ONCE, AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY in the early 1980s, Sylvère showed up to class with blood dripping from a freshly shaved head. Laughing, he explained how on his way uptown he was sliced by a shaky-handed subway barber at Forty-Second Street. I remember his MEN AT WORK T-shirt under a leather jacket and his lithe, slightly limping shuffle through the classroom door—how his presence always shifted the energy. In class, Sylvère took us on a collective trip to the edge of what it seemed possible to think in school, to a point where theory threatened to lose its distinction from science fiction, poetry, delirium. These were the days when poststructuralist thought, and especially “schizoanalysis” and the “desiring machines” of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti Oedipus (1972), was still an exotic, possibly dangerous proposition within American academia. And thanks to Sylvère, we were among the first New Yorkers to be moved by this strange thinking—the “conceptual toolbox” he’d smuggled over from post-1968 France. With generous humor and an infectious sense of daring, he taught us how to engage theory and literature at the level of an event that could change one’s life. The schizophrenic “line of flight” was a deadly serious and hilarious subversion of academic practice: At Columbia, Sylvère showed us how to get away with theory.
Part of the fun was in Sylvère’s sly mangling of American vernacular while slipping between French and English (mixing up “to the hilt” and “at full tilt,” “make your mark” and “on the make”) and how each trip of the tongue contributed to a runaway train of thought. (One of Sylvère’s late autobiographical texts is called “The Man Who Slips.”) Chance was there for the taking, always productive: His contagious, beaming laugh always marked the happy accident of a discourse derailing. This was Sylvère’s style of “doing theory” here in New York: rhythmically, with living bodies and a feeling for the drama of intellectual situations, without pretending to master the flow of language. Meanwhile, the concepts he was most passionate about had to do with plugging new models of subjectivity directly into the heart of urban life and culture. It was a very pragmatic impulse—in the early days of the AIDS crisis, in the time of the Tompkins Square Park Riot, etc.—to involve us in a form of cultural psychosis, to learn to think from there. “The problem with critics,” he would say, “is that they always have to be right.” Sylvère taught us that the best critique is no critique. He eroticized theory by making it seem that you could actually do things with it—in the city, with one another.
He was the one who made Nietzsche, Proust, Artaud, and Céline mean something in Manhattan. His classes were sometimes improvised on the fly according to whatever he happened to be obsessing about at the moment, as he tried out fresh collisions of literary and speculative texts: reading JG Ballard’s Crash (1973) and watching Wim Wenders’s lightning over water (the German director’s attempt, in 1980, to squeeze one last film out of a dying Nicholas Ray) while thinking about the cultural function of death in America. Or devoting a semester to Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Salvador Dalí’s “paranoiac-critique,” and Deleuze and Guattari’s 1980 volume, A Thousand Plateaus (a book, he told us, that could be freely entered and exited at any point, like a rhizome). Approaching a syllabus as an experimental assemblage freed us to draw our own connections among heterogeneous materials, to cross between disciplines, “to think with your own head.”
This was also Sylvère’s approach to Semiotext(e), the DIY theory journal and press he produced together with shifting groups of students and downtown people. Using his office at Columbia’s Philosophy Hall as Semiotext(e)’s address, he leveraged the allure of academic legitimacy while aiming the entire operation outward, toward the living postpunk culture of New York and beyond. With each successive issue (“Autonomia,” “The German Issue,” “Polysexuality”), the publication challenged its growing cult readership by troubling expectations about what and whom the journal represented, politically and culturally. Sylvère shunned purity and practiced a sort of jujitsu with thought and language, always evading the rigidity of a school of thought or the stability of an intellectual brand. I remember the shock of “Loving Boys,” a spur-of-the-moment issue printed on cheap newsprint that instigated a close encounter between Foucault and NAMBLA: after so many stealthy, black, pocket-size Foreign Agents releases (on the line, Pure War, speed and politics, etc.), suddenly this tabloid-size advertisement for illegal sex. One of the principles driving Semiotext(e) was that there are no pure ideas: An idea is always in something, part of something—first of all, mediatic. Sylvère liked to say that he was doing theory the way artists do art.
The tape recorder was Sylvère’s preferred means of keeping his projects in motion. The interview became his personal art form and a way of writing without writing. It was also a way of exposing academic discourse to its own outside. In taped encounters with artists, sex workers, doctors, and militants, Sylvère showed that everyone was “doing theory,” even if they didn’t always realize it, the interview “extending theory beyond itself as only theory could.” I spent many nights in my Columbia dorm transcribing his conversations with sexual deviants and their therapists, material he’d gathered while researching his book Overexposed: Treating Sexual Perversion in America (1988). As it turned out, the audiocassette was also central to the newfangled policing and treatment methods he was studying: Convicted criminals were required to record themselves masturbating to the point of orgasm and then, with the tape still rolling, to continue masturbating while voicing their darkest fantasies. The idea here was to exhaust perversion, to kill it with boredom. We soon realized that the perverts were using the recorders to fake their evidence and evade the new cures. In the Reagan and Giuliani years, Sylvère was as fascinated by social control as he was by the creativity of subversion.
