A Book Is an Anchor to Which One Must Always Return. Interview With Yann Gomez by Laëtitia Riss


This interview was originally published in Le Vent se Lève on 11 October 2022

The publisher La Tempête takes its name from Shakepeare’s famous play and blows decidedly contrary winds on the present era. Launched by a group of friends, initially booksellers on street markets and now publishers thanks to a wager on what is possible, they contribute to exhuming texts that discredit one of the powerful motives of reactionary thought: everything is over, there is nothing more to do. Against this historical defeatism, intellectual allies are indeed more numerous than is usually thought. Thanks to the rediscovery of certain heterodox currents in Marxism, or even a possible Lukács moment, of which the republication of his works is one of the first signs, La Tempête has distinguished itself in the publishing landscape by an approach that is sparing with published titles. If their reading is sometimes difficult, the book-object is made to last – a guarantee that it is no longer a consumable among others but should be tested by patiently annotating its margins.

La Tempête was founded in 2015, it emerged from social movements and is now being expressed in books. What are the reasons that led you to embark on a publishing project and to change your mode of political intervention?

We were originally a group of friends from Bordeaux. The four of us met in political movements; what bound us together was an assertive refusal of a certain idea of life, which suggested that one could only succeed in life through a form of individual recognition. We chose the collective, by living together, and by trying to bring the political sphere and the sphere of life closer together. In a very concrete way, for example, we started working together as booksellers on street markets. We shared both the work we did and the money we earned. In addition to that, we shared a taste for reading and a filiation with a heretical tradition of Marxism (from the Frankfurt School to Italian autonomists), authors that we were to publish later, when we realised that they were not or insufficiently translated.

So, the publishing house project was born at the crossroads of these two practices: for us, it was a question of concretising a collective activity. We started out as a voluntary association – which is still the case today – and we decided not to be professional, even if this was not without its problems. Each member of the publishing house had to know how to do everything: editing, proofreading, graphic design, etc. We also benefited from the advice of a friend who was already an editor when we started, and who encouraged us to continue.

If we had to name the basic assumption expressed in our books, it would be that of possibility. It is possible to create a publishing house, just as it is possible to make history. We started by self-publishing for three years, that is to say we visited booksellers ourselves to distribute our books. They have always listened to us and have often received our offer well. In a way, La Tempête tries to show that even in books originally published in the past, there are always elements to be revived.

In contrast to the nostalgic taste for the past, ours is rather melancholically oriented towards the present. Nothing could be further from the truth than the leitmotiv that everything (philosophy, literature, metaphysics, poetry, etc.) is finished, as the reactionaries think; that is why we try to publish precisely what has been predicted to be finished for so many years.

The first book published by La Tempête was a text by Georg Lukács from 1911, entitled De la pauvreté en esprit, which, as you state in your presentation, deals with the meaning of an existence in which useless and unimportant tasks follow one another. How does this choice reveal the editorial line you defend?

Initially, we wanted to publish Lukács’s Soul and Form as our first book. The latter seemed to us to identify a current contradiction: the need for a revolutionary transformation and the lack of forces available for its realisation. How is it possible to conceive this tragic moment of existence, where great necessity and weak forces clash? This is the tension that Lukács confronts in this text, before resolving it, later, with his theory of the proletariat, developed in History and Class Consciousness.

However, this ambition was thwarted by problems of rights. Gallimard had the title in its collection, even though the book has been out of print since 1974, and it has not been possible to recover the rights. The Lukács legacy is also complicated: his heirs inherit a problematic history, bearing in mind that his archives in Hungary were closed and his statue destroyed. To get ourselves started, we finally published a short text by this author: De la pauvreté en esprit. It is a very dense philosophical dialogue, written just after the death of his companion, Irma Seidler. The tragedy of a life crushed by everyday existence and unable to achieve a form is exacerbated to the extreme.

Lukács is also important to us because of the books he made possible in his wake. Numerous little-known authors, to whom we are particularly attached, such as Giorgio Cesarano (a twentieth-century Italian philosopher, poet and translator), have taken up the problem of the centrality of the proletariat in the theory of revolution. They demonstrate its limits and question what may be the present conjuncture. In Manuel de survie, Giorgio Cesarano makes the hypothesis that what remains in the face of capital, now constituted as a material community and engaged in a dynamic of death, is the human species as such, which must fight for its own survival. A debatable hypothesis, but one that can be considered fruitful, especially today in the light of what is called the Anthropocene.

