This is the nineteenth in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our Small Press Database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Submission Guidelines: N/A
Interview with Hedi El Kholti, Managing Editor
How did Semiotext(e) start?
Sylvère Lotringer started Semiotext(e) with a group of friends and grad students at Columbia University in 1974. It quickly evolved from a journal of semiotic theory to a popular magazine, juxtaposing high theory and underground culture, after the publication of the “Schizo-Culture” issue in 1978. The issue brought together artists and thinkers as diverse as Gilles Deleuze, Kathy Acker, John Cage, Michel Foucault, Jack Smith, William Burroughs, and Lee Breuer. Other classic issues of the magazine, such as “Autonomia” from 1980 (with contributions by Tony Negri, Franco Berardi, Christian Marazzi, Paolo Virno) or “Polysexuality” from 1981 (with contributions by Tony Duvert, Pierre Guyotat, and others) can be seen as the matrix of what we’re doing now. The journal wound down as people went their own ways, and Sylvère began the Foreign Agents imprint in 1983, beginning with the enormously influential Simulations by Jean Baudrillard. He was personally in touch with most of the French theorists—Félix Guattari, Jean Lyotard, Paul Virilio, etc.—and proceeded to introduce their writings to people in the US. In 1990, Chris Kraus started the Native Agents imprint, a series of fiction books by mostly female American writers, including Kathy Acker, Cookie Mueller, Eileen Myles, David Rattray, Ann Rower, Lynne Tillman, and many others. I first met Chris and Sylvère at Art Center, in Pasadena, in the late ’90s. At first I was mostly doing graphic design, but around 2004 I became the third co-editor and started “managing” the press.
Tell us a bit about Semiotext(e). What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
We’re in a strange place. People might be surprised to see us featured in this small press series. People often assume we’re an imprint of MIT but, in fact, we’re completely independent. It made sense for our theory books to be affiliated with a university press, but I think our fiction titles may have suffered from the association. I think our mission remains present by never being articulated as such. There is definitely a shared aesthetic and social sensibility. We’ve done more than one hundred books in the last ten years and I don’t remember us ever questioning each other about projects. There are no endless editorial meetings—we’re all too busy with our own lives. Recently I re-read a biography of the French playwright Bernard Marie Koltes. His main director Patrice Chereau made a mission statement about the theater he’d founded in Nanterre: “A set and nomadic place, an extremely closed and open space, infiltrated by others but proudly withdrawn into itself.” I thought that spoke to what we do. Chris sometimes thinks of the list as an intellectual diary. What we publish reflects what preoccupies us, here and elsewhere, or what preoccupies others we’re close to.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
We just released Pierre Guyotat’s In The Deep, the concluding book in his narrative, biographical trilogy, which was translated by our collaborator Noura Wedell. This spring, we’re publishing the Invisible Committee’s new work, To Our Friends; a new book by Maurizio Lazzarato; a new sci-fi novel by Mark von Shleggell; Ken Wark and Kathy Acker’s e-mail correspondence… New books by Paolo Virno and Franco Berardi are also forthcoming. Next fall we’ll publish Dodie Bellamy’s essay collection, When the Sick Rule the World, Jennifer Doyle’s Campus Sex, Campus Security, Rebekah Rukoff’s The Irresponsible Magician, and Derek McCormack’s playscript, The Well-Dressed Wound. We’re also doing critical editions of Boyd McDonald’s Cruising the Movies, with an introduction by William Jones, and of Gary Indiana’s Resentment. I find it shocking that some of my favorite books are out of print. They should circulate in the culture. We refuse to let anything go out of print. There was a resurgence of interest in Shulamith Firestone when she died and Susan Faludi wrote a beautiful piece in the New Yorker. Her book, Airless Spaces, was available. Chloe Griffith’s amazing biography of Cookie Mueller, that came out from bbooks this year, generated interest in our Cookie Mueller book from 1990, which we’ve kept in print all this time. Also the 5th issue of our occasional literary journal Animal Shelter, co-edited by the poet Robert Dewhurst, is at the printer. It’s a poetry issue, sort of, that’s brought in new writers who we’ve never published before, anchored by two astonishing long pieces by Tony Duvert and Maurizio Lazzarato.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I was around when people were talking about the end of print. And yet there is an energy and an audience for independent press publishing at the moment. Maybe it’s a kind of velocity that major presses can’t keep up with. I don’t know—I still romanticize the whole DIY thing. I admire publishers like Jerome Lindon who started Minuit and published books by Beckett, Duras, Duvert, Deleuze…or Maurice Girodias and the Olympia Press. I am always excited when a new press starts and they have a very distinct editorial stance, like Wakefield Press, Les Figues, Siglio, Penny Ante, Feral House, Tam Tam Books…they’re all friends. They are our community. I find it inspiring. I mean, after ten years, I am still shipping the stuff we sell online to people all over the world. And the staff at the post office are like my friends too.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Semiotext(e)?
We get our check twice a year from our distributor, MIT, and I am always surprised that our books are selling enough to sustain the whole thing. So we have money for another couple of years. We keep our overhead really low, but we don’t have interns. We pay everyone for their work—the proofreaders, copy editors, translators. We don’t have an office. I am the only employee and my salary hasn’t changed since 2005. It’s important to me somehow that we’re sustained by our readership and not by grants. I think it has to do with the nature of what we publish. It would be grotesque to be underwritten by some foundation to publish some books with an anti-capitalist agenda. But also it makes things more urgent and it makes us more resourceful. For example, I started using contemporary art images for our covers ten years ago because we couldn’t afford to license stock images or hire illustrators. We don’t really have a plan. We gambled on the success of The Coming Insurrection and the Intervention Series, recently on Slotedijk’s Spheres trilogy, thinking (and secretly hoping) that it will ruin us, that it will be our Heaven’s Gate, but they surprisingly found an audience. When Stuart Comer invited us to be part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, we used the opportunity to publish things we wanted to put out anyway. It helps that we have a back catalog with titles that are part of college curriculums. We want to keep it going but not at any cost. We want to treat our collaborators and writers fairly and ethically.