Sylvère always made space for others in his work, welcoming the changes they brought. Toward the end of the ’80s, he would open Semiotext(e) to the influence of Chris Kraus, who disrupted the journal’s male-dominated theoretical context by publishing new experiments in the “expanded I” of contemporary autofiction. And at the turn of the millennium, when Semiotext(e) abandoned New York for Los Angeles (a moment marked by the publication of the 2001 retrospective anthology Hatred of Capitalism), Hedi El Kholti assumed an increasingly creative role. This was also when Sylvère wrote “Doing Theory,” an essay-length memoir that doubled as a treatise on his experience of New York as a conceptual medium. The important thing was to keep Semiotext(e) in joyful mutation with the times and even to be willing to betray one’s times (just as capitalism always does). There can be generosity in betrayal, too, when it steers a situation out of a black hole. Sylvère was allergic to stasis, redundancy, the comforts of institutional legitimacy. He was forever on the side of invention and laughter.
Sylvère’s contagious, beaming laugh always marked the happy accident of a discourse derailing.
In the immediate zone of my own art-adjacent activities with Bernadette Corporation, Sylvère was always game. He offered an excellent interview with Paul Virilio (“The End of America”) to the Spring/Fall 2001 issue of our magazine, Made in USA. He was excited to introduce us to the pseudonymous fashion writings of Stéphane Mallarmé. There was also his brilliant and generous performance for our 2000 video Hell Frozen Over, in which he delivers an impromptu lecture on Mallarmé while standing on a frozen lake upstate. Semiotext(e) published Bernadette Corporation’s collectively authored novel Reena Spaulings (2005) and, soon after, the books of our friends the Invisible Committee and Tiqqun. In all these instances, we were happily challenged by Sylvère’s desire to risk and give himself up to wherever and however the energy was going. We could always meet him there. His style of engagement bore a hidden rigor: a loyalty to something like a smuggler’s ethos, requiring lightness, speed, imperceptibility, a certain ascetic grace. Sylvère was devoted to theory as an adventure beyond authorship and the individual identities through which capitalism speaks and endlessly reproduces itself.
Sylvère would echo Kafka’s ape reporting to the academy: The outside may not exist, but we still have to be able to invent it. He blessed and infected us with the possibility of creating the possible right here in the speedy, gentrified metropolis where every maneuver and idea seems coopted and neutralized in advance. “Follow capitalism to its extremes,” he would say, “then keep going.” Now we’re experiencing yet another cycle of culture wars in America, this time accompanied by a rampant flattening of social reality via the algorithmic reordering of human expression, the dominance of quants and network effects. The counterrevolution was micropolitical too, and the city of Semiotext(e) feels light-years away—and yet so close! In fact, it was in books like Jean Baudrillard’s The Ecstasy of Communication (1987) and Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance (1991) that we first glimpsed the posthuman post–New York we’re now living in. Which goes to show that, even then, theory was already somewhere else, perhaps already here. Sylvère was obsessed with the Nietzschean idea of the time.
It was touching to see how, in his later writings, Sylvère was compelled to return to early childhood memories of occupied France, when he was hidden from the Nazis and given a Christian boy’s identity. Playing back his own wartime trauma as a kind of conceptual origin story, he found another way of understanding theory as an accident that altered the course of his life: a way of both surviving and participating in modernity. In 2015, he released an updated version of his experimental, quasi-fictional study Mad like Artaud. In this artfully raving analysis, he reconstructs the cursed poet’s madness as a collectively embodied mental drama in which everyone (doctors, disciples, critics, and Sylvère, too) is an active participant. In Artaud’s delirium, we discover yet another origin story: The incarcerated Jewish Jesus experienced the Holocaust by going “missing in his place,” which is exactly where Sylvère finds him in a dreamlike moment of contact. And from there, a way out of madness and death to living, life-affirming thought.
NOBODY WANTS to write an obituary. It’s like the pervert being sent home with his recording machine. Sylvère is not really gone; he has merely become imperceptible. His laughter is still with us, a lovely, troubling tremor. The last time we saw Sylvère was in the fall, in Baja California, on a high cliff overlooking the Pacific. We spoke about the pelicans, narcos, and the geological fault line at our feet. He had something important he wanted to share about a hidden library, but lunch interrupted us before he could get to the details. Was it a hidden library or a library that hides something else? A library hiding itself? We will keep this mystery close to our hearts. Bon voyage, Sylvere.
John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum.