Displacing the imperialist fairytale: the tempting of William S. Burroughs

The following is a short piece on William S. Burroughs which was originally written as part of a much larger consideration of the ethical and political causes and consequences of dividing nonhuman animals according to a wild/tame dichotomy. More of a curiosity piece than anything else, I guess … a cut-up, or at least a cut-out. Oh, and apologies for the enormous delay between posts!

The beginning of ethics demands, in some way, the giving of hospitality to all those beings who share our space and take our time, but who are not “us.” One must, in other words, begin by being able to respond to those excluded within the domestic. Following from this, the ethical beginning could be said to reside within what for William S. Burroughs is the detested figure of the centipede. Ethics, in short, begins with being-with the being-there of such monstrosities – a way of being that moves Burroughs’ posthuman beyond its masculinist, liberal-Aristotelian logic and towards a more generous notion of “community.” Such is a community united not by an exclusive contract, but rather by the fact that every living being demands unconditional hospitality from every other, and yet is simultaneously incapable of giving it. Ultimately, it is only upon such a basis that the monstrously improper creature of Burroughs’ dreams at last becomes possible, bringing with her the chance of being together beyond the human.

For Burroughs, the advent of language displaces the human animal, contemporaneous with its coming, outside of nature. A divided being therefore, the human comes to its “self” as an outsider within time:

Man sold his soul for time, language, tools, weapons, and dominance. And to make sure he doesn’t get out of line, these invaders keep an occupying garrison in his nondominant brain hemisphere. … A rift is built into the human organism, the rift or cleft between the two hemispheres (Ghost of Chance 48)

This “cleft,” this caesura ensuring human distance even as it corrupts every nonhuman being it touches, is thus built right into the human brain, a physiological abyss which, in dividing left from right, thus divides human from animal. In light of this properly human “rift” understood as a linguistic displacement marked by an alienating, inalienable temporality, Burroughs thus proceeds, in the conclusion to Ghost of Chance, to rewrite the Madagascan creation myth as a metaphor of the Origin of the human species. Its majestic island birth, launched with fireworks, thus becomes a fable, a fable of a fable of an originary division:

I draw a parallel between this rift separating the two sides of the human body and the rift that divided Madagascar from the mainland of Africa. One side of the rift drifted into enchanted timeless innocence. The other moved inexorably toward language, time, tool use, weapon use, war, exploitation, and slavery (49).

The violent rupture which isolates Madagascar thus allegorises the Origin of Man, offering itself as a mythic representation of the rift in the human brain, of the Epimethean fault that is the appearing of language and of technics in general. At the same time, however, insofar as time is not yet, this arriving of the human can be the result of neither a spatial (geophysical) nor a temporal (evolutionary) shift. Language, therefore, can only be imposed by way of some kind of alien-divine lightning bolt, described by Burroughs as the invasion of the “word virus.”

With language both imposing time and launching the human, the innocent plenitude of its prosimian prehistory is thus torn away, leaving in its wake a gaping wound at the core of the human. To be wounded by this rift is to be human, and thus to be removed from the timeless Eden of interspecies harmony. In this, and along with the nonhumans who “go along” (in the Heideggerian sense) with them, humans too are similarly the victim of its dominance, its enslaving exploitation. The abyssal border, in this sense, is not between human and animal, but between “the wild, the timeless, the free, and the tame, the time-bound, the tethered, like the tethered goose that will forever resent its bondage” (Ghost of Chance 13).

The central point, however, is that for Burroughs the archaic animal that is Madagascar, moored in enchanted calm for millions of years, nonetheless remains secreted within the human as its “other” hemisphere. The impassability and thus impartibility of its border, however, is maintained by the inhuman – and yet properly human – machinery of linguistic domination. One reading of this passage, therefore, founds the origin of the human upon the death or the ceasing to exist of the animal (a cessation which is at once the enslavement and extinction of animals). Such a reading thus reiterates one of the two dominant versions of the humanist dialectical teleology. Coincidental with this reading, however, the one that will concern us here, is one in which the sanctuary of the Lemur People coexists within “us” as an internal outside. Coexisting as repressed, in other words, humanity’s Madagascan sanctuary therefore retains the inevitable trace of this repression, and thus the possibility of thinking differently, that is, of existing outside of sequence and causality.

