Radical Thought

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



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.


..