Bookforum talks with Sylvère Lotringer

Mad Like Artaud (Univocal) BY Sylvère Lotringer. Univocal Publishing. Paperback, 214 pages. $24.

Few people can be said to have singlehandedly introduced a new body of thought to a foreign country, but that is precisely what the critic, professor, and Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer did throughout the 1970s and ’80s, bringing French theory to these shores via the original Semiotext(e) journal (1974-1985), the famously anarchic “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University in 1975, and, most importantly, the “Foreign Agents” series of pocket-sized paperbacks—English translations of essays and excerpts from Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Paul Virilio, and others—which served as literary mind grenades for a generation of American radicals and grad students. Lotringer has been a conduit for so many other celebrated thinkers for so long that one can forget that he himself writes, and in doing so he thankfully avoids the “true gift of incoherence” that Arthur C. Danto jokingly ascribed to Jean-François Lyotard, the theorist of postmodernism and Lotringer’s colleague, after they appeared together on a Schizo-Culture panel.

Originally published in French in 2003, Mad Like Artaud, translated by Joanna Spinks and recently published by Univocal, is Lotringer’s strikingly personal inquiry into the “insanity” of the actor, director, and poète maudit Antonin Artaud. For Lotringer, Artaud was a prophet of sorts, an extraordinarily sensitive lightning rod whose “madness” was nothing more than a superior form of lucidity and whose “demons” were the very forces that were dragging Europe into fascism, genocide, and world war in the 1930s and ’40s. “I’m not sick. I’m conscious,” Artaud insisted in one of his countless notebooks.

Artaud suffered a peculiar sense of displaced self, an internal certainty that the real Artaud had been replaced by another Artaud, a hollow man incapable of emotion, an automaton, a simulation. There was “no one there where he was supposed to be,” Lotringer writes of Artaud’s condition, “he felt that there was nothing personal about life itself anymore.” For Lotringer, this made Artaud an avant la lettre embodiment of the flattened, fragmented postmodern self that would emerge in the decades that followed.

During his internment at various asylums, Artaud’s personality moved through the stages of Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra,” ending up as a pure, baseless symbol from which contradictory meanings could be siphoned, depending on who was doing the siphoning. According to Lotringer, Artaud was a canary in a coal mine, sensing the conflagration that was about to engulf Europe, and the post-God, post-meaning self it would leave in its wake; in death, he became a blind man’s elephant, a legendary figure of great elasticity, pressed into all manner of service by disciples, enemies, ideologues, and opportunists.

Lotringer conscripts Artaud into the role of kindred spirit/older brother, gathering conflicting impressions of the poet from those who knew him in a quest for self-discovery by proxy, and concluding that, for most of his life, Lotringer felt as abnormal within postwar Western culture as Artaud had felt in its prewar iteration. Artaud’s “madness,” like his own, was the only sane response to his times. The “enchantments” Artaud complained of “were not imaginary,” Lotringer writes, echoing Foucault, “they expressed a sharp perception of the disciplinary system underlying society, which spread its roots in all directions implanting and imposing normality. . . . Those who still thought themselves capable of personal thoughts were really the ones hallucinating.” I spoke to Lotringer by Skype and email, which is to say that our interview, too, began to acquire the texture of an enchanting hallucination.

You seem to be trying to learn something about yourself by delving into the life and mind of Antonin Artaud. What purpose does he serve for you?

Artaud is like a homing missile. He was searching for something, and I searched for something through him. Mostly I turned to him and to some of his contemporaries, like Simone Weil, Georges Bataille and Céline, to understand how we could have let the horrors of WWII happen, as if the massive killing fields of WWI hadn’t been enough of a warning. In 1933, just returning from Vienna, where he first heard of Freud’s death drive, Céline denounced the “incurable warring psychosis” that was launching entire countries “into extreme, aggressive, ecstatic nationalisms . . . a kind of amorous impatience, quasi-irresistible, unanimous, for death.” It seemed, he added, that nothing could oppose this desire for nothingness. He was right about that. It only took a few years before he rallied to those he had been condemning and became anti-Semitic. One foot in and one foot out, this handful of writers and philosophers undertook to embody at their own expense the violence that was raging outside, and use whatever means were at hand to preempt the catastrophe. Some among them became mystics, others went mad, like Artaud, but they all managed to retrieve some powerful antidotes that they hoped could be released like the plague, wreaking havoc in society and bringing people back to essential principles. Artaud didn’t remain silent, he shrieked and shrieked on the stage, trusting that the cruelty of his theater would alert the world, but the world grew louder and louder and covered his voice. In 1937, Artaud traveled to Ireland looking for the roots of paganism, but his delirium took over, and he had to be shipped back to France in a straitjacket. He spent the next nine years, and the entire war, in various asylums, where he was diagnosed as “suffering from chronic hallucinatory psychosis with profuse polymorphous delusions.”

