Introduction: The History of Semiotext(e)
By Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer
Introduction to Hatred of Capitalism / A Semiotext(e) Reader 2001
Part 1: Sylvère’s First Dream (June 12, ‘01 – Los Angeles California – 7:30 p.m.)
Chris Kraus: Could you tell me about the dream you had last night?
Sylvère Lotringer: What was the dream?
C: The dream about not having sex. Because, you see, I was disappointed … I moved the bed around here in the room so that everything could be different.
S: But we were having sex. We were just, we didn’t go beyond the crepuscular.
C: Crepuscular Dawn. That’s the title I thought up for the book you’re doing with Paul Virilio. It’s very trans … like a tequila sunrise, pineapple juice getting mixed up with grenadine. But I think the dream was about being middle aged.
S: Let me describe my dream. I never dream, but for the last two nights I remember my dreams. In both dreams, there is a communal situation – a big room like a loft or an office, with people coming and going. Nothing is private. And in the first dream I was trying to make out with someone. I just remember the white sheets pushed aside, the mattress on the floor. People were passing and I was kind of annoyed but somehow having sex didn’t seem so important. Like in Kafka, The Country Doctor, I was looking between people passing by. The bodies themselves were not so important. And then last night, I was in another of these huge halls, but I was lying on my back with my sex erect –
C: You mean, your penis?
S: Awgggh, I hate the word “penis.” As soon as you become physiological, it’s not much fun.
C: Sylvère, that’s all the fun.
S: I mean, I was like the Egyptian Needle.
C: You mean, you had a great big hard on.
S: Yeah. And you were hovering above me like the sky …And, how can you penetrate the sky?
C: That is a beautiful dream.
S: So then, it’s not just you and me, it was people moving around doing their things and I was just trying to do mine and it didn’t matter if it went anywhere or not. It was a feeling of energy and presence and there was a point. You don’t always have to try to make a point –
C: So that is the history of Semiotext(e).
S: Exactly. The Red Army Fraction wanted to make a point, and it was taken away from them. You can only take a disparate action… Disparate Action/Desperate Action… wasn’t that the title of your first play?
C: Yeah – that was how I met you. Of the ten famous people I invited, you were the only one who came.
S: What was it about?
C: It was about coming to the East Village from Wellington, New Zealand and realizing there wasn’t such a thing as politics any more. In New Zealand I was a teenage Maoist, working for trade unions … there was a working class culture that was different from consumer culture, what you’d call “popular” in France… so we had that in common, even though we were different generations. I was wondering how to make sense, or maintain a sense of politics, in a situation that was inherently chaotic and apolitical. Regretting history. Of course that hardly is a topic anymore. But it was one of Semiotext(e)’s big topics. That’s why I thought it was destiny that I should meet you.
S: I was never a Maoist. I only realized later on that in France I had been a Stalinist.
C: Yeah, well. How do you talk about the past without it seeming like an epitaph?
S: Hence my hatred of the penis. Hatred of capitalism.
C: Yeah, but I love dick, ya know? (laughs) What did you think, looking through the book today?
S: I felt that all of it was theory, even when theory wasn’t there. It was so strong. Reading Assata’s interview, Prisoner in the United States, made me think that while we’re supposed to live such a privileged life in our glamorous vacuum it relies on the fact that 1.3 people in this country have just been put away. And that millions of people all over the world and in America are paying for this technological paradise. It’s very upsetting. But the feeling I had was also strength – being connected to something very important, that hasn’t disappeared. When I started Semiotext(e) in 1974 we were in the last gasp of Marxism, and I knew the terrorists were right, but I could not condone their actions. That is still the way I feel right now. What happened is that we forgot that capitalism even exists. It has become invisible because there’s nothing else to see. When I told Baudrillard about this book, he said the title sounded too old-fashioned.
C: He didn’t get the joke.
S: But capitalism hasn’t disappeared. I was trying to disappear for years by doing interviews, but capitalism hasn’t disappeared. Its repercussions are even more momentous than before, but no one can seem to grasp them.
(The phone rings. It’s Mark von Schlegell, who has edited sections of this book.)
C: Mark, what do you think about the book? M: I think it’s fine. I enjoyed the parts I read. I totally liked it.
C: Yeah, but do you think it’s historical or speculative?
M: Probably a bit of both. I think it’s hysterical. What do you want it to be?
C: I want it to be beautiful. (Mark hangs up.) Sylvère, should we move on to another topic? I wanted to say something about this direct, immediate tone of voice we publish in Native Agents. And how it relates to the entire project.
S: When I was doing a lot of interviews it was because I wanted theory to become ideas,that would have a direct impact. That would be grasped as naturally as you breathe.
C: Conversational theory.
S: Yeah. Interviews were one way of doing it. The other was to surround it with other stuff, til it became part of something more fluid and couldn’t be isolated. Documents, images, quotes, ideas being part of some kind of movement that takes you from one thing to the next, and changes everything about the world.
