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How Semiotext(e) Made Theory Cool

Independent press Semiotext(e) helped to break theory out of the confines of academia – and make it a tool for everyday people to deepen their understanding of popular culture.

Sylvère Lotringer passed away on 8 November. Credit: Getty Images

The book is pocket-sized. The title, in bold pink capitals on black, with a grid made up of text from the book around it: PURE WAR. Inside, two people exchange apocalyptic thoughts about war, technology, society, nuclear weapons, and sound both frightened and very excited about it.

When the editor and publisher Sylvère Lotringer, co-author with Paul Virilio, died last month, I thought first of all about this, the first Semiotext(e) book I ever read. I sought it out via an extended mention of it in Simon Reynolds’ book of rock criticism, Blissed Out, where if I remember rightly he uses it to discuss Metallica. Both books were published in the mid-80s, though I read them a long time after, in the early 2000s.

Speaking for myself, as an undergraduate who found “Theory” – as it was taught in University departments, in how-to-books called things like Beginning Theory, to be boring, an unrewarded effort – both books were a revelation, and I then read every little Semiotext(e) book I could get my hands on. In these, ‘Theory’ wasn’t a way of reading Robinson Crusoe in a more sophisticated fashion, it was a way of writing and thinking that linked up politics and culture and technology and society so that every aspect of became stranger, harsher, more vivid, if not more lucid. It was a force that pulled the scales from the eyes.

Semiotext(e) could be credited as one of the creators of the American world of “French theory”, totally dominant in its universities – a discipline which has made occasional Semiotext(e) author Michel Foucault into the most cited man in history, and which settled a long time ago into a form of scholasticism. They started off as a journal in the 1970s, but what reached pop culture fans in Britain in the 1980s was a series of bumper issues in the 1980s – on German left-wing terrorism, on science fiction, and on the heterodox Italian Marxism of Autonomia – and those slim books.

They came in two categories – ‘Foreign Agents’, non-fiction books edited by Lotringer, which usually either condensed books by or featured interviews with the likes of Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva and, most often, Deleuze and Guattari, and ‘Native Agents’, edited by Chris Kraus, which had very different but equally ideas-filled, powerful and spiky volumes by fiction or memoir writers like Kathy Acker, Cookie Mueller or Eileen Myles.

Lotringer and Kraus had been on the fringes of New York’s extreme No Wave music scene – I imagine them lurking archly at the back at concerts, much older than most of the participants – and they took a postpunk approach which obviously connected with young British people used to the theory-curious writing you’d find in NME, Melody Maker or The Face, but certainly not in American publications  like Rolling Stone or Maximum Rock&Roll. Semiotext(e)’s book and journal covers looked like Joy Division albums, and they had titles like rock records: Pure War, of course, but also Simulations, Hannibal Lecter, My Father, On the Line, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, Revolt, She Said. This was a long way from Terry Eagleton.

I doubt that Lotringer was ever more than dimly aware of us (at best), but the name ‘Semiotext(e)’ was constantly mentioned in the early meetings founding what later became Zer0 Books. That combination of apocalyptic energy, stark design, dramatic writing and pocket size, along with a way of writing that made radical philosophical and cultural writing seem strange and exciting – these were the qualities we wanted to emulate. Semiotext(e) was often accused of ‘radical chic’, but for us that was a thing to aspire to, in a landscape where radicalism was so often dull, dowdy and moralistic. Moreover, the example of Semiotext(e) explains something about how ‘theory’ can mean very different things.

Some on the left seem to have had a traumatic encounter with the University system, especially in the US. Comfortable posturing is big there, where tenured professors with what is arguably the best job in the world bang on about radical alterity and then go out to lambast ‘Berniebros’ and canvass for centrists. Accordingly, the left has a great many Marxist academics complaining about Marxist academics being too prominent in the socialist movement, which can feed into a sometimes cartoonish approach to class politics, where highly educated and extremely online people ventriloquise the concerns of an imagined hard-hatted 1960s Joe alienated by too much Foucault.

This points to some real problems – the left online does spend too much time talking to itself, it does often fetishise in-group knowledge and ostentatious correctness, and it does have a (rather NME-like, as it happens) fixation on building up and knocking down big names. But what it misses is encapsulated in the way that a book like Pure War and a publisher like Semiotext(e) could reach far beyond academia, and into the much less rarefied world of pop culture.

A generation of people in Britain came to theory through the music press and the fashion press, not through academia. That imprint was all over the bloggers who set up Zer0, none of whom had full-time academic posts. For us, making ‘theory’ books that would be read outside the academy was not about patronising simplification (‘How Derrida can help you understand the Marvel Comics Universe’) but about application. Our main influences were writers who took theory and put it to work in music reviews and features, and musicians who did the same in their records. Scritti Politti’s deconstructed Gramsci, Gang of Four’s 3-minute Situationism, Paul Morley’s stealings from Roland Barthes, Ian Penman borrowing  Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ to describe an approach to music, Kodwo Eshun splicing Detroit techno and Baudrillard, or Simon Reynolds applying Deleuze and Guattari to the roiling chaos of jungle, to name the most obvious examples.

There’s problems with that list – it’s exclusively male, for one thing (though the young Julie Burchill, with her combination of class war rhetoric, Stalinism, cruelty and percussive prose, was much more of an influence than I’d like to admit) but what is so crucial here is that for us, the apparently baffling complexities and paradoxes of theory were connected to a mass culture, the genuinely popular culture of pop music and its many outgrowths. It was worlds away from academic scolding and point-scoring – it was a way of understanding and, as Mark would have said, ‘intensifying’. And via Zer0, I think it’s fair to argue that some of this fed into Corbynism, particularly in its more technophile, hedonistic, full-automation less-work-for-more-pay, three-day-week-and-four-day-bender aspects – those that point beyond just defending the rights won in the 20th century.

It’s fine to recognise the limits of this. Semiotext(e), who have gone on putting out sometimes excellent books under the editorship of Hedi El Khouti and Kraus, called their major anthology Hatred of Capitalism, but capitalism could probably handle being hated by a bunch of Paris-via-New-York hipsters and landlords. Yet unlike their contemporaries in Paris and New York, the late Cold War bores of the Nouveaux Philosophes or the melancholy liberals of the New York Review of Books, Lotringer and Kraus never lapsed into support or apologetics for the status quo. In the early 90s, at a historic low for the left, they put out a book by surviving intellectuals of the Black Panther Party, and another where Guattari and Antonio Negri proudly talked about Communists Like Us. Arguably, Lotringer always retained the basic socialist perspective he had as a youthful Hashomer Hatzair militant, though leavened with heavy doses of despair and irony.

Yes, the apocalyptic sectarianism Semiotext(e) most enthused about, from Autonomia in 1977 to the Invisible Committee in 2007, was always a – sometimes fascinating and exciting – dead end, though the left does not lack for dead ends. It would be foolish in the extreme to apply much of the theory Semiotext(e) published to the practical politics of organising, whether in a trade union, a tenants union or a political party. But there is, and always will be, more to politics than this, and more to understanding the world than working out how to win the next battle. You could do much worse in that understanding than picking up a load of those little Semiotext(e) books and stuffing them in your pocket – making sure they’re visible to passers-by so they know how cool you are. That’s what Sylvère Lotringer would have wanted.