Grub Street Revisited
Semiotext(e) doyen Sylvère Lotringer tries to get his grubby paws in the honey pot
Known to many as an unassuming translator of Italian and French theory into English, for many years Arianna Bove has studied the question of ontology in the work of Michel Foucault. As part of her doctoral degree - awarded by the University of Sussex in 2005 - Arianna translated and published Foucault's own doctoral thesis, an investigation of Kant's Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view. She spent the summer of 2001 in the IMEC archives in Paris transcribing this little known text and painstakingly and diligently translating its contents in the hope that other serious scholars of Michel Foucault could also have access to the work. Both the English and French versions of the text were subsequently lawfully published as a part of her final thesis. And then along came M. Lotringer.
Below Arianna summarises the journey down Grub Street:
Whilst offering a selection of important Italian titles to Semiotext(e) I was asked about the Foucault text I'd translated:
Hi Adriana (sic),
It gave me the idea of addint(sic) it to a volume by Foucault(sic) that we are just
It had taken me some time to translate the text into English. I started working on it whilst in Paris in 2001, for the sake of making it known and discussing it in my PhD thesis (click here for more on the text) where I discussed its relevance to both Foucauldians and Kantians. In 2003-4 I started to publicise my draft translation on mailing lists and asked for advice as to which publisher to approach with it, because it was important for me that the heirs were informed of my work, my translation accredited, and funds made available to further improve it for publication. Having no contacts with the Foucault estate I imagined publishers to be the best 'official' route.
I had many ideas for a print publication, which I'd been thinking about for some time, some of these were to have a parallel text, a glossary of Kantian terms, the reproduction of salient passages from the Anthropology, a symposium with Kantian and Foucauldian scholars on the issues treated in it, and a focus in the critical apparatus on philosophical anthropology as political epistemology, working through Kant and Foucault's versions of critique in these terms. In my view this text ‘expands a type of discursivity’, it appeals to the philosophical 'canonical' community, it points to the roots of modern psychoanalysis in Enlightenment philosophy, it questions the colonialism intrinsic to the post-war anthropological project, and it also builds several bridges of understanding between traditional disciplines and recent French theory. Secondary literature on Foucault would benefit from turning away from an overemphasis on power - currently such an overarching theme in the literature that it has become suffocating - and towards the important connections he made between knowledge, technology and conduct both in this text and in the later 1980s lectures.
So when M. Lotringer wrote to me about my translation in the context of a series of book proposals I was initially enthusiastic: there were many projects on the table with Semiotext(e) and they showed an interest in a number of the Italian authors, such as Virno, Marazzi, Bifo and Zanini, whom I'd been promoting to English audiences for some time. The initial suggestion was that I would provide the Foucault translation gratis - as completely original material by this celebrated author would have been a scoop for any publisher - as part of an overall agreement that would give these lesser known authors the exposure they deserve. M. Lotringer showed a great deal of enthusiasm for this project and in November 2006, it all seemed to be happening: several of the proposals I'd sent seemed to have been taken up:
Dear Adriana (sic),
... and more ...
It did and I replied to that effect.
Dear Adriana (sic),
Riding the wave of enthusiasm for this mega project which would have meant the publication of a number of books I have for a long time been trying to bring to the attention of an English speaking audience, in December I was asked to write a couple of blurbs: one on a book by Virno that they were publishing (even though I was not the chosen translator for it) and one on the Foucault text. I did it out of goodwill (you can read the outcome on the MIT catalogue) yet this was later to be used against me as if somehow writing a promotional book blurb constituted some kind of contractual agreement. In the meantime, M. Lotringer started taking a few liberties:
Dear Ariana (sic),
In fact, despite the tone of his comments, several things started bothering me:
To 'beef it up' and make Foucault's text accessible to many lay-people would be a disingenuous, patronizing and impossible undertaking, the editor has clearly neglected to read the text; it's not the sort of thing that can be marketed like a packet of potato chips, although admittedly I am not familiar with his US audience.
