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‘Our Readers Are Underground, Like Us’ – Interview with Michel Valensi

Michel Valensi, director of Editions de l'éclat, talks political publishing, the evolution of book production with the rise of the internet, and what it means to be a political publisher.

Michel Valensi13 October 2022

‘Our Readers Are Underground, Like Us’ – Interview with Michel Valensi

**This interview was originally published by Le Vent se lève on 17 February 2022.

For thirty-seven years Michel Valensi has directed the Éditions de l’éclat, a publisher which surveys the margins of philosophy and literature, since establishing it in 1985 along with Patricia Farazzi. We owe it, for example, the collection ‘Premier Secours’, conceived for a damaged century that lacks a utopian spirit. More than twenty years ago, in March 2000, Michel Valensi also promised to ‘do the impossible’ by giving birth to the first free book, christened ‘lyber’. This ambition announced the possible direction of the century: the democratisation of online consultation and the opportunity of wider dissemination of specialised texts. The logic of the culture industry decided otherwise, widening the gap between large publishing groups and small businesses, the imperative of profitability and the promise of free access, targeted advertising and the unpredictable make-up of readership. We have to count on the next generation of publishers, to whom Michel Valensi willingly passes the torch.

Interview by Laëtitia Riss.

LVSL – Éditions de l’éclat was founded in 1985 and today hosts nearly ten collections and several hundred titles. What you have chosen to build is mainly a philosophical catalogue, at the crossroads of heterodox intellectual heritages (pragmatism, operaismo, messianism...). Could you explain these to us and specify what constitutes their overall coherence, in your opinion?

Les Éditions d’éclat was created by myself and Patricia Farazzi, who now devotes herself more to writing but is responsible for certain publishing projects, such as the recent volume of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, and who translated the Italian philosopher Giorgio Colli (1917-79) for L’éclat. Among other things, Colli was in charge of the German edition of Nietzsche’s complete works (which served as the basis for editions in French, English, Spanish, etc.). Colli is one of those few authors, along with Carlo Michelstaedter, Yona Friedman or Jules Lequier, to whom we regularly return when it comes to deciding on a new direction, making a fundamental choice regarding the editorial line, and here again we follow Colli when he writes: ‘Choose your masters in good time and let them be few. Squeeze them, press them, exhaust them, torment them, tear them to pieces and put them back together again without giving in to the charm of polymathy.’ In the same way that we were inspired by Michelstaedter for the lyber when he wrote: ‘to give is to do the impossible’.

But, beyond this origin, I would say that what lies at the heart of the L’éclat project, what makes the catalogue coherent, are the margins, its intrinsic ‘marginality’. That is to say, we always stand at the margins of what is published – not only at the margins of what is done in the ‘institutions’, whatever they may be, but even sometimes at the margins of what can be done or said at the ‘established’ margins, which further reduces the space into which we sneak, but nevertheless provides a feeling of freedom that is not unpleasant. L’éclat’s concern has always been to refuse disciplinary frameworks, and we have sought to reconcile philosophical publications with multiple openings to literature, poetry, architecture, mysticism, etc. The two collections from which we initially started, and which still exist, illustrate this choice: the first is called ‘Philosophie imaginaire’, and the second ‘Paraboles’, titles which immediately signal this porosity between genres, this androgyny of the senses.

In addition to these two collections, there are now three active collections and one less active one devoted to Greek thought and entitled ‘Polemos’, ‘father of all things’, as you know. The three collections are: ‘Premier secours’, created in 1996, dedicated to critical thought and utopias; ‘L’Éclat/poche’, created in 2015, which comprises titles from our own collection in paperback format and at paperback prices, to which have now been added works published by friends or colleagues; and ‘éclats’, a collection of editorial pleasure born in 2012, where we have fun mixing genres and, above all, bringing together the most diverse worlds and authors: Michelet and his Jeanne d’Arc with Lenin’s Better Fewer but Better, José Bergamín’s bullfighting with John Coltrane’s jazz, or a classical text such as Thucydides’ Le dialogue des Méliens et des Athéniens with a contemporary one like Patricia Farazzi’s L’Animal d’expérience, where, in the form of a homage, there is a mouse called Joséphine.

