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Semiotext(e) Plays the "Sun City" of Los Angeles

I have a certain fondness for Semiotext(e) since it was the press that introduced me to a lot of radical theory which was instrumental in pushing me towards Marxism. Even after I abandoned autonomism and gravitated towards Maoism I still enjoyed some of the work in its "Interventions" series, though much of this I treated as a foil for my own work (i.e. Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee vis-a-vis The Communist Necessity and Austerity Apparatus), at the very least I found it thought provoking. Hence, I was rather disappointed when I learned that one of its founding authors, Chris Kraus, was planning to break the Boyle Heights community boycott in Los Angeles and that, when she was critiqued, Semiotext(e) defended the decision.

For those who are unaware the Defend Boyle Heights coalition has been fighting against the ongoing gentrification of Boyle Heights, an historic racialized working class neighbourhood in LA. Part of this struggle has been waged against art galleries that represent an art-washing mechanism at the forefront of white capital's assault upon the community. Whatever one thinks about art's involvement in gentrification, or the meaning of gentrification in general, the activist boycott of these galleries (along with micro-capitalist ventures) has been publicized for nearly two years. Even within the art-activist community in North America the boycott has received significant attention with Hyperallergic having devoted numerous articles to its vicissitudes.

It is in this context that Semiotext(e) decided to hold the launch of Chris Kraus' biography on Kathy Acker at 356 Mission, one of the galleries targeted by the Boyle Heights boycott. While it is indeed the case that authors and editors sometimes make mistakes––and, to be clear, I am opposed to an activist culture of moral purity that presumes other leftists must always know what is "up" and never make a mistake––this situation resulted in rather disappointing, but quite revealing, behaviour on the part of Semiotext(e). Earlier, when she was challenged on this decision by activists attending her event at CUNY, Kraus shrugged of the criticism and asserted that she was going forward with the launch at 356 Mission. The opportunity to respond to a community boycott, to at the very least figure out a creative way to engage with a grass roots movement, was rejected out of hand––even if compromise was not possible (I don't know if it was or it wasn't), it was never treated as an option. Following this, and after activist backlash, Semiotext(e) reacted in an even more disappointing manner.

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, one of my pet peeves is the ways in which the liberal discourse of "free speech" has undermined leftist discourse. While I do think any socialist formation worth its salt must find ways to foster free expression (despite what might occasionally come across from my more cynical critiques of the liberal convention of free speech), I also think that the way we as socialists approach this problematic will be necessarily different from liberals while learning something from the ways in which capitalism established ideological hegemony so as to permit the "right" to free speech. Let one hundred flowers blossom and one hundred schools of thought contend, yes, but what does this mean in the context of socialism when the need to overwhelm and eradicate anti-people ideology is prescient? Clearly it cannot look like Mill's conception of free expression and the so-called "marketplace of ideas" in On Liberty, and I discussed this thoroughly in my serialized Right Against Right. Semiotext(e)'s reaction to the Boyle Heights boycott, unfortunately, represents yet another reification of the liberal conception of free speech, an ideology that an ostensibly radical press can easily access to defend a reprehensible decision.

Indeed, Hedi El Kholti, co-editor of Semiotext(e), likened the boycott to "censorship", called the community activists "naive", and falsely likened the possibility of a grass-roots disruption of the Kraus event to the "climate of harassment and online trolling." So there we have it: an anti-gentrification boycott campaign struggling against the violence of white capital is identical to a board of censors, direct action against gentrification is identical to "online trolling". We've reached a point where claims about "SJW" trollishness (a discourse initiated by alt-right trolls) and grass roots activism as "abuse" can be made with a straight face by people who once claimed to represent a faction of the radical left. There is very little difference between El Kholti's claims and those made by the liberal media regarding the equivalence between anti-fascism and fascism: they're both irrational outgrowths of a liberal sensibility. The fact that our own radical presses have been infiltrated by this kind of thinking, that supposed anti-capitalists can make these arguments in earnest, demonstrates the prevalence of liberal ideology––the near omnipotence of the capitalist imaginary.

