Sylvère Lotringer, The Man Who Disapperead

New York & After


You’ve lived in France, Israel, Scotland, Australia, Turkey, England, and the United States: in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. You’re now living in Los Angeles and Baja, Mexico.

Yeah and I have to add that I’ve always had two places every time. When I was in New York, I had a place upstate near Canada, near Montreal. Part of it is that I couldn’t afford to have a place in New York, so I would just go back and forth from upstate — it was about a four-hour drive — and then teach Tuesday and Thursday. I spent the night with friends. Here it’s the same thing. There’s LA and there’s Mexico. It’s like I need to be on only one foot at a time.

One foot at a time.

I like living two extremes at the same time. For instance, in upstate New York they were like mountain people — hunters and trappers coming from Canada with furs. In the winter it was like you were enclosed in the mountains and the biggest forest in the country. Then I would go to the East Village, and to teach at Columbia. I would stay in the East Village for two or three days. I like the fact that one upset the other. Reality is too contradictory for people to live just one life. You have to have two. It’s the same with Mexico. I’m here in LA and then at the same time I’m in Mexico. America is a pretty dangerous place at times if you are a colored person, but Mexico is very extreme too, in a different way. I think it’s just a matter of keeping a balance, of staying sane and living contradictions and learning from them. I like the fact that we’re in Mexico and have a foot in the third world because that is where most of the world is. I’m like the wandering Jew, I realized later. I became the caricature of that.

Earlier you said that in the 1960s you were becoming able to “beam” your interests in different ways depending on the project, whether by reporting and writing for Les Lettres françaises, editing shows for French television, or organizing talks and public programs for the Maison des Lettres. Later in New York, while working as a Professor of French Literature at Columbia University, you also performed on stage downtown, edited journals and books for Semiotext(e), made films and videos, curated exhibitions, and organized massive multidisciplinary, multi-venue events like Schizo-Culture and The Nova Convention dedicated to William Burroughs. You also experimented with making films, videos, and performances in collaboration with Chris Kraus and others. Can you talk about your interest in working and communicating in these various ways?

It’s that you’re constantly part of multiple things, a multiplicity. It’s like you change your identity according to where you’re involved, and what you’re involved with. I guess I wanted to have several realities at the time. And there are overlaps. It’s like making interviews. At one point it was the only medium that I had, and I discovered that it opened up so many doors. First of all it’s a journalistic approach which I took into an area where people were not journalistic at all at the time. Nowadays there are lots of books composed of interviews. But the interview is a journalist’s tool. I adapted it in order to have a more direct presentation of what theory was, in a format that people were used to, because I realized in the early 80s that theory was getting fetishized and that’s not what I wanted. That is why I made the interview books with Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, etc. I was also aware that I was not just doing critique in relation to the philosopher. I wanted to break down this kind of dichotomy, you know?

You saw this as an intervention?

I was always interested in interventions. We have an intervention series which developed when some friends from Australia interviewed Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and one of the Black Panthers who was arrested in Philadelphia. I thought, who else is talking about the Black Panthers? It was amazing that no one was talking about it — and lots of them were in jail. I thought there was something to be done and we’re equipped to do it because we can decide anything we want. We don’t have to get authorization from the publisher or this or that. We see the possibility of intervening somewhere and we just do it.

That was a very powerful instrument and something that made Semiotext(e) very different. It also didn’t have any editorial committee. Bureaucracy is everywhere, you see, and we tried to avoid that. We didn’t circulate manuscripts among us, or between a group of people. That’s what Critique was doing. Whenever an article was a bit provocative or something they would circulate it among people. That’s what they did with Foucault. We didn’t have to do that. We knew each other, we trusted each other, and we just went right to it. Cutting down all these things also meant that we didn’t have rivalries. We’re friends and that’s all.

So to get back to the interview, as a form, it’s direct — as opposed to going through the process of writing about something. I was always a writer who was a bit diffident of writing, because it has a tendency of pushing people away, especially if they don’t understand. I sometimes told my students, look, this is a book by Deleuze. Open it at random and just start reading, and if you don’t understand, that’s fine, because you don’t start from the beginning. Always start in the midst of things.

It’s like with a cat. You can let the cat come to you; don’t just go for the cat. You let theory seep in your mind and you can look around and look at concepts somewhere and slowly you get attuned to it in a way that is much deeper than just reading at the beginning, because then you’re being led by someone else. If you appropriate theory, then you do something with it; if you let yourself be taken in by it, then they appropriate you. It’s kind of different, you see?

So it’s a more experiential vision of things, and journalism was a way of doing it. I wanted to be direct. Many friends I had were trying to quote from theory, or they were going with Lacan’s rat writing, intimating that they belonged to this cult or club. I never wanted to have a niche, which would be exclusive, that people desire.

So you wanted to communicate with different audiences?

Yes, but not playing one against the other. It’s like the famous and-and-and-and from Deleuze: you juxtapose worlds that don’t go together. That may be true of what I was saying about geographical places, too. In New York I would leave the clubs in the East Village and then I would arrive upstate in the mountains, and there were mountain women dancing. You live not in a series of contradictions but a series of worlds, side by side, and you balance one against the other. Seeing trappers, real trappers come in from Canada in the winter. I mean these people were coming from the eighteenth century — they were entirely dressed in furs, and they had guns. There was this whole male bonding thing going on. These were the mountains is where The Last of the Mohicans was set, and it was such a different experience than being in the East Village. So it’s always that for me: juxtaposing the university and the art world, juxtaposing radical academics and activists, constantly trying to deterritorialize the one position to make things much richer.

