On Sylvère Lotringer (1938–2021)

The syllabi were aspirational and, in a way, constituted an entire curriculum

My first and most enduring memory of Sylvère Lotringer is of his eyes, a bright, light blue that was like a shade of the absolute. I only ever saw them shining with kindness, amusement, or that “serene irony” Mallarmé writes of in “L’Azur.” Only later, from those who knew and wrote about Sylvère far more intimately, did I realize this made me fortunate.

My second memory is that he was incomprehensible. My first year at Columbia, I’d signed up for his course on Baudelaire and Mallarmé, the first of three I’d take with him. I don’t mean that Sylvère wasn’t making sense, just that I quickly understood I was in over my head. The first poem we discussed was Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” the one that begins “La Nature est un temple ou des vivants piliers/ laissent parfois sortir des confuses paroles./ L’homme y passe à travers un forêt de symboles/ qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.”

I’d studied the poem over a single high school French class, and was acquainted with the basic baccalauréat-level interpretation: a Romantic nature worship hymn, the harmonious synthesis—via transposition and symbolism—of the classical and natural worlds. This made of Baudelaire an unironic, domesticated master, safe for the newer bourgeoisie and the university entrance exam, where “tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, luxe, calme, et volupté.” The symbols that had looked into me were overly familiar.

But then came Sylvère, speaking far too quickly in very advanced French, talking about the rupture between something called “le signifié” and “le signifiant” and someone called “Saussure” and his other concepts of “langue” and “parole,” but also, as was his style, undermining the concept at the very moment of its introduction by talking about Saussure’s later search for encoded anagrams and veiled absolute meanings. And so what I thought I knew well enough transformed into a portal onto something vast “like night and like light” (“vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,” as Baudelaire has it in the same poem)—that is, into the wonderland of what is sometimes identified as “French Theory,” an edifice or a force endowed with its own confusing speech, and which Americans approached through the forest of our native hopes, fears, dreams, prejudices, and names.

Sylvère, however, did not teach “French Theory”—certainly not as a discipline, a discourse, or a machine for squeezing interpretations out of texts, and absolutely not as pre-professional guild initiation. It wouldn’t be accurate either to say that he taught “French Thought” or philosophy or “how to think” in any language. “Because understanding is never enough by itself, it has to seep through in unpredictable ways, through chance or accidents, just being alive, and no one can do that for you. Thinking isn’t just a matter of intelligence, but of necessity,” Sylvère would later write, in the unpublished introduction to the book he was working on before illness overtook him.

Sylvère’s way of creating accidents or chance was like this: He’d come in to the classroom of about five to ten students, depending on the day, and begin thinking aloud about literature, art, and philosophy—in French or occasionally heavily accented English—in a way that I only understood, at some point during my second or third Sylvère semester, was intended to “disorganize” us, his students, regardless of our level. If we asked him to explain “structuralism,” he might lecture on Saussure and Barthes for a while, but then go off into Nietzsche, the schizophrenic writings of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber, and onto Deleuze, thus making clear the limitations of any rage for ordering things. Sylvère encouraged or provoked everyone to excess. Even the French graduate student who gave a seemingly flawless presentation on the idea of “la grève” in Mallarmé and Rimbaud, and who once accused me of working for the police when I asked him how long he was staying at Columbia—a true disciple if ever there was one—Sylvère blew up his presentation, too.

Some of this was normalien debating mode, engrained in him from his own studies with Barthes and from the French university system he hated but couldn’t quite get rid of. But the rest was his own spin on an almost Deleuzian practice: the bringing into being of a flux, the famous “body without organs,” that is the schizophrenic or “disorganized” body that can exist inside and outside itself, borderless and “boundless, as we wish our souls to be”—in Shelley’s phrase. Unlike the propositional logic taught in philosophy courses down the hall, or the “éxplications du texte” taught from a playbook in other French classes, this was a place where the will to mastery was surrendered but not the will to knowledge; where the desire to be carried along exceeded our desires to hold on to what we already thought we had; a place where we lost the need to incorporate, via aggression or possession, other bodies (of texts, of knowledge, of other people).

It should also be said that he could be extremely funny, mischievous, even, though never cruel. That was an additional way the disorganizing worked in practice. He encouraged us to appreciate Proust’s sense of humor, and delivered a hilarious impromptu lecture on irony in Kafka’s “Letter to his Father,” pretty much out of nothing, performing both the role of Kafka and his father.

