Hedi el Kholti
Hedi el Kholti is the co-editor of Semiotext(e), an independent publisher of “works of theory, fiction, madness, economics, satire, sexuality, science fiction, activism and confession.” I contacted him recently to get a copy of Chris Kraus’ Summer of Hate (reviewed here) and in the process learned of his new project, the serial publication Animal Shelter. I ordered both issues, read them eagerly, and found them abundant with intellect, wit, confession, melancholy, and eroticism.
Semiotext(e) is known for introducing French theory to the United States in the ‘70s, publishing works under its Foreign Agents imprint by Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard. It’s also known for its Native Agents series, which has published texts by radical artists and thinkers such as Chris Kraus, Eileen Myles and Kathy Acker.
Hedi graciously spoke to me by email about Animal Shelter, Semiotext(e), the high/low aesthetic, and revolutionary sex zines from the ‘70s.
Meagan Day: First off, what is Animal Shelter?
Hedi el Kholti: Well, there are always several narratives that somewhat conflict.
The first answer would be that sometime in 2007 there was a moment when I was working at Semiotext(e) and I felt frustrated with distribution. Contractually, we can’t sell our books on our own website, but I wanted to do something we could sell directly. A lot of publishers rely on direct sales. It was a test. I thought we’d do something and try to sell it on the website — a little journal.
Semiotext(e) also operates under strict rules about when we can announce and publish our books. There’s a delay of almost two years for any project, between the moment we acquire it, to when it’s announced, to when it’s published. We wanted to do things in a more spontaneous way, and so around that same time we decided to start The Intervention Series. Animal Shelter came out in November ’08, and The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee came out under The Intervention Series in early ’09. At first, The Intervention Series was only going to be sold online. Animal Shelter was kind of a test to see how the logistics would work — going to the post office, etc. Thankfully I gave up that idea for The Intervention Series, because The Coming Insurrection ended up being such a big hit that it would have killed me to ship all those copies myself.
So that would be one answer.
But the second has to do with the fact that I’m the one who filters all the e-mail that comes to Semiotext(e). We get a lot of proposals. But then also, I deal with people who write about our books and become friends, and our translators and interns, who are all writers in their own right. And so I thought we could mix some of these people who have great writing that’s not being published elsewhere with interviews we generated that we couldn’t place anywhere, and with whatever other interesting things were floating around. I thought it would be nice to create a little snapshot of who’s in our life and document the direction the press is headed at different moments. That’s really what I wanted to do – to take a snapshot of what the scene around us is now and try to make it really coherent.
But also, the magazine comes from my love of print culture. In the Internet age, there’s really no shortage of interesting things to read. It’s a little bit antiquated to start a magazine. But I like the physical aspect of it. I like an object with a date on it, a material archive. So, I thought of Animal Shelter as a gift for our audience — a sort of bonus track. I also really love music labels . . . Sarah Records, Rough Trade, Creation. Those labels always had these nicely priced compilations — Creation Soup, Doing it for the Kids, etc. I always thought they were great. If you were into one of the musicians in those labels, it gave you an opportunity to discover other things.
You are the publication’s editor, but who else makes this publication happen? And how do you go about collecting submissions?
The structure of running an independent press is somewhat isolating. I thought it would be nice to create something that involved more interacting with people — with the people who actually read our books and are inspired by them and are writers themselves.
When I made the first issue I was embedded in a little part of the music scene in LA. My very good friend Paul Gellman, a musician and artist, was my co-editor. He introduced me to Matt Fishbeck of the band Holy Shit years ago, and Matt, who’s incredibly smart and talented, was one of the editors at large. We collaborated on a zine called Fake Real about his music scene, with people like Geneva Jacuzzi, Ariel Pink, and Jason Yates, for my friend Gloria Pedemonte in Paris. I met all these people and thought it would be really nice to connect these different worlds I was involved in at that moment.
So, who works on Animal Shelter? All the people who are listed. Also Robert Dewhurst, a poet. Sarah Wang, a writer in LA. And everything goes through Semiotext(e) co-editor Chris Kraus. Animal Shelter is really an ongoing collaboration that materializes out of our discussions, and conversations with the others involved.
The introduction to Issue #1 cites the influence of “magazines we love from the past, like Suck, Minuit, Little Caesar, Masques, Between C&D . . .” What are these? What’s exciting or worth revisiting about them?
Minuit was the journal of Editions de Minuit, created by Jerome Lindon, who published Deleuze, Duras, Beckett, Bourdieu — you name it. All the nouveau roman writers: Pinget, Robbe-Grillet, etc. It was one of the most original publishing companies of postwar France, and they had their own journal, which was edited by Tony Duvert, a writer we’ve published through Semiotext(e). Minuit had excerpts from their upcoming books, great little essays by Deleuze and Guattari, Duvert, and also people that they liked or discovered, like Hervé Guibert, whom they ended up publishing later. For me, that was the model. There’s Evergreen Review too — this isn’t very original.