Leaving aside Foucault’s point about the medical community inventing illnesses in order to justify its existence, how do you reconcile the diagnoses of Artaud’s psychiatrists at the Rodez asylum, Dr. Ferdière and his intern, Dr. Latrémolière, with what you see in Artaud? To me, the baseline assumptions of Mad Like Artaud are very much in the genius-equals-madness tradition—that the more of a genius you are, the closer you get to madness. Whereas the psychiatric community, then and now, would dispute that. In your interview with Latrémolière, he says Artaud’s writings amount to nothing, that they’re rambling bullshit of no value.

Well, Latrémolière was no critic. And of course the genius-equals-madness formulation is simplistic, as I say in the book. What’s more interesting to me is to look at the ways Artaud was created by those around him, by looking outside the asylum itself. By the 1930s, Artaud, Weil, and others saw the culture sliding towards annihilation. They experienced it very acutely, they smelled it, they lived off it, they were permeated by it and were prepared to live out those contradictions. The psychiatrists, of course, saw things differently. The paraphrenia diagnosed by Dr. Ferdière was part of a nineteenth-century classification that came back into currency at the time, and it seems to describe Artaud fairly accurately. Certainly, Latrémolière and Ferdière offered direct testimony of what medicine could and could not do at that time. This, of course, included the use of electroshock, then in its infancy. The treatments were administered by Latrémolière, but it was Ferdière who was attacked publicly for it all his life, and got the credit. Unlike Latrémolière, who was more of a bumpkin, Ferdière had his answers well rehearsed. He was also very clever.

He was a Surrealist.

Yes, a minor one. He owed his reputation to his treatment of Artaud, not to his poetry. But he wasn’t afraid of contradicting himself, that’s for sure. He wasn’t the only one. Actually all the material in Mad Like Artaud is topological; you can never settle into a single position. Were the psychiatrists wrong to inflict this violent treatment on Artaud, or did it cure him of his delirium? Did Artaud’s mother refuse to pay him a visit at Rodez or did he refuse to see her? Are his young admirers responsible for his death—they procured him laudanum—or was it due to anal cancer? You keep twisting and turning. It’s a “perspectivist” view of the entire situation. Nietzsche was a perspectivist. He was generous with the people he disliked, like priests; he acknowledged their twisted intelligence for what it was. That’s what I have been trying to do, and why there are so many voices in the book. No voice is final, especially not Artaud’s.

I also added another layer of my own to the fierce controversy about Artaud’s religion. Was he a Christian? His family buried him as a Catholic, but his young disciples protested loudly. How could the author of To Have Done With the Judgment of God be a Christian? But Artaud refused God’s Judgment, not God Himself. The quarrel goes on unabated. To cut it short, I introduced a family romance that Freud might have liked: Artaud wasn’t born a Christian, he was born a Jew and brought up as a Marrano in Marseilles by his secretive family. The story may even be true, for all I know, Artaud’s oriental antecedents being rather muddled. The idea of a double identity wasn’t farfetched. And then Artaud was quite a fabulator himself. Actually, that was what Ferdière diagnosed. Artaud was paraphrenic. It was a writer’s disease. This invention of a Jewish Artaud allowed me to look at the asylum in a new way. Was Artaud’s treatment in mental hospitals so different, after all, from that experienced at the time by the Jews in the camps? Artaud spent six years at Ville-Evrard, a mental institution near Paris. During wartime, Ville-Evrard turned into a veritable charnel house. Patients ate their own fingers. They were dying like flies, just like deportees in the death camps. Forty thousand inmates died of hunger in the French asylums in occupied France. It took a long time for this extermination to be acknowledged. Indeed, in 1946, writing to a deportee just back from the camps, Artaud described the “agony of my deportation,” because being deported, he was also, he said, “a prisoner in a mental asylum.” Many people thought that Artaud had no idea of what was happening outside, that he was locked up in his own delirium—I hope that by the end of my book, contradictory opinions will be caught in some sort of dance, and you’ll be left with an idea of what Artaud was, without really knowing who he is.

In your interview with him, Ferdière drew a distinction between paraphrenia and paranoia. In the early years of the Occupation, he was charged with making house calls to decide whether people needed to be interned in an asylum. And he said you didn’t have to intern people suffering from paraphrenic delusions, because while they concoct the most outrageous theories and say crazy things, they haven’t lost their cognitive faculties. They know who they are, their memory is fine, they can be productive members of society to a certain degree.

