Sylvère Lotringer (born 1938) is a literary critic and cultural theorist. A younger contemporary of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Michel Foucault, he is best known for synthesizing French theory with American literary, cultural and architectural avant-garde movements through his work with Semiotext(e); and for his interpretations of French theory in a 21st-century context. An influential interpreter of Jean Baudrillard's theories, Lotringer invented the concept "extrapolationist" as a means of describing the hyperbolic world-views espoused by Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Lotringer is a Professor of Art Theory at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA) in Portland, Maine, where he teaches ethico-aesthetics. He was married to Chris Kraus.
Life and work
Sylvère Lotringer was born in Paris to Polish-Jewish immigrants who left Warsaw for France in 1930. His early life was marked by the Nazi occupation of Paris, which — like his contemporaries Georges Perec and Sarah Kofman — he spent as a "hidden child" with documents forged by the French Resistance.
As an interpreter of French theory, Lotringer has sought to contextualize the pre-modernist origins of "postmodern" French thought. Writing about Jean Baudrillard's childhood, Lotringer reminds us just how far his generation has traveled to reach The Matrix. He recalls the 11-year-old Jean and his grandparents riding an oxcart loaded with mattresses from Reims to Paris during the massive evacuation of the French populace that marked the onset of the War.
In 1949, Lotringer immigrated to Israel with his family and returned to Paris the year after to join the left-wing Zionist movement Hashomer-Hatzair (The Young Garde) and became one of its leaders. He left the movement eight years later.
In 1957, while still at the lycée, Lotringer joined the editorial collective of La Ligne Generale headed by Georges Perec. Taking its name from Sergei Eisenstein's famous film The General Line, this group of brilliant young Jewish men favored Hollywood westerns, slapstick and pre-Stalinist communism. The project was praised by Henri Lefebvre but strongly criticized by Simone de Beauvoir, who found it "politically irresponsible".
Entering the Sorbonne in 1958, Lotringer created with Nicole Chardaire L’Etrave, a literary magazine, and contributed to Paris-Lettres, the journal of the French Students' Association (1959–61). As President of the Sorbonne, he led mobilizations against France's colonial Algerian war. In 1964, he entered the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, VIe section (Sociology) writing a doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf's novels under the supervision of Roland Barthes and Lucien Goldmann. His work was aided by his friendship with Leonard Woolf and his acquaintance with T.S. Eliot and Vita Sackville-West, with whom he conducted interviews published in Louis Aragon's journal Les Lettres Francaises, for which Lotringer served as a correspondent for ten years.
Avoiding French military service in Algeria, Lotringer spent 1962 in the US and two years (1965–67) teaching for the French Cultural Services in Erzurum, Turkey. He finally returned to the US via Australia in 1969 with a teaching appointment at Swarthmore College. He joined the French and Comparative Literature Faculty at Columbia University in 1972, where he is Professor Emeritus.
Arriving in New York City in the early 1970s, Lotringer saw the opportunity to introduce French theorists whose work, at that time, was largely unknown in the US to New York's burgeoning artistic and literary community. Marxism had bottomed out in France and post-’68 philosophers had turned to capitalism, eager to extract from it the subversive energy no longer found in class struggles. Lotringer realized that America could be these theorists’ testing-ground. Playing chess in the West Village with John Cage, Lotringer sensed similarities between Thoreau and the "chance operations" being practiced by Fluxus, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin and others, and the Nietzsche-inspired poststructuralist theorists. Uninspired by the doctrinaire post-Frankfurt School Marxism of the American Left, he sought to introduce independently the more fluid and rhizomatic ideas of power and desire developed by Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Michel Foucault. A few years later he discovered Paul Virilio's theory of speed and technology and Jean Baudrillard's analysis of consumer culture's infinite exchangeability, introducing them in turn into American political discourse.
Towards this end, he founded the journal Semiotext(e) with a group of Columbia University graduate students. After producing three scholarly issues on the epistemology of semiotics, Lotringer and his group staged the provocative "Schizo-Culture" conference on "Madness and Prisons" in 1975 at Columbia University, where more than 2,000 attendees witnessed "show-downs" between Michel Foucault, conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, Félix Guattari, feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, Ronald D. Laing and others. The event helped define a new mode of cultural discourse over the coming decade, and set the stage for future issues of Semiotexte, which abandoned its scholarly format in favor of collaged images and texts by Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Guy Hocquenghem, Jacques Derrida, Heiner Müller and their (as Lotringer saw it) American counterparts: John Cage, William S. Burroughs, Richard Foreman, Jack Smith, Kathy Acker, and others. This provocative mix of street and academy, theory, art and politics, would become Semiotexte's trademark.
In 1978, Lotringer staged "The Nova Convention", a three-day homage to William S. Burroughs at the Entermedia Theater at NYU and Irving Plaza in New York City's East Village. Featuring performances and talks by Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, and Burroughs himself, the event acclaimed Burroughs as "a philosopher of the future [...] the man who best understood post-industrial society", and popularized his work among New York's punk "no-wave" generation.
Recognizing that the collectivity that once marked New York's cultural life was fast disappearing in the 1980s, Lotringer ceased regular publication of the Semiotexte journal in 1985, though book-length issues occasionally appeared into the 1990s. In its place, he instituted the Semiotexte Foreign Agents series – a collection of "little black books" by French theorists. Published with no introductions or afterwords, the books were conceived to present "theory brut" like champagne into the American cultural marketplace. The series debuted in 1983 with Jean Baudrillard's Simulations, excerpted by Lotringer from Symbolic Exchange and Death (Galilée, Paris: 1977) and Simulacra and Simulations (Gallimard, Paris: 1981). An instant classic, Simulations spawned a new art movement and served as the theoretical template for the 1999 Keanu Reeves movie, The Matrix. Simulations was followed later that year by Pure War, his book-length conversation with Paul Virilio, in which the "philosopher of speed" expounded his vision of bunker archeology, accidents and dromology. The last, On the Line, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, included "Rhizome", which anticipated Internet culture.
Defining himself as a "foreign agent provocateur" in the US, Lotringer traveled to Italy in 1979-80 to document first-hand Italy's embattled post-Marxist Autonomia movement and secure their legacy. His participant-observation with the innovative political movement resulted in Italy: Autonomia – Post-Political Politics, a 1980 special publication of Semiotexte.
In 1992, he sought out former Black Panther Dhoruba al-Mujahid bin Wahad, who had just been provisionally released from prison after spending 19 years incarcerated on a charge of "sedition". Lotringer invited Dhoruba to produce a Semiotexte book vindicating and updating the Black Panther Party's position. The result was Still Black, Still Strong, an anthology of writings by Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Bin-Wahad.
In 2001, Lotringer co-edited the ironically titled Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotexte Reader. Released in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the anthology strove to clarify Semiotexte's composite vision of politics, intelligence and radical humor. Summing up the Semiotexte self-styled mission, Lotringer used an observation made to him by filmmaker Jack Smith as an epigraph: "The world is starving for thoughts. If you can think of something, the language will fall into place, but the thought is what's going to do it".
Realizing that the Foreign Agents books of the 1980s were being absorbed within mainstream academe, Lotringer sought out new works that would address global politics from the perspective of activism. He commissioned Israeli journalist Amira Hass' award-winning Reporting From Ramallah (2003), and French military specialist Alain Joxe 's Empire of Disorder (2002) for Semiotexte.
Resuming his dialogue with Paul Virilio in Crepuscular Dawn (2002), he pushed the philosopher to elaborate on the historical antecedents and repercussions of genetic engineering. His third dialogue with Virilio, Accident of Art (2006), expanded the Virilian notion of "accident" to encompass the impact of war on contemporary art.
Teaching 20th century French literature and philosophy at Columbia University for more than 30 years, Lotringer elaborated the connections between modernist literature and fascism in his many lectures, interpreting the "crazed modernists" Antonin Artaud, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille as harbingers of the Jewish Holocaust. As a scholar of the 20th century, he emphasized the experiential, "pre-modern" political roots of French theories that are often misread as cavalier orgies of cruelty, envisaging them as an attempt to create symbolic antidotes to both fascism and consumerism.
A legendary teacher on the order of Lycée Henri IV's famed Alain, Lotringer's classes influenced the work of dozens of his former students, including filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, semiotician Marshall Blonsky, art critics Tim Griffin and John Kelsey, actor Jim Fletcher and poet Ariana Reines. He appears as a quasi-fictional character in Kathy Acker's Great Expectations and My Mother, Demonology, in Chris Kraus' I Love Dick and Torpor and in Eileen Myles' Inferno.
- Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters (2015)
- Pure War (with Paul Virilio), Semiotexte History of the Present, Cambridge: 2008 (first published by Semiotexte Foreign Agents, New York: 1983).
- Overexposed: Perverting Perversions – Pantheon, New York: 1987 and Semiotexte History of the Present, Cambridge: 2007.
- David Wojnarowitz: A Definitive History of Five or Six years on the Lower East Side", Cambridge : Semiotext(e), 2006
- Pazzi di Artaud, Medusa, Milan: 2006.
- The Accident of Art (with Paul Virilio), Semiotexte, Cambridge: 2005.
- The Conspiracy of Art, (with Jean Baudrillard), Semiotexte, Cambridge: 2005.
- Oublier Artaud, Sens and Tonka, Paris: 2005.
- Boules de Suif, Sens and Tonka, Paris: 2005.
- Crepuscular Dawn, with Paul Virilio, Semiotexte, Cambridge: 2002.
- Fous d’Artaud, Sens and Tonka, Paris: 2003.
- The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, Cambridge : Semiotext(e), 2002
- French Theory in America, New York, Routledge, 2001
- Nancy Spero, London: Phaedon Press, 1996
- Foreign Agent: Kuntz in den Zeiten des Theorie, Merve Verlag, Berlin: 1992.
- Germania, with Heiner Müller, Semiotexte, New York: 1990.
- Antonin Artaud, New York: Scribners & Sons, 1990
- Philosophen-Künstler, Merve Verlag, Berlin: 1986.
- Lotringer, Sylvère: "Forget Baudrillard", in Forget Foucault, Semiotexte History of the Present, Cambridge: 2006.
- Bellos, David: Georges Perec – A Life in Words, David R. Godine, New York: 1993.
- Lotringer, Sylvère: Better Than Life, Artforum, April 2003.
- Morgan, Ted: Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, Avon Books, New York: 1990.
- Lotringer, Sylvère and Smith, Jack: "Uncle Fishook and the Sacred Baby Poo-poo of Art", in SchizoCulture, Semiotexte ed. III, 2, 1978.
- Lotringer, Sylvère: "Time Bomb", in Crepuscular Dawn, Semiotexte, Cambridge: 2002.