Another disorganizing tactic: in every Sylvère course there was always too much reading, especially for undergraduates. In his Dada and Surrealism course, for instance, Sylvère assigned three complete novels of Louis Aragon, in addition to the complete works of Breton and Robert Desnos, the complete texts of Bataille’s Bleu de Ciel and L’histoire de l’oeil, along with other selections from Bataille’s theoretical work, and almost the entire contents of the Artaud reader. In the Proust seminar, he simply assigned the entirety of À la Recherche in a thirteen-week semester. There was no way to keep up. The joke was that he’d spend a whole class on a paragraph or sometimes even a sentence, so it became impossible for us to prepare or feel prepared. When we pointed this out, he agreed to let us know ahead of time where his attention might go, but just as often gave us the slip and would begin at yet another unexpected point of departure. That’s not to mention the frequent digressions into philosophy, when prompted by students’ questions, directing us to the relevant passages in Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, or Deleuze and Guattari.

In other words, the syllabi were aspirational and, in a way, constituted an entire curriculum, a mode of life. Mostly I followed them in ways that led me to other teachers’ classrooms and different departments and, in the end, away from “French Theory” pretty much entirely. But this method of scavenging and gliding associatively between bodies has—when I’ve let it—served me better over a lifetime than it ever did in the moment.

It turned out that my Sylvère years were fairly unique or aberrant for him in their conventionality. The Columbia French department was short-staffed and he’d been told, apparently, to up his teaching load for undergrads, and had done so with apparent good faith. (To the horrified pedagogues reading this, I’ll add that Sylvère almost never missed or canceled a class or was a no-show, unlike several of his more professionally respected colleagues.) He corrected my shitty French grammar and wrote thoughtful comments. The door to his office in Philosophy Hall—the Semiotext(e) drop-box affixed to the mail slot and the sticker “Plus Radicale Que Moi, Tu Meurs!” adorning the bubble-glass window—was often open.

As a nervous undergrad, a transfer student without strong connections or interest in the rituals of student life, without close friends, mostly estranged from my family—I always felt welcomed there, either by Sylvère, his daughter, Mia, or his assistant Anya Bernstein—even though my offers to work for Semiotext(e) were always rebuffed. I didn’t have strong political or even aesthetic commitments, then. I didn’t understand that Sylvère was supposed to be “cool,” or theory was supposed to be “cool,” and that in attaching myself to Sylvère I gave off the affect of someone who was trying rather too hard to be “cool.”

In the Surrealism class, I remember becoming friends, for a minute, with someone truly cool: Max Blechman, son of the illustrator R.O. Blechman. A downtown kid, one of those beautiful, sweet boys alight with incipient madness. He’d put together an anarchist East Village magazine, Drunken Boat: Art, Rebellion, Anarchy. I still have a copy (Max interviewed John Cage!). He was auditing, coming up on the subway from Cooper Union, even though his French wasn’t that good, he told me, so we’d meet and I’d translate passages for him before class while he rolled me cigarettes on the Low Library steps; then, one day, he vanished and I learned somehow he’d been hospitalized. My father had died not long before, and I ran in terror from the hint of emergency. I never saw him again. And yet without Max Blechman, without Sylvère, without Drunken Boat and Acéphale, and the single copy of Semiotext(e)’s “Lusitania” issue that Sylvère gave me one day in his office, without the situation created and the atmosphere in those classrooms, I would never have dared found a magazine.

What I’m trying to say about Sylvère was that he attracted and maintained an aura of possibility, and that this allowed me to begin to be myself in a way that I’d never imagined I could be. He didn’t care if I was his best student that year, or if I went to graduate school, or if I became a habitué of whatever was then left of the downtown arts world. It was an education in indiscipline, or liberation, which, if taken seriously, also became a kind of discipline. In other words, Sylvère offered his students exactly what he also, as an interviewer, interlocutor, and then publisher, offered philosophers like Paul Virilio, Black Panther activists, S&M performance artists, and eventually writers such as Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus: the opportunity to further articulate and refine a liberating or liberationist practice, sometimes in the form of resistance, sometimes in creation, or in the synthesis of the two. This was a kind of dignity most of us were unused to being treated with.

What his colleagues and his critics, and possibly many of his students, never could forgive him for was that he made it too easy to take advantage of his largesse—everyone pretty much got an A, and the arbitrary focus of the massive syllabi and his penchant to digress made it easy not to do the reading. He was treated like a mad uncle or a clown. But to use Sylvère to game the system was our failing, not his. Sylvère allowed himself to be exploited, but that was also his way of offering a reproach, against us, against the university, also against himself. “It’s so easy to be a masochist,” he said once, in the Proust class, “almost everyone is. To be a sadist requires hard work.”

