The last frontier: Burroughs's early work and international tourism.
while Burroughs might be a bridge for media theorists to the global, the reader is left to wonder if this might not be a one-way street. One might well wish for a companion anthology of scholars with significant investments in the global geography and history that Burroughs inhabited as an expatriate in Morocco, Mexico, South America, and Europe. Does Burroughs speak to such scholars as a resistant, liberatory intellectual?
Yet Brian T. Edwards, a scholar with a significant investment in Morocco, concurs with Retaking the Universe's assumptions. Although Burroughs may have flirted with "American Orientalism" (181), he writes, Naked Lunch ultimately "refuses the narrative coherence or the authorial stability that the pure American voice usually delivers. ... The breakdown of smooth rendering of speech is connected with Burroughs's antinational project and thus resists globalization, which relies on coherent difference and on the maintenance of nation-states" (181-82).
This essay will take up Banash's suggestion that Burroughs's art may not be universally liberating, and read Naked Lunch and the "cut-up" trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express) against global geography and history. I put Burroughs's postmodern art in the context of international tourism, which in the late 1940s and the 1950s was dominated by American money. Although he favored an off-the-beaten-track itinerary, Burroughs shared in the mobility and buying power of the postwar American middle class, and valorized destinations such as Mexico, where a "single man lives high ... for $100 per month" (Letters 63); Ecuador, where supposedly "2 ex-soldiers" traveling with $2,000 "now own large banana plantation, hacienda, live like kings" (103); and Tangier, where one can "have a room in best district for 50 per day" (196). My purpose here is not simply to denounce Burroughs for "playing the imperialist Ugly American abroad, able to buy what and whoever he wants with his 'Yankee dollar' (Harris, Introduction xxviii). However, to borrow a term from Edward Said, I do want to emphasize that Burroughs's writing was "worldly" (World 35), in that he had specific ideological commitments that were bound up with the touristic marketplace. Burroughs valorized the libertarian freedom that he associated with the vanished frontier of the American West, and sought to recover this autonomy through a creative usage of leisure time outside America's borders. Accordingly, his fragmented narratives are not only influenced by Tristan Tzara and the avant-garde of Paris, but by his status as a kind of subversive travel agent. Burroughs has gained respectability in the American literary academy in large part through his work's anticipation of various concepts in poststructuralist thought, and his emphasis on cultural intermixture can even be said to anticipate postcolonial notions of hybridity. But it is important that his work creatively engages with the global marketplace, portrayed as a space of creative freedom. Although Burroughs often subjects American business culture to withering satire, his own narratives are enabled by what one might call "touristic ecriture."
This analysis is not meant to reject the positive assessments many scholars have made of Burroughs's early work, and there is no question that he deserves credit for resisting what Alan Nadel has called America's "containment culture" in the 1950s. But critics' largely unqualified endorsement of Burroughs tends to rely on a unitary model of domination, with government and the capitalist economy collapsed into a single form of social control. Although Timothy Brennan and others have argued persuasively that a strong national government may be the only way that an exploited populace in the South can resist the wealthy North, Burroughs's 1950s and '60s fiction portrays governments and national liberation movements in the Third World as oppressive forces, arbitrarily limiting personal freedom. Burroughs's vision of creative individualism is thus only liberating for certain people, as it was articulated in a specifically middle-class idiom, that of the libertarian frontier. His postwar remodeling of this frontier relegates important public issues, most importantly the contestation of social inequality, to the logic of the marketplace. Naked Lunch's model of erotic freedom in the periphery of the world system, for example, involves the concept of a (frequently underage) sexual labor force. Meanwhile, The Soft Machine's central chapter. "The Mayan Caper," recodes the anti-imperial Guatemalan revolution as the tale of a heroic individual's struggle against big government.