Ferdière saved Artaud’s life by bringing him to the Free Zone. But he kept Artaud in Rodez much longer than he should have. Actually he did everything he could to prevent his release, alleging his lack of money, or his craving for drugs. He wasn’t entirely wrong, mind you, but there were ulterior motives, which Artaud perfectly knew. The doctor was a failed poet, and his patient wasn’t. Ferdière pretended that he was a liberal, but he never let Artaud forget that he was the psychiatrist and Artaud the patient. Artaud could never have written Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society had he remained Ferdière’s patient.

How do you account for Artaud’s extreme fear of women, his repulsion from sexuality? You recount scenes where Latrémolière’s pregnant wife was walking through the asylum, and Artaud would start spitting on the floor as she passed because he was so disgusted by what he saw as the obscene physicality of pregnancy.

Artaud in Rodez was like Saint Anthony in the desert. He was totally obsessed with sex. Every night he complained that incubi and succubi were sucking him dry. Spitting was an elaborate ritual, his way of exorcizing the temptations of the flesh. He would have had no problem with the Virgin and Child! From another perspective, his position confirms Foucault’s analysis of the sexual imperative. Artaud experienced this increasing incitement to sex as an abomination. Like St. Hildegard, he wanted a body completely free of impurity. No need for soiled organs, food would simply evaporate.

You point out in the book that even though Artaud was Catholic, he was quite gnostic in some ways. He wanted to transcend the “meat prison” of life and become a being of pure light.

Yes, he was that extreme.

He would go back and forth on God.

But he never stopped being a believer. Of course Artaud was deeply religious, even when he abused God—especially so. It takes someone who is steeped in the whole history of religion to care enough to attack God. In his youth he considered becoming a priest, just like Bataille.

You’re right, even when Artaud was on an anti-God jag, his rhetorical mode remained that of the person receiving some divine or supernatural message that had to be carried to the world.

There are other extravagant characters in Mad Like Artaud, too. Bataille turned sexuality into a religion. Simone Weil was known as the “Red Virgin”: No one ever touched her, except Christ. Céline wasn’t of the same class. He was a voyeur.

In the book, you say that Artaud wasn’t mad, that he was extraordinarily lucid. But if so, what did his extra lucidity give him?

At the time of his Correspondence with Jacques Rivière, in 1923, there are pages and pages where Artaud hallucinates what happens in his brain when two synapses connect, so unsure was he that the ideas he had were his own, and afraid that they had been prompted from the outside. Artaud was always an observer of himself. He was his own double.

You’re saying he was an antenna of sorts. He was not actually broadcasting himself; he was receiving and transmitting.

Exactly. That was his fear. It took me some time to realize that Artaud was kind of shell-shocked. He couldn’t feel what he experienced. He couldn’t back his own thoughts with emotions. That’s why he always worried that someone was stealing his words. In the chapter on “affective athleticism” in The Theater and Its Double, published in 1938, he recommended that actors create a set of affects outside of their own, so that they could use them on the stage whenever needed. Artaud was always on the stage in that respect. He could only identify who he was when he became someone else—Abelard, Paolo Uccello, Van Gogh, etc. J. G. Ballard said that the greatest casualty of the twentieth century was the death of affect. Artaud was exemplary in that respect. He always complained that we had lost contact with reality.

Which was Baudrillard’s argument.

Yes, reality was just another simulation. Baudrillard and Artaud were on the same wavelength, except that Artaud is considered a savage, and Baudrillard a cynic. Connecting the two was a revelation. They belonged to the same family, and so does Virilio. They were all longing for materiality, but they chronicled its disappearance faster than anyone else. In the 1970s, I was teaching Artaud, Céline, Weil, Bataille, et al., at Columbia University, and I was also teaching postwar French theory, which I was introducing in America. It seemed to me then that my attention was split in two. Like Janus, I was looking both ways, and they didn’t relate to each other. I was wrong. If you go far enough in one direction, you reach the other way. This is what I learned from Proust and Clausewitz. Going to the extreme as a way of understanding the present. I call that extrapolationism.

When Baudrillard first became known, it seemed obvious that he was building on Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. You’re saying that Artaud was part of that continuum as well, that he perceived the coming spectacular society before it existed.

