For a moment in grad school—back in 1996—I considered writing my dissertation about William Burroughs. But Burroughs is so close to my heart that it seemed somehow wrong to subject him, and my love for him, to the obscenity of academic scrutiny. I was all too aware that academia denudes life of its more, uh, rambunctious affect and I was damned if I'd do that to Uncle Bill. (I did, however, sneak him into the opening of my dissertation*.) (Somewhere, Burroughs writes that he can't imagine writing without parentheses—the insinuation of other times, other voices, into this seemingly linear transcription.)
But now, some 23 years later, I am no longer an academic and imagine that perhaps there is a way to wrangle Burroughs in a befitting manner. It was in fact suggested to me by Thaddeus Russell that I perhaps teach a course for Renegade University on ol' Uncle Bill. And so I spent a little time sketching an outline for what such a course, what a series of lectures, and perhaps a book, might look like.
1. Breaking Word Control
For Burroughs, language will never have been a medium to convey meaning, facts, and feelings. The word is a virus, a means of control, that places subjects, objects, and actions in their proper place, in their proper order—subjects separate from actions separate from objects, all in a neat little line.
And so he comes to writing from a vastly different place than all those "New Yorker," Iowa writing program types. Writing, for Burroughs, is always a confrontation and negotiation with control—and so is always a potential event of destruction and liberation.
Most famously, Burroughs worked with his friend, the writer and artist Brion Gysin, on what they call the cut-up method. They used scissors to cut up their writing, newspapers, Shakespeare and then reassembled the pieces this way and that to see what would come.
This served multiple functions. It introduces spontaneity into the contrived writing process, a methodological manner of incorporating chance. But it also breaks the linearity of language which mimics the linearity of what Burroughs calls the Orgasm-Death Gimmick in which life begins with heterosexual sex, revolves around heterosexual rituals, and ends in death—a process Burroughs rejects at every turn. None of these are, for Burroughs, inevitable.
Writing, then, is a highly charged, inherently political act for Burroughs. With every word you inscribe and utter, you are negotiating an elaborate power structure. Hopefully, this has you re-framing Burroughs' careening prose, his seeming indifference to what we call grammar, his relentless juxtaposition of images, times, moods. Breaking the word virus is an essential act for those who seek a certain freedom.
2. The Affective Cosmos (with a word on his presumed paranoia)
Throughout his writing, Burroughs gives us a distinctive, strange, often grotesque world view. It's not that he sees people in a certain light which he then satirizes and critiques: it's that he sees and operates in a universe with its own internal logic and rules, its own modes of behavior. This is a kind of science fiction.
Burroughs' world is infinitely dense. Pick a line from any book and it's inevitably overflowing with qualifications, adjectives and adverbs oozing every which way. Nothing is neutral; everything is inflected.
"The final convulsions of a universe based on quantitative factors, like money, junk, and time, would seem to be at hand. The time approaches when no amount of money will buy anything and time itself will run out."
This relentless proffering of qualities is, in and of itself, a form of resistance. The virus of Western man is, as is the way of a virus, virulently quantitative: more more more to infinity. And as Burroughs repeatedly points out, any system premised on quantity is essentially dissatisfied as there is always more to be had — more money, more food, more jails, more laws, more, more more.... Such is the Algebra of Need: it's always in search of X to feed its monkey.
And so Burroughs counters this will to quantity with a world saturated with affect, with inflection, with states of being that cannot be reduced to integers but that insist on this or that way of going.
Bodies colliding, dehiscing, distending, bloating, farting, coming, bleeding, leaking, dying, birthing: this is the cosmic plenum in which Burroughs operates. This world is a frenzy of viscous bodies going with each other in every conceivable manner and hence often excruciatingly violent. Such is the way of things here. It's not as much a matter of ceaseless war as it is a crowded place of incessant collision.
And so Burroughs is often portrayed as proffering paranoia which, alas, is not quite accurate. The world is fundamentally, though not exclusively, a place of conflict: it behooves one to mind one's surroundings and be ready for whatever comes (hence, he always carried a gun; as he said, "Sometimes paranoia's just having all the facts").
3. The Ethics of the Johnson, Cats, and the Argument for Cute
In a universe of relentless conflict, collision, and collusion, how is one to operate?
For all his flagrant, even proud, disregard for the mores of society, Burroughs was always impeccably dressed—and, usually, thoroughly polite. In fact, politeness is an essential component of his ethics.
Being polite is a way to navigate the social teem with minimal energy expenditure. To run head first into the restrictions of a world is to exhaust oneself—and to what end? Ah, but being polite allows a dense social universe to operate without the nosy shenanigans of the moral.
Politeness respects the space between us and the individuality of all participants—we bump into each other but rather than fight or interrogate further, you simply offer an "excuse me" and continue about your business. It's not about respect for the other person per se; politeness is premised on indifference to who the other person is. It's about respect for individuality—and is an effective mechanism for operating as an individual within a dense space.
And this is the Burroughs ethic, what he refers to the Johnson code: mind your own fucking business—but don't be a dick about it. If someone's drowning and you're in a position to help, help. “A Johnson honours his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy self-righteous trouble-making person. A Johnson will give help when needed."
For Burroughs, as for Nietzsche before him, the moralists are the worst: they come on to you in the name of caring about your well-being, invading your world, telling you what to do, passing judgement on your way of life as if they know better (American politics, both liberal and conservative, suffer from this egregious ill). This moral mode is, for Burroughs as for Nietzsche, a social sickness that leads to all kinds of ugliness that we see in the form of the war on drugs, on prostitution, on nosy motherfuckers trying to legislate your pleasure out of existence. Morality, for Burroughs, works with language as a mode of control.
But amid the relentless collisions of life, there are moments of respite, things that want nothing from you, that are generous. For Burroughs, such is what he calls cuteness—in cats, mostly, but in lemurs and raccoons, too. “Like most qualities, cuteness is delineated by what it isn't. Most people aren't cute at all, or if so they quickly outgrow their cuteness ... Elegance, grace, delicacy, beauty, and a lack of self-consciousness: a creature who knows he is cute soon isn't."
Dogs, he claims, know right from wrong: they're moral. Cats, however, are not defined by their function or loyalty but by their presence, their quality: "The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself. Of course he wants care and shelter. You don't buy love for nothing."
4. Possession and the Ahuman
Human beings are not, for Burroughs, sanctified beings amid the general flux. Human being, ego, identity: these are illusions, transient states, not without their pleasures but fundamentally sickly forces, expressions of what he calls the Ugly Spirit.
For all his belief in the individual as a civic entity, Burroughs does not believe in individuality per se. We are all agents of something, of forces that exceed us, that possess us. Possession is in fact a dominant concern of his—to wit, his persistent writing on his heroin addiction. While many glorify Burroughs' heroin use, he saw it as a sickness, his Algebra of Need, as he lived beholden to this other thing and its needs, its demands. For Burroughs, heroin is another mode of control—not as ugly as, say, Christianity but nonetheless debilitating.
We are always inhabited by a bevy of forces expressing their wills through us. Our agency is by no means absolute in any ontological or cosmological sense. On the contrary, we are agents of other forces.
"Our beloved ego, arising from the rotten weeds of lust and fear and anger, has no more continuity that a fever sweat.There is no ego; only a shifting process as unreal as the Cities of the Odor Eaters that dissolve in rain. A moment's introspection demonstrates that we are not the same as we were a year ago or a week ago."
The writer, for Burroughs, is not the center of the world weaving universes from the depths of his genius. Writers are transcribers of words and forces that abound, that exceed us, nudge us, coerce us. The life of the individual is not a life of self-determination but a life of alternately parrying, welcoming, and negotiating far vaster, more powerful forces—alien, cosmic, affective, viral, vegetal.
The human, then, is not high on the hierarchy of forces operating in this world. We are all always already ahuman—reptilian, canine, feline, alien, insect. With pre-echoes of Deleuze and Guattari, Burroughs proffers a world of human becoming-other—becoming-cat, becoming-centipede, becoming-stone.
In a world of forces and flux in which the human is but a transient figure, what is life and what, finally, is death?
Burroughs was obsessed with immortality. Besides his essay of that name, all his writing towards the end of his life was about the subject. His greatest book, Western Lands, is a meditation and exploration on how to achieve immortality—and a scathing dismissal of Egyptian mummification as too bureaucratic and focused on the body. In "Immortality," the old rich suck the blood of the young in a desperate, alltoohuman attempt to cling to life.
But, again, they are foiled. For life persists not in the human, not in the body, not even in persistence of this but in mutation. "Immortality is prolonged future, and the future of any artifact lies in the direction of increased flexibility capacity for change and ultimately mutation."
Writing, alas, is the way to immortality. There you live on as force open to unthinkable and endless mutation, always already post-human, thoroughly cut up, and oozing with affect.
This is the opening of my dissertation, Read This Text, from 1997.