Another point about the interview as a form is that it’s something like an ironic tool, because the university is defined by the curriculum vitae, your achievements of the year and all that. I learned that very early on when I was at Swarthmore. That’s what the academy is about. It’s not about what you publish but about how many you publish. It was all predicated in advance. So I said, okay, I’m going to make interviews and I will put the interviews in my curriculum vitae, which will be circulated all through the country. That way they can’t say that I wasn’t publishing. I knew that they didn’t like the idea but I like to be playful within the constraint of a certain definition. You play with it and you turn it into something else. You say okay, this is an academic essay, this is an interview, you just put together things that don’t go together. That’s the idea. It’s what I learned from the artists downtown.

It’s like the film I’m trying to do, The Perfect Crime, which puts together two different voices that don’t go together. One bounces back against the other. It’s what Deleuze called resonance. It’s not like you are influenced by something, you just enter into a field of resonance because one thing bounces with the other. You put Artaud in the context of the Second World War and there is something there that leads from one to the other. You bounce them back in relation to an environment so that what they do takes on a different meaning. You can change something without having to criticize it. The interview was a way of not criticizing and commenting upon — you know, everything that’s academic. Everything is always on something, and I want to have the thing itself, and then another thing itself, and another thing itself, but I don’t want to provide a commentary.

The commentary is sometimes useful, when it’s historians who do their work to give you facts and documents. That makes you think. But if you only comment on the knowledge of others, then you’re just parasitic. Then you’ve built your own career out of depending on other people. You become indebted, and I don’t think that’s a very productive position to be in. I’d rather say I like this, and I like that, and I like that, and then I let them resonate. It’s like with painting, when you have yellow in a painting and then suddenly you put some red in it, well, the yellow doesn’t have the same quality. They bounce against each other and then another kind of figure can be seen through. But you won’t have to verbalize it, you don’t have to explain it, you just do something. For me, theory was a matter of doing something. The world is getting more and more complicated and dangerous and that’s why people should have tools in their hand, tools to think, and tools to know what to do.

You’ve said that after arriving in New York in the 70s you became interested in artists who were producing concepts with their work, but not like the philosophers you were reading in the academy, with their systems.

John Cage was a perfect example. He was a Nietzschean of sorts, but he was a Buddhist. He read and made indeterminate music based on his reading of the I Ching — he was improvising, experimenting. He was very open-ended. I like this openness. What I didn’t like is the pettiness of everything as soon as it turns into a small group of people. In academic departments throughout the country, people are spending their time picking on each other, getting jealous, resenting some promotion.

Artists do this too.

Yes, but I have first hand experience in the academy, and I knew that it was not just the academy. You make people small, you make their interests so reactive, instead of active. I distrust human nature if that exists. One of the reasons I took these paths is that I don’t want to be cornered in something. I catch myself sometimes being envious, being resentful, and I try to brush it away by doing something else instead.

It’s like when Guattari asked, What is the best thing that a psychiatrist should have? And he said, Why, he should have a good address book — because then you take a patient who is obsessed with an idea and you connect him with someone else who is there, and then through the connection something is going to happen. It’s like the story of Mary Barnes, who was with R.D. Laing at Kingsley Hall. She was covering herself in shit trying to be the center of attention, to monopolize everything around her. Then one of the psychiatrists at one point had the idea of bringing her some colors. So she started using colors and slowly she got really interested and instead of covering herself in shit she used colors. She totally forgot about the fact that she had to regress and be back in her childhood in order to understand something about herself. Sometimes it’s better to be able to forget. That’s in Nietzsche. There’s forgetfulness because it makes you weaker, and forgetfulness because it makes you stronger. You always have to try to put yourself in a situation where you’re not going to display the worst of yourself. You should disappear instead, and let something happen.

To disappear is not that you’re flying away from something. You just allow something else to come out, and that’s why it’s so interesting. Something you didn’t know yourself. You create a dispositif, an assemblage, and then things happen. But you don’t have to control it. It might change along the way — someone else comes in, something else happens — but it can change without having to break open. That’s what we did with Semiotext(e). It’s a practical thing. Things don’t have to be complicated. They could be complex but not complicated. Complicated is neurotic because it means that you constantly try to find the reason why; complex means that you keep adding something, withdrawing something, and then gradually, without making any revolution, you just come up with a different situation. I’m not sure if you’ve read about this group of psychiatrists I met with in the 70s?

I don’t know.

We organized a meeting of radical psychiatrists and ex-mental patients, and as soon as the meeting arrived and people came, we could see how some people were manipulating others in order to put themselves into a position of power, to direct the others and exclude this or that. I didn’t like it, although I was one of the few organizers. I went on the roof — it was in Chelsea, in New York — and I found a piece of a mannequin. A woman’s leg. So I took it and went down to the meeting and I put the leg on the table and I said, Maybe we can relax a bit in this atmosphere? Because it was getting so heavy with people wanting something. And then the psychiatrist said, Do you think it’s appropriate to a put a leg like that on the table? And then a woman got up and said, I object to the fact that it’s a woman’s leg. I said forget it, and I left. A few hours later I met them and we started understanding things. We didn’t realize what we were doing, which wasn’t dealing with mental problems but dealing with our problems being together in a group, and some people immediately trying to absorb and take the position of power.

So there was rivalry in the group?

Rivalry, yes. Sometimes when you add an element, the whole composition is going to be different and people then forget about their personal grievances and they really address things. It’s a fact that very simple things can change a lot. And that’s what I expected with theory. I expected people to recognize that when you read a book there are things that suddenly draw your attention and I thought theory would be that. Just pick up what you want. You don’t have to be responsible for the whole system. We don’t have to be totalizing, we don’t have to know everything. We just have to be experimental with it. And when you change one element or several elements, when you mix them, then you experimented with new ideas — then you become a philosopher of sorts. You don’t have to be trained to be a philosopher.