He already experienced it as a kind of madness, and it became paradigmatic for the rest of society. It is our present reality. Ultimately, Baudrillard was far more lucid than Debord and the Situationists. Debord still believed they would be able to loosen the hold of the spectacle on everyday life through collective détournements and experimental drifts. They were still hoping that subjectivity would survive the onslaught of consumerism. Simulation is a more radical version of the spectacle. Baudrillard never cared about subjectivity. He was fascinated by the object, by the self-referentiality of signs. That’s why he was so far ahead of his time. He was a machine, like Andy Warhol.

Going back to your work with Semiotext(e), it seemed that Foucault, Baudrillard, Deleuze, et al. were all basically of the same generation. I don’t see the same caliber of people coming out of continental theory, or whatever you want to call it, not today and not for many years. How do you account for that?

To get someone like Artaud, you need a culture, or at least l’air du temps, something that allows for it and encourages its emergence. Simone Weil, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Artaud, and the rest were loners, but they shared the same ethos. Between the two wars, religion wasn’t just a belief, it was a conceptual language. It permeated their writing or their philosophy, and they were able to turn toward ancient religions to offset the exhaustion of their own. After the inhuman atrocities of WWI and the huge draining of peasants to industrialized cities, they realized religions were the only thing that could still hold societies together, and that their decline would open the way for the most murderous impulses. They became fanatical themselves in order to find the energies that could offset the violence that was threatening from all sides. Cruelty, sacrifice, misfortune (malheur), abjection, etc., were concepts and practices meant to forge some sort of sacred bond that would prevent society from collapsing altogether. They studied the new virus, the new plague, from inside their little “laboratories,” in order to find some antidotes to the catastrophe that they saw coming. They didn’t succeed, of course, but they held the keys that still allow us to comprehend what has happened.

The same applies to the more recent French theorists, except that they weren’t loners, but part of a network of extra-academic institutions and competitive intellectual coteries, working simultaneously amid the confluence of consumerism, a new conceptual language—structuralism, binarism—and the untimely tremors of May 1968. Structuralism established a common baseline for philosophical reflection. What triggered it, I believe, was the peaking of Hegelianism in France and the decline of the dialectical materialism enforced by the Communist Party. The revelation of Nietzsche via Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault allowed philosophers to turn away from Marxism and existentialism, which had prevailed since the liberation. Spurred by May 1968, these neo-Nietzscheans broke away from academic philosophy and focused on social changes as they were happening, at a quick pace. What made it an event in philosophy was that they didn’t speak in a void, or in isolation—they were surrounded by a young and active intelligentsia, students and researchers estranged from the stifling French educational system and trained enough to contribute to it. For about ten years, magazines multiplied and major newspapers reported on the new intellectual trends, often offering well-known philosophers a platform to address the issues of the moment.

What put an end to it, as Deleuze pointed out in 1977, was the growing importance assumed by the media, and the rise of what he disparagingly called a new generation of conceptors—the New Philosophers—eager to step over the heads of their mentors and address the “masses” directly. If consumerism had been a way of making class struggle impossible by dissolving the working class into what Mario Tronti called the “social factory,” the growing media made sure that instant communication would replace thinking. The Sorbonne had remained on the sidelines during these creative years, and hastened to reassert its rule. Baudrillard, who taught at USD in California in the mid-1960s, was the first French thinker to recognize the importance of Marshall McLuhan’s analyses and put them to good use in his Ecstasy of Communication. The deliberate introduction of neoliberalism in the early 1980s and the emphasis on self-created enterprises made sure that the “divine surprise” of 1968 would never happen again. Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault both died early on, and this certainly didn’t help. In the 1980s, what Félix Guattari called the “winter years” set in, paradoxically, with the election of President François Mitterrand and a socialist government that was only socialist in name. The “divine Left,” as Baudrillard called it, finished off the dirty work. The era of creators in philosophy had come to an end.

In 2006, I covered an event where Tina Brown interviewed Bernard-Henri Lévy at the New York Public Library. He is a bit younger than the theorists you brought to America, but has one foot in that generation. Compared to their work, I found what he had to say incredibly banal.

He’s too adept at addressing the media. And the electronic media, the multiplication of instant news, has gradually replaced any sort of sustained political reflection. We are informed of everything everywhere all the time, but what remains of it is the overwhelming power of the medium. Thinking is not just a matter of intelligence. Anyone can be intelligent. But in order to be artists in philosophy, thinkers capable of forging new concepts and debating problems that concern society at large, you need to have around you a culture that allows intelligence to flourish. When this kind of nurturing ground disappears, philosophy loses its capacity for innovation. BHL is the perfect example.

