A few years ago, Jane DeLynn was having a hard time selling her most recent novel. Commercial publishers were not lining up to buy “Leash,” a nihilistic story of a lesbian’s sadomasochism, with the shocking conclusion of her opting to have her hands bound and her vocal cords cut to live her life as a dog.
An admired, if not widely known, author of three novels and a story collection, DeLynn decided her best option was to go with Semiotext(e), an obscure but influential publisher of French theory and avant-garde literature.
“ ‘Leash’ is a dark, hilarious, unpublishable book,” says Chris Kraus, editor of Native Agents, Semiotext(e)’s American literature series, which specializes in aggressively intelligent and sensual women’s writing. “After this, no one needs to write another s/m book again. Jane is mathematical and logical in taking s/m’s basic premise of helplessness and following it all the way down the line to its furthest point.”
That willingness to go all the way is welcomed, if not encouraged by the two Jewish editors of Semiotext(e). Its bold, if not hyperbolic, paperback compendiums deconstructing the pervasive, deadly influence of capitalism and the state such as “Schizo-Culture” and “Polysexuality” became required reading for trendy grad students and downtown artists in the 1980s.
After introducing contemporary French theory to the United States and adding the Native Agents series in the early 1990s, Semiotext(e) more recently has languished. Important works by Michel Foucault and Kathy Acker went out of print. Founding editor Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus realized that if they wanted to continue to publish, Semiotext(e) must be transplanted or die.
After a protracted legal squabble and cash settlement, they disentangled Semiotext(e) from its complicated relationship with Autonomedia, a Brooklyn-based leftist collective, and found a new upscale distributor in the MIT Press. In short succession, they inked the contract, retrieved a truckload of books, and published a collection of nearly 30 years of Semiotext(e) writings, gleefully entitled “Hatred of Capitalism.”
“The first week MIT had our backlist, they made a sale to a midwestern Borders. That had never happened before,” says Kraus.
Semiotext(e)’s fearless marriage of literature and theory, of the personal and the political, initially made little sense to MIT Press editor-in-chief Larry Cohen, who says he acquired distribution rights to Semiotext(e) because of its French backlist and Lotringer’s extensive contacts. MIT does not normally distribute fiction, but Cohen was eventually persuaded of the relevance of American literary outlaws, like William Burroughs and Fanny Howe to French critical theory.
“The connection between fiction and theory runs through lower Manhattan in the 1980s. [Lotringer and Kraus] were both a part of the mix,” he said. “And a lot of French theory is pretty close to fiction.”
Cohen was nervous about the title of “Hatred of Capitalism” and its unorthodox mix of fiction, interview, manifesto and theory, but in the end gave in to Kraus and Lotringer. “They are what they are,” he sighs.
Like most small presses, Semiotext(e) is the product of the artistic and intellectual sensibilities of its editors.
On the surface, Chris Kraus and Sylvere Lotringer (who have been married since the late ’80s) couldn’t be more different. Kraus was born to a working class Bronx Jewish family, raised in New Zealand before moving to the East Village in the late ’70s to be an artist, and now lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at Art Center.
Lotringer was a hidden child in France during the Holocaust, earned his doctorate in semiotics at the Sorbonne under Roland Barthes, and has taught in the French department at Columbia University since 1972. They found common ground in making outrage a source of philosophical insight.
Because of his experiences of changing his name and going into hiding with his parents in the French countryside to escape the Holocaust, Lotringer says he became a specialist in French writing of the 1930s and 40s. The nihilism and mysticism, often bound up in anti-Semitism, of Celine and Simone Weil continually pulls Lotringer back to an era that still haunts him.
Lotringer says he “closed himself off” from his own experiences, using a French expression, “living beside my shoes,” to describe his feeling of detachment. “I was dead before being alive. It made me reckless, I had nothing to lose. Maybe that’s why I started Semiotext(e).”
Lotringer established Semiotext(e) in 1973 as a magazine to “circulate ideas very relevant to the late stage of capitalism we’re in.” He soon diversified the groundbreaking press, adding strident voices from far outside academia, from composer John Cage to the German radical Ulrike Meinhof.
Though he was fervently Zionist during his youth, Lotringer has never written about his Jewish background. Now he is searching for funding to hire someone to edit the writings of Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist living in the Palestinian territories. “Like most Jews, I’m reluctant to do anything to affect Israel, but I think it’s going the wrong way.”
Like the desire to produce the Hass book, the move to end a nearly 20-year relationship with Autonomedia founder Jim Fleming may be connected to Lotringer’s awakening to his past. A few years ago, as he was turning 60 and learning more about the experiences of other hidden children, Lotringer began therapy.
“He had been completely passive for 10 or 15 years, letting Jim run it into the ground. Semiotext(e) is Sylvere’s lifework, it was worth preserving and saving,” said Chris Kraus, who likened the extraction from Autonomedia to “a divorce.”
When reached in Brooklyn on Friday, Jim Fleming said he did not wish to comment for this article.
Cohen discovered that Semiotext(e) was more a personal collaboration than a business. Its accounting, records and archives were a disaster. “We’re trying to train them how to do real publishing,” says Cohen.
He plans to expand distribution and keep key titles in print, while continuing to publish new translations of French philosophy like “Revolt She Said” by Julia Kristeva and “Empire of Disorder” by Alain Joxe.
“Leash,” which won’t arrive in bookstores until April, is the latest example of Chris Kraus’ preferred style of first-person lowlife adventure tales by women to rival those of Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. Kraus disdains the conventional memoir, with its “implicit purpose for the writer to better understand herself,” which has come to dominate women’s literature.
“ ‘Leash’ is bigger than the tiny psychosexual s/m novel like ‘92 Weeks’ because the social is entrenched in the behavior of the individual. You see a larger pattern of causality.”
Kraus suspects that so many of the women writers she publishes are Jewish because they share a “public intelligence,” which Kraus described as “a process of thinking that is completely transparent.” This works best in skeptical first-person narrative, with its “I” that “functions like a window, a reflective surface through which the reader might come in.”
The unnamed protagonist of “Leash” (who goes by the pseudonym Chris) is, like all her protagonists, implicitly Jewish, Jane DeLynn said in an interview in her Tribeca loft. Four abstract prints by the Jewish feminist artist Helene Aylon, a friend, hang in her bedroom, which had a view of the World Trade Center.
“In the novel I make an explicit comparison between obeying commands in such a relationship and the 613 mitzvahs,” DeLynn says. Chris feels overburdened by daily life and seeks refuge in the wisdom of a higher authority.
“Leash,” a relentless narrative of a middle-aged bourgeois lesbian writer’s experimental s/m relationship while her girlfriend is away for the summer, is about an urban America suffused with technology and material wealth that prohibits transcendence, says the native Manhattanite.
The passionate women exploring sex and identity in DeLynn’s novels like “Don Juan in the Village” and “Real Estate” are Jewish “in their manner of thought,” she says. “They’re almost Talmudic in their splitting hairs and endless examination.”
DeLynn appears for a reading at St. Mark’s Poetry Project Wednesday evening and an interview on “Book Worm” on WNYC 820 AM Thursday afternoon.
“Judaism isn’t hip or about being cool. It’s about being hot and angry.”
That would describe Sylvere Lotringer’s discomfort with the late ’80s trendiness of Semiotext(e). His and Kraus’ favorite writers and thinkers prefer the scalding personal truth over the cooling caress of fashion.