Is this related to your notion of the foreign agent?

Ah yeah. Well that was a joke. We were accused of not belonging. People from the School of Frankfurt were very opposed to what we were doing, and very disparaging of it. There was a school here, around Urizen Books. They published early Baudrillard. As long as you dealt with Marx, you were okay. So for people to criticize Marx was fine. At that time they tried on a few occasions to arrange a debate with me, but I’m not into debates. I’m like Deleuze: he doesn’t like dialogue, which is to say that he doesn’t believe that something fruitful is happening. But that was the idea, to say, Okay, you accuse us of being foreigners, so we’ll appropriate it. I remember that it was a Canadian magazine who, when I published the Polysexuality issue, said that Lotringer should open a deli on the Upper West Side.

I was going to ask you about that issue, because there were two days of performances and events at The Kitchen, when it was released, that led to controversy.

Yes, we had films. I made a film called Too Sensitive to Touch (1981) with Michael Oblowitz. The event at The Kitchen involved this outrageous situation. I don’t remember his name but he came with a gun and starting shooting at the audience and throwing spaghetti from a cow’s head. It ended up in panic. It was Manuel De Landa who had organized it, and it was this guy who was famous for coming and shooting at the audience, so that’s how it ended. We had ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] protesting. It was a scandal.

What was he shooting?

Blanks at the audience. [He lit off firecrackers.] They had come from New Jersey and they had this cow’s head and they filled it with spaghetti and mice and they started eating mice in front of the audience. So it was not exactly my way of doing things, but you know, it was effective. They were transgressors, and that’s not what I do.

When did you move to the East Village?

I never moved to the East Village.

I thought you lived on 2nd Avenue?

Yes it’s true, but later on. I had a big apartment on the Upper West Side that was Columbia’s apartment. I was just behind Barnard. The students were in the same building with the administration, and teachers. It was a very good bourgeois kind of apartment, so I think after two years I couldn’t stand living there. Because I don’t trust that people are not affected by their environment. If you put yourself in the campus, which is what it was, then you become an academic. You go in the elevator, you talk to people there, you go to get your milk and you find your student who says, I’m late with my essay. So your life starts to shrink and shrink and shrink.

I really think it’s very important to be in different places and to be in different minds, if you want to keep your things in balance. So after a few years I rented this apartment to François Peraldi, who was part of Schizo-Culture. He was a schizoanalyst and he went back to Montreal and started a Lacanian school later on. Now he’s pretty well known. So he was coming to New York once and awhile, because he was in charge of the Polysexuality issue, and he stayed at my apartment. In the meantime I was moving around, because at that time it was easy to get places and to move places, so it was fun to be in different areas of New York. The University put pressure on me to either return to the apartment or to leave it, so I dropped the apartment. After that I didn’t have any set place. I moved to the fashion district with Diego Cortez, who was introducing graffiti and neo-expressionist stuff downtown. He was one founders of the Mudd Club, and was involved with a group called Colab.

That’s where I met Kathy Acker and these people.  So I moved to a huge loft in the fashion district and we paid $350 a month for 5000 square feet. We kept it for five years, and then it was taken away from us. There was real estate inflation. But I tried to avoid being in the East Village for a very long time, because I didn’t want to be in a ghetto, a downtown ghetto, after being in the Columbia ghetto.

What would have characterized the downtown ghetto?

Well a lot of them were poets who hovered around St. Mark’s Church. They were all into rivalries. They were very interesting people, much more cultivated than academics; they had read everything and they made some sort of a school, a downtown school of writing, a New York School of writing. They were very jealous of each other and very resentful that no one was paying attention to them. So I stayed away from that, because again, there I thought I would be part of another exclusive group, where all the mechanisms of groups were developed.

See, I was brought up with a group and I knew what groups were. There are three ways of dealing with groups — Guattari writes about this in Psychoanalysis and Transversality. You can make groups that are reactive, because they constantly look at each other and are jealous of each other. Or they look for someone to be on top to put everyone in a set position. Or there are groups that are much more fluid.

Take, for example, Pierre Clastres on the chief of a tribe. Levi-Strauss described the chief of the tribe as someone who is more cunning and intelligent than the others, in the famous lesson in writing in Tristes Tropiques. A chief is not someone who is superior to the others but someone who has been elected to prevent a group from splitting or abandoning their traditions. So basically, a chief of a tribe had to divest himself of everything he owned, a bit like what you are supposed to ask from the President of the United States, or the Vice President. If they want to be at the service of the nation, then they have to have no private businesses. That’s part of the democratic game. Of course it means that they give it to their wife or someone else.

But the position of the chief was such that there were always three chiefs, not just one. That’s a tripartite Indo-European structure as described by Georges Dumézil, an Indo-European specialist — Foucault learned a lot from him. There is the war chief, who is active only in times of war; there is the priest or the sorcerer; and there is a civil chief who tries to make sure that the tribe stays together and obeys the tradition. If the war chief comes back victorious, like Patton, or Coriolanus, he’s expelled, because he doesn’t have any power beyond the time of war. The sorcerer cannot take over. If the sorcerer has a certain power, the power has to be counterbalanced by someone else. And the chief is the one who divests himself of everything he owns because the only power he has is the power of the palabra [the word]. He can talk to people and make sure that the tribe is not going to break into pieces.

