whereas a 1984 edition, titled Oasis: Fourth World, was produced in secret and given to Lotringer with an ultimatum: ‘Take it or leave it.’

The later ‘stolen’ issue, despite looking incredible on paper – contributors include Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Nuruddin Farah, Chris Marker, Sun Ra and Wole Soyinka – lacked the anarchic spirit of previous issues, and the press subsequently moved its focus to books. Yet this thread of quick, ephemeral publishing has recently resurfaced with Animal Shelter (2008–ongoing), a diverse journal-cum-zine on art, sex and literature edited by El Kholti, which is about to publish its third issue. Presented as a ‘mix-tape’, it’s a kind of Semiotext(e) universe in miniature, each issue a highly personal/interpersonal evocation of the feel of a particular moment in time.

Issue one of Animal Shelter is about friendship and seduction, and bears traces of the la scene that gathered around Janet Kim’s Tiny Creatures gallery from 2006. In Kraus’s Where Art Belongs (2011) – a sort of manifesto for non-art-world art – El Kholti notes: ‘The place becomes at once a music school, a screening room, a performance space, an art gallery […] but mostly it’s a fragile proposition. I suspect that part of that may come from the fact that [Kim], like me, comes to the culture from the outside. When you’re an outsider, Culture retains an element of strangeness. It’s a learning process, you have to make it yours, and this brings an element of surprise to your choices.’

With an office in LA but hailing from France, New Zealand and North Africa, the Semiotext(e) editors are well placed for such strangeness. In the introduction to Hatred of Capitalism – a pillow-talk non-history of the press – Kraus and Lotringer chat about the ‘suspended time’ of la and the ‘Californisation’ of Semiotext(e). Where they once believed it existed on the edges of cultural ‘centres’ (1970s–’80s New York, say), they now locate the margins wherever they can, ‘finding issues that are urgent in the midst of this diffusion’. As Kraus explains: ‘The texts […] are less important than the mesh effect they produce together […] it’s more like an atmosphere of meaning than any particular meaning.’

Kraus is well known for bringing a wave of experimental writers – mostly American, mostly female (such as Cookie Mueller and Eileen Myles) – to the press during the 1990s, in a deliberate attempt to ‘go the other way’ after 15 years of publishing older white males. Kraus’s plan for the ‘Native Agents’ series was to articulate ‘a personal, polemical, non-introspective “I” […] the same public “I” that gets expressed in these other French theories.’ In fact, Kraus’s own work turned out to be the best example of this crossover, and her latest book, Summer of Hate (2012), returns again to the politics of ‘Schizo-Culture’ and the prison interviews of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Dhoruba al-Mujahid bin Wahad and Assata Shakur (from the key Black Panther text Still Black, Still Strong, 1993), updating questions of race, incarceration and control for the terrifying prison-industrial present.

Despite the diffuse ‘mesh effect’, the politics of the press emerge strongly. From the ‘post-political’ autonomism of Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato and the French collective Tiqqun, to the prescient and obnoxious extrapolations of Baudrillard, Semiotext(e) has long been a source of irritation in certain circles – and figures such as Alain Badiou, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek are notable by their absence. Whilst sharing classic ‘left’ concerns, and publishing Antonio Negri and Félix Guattari’s Communists Like Us (1990) at a time when the c-word was still offensive, the emphasis is to push at the limits of established thought (left, right or whatever). And whether it comes from Deleuze or good old American pragmatism, this approach tends to be affirmative and practical: instead of endlessly critiquing, you do something about it.

As a child of the 1990s, much of this history was before my time. But when I did finally encounter Semiotext(e)’s ‘atmosphere of meaning’ it felt strangely familiar. In fact, their concerns had improbably re-emerged through pop culture, in the uk at least, via the 1980s music scene; a tradition now mappable to a whole generation of artists, bands and thinkers, growing up with that legacy and working it out for themselves. Like so many others, I got my primer on the real meaning of ‘theory’ in the diy subcultures of the 1990s. It seems no accident that so many of Lotringer’s early interviews for the journal were with musicians, and that he organized several No Wave shows in 1978. Even the books sound like records: Foucault Live (1989), Burroughs Live (2000).

And these moments recur in unexpected ways. Lotringer is currently working on a film project based on Antonin Artaud’s time on the Aran Islands, and I had the great pleasure of holding one of the cameras. The project was part of a series of events organized by Irish curator-filmmaker Katherine Waugh and a collaboration with three locally-based artist/filmmakers, Tom Flanagan, Maximilian Le Cain and Vivienne Dick. It turned out that Dick, who was also helping on the shoot, played with Lydia Lunch at a show Lotringer had organized at the Ukranian Ballroom in New York in 1978. Neither she nor Lotringer had any idea. On the boat back to the mainland, I asked him about Semiotext(e) present and future: Lotringer said he was a little concerned that they are now too visible, too successful. But, no matter. Either way, Semiotext(e) will just keep doing what it’s doing.

David Morris is a writer based in London.

Issue 157

First published in Issue 157

September 2013

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2019
Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

frieze magazine

May 2019

frieze magazine

June - July - August 2019