Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 15 - the X issue
Log 15 - the X issue



Semiotext(e) - Hatred of CapitalismSylvère Lotringer, theorist and founding editor of the magazine Semiotext(e), passed comment that the upcoming Semiotext(e) anthology, titled ‘Hatred of Capitalism,’ was to be delayed following the events of September 11. Log asked Leo Edelstein, co-editor of Pataphysics magazine, if he would interview Lotringer about this curious situation.

Jack Smith suggested the title ‘Hatred of Capitalism’ in an interview you did with him. What made you decide to use it as a title for the Semiotext(e) anthology?

It’s a long story. Chris [Kraus] and I have talked about it for years, but it’s only recently that we decided to publish an anthology of Semiotext(e), both theory and fiction. I was opposed to it at first, because these kinds of things often look like a first-class funeral. ‘Hurry up, please. It’s time.’ But now that we missed all the significant deadlines—the 20th and 25th anniversaries are over and the 30th will fall in the year 2004—we’re free to go ahead. This is a good time because no one expects it. And actually it marks a new departure: we’re moving the distribution to MIT Press, and we have a lots of things going on.

And then there’s Jack Smith, the underground filmmaker and director of Flaming Creatures. That’s where it all began, at least as far as I am concerned. The interview I made with him (it’s in the book too) was something very special, and not just by its weirdness. Meeting him introduced me very early on, in the mid-70s, to the New York artworld as it existed then, a mixture of craziness and creativity, anarchism, paranoia, immediacy, flashing insights, everything I was discovering at the time in the US, by bits and pieces, in artists and writers like John Cage or William Burroughs. That was quite a leap from academe, where everything is rationalized to death. Jack Smith was the first to give me a sense of what being an artist is about. He immediately warned me against the French obsession with language. I can tell, he said, ‘that you somehow got hung up on the issue of language. Forget it. It’s thinking... If I could think of a thought that has never been thought of before, the language will fall into place in the most fantastic way, but the thought is what’s going to do it.’ For a semiotician, it was a rough lesson, but it worked. The way Semiotext(e) handled theory has a lot to do with that. Using theory to think, to look around you, not to get lost in it. The funny thing is that Jack himself didn’t follow up on his own suggestion. He was repelled by the title Semiotext(e) and urged me to call it instead: ‘Hatred of Capitalism.’ But when I offered to give this title to our dialogue, he backed off and called it: ‘Uncle Fishhook and the Sacred Baby Poo Poo of Art.’ I don’t blame him. It was more fun, and it was about his own work. Uncle Fishhook was the name he gave Jonas Mekas, now director of the Film Anthology Archives in New York, whom he accused of having ripped off his film. This fantasy of persecution became a major obsession after Flaming Creatures was censored for obscenity, ending his career.

In any case the title Hatred of Capitalism remained available, and we used it for the anthology. It’s a bit more abstract, but it serves its purpose. We both liked it because it was such a crazy and naïve idea. Jack believed that if you put an explicit title on something implicit, that was almost enough. You had to be more and more specific about what you’re thinking. This applies as well to the kind of writing that Chris introduced later on, in the late ’80s, with the first-person fiction of the ‘Native Agents’ series she created. No one realizes how much one should hate capitalism. Someone had to say it.

What did Jack Smith object to most in capitalism?

He hated its ugliness, its insane waste and what he called his ‘pasty cheerfulness.’ The idea that you have to be happy all the time. From that to hatred, I must say, it was quite a leap and I wasn’t exactly crazy about it myself. Hatred isn’t what I strive for. In a sense it was the opposite of what we were trying to achieve with Semiotext(e). But then Jack’s hatred wasn’t blind or destructive—nothing to do with the callousness and fanaticism of Osama Bin Laden. It was a rejection of everything that reduced life to a shoddy business. Jack was just longing for a more communal life, for a celebration of beauty in everyday things. Capitalism (Uncle Fishhook) had reduced him to a reclusive, paranoid position, and he decided to make explicit what had happened to him because it was paradigmatic of capitalist society as a whole. He cast himself as a victim, of course, and kept whining that he was doing the dirty job, cleaning Augias’ toilets. ‘Nobody wants to open a can of worms,’ he said, ‘but that’s the thing that has been handed for me to do.’ In fact hatred had become the source of his creative energy, a way of existing as an artist, of bringing out constantly new material for his work. He succeeded in turning his life into a permanent performance that belied the cynicism of life in late capitalism. It allowed him to turn his defeat into strength, making of his internal collapse a prodigious entry into what was happening outside. You can’t stop an artist from being an artist and if love or money won’t do, then hatred could do it. It did it for him.

Does hatred do it to you?