There are three kinds of chief because no one person wanted to be the chief, because it means that you have no power, you have only the power of putting yourself in the service of the tribe. Lévi-Strauss’s idea was that the chief is someone more intelligent than the others, that he suddenly sees the anthropologist writing in his notebook and connects the writing with the power of the white guy, and then borrows a tool and starts to imitate it to make some signs, because he’s going to try to be on top of the others. But finally Lévi-Strauss had to admit that after he left the tribe of the Nambikawaras, the Indians just expelled the chief. You see, the chief has to be constantly checked. It’s checks and balances.

The idea of a group is that it has to constantly have a counterbalancing mechanism, so you can go on existing as something alive and not something subjected. It’s like a situation where you have a paranoiac on the one hand and a schizophrenic on the other. The schizophrenic has bouts of paranoia and the paranoiac has bouts of schizophrenia. At the extreme it seems exclusive, but one is always counterbalancing the other. It’s the same with the group, and it was the same at Semiotext(e). I would always avoid having antagonism and things like that because then you get caught in a mechanism of feeling resentful, feeling guilty, feeling jealous that someone has more success than you, etc. So I was constantly trying to balance.

How so?

The very simple thing, the basic thing, is that we were doing projects without money. Semiotext(e) was founded by ten people each fronting $50 each. What does it mean? It means we couldn’t pay people, that we had to involve people in a project that would interest them. You also had to be successful in bringing people to other places; if people give their time for free, then you have to do something for them, and I was constantly trying to find ways of returning their courtesy. People needed references for jobs, they needed to go to some artist colony, they wanted to have introductions to people. I was constantly trying to find ways of rebalancing things. But I was constantly indebted, because as long as you don’t pay anyone, you’re indebted to them. But I tried to turn it into something positive. This meant that I couldn’t direct people and tell them to do what I want to do. They have to have a lot of say, because it was a group and I’m part of the group. The group is defined by the nature of the project that they create. But often with Semiotext(e), people would lose sense of things a bit and appropriate the project. They think it’s theirs and others are not to be involved in it. That happened a few times. It happened with the Schizo-Culture issue, when people thought that no one liked the issue and so they started circulating it before printing it. I said, okay, if you’re dissatisfied with it — but I think it’s great.

Previously you said you avoided circulating material in this way.

What happened is that Kathryn Bigelow happened to have an internship with Richard Serra and she was going there to work at his place. She was part of the group putting together the Schizo-Culture issue so she took the galleys and showed them to Richard Serra, who glanced through the issue and said, No. He didn’t like it. So Kathryn Bigelow came back to the group and we met in some sort of panic. I was put on the defensive. People were very resentful that Richard Serra, the most powerful artist at the time, would say that it was worthless, and I understood how they felt because we spent months working on that. You need to have a pay off. If in the end people became afraid that the issue was just not good enough, then we had to do something. At the time I said, Okay, if you don’t like it, I’ll take responsibility.

Kathryn Bigelow went back to Richard Serra and Richard Serra looked at the issue again and he really liked it. He realized that he was furious that there were all these people there, Jack Smith and Phil Glass and Steve Reich, but he wasn’t there. So his reaction had been narcissistic, you know. But in fact it was a very good issue. So Kathryn Bigelow came back and everyone was happy and we gathered in the loft and they said, When are we starting the next issue? And I thought, well, you know, no hurry.

I remember going on the subway from Columbia with Diego Cortez and Diego was not part of the same group that was going from uptown to downtown, the film group. He was too punk for them.

Who were the people in the film group?

The committee was made of Kathryn Bigelow, Martim Avillez, who I lived with downtown, in his loft — he was an artist. There was Diego, Peter Downsborough, who was an artist, Denise Green, a painter, Linda McNeill, who was a filmmaker, Michael Oblowitz, who was a filmmaker, Pat Steir, who was a painter. It was a very diverse group, for the same reason. People that they recruited for the group, for the magazine, are people I met along the way, people I met at parties and talked to. I thought, well, that might be interesting if you joined the group.

What year was this?

Schizo-Culture was in 1978. But all these things I’ve talked about in other places.

I know, but I wanted to get to the East Village because I’m curious about the films and videos you made with Chris Kraus and others. In those years, a lot of writers, musicians, and artists living in the East Village were making films and videos.

What happened, to answer directly, is that after I left my apartment at Columbia I moved in with Diego Cortez. That was from 1977 to 1981, or something like that. So I was neither uptown nor downtown. I was in the middle.

What happened when you and Diego lost the loft?

When we lost the loft I stayed for a year or so just north of New York, because I didn’t have a place anymore and it had become very difficult to find one. It was in a building they were going to destroy. But what I’m saying is that I was either in the middle, or I was outside. Eventually Martine Avillez offered to let me stay with him in his loft downtown, near the Fulton Fish Market. He had a very big, beautiful loft on Fulton Street and that became my place of operation. I had a place where I invited people to come once a month and talk, and I had a friend, Marion Scemama, who was working with David Wojnarowicz. She was a video person and a good friend, so she was coming and videotaping and that’s when I started documenting a lot of things about S&M, and about crime, but not in relation to the East Village. The East Village existed but I wasn’t there.

I wonder what you think of the Super-8 films that were coming out of the East Village in those years, particularly No Wave cinema and the so-called “cinema of transgression”? These films involved in scenes of interrogation, role-play, sex, violence, and death — and this at a time when you were teaching Artaud, Bataille, the theater of cruelty, sex, and death uptown at Columbia. Did you feel any compatibility with these artistic experiments?