Alongside this heterogeneous catalogue, analytic philosophy, which gave rise to certain currents of pragmatism, has a status of its own and had a ‘separate’ collection, called ‘Tiré à part’, which stopped in 2009, even though the titles are still available and reprinted as far as possible. ‘Tiré à part’ was a reflection of what it means to be a publisher: an encounter with the unknown. I met Jean-Pierre Cometti in 1987, when I was translating the Italian philosopher Aldo Gargani, who had died young and was too quickly forgotten, He suggested that I develop a collection devoted to this school of philosophy, which we were still very unfamiliar with in France at the time, with the exception of a few rare philosophers such as Jacques Bouveresse and François Recanati, just to give these names, who were not really favoured either by the philosophical establishment or by the media, to say the least.

I myself was a thousand miles from it, but, paradoxically, it was this distance that brought me closer to it from an editorial point of view and allowed the birth of ‘Tiré à part’. I gave Jean-Pierre Cometti complete freedom as regards editorial choices and we worked together for more than twenty years to make texts and authors from this tradition accessible, giving priority to the most recent writings possible which had appeared in reviews and bore witness to the different ‘works in progress’ of this philosophy. Hence the title ‘Tiré à part’. More than fifty volumes appeared between 1989 and 2009, even if the initial project evolved towards larger books, such as Bouveresse’s beautiful book on Robert Musil, or David Lewis’s very strange Sur le pluralité des mondes. Stanley Cavell, Richard Rorty, Nelson Goodman, Donald Davidson and Hilary Putnam have thus been translated into French to a larger extent, in volumes most often prepared jointly with the authors and the translators. Jean-Pierre and I fought hard for this philosophy, even if, in retrospect, we realise that, in some cases, it quickly integrated the shortcomings of the dominant philosophy in France, which did not fail in due course to ostracise this different kind of thinking, which was not, however, thinking of difference. ‘Tiré à part’ lasted twenty years: it was enough time to do our work, to give the young generations the widest possible range of what was being written and done in philosophy. The rest, in the end, was no longer our concern editorially, any more than the avatars that this philosophy has itself engendered, but these are always the risks of institution. We suspended it by mutual agreement in 2009 and Jean-Pierre Cometti pursued other avenues on his own. He died suddenly in 2016.

‘Tiré à part’ was the only ‘external’ contribution to the catalogue. For the rest – messianism and/or operaismo, Judaism and/or Greek thought, Mediterranean thought or uncertain territories of philosophy, etc. – these are the traditions on which Patricia Farazzi and I were spontaneously closer for various and, above all, varied reasons, which have more to do with elective affinities or some stubborn atavism than with academic studies which, for questions of ‘timing’, we did not follow as seriously as we should have (or not). When Giorgio Colli was asked why he did not mention Heidegger in his writings on Nietzsche, he replied, with that inimitable Piedmontese accent: ‘Non mi sento attrato’ – ‘I don’t feel attracted’. Perhaps we do not feel ‘attracted’ to university studies...

A point of passage, however, between what might have been our own interests and those of Cometti’s, is perhaps to be found in the books of Paolo Virno, where the coherence between political thought and linguistics, between Italian operaismo and the philosophy of language, could originally be seen, and if this interdependence is less perceptible today, it was nonetheless an example of syncretism between different intellectual heritages. In Italy, Virno’s work continues to be widely read by his early readers, unlike in France, where the ideological (and readership) divide is stronger, between a ‘political philosopher’ Virno and a ‘philosopher of language’ Virno. It’s a great pity, I think, but perhaps it also comes from a typically French approach to thought, which has difficulty doing two things at the same time, and perhaps that’s also why Bouveresse came to write such a stimulating text, first published in English under the title ‘Why I am so very unFrench’, which Agone finally included in one of its volumes of essays.

Still, I find Thierry Discepolo’s assertion in a previous interview in your series that ‘the political line of a publishing house is its editorial line’ extremely accurate. I hope that this is how publishers think about their catalogue and that they advance, with the means at their disposal, the texts they deem indispensable for ‘thinking, understanding and creating’, to use the formula of the philosopher Jules Lequier who inaugurated our catalogue.

