Memories of a Semiotext(e) reader

    

While the entire field of relatively autonomous publishing of radical theory in the 70s and 80s is too vast to be covered here, it is worth briefly examining some of the key initiatives in this area as media ecologies, namely Semiotext(e) and Autonomedia, Re/Search, Vague and Rapid Eye, all of which, in markedly different ways, promulgated radical thought and practices beyond any strictly academic or commercial context. Interestingly, one formal characteristic that many of these publications share is a privileging of open conversations, rather than simply finished texts, however diverse the kinds of knowledge they were dealing with were. As such they can be seen as further instances of both minor, anomalous knowledges and media ecologies of radical theory.

The most academic and least zine-like of these publications is undoubtedly Semiotext(e) which, in its current form is distributed by MIT Press. However, its beginnings were very different to this, and arguably more connected to the world of informal and radical publishing than to the norms of academic presses, a point that has been emphasized by Semiotext(e)’s originator Sylvère Lotinrger, and is further evidenced by the relationship between Semiotext(e) and Autonomedia that began in the 1980s when Semiotext(e) started to produce books and that lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As Lotringer has also pointed out, the “theory” or “French Theory” that characterized much but by no means all of Semiotext(e)’s contents was in many respects the invention of this very process of theoretical translation and relocation to North America and was by no means recognized as such in France or other European contexts. For example, whereas figures like Derrida and Deleuze were located largely within a philosophical context, Baudrillard’s work was situated in relation to Sociology and these two domains only really encountered each other through these processes of translation, dislocation and deterritorialization. This is not to say that Semiotext(e) invented theory; there was already at this time a circulation of the work of figures initially associated with structuralism such as Barthes, Lacan, or Foucault, and even in France it was possible to find this kind of “theory” or theorists in relatively non-academic contexts, for example, within the pages of film reviews like Cahiers du cinéma and later in the UK in Screen. At the same time, US journals like October or publishers like Zone Books also were dealing with radical theory, whose roots can be traced to initiatives in Marxist and Anarchist publishing, both of an academic nature, as in journals like Telos and more underground publishing initiatives, especially those associated with Anarchism such as Pluto Press. These initiatives, in turn, derived from the practices and politics of both the New Left and underground press of the 1960s, and bore traces of different counter-cultural genealogies.

In this context, what was new about Semiotext(e) was not theory, or even French theory but new ecology of theory production, dissemination and reception that crossed many of the still existing boundaries between underground, radical, art and academic publication. In Lotringer’s account, Semiotext(e) started as “a magazine I started with a group of friends form Columbia University in 1974” (Lotinger 2001, 128). From the beginning, this project adopted an art methodology as a way of “doing theory” (128) treating the latter as material by “establishing between found material, displaced documents, original essays, interviews, photographs quotes, and so on, what Cage called a ‘non-relationship’ and Deleuze and Guattari a ‘nondisjunctive [sic] synthesis’ ” (128). The reference to Cage in the same breath as Deleuze and Guattari is by no means arbitrary since the avowed purpose of Semiotext(e) was to connect up continental theory with the North American and specifically New York art and intellectual contexts. In fact the first published by Semiotext(e) was not a work of French theory but John Cage book, For the Birds, that had been translated and published only in French, and the English original lost, so it had to be translated back into English from the French. This early act of dislocation and displacement seems a fitting beginning for an enterprise which was not merely aiming to translate “foreign knowledges” into another language but more importantly into a different and fertile context as a type of contagion between the most advance forms of theory and a dynamic context that would be able to make use of these ideas differently, to both how they circulated in their original contexts and how they would have circulated in more academic environments which, in some case, may well have never taken place. This involved a number of publication strategies ranging from the large form of the composite journal issue oriented around a theme such as Schizo-Culture or Polysexuality, which would be just such a disjunctive collections on heterogeneous materials to the small form of the Foreign Agents and later Native Agents series which were cheap, pocket-sized and accessible (due to their shot length) to readers well beyond the usual limits of academic discourses. For example, while English readers had to wait to 1987 to read a full translation of A Thousand Plateaus, small Foreign Agents publications like On the Line (1983), or Nomadology: The War Machine (1986), were able to present to readers some of the key concepts that would be contained within the full work, and in a less daunting and accessible form, often combining works of theory with conversations and dialogs. As Lotringer puts it, this was a case of “Steal that theory!” (128), whose effect was to eroticise theory and integrate it into the spaces of everyday urban life “people would read them with one hand, standing in the subway among all the din and disruption; or they would take them around in ‘downtown’ New York clubs, just for their look, quickly leafing through for the hot passages” (128). Of course, objections could be made that these small books were the distortions of the works they were extracted form and indeed that as the above quote implies, they were a spectacularization of theory in a Debordian sense, or radical theory as hip fashion accessory. Nevertheless, these small and cheap books did achieve some of the functions desired by authors such as Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, of making thought available in a usable form, and one that was, more successfully than Anti-Oedipus, addressed especially to younger, non or quasi-academic readers, people more likely to actually do something with these ideas, even if this something was more likely to be art than politics. The fact that these books would be read by academics but not quoted by them is proof, for Lotringer, of their anomalous status in relation to official academic knowledges, their “Outlandish” and “illegitimate” nature as scholarly objects.

