Sylvère Lotringer – “foreign agent provocateur”

Sylvère Lotringer is Jean Baudrillard Chair at the European Graduate School (EGS) and Professor Emeritus of French literature and philosophy at Columbia University. As a literary critic and cultural theorist, he was instrumental in introducing French theory to the United States through his contribution to Semiotext(e),and the Foreign Agents book series.

Born in Paris in 1938, Sylvere Lotringer was a “hidden child” during the German occupation of France. In 1949, his family moved to in Israel, but they returned to Paris the year after. He belonged to a left-wing Zionist movement until 1956. In 1958, Sylvère Lotringer entered the Sorbonne and created a literary magazine called L’Etrave. During France’s colonial war in Algeria, he led the mobilizations against it. The following years, he taught in Scotland, in Iowa and in Erzurum, Turkey and Sydney, Australia. In 1965, Sylvère Lotringer attended the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, VIe section (Sociology) in Paris and defended his doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf, supervised by Roland Barthes and Lucien Goldmann, in 1967. He returned to the United States in 1969, teaching first at Swarthmore College and then joining the French and Comparative Literature Faculty at Columbia University in 1972. He is currently based in New York and Baja, California.

Lotringer’s interests range from philosophy, literature and art to architecture, anthropology, semiotics, avant-garde movements, structuralism and post-structuralism. Sylvère Lotringer studied at the Sorbonne and received his doctorate from the École Pratique des Hautes Études VIe section in Paris in 1967 before moving to New York in the early 1970s. Sylvère Lontriger has published many books throughout his career, among which are Pure War (1983), Crepuscular Dawn (2002), and the Accident of Art (2005), which he co-wrote with Paul Virilio. He has also co-written Forget Foucault (1986), Oublier Artaud (2005), and The Conspiracy of Art with Jean Baudrillard. Sylvère Lotringer has also written extensively on Georges Bataille, Simone Weil, L. F. Céline, Marguerite Duras, and Robert Antelme, and is the author of Antonin Artaud (1990), French Theory in America (2001), Hatred of Capitalism (2002), David Wojnarowicz (2006), and Overexposed (2007). Silvère Lotringer frequently lectures on art and has published catalogue essays for the MOMA, the Guggenheim Museum, the Musee du Jeu de Paume, Modern Kunst and has edited numerous magazines and books such as Philosopher-Artist (1986), Foreign Agent: Kunst in den Zeiten der Theorie (1991), and Nancy Spero (1995).

Confronted with a different leftist intellectual scene in the United States, dominated by the post-Frankfurt School Marxism, Sylvère Lotringer decided to disturb its order by introducing more fluid ideas of power and desire as formulated by Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Michel Foucault. As a strategy to position himself outside of academia while still being part of it, Sylvère Lotringer founded a journal with a group of Columbia students entitled Semiotext(e). The idea behind its first issues was to discuss the epistemology of semiotics through the practice of ‘materialist’ semiotics. Feeling limited by its linguistic model, Sylvère Lotringer turned to visual arts and the examination of non-verbal signs. In 1975, as part of the journal’s provocative activities, they organized a ‘Shizo-Culture’ conference on ‘Madness and Prisons’ at Columbia University. For the first time, major American artists like John Cage and William Burroughs had an opportunity to meet French thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Lyotard. More than two thousands people attended the event, an event that also helped Sylvère Lotringer redefine the concept of Semiotext(e). Subsequent issues were made as collages of images and texts instead of the standard scholarly format. Drawing on the experience of the first event, Sylvère Lotringer organized ‘The Nova Convention’ in 1978, a three-day event as homage to William Burroughs,featuring performances by Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson and Timothy Leary. Nevertheless, in 1985 Sylvère Lotringer ceased publication of the journal, after noticing the shift in the cultural life of New York that changed the collectivist spirit of the ’70s into a more individualist character. Instead, he started an influential new book series entitled Foreign Agents, responsible for introducing, among others, the work of Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Paul Virilio across the Atlantic.

One of Sylvère Lotringer’s permanent interests is in the alternative social movements that challenge current power relations. Calling himself a ‘foreign agent provocateur’ in the US, he traveled to Italy in 1979 to document the post-Marxist Autonomia movement, later published as Italy: Autonomia – Post-Political Politics (1980). In the ’90s, he invited a former Black Panther, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, to collaborate on the publication of an anthology of writings entitled Still Black, Still Strong. In the last several years Sylvère Lotringer commissioned works by Paolo Virno, Franco Piperno, Christian Marazzi and Antonio Negri as his returning interest in Italian political theory.

Read an interview of Sylvere Lotringer in Frieze magazine.

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