The East Village was very ambivalent. There were all sorts of people and we were making distinctions at the time. The East Village films, I mean I know David Wojnarowicz was part of it, but he was the only one I liked. The others were “transgressive” and we were not into transgression. When I was talking about Polysexuality, it was not my way of doing things, to come with a gun or whatever. Diego was close to that because he was a pre-punk character. He was connected with all the downtown clubs, and there was an element of that, but there was a difference between Kathryn Bigelow or Michael Oblowitz, who were making films, and the cinema of transgression. Some of them were trained in art school, but most of them were just improvising themselves because the galleries were cheap to set up in the neighborhood at the time. The East Village was very different before I came there. It was part of this aesthetic of shock and exploitation and we were not into that. There was always a formal element in what I do, or in what we do.

What do you mean by formal element?

Well, it’s not totally haphazard. It’s not meant to just shock; there was always either some sort of narrative or there was some sense of art in it. The cinema of transgression was playing on the shocking of people and their films were meant to titillate or to horrify. It was a bad version of Artaud. I wanted a bit more rigor and composition. It can be anarchistic, but anarchy can’t just be anarchy; you want some sort of crowned anarchy.

But there were exceptions. There were borderline people. David Wojnarowicz happened to be part of the East Village and some of his work went in that direction, but he had a very tight sense, especially in his photography. He was always catching something that was bigger than what he was catching. So there was a difference, and I was right about it because the East Village became very quickly something like a media attraction. People were getting interviews, The Village Voice was talking about it, as was SoHo Weekly News. It became more of a media event and very soon it self-destructed, because more and more people went there because it was very cheap. Of course as soon as it became media-sensitive, the price went up and they were expelled, and regular galleries took over.

What did you think about the return to expressionism in painting at the time? Wasn’t that somehow connected to the East Village as well?

It was an aesthetics that came from Italy and Germany and that blossomed in the East Village. I have nothing against neo-expressionist painting, except for the fact that it was painting. Because when I arrived in New York, people were not into doing painting. The two or three painters in the group were thinking of getting other jobs because no one wanted paintings. There were no galleries, or maybe four or five galleries. The East Village neo-expressionists were totally messy. They didn’t know exactly what they were doing. The paintings were already bought before they existed, you see what I mean? It was too much a part of the fashion that was coming. So I never identified with them. David Wojnarowicz I knew, and Eric Mitchel, and Amos Poe. There were a number of people living in the East Village but who were not part of this kind of hype. A hype calls for another hype, and the hype of the East Village between 1981 and 1982 was part of the reorganization of the art world, the re-creation of a gallery system, the real estate escalation. It was part of the more glamorous New York that was being created. That’s why I always make a distinction between one and the other.

Chris Kraus was living in the East Village?

Chris wasn’t part of these aesthetics. She was doing something that was intellectually very challenging. And yes, I ended up in the East Village when I moved in with Chris. She had an apartment on 2nd Ave. That’s when we were going back and forth between 2nd Ave and upstate New York for a few years. She was subletting her apartment and one of the tenants went to the owner and negotiated and denounced her, and she lost the place. So we only had a place upstate at that point, you see.

But I was always very careful not to go to where the action is. I prefer to always be on the periphery of the action, so you still have choices. When you’re in the East Village you have to put on with the hype of the East Village. I lived in the East Village a bit later also, on 7th Street between C and D. 7th Street is where Burroughs used to live. Between C and D is one block from a hardcore East Village area, where there’s a lot of drugs and stuff. So I always wanted to be at a distance. You have to keep your distance so you’re not absorbed by it. In the same way, I don’t trust myself, because I can be an asshole like anyone else. So you have to be sure that you’re put in an environment that’s going to help you remain creative and not just exploitative. That’s part of the theory. For me at least it’s theoretical to constantly make choices that will make you culturally richer and not poorer. I consider the East Village something that made things poorer. It was a parody, like cartoonish painting. People were just taken in by it, but those who came and bought things didn’t know anything about the art; they speculated on it. See what I mean?

You have to make some distinctions, not that one is exclusive of the other, but you have to know what to do. For instance, out of Semiotext(e) came Martim Avillez. He was a Portuguese artist and as I said, when I didn’t have any place, as I was working on Schizo-Culture, he offered to share his fabulous loft on Fulton. One of the ways I wanted to constantly diversify Semiotext(e) is to have different groups, different forms of groups, and I asked him if he would be part of a group that would work on the Oasis issue, the nomad’s issue, but now we’re going back into Semiotext(e).

That’s a transitional moment at Semiotext(e).

Yes, Martim created a group and then slowly the group became very exclusive and they didn’t want us to know what they were doing and then they did what I thought were major flaws in relation to the project. But they said, either you take it or leave it. So you were back into a position of competition and exclusion and prestige. They took it all wrong, because they thought Semiotext(e) was so successful that they had to make it very small and invisible in response. But I told them, if you make something invisible, people are not going to see it. We still want the magazine to exist. But that’s what happened with that issue. No one saw it and no one bought it and it was the only issue of Semiotext(e) that never worked. It was also the beginning of bad vibes, because people were caught positioning themselves within what was a context of glamor and money and all that. I didn’t like that. And that was the kind of thing that I didn’t like about New York. You constantly have to seep through and figure out in advance what is going to work and what is not going to work. I always thought about things in terms of the project. What was good for the project was good for us, what was not good for the project was bad for us. That’s all.

I’m curious to hear more about your experiments with film and video. You mentioned the Rabelais film you made early on in France, but in terms of working with the moving image, I imagine your encounter with Chris Kraus was decisive? You worked on a number of projects together, such as Voyage to Rodez (1986), Foolproof Illusion (1987), and How to Shoot a Crime (1987).