Foucault never added the notion of world citizenship to Kant nor had I said so.
M. Lotringer has no manners, keeps misspelling my name and treats me like a desperate graduate student.
The 'edited' version of the blurb had to be rewritten as it seriously misunderstood what the text was about and was full of embarrassing philosophical blunders.
Despite having worked to help M. Lotringer with developing a proposal for the books' publication there was still no mention of a contract or timetable for my involvement in the project.
Also, the manner this Foucault publication was being rushed started to raise some doubts in my mind: I wasn't asked to write short descriptions for any of the other books we had been discussing, apart from the Foucault text, and M. Lotringer kept changing his mind over which ones amongst the others he was definitely publishing, generally acting in a vague and in retrospect, a rather manipulative manner. He kept talking about sending contracts and never doing it, whilst avoiding answering questions about translation fees. I had suggested various ways to finance the projects, there had been talk of applying for translation grants to various bodies, but I was never involved nor updated on their outcome.
This, together with the realisation that, given the blunders in the interaction over the blurb, collaborating with a non-academic publisher on a philosophical exegesis of Kant would have been a nightmare, I started trying to pin things down and ask my own questions such as: have you informed Foucault's heirs of this publication?
On Jan 11, 2007, at 4:25 AM, ari@xxxxx wrote:
...As for Foucault, what's the situation? Has MIT bought rights from anyone for the text? Let me know.
H*** [from Semiotext(e)] replied:
Yes, Foucault's introduction to the Anthropology, that I translated and wrote you a blurb for. The text you were referring to in your email.
And here come the first signs of genuine discomfort: Silence - no reply - avoidance.
On Feb 19, 2007, at 6:46 AM, Arianna wrote:
I eventually met Lotringer at an event in Germany and told him that given the vagueness of the arrangements, the general uncertainty about everything and their anti-intellectual attitude towards the Foucault text I had now contacted a British academic publisher about it. He immediately said ‘I appreciate your honesty and will send you a contract via fax on Monday'. At that point I didn't believe much of what he said but all the same waited for the promised contract, which needless to say, never came.
I decided to go ahead with the other publisher who offered me a standard deal and a whole lot of editorial input, as well as reassurance that the Foucault heirs, with whom they already collaborate and are in touch, would be contacted and involved in the publication. This is all that I wanted. Meanwhile M. Lotringer's silence continued, no contracts are sent, no timetable drawn up, nothing confirmed about the other proposals I had submitted to them, no information about possible translation grants passed on, no promises fulfilled. Exasperated, I confirmed to Lotringer that I had found an academic publisher in Britain for the Foucault text. To this he replied with a series of insults, accusing me of making him lose face with MIT, the distributor of Semiotext(e).
As a strange way of bidding for it, they put the book on the MIT catalogue with a publication date of September 2007 and my name on it. What a dreadful cover...
(It can still be seen on some online bookshops: here, here and elsewhere)
That is the pseudo radical left publisher's version of capitalist competition: dans le derriere. I wrote to Lotringer requesting a telephone number so that I could speak to him directly about the matter. There was no reply.
I asked MIT to remove the book from their catalogue and informed them that the publisher had not come to any agreement with me over this, to which MIT replied:
Dear Dr. Arianna Bove,
I have consulted Semiotext(e) and they have confirmed that you are no longer involved with this project. Your name has been removed from our web site, and the correction will go out to other web sites with our next onyx feed.
so I clarified:
And this is what I get in reply:
Dear Arianna Bove,
The situation as of the beginning of July is that the book is still coming out, albeit with a different translator. Can we really be expected to believe that they will not use my translation as a basis for it? There you go: 'I simply got disappeared' overnight. Beware of handling stolen goods.
End of story. Enjoy the translation online [Michel Foucault's Introduction to Kant's Anthropology], where it's been since 2004 and where it will remain.
As for the several Italian books I had proposed to translate for them, who knows which - if any - will be published. Perhaps it was all dust in the eyes.
1st July, 2007