Radical Thought

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It takes some balls, in the current climate, for a small press to release an anthology of its first quarter-century under the title Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 430 pages, $16.95). Then when you look inside you see the title was not suggested by one of Semiotext(e)'s dogmatic revolutionaries like Ulrike Meinhof, but by the wacky filmmaker Jack Smith. It takes the edge off.

That sort of wedding, or cross-breeding, of the political and the arty, of high intellectualism and playful irascibility, has characterized Semiotext(e)'s best output since 1974. This idiosyncratic, intentionally nonchronological anthology, edited by Semiotext(e) honchos Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus, offers a pretty good but hardly exhaustive glimpse of the press' nonprogrammatic program.

On the one hand (Lotringer's), Semiotext(e) has translated and put out in affordable nonacademic volumes most of the stars of French and French-influenced postmodern theory of the late 20th century, like Bataille, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Foucault, Guattari, Lyotard, Virilio, Wolfson. On the other hand (Kraus'), it put out small tomes by many big names of American downtowny or "transgressive" literature from the same epoch, including Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, Burroughs, Bob Flanagan, David Rattray, the latecoming Michelle Tea, Lynne Tillman and David Wojnarowicz. And an assortment of other variously interesting characters, like Meinhof, John Cage, French filmmaker Chris Marker (1962's La Jetee, which inspired 12 Monkeys) and Cookie Mueller. (I'm not a fan of all those names. A few of my favorite Semiotext(e) titles over the years: Baudrillard's Simulations; Semiotext(e) SF; Mueller's Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black; Flanagan's The Pain Journal; Ann Rower's If You're a Girl; Rattray's How I Became One of the Invisible.)

The excerpts in Hatred span from '74 to a few titles Semiotext(e) will be putting out this year. Among the Frenchies, it's chilling now to read Baudrillard writing in the 80s about Baader-Meinhof and speculating that "Terrorism is not violence in itself; it is the spectacle it unleashes that is truly violent. It is our Theater of Cruelty, the only one that remains... Like a crystal thrown into an unstable solution or an experimental matrix, terrorism is an insoluble equation which makes all the variables suddenly appear. Terrorism offers a flash, a scenario, a condensed narrative?opposing the purest form of speculation against every event said to be real. It is a ritual, opposing political and historic models in the purest symbolic form of exchange." And, "The force of the terrorists comes precisely from the fact that they have no logic. The others [i.e., the authorities] do: it is quick, effective, flawless, without scruples: it is why they 'win.' If the terrorists had one, they would not make the errors that they do, but they would no longer be terrorists."

That's as good as, maybe better than, the bit he wrote about Sept. 11 that's translated in the February Harper's. His thoughts are oddly mirrored in a short proclamation issued by Meinhof from behind bars in 1974, in which she states, "The Guerrilla has no real viewpoint, no basis from which to operate. Everything is constantly in motion, as is the struggle." Baudrillard and Meinhof couldn't be more different figures. He's theory, she was praxis; he's the intellectual, she was an armed insurrectionist. The way they seem to echo each other's thoughts across the pages is a small example of what I guess we could call the book's interdisciplinary program at its best.

Among the literary writers here, most are exploring the boundaries of the personal and confessional, usually on the dark side: pain, humiliation, revulsion, obsession, submission. (Cf. Kraus, in an excerpt from her book I Love Dick: "Shame is what you feel after being fucked on quaaludes by some artworld cohort who'll pretend it never happened, shame is what you feel after giving blowjobs in the bathroom at Max's Kansas City because Liza Martin wants free coke.")

Those are very 90s downtown-lit preoccupations, and some of this writing is now pretty dated. Still, there are many nice moments here, like David Rattray describing the Pacific as "a warm bathtub filled with an infinity of parasitic and carnivorous beings. One does not feel like stout Cortez." Or Chris Marker musing on his travels in Asia: "I have returned from a country where death is not a partition to cross through, but a road to follow. The Great Ancestors of the Bijago archipelago has described for us the itinerary of the dead, and how they move from island to island according to rigorous protocol, until they come to the last beach, where they wait for the ship that will take them to the other world. If by accident one should meet them, it is above all imperative not to recognize them."

Or this interview exchange:

"Sylvere Lotringer: How did you get the idea to make Flaming Creatures?