Burroughsian ideology can therefore appear disempowering as well as liberating, especially if we move beyond the domestic concerns of Burroughs's critics toward a global viewpoint. The final section of the essay draws on the work of scholars such as David Harvey and Thomas Frank to argue that while Burroughs may have resisted the bureaucracy of the corporate culture of "Fordism," his early work actually heralds the global regime of "flexible accumulation" (Harvey 147), driven in large part by creative, boundary-crossing professionals who owe no allegiance to any larger social collectivity such as the nation-state. Observing that Burroughs makes an ideological accommodation with global capitalism does not, in itself, discredit him. When critics insist that his work functions as a "'blueprint' for identifying and resisting the immanent control mechanisms of global capital" (Schneiderman 2), the thrust of their social critique is misdirected, since global capitalism is not necessarily an evil. given its technological cornucopia and its encouragement of cultural syncretism. Rather, the ultimate problem with Burroughsian ideology is that it attacks bureaucracy in tow, overlooking the role that a state might play in ameliorating social inequality. The neoliberal hyperindividualism of Burroughs's postmodern art assaults "country talk" and "party talk" (Job 7) without offering an alternative vision of shared values and political action. (1)
Living "in proper style": Burroughs and international tourism
Numerous critics link Burroughs's fiction to flight, which becomes the trope for a free subjectivity. For Robin Lydenberg, "the cut-up text suggests the possibility of flight, of continual evolution and change" (52), while Tony Tanner notes that Burroughs's own term for his fragmented technique was "sky writing" (140). In her famous essay on Naked Lunch, Mary McCarthy suggests that Burroughsian flight may be more literal.
Last summer at the International Writers' Conference in Edinburgh, I said I thought the national novel, like the nation-state, was dying and that a new kind of novel, based on statelessness, was beginning to be written. This novel had a high, aerial point of view and a plot of perpetual motion. Two experiences, that of exile and that of jet-propelled mass tourism, provided the subject matter for a new kind of story. There is no novel, yet, that I know of, about mass tourism, but somebody will certainly write it. (42)
It is significant that McCarthy herself doesn't make the connection between Naked Lunch and what might be called tourist literature. Instead she refers to Burroughs's life in Tangier as exile, which is in keeping with his link to an older modernist tradition of escaping the repression of middlebrow America for a less restricted, culturally richer life abroad. Likewise, when we depict Burroughs specifically as an individual who crossed borders, we are likely to call him an explorer or a traveler instead of a tourist. Paul Fussell offers useful distinctions among these three terms: "All three make journeys, but the explorer seeks the undiscovered, the traveler that which has been discovered, by the mind working in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity" (39). He adds that tourism's emphasis on leisure and play contrasts with the work and physical hardship involved in travel, a word which derives from tripallium, a Latin word for an instrument of torture.
In his explicit foray into the genre of travel writing, "In Search of Yage" (written in 1953 and comprising most of I963's The Yew Letters, published with Allen Ginsberg), Burroughs casts himself not merely as a traveler who endures insects and sickness, but as a New World explorer, searching the South American jungle for a little-known hallucinogen. However, Burroughs did eventually find his yage, and it is worth looking closely at the vision that not only concludes his account, but also serves as the centerpiece to Naked Lunch in a chapter entitled simply "The Market." (2) For Ginsberg, the yage experience revealed that "we are all one Great Being" (Burroughs and Ginsberg 101), leading him to assault "A Materialistic consciousness [which] is attempting to preserve itself from Dissolution by restriction & persecution of Experience of the Transcendental" (105). Burroughs, by contrast, emphasizes precisely the material, as a vision of "incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains" ends not in mystical transcendence but rather in the "Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market" (50); "crowded cafe [s]" and "unthinkable trades" surround the traveler who gets "blackout drunk" (52). Not quite fitting Fussell's model of travel writing, then, "In Search of Yage" traces a route from the exploration of the unknown to the plenum of tourism, where all forms of experience are available through the marketplace.