The interview was part of the promotional tour for his book on American culture. I expected it to be a fairly harsh critique. Because there's plenty to criticize. But he was actually explaining Americans to themselves in a way that would make them feel better about the worst aspects of American culture.

There’s no comparison between BHL’s and Baudrillard’s books on America. Baudrillard’s essay was provocative, insightful, poetic, and ironic. He genuinely loved the best of what America had to offer at the time. He discovered “the Californian utopia of the cybernetic disintegration” (Silicon Valley) before it had a name, and extrapolated from it the end of production.

I covered the “Return of Schizo-Culture” conference last year for Artforum, and I read your blow-by-blow reminiscence of the original 1975 conference. Granted, 2014 is in a very different era, but I was struck by how different the two events were. At the original event, it seemed like the whole world was at stake. There were all these radical people from different factions clashing, literally getting into fistfights, screaming, denouncing each other. The recent “reboot” was just a series of celebrated underground artists, writers, and musicians presenting their work to a bunch of hipsters. There were a lot of people in their twenties, but they just seemed to be sitting there and enjoying this nostalgic spectacle of radicalism. There was no sense that it was driving them to do anything political.

No one could have expected the Semiotext(e) show at PS1 to instigate a riot! It couldn’t have been more radical than those who participated in it. I was curious to present the two side by side in order to appreciate the distance that separates them. In spite of its outward radicality, or maybe because of it, the art world has lost its political edge, and bringing the best artists together could do nothing to change that. Communism now is a hip concept, and revolution itself, if it happened, would be a gallery performance. Actually, this is what Baudrillard wrote in 1968 in his first book, The System of Objects: “The revolutionary imperative is alive, but unable to realize itself in practice; it is consumed in the idea of Revolution.” Except that by now the idea of revolution itself is passé. The Situationists were right to exclude would-be artists from their little group. Art and money shouldn’t sleep together. I enjoyed the paradox of celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our independent press at PS1 and at MoMA, the two most powerful institutions of the art world. It was a great show, but it didn’t make a dent, of course.

I was born in 1966, and while my parents were not radical by any means, I've had a huge question mark about capitalism in my heart from a very young age—in a very intuitive, pre-rational sense. Obviously, there are exceptions like the Occupy movement, but it seems to me that young people now have a much more baseline acceptance of capitalism as the only possibility. A lot of millennials were small children in the ’80s. The ambient cultural noise they were hearing was Reagan rhetoric. Neoliberalism, as you say. Do you have any insight into that?

Artaud did. His “cruelty” was a way of shaking people from their slumber. In 1933 he was asked to give a lecture at the Sorbonne. He didn’t talk about the plague, he crawled between people’s seats, rolled on the floor, exhibited his boils. The audience didn’t know what to do. Most of them left, laughing too loudly. When they were all gone, Artaud dusted himself off and told Anaïs Nin, who’d attended his performance, “Let’s have a drink. These people don’t realize that they are already dead.” That’s what Artaud did: he reintroduced death into the picture, death as a political weapon.

Although to some extent Artaud did become a college dorm-room icon for arty, disaffected young people of my generation. He looked great next to a poster of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, for instance. Artaud was so good-looking when he was younger. In the film stills of him in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Gance’s Napoleon (1927), he's beautiful. He's an easy man to idolize, even if you don't fully understand his madness or his ideas. Reading your interviews with Artaud’s psychiatrists, where you're describing how you see the world of 1983, I had to remind myself several times that you weren’t talking about the present. At one point, you say there's just too much information flying around this way and that. In 1983! That was prescient. Now we have exponentially more information circulating everywhere and obscuring everything.

It’s not just the content that is overwhelming. We are losing control of our lives because we are losing control of our temporality. Everything now is happening simultaneously, erasing every distinction, including work and play. Time used to be made of interruptions which mostly went unnoticed, but they allowed us to make choices, the way blinking allows us to see. If our eyes didn’t blink all the time, we would remain fascinated, glued to the screen. When you put your fingers in an electric outlet, your muscles experience prolonged spasms, your body is paralyzed while going full speed. This is the kind of illness that Artaud diagnosed in our culture because he himself suffered from it. And we don’t even have a God to blame for it.

Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury, 2003), the second volume in the “33 1/3” series of books on classic albums. He was editor-in-chief of Bookforum, 1998-2003, and managing editor and columnist at the pioneering cyberculture magazine MONDO 2000 in the early ’90s.

Sylvère Lotringer will be in New York City for a reading from Mad Like Artaud at Albertine (October 14), and for the October 15 premiere of his new film about Artaud, The Man Who Disappeared, at Anthology Film Archives.