Sylvère Lotringer, Shape-Shifting Force of the Avant-Garde, Dies at 83


Sylvère Lotringer, who popularized French critical theory in the United States, helped inspire the “Matrix” movie series, hosted conferences for counterculture celebrities, lent his name to a character in an acclaimed novel and a television series based on it, provoked rants on Fox News and founded an influential publishing house — all while trying to outrun memories of a childhood spent on the precipice of disaster — died on Nov. 8 at his home outside Ensenada, Mexico, in Baja California. He was 83.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Iris Klein, said.

By background a Parisian Jew and by trade a tenured academic in the Columbia University French department with a specialty in abstruse philosophy, Professor Lotringer somehow charmed his way into a classically American career consisting of successive 15-minute bursts of fame.

He emerged in public life in the late 1970s as a kind of P.T. Barnum for postmodernism. Two conferences he held in New York — “Schizo-Culture” in 1975 and “Nova Convention” in 1978 — crystallized an emerging avant-garde composed of aging Beats, experimental musicians, performance artists, punks and a new generation of philosophers.

At “Schizo-Culture,” the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault — one of whose lectures focused on the history of masturbation — were drawn into ideological sparring matches with hecklers in the crowd. At “Nova,” Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Frank Zappa paid tribute to the Beat writer William S. Burroughs. A 19-year-old Thurston Moore, years away from forming the band Sonic Youth, also attended, but only as a humble devotee of the assembled luminaries.

Around the same time, Professor Lotringer and a group of graduate students founded a magazine that he gave the cryptic name Semiotext(e). Its pages became a gathering place for his eclectic clique. Figures like Burroughs and Foucault appeared alongside up-and-comers like the writer Kathy Acker. An issue in honor of the “Schizo-Culture” conference sold out its print run of 3,000 issues in three weeks.

Professor Lotringer responded to this popularity by losing interest in his magazine, which stopped coming out in 1987, and ceasing to throw his signature events. (One exception: a 1996 conference at a Nevada casino that featured the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard lecturing in a gold lamé suit.)

“Never give people what they want, or they’ll hate you for it,” Professor Lotringer said in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail in 2006.

Instead, he steered Semiotext(e) into publishing thin books of esoteric critical theory sans introductory or explanatory text. “Their place was in the pockets of spiked leather jackets as much as on the shelves,” he recalled in Artforum magazine in 2003.

He made an impact with Semiotext(e)’s first book, “Simulations” (1983), by Mr. Baudrillard, who soon became “the art world’s po-mo poster boy,” the editor and critic Rhonda Lieberman wrote in Artforum in 2005. The first “Matrix” movie, released in 1999, lifted material from the work of Mr. Baudrillard that Professor Lotringer had published, including dialogue — like the phrase “desert of the real” — and the concept of virtual reality overtaking real life.

Semiotext(e) kept publishing books and discovering improbable mainstream hits. In 2009 and again in 2010, the Fox News personality Glenn Beck used a Semiotext(e) book, “The Coming Insurrection,” to argue that “people on the extreme left are calling people to arms” and to warn, “We are doomed.” His tirades pushed the book to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list, The New York Times reported.

“I would be willing to come on the show if he had read the book, but he has never read it,” Professor Lotringer told The Times.

Semiotext(e) evolved over time with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose publishing house distributes its books, and with the addition of two co-editors, who introduced new themes and authors. Yet the degree to which Semiotext(e) remains associated with its founder may be gleaned from the fact that the book it is best known for publishing features Professor Lotringer himself as a character.

That book is “I Love Dick,” a novel by Chris Kraus, one of the Semiotext(e) co-editors and Professor Lotringer’s ex-wife. Its plot includes a character named Sylvère Lotringer, who becomes entangled in his wife’s attraction to a colleague named Dick. (The wife in the book is named Chris Kraus.)

The novel did not attract much attention upon its publication in 1997, but critical praise gradually built; more than 50,000 copies were sold in 2016 alone. The next year, Amazon adapted the book into a TV series of the same title, with Griffin Dunne as Professor Lotringer, Kevin Bacon as Dick and Kathryn Hahn as Kraus.

The real-life Ms. Kraus depicted Professor Lotringer as brilliant but also sweetly self-effacing. “Beneath his reputation at the Mudd Club” — a well-known punk-rock dive — “as the philosopher of kinky sex, Sylvère was a closet humanist,” Ms. Kraus wrote. “Guilt and duty more than S&M propelled his life.”

The writer Lucy Sante, who has explored 1970s and ’80s New York, among other topics, and who attended “Schizo-Culture” and studied with Professor Lotringer, recalled both his charisma and his remoteness.

“We’d go to a movie, we’d go to a party, we’d go to a club — there was Sylvère, inevitably,” she said in a phone interview. “He’s the man of mystery. He’s everybody’s buddy, but nobody gets to know him too well.”

Ms. Kraus proposed a theory connecting Professor Lotringer’s editorial work to his sensibility.

“You could say everything he achieved with Semiotext(e) was the result of displacement,” she said. “Every time he did a book-length interview with a philosopher, it was a means of avoiding writing about his own experience in the war.”

Sylvère Lotringer was born on Oct. 15, 1938, in Paris — less than two years before the city fell to Nazi Germany. His father, Cudek, and his mother, Doba (Borenstein) Lotringer, were Jewish immigrants from Poland who ran a fur shop.

Sylvère and his older sister, Yvonne, were the only two Jews at their school. The headmistress had contacts in the French Resistance, and she gave the young Lotringers false papers so that they could impersonate two of their fellow students, Serge and Huguette Bonnat.

The family fled to the countryside, where a woman from whom they had rented a place for holidays took in the children. Sylvère’s mother instructed him to repeat, again and again, “My name is Serge Bonnat,” adding, “They kill little children who tell their real names.” After he nearly revealed his name during a trip to buy milk, he was forbidden to leave the house.

Following the liberation of Paris, Sylvère endured beatings at school and found a sense of belonging only with a Zionist youth group. He prepared to move to Israel and establish a kibbutz with his friends but then started questioning himself when he failed his final high school philosophy exam.

He described this period in a memoir, “The Man Who Slips,” which he threw himself into writing toward the end of his life. (It remains unpublished. Professor Lotringer’s wife, Ms. Klein, provided a draft.)

“We only had the future in mind, and believed it was close at hand,” Professor Lotringer wrote. “No questions asked, only one answer. No wonder I failed my exam.”

On behalf of himself and his friends, he sent a letter to their mentors resigning from the Zionist movement.

He went on to show promise in Paris intellectual circles — establishing a Marxist cultural magazine with the writer Georges Perec, contributing to another magazine edited by the poet Louis Aragon, and studying under Roland Barthes. He developed an interest in Virginia Woolf and traveled across Britain in a Vespa interviewing figures connected to her, like Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

Professor Lotringer earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of literature from the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1967 and ambled among appointments at universities in Turkey, Australia and the United States.

In addition to Ms. Klein, with whom he had homes in Mexico and Los Angeles, he is survived by a daughter, Mia Lotringer Marano, from a relationship with Susie Flato, a former colleague at Columbia and Semiotext(e), and two grandsons. Two prior marriages ended in divorce. His sister died in 2010.

In a 2016 Semiotext(e) monograph titled “Étant Donnés,” Professor Lotringer recounted how whenever he returned to Paris he would search for Serge Bonnat, the boy he had impersonated during the war. He called every entry for the name in the Paris phone book, then entries for other people with the same surname.

Finally, in 2016, he got Mr. Bonnat on the phone.

“I am a Juste!” he declared, using a French term for gentiles who helped Jews during the war. “We’ll celebrate this with a bottle of Champagne.”

The two men spent an afternoon together. But reflecting on the experience prompted in him a haunting thought: Just 0.5 percent of French society, he found, qualified as a “Juste.”

“What were the Injustes doing in France during that time, the 99.5 percent of the population one never mentions?” he wrote. “And what are they doing today?”



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