Before we can approach this possibility, however, it must be remembered that the two sides – the nondominated (and thus nondominating) freedom of the wild as opposed to the dominated (and thus dominating) enslavement of the tame – are necessarily discontinuous by virtue of the impassable caesura that is language’s taking place. Hence, it follows that, for Burroughs, “any attempt at synthesis must remain unrealizable in human terms” (48, emphasis added). Insofar as “merging the two is not viable,” he continues, one is inevitably “tempted to say, as Brion Gysin did, ‘Rub out the word’” (49). Confronted, in other words, with the a priori impossibility of negating the negation, Burroughs is tempted to affirm the possibility of a simple reversal, of a return that is a human turn to a “wordless world.” This is indeed a temptation, insofar as it promises a utopian posthuman version of Burroughs’ earlier homosexual sanctuary in which packs of wild boys freely roam, indulging in every desire.1

Such a romantic, fairytale reversal, predicated upon the traditional metaphysical distinction between eternal nature and human culture, offers very little to a thinking of ethics. It is a temptation, moreover, which Burroughs ultimately refuses, insisting in his final journal that the “promised land” of utopian figures is “bullshit” (Last Words 112). Instead, Burroughs attempts to refine and clarify Gysin’s lure and, along the way, a possible opening to the ethical begins to emerge.

While tempted, then, by the suggestion that we “rub out” the word, Burroughs nonetheless senses that this would be a mistake:

perhaps “rub” is the wrong word. The formula is quite simple: reverse the magnetic field so that, instead of being welded together, the two halves repel each other like opposing magnets. This could be a road to final liberation, as it were, a final solution to the language problem, from which all human “problems” stem (Ghost of Chance 49-50)

Rejecting the utopian erasure of the trace – rejecting, that is, an impossible dissolution within the timelessness of eternity – Burroughs suggests instead a further forcing open of the division. He suggests, in other words, a radical displacement of the human-animal discontinuity; a displacement which, as we will see, ultimately permits the denaturalisation, with all its attendant risk, of the phantasmatic constitution of “humanness.”

Rather than a simple reversal which, through an erasure of the word, would transform the human into its opposite, i.e., a wordless being, we instead find here the reversal of force and at once a distancing or displacement from inhabituation, that is, a dis-placing from and within the habitual domination of language in its broadest sense. We find, in other words, revaluation and rearticulation. As such, we can begin to perceive with Burroughs something akin to the movement that Judith Butler describes as a “crossing.” Always a forced distancing from inhabituation, every such “crossing,” writes Butler, necessarily goes by way of repetition “in directions that reverse and displace the originating aims” (Bodies that Matter 123). There can, however, be no “final solution to the language problem,” but rather only the reiterated movement of reversal-displacement in which the gap between the two coincident operations must be ceaselessly marked and remarked.

The time has now come for us to visit to “The Museum of Lost Species,” wherein one might lovingly contact a living corpse as opposed to reproducing the walking dead. Here, its timeless dioramic exhibits may be observed only from within the distance of time. This distance is the iterability of language that imposes a divisive temporality upon the so-called harmony of the wild, opening a space of conflict and pain which, insofar as it coincides with the arriving of Man, cannot be overcome even through the saving and salving power of animal Love. Instead, a very different “coinage” is required:

The Museum of Lost Species is not exactly a museum, since all of the species are alive in dioramas of their natural habitats. Admission is free to anyone who can enter. The coinage here is the ability to endure the pain and sadness of observing extinction and by so doing to reanimate the species by observing it (Burroughs Ghost of Chance 51).

Paradoxically, then, these living artefacts are no longer and at once not yet. They retain, that is, the potential to be “reanimated” by the regard of anyone who can enter into their space – a can that here suggests a movement outside of the parodic economy of exchange, one that attends instead to the pain of observing that which has been wiped out, and which thus makes sensible the no longer and not yet in a moment of authentic “contact.”

This work of mourning, in short, reverses in displacing the destructive touch of time, and thus allows for the re-membering of those “others” whom language has annihilated or rendered partial. However, in reanimating or enlivening a corpse in this way, that is, in the creation of a posthumous monstrosity that out-lives its type and genus, one must at the same time endure the pain that accompanies every radical exposure to extinction. As Burroughs explains, “cats are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death” (Cat Inside 70). Such is the cost, the “coinage” of creative contact. Moreover, insofar as the destruction of life is reversed by displacing the commodification of zombie flesh that marks both the arrival and the way of being human, one thus ceases being human in being exposed in and to our shared finitude. Before this, however, we must return to Burroughs’ earlier, cut-up novels.2



Stammering hospitality

The aim of Burroughs’ infamous textual experiments, christened “cut-ups,” was simple: to escape the domination of language, and thus to chance upon a contact that exceeds the constraints of sequence and causality or, more precisely, exceeds the historically contingent horizon of the possible. Premised upon a random chopping up and placing alongside of generically heterogeneous texts, Burroughs describes it is a process that cuts into the present in such a way as to allow the future to leak out. The cut-up method, in other words, is said to interrupt the mechanisms of control whose function is to ensure the apparent “transparency” of language, and it does so through an inaugurating moment or movement which, in its taking place, at once escapes the present in opening itself to an unforeseeable other.