Much of this appropriation of theory might seem to be an aestheticization, or a kind of “theory for artists”, which was certainly well attested to by the subsequent love affair for figures like Baudrillard initially among the New York art scene but then expanding globally, certainly to reach contexts as distant as Australia. In this sense, for better or worse, Semiotext(e) played a key role in the emergence of the discursive paradigm of postmodernism, and was generally provided much of its required theoretical reading amongst its proponents in art schools, media and communications programmes and film, music and art scenes more generally. Nevertheless, Semiotext(e) was not without its political moments, and in fact was very much oriented around the idea that the knowledges it was making available were not only intellectually or aesthetically but politically subversive. The first Semiotext(e) event, the Schizo Cultures conference on prisons and madness in 1975, which would form the basis of one of the first issues of the journal, was apparently the site of considerable contestation and antagonism with “two thousand people ‘flocking’ uptown to argue about psychiatry and repression with Foucault and R. D. Laing” (Lotringer 2001, 140). While some theorists like Foucault were accused of being CIA spies, others, like Guattari, were heckled by radical feminist groups, while Lyotard challenged his colleagues to abandon the post-Marxist “grand narratives” which he claimed were still operative in their work. This led Foucault to claim derisively that it was less a conference than “the last counter-culture event of the 60s” (Foucault cited in Lotringer, 140) and Guattari referred humorously to there being a “CIA virus here that seems to have contaminated many people … and I can’t help wondering if I haven’t caught the bug” (Guattari 1996, 7). All of this has to be seen in ecological terms as the effects of transplanting theory from the French academy into the fertile soil of New York political and artistic milieus at a moment when the latter were in a maximum degree of disarray as a variety of radical aesthetic and political projects ranging from happenings to armed guerilla struggle were falling apart without any new paradigm to replace them, while at the same time shocking revelations about the level of state and secret services involvement in the surveillance and even elimination of those involved in radical politics had recently emerged in the form of the CONINTELPRO files. Nevertheless, however chaotic or even self-destructive this event was, it was nevertheless the sign of the intimate “disjunctive synthesis”, of theory with political and aesthetic practices enacted by Semiotext(e).

A more serious attempt at political engagement was evident in the events leading to the 1980 publication of the volume Autonomia: Post Political Politics (1982). This presentation of both radical Italian political thought and dossiers on the arrests of key actors in the Autonomia movement was more than a decade in advance of any substantial engagement with even the more intellectual aspects of this experience, which only began with the translation of the work of the relatively safe authors such as Agamben and Virno’s Radical Thought in Italy collection in the mid 1990s. The Autonomia issue combines, under the heading of “The Impossible Class”, a range of key statements of radical Italian political thought (and French political intellectuals like Guattari and Alliez), including the situationist interventions of Sanguinetti and Debord already referred to, which were not yet acknowledged even by the Italian radical left. More than this, it contained substantial dossiers on the Autonomia arrests, as well as the debates surrounding the Red Brigades in the wake of the Aldo Moro affair, including both the texts of direct participants in these radical organisations and those of other engaged observers. All of which is accompanied by a range of graphic art, photography and even a graphic novella of the Moro affair. Several of these texts will be returned to in following chapters but for now it is important to emphasises just how radical this assemblage of materials was, not as a mere repository of information about otherwise under-documented events but as type of textual ecology in which an entire world of political contestation was presented in a kaleidoscopic manner, articulating multiple radical perspectives on these events of both insiders and outsiders, without privileging any singly or collective position as being hegemonic. Of course, the argument could be made that this was simply to reduce these events to a spectacular form, in which drama in privileged over historical understanding, and the lack of filtering results in incoherence for any-one not already well versed in these specific political conflicts and antagonisms. Nevertheless, despite these weaknesses, what distinguishes this volume from later collections on radical Italian thought and politics is precisely its immediacy and closeness to the events themselves which, in relation to the arrest and charges against Autonomia members were very much ongoing events. In other words, this volume was characterised by the time of the now, or Kairos, inasmuch as it sought to intervene in an unfolding situation, to translate it into an American context in which its contents might be put to political use, rather than merely understood in an academic way. This corresponds with Lotringer’s own recollections of the volume which, he claims, was direct response to the arrests of figures like Antonio Negri and Franco Piperno, in the process of which Semiotext(e) “appealed to other ‘radical’ academic journals for political solidarity” (Lotringer 130). Apparently only Telos responded, and then only falteringly, underlining the point for Lotringer that so-called radical critique often fails the “reality test” and is more a form of rhetoric evident of a “culture of resentment” (130). The point is not to further turf wars over the correct form of radical engagement but to make real connections, and this took place in Semiotext(e)’s case via the radical collective book publisher Autonomedia.