Yes, that was because of Chris. How shall I say it? I liked doing the films and I liked doing the films together, but it was still kind of a competitive activity. She was the one doing the films, and I was the one helping out. After a few films I realized that it wasn’t very good to be two of us sharing the same material constantly. I mean it’s like I Love Dick. Some of it comes from her and some of it comes from me, but I let her have everything. The same with the films. I stopped making films because she’s a filmmaker and I didn’t want to compete with her. It’s some aspect of living too close together. I had a career in the academy and her career was to make films. I didn’t want to be in a position of competition with her, so I decided I was not going to make film anymore. That was it. The film on women that I did, that was after she dropped making film and started writing.

That was in 1998 with Violent Femmes?

Yeah. It was the same material that we used for How to Shoot a Crime, but it was material Chris didn’t use, so I reappropriated it and started working on that. But at that point I didn’t have much access to film. A film is not something I can do by myself. I need to have people to shoot, people to act, people to edit. I did that with Chris, we were doing that together, but after Chris stopped I didn’t have access to film so easily. It’s only recently that I had these friends in Ireland who said, Well if you want to do a film on Artaud, why don’t you just come to Ireland, we’ll arrange for it. So I said okay, and when I had two or three weeks of free time in 2012, I just went and improvised and it worked.

History is made of accidents. The lecture on Marquis de Sade was because at the time I was living with Kathy Acker and she was playing with this idea of identity. And then when I was with Chris and she was doing film, I mean, she was basically using the material I had accumulated about Artaud. But using it in a different way. You have to be sensitive to what is around you. When making film became a bit of a rivalry, I didn’t want to be a rival for Chris, so I turned more to writing. And then when Chris declared a few years ago that she didn’t want to have anything to do with the films—

Which films?

Well, the films she had made with me or by herself, Voyage to Rodez, How to Shoot a Crime, Foolproof Illusion. That was her film. Foolproof Illusion was entirely her film. We shared the others.

That was with the poet David Rattray, who translated Artaud?

David Rattray, yeah. I helped with that, but basically what I’m saying is that, when she wrote I Love Dick, she realized she was a writer. I’ve always told her she was more of a writer than a filmmaker. She’s not visual in that way. I mean she went to New Zealand and got some money and made a feature, but the feature was a flop. That’s one of the reasons why, when I was in New York and she was in LA, things started falling apart. And the falling apart was a good thing for her, because the falling apart was the beginning of her career as a writer. So it was good. I was very positive about it and helpful about it. I didn’t take it badly. I even tried to make her breaking up with me something positive. It was only when I read in an interview two or three years ago, when people started to get interested in her as a writer, that they always ask her to show the films and she felt that the films had stopped representing what she was about.

I understand. But as documents I guess they remain portals into a social and historical moment?

Yeah, and that broke down at the time. She was still part of Semiotext(e) but the environment with her was getting very different in many ways. She went more into writing, and then we were, once again, on the same plateau. It evolved in a different way. She started having another life in LA. I was in New York and I had another life and although we remained married, we were not working together, except for on one thing and that was Semiotext(e). When I read that she was not claiming film any more, I thought maybe I could try it again, because there’s always something I want with film. What we haven’t really explored yet is the difference between tapes and films. I tried to go as far as I could with audio tape. I had self-interviews in dialogue with tape recorders, pushing and using some of the interviews, and publishing them. But ultimately tapes are just tapes. I don’t renounce the interviews and audio tapes, but I think that they need to be connected to something else to become visible.

On the one hand, I couldn’t care less if I show something or not. But I want the potential of being shown. It’s the same with the potential of my dissertation being a book. It doesn’t have to become a book. The same goes for the book I was preparing in French on the theory of the novel. It was ready, but wasn’t published — but it could be published. One day someone will translate it into English. It doesn’t matter. It only matters that time passes, and what you were at one point you’re not at another point, so you become foreign to the material. Maybe the shift in culture is such that some of the concerns that I had twenty years ago are not the same as the concerns that I have now. For instance, the Bataille text that I  published in 2014. I’m acutely aware that it’s something I did fifteen years ago.

You’re referring to The Miserables, which Semiotext(e) published for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Yes. It was a different context and my relation to Judaism and being a Jew in relation to Bataille has changed a lot. So I was hesitant to publish it. Maybe it would have been better to have never published it at all. I could have published it in French but the context in France had become so weird, with racism. I didn’t want to publish it there at the time. In the same way, when I tried to show my video The Man Who Disappeared in Marseilles, I realized that this is not a French context anymore.

So there are two contradictory things. Time is not the essence, but time may be important. And what you did at one point becomes a document. The document could be used or it may just go by the side. Then it becomes an archive and people might find it interesting and do something with it later. See what I mean? The archive became important, which I didn’t foresee. I thought the archive meant that you put it somewhere in the library and no one’s looking at it. I was shocked to learn that there were a lot of people going to my archive [The Fales Archive & Special Collections, at New York University] and that exhibits were being made with it. The archive is something that can be alive.

Earlier you said that you were interested in connecting things that haven’t been connected before. Would this define your approach to montage, when making films?

It’s just a way of dealing with material, so that the reverberation of one kind of document alongside another kind of document creates something else. And the tension between them, or the juxtaposition between them, creates the possibility of invention. That’s what it is. Poets were doing that with collages. Burroughs was doing that. So it’s in the air. No one invented it, but you can reuse it because it’s not always formalized. People are not always aware of it, because you don’t always exemplify how you came up with a piece. But it was one more way of being experimental and learning something and getting ideas.