During the first months of La Tempête, you took the gamble of including a publisher’s preface in each book published. Was this a way of making your books less anonymous and giving greater coherence to your catalogue?

It’s true that this was a requirement from the start. We wanted to include the books we published in the collective discussions we had together and in the history of those who produced them – from the author to the publisher. This is an idea that we ended up putting aside for reasons of editorial rhythm: it was easier to preface one title a year than the six that now appear. Also, we leave ourselves more room for manoeuvre: sometimes there is nothing to say about a book, it speaks for itself; sometimes it calls for a different kind of writing.

At La Tempête, we are wary of ‘consumable’ publishing, which simply reacts to the debates of the day. Our books are made to last and intended to find an echo in ten, fifteen or even twenty years. In this sense, the relationship between the titles we publish and current events is dialectical: it meets the latter in order to better distance itself from it critically. In my opinion, a book can acquire a strategic value, depending on the debate that arises, but it is never a single, ready-made answer to a question that its time addresses.

This ‘untopical’ topicality is reminiscent of the ambitions of critical theory, set out in a founding text of 1937 by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Traditional Theory and Critical Theory). The latter also tried to conceive a new communist manifesto, although they never came up with a definitive text. We are left only with their dialogues, which you have recently published (Vers un nouveau manifeste), and which open up a completely different legacy of Marxism...

Our team does indeed maintain a certain loyalty to the Marxist tradition and its formulation in critical theory. In Adorno and Horkheimer, we find the refusal of intellectual fashions and the concern not to disavow Marxism. Their works bear witness to this desire to rethink it in the light of a new historical situation.

Vers un nouveau manifeste is a curious text, in that it offers a thought in progress. These are snippets of discussions, very ‘free-form’, moving from one subject to another, as is the case in a normal conversation. But, basically, the central project of a new manifesto after 1956 – that is, after the repression of the councils in Hungary, in the midst of the USSR crisis, also emerges. From this point of view, Adorno and Horkheimer hold a singular position after the Second World War: they do not abandon the question of communism. As a consequence, they ask questions that are essential for the future of Marxism: how can we talk about communism after the USSR? How to envisage the articulation of communism and progressivism? Is progress the best gateway to a transformation of society? These debates, which began in the 1950s, are still very present today and far from being settled.

Your books are also particularly influenced by the desire to hold a discourse that is not separated from life. How does a publishing house manage to fight against the separation that it sometimes helps to create?

Our books are not objects of everyday consumption, that is one of the specificities of what we are trying to do. As a result, this opens up a completely different temporality of reading: a book lasts almost a lifetime. For a certain number of our titles, access is difficult. They require long-term work to appreciate their significance. But symmetrically, it is also a guarantee that you can really get something out of them – that they are books that are remembered and whose critical difference is remarkable.

For example, Culture de droite, written by Furio Jesi, an Italian mythologist, is an indispensable book for explaining what right-wing culture is and its coherence over time. The author tries to characterise it by showing that it is the production of a language of ideas without words. He takes a long look at the mythologies of the right and fascism to understand how they work and, by extension, to avoid falling into the same traps. What interests us in a book, then, is its political dimension, but not its specifically militant character.

Our books are also the product of a writing style, which bears witness to an exteriority to scholarly philosophical writing. We pay a great deal of attention to the way in which literature and philosophy intertwine, to the development of a philosophical ‘style’, embedded in the ideas themselves. This is why we publish very few books ‘about’ authors, which sometimes adopt the overly academic tone of commentary.

Finally, we strive to respond materially to this question of separation, so that our intellectual project is embodied in a form. Our books are sewn – not just ‘glued’, like most standard print runs. Their top margins are also wider than conventional, to allow readers to write on the books themselves, in contrast to a current publishing trend that reduces the space available on the pages. This is a detail for many readers, but it reveals a certain conception of what a book is: is it a medium of passage or, on the contrary, a place of anchorage to which one must always return?

Translated by David Fernbach