I suggest the vision of an unfettered free market that concludes Burroughs's narrative represented precisely what he sought in his journey beyond the United States's borders. Critics generally discuss Burroughs's travel in romantic terms, emphasizing his role as a persecuted addict of opium and its derivatives, and more recently, as a pioneering explorer of queer desire. But they have minimized his scathing critique of a welfare state that placed limitations on the total freedom to buy and sell. In various letters to Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the late 1940s and early '50s. Burroughs emphasized that the United States was not merely over-restrictive and conformist, but "a Socialistic police state similar to England, and not too different from Russia" (Liters 57). He finishes off this 1949 letter to Ginsberg by declaring "Believe me socialism and communism are synonymous, and both unmitigated evil, and the Welfare State is a Trojan Horse" (58). In 1950 he asked Kerouac, "What ever happened to our glorious Frontier heritage of minding ones [sic] own business? The Frontiersman has shrunk to a wretched, interfering Liberal bureaucrat" (61). Burroughs then goes on to attack Ginsberg, stressing their friend's absorption into a "snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and Union officials." Kerouac did justice to this ideological disposition in his memorable portrait of Burroughs as "Old Bull Lee" in On the Road, which stresses Lee's nostalgia for the vanished American frontier:
Bull had a sentimental streak about the old days in America, especially 1910, when you could get morphine in a drugstore without prescription and Chinese smoked opium in their evening windows and the country was wild and brawling and free, with abundance and any kind of freedom for everyone. His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals; then cops. (144)
Lee/Burroughs thus endorses Frederick Jackson Turner's vision of the frontier, which valorizes "dominant individualism" and "that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom," traits which produce an "antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control" (37). (3)
Recently Rob Johnson has elucidated Burroughs's commitment to frontier libertarianism, involving a brief life as a conventional farmer in South Texas (a project which accompanied his more well-known East Texas farm, which grew marijuana and opium and served as an entertainment venue for other Beats). "Burroughs saw the farmer as the embodiment of American free enterprise and rugged individualism," Johnson writes (61); "although [his" views on the 'control machine' would later brand him as a member of the counterculture, it is important to know that Burroughs's views on farming were mainstream Republican ones" (78). Burroughs's sale of his farms, however, did not involve leaving his frontier ideology behind, but rather globalizing this ideology through international travel. (4) If, as Fussell suggests, "the tourist is best defined as a fantasist equipped temporarily with unaccustomed power," (42) then the global power of the dollar enabled Burroughs to imagine an endless marketplace, unrestricted by state control or corporate homogenization. While he was not at the the time a conventional tourist--in contemporary terms, Burroughs's wallet-conscious itinerary is more akin to that of a Lonely Planet guidebook--he nevertheless shared in the buying power of the American middle class. The grandson of the famous inventor of the adding machine, he never inherited a fortune, but his parents gave him a monthly allowance of $200. A "tidy sum in those days" (65), according to biographer Ted Morgan, the money went even farther in less-developed countries. As Burroughs wrote to Kerouac in 1949, "I am so disgusted with conditions I may leave the U.S.A. altogether, and remove myself and family to S. America or Africa. Some place where a man can get something for his money, and live in proper style" (Letters 27). Accordingly, Burroughs relocated the frontier from the American West to the Third World. A 1951 letter to Ginsberg begins by attacking stifling corporate bureaucracy, claiming that because a company "is depersonalized and guided by no other principle than profit," it "thereby surrenders all claim to ethical consideration": "A company takes great pains not to be an individual. A company never trusts anybody with anything. Therefore a company is fair game, and personally I would not hesitate to defraud a company if I could" (79). But here Burroughs attacks organizational conformity and not capitalism per se, as he goes on to argue that Latin America can allow one to recover entrepreneurial autonomy, exhorting Ginsberg to become a tycoon in Mexico:
One thing I am sure of. If you want to give yourself a chance to get rich and live in a style that the U.S. has not seen since 1914, "Go South of the Rio Grande, young man." Almost any business is good down here, since markets are unlimited. This country down here (I mean the whole of Mexico and points south) is about where the U.S. was in 1880 or so. I know of any number of business deals here in Mexico D. F. that would make any man rich who applied himself over a period of say 10 years. Personally I have decided on farming and ranching ... you live like a king on a ranch while you are making the $. Hunting and fishing, and a hacienda full of servants for about nothing a year in expenses. (78)
To be sure, Burroughs never followed through on this entrepreneurial scheme, which blends the frontier ideal of independent land ownership with a neocolonial fantasy in which he commands the labor of faceless darker-skinned minions. In biographical terms, his autonomy was based not on the strenuous effort of business ownership but rather on the creative usage of leisure time. As he told Kerouac, Mexico was "very cheap. A single man could live good for $2 per day in Mexico City liquor included. $1 per day anywhere else in Mexico. Fabulous whore houses and restaurants. A large foreign colony. Cock fights, bull-fights, every conceivable diversion" (53). In fact Mexico made him regret his heroin addiction, as it kept him indoors when outdoors there was limitless freedom: "There is more to miss in Mexico than in the States because here no limits are imposed on experience" (71, my emphasis). In letters to Ginsberg, he warned his friend away from vacation destinations which would place limitations on such experience:
Like I say, do not feel like a trek across Europe at great personal expense to Vienna. Not particularly cheap, very crowded in the Summer and boys very much an unknown quantity. DON'T GO TO ISTANBUL. I have it from those who been there, nowhere. Expensive, much police surveillance--they don't like any foreigners, you need a permit for everything. (363-64).
In contrast, Burroughs idealized the comparative absence of social control in Mexico, where "a man can walk the streets without being molested by some insolent cop swollen with the unwarranted authority bestowed upon him by our stupid and hysterical law-making bodies. Here a cop is on the level of a street-car conductor. He knows his place and stays there" (57). But Burroughs's utopia turned out to be Tangier, a "hub of unregulated free enterprise" that became a "capital of permissiveness" after World War II (Morgan 237). In Queer (written in 1952 but not published until 1985), the narrator describes Mexico City as a "terminal of space-time travel, a waiting room where you grab a quick drink while you wait for your train. That is why I can stand to be in Mexico City or New York. You are not stuck there; by the fact of being there at all, you are travelling". (131-32). From this perspective, Tangier was the ultimate space-time terminal, a space of radical freedom where one moved "outside any social context" (262), as Morgan explains: "Tangier was as much an imaginative construct as a geographical location ... a place where everyone could act out his most extreme fantasies" (253).
Global travel thus allowed Burroughs the stateless "perpetual motion" McCarthy described, making international tourism and the power oldie dollar important contexts in which to consider his work. Initially Burroughs represented tourism in strictly mimetic fashion, as Junkie (1953) depicts a man's search for commodities (specifically morphine and its derivatives) not readily available in the United States. But, as I have argued, "In Search of Yage" offers a more complex travel narrative, tracing an arc from. the exploration of the New World to the pleasures of an unregulated market. In a literary sense, Burroughs became Burroughs when he pushed beyond merely representing tourism and based a new kind of cultural production on global mobility itself.