C: Certain things need to be said over and over in order for anyone to hear them. I was reading an essay by Jill Johnston this afternoon, about meeting R.D. Laing. She’d noticed this enormous leap between The Divided Self, written in the late 1950s, and The Politics of Experience, which came out in 1965 or so, and she wanted to know how it happened. She wrote: “I concluded that Laing must’ve been protecting himself professionally by coming on as the high priest of madness without any direct personal information as to how he got there and I determined to ask him why.” She was writing this in 1972, thinking that total disclosure on the part of everyone is the only way we can understand why things are the way they are. Thirty years later this is still so radical: “disclosure”’s gotten mixed up with “confession” … “confession” may be ridiculed but it is basically condoned because it implies personal guilt, the first step back towards the fold, some kind of cheap catharsis. “Disclosure,” the mere statement of facts, bisects reality into cause and effect. This is much more disturbing. But the culture still considers “seriousness” immune from any sort of disclosure. Laing, or any other Great Man, would lose the power of myth if we understood how the myth was constructed.
S: The French avant-garde was looking for things extreme. Capitalism never goes to the extreme, and that’s where you can get it. Can you put madness to some use? Hatred of capitalism is real madness.
C: Well Jill was crazy, and so are a lot of people that we publish. But to me, this idea of total disclosure seems incredibly obvious, factual and benign. Ulrike Meinhof’s manifesto – that was crazy. She was so sensitive to things we hardly notice anymore. The crippling effects of consumer culture – there she was talking about the “masses” – and of professional competition – in which she was obviously talking about herself and her own world. Career is so ingrained now we don’t even question it. Of course, Meinhof was mad. But so is Fanny Howe.
S: The Madness of Truth.
C: To think about anything for very long is delirium.
Part 2: Sylvère’s Second Dream (Next morning – Los Angeles California – 10:45 a.m.)
S: In the dream I had last night I was trying to hide a piece of paper from people who were hounding me. It was several layers thick, like parchment, a piece of text, thick with many layers. A thick piece of paper that I was wearing on me, and I was trying to protect it from people who wanted to grab it, but however hard I tried I could never make it disappear – it was bright red – and then they would always find it, and I had to fend them off. Then the paper turned into some sort of living material – not exactly meat or insect life, but made of layers too. And it was attacking me and I was trying to beat it and take pieces off and get rid of it but it would always grow back, and it was thick and slimy. I didn’t have blood on my hands but I had this meaty feeling, that I was pounding on a piece of meat that wouldn’t let itself be torn away. You put this book together. What do you think it’s about?
C: What I like about the book is that it feels very seamless – that all the different parts of it are pieces of the same organism. In this sense, Baudrillard’s hysteria about the end of politics and Louis Wolfson’s numeric prophecies and Michelle Tea’s descriptions of the wan goth kids of Copley Square and Ann Rower’s druggy memories of Tim Leary circa 1961 are all part of the same thing. Eileen Myles asks if she’s the only person in the room who can’t afford to fix her teeth and Alain Joxe explains how genocidal skirmishes are structurally inbuilt to global capitalism. Every piece of writing in this book is totally polemical. It’s action writing, totally self-aware that it is paradigm. In that sense, all the writing in this book embraces the philosophy of terrorism.
S: At first I didn’t want to do the book because it seemed like a first class funeral. Semiotext(e) never published any manifestoes; therefore it’s preposterous to think that there could be any kind of ending or conclusion.
C: It was nice this morning, working in the garden.
S: Yes, the roses… Pruning.
C: In the place where I grew up, there were these two older women living down the road. Claire and her aunt. I always saw them working in the garden. Claire’s aunt was very old. She dressed entirely in black except for a straw hat. Which had a black veil. She was like an ancient beekeeper.
C: That’s how I pictured what we were doing. (Her eyes mist up.) It was so peaceful.
S: During WWII we had this long narrow garden in the distant suburbs of Paris. We were growing rutabagas – it was the only vegetable that was allowed, and every leaf was full of brown bugs that we had never seen before – they’d come along with the German army and were devouring every bit of food we had. But we had six beautiful rabbits – do you want to hear the whole thing? – We were fascinated by their teeth. I used to put my finger through the mesh of the cage. They were like lions. They snapped off the finger of the neighbor’s little girl. Do you know what became of them? There was one I liked a lot called Blackie… he was black and velvety to touch and I thought his twitching nose was full of wisdom. The rabbits were our food reserve. Every bit of them was used, my father skinned them, their flesh turned black again in the sauce my mother made. We knew that Blackie would turn out that way.
C: So did you save him?
S: No. We couldn’t. There was nothing else to eat. So one day my parents killed it, but my sister and I refused to touch it.
C: That’s a sad story. But so is Nina Zivancevic’s, about the war in Yugoslavia. (PAUSE) I think that we are approaching a Californization of Semiotext(e). The best part of being in L.A. is when you can enter this really suspended kind of time – to just go with the emptiness and float through the day. The texts themselves are less important than the mesh effect that they create together.
S: It’s like what the magazine was doing in New York in the ’70s and early ’80s –
C: Yes, it’s more like an atmosphere of meaning than any particular meaning. Except there was this guerrilla fashion element to it then. Part of reading the magazine was always wondering where you stood in relation to the in-crowd. Now it’s much more open.
S: That’s because there’s no more center, no more edge. But this book is like a homing head, finding issues that are urgent in the midst of this diffusion.