     

The decision (now no longer the case) to publish by means of an independent radical book collective was integral in maintaining the radicality of Semiotext(e) and distinguishing it from other more conventionally academic initiatives in radical theory. It has also led to a good deal of confusion as to what the distinctions were, if any, between Semiotext(e) and Autonomedia, especially since key people such as Jim Fleming were integrally involved with both. Autonomedia can in many ways be seen as a response to the Autonomia project, both making it possible for Semiotext(e) to publish books independently of academic or commercial presses and also to enable other forms of radical publication, not limited to a particular political party or line, an open model that would be taken up in numerous other radical publishing initiatives like A.K. Press and would lead to numerous collaborations with other radical publishing organisations such as the Midnight Notes collective. Semiotext(e) and Autonomedia can therefore be seen as being in a symbiotic relationship, at least throughout the 80s and 90s, but even at the times of greatest symbiosis there was still a distinction, between the mix of theory and creative writing that largely characterized the output of Semiotext(e) and the more politically engaged work that included books engaged with autonomous and other Marxisms, anarchism, struggles against imperialism and colonialism, cyberfeminism, psychedelia and queer anarchist fiction to name only some of the “genres” to be found in the Autonomedia catalogue. A key figure in Autonomedia was Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, whose Temporary Autonomous Zone or in its original title Chaos: The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism, was certainly one of the most widely distributed Autonomedia as opposed to Semiotext(e) publications. This undefinable text, part manifesto, part prose poem, dealing with matters ranging from amour fou and poetic terrorism to Sufi Mysticism, was expressive of a desire for radical heterogeneity of political thought, or what Foucault has described as a heterotopia. This heterotopia or temporary autonomous zone was not just the subject of Bey’s book but what Autonomedia as a whole was aiming to incarnate in its multiple collaborations that ranged from more conventionally left initiatives as described above to the publication of the at once political, aesthetic and technological interventions of Critical Art Ensemble, who have published all six of their books with Autonomedia. For Bey, in a 1995 interview in Cyber Psycho, what was crucial about both Autonomedia and Semiotext(e) was their gift economy, whereby there are no salaries , often no royalties and this minimising of expenditure is translated both into low prices and a high output of work: We do this for specific political reasons, because we believe in what we publish, we want it out there, and we want it cheap. It’s run as a collective and we have other sub-collectives that come in and make proposals to us. These people invariably work for nothing, they work on a project because they want to work on a project. It’s important and, if we agree, we publish it” (Bey 1995). This might seem to be a similar problematic to the one that has been recently been critiqued by Tiziana Teranova, in relation to digital culture, as “Free labour.” However, there is a key difference in that it is not a case of freely given labour time being monetized and then sold for corporate profit but rather a collective assemblage of enunciation that gives time towards a project that every-one involved from authors to translators and publishers considers worth doing, with a price designed to cover costs rather than be appropriated in the form of individual wealth. In this sense no-one is exploited, or every-one exploits themselves in order to realise a collective project they believe in, even if such a gift economy is difficult to sustain in a capitalist environment. In other words, what distinguishes Autonomedia from an academic publisher of radical theory like Verso or Zone books is precisely the political choice not to operate as a business, or in other words to constitute a different, post-capitalist ecology, with more in common with contemporary Peer to Peer networks than the post-Fordist exploitation of free labour. In this sense presses like Autonomedia and publications like Semiotext(e) are not just involved in producing radical theory but attempt to embody it in a living, mutating heterotopia.

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About michaelgoddard

Researcher of film and media especially radical media ecologies, East-Central European film, visual and media culture, (un)popular musics, alternative media and media and political theory
This entry was posted in Radical Theory, Uncategorized, Zines and Radical Publishing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Memories of a Semiotext(e) reader

  1. hedi el kholti says:

    HI Michael,
    I really enjoyed reading your text on Semiotext(e). You really nailed it. Just a small factual error. Semiotex(e) is not an imprint of MIT. It is only distributed by it. It has remained autonomous.
    Thanks,
    Hedi

    • Thanks Hedi,

      I will change the text accordingly and especially if it shows up anywhere else….as I hope you could tell from the post I am a big and long-time Semiotext(e) fan…..

  2. parkergarden says:

    Reblogueó esto en parkergardeny comentado:
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