Of course it is not entirely surprising that a press, no matter how radical, can easily gravitate towards a liberal conception of free expression. After all, liberal anti-censorship and "marketplace of ideas" discourses are cunning apparatuses of capture (a theoretical notion Semiotext[e] helped make accessible) for individuals engaged in publishing radical literature in a liberal capitalist social formation. Capitalists justify the morality of their order by proclaiming that they allow even anti-capitalists the right to publish, as long as this right does not violate the harm principle, and leftists can profit from this right insofar as they do not allow the realm of ideas to cross the line into action. Once you get the right to speak your anti-capitalism, and to make a career on this speaking, you can be pacified. That is, the ability to publish licentiously radical ideas is an opportunity presented by the liberal capitalist order that presides, at least for the moment, at the centres of global capitalism. But it is an opportunity that can also function as a buy-out, a way to deradicalize anti-capitalists and trap them at the level of idea generation rather than practical action. One can even become invested in staying at this level of oppression, obeying the harm principle so as to keep the press afloat. A particular investment in this liberalism is valorized: a belief in one's own importance, an arrogant dismissal of grass roots activism, the elevation of past accomplishments to the level of sacred doctrine.

In the face of community criticism, then, Semiotext(e) maintained its institutional importance and thus upheld its decision to break the community boycott because the gallery that had moved into Boyle Heights was a long-standing friend. The community activists were called an "anonymous group" (despite the fact that they were reputable activists and had been covered by major arts-activist sites for nearly two years), and critiques against Semiotext(e)'s decision were called "stalinist bullshit". Cold war language was adopted to defend the right of a radical press to legislate over and above community activism: this is precisely the kind of danger that results from the adoption of liberal free speech ideology.

Here it's worth examining the categories that are being covered over by Semiotext(e)'s self-righteousness, the ways in which this liberal ideology papers over important distinctions…

Three Categories of Expression

The adoption of the liberal discourse of free speech has often resulted in a conflation of categories of expression that, even within a liberal-capitalist order, should be understood as discreet. The ways in which this liberal discourse has infiltrated anti-capitalism are dependent on this conflation; the Semiotext(e) situation is one example, among many, of how this infiltration is consummated upon categorical collapse. There are, despite this collapse, three dominant categories of expression that need to be grasped so as to appreciate the way they are collapsed.

1) Censorship: Something is censored if and only if it is not permitted to be expressed––either in writing or in speech––within a particular social formation. Even according to Mill, the father of free speech ideology, it is not "censorship" if ideas are not permitted to be expressed within particular contexts of this social formation. As long as an individual has the right to publish them, and is not imprisoned for pursuing this right, then there is no censorship. Hence it is not censorship if someone arguing for a six day creation theory is not given the time of day in a university department; as long as they are allowed to potentially publish these ideas in the society in general they are not being censored; they are simply being excluded. Nor are they being censored if they cannot find a publisher; they are merely failing to maximize the profitability of their ideas in the marketplace of ideas––this is their failing as an individual. Obviously this logic is problematic since, as any leftist knows, the most powerful publishing firms might indeed have an interest to exclude anything that challenges capitalist ideology. At the same time, however, those who attempt to appeal to this category so as to claim that exclusion means censorship (i.e. some internet troll pushed out of a social media site) clearly do not understand the meaning of censorship.

2) No-platforming: The activist practice of struggling against ideas in particular contexts, preventing them from being expressed. Such a practice was, to be clear, would be partially alien to liberal free speech advocates such as Mill. I say "partially" because no-platforming occupies a grey zone depending on how it is practiced. If there is no direct force involved in no-platforming protests, where a bunch of people gather to yell down someone whose speech they find licentious, then we are simply observing something that does not violate the harm principle and is clearly evidence of one type of speech raised lawfully against another type of speech: the marketplace of ideas continues to function (an observer can choose between the speech being challenged and the speech that is challenging) without the manifestation of harm. When no-platforming crosses into direct action, where the person whose speech is being challenged is attacked, then it steps out of the grey zone and the state has the right to intervene. But in either case it is not de facto "censorship" because it is not promulgated by the state––it lacks the power to decide what can or cannot be permitted to published––and its viability even within the liberal sphere is decided by whether or not it violates the harm principle.

3) Boycott: A movement designed to target particular ideas/practices, demanding that people refuse to endorse and divest themselves from said idea and practices. Such a movement can focus on a molar state of affairs (i.e. Apartheid South Africa or Apartheid Israel) or a molecular set of practices (i.e. hiring or buying mores of a job site) but, in either case, it attempts to bring a transformation of the state of affairs through open struggle. While this category most often violates liberal conceptions of "fair play" it has a long history of functioning within the liberal legal order, though its recognition as "liberal" has always been decided after the fact: the boycott movement against South Africa is now seen as admissible though, at the time, it was treated by most liberals as licentious. Even still, to boycott something is not the same as censoring it, nor is it the same as no-platforming. In the former case a boycott has nothing to do with the state's decision to permit free expression; it is an expression of rejection of the status the quo and hopes to build a movement on this rejection. In the latter case, a boycott is not about no-platforming a single speaker but about affecting a transformation in a state of affairs.