What about the difference between audio, since you recorded so many  interviews onto tapes, and making films and videos? Have you returned to working with video because it’s a more visual way of connecting things that may not have existed together otherwise?

Yes. What I liked about taping audio, what was so simple, is that you come and you reap so much material with just a little tape recorder. It was very nomadic as an apparatus — you could go everywhere. You disappear and time is boxed somewhere. And I like that feeling.

But film is something else. I was very struck once by a project made by a hippy from Holland who spent years living among the poor in America, being there, half-exploiting, half taking pictures of them, it was kind of ambiguous. But he made a film with all these photographs and the film was totally devastating. It was a revelation of another America entirely. It’s one thing to say that there are poor people in the country, but to document it in that way was shattering. It totally shattered my vision of America.

What was the work?

It was a film shown in New York for just a few days, but I have no trace of it. But I thought, This kind of thing — that’s what I want to do. You don’t have to ask anyone. You don’t have to submit a project for a grant. It’s like you bring a little tool with you and then things change. I always like things that are very simple, but it’s not possible anymore.


Because people don’t have the patience anymore. Everything’s become so fast. Even with film, it’s like you have to condense it into five minutes. I need temporality, I need something to evolve, something to shift, some revelation to occur. The unfolding of time is a drama of its own. But people don’t have the patience anymore. They want to have the results, and the results are immediately exchanged. That’s why I like the Berlin Documentary Forum. It gives me time, three days, each three hours, to present material to people. The seminars I gave are three hours long. Something has time to happen, you see? But yes, something that is not visual does not exist anymore.

Is it true that you enrolled as a student in filmmaking classes when you were a professor at Columbia?

Yeah, for two years I took classes on acting and scriptwriting and I learned a few things about filmmaking. But when I do a film I always work with a cameraman. When I edit, I always edit with editors. I like that collaborative aspect of film. A film you don’t do by yourself. I like working with groups. For me, a group is always more creative than an individual. So I trust that something more will come out, more than I would be able to do by myself. Working by myself is very isolating. I mean I live with Iris Klein, and before I lived with Chris Kraus, but I need more people around to create something. Otherwise it becomes the couple thing and that’s different, although Iris has no problem with it because she’s an artist. She does video and photography, and that allows me to sometimes work with her on some things. But it’s rare. Usually when people are very involved with their own career they become very possessive and very competitive and that’s what I’m trying to avoid, because the climate is not a very creative climate any more. That’s what I like in film.

What kind of project did you present at the Berlin Documentary Forum?

In 2012 I started contributing to the Berlin Documentary Forum and what I do there I do with the audio and video material I have gathered over the years. It meets every two years and the idea is not to make a documentary, but to document an issue. That’s how I take it. So for instance, since I live in Mexico, I developed a project on Narcocapitalism that I presented in Berlin. For that I went to Mexico City and I talked to people and I tried to figure out what is happening in Mexico right now. I talked to lawyers, I talked to writers, I talked to filmmakers, and I presented all that on big screens, as a performance. So that was one.

Another project I presented at the Berlin Documentary Forum used all the material I taped with George Diaz, who was a Puerto Rican videomaker for the Brooklyn District Attorney. He was living nearby in Chinatown, and I met him because I was teaching a class on death. As usual, it was not enough for me to have all the books. Somehow I wanted to get out of the books, so I decided to go to the morgue to see how the dead are treated. Then I met George Diaz, who was very articulate and trained as some sort of sociologist, but was also a downtown videomaker. He had invented a technique to present very traumatic information to the jury. In order not to traumatize the jury and to allow them to make a sound decision on whether the criminal is responsible or not, or if he’s a criminal at all, he devised a strategy that he borrowed from film noir, or suspense: a certain way of turning the anxiety that the jury may have about being confronted with a crime scene into something that they would get used to and want to see. So it was a certain strategy, and I liked that.

George Diaz and I were neighbors and I would see him after school and we would have drinks together at the loft, and I was taping our time together. I have a number of tapes on how to deal with crime and how to deal with death. That was for my class. I always want to bridge the document and reality, you see? When I was teaching sexuality, I got interested in seeing what was happening, so I went and discovered this clinic where they were treating perverts. This led to my book Overexposed.

The basic idea is that I want to go beyond the mere academic take on things, you know? So when I had to give a lecture on sex, when I was invited to give a lecture on the Marquis de Sade at SUNY Stony Brook, instead of giving a lecture I made a collage of testimonies of various hardcore S&M people, which I appropriated. I was in touch with Kathy Acker at the time she was appropriating text, so I appropriated a number of people’s narratives. And I went to this conference and I presented it as if it was my own history. I said, Well, you know, I was a French theorist and I was too much in my head and very neurotic and I just tried to get into some sort of thing that was a bit more direct and practical. Which is true. I made my whole confession to the academic audience and they were shocked. Afterwards a woman got up and pussyfooting around the issue said, Do you think what you said about your experience in male S&M applies to what women do?

It was a very enlightening experience because I suddenly realized it was a parody. I parodied confession. And I realized that the confession of the I is something very codified. When people do it, when they suspend their opinion or morality, it’s as if you’re becoming immune. When you talk about yourself, people are going to listen because they want people to listen to them. So there is this kind of sacred space that has been created where you can say horrible things but people are going to feel grateful that you shared something of yourself with them. All these things I don’t believe in at all. But it was a very enlightening experience because I realized that in America the most important thing is the I. Chris was working on that too, with the fictions, the I-fictions. The confession of the I is like telling the truth about yourself, and telling the truth about yourself is a very American activity. The people in Europe don’t do that. They keep things to themselves; they’re not dependent on people’s opinion about them in order to be something.