*At one juncture in My Education: A Book of Dreams, William Burroughs asks, perhaps of himself, "Am I an alien?" (Burroughs 7). No doubt, there are many with a ready answer, their heads nodding an immediate and unadulterated affirmation. But Burroughs, as if anticipating such a response, continues his inquiry as he turns the interrogative light from himself to the reader: "Alien from what exactly?" (7). That is to say, "alien" is a relative term, to be determined by something which is not Burroughs. From what perspective, in what language, do you read this?
Burroughs tells us that Ted Morgan's biography, Literary Outlaw, makes an initial error of perspective vis-à-vis Burroughs and his work: "Ted Morgan's biography starts with a basic misconception: Literary Outlaw. To be an outlaw you must first have a base in the law to reject and get out of. I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home..." (7). Morgan, it seems, reads Burroughs improperly, from the wrong place, in the wrong manner, according to the laws, as it were, of the outlaw.
Now, to be fair to Ted Morgan, I think it is possible to read his title differently: Literary (always already) Out(side of the)Law. From such a perspective, Burroughs does not operate from within an established order: he does not subvert the novel nor does he transgress this or that code, whether it be of language, literature, or morality. His writing, as he claims, is not reactive, derivative, or deviational. Indeed, Burroughs tells us that while "Genet is concerned with betrayal [,] I have nothing and nobody to betray, moi..." (8). That is, Burroughs' work stems from itself, as itself, a particularity, an haecceity: moi.
This is in fact the very premise of Burroughs' book: dreams are not recognizable as instances of pre-established laws--of Oedipus, of desire, of waking in general. Dreams do not refer to anything beyond themselves: "The conventional dream, approved by the psychoanalyst, clearly, or by obvious association, refers to the dreamer's waking life, the people and places he knows, his desires, wishes, and obsessions" (2). The psychoanalyst's dream is a dream of recognition, of confirmation; it renders the unfamiliar familiar--and hence banal: "Such dreams radiate special disinterest. They are as boring and commonplace as the average dreamer" (ibid).
The difference, the novelty, of Burroughs' dreams does not function to disrupt waking life--dreams are not illogical, or unreasonable, as if logic and reason were fixed laws. What emerges from Burroughs' dreams, and from his work, is a different logic, a different reason, a different order. Indeed, throughout My Education, patterns, shapes, a logic emerge. For instance, there are flying dreams, themselves divided among three types: a dreamy falling/flying in which Burroughs soars off from a high place knowing he is dreaming, knowing he won't fall; a volitional flying in which Burroughs flaps his arms and soars away; "in a third type I am jet-propelled at great speed across the sky" (2). There are also "packing dreams [which] can also be called time dreams....Too little time and too much to pack" (9). But neither flying dreams nor packing dreams gain their value, their meaning, from waking life. Rather, like Burroughs' work and like texts in general, these dreams distribute life in a novel manner. And for Burroughs not only are dreams not reducible to waking life, they are the very source of his education--not because they reveal archaic truths (this is not Platonism), but because they are new configurations, because they reveal new orders. To invoke Deleuze and Guattari invoking Leibniz, Burroughs' dreams, like his work and like all great texts, are educational because they are "possible worlds" (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? 17).
There is, then, a certain propriety at work here: Burroughs is somewhere, doing something. But he is not somewhere which we can recognize, doing something we can reduce to a familiar law. What we are dealing with is a different propriety, or rather, a propriety of difference. Burroughs does occupy a space--an odd space--but a space: "Perhaps," Burroughs tells us of "this position or lack of position," "my home is the dream city, more real than my so-called waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life" (7). There is an order here, or better, an ordering which is peculiar to Burroughs-- not everything is Burroughsian. Which is to say, there is a properly Burroughs behavior and hence a mode of engagement which is proper to Burroughs--not any will do. Ted Morgan, we know, improperly reads Burroughs in terms of the "outlaw."
What we are dealing with is the propriety of insistence. Burroughs' writings, like his dreams, insist: they are neither derivations nor deviations; they are not reducible, even negatively, to a preceding law. They are their own life form, self-generating, self-maintaining; they forge their own laws as they present themselves and whisper, mutter, cry: this. This "this" does entertain sense, propriety; it may be unrecognizable but that does not mean it is destined to remain outside, beyond, mute. As Benveniste tells us, "Language is so organized that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I" (Benveniste 226, original emphasis). With the invocation of the indexical--I, here, now, there--the user of language insists on his own language, a language proper to him. And it is this new language, with its own laws, logic, permutations, nuances, that serves as our education.