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LVSL - It is customary to distinguish between independent publishing and large publishing groups, or real publishers and mere sellers of paper, to put it trivially. However, you have expressed reservations about this opposition, suggesting that we should rather consider ‘poor publishing’ as an echo of ‘art pauvre’ defying the cultural industries. What new division does this claim to poverty represent? Could ‘poor books’ be the answer to the barely masked contempt of books ‘for’ the poor?

This text on ‘poor publishing’ was written for the Rencontres de l’Édition Indépendante in Marseille, which I was asked to preside in 2012. I believe that it is the only time in my life I have been ‘president’, even if the term is much abused today. And, of course, it should not be taken just literally. A few days before, as I explain in this text, I received a letter on the letterhead of ‘Éditions Independantes’, and thought that there was a link with the meetings in question. A major mistake: ‘Les Nouvelles Éditions Indépendantes’ is the name of a holding company owned by millionaire Matthieu Pigasse, to group together his shares in the media, cultural and events sector. Needless to say, ‘independent’ sounded rather false and did not satisfy me.

This idea of independence covers economic realities that are too different; I was looking for a definition that was closer to the publishers who were gathered in this Marseille room, Agone, L’échappée, Anacharsis... to name but a few, if my memory serves me well. The common characteristic that immediately appeared to me was that we were poor, even before we were independent. On the one hand, of course, referring to the economic reality with which these houses operated and which led them to live and publish in a way that was most often precarious. But, also, as a claim to a mode of operation which, without going so far as to speak of an ethic of poverty (even if it is tempting and sounds like a title by Levinas on Saint Francis!), brought our editorial practice closer to something that comes under the heading of degrowth. It described both what we were doing and what we wanted to do. To impoverish ourselves, to continue to claim poverty as a mode of operation, both to escape the market logic of forced enrichment and enlargement, but also because it is there that we envisage overcoming a deleterious progress. ‘Impoverish yourselves’ is the economic form of Pascal’s ‘abêtissez-vous’; in a different context, he also wanted to ‘bend the machine’. The formula that also triggered this little speech was a sentence by Yona Friedman, another figure from the catalogue, who wrote in his Architecture de survie: ‘Money makes you poor’, which I’ll leave you to ponder, because it turns all the elements of the same question on their head.

Poverty means mastering production and thinking for readers who are ‘in our image and likeness’. Publishing as we do it today has nothing to do with the way it is done in the big publishing conglomerates. We are not or no longer in the same business. And I fell off my chair when I read in a major evening newspaper that the boss of the Madrigall group, was lamenting Vincent Bolloré’s recent takeover of the Hachette group, on the pretext that it was going to wipe out independent publishing! What this gentleman does not know is that independent publishing is not being wiped out any more than he himself managed to wipe it out, but that fortunately it is now so wiped out and thin that it manages to slip into the smallest interstices of the book world and is reborn at every moment of its wiping out. Proof of this is the richness and inventiveness of catalogues.

As for whom poor publishing is aimed at, our audience is quite difficult to define and we have, in fact, little data. Our readers are almost as invisible as we are, they are underground. However, as an anecdote, when we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of L’éclat in 2015, I managed to convince a few booksellers to set up tables based on our backlist, with, in particular, the paperback formats that linked to groups of other works in the catalogue. At the beginning, the booksellers were not very favourable: they asked me if I had a business plan, an advertising budget, if the anniversary was going to be announced in the press... Obviously, none of this was planned, we simply relied on our books. Eleven booksellers agreed to play the game. To everyone’s surprise, they sold almost all the books displayed, without actually realising that stocks were gradually running out. One of them even had the honesty to tell me that he had accepted the operation out of friendship, but didn’t believe in it at all! It was as if there had been a flock of underground readers entering his bookshop, buying underground books, and leaving without the bookseller noticing the movement! What conclusions can be drawn from this? It is difficult, but what it is at least certain is that our readers do not owe much to the marketing or press coverage that the books in our catalogue receive (or, more often, do not receive). This might explain our longevity, against all reason, and the timid but steady growth of our turnover, since the house lives only from its bookshop sales and cannot count on any external financing, apart from standard requests for subsidies for major publishing projects.

LVSL - At the turn of the millennium, you were a pioneer in thinking about the relationship between paper and digital books, contradicting the refrain that we still hear today – books have no future, the web will win... You launched the lyber series by saying that it was a question of ‘doing the impossible’. Twenty years later, how do you view this challenge, which continues to bring together authors, publishers, booksellers and Internet users?

You should remember the different elements that determined the birth of the lyber: first of all, the famous battle over library loans. A certain number of publishers demanded payment from libraries, because they felt this was a loss of income for their companies. Curiously enough, it was Jérôme Lindon of Éditions de Minuit who was at the origin of this demand, even though he had also been behind the single price for books. Now, as much as the single book price seemed obvious to me – it saved both the ‘poor’ publishing industry and the bookshops – lending for a fee seemed to me an aberration. Nothing should stand in the way of public reading and I did not compromise on the idea that reading begets reading.

At the same time, the Internet was starting up and Florent Latrive and Olivier Blondeau proposed an anthology on the question of free software, which was published in March 2000 under the title Libres enfants du savoir numérique. When we finished the book, after having dealt with all the questions of ‘free’ in the field of software, music, art, writing, etc., I asked myself what we could invent to go from B to V (which is the same letter in Hebrew) and adapt the idea of ‘liBre’ to the object ‘liVre’. This is how the lyber was born – a digital, complete, ‘free and open’ version of a print edition sold in bookshops. After Libres enfants du savoir numérique, the first lyber was the revival of a classic by Pico della Mirandola, De la dignité de l’homme, a manifesto of Renaissance humanism, translated and presented by Yves Hersant, in its bilingual Latin and French version, first published by L’éclat in 1993. It was necessary to mark the occasion. Since then, more than a hundred titles have been published in a lyber version.

I should point out, however, that the idea of lyber has nothing to do with what ‘open source’ can sometimes mean today because, paradoxically, my objective with lyber was to defend the printed book. It was not a question of seeing the digital version as a mechanism that would erase the book object, but, on the contrary, as a device that would complement it, accompany it. The book remains, in terms of handiness and sociability, a technology that has no equivalent, including for new generations. This does not prevent its ramifications from extending. With the lyber, I experimented with the first association of digital and printed books, with the clear objective that the former should lead to the latter. The project was initially misunderstood: some people thought I was ‘crazy’ for putting free ‘content’ online (as my friend François Gèze wrote in an interview in the now defunct Monde des débats), and some booksellers even boycotted L’éclat and returned our books. In another ‘camp’, that of the ‘established margin’, which I mentioned earlier, I have been accused of developing a hidden commercial strategy: making free digital books to sell more paper books! More books and therefore more reading? But what do these people want?

The lyber was, in fact, simply a very enthusiastic project – optimistic, no doubt, probably boastful – but it was never conceived as a commercial project. It is true, however, that it had effects I did not suspect: the bookshop sales figures proved me right. Some books saw their sales increase tenfold as soon as I added a free version. The free availability of a text online paradoxically made its paper version more ‘desirable’. I was happy with this success, and it was a great moment of economic development and diffusion for the house. It also allowed me to demonstrate that digital consultation could be a support and not a hindrance to reading and that the book continued to be ‘irreplaceable’ (which is still the case).

One of the dangers lies in the fact that projects combining books and digital media have always been rather rare and that there is no in-depth reflection on this linkage. Two anecdotes: in parallel with the lyber, the Cytale® company, which included Jacques Attali and Erik Orsenna, launched the Cybook®, a digital reading device, at about the same time. I remember the presentation: on the home page, you had the classic book chain (author, publisher, distributor, bookseller, reader) and on the second, the same list with large crosses on the distributor and bookseller, who were excluded from the book chain as parasites. The subtext was clear: time and money were to be saved. Jacques Attali agreed to debate with me on France Culture to discuss these two options: lyber or Cybook®? Unfortunately, the day before the programme he was indicted for arms trafficking in Angola and could not come... The challenge was not taken up later.

Another trend that I mentioned briefly at the beginning is that of ‘open source’, which has had a happier trajectory than the Cybook®. It is a practice that, to me, looks more like ‘dumping’ content on the Internet than thinking about what a digital world can be. I fear that the day we reach exclusively online reading will be the day when we no longer read. We may consult ‘content’, but we will no longer read.

The platform known today as OpenEdition, sponsored by the CNRS, had a genesis that is not often mentioned. Originally, this project not only included university publications, but also the books of independent publishers (with a few ‘poor’ ones, including L’éclat, Agone, etc.). Several publishers had been approached to digitise their holdings. The idea, if I remember correctly, was to make 20 per cent of our books available for free and keep 80 per cent of the books for sale, which could be bought in digital form. We were not very enthusiastic, but we were willing to play the game to see. When we looked at the project, we reminded our interlocutors that paper was the forgotten part of this business. While the platform allowed for the free download of files and the purchase of ebooks, paper books could not be purchased. ‘But that’s no problem,’ we were told, ‘we’re going to associate a bookseller with the platform.’ The choice for the project was clear: Amazon! First disenchantment....

But the funniest part of the story is the rest: the digitisation of collections was made possible by public funding, and as a result, we were told that certain works did not meet the criteria for research in the humanities and social sciences. Books of poetry, for example, could not be included in the protocol on the grounds that they were not considered to ‘advance thought’ (I quote). Then it was the turn of books deemed too political, which meant that public funds could not finance the digitisation of ‘insurrectionary’ books such as, for example, The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee. No poetry, no incorrect politics; we had no place in such a project and refused to sign the protocol.

The portal still exists today somewhere on the web, but it is a clear sign of the absence of any real reflection on all the actors in the book chain and of a focus on technology, which is conceived as progress, whereas in this case, paradoxically, it is regression.

The lyber has continued to make its way, and today I continue to put new titles online on the Éditions de l’éclat website when I have the agreement of the authors, translators, etc. The idea even seduced a publisher from the Editis group, who contacted me – it was in the middle of August – to buy the rights to the ‘Lyber®’ brand at the time of the creation of Zones, an autonomous label of the La Découverte publishing house. Of course, there was no ‘Lyber®’ trademark and I had not registered the name, which is, according to the definition given by the Wikipedia, a ‘common noun’ and therefore not capitalised, but there was a sort of priority of use. Zones did, however, have the courtesy to indicate on their site the origin of the term by referring to L’éclat when they started developing their own Lyber-zones...

LVSL – Would you say that being a publisher means contributing to the making of feasible utopias, to use the title of a Yona Friedman book (Éclat, 2000)? Since it is both a question of making editorial choices that go against the grain and of allowing the circulation of new ideas...

Yes, I believe this is the challenge, and one of the wagers of publishing as some of us see it. What Yona Friedman calls ‘feasible utopias’ corresponds exactly to our structures, to our modes of operation, because we are also inscribed in a logic of economic reality. Alongside feasible utopias, Friedman develops the concept of ‘critical group’, the argument that one handles more objects than one can grasp, and are in contact with more people than one can handle. The question he raises is then what is the size, the measure that can make things possible. This is our challenge: to find the right size and shape, which is not a model to be duplicated, but a configuration that can inspire different models. This is not new and was already inscribed on the pediment of the temple at Delphi: ‘Nothing in excess’! This is how we conceive of our editorial work, as so many ‘critical groups’ that seek and invent themselves according to lines to be championed.

For 37 years, Éditions de l’éclat has done its part and I am delighted to see that a new generation of publishers (La Tempête, Libertalia, Mondes à faire, Divergences, Hors d’atteinte, to name but a few) has come along in the past ten years, determined to think ‘politically’ about editorial work. Manuscripts can also reshuffle the deck and restore confidence when doubts arise about the future. This is what happened to us, for example, in 2013 with the manuscript of Constellations by the Mauvaise Troupe collective. When it arrived in the mail (electronically), we knew immediately that we had to publish it: it had a concision, a tone, a style that completely renewed what you had been able to read until then. There was a breath of fresh air that told us the game was not over and it was still possible to count on action books. In one of her first books, La porte peinte, Patricia Farazzi chose this sentence from Proust: ‘But it is sometimes at the moment when all seems lost that the warning arrives that can save us, we have knocked on all the doors that lead to nothing, and the only one through which we can enter and which we would have searched for in vain for a hundred years, we bump into without knowing it, and it opens.’ The books that we choose open like doors when we least expect them, and each discovery renews the hope, however small, that they open onto another vision of the world.

Translated by David Fernbach

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