We took it more ironically, of course. Another funny thing was Baudrillard’s reaction to our project: he complained that the title of the anthology was old-fashioned. Well, that’s the least you could say. It was untimely, in Nietzsche’s sense. It was meant to be a wake up call. A challenge to think things through. No one could have claimed such a title at this point——not even us! But precisely: trying too hard to be fashionable in a capitalist society is just courting waste. You always have to be a bit ahead of things, and a bit off, if you want to exist in real time. The title isn’t representative at all of the texts we anthologized (Chris did most of the work), except in one respect: it is polemical. This is what Chris said of the Native Agents fictions, but this holds true to the theory as well. They all address the readers and they don’t let them go before they’re made to think for themselves. None of these texts wallow in the ‘pasty cheerfulness’ that Jack Smith hated so much. Ulrike Meinhof would be the closest in the anthology to be polemical in the etymological sense——polemos means ‘being at war.’ But the Red Army Faction ended up playing the terrorist game and the only one that ever wins that game is the state. Bush Jr. and co. are the perfect example of that. Osama Bin Laden was, literally, a godsend for them. They couldn’t have dreamt of anything better than this massive terror to impose massively their own order on a local and global scale. And this no one would dare say it right now in America. The cold brutality of the attack, the thousands of lives crushed to the ground, the gaping hole at the heart of Manhattan, nothing can justify that——but taking advantage of the situation with unabashed cynicism and bullying the whole world into a righteous and ill-defined crusade is not acceptable either. Deleuze and Guattari saw it very early on: capitalism is at once cynical and pious. There’s nothing more hateful than that combination.

So the title wasn’t just ironical. You actually stand behind it.

We wanted our reference to be political and in some sense unacceptable. We chose the title: Communists Like Us for Guattari and Negri’s book for the same reason after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Who would have wanted to be a communist then? So I thought it was the right time to reclaim it. In a sense the communist idea (not its reality) had never been thought through. It was corrupted from the start by dictature inside and capitalism outside, the two working hand to hand to keep the lid on. The cold war was some kind of a death dance and we all had to watch our steps. Hating capitalism seems like a luxury at this point because what else is there? But accepting that as a fact already is playing the capitalist game: cynicism by day and new age by night. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jack Smith kept repeating: I need something to hate. Something is better than nothing, and this is what we’re finally left with in this society of plenty. Everything for nothing. At least hate is a strong passion, and most other affects are just special effects of the system. Love, sex, fame, fortune, all pre-cooked, all heavily tampered with. You have to hang on to something if you want to go anywhere. But where is there to go? Most people I know live in the hope of having their picture in the obituary of the New York Times. Not even the famous five minutes of fame in your lifetime—a few lines in a trashcan. Hatred can make you think, but really it’s thinking that counts, not hatred. Celine is full of hatred, but it is not his hatred that’s admirable, it’s his writing. I wish the title could have been in French instead of in English, it would have come closer to what we had in mind. In Haine du capitalisme, the du works both ways: hatred is inherent to capitalism. What is definitely hateful about it is the hatred that it secretes: hatred of life reduced to meaninglessness.

Where were you when the U.S. was attacked and how did the immediate aftermath affect your relation to Semiotext(e) anthology?

I was in Los Angeles. I was woken up early in the morning and rushed to see images of the towers in flame on TV. I thought it was an hoax, a re-make of Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds. I found the anchors rather lame and the whole show unconvincing. Then my daughter called in panic from New York and it dawned on me that the unbelievable had happened. William Burroughs talked about an outrage of that sort in the late 70s, a low-yield A-bomb exploding in lower Manhattan but to experience it even at a distance is a different thing. I regretted not being with my friends in New York. The way everyone reacted to the disaster, the collective spirit they demonstrated, was truly admirable.

September 11 was something else. After we caught our breath, we started worrying about the book. The title was no longer old-fashioned and humorous, it was glued to this horrible event. What should we do? Osama Bin Laden had stolen our title. My friend in Hollywood, Michael Oblowicz, a rock-video director, swore that everyone in the industry adored him. They found Osama glamorous and really sexy with this cute AK-47 as a backdrop and his gentle smile. He had become an instant star. I really started hating that guy. We didn’t exactly symbolize American arrogance and might, like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, so why is he doing this to us? You couldn’t even be underground and be well left alone. Now the entire media was rabidly attacking us. I turned on to CNN and I couldn’t believe my eyes. ‘They hate us,’ a debater said. ‘They hate our way of life.’ And then a writer from the National Review said: ‘They hate capitalism’—and suddenly I saw the writing on the wall...

The title ‘Hatred of Capitalism’ was not exactly meant to be a crowd-pleaser to start with...

No, of course, but I didn’t expect it to be burning hot either. What I had in my mind was someone young reading our anthology in the crowded New York subway, one hand hanging on the bar, and vaguely embarrassed by what people around would think of the title. That much I liked. Chris and I both got very worked up after September 11 and decided to change it. But nothing else seemed to work. And then we started seeing The Flags popping up everywhere—on doors, roofs, pick-up trucks, an ocean of Spangled Banners covering the continent, huge advertisements flapping in the wind, and the media like hyenas on the scent, blessing God and America and going for the kill. That made us think again. And so we kept it.


Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room