Little Caesar was Dennis Cooper’s zine. It was really beautiful and interesting. Suck was something I’d collected that Chris Kraus once wrote about. I’ve collected a lot of these magazines over the years. I really love the format. To me, there’s something really exciting about it: they’re more ephemeral than books and most of them don’t get reprinted, you find little gems and they give you this secret history of a certain moment. Suck was a magazine out of Amsterdam that featured great texts by William Burroughs, Maurice Girodias, Germaine Greer, Heathcote Williams, and was at the front lines of the sexual revolution.
Masques was this gay/lesbian literary journal in France in the late ‘70s that was around for a few years. It sort of stopped with the beginning of AIDS. I guess it’s the French answer to Christopher Street, a New York gay literary magazine. And there’s some gems in that too — great interviews and essays. That’s where I found Tony Duvert’s essay on Jean Genet, which I think is particularly interesting. With Masques, you get a snapshot of the whole queer liberation movement. For instance, at some point the drama of the lesbians leaving the magazine occurs, because they found the gay side of the magazine’s too objectifying. This wedge between the gays and lesbians is really well articulated, and it’s fascinating.
I don’t think we could ever recreate that moment of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I’d love for each issue to be something that someone could pick up, say, five years from now and find something really interesting in. Not that I think we’ve succeeded yet, because we’ve published two issues in four years.
Is there something particularly engaging about the era in which most of these publications emerged?
I am generally fascinated by the late ‘70s. Four very important movies for me came out in 1977 and 1978: Chris Marker’s A Cat Without A Grin, Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably, Guy Debord’s In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, and the collective movie Germany in Autumn. Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes about 1977 in his new book, The Uprising.
Something is closing and shifting — all the hopes generated by the revolutionary movement of the sixties are coming to an abrupt end. Both Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces and Pierre Guyotat’s Coma explore a crisis of faith, and a breakdown as well. I see them as luminous books that pay tribute to an occulted historical moment. They trace the consequences of revolutionary fatigue from the people that were in the first line of combat. I think the essay on Firestone’s brother in Airless Spaces is very clear about that.
I felt a bit upset recently watching the Phil Ochs documentary. Phil Ochs, who was present at all the determining moments of the ’60s and ’70s, committed suicide in 1976. The persecution he was subjected to is made light of as some paranoid delusion. But the Chris Cutler essay on Phil Ochs, published by Autonomedia, includes some of the FBI declassified documents and they clearly show the devastating violence the state is capable of. A lot of our list at Semiotext(e) reflects on that moment and its consequences from different angles: the Black Panther book Still Black, Still Strong, the edited volume Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, etc. Tony Duvert’s Diary of an Innocent could also be seen as a war machine against bourgeois literature and bourgeois hypocrisy.
To what extent is Animal Shelter a queer publication?
It definitely has a queer sensibility. It’s partially an effect of the people who are around me, who have a queer-feminist sensibility.
Chris Kraus mentions some thematic continuities to Issue #2 in the intro, including “oceans and walls,” and a shared “lucid, somewhat suspended atmosphere.” Does Issue #1 have a theme? If not a strict theme, do you see threads binding the individual pieces?
Issue #1 came out of a desire to reexamine some essential influences among a group of people who were closely in touch at that time. It was almost a social project. There’s a Marguerite Duras influenced text by Ariana Reines, a text on Burroughs by Bruce Benderson. My text was generated while reading Kathy Acker. I think there is a longing and melancholy that colors some of the contributions.
Will you describe your role at Semiotext(e)? In light of that, what is Animal Shelter’s relationship to Semiotext(e), both practically and ideologically?
I’m the Managing Editor of Semiotext(e), and I became a co-editor with Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer in 2004. Sylvère introduced French theory to the United States by bringing a lot of French thinkers to New York for the Schizo-Culture conference at Columbia in 1975. Chris Kraus started the Native Agents series in the early ‘90s. She felt that the female writers on her list were embodying a lot of the theory published by Semiotext(e). Just today, Shulamith Firestone died. I love her book Airless Spaces. It’s one of my favorite books that Semiotext(e)’s ever published. Chris has also published Cookie Muller, Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles, and Lynne Tillman.
When I joined Semiotext(e), the identity of the press was already very clear. Really, the books are an extension of the “high/low” aesthetic Sylvère pursued in the 1970s with the Semiotext(e) magazine. It was this brilliant conjunction of high theory and underground culture, connections no one had made before. And I related to that. When I joined in 2004, we decided to collapse the editorial boundaries between imprints. In a sense, we’re all equally involved in everything.
It’s true I ended up bringing a lot of queer books to the press—books by Tony Duvert, and Abdellah Taïa, and the book on filmmaker Fred Halsted by William Jones. But, on the other hand, Duvert had a piece in the Polysexuality issue of Semiotext(e) that Sylvère published in the early ‘80s. So, I feel like I’ve just added pieces to the puzzle, making it larger, but I’m not changing the picture, if that makes sense.
