Sylvère Lotringer, a French philosopher whose influential Semiotext(e) publishing imprint is credited with spurring an interest in French theory within the New York art world of the 1970s and ’80s, has died at 83. A representative for Semiotext(e) said that Lotringer died of a long illness on Monday in Ensenada, Baja California.
“His big life encompassed many key points of the 20th and 21st centuries,” Hedi El Kholti, managing editor of Semiotext(e), wrote in a statement. “He will be sorely missed by his family, friends, ex-students, and many collaborators.”
Lotringer founded Semiotext(e) in 1974 with a group of students at Columbia University, where he taught in the philosophy department. It began as a journal that was associated with academia, although its tendency toward more avant-garde forms of publishing that included image-heavy layouts and its willingness to print cutting-edge theory later brought it into the fold of the art world.
Nearly 50 years after its founding, Semiotext(e) has obtained cult status in the art world. Through its various books series, it has published tomes by Dodie Bellamy, Hervé Guibert, Natasha Stagg, Paul B. Preciado, the Bernadette Corporation, and Chris Kraus who was romantically involved with Lotringer and included a version of him in her 1997 novel I Love Dick. (Kraus also runs series of books published through Semiotext(e) known as “Native Agents,” which is focused on writings by women. Its name is a reference to “Foreign Agents,” Lotringer’s book series devoted to French theory.)
Within the art world, Semiotext(e) is most closely associated with a 1975 conference called “Schizo-Culture,” as well as a 1978 issue published under the same name. In that edition, Semiotext(e) published English-language translations of texts by Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, all of whom were not well-known to American readers at the time because many of their texts had not yet been translated. Alongside their writings came pieces of writing by filmmaker Jack Smith, composers John Cage and Philip Glass, experimental playwright Kathy Acker, and artists Robert Wilson, John Giorno, and Pat Steir. The issue, with designs by filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and artist Denise Green, was laid out in various fonts and with seemingly unrelated images.
“Schizo-Culture” has been credited with awakening within New York artists of the era a fascination with critical theory. It was widely read—it sold out its first printing, and remained in print for five years afterward. But academics were “nonplussed,” as Lotringer recalled when the issue was republished in a set put out for Semiotext(e)’s 40th anniversary in 2014.
Lotringer said that when he began Semiotext(e), he was not aware that it would attract the interest of the art world. “At the university, which is the only context I had, you have excellent specialists, of course, but everyone is in their little department, in their little career, in their little values, etc. So I was just looking for something else,” he told Purple in 2016. “I didn’t know it would be the art world.”
Evidence that the art world had embraced “Schizo-Culture” and Semiotext(e)’s offerings as a whole was on full display in 2014, when New York’s MoMA PS1 toasted that issue with a special event. The issue “completely saved me from mental suicide,” performance artist Penny Arcade said at that event. Meanwhile, Semiotext(e) also appeared in the Whitney Biennial in a section organized by MoMA curator Stuart Comer. At that exhibition, the publisher exhibited pamphlets featuring writings and works by John Kelsey, Eileen Myles, Julio Cortazar, and Simone Weil.
“I enjoyed the paradox of celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our independent press at PS1 and at MoMA, the two most powerful institutions of the art world,” Lotringer told Bookforum in 2015, when he put out a book about Antonin Artaud called Mad Like Artaud. “It was a great show, but it didn’t make a dent, of course.”
Sylvère Lotringer was born in Paris in 1938. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland; they were forced to keep him hidden during World War II. After the war, his family left France for Israel, though he did not remain there long because his parents had difficulty finding work in the nascent country. Once he returned to Paris, Lotringer got involved in militant Zionist groups.
Lotringer went on to attend the Sorbonne starting in 1958. He started L’Étrave (The Bow), a journal for first-year students, and he began working for Paris Lettres, another student-run publication. Being involved with these publications and leftist causes put Lotringer within the orbit of figures like Roland Barthes, a structuralist theorist now known for his writings on photography. After having spent time in Turkey and Australia, Lotringer came to New York in 1972.
Semiotext(e)’s leadership shifted over the years, with Kraus and El Kholti now serving as co-editors, and its location has changed as well—it moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2001. But ever since its founding, Semiotext(e)’s focus has remained the same: heady writing that is unclassifiable and unafraid to broach big ideas.
Lotringer was determined to continue pushing Semiotext(e)’s offerings in challenging directions. When it became apparent that his “Foreign Agents” series of French theory had been fully absorbed by the New York scene, he widen his scope, tackling conflicts taking place far beyond the U.S. Paul Virilio, whose writings have addressed the connection between war and technological innovation, published works through Semiotext(e), as did Amira Hass, whose 2003 book Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land was widely praised.
Speaking to Hyperallergic in 2014, El Kholti attributed Semiotext(e)’s popularity among artists to its offbeat offerings. “A lot of things end up in the art world because it’s the last remaining place that offers some kind of freedom and a context,” he said. “Experimental film culture is an example of that, and maybe literature and poetry are next.”