Pomo Trip


Hatred of Capitalism is dedicated “To the Memory of an Era (1974-2002),” which by strange chance is also the life span of Semiotext(e) press. And if one is of a certain pomo boho intellectual persuasion, the imprint’s output does stand for a period of history, though perhaps less ongoing than the equivocal dedication suggests.

The anthology draws from both the Semiotext(e) journal and many of their 50-odd books. It’s unsettling how far this solid tome feels from those books’ iconic format: dark breast-pocket fetishes with names like Pure War, BoloBolo, and Sadness at Leaving. Two of the three book lines, Foreign Agents and Double Agents (both edited by Sylvère Lotringer; Native Agents is edited by Chris Kraus), specialize in Western European authors, and float in the unsettled constellation of philosophies witty reactionary Harold Bloom dismissed as “the French diseases”: poststructuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, stuff like that. But against Yale nabobs, there was a demand for such work—not just late complaints about Late Capitalism, but new ways of talking about the new conditions clustered under that umbrella. At six bucks a pop, the hopers and believers were thrilled: professional professors, amateur ranters, and not a few poseurs, very I-moved-to-Manhattan-the-day-after-Brown-graduation. These were the best. They were sexy because it was their era more than anyone else’s, because at least for a while they seemed to signify exactly what the books themselves meant to signify: that high-end political theory could be a trip. They were the children of Marx and Ecstasy.

Those were the high times, before the backlash against pomo, before the underexamined phenomenon of theory exhaustion, before the economic boom converted scruffy rads into so many tattooed tech guys. Also contributing to the decline was Semiotext(e)‘s choice to include American authors more diligently. The native agents are an ocean apart from the children of critical theory; they are instead the scions of radical subjectivity. This mostly means first-person nonfiction from marginalized positions, often sexualized, angry, and alienated, e.g., David Wojnarowicz and Kathy Acker. Fanny Howe’s anthologized novel sliver is thrillingly austere. But Bob Flanagan’s plodding “Pain Journal” is interesting exactly to the extent that he was dying while writing it—the most antique of appeals. A John Cage interview makes clear why an acidic political philosopher once dubbed him a “Buddhist cretin.” Less amusing is the chapter from Michelle Tea’s diaristic coming-of-age book, which gains from excerption insofar as a fraction of boredom must be less dull than the totality.

Hatred‘s far-from-chronological sections (“Terror,” “Ecstasy,” “Becoming,” etc.) nonetheless mirror the press’s arc, and so “Life in These United States” is last and least. But if the anthology ends in a dying fall, what precedes is vivid with brilliance and wildness. Moreover, it makes clear that the Semiotext(e) era was far from a vogue: It was a version of things as they are. At the high point, in the way of great movements, every flicker in the field seemed important, a collective Next Big Thing, with Jean Baudrillard the acknowledged superstar. “Simulations” in particular seemed like it might end up as influential as Barthes’s Mythologies or Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a deadpan exaggeration of spectacle theory and Benjamin’s ideas about mechanical reproduction. Simulation was where the real went to die.

Nothing from that volume survives in Hatred of Capitalism. Baudrillard’s star has dimmed, and though he’s still represented herein, he’s now seen more as a minor figure and/or charlatan. There is no punishment as bitter as that reserved for overrated intellectuals. A pity: His essay on the World Trade Center would turn a few heads these days: “This architectural graphism is of the monopoly. . . . The fact that there are two of them signifies the end of all competition, the end of all original reference. . . . The two towers of the WTC are the visible sign of the closure of the system in a vertigo of duplication.” The system is open again, but the vertigo remains.

If Baudrillard has lost his shine, other stars have risen. The work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari now seems equal to any in two generations. They contribute two obliteratingly great essays (in addition to a Guattari solo): “May ’68 Did Not Take Place” and “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium.” Like most of the foreign agent, their concern is with the meta-science often called “symbol management”: any and all formulations of power in an age of appearances. In their work, institutional power appears as a bizarrerie in a veneer of logic, a phantasmic version of the iron fist in a velvet glove. Jean-François Lyotard appears as a mindful uncle. “Energumen Capitalism” serves as a Deleuze and Guattari primer. It’s a useful inclusion, but the pair don’t always need explaining. “Christianity has never been an ideology,” begins an exemplary passage. “It is a very original, very specific organization of power that has assumed diverse forms since the Roman Empire. It was able to invent the idea of international power. It’s far more important than ideology.” Urbanist Paul Virilio has also aged well: His essay “The Last Vehicle,” from the 1986 collection Looking Back on the End of the World, can now be seen as a prescient account of how computers will reorder our material existences not like a medium, but like a transportation form.

Not all the stunning moments come from the shelves that St. Mark’s Bookshop labels “Cultural/Critical Theory,” however. The travel journal of filmmaker Chris Marker (of La Jetée fame), “Sunless,” seems at first merely a surreal daybook. By its end the casual dislocations and sudden focus on fragmentary images is mesmerizing, and gathers together phrases utterly elusive and perfectly proper. At one point he formulates what could be a Semiotext(e) slogan, shouted at the Blooms across the historical divide: “Electronic texture is the only one that can deal with sentiment, memory, and imagination.” But if that’s a fitting epigram, Baudrillard carves a fine potential epitaph in “Why Theory?”: “For every thought one must expect a strange tomorrow.”

An epitaph is only proper; what anthology is not also a tombstone? Eras end rarely from the failure of their ideas, but always because we remain in motion; Semiotext(e)‘s strange tomorrow is our strange today. “In any case,” mused the voice-over in an old French movie, as the camera raced over water toward Venice, “one traverses an era like one passes the Dogana point, that is to say, rather fast. First of all, you do not look at it whilst it comes, and then you discover it reaching its zenith, and you have to agree that it was built thus, and not otherwise. But we are already weathering this cape, and are leaving it behind us, and are heading into unknown waters.”

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