I wanted Animal Shelter to be a zine, not a literary journal — a serious zine and a good zine, but something that could still be done quickly and without much editorial process. I did the first one with other friends, but Chris and Sylvère really liked the result and were behind it, and now we’ve made it more of a Semiotext(e) thing. Unfortunately, Animal Shelter becomes the last thing on the to-do list, because there’s no deadline for it. Ideally, I’d like it to come out at least once a year.
Let’s talk about Jean Genet. He’s all over the place in Animal Shelter! What’s so appealing about him as a writer and a biographical figure? What about his work resonates with the project of Animal Shelter?
Genet is this sort of weird thing, the first influence. Genet and Bataille. When I was younger, Genet was really big for me — reading The Thief’s Journal. But then he fell by the wayside — I’m not sure why. With the first issue, I wanted to kind of go back to the source of this notion of transgressive literature. So, there was that piece by Bruce Benderson on William Burroughs. There was that really sweet tribute to Genet by Abdellah Taïa, and we were about to publish his first novel, so I thought it’d be great to include it. And there is a piece in that issue on Genet by Duvert that I think is really incredible. The ideas in it are very subversive to me — the way that he reclaims Genet I find very useful, and something that could be applied to a lot of situations and circumstances.
Also, Erik Morse had a piece on Genet and Morrissey. Morrissey is also one of these really important figures for me. I love that piece. The piece that I wrote on Genet for the second issue was something I’d written for a journal that Abdellah Taïa published in Morocco about Genet, about him being a Moroccan saint. Genet is buried in Larache, Morocco, which is thirty kilometers from where I grew up.
I like to work with this kind of cluster of references that mirror each other. I like creating these relationships between the different pieces, making a cohesive but not forced whole.
Apologies for the long set-up on this question, but I want to quote to you and to our readers two different passages, found within pages of each other in Issue #1. Here’s the first, from Paul Gellman’s essay “Strays,” in which he discusses his sexual history with straight-ish men:
The only thing I remember of sex with #4 after snorting heroin was his baby seal white skin enhanced by china white and white walls, and he would smoke and smile sideways while I sucked his dick. I was painfully in love with him now that I think back to it all.
And this is from Tony Duvert’s essay “Bataille Against Genet,” in which he discusses the function of morality in Genet’s erotic narratives:
A precise inventory will show that it is, each time, the carnal intensity of the discourse—of the object of the discourse at this or that moment—that releases a discharge of philosophical rhetoric. An art of oration that one likes or dislikes, but which is in absolute solidarity with novelistic expressivity, and with the beings and actions that it privileges.
The former is an excerpt from a confessional, autobiographical essay and the latter from a piece of academic criticism. In general, Animal Shelter features a lot of both, as well as plenty of essays that fall into a liminal category. This is all to ask the question: what is the relationship between theory as the academy understands it and writing that comes directly from personal experience, the catalogued details of a lived life? Can the latter be theory?
Clearly — Chris Kraus’s early novels embodied that question. That question has always been central to Semiotext(e), and that’s why I’m so invested in it. For a while, there was this notion that the audiences for the Foreign Agents series and Native Agents series are made up of different people, but I beg to differ. I think a lot of people read both.
The assertion may have been true at some point in the ‘90s. I remember this review of Sylvère Lotringer’s Hatred of Capitalism, written by Joshua Clover in the Village Voice. The anthology was kind of a farewell to an era, and Clover completely attacked the Native Agents pieces. And some people feel that way still — that all this subjective garbage is ruining the seriousness of the theoretical stuff. But I think you can read Baudrillard as poetry. He’s certainly a very lyrical writer. You can read Chris Kraus’s novels as theory. She’s a really sharp theoretical writer. All three of us — me, Chris and Sylvère — are invested in both aspects of things.
What are some of your favorite things Semiotext(e) has published?
I have been with the press for so long and I like the whole list. We only publish books we’re really passionate about and unlike other publishers we don’t remainder books and keep everything in print and our books have a long shelf life. Some of them are doing better now than when they were published.
So I don’t know, I have a fondness for the ones that remind me of the experience of making them, that required a lot work since I do the layout of the books as well, like David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side, and William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself. Meeting Penny Arcade while working on her book Bad Reputation is certainly a highlight. She’s such an inspiring artist and thinker.
There are books where the experience of touring with the author was intense and unforgettable like Pierre Guyotat’s tour for Coma or Abdellah Taïa’s for Salvation Army. The friendship that developed with Bruce Benderson while he was translating the Tony Duvert books was a great moment. Reading the first draft of Chris Kraus’ Torpor was a revelatory and an unforgettable experience. I love the main essay in Eileen Myles’s book The Importance of Being Iceland. It’s the first collection of her essays, which is a large part of her public work and it was such an event for me. And Veronica Gonzalez’s second novel, The Sad Passions, which is coming out in the spring and continues on from Twin Time, set in Mexico City in a dream-time of the 1960s-80s.
What’s on the table for Issue #3?
The third issue will start from all these pieces that I had to cut from issue two. Tisa Bryant and Noura Wedell will be in it. The issue will be kind of about madness, the impossible . . . a dark romantic issue.