"Jack Smith: I started making a comedy about everything that I thought was funny. And it was funny. The first audiences were laughing from the beginning all the way through. But then that writing started?and it became a sex thing. It turned the movie into a magazine sex issue. It was fed to the magazines. Lesbian writers were finding purple titillations. Then it fertilized Hollywood. Wonderful. When they got through licking their chops over the movie there was no more laughter. There was dead silence in the auditorium. The film was practically used to destroy me."

Lotringer, who's been teaching at Columbia since 1972?he's currently teaching a cool-sounding course in Burroughs and Celine, and recently edited a massive collection of Burroughs interviews, Burroughs Live?tells me that the idea of juxtaposing French theory and edgy American lit "was to head off this kind of stupid empty fashion" that turned pomo theory into a campus fad in the late 80s, which inevitably led to the backlash against it in the 90s. "As soon as we realized that this was going to happen, that it was unavoidable, then we tried to head it off by switching from the French to the American," he says. "You may have been into French theory, possibly for the wrong reasons, but in the meantime, we're trying to build a bridge between Europe and America. Bring here things that are intellectually challenging, and bring out, from the States, things that are experimental and are seeking some sort of faults in the culture, and faults in the culture of subjectivity. Because you know, everyone is supposed to be an individual, but the whole society prevents it. So we have a number of people who happen to be mostly downtown, who put themselves on the line and try and see what they can do with this fucked-up American subjectivity and get out of it, and look at the world...

"I mean, look at Sept. 11?all this press, and not one thought. It's horrible. [This is] a very complex time where you can't rely on ideologies."

I caught both Lotringer and Kraus on the day last week when the Voice came out with an arch and patronizing review of Hatred that damned Semiotext(e), this anthology and most of its contributors as "antique" representatives of 80s and 90s intellectual and literary fads. (Baudrillard, for instance, was written off as a former "superstar" who's "now seen more as a minor figure and/or charlatan.") Lotringer complains that this what's hot/what's not approach to intellectual trends is "all about the hype, and snobbery and who is in and who is out... All this is totally uninteresting. I was actually sorry when I saw that towards the end of the 80s, theory was becoming such a major boom. Because I knew it was going to be a bust right after that. For me, theory has nothing to do with that. Things are going so fast and in so many directions and I was trying to present a real range of conflicting perspective that still dealt with the kind of speedy situation we're in?with the breakdown of any sort of intellectual framework. They are very exploratory, and to my mind, it never needed to be boosted up and brought down. They're still completely up to date and raising questions that no one else is asking. It has people thinking."

For her part, Kraus?a former Lower East Side writer/filmmaker who moved to L.A. in '95?wrote off the write-off as "so repugnant in that way that only the Voice can be." She insists that Hatred is in no way intended as a tombstone for a lost Semiotext(e) epoch, noting that the press has recently ramped up from the small Autonomedia to MIT for distribution, and has several new titles besides Hatred coming out imminently.

When I ask about the anthology's risque title, Kraus laughs and explains that they chose it specifically for the way it shape-shifts between the aggressive and the playful. After 9/11, several people suggested they should change it, but she and Lotringer resisted. Lotringer corroborates: "I always expect that people who can read Semiotext(e) have a sense of humor. Most politicos don't have a sense of humor. And if you don't have a sense of humor, you are not alive, because that's a sense of life. If we will go in any direction we have to make sure to keep the sense of alertness, being open to what's happening and putting things together. The title was a big problem. The volume was going to press in September. We said, 'Can we do that?' Then we eventually said, 'Fuck it!' Chris and I, we tossed with the title for a long time... In a sense, because of Sept. 11, the title has become fun. Because really what it brings out is not the psychic self but the way everyone has been using the event to?I mean the event was emotionally charged and outrageous, but what the culture is doing with it is terrible. And this is where capitalism should be hated."

Millionaire's Monkey

As you know, Tony Millionaire writes and draws like a man remembering his own Victorian childhood. Sock Monkey (Dark Horse, 80 pages, $9.95) isn't a comic book, but his first illustrated children's book, no doubt written with Phoebe, his first child, in mind.

It's lovely, like a rediscovered children's classic from the 19th century, best read aloud to someone?not necessarily a child?tucked into bed. Little Ann-Louise lives in a big house where the dolls and toys have come to life. Mr. Crow, the cornhusk doll, the ragdoll and the rest come to terms with a newcomer?Uncle Gabby, the sock monkey. In discussing how they all came to life, Millionaire creates his own child's version of a creation myth. And there's an adventure in the garden involving fairies and a giant goldfish in the lily pond that's just wonderful. Like all the best children's books, it's for kids, but also for the kid in all of us.

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