Burroughs’ cut-ups, however, are not simple random compositions. Rather, insofar as they are composed through the disjunctive repetition of random fragments and obsessive phrases, they explicitly oppose any narrative closure of meaning, thus exposing traditional narrative to an unrelenting stammer that discloses the emptiness of all such attempts. Indeed, upon reading it soon becomes clear that Burroughs’ entire oeuvre – from the “cut-ups” through to the chance dislocations that mark his final diary entries – consists of an unceasing attempt to open a crack within the oppressive habituation of language.

This way of working language, of working it over, of doubling and redoubling it, is a way of working that Gilles Deleuze locates in the works of both Heidegger and playwright-prankster and author of Père Ubu Alfred Jarry. As such, both are “unrecognised precursors” of Burroughs, while at the same time the “wildness” of Burroughs’ writing machine forms a strong rhizomatic connection with that of Deleuze, as Deleuze himself acknowledges in various places.3 Heidegger and Jarry, writes Deleuze, “work in principle with two languages, activating a dead language within a living language, in such a way that the living language is transformed and transmuted” (“An Unrecognised Precursor” 98). Furthermore, continues Deleuze,

The affect (A) produces in the current language (B) a kind of foot stomping, a stammering, an obsessional tom-tom, like a repetition that never ceases to create something new (C). Under the impulse of the affect, our language is set whirling, and in whirling it forms a language of the future, as if it were a foreign language, an eternal reiteration, but one that leaps and jumps (98, my emphasis).

While the contrast between “dead” and “living” languages in Burroughs is not the literal contrast that we find in Heidegger, it is nevertheless this interval between the living and the dead that marks the stammer of an inaugural citation as foreign to a given state of affairs.4 Put in terms of the argument being proposed here, the form of the language of the future inheres in the posthumous reanimation of a dead phrasing within a “living” context. Potentially disclosed by a stomping, stammering repetition, this monstrous form of the future must therefore outlive every determinable form and, thus, outlive the human. Only in this way, I argue, can we approach the notion of “posthuman contact” as exemplified for Burroughs by a cat-human creature not seen for millions of years.

The problem here, however, is that, in the relentless stutter of his texts, Burroughs in fact attempts to force, even to mime, the chance and necessity of an animal encounter. Reiteration, as we know, necessarily carries a double risk: the risk of becoming unrecognisable on the one hand and, on the other, the risk of reiterating the very hegemonies of oppression such a miming seeks to disrupt. As Judith Butler writes,

precisely because such terms have been produced and constrained within such regimes, they ought to be repeated in directions that reverse and displace their originating aims. One does not stand at an instrumental distance from the terms by which one experiences violation. Occupied by such terms and yet occupying them oneself risks a complicity, a repetition, a relapse into injury, but it is also the occasion to work the mobilising power of injury … to acknowledge the force of repetition as the very condition of an affirmative response to violation (Bodies that Matter 123-4).

In fact, as we have seen with Nietzsche, the moment of parody inheres in every repetition, making every affirmative posthumous phrasing always already a “mime,” a walking ghost complicit with the hegemonies of oppression. Indeed, the chance of an encounter is the risk of becoming unrecognisable and at once of becoming complicit. More than this, however, in seeking the animal outliving of the human while at the same time placing conditions upon openness – that is, while refusing hospitality to certain beings – Burroughs enacts a sovereign gesture fully complitious with the injury of enslavement.





1. On this, see William S. Burroughs Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971), especially the languidly beautiful chapters “The Wild Boys” and “The Wild Boys Smile.”

2. While Burroughs continued to employ the cut-up method throughout his entire writing career, it is nonetheless possible to identify the three novels – The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, all of which were composed between 1957 and 1963 – as the principal “cut-up” texts.

3. In this, Heidegger and Jarry, in addition to Burroughs, are also (largely) unrecognised precursors of Deleuze. Indeed, I think an exploration of Deleuze’s philosophy in the light of these three figures would undoubtedly provoke a fascinating reading.

4. According to Heidegger, it is precisely the alleged correlation between ancient Greek and modern German that accords to Germany its privileged destiny.


About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

3 responses to “Displacing the imperialist fairytale: the tempting of William S. Burroughs

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