So you experimented with writing first-person I-fiction?

Yeah, but what I’m saying is that there is something people cross over. It’s more than fiction. It becomes reality, you see? I was freaked out when I realized that, because I realized that I could have said that I committed a crime and people would accept it. They wouldn’t just call the police if I make a confession of myself. I could say the worst thing and people would accept it because they identify with the position of someone telling about him or herself, you see? It showed that there was something sacred about the individual. That’s why I’ve been so critical about the individual. The individual is not some one, it is someone created by society. And since it has been created from the outside, people keep asking others to authenticate their construction. It’s a network of friends who tell you what to think about yourself. It’s all about the self but the self is a construct. People constantly want to make it hold better, because it’s always on the verge of collapsing. It’s neurosis on the verge of becoming psychotic because basically subjectivity is psychotic these days. There’s nothing like an identity; everything is made of pieces taken from here and there and they need constant reassurance in order to solidify this montage they’ve created of themselves.

It was very illuminating. Instead of trying to learn from books about sexuality, I realized that sexuality is a privileged area where people want to talk about themselves. Foucault made a book about it. The point is that you constantly have to go beyond the page. You have to find out how this connects to that and what kind of composition it makes. Where is the fault, and what can you learn from it? So it’s a way of theorizing but theorizing from things that you extricate from the society and not just from concepts, you see what I mean? All this was another kind of activity. All of this activity about crime, about sex, I used to present two sessions of three evenings each in Berlin, where I invited people to talk. I videotaped them, and I used some of my tape. The first one was about crime and death. The second was about narcocrime, the culture of the narcos and the regime of capitalism. For these I created material or used material that I made twenty years before. I also had a project on Nicholas Ray.

Is this the project connected to Lightning Over Water, the film Nicholas Ray made with Wim Wenders in 1979, as he was dying?

Yeah. I spoke to every single person in the crew, except Wim Wenders. The gaffer, the guy who was doing the sound, I interviewed everyone.

How did this project come about?

In 1980-81, I saw Lightning Over Water in New York, and everyone hated it. I was giving classes on death at the time.

The film is constructed around the death of Nicholas Ray.

Yes. Wim Wenders was coming from Berlin with some money from his previous film. Nick Ray was supposed to direct a film with Wim Wenders, who always wanted to include these foreign stars in his films. For a few days he managed to hold on and to direct some scenes — a lot of people don’t know it but he was taking coke at the time because he was in terrible shape. He had lung cancer. But after a week he had to pass it on to Wim Wenders. Nick Ray said that he accepted being in front of the camera, but he said Wim Wenders had to be on the same side of the camera too. So he challenged Wim Wenders to enter the film as an actor and to be exposed to this guy who was playing with his own death, because Nick Ray was pretty reckless. He was as afraid of death as anyone else, but he was using it to scare people. So what happened was that the film was kind of loose, in the sense that it could go anywhere. People got more and more upset and Wim Wenders ended up going to Hollywood for a month or so in the middle of it, because he couldn’t take it anymore. People didn’t know whether the film would go on or not; the staff dispersed. And then Wim Wenders came back with his fiancée, and she brought a real strange vibe for those among the crew.

So the film was a mess. But somehow it was a controlled panic. Everything was being shot at the same time because there was a crew there with a camera and they had to keep shooting. The film was exploring people’s reaction to a death situation. It wasn’t a very joyous film, but I thought it was a very exciting film because they were playing with the form at the same time. Fiction was breaking down everywhere, and they had invested too much into the film to drop it, so they had to finish it. Then it was edited, and Wim Wenders hated it. So he started editing a second version, and then finally taking some scenes from it. The last version is, in fact, the last of three different versions of the film. So the film could never be finished, you see? Only the death of Nick Ray could stop it, and even then they added a scene of the wake afterwards, so there would be a conclusion. Out of the mess they were trying to make something that would be showable. I thought that was a very illuminating experience. Making a film without wanting to make a film. Dying but not wanting to be dying. Everyone was pussyfooting around the issue, not wanting to talk about it, or projecting their oedipal fantasies about their own father. It became very psychoanalytical but also very psychotic as a film.

Death is topic that has been important for you from the beginning. Your dissertation on Virginia Woolf’s novels was subtitled From the Death of Values to the Value of Death.

But you know, I didn’t invent it. It was in Virginia Woolf.

Yes, but you went after it.

Everyone is in the same situation. But some people shy away from it and some people just put it up front and try to see what to do with it. I think I was as ambivalent about death as anyone else, but I sided with it and tried to see what it reveals about people, about society. I use it as a tool. And of course it’s a tool that freaks people out. But the freaking out is itself part of a certain culture. In primitive cultures, not to mention any cultures up until industrialization, people knew when they were dying. They would  prepare themself for it. People were coming to keep company: the priest was there, the children, the grandchildren. It was a sacred area but one where everything was codified. So people were respectful. They knew it was their last chance. It was a very different kind of set-up than ours. Now we don’t want to deal with it. It ends up in the hands of specialists, in the hospital, and it’s always a harrowing thing. Something we don’t want to see, something we don’t want to acknowledge. So to use death as a way of revealing something about society was what I wanted to do. It doesn’t mean that I’m protected against it at all. But it means that I wanted to know more.

July 31 & August 1, 2015
MacArthur Park, Los Angeles

Interview by Jonathan Thomas. Special thanks to Drew Burk, Jason Wagner, Chris Kraus, Cameron Gainer, and the staff of Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University. Excerpts of this interview have been presented in The Third Rail (Issue 06, 2016) and CALIGARI (Issue 01, 2021).