Total freedom is also a total ethical demand. If you took Sylvère seriously, as I did, he could make you feel incredibly guilty. And many refused to take him seriously just to avoid feeling that way. There’s a moment in Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor that captures the more intimate and more intense form that guilt could take on in a couple: “Sylvie knew her fate would be linked forever to Jerome’s unhappiness, and so she longed to simply make it disappear,” she writes, “As if she could make it go away through will, or empathy—some act of magical transference. But to think that was as grandiose and futile as believing she could travel back in time and stop the Nazi troops from marching into Austria or invading Paris.”

The unhappiness Kraus writes of is that of Sylvere’s childhood, lost to the war, the years of hiding and deprivation when he was scarcely more than a toddler. That trauma—always beneath the beach beneath the street—was incurable, for him, as for so many who “survived.” But as his student, one sensed that he wanted to give to others that ultimate possibility—not of making unhappiness “disappear,” not of exiting history, but of making it less determinative—that he could not find for himself despite all his playfulness and experimentation.

But guilt, the flip-side of the impulse to take advantage of an atmosphere of permissiveness, is another of those things installed in us that we also have to unlearn in order to achieve freedom. I don’t mean that we should lose our sense of right and wrong (the old canard against postmodernism), but we have to lose our desire to feel guilty—to experience right and wrong only through our own, self-made dramas of forever falling short of someone’s expectations. Guilt can be its own kind of narcissism.1

That was why, even though Sylvère allowed me to become myself, I could never quite find a way to be that self around him. I was too young—in the sense that I had too much to unlearn—when I stepped into his classroom and began, with great struggle and internal resistance, the lifelong project of unlearning that I may never accomplish. I too, even though I had “Proust and Signs” to warn me, mistook signifiers and believed that only by showing myself an adept of the intellectual history and theory of the avant-garde could I deal openly with him and on an equal footing. I also wanted Sylvère to make me feel guilty.

I’ve offered, so far, a mostly intimate, even domesticated remembrance of Sylvère, as I knew him. This is not to ignore the more public side of his life, but to balance the portrayals of him as “an organizer,” a kind of Ken Kesey figure of the French Theory wave. Anyone who knows even a little about him now knows the story of the Schizo-Culture conference.2 It’s boring to recite it. For those who want to know him as a more fully rounded character, Sylvère both exists through and escapes from Chris Kraus’s novels. He was, as she’s said, “a good sport.” But I’m also struck by Sylvère’s perpetual determination to escape being determined, or pinned down, partly by allowing others to determine him when and how they pleased. It wasn’t exactly courageous, but it allowed him a way to be visible and invisible, pinned and free, at the same time.

He also brought that spirit to the work that constitutes his legacy. In that same unpublished introduction, the last piece of writing Sylvère will never turn in on time, he looks back on Semiotext(e)’s evolution and provides something of a warning for those small, would-be autonomous magazines, publishing houses, and cultural institutions who might be tempted by corporate visions of “growth,” “consolidation,” and “success,” or European-style desires to become a “public good” and thus an instrument of some kind of state power.

Unlike the avant-garde, Semiotext(e) never attempted to belong anywhere, and did its best to betray the expectations of those who may have had a nice cage ready for us. The idea always was to find a way out, but it doesn’t exist before you create it, so we kept burning our own traces, abruptly jumping in different directions, losing at every step the readership we had just created.

It was always a message of liberation, if we knew how to listen to it.

  1. One of things traditional conservative teaching methods get right, at the university level, is the way they meet us where we already are. Grade curves, markdowns for lateness, and reliance on a narrow, tailored (corseted) canon of concepts and texts does not instill in us the habits of our own domination. Those habits are already there by the time we get to college! Most Americans, regardless of where they fall on the political debates of the day, don’t want to know whether they’ve really tapped their potential, whether they could have tried harder or done more in their own cause, only if they’ve passed or failed or been admitted to the prestigious program, won or lost. The theory years of the ’70s, and ’80s, which I caught the dying breath of in the mid-’90s, were really the last time Americans were given a shot at their own intellectual liberation. 

  2. François Cusset writes about it in his book that remains the most systematic treatment of Sylvère’s official academic legacy, and which has provided the meat to most of the Sylvère obituaries. To treat it like self-satire, as most readers do, is to miss the point. It’s not like something better and more important for humankind would have transpired if Sylvère had cracked the whip and not allowed Foucault to be accused of being a CIA agent, or prevented Guattari from abolishing his own panel, if it had remained, somehow, an “academic conference.” 

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