International travel and artistic form: Burroughs's "touristic ecriture"
Burroughs has gained respectability in the American literary academy largely through his work's anticipation of various forms of French critical theory. Lydenberg's Word Cultures (1987) directly equated Burroughs with forms of ecriture that she associated with Derrida and Barflies. A decade later, Murphy's Wising Up the Marks considered Burroughs primarily in relation to Deleuze and Guattari, while more recently Harris has dubbed him "the Lacanian Real of American literature" (William 19). To be sure, these scholars have different emphases. Murphy critiques Lydenberg, for example, arguing that "if we are going to get Burroughs's books off the shelf and back onto the streets," we must contest formalist approaches, since Lydenberg's deconstructionism "enclose [s] antagonism within capitalist production and its handmaiden, abstract representation or textuality" (73). However, Murphy's views often parallel Lydenberg's, as both critics tend to see liberatory potential in certain avant-garde artistic concepts, especially the notion that Burroughs explodes conventional notions of authorship and of subjectivity more generally Lydenberg writes, for example, that Burroughsian form "creates the possibility of a broader cosmic journey that extends across all texts, all cultural codes, all identities" (69), while Murphy claims that Burroughs sought (and late in his career found) "an escape route from the linked control systems of capital, subjectivity and language" (4). In part, my objection to these perspectives reflects Sean Burke's insight that "it is to the very romantic tradition against which theory aligns itself that the Death of the Author [argument] belongs" (xix). More 'importantly, abstracting Burroughs from a worldly historical context obscures the relation of his narratives to major social developments such as American political and economic influence and the enormous increase in middle-class global mobility after World War II. Indeed, perhaps the strongest charge against contemporary Burroughs criticism is that it risks reproducing American exceptionalism in a post-structuralist idiom. Even after Edwards's important Morocco Bound (2005), Edward Said or Mary Louise Pratt are seldom mentioned: in Burroughs scholarship, despite the openings postcolonialism and travel criticism would seem to offer. Again, then, trangressive artistic form needs to be reassessed in view of its relation to global history and, more specifically, the marketplace of tourism.
Burroughs's proleptical poststructuralism was articulated in terms of the "frontier" of international travel, which offered new possibilities for creative individualism. Although he does not himself provide a poststruc-turalist model of tourism, Jonathan Culler has prepared the way for such an approach, observing that tourists are the "unsung armies of semiotics ... [who are] interested in everything as a sign of itself, an instance of a typical culture practice: a Frenchman is an example of a Frenchman, a restaurant in the Quartier Latin is an example of a Latin Quarter restaurant, signifying 'Latin Quarter Restaurantness" (155). Drawing on Dean MacCannell's argument that tourist attractions are not given in nature but rather socially constructed, Culler assaults Fussell and Daniel Boorstin for contrasting the sensitive, erudite traveler with vapid tourist. Despite Cullers insistence that travel and tourism are really the same thing, however, his model of touristic semiotics rests on a basically stable system of representation with its accompanying binaries (e.g., the artificial versus the authentic). Moreover, he overlooks a crucial aspect of MacCannell's argument: a sharp criticism of the tourist who is unconcerned with what MacCannell calls "reality and truth," but rather engages in what we might call semiotic free play. MacCannell notes that the tourist can manipulate time and space; photography can make the tourist, instead of the landmark, the great sight (147), and the tourist has the freedom to rearrange the historical data contextualizing a given attraction (139), to get things wrong. MacCannell critiques such touristic practice in moralistic terms analogous to the denunciation of writing that Derrida claims to find in Saussure:
The version of "the truth" contained in [such touristic practice], the basis of touristic certainty, is adapted to a type of society in which social relationships are arbitrary fleeting and weightless, in which growth and development takes the form of an interplay of differentiations. Within this manifold, the individual is liberated to assemble and destroy realities by manipulating sociocultural elements according to the free play of his imagination. This is the worst feature of modernity and, at the same time, the grounds of our greatest hope: perhaps we can individually or collectively put together the "right combination" of elements and make it through to a better world or a higher stage of civilization. (140-41)
What is this "better world"? Drawing as much on Durkheimian functionalism and Mauss's theory of gift-giving as on Saussurean semiotics, MacCannell sees the better world as a kind of touristic collective consciousness. While a semiotic approach erodes the traditional distinction between the authentic and the ersatz, MacCannell values society's collective agreement to pursue such distinctions, to "conserve a solidarity at the level of the total society, a collective agreement that reality and truth exist somewhere in society, and that we ought to be trying to find them and refine them" (155). Against Marx, MacGamlen accepts inevitable differentiation and fragmentation in the realm of labor, but argues that tourism can reintegrate society through a "solidarity" (139) based in leisure time: "The consensus about the structure of the modern world achieved through tourism and mass leisure is the strongest and broadest consensus known to history." Middle-class tourists have a "transcendent consciousness," forming a collective agreement about which of the world's sights are worth seeing, and thus conducting a global exchange of what MacCannell calls ''the gift of shared notice" (13). This clarifies his antipathy toward what we might call the touristic supplement, which disrupts such global solidarity by favoring the excess of individual imagination, valuing the image of tourists more highly than the touristic attractions themselves, and privileging cheap souvenirs and knickknacks instead of genuine" touristic experience.
In keeping with his frontier ideology, his vision of total freedom from the collectivity and the state, Burroughs cheerfully enacted such supplementarity as a narrator, defying conventional sign systems. In Saussurean terms, Burroughs did not seek to codify a holistic touristic langtue but rather valorized parole, that realm of unpredictable individual performance that Saussure saw as beyond the purview of linguistics (see de Saussure 7-20). "What are you thinking?" asks the "squirming American tourist" in Naked Lunch's "Atrophied Preface" (209), which mocks the sedate routine of the frequent flyer:
Why all this waste paper getting The People from one place to another? Perhaps to spare The Reader stress of sudden space shifts and to keep him Gentle? And so a ticket is bought, a taxi called, a plane boarded. We are allowed a glimpse into the warm peach-lined cave as She (the airline hostess, of course) leans over to us to murmur of chewing gum, dramamine, even Nembutal. (197)
In contrast with this corporate routine, Burroughs emphasizes unfettered global mobility. "I am not American Express," he insists, opposing himself to the conventional business travel agency: "If one of my people is seen in NewYork walking around in citizen clothes and next sentence Timbuktu putting down lad talk on a gazelle-eyed youth, we may assume that he (the party non-resident of Timbuktu) transported himself there by the usual methods of communication" (198). Of course "the usual methods of communication" may simply refer to the planes and taxis of his characters' deviant itineraries. But we might also read "communication" as writing, specifically Burroughs's own manipulation of sociocultural fragments. In fact, the "Atrophied Preface" often seems like a literary equivalent of snapshots and souvenirs--a slide-show for his fellow Beats, as it were. "Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word horde" (208) he declares, his "horde" of word-images contrasting with the typical tourist's passive "hoard" of collectibles, safely enclosed in a handbag or suitcase:
This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yipes and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bull head, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trances, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle. (208)
It would not have been possible to produce this hybrid amalgamation of signifiers before "international mass tourism produce[d] in the minds of the tourists juxtapositions of elements from historically separated cultures" (MacCannell 27). In a related argument, Michael Clune sees Burroughs's cut-ups as works in which "the price system plays a basic role in framing individual knowledge and perception" (96), a compelling analysis that accords with Burroughs's own assessment of his work. In "My Purpose Is to Write for the Space Age," a 1984 New York Times essay that amounted to a summation of his career, Burroughs wrote:
Space travel involves dine travel, seeing the dimension of time from outside time, as a landscape spread out before the observer, where a number of things are going on simultaneously--as in the Djemalfnaa in Marrakech: Gnaoua drummers, snake charmers, trick bicycle riders. The image of a vast market occurs repeatedly in [my] later work. (266)
For Clune, a "vast market" provides the economic logic of Burroughs's early avant-garde practice, as well. But insofar as Clune argues that Burroughs undoes oppositions such as "collective/individual" and takes us beyond a "Cartesian model of the individual subject" (96), his analysis reproduces the conventional assertion that Burroughsian artistic form is so radical and innovative that it cannot possibly be linked to a specific ideological interest.
On the contrary, the goal of Burroughs's radical semiotics is not to destroy the illusion of unified selfhood, but to free the self from a uniform text or cultural code and to enable this self's creative manipulation of dominant codes. (5) In Barthesian terms, while the "Atrophied Preface" resists conventional bourgeois mores, it is nevertheless a mythology. Burroughs's signifiers are liberated from the control of nation, state, and official culture, but they nonetheless remain radically decontextualized, shorn of their history and amalgamated within his countercultural itinerary. His power imagined to be unlimited, the narrator can thus order disparate locations and cultural artifacts within a series of commas, an omnipotence in which Burroughs often delights:
I, William Burroughs, captain of this lushed up hash-head subway will quell the Loch Ness monster with rotenone and cowboy the white whale. I will reduce Satan to Automatic Obedience, and sublimate subsidiary fiends. I will banish the candiru [a predatory South American fish] from your swimming pools. (Naked 205).
The phrase "white whale" is abstracted from the intricacies of Melville's novel and made to signify a radically individualistic credo, that of "I, William Burroughs," who makes a series of boasts: that he will domesticate the Loch Ness monster, the legend of which is enabled by tourists' (and hoaxers') handheld cameras; that he will pacify Hell and make it safe for a sightseeing tour. This fantasy of omnipotence depends upon the tourist's historically unique ability to fragment culture and rearrange it, just as if he were manipulating a "kaleidoscope" (208).
One might say that the cut-up trilogy turns Naked Lunch's manipulation of sociocultural elements into a professional specialty. The practice of cutting up included taking scissors to a newspaper or magazine and rearranging the fragments in new combinations. For Lydenberg, this puts Burroughs in an avant-garde lineage that extends from the surrealist Tristan Tzara through Derrida (45). For Burroughs, however, the practice does not enable an escape from centered subjectivity, but rather depends upon the expertise of the cutter:
People say to me, "Oh, this is all very good, but you got it by cutting up." I say that has nothing to do with it, how I got it. What is any writing but a cut-up? Somebody has to program the machine; somebody has to do the cutting up. Remember that I first made selections. Out of hundreds of possible sentences that I might have used, I chose one. ("Art" 30)
The development from the reportorial realism of Junkie to the fragmentation of the cut-ups thus involved a self liberated by international travel, unfettering creativity, as Burroughs saw it, and enabling the production of a potentially unlimited oeuvre. Burroughs explained to the Paris Review in 1965,
For exercise, when I make a trip, such as from Tangier to Gibraltar, I will record this in three columns in a notebook I always take with me. One column will contain simply an account of the trip, what happened. I arrived at the air terminal, what was said by the clerks, what I overheard on the plane, what hotel I checked into. The next column presents my memories; that is, what I was thinking of at the time, the memories that were activated by my encounters; and the third column, which I call my reading column, gives quotations from any book that I take with me. I have practically a whole novel alone on my trips to Gibraltar. ("Art" 28)
Here, cutting up involves creatively rearranging the three columns--travel narrative, personal memories, and literary quotations--into new combinations. Burroughs's practice of touristic ecriture is thus premised upon a kind of empowered marginality, the middle-class traveler's freedom to cross national borders and rearrange cultural fragments.
"The Mayan control machine": frontier individualism, the nation-state form, and third-world revolutionary movements
What relationship does Burroughs's work bear to what Edwards calls "American Orientalism"? Although Timothy Melley terms the postmodern recuperation of integral selfhood "agency panic" (7-16), Burroughs's narratives certainly do not display the anxiety that so many critics have located in white identity formation during the High Cold War period; indeed, in the "Atrophied Preface," Naked Lunch announces itself as generating anxiety. For Edwards, Burroughs's stance is thus fundamentally postcolonial instead of imperial, and he discusses Naked Lunch much as one would discuss the work of Homi Bhabha, which famously valorizes the "Third Space of enunciation" (54), a position of liminality where "symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity" (55).