These categories are often conflated, with the second and third being rolled into the first, and such a conflation always defends the state of affairs. To endorse no-platforming is called "censorship"; to support a boycott is also "censorious". Even if this was the case, and it's not, we should wonder why we should care whether "censorship" is more important than particular struggles against fascist speakers or boycotts against anti-human social formations. The truth is that the left has a long history of no-platforming, boycotting, and revolutionary actions that bleed beyond even these conventions. It is only a banal liberalism that pulls us back into the capitalist status quo that demands all three of these categories collapse into the first.

Well fuck that. And every "left" apparatchik that can't grasp this distinction, and falls back into a conflation of these categories according to a censorship ethos (no-platforming and boycott is censorship), should be treated as suspect. Moreover, a revolutionary ethos will necessarily go beyond these categories, upending their meaning altogether, but until then these are the categories of expression that are utilized within the boundaries drawn by the liberal order.

Conflation of Categories

Much of the liberal ethos imbibed by leftists has made the mistake of conflating the first and second categories, imagining that "no-platforming" is tantamount to "censorship". While this conflation is erroneous it is far less remarkable than the conflation of the third category with the first: complaining about no-platforming as a form of censorship is an easy mistake; discounting a boycott by comparing it with censorship is a wild flouting of categories since it demonstrates a hatred of the cutting edge of legal struggle that, outside of a revolutionary sequence that upends bourgeois legality, leftists have taken. The point, here, is that Semiotext(e)'s defense of its decision to occupy Boyle Heights is a violation of a boycott that it has intentionally misrepresented as censorship.

When artists boycotted apartheid South Africa there were some who, attempting to profit in this situation, attempted to represent the violation of boycott as a violation of censorship. Paul Simon was paradigmatic of this impulse, mocking the artists who constructed the boycott by representing his choice to play Sun City as the height of anti-censorship. Nobody involved in the boycott accepted his anti-censorship arguments at the time; they saw them as opportunistic. Moreover, he was never "censored" by breaking the boycott (Graceland remains a high selling album), because to break a boycott never meant censorship regardless of the ire levelled upon him by his fellow artists.

Similarly, Semiotext(e) is not being censored. Doubtless people will keeping buying its literature, doubtless it will persist beyond the Boyle Heights boycott, but it still remains culpable for its break of a boycott. And as a leftist press its decision to break a grass roots boycott, call the people behind this boycott "anonymous" and "stalinist" should be treated as reprehensible. To oppose it, to mock its refusal to recognize a boycott, will not censor its bullshit decision. The point is that Semiotext(e) is breaking a boycott and, rather than being censored or no-platformed, it is being designated as a traitor to left practice. Any reliance on its past practice is bullshit in this context. Radiohead recently tried the same with its decision to break the cultural boycott of Apartheid Israel and was routinely mocked by everyone engaged in the boycott. To be called a "traitor" is not censorship; it would be censorship to prevent the boycott from making this charge––and indeed the state has actively tried to censor the language of boycotts.

But here we have Semiotext(e) resting on its laurels, designating its critics as "anonymous", and refusing to recognize a community boycott. There is a certain weirdness here, considering what this press has published, a refusal to take community activism seriously. There was even space for Semiotext(e) to struggle against the boycott that didn't bother to take: whether the gallery it defended could find compromise with the boycott, whether cultural boycotts work (a complaint levelled by some Palestinian artists in the context of BDS), anything other than some bland "anti-censorship" ethos that has nothing to do with the category of boycott. To be clear I'm not personally in agreement with such arguments against a boycott; I simply recognize that they are better and more useful engagements with an already existing boycott than a mindless claim about censorship. You would think that a leftist press, with a history of thinking through nuances, would have thought of these critical engagements and pursued them first and foremost rather than falling back on liberal claims about censorship: Semiotext(e) is thus also quite disappointing in being able to conceptualize any kind of discourse that isn't thoroughly liberal.

My hope is that Semiotext(e) will learn something from the criticisms of the Boyle Heights community, that it will stop trying to maintain an indefensible moral high ground that is little more than an impoverished liberalism, and it will benefit from the intervention of a grass roots movement it has weirdly classified as "anonymous".  At the same time, however, I have very little faith in the kind of radical theory that does not care about concrete struggle, that sees itself above grass roots social movements, that I'm certain I will remain saddened by Semiotext(e)'s refusal to listen to critique, to armour itself with liberal free speech ideology, to remain disconnected (and to despise) community movements.