Sylvère Lotringer (1938-2021) – Artforum International


The famous French thinker Sylvère Lotringer, a shooting star in the twin galaxies of literary criticism and cultural theory, died on November 8 at the age of eighty-three from an illness. From the 1970s, Lotringer reshaped the American literary scene through the journal Semiotext, which he began to publish while teaching at Columbia University. The journal became an independent publishing house of the same name, which, thanks to its English translations of their texts, introduced to American readers French giants of philosophy such as Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Paul. Virilion.

Lotringer was born in Paris in 1938 to Polish Jewish immigrants who had fled Warsaw in 1930. His early childhood was marked by the Nazi occupation of Paris, and in 1949 he moved with his family to Israel. Lotringer returned the following year to join the socialist Zionist youth movement Hashomer-Hatzair, of which he would remain a member for eight years, eventually becoming a leader within the organization. In 1958, he entered the Sorbonne, where he co-founded, with Nicole Chardaire, the literary review The Bow, and started contributing to Paris-Letters, the journal edited by the Association des Etudiants Français. To avoid being drafted into the French struggle against Algerian colonial independence, a battle he did not support, he pursued a doctorate, enrolling at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. There, under the supervision of Roland Barthes and Lucien Goldmann, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the work of Virginia Woolf, while working as a correspondent for Louis Aragon’s journal. French Letters. After a brief stint teaching for French cultural services in Turkey, he accepted a teaching position at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania before landing at Columbia University in New York in 1972.

Two years later, Lotringer along with his then partner Susie Flato and graduate student John Reichman began publishing Semiotext, which presented in a revolutionary way the low or pop culture of the moment alongside experimental thought. “I was looking for a way out of academia”, he said the Brooklyn train‘s Joan Waltemath in 2009. “The magazine became the ticket.” After a shaky start, the publication gained attention with the issue “Schizo-Culture”, which followed a conference of the same name that Lotringer had just organized in Columbia, at which American cultural figures such as John Cage and William Burroughs for the first time encountered French post-structuralist figures such as Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and Lyotard. Problems over polysexuality, autonomy, German culture, and the concept of the oasis followed, with art frequently appearing without a caption and explanation alongside a complex theory. “The magazine was made up of misplaced visual clues bouncing off unexplained texts,” Lotringer noted. “We could treat our readers like adults and have fun at the same time. “

As the publication grew in popularity, Lotringer, discouraged by the evolution of the art world towards an increasingly capitalist model, turned to the publication of a series of hard theory books prefaced by no introduction and appended with no explanation. Inaugurated by a translation by Baudrillard Simulation (which served as the basis for the 1999 film The matrix) and originally known as ‘Little Black Books’, these became Semiotext’s Foreign Agents series (e), and eventually included Pure war, Lotringer’s book conversation with the “speed philosopher” Virilio, and Deleuze and Guattari’s book On the line, whose “Rhizome” column anticipated the rise of internet culture.

Over the following decades, Lotringer’s Semiotext (e) would publish books on a wide range of diverse topics, including the 1980s Italy: Autonomy – Post-political politics, developing the platform for the Italian movement of post-Marxist autonomy; the 1992 anthology Still black, still strong, who elucidated the position of the Black Panther Party; and the 2003 Ramallah report, by Israeli journalist Amira Hass; and two other book-length conversations with Virilio. Despite his claim that he wanted to leave academia, Lotringer taught French literature and philosophy for thirty-five years at Columbia. Lotringer, who is survived by his wife, Iris Klein, was awarded the French Order of Arts and Letters in 2015.

Although the texts he published were often tortuous, Lotringer stuck to a simple and overriding principle. “Never give people what they want,” he said, “or they’ll hate you for it.”

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