I think Edwards is correct to locate prototypes of such postcolonial models of identity in Naked Lunch. Later, Burroughs commented, "I have always seen my own work in the light of the picaresque--a series of adventures and misadventures, horrific and comic, encountered by an antihero" ("Purpose" 266), and Naked Lunch's characters may indeed be described as picaros of the global economic system. None of them manipulates the "Atrophied Preface's sociocultural kaleidoscope more exuberantly than A. J., the embodiment of Burroughs's "Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market" (50). Interzone promotes not only the chaotic intermixture of cultures (the "Opening Bars of East St. Louis Toodleoo" play over "minarets, palms, mountains, jungle" (96), but also the breakdown of racial boundaries: "The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian--races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body" (96). In contrast to the images of suburban racial homogeneity perpetuated by America's mainstream media, the identity of Naked Lunch's protagonist is combinatorial, heterogenous. A. J. "had at one time come on like an English gentleman," although "he is actually of obscure Near East extraction. ... His English accent waned with the British Empire, and after World War II he became an American by Act of Congress" (132-33). Although his US citizenship and his reputation as an international playboy suggest an Americanized James Bond, rather than directly advancing the interests of Washington, DC's power elite, A. J. turns the international marketplace of tourism into a space of cultural resistance. Within ten pages he appears at Interzone's US Embassy, Cincinnati's Anti-Fluoride Society meeting. the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Chez Robert restaurant (presumably in Paris), Venice, and a New York nightclub (122-31). Targeting tourist attractions and sites of commodified leisure, A.J. disrupts them by mingling elements from disparate locales: on the opening night atilt Metropolitan Opera, his introduction of a semi-mythical aphrodisiac from Columbia, the Xiucutil grasshopper, leads to an orgy: at Venice's Piazza San Marco he traumatizes conventional tourists with a cutlass, a "huge reproduction of a Greek urn topped by a gold statue of a boy with an erection" which spurts champagne, and a gigantic barge, "a monstrous construction in gilt and pink and blue with sails of purple velvet" (137).
Nevertheless, hybridity can have different ideological articulations, and in Burroughs's case, the "Third Space" is an American West--as fantasized by the middle class--rearticulated in global terms. Burroughs supports cultural intermixture and the breakdown of hierarchies as long as the result is a specifically American, middle-class vision of idealized individual autonomy. For a striking example of such creative individualism. I would point to Dr. Benway, Naked Lunch's model of the free professional, trading his services on the global marketplace and dissolving national borders in the process. While Benway has been described by generations of critics as an embodiment of George Orwell's Big Brother, he is clearly an anti-bureaucrat. (6) Interzone's nationalist Party Leader doesn't want to enlist Benway's services because he "might do almost anything. ... Turn a massacre into a sex orgy" (112). Similarly, in an operating-room scene Benway makes a comical defense of professional autonomy against organizational control, or what might be called medical deskilling. When the nurse asks him if a tool should be sterilized, Benway responds,
Very likely but there's no time. ... You young squirts couldn't lance a pimple without an electronic vibrating scalpel with automatic drain and suture. ... Soon we'll be operating by remote control on patients we never see. ... We'll be nothing but button pushers. All the skill is going out of surgery ... All the know-how and make-do. ... Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can?" (55)
Kicked out of the country of Annexia after a bloody fight involving an operating table and a baboon, Benway turns Freeland's bureaucratic order into chaos, escapes Freeland to become a ship's doctor for the entrepreneur Hassan O'Leary, and finally takes a position with Interzone's nebulous organization Islam, Inc., which, significantly, is run by A. J.
In short, I think that critics have misread Naked Lunch's introduction of Benway as a "manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control" (20). This passage refers to Benway's amoral autonomy, not his service to the state, and indeed Benway uses his manipulation of symbol systems to disrupt state planning. As Morgan points out, Naked Lunch's Freeland Republic functions as a caricature of the "cradle-to-grave welfare state" (268) Burroughs despised so mightily. It would therefore be redundant to argue, citing Foucault, that the inmates form a reverse discourse when they escape the Reconditioning Center and rampage over the globe, since the counter-discourse is precisely Benway's. While Culler's conventional tourists function as the "unsung armies of semiotics" converting "cities, landscapes and cultures" (155) into orderly sign systems, Benway engineers a system of counter-tourism that dissolves this implicitly liberal-pluralist world:
By plane, car, horse, camel, elephant, tractor, bicycle and steam roller, on foot, skis, sled, