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Volume 8: On Semiotext(e)

By Keegan Brady

In November 1996, Jean Baudrillard journeyed on a pilgrimage from Paris to the edge of the Mojave Desert to take part in the Chance Event, organized by Semiotext(e) at Whiskey Pete’s Casino. The three-day happening was a droll play on academic panel discussions and a pivot from the New York art intelligentsia, a “philosophy rave” that brought together the art world with a lineup of “philosophers, poets, and musicians in what was meant to be the Burning Man of French theory.”1 Ever infatuated with “American Kitsch,” or more generally America, Baudrillard donned a gold lamé jacket—a coy wink to Elvis’ rhinestone-encrusted legacy—and performed his lounge song “Motel Suicide” while backed by the band Destroy All Monsters. He orated, too, taking the lectern at 2:00 AM to a boozy, exhausted crowd of three hundred, who opted to lie down on the floor of the black box theater and take a collective nap—the audience’s own impromptu performance resembling a mass, public slumber party.

For Semiotext(e)—then, a joint effort consisting of the late theorist Sylvère Lotringer and the writer and editor Chris Kraus, who were also married at the time—the Chance Event was emblematic of the very spirit the publishing house has become known for. A convergence of heady critical theory and underground downtown culture, the “high/low” work championed by the editors is a framework that has concretized into a chameleonic and prescient form of its own: of theory, writing, and art embodied in real, lived-in time. “Theory is like a zooming thing: it gets you closer to the problem so you do not have to waste as much time. Then you are on your own. It won’t give you the answer,” said Lotringer in 1996. Theory, he adds, is a “document like any other; it is a document of the mind at work. An artist producing a work is equivalent. I like the idea of putting that work side by side.” 2

Semiotext(e) is, metaphorically, a mechanism. Or perhaps more organically, a metamorphosis. What ostensibly goes into the press—theory, fiction, criticism—and what comes out—prose, art, polemics, memoir, or as the editors say, “madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism, and confession”—is a transformative process enacted onto culture.3 While there’s magic there, of course, the press could not exist without boots on the ground: the raw, uncompromising grit of intellectual rigor, vision, and labor by the few people behind the project—which has also arrived at its 50th anniversary this year.

It remains difficult to imagine an American avant-garde outside the imprint’s influential network. One only needs to throw a cursory glance to recognize the abundance of pivotal titles published: from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations (1983)—one of the first works of the famed Foreign Agents Series, the “little black books'' credited for introducing French theory to the US—and Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick (1997), to Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism (2018) and Cookie Mueller’s posthumous collection Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black (2022); the reach is astoundingly wide.

Within this framework, we arrive at November’s eighth volume, which joins together a canonical group of Semiotext(e)-published writers—Dodie Bellamy, Jackie Wang, Sasha Frere-Jones, McKenzie Wark, and Harmony Holiday—as well as with current Semiotext(e) editors Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti, in addition to the editor Jim Fleming, a foundational figure at the press for over two decades. The volume includes a roundtable with Bernadette Van-Huy, John Kelsey, and Jim Fletcher—principle members of the artist collective Bernadette Corporation, who penned the novel Reena Spaulings and were former students of Lotringer’s at Columbia University—as well as a conversation with the writer and curator Stuart Comer, who selected the press to participate in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Jointly, what emerges from these interviews is an acutely considered perspective oriented towards freedom through experience and expression. McKenzie Wark describes this form of articulation as learning through “direct movement experience,” or the ways in which one’s artistic work—and the study of theory—“intersects with a life practice.” Similarly, Harmony Holiday speaks to this embodied, receptive approach in her poetic work, saying that “You can’t just theorize and you certainly can’t theorize your way into being a decent poet, either. You actually have to have lived experience,” where “play is a form of thinking, and leisure is underestimated as part of creative acts, crafts, and the way you get to excellence.” These conversations are an archival documentation of that experience, examining, at length, reticulations of self, death, sex, labor, love, failure, pain, money, and transcendence. That is, the stuff that makes up a life.

The interviews highlight the rawness of creative living, and the inevitably of humiliation and failure, as not only neutral, but also fruitfully generative. The conception of Chris Kraus’ epistolary novel I Love Dick, for example, was an act of self-immolation to her filmmaking career, an undertaking of failure that she asserts as a uniquely “feminist question:” “For so long—and I think this is less true now—there was so much shame attached to all kinds of female work. It was as if there was this barrier of shame that had to be broken through before anyone could manifest or speak,” she says in our conversation. “I felt that failure needed to be owned and claimed in order to be overcome and annihilated.” I Love Dick is a part of a larger discursive shift in the kinds of work now regularly published by Semiotext(e)—in 1990, Kraus established the Native Agents imprint to address the press’ gap in female and queer writers, and their quasi-fiction works that employ a radically subjective POV, theory embodied. The personal voice, as Kraus suggested later to Henry Schwarz and Anne Balsamo in 1996, manifests “a polemical, not an introspective, I.” 4 To create something bigger than oneself, and to swim in the strange waters of transgression, one must be willing to unfurl themselves to a state of abjection.

The Bernadette Corporation devoured this self in their killing of the capital-A author with their novel Reena Spaulings, issued by Semiotext(e) in 2005, at the behest of Kraus. John Kelsey recalls the collective’s opus being “a serious attempt to invade the idea of authorship with a gang, or unruly horde, of writers.” The experimental project was an interference in subjectivity and identity, and a rearticulation of the form of the novel itself.

More broadly, then, Semiotext(e)’s cultural impact is its own stab at rearticulation, embodying an unfalteringly propulsive and protean idea of what a press can be. Situated as outsider to both the academy and the literary world, Semiotext(e) has engendered a far more nuanced, art-adjacent readership and body of work, one which staggers the autofictive, autotheoretical folds of genre and form. In turn, the press has breathed love and life into a constellatory oeuvre, putting forth a series of critical and experimental works that continue to evolve the ways meaning is created: “the mind at work,” indeed.



Semiotext(e), “To Do Away with Freedom,” Semiotext(e).


Schwarz, Henry, and Anne Balsamo. “Under the Sign of Semiotext(e) The Story According to Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37, no. 3 (April 1996): 205–20.


“About.” Semiotext(e).


Schwarz, Henry, and Anne Balsamo. “Under the Sign of Semiotext(e) The Story According to Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37, no. 3 (April 1996): 205–20.

Next from this Volume

Dodie Bellamy
in conversation with Lauren O'Neill-Butler

“My attention tends to focus on the micro, on what’s right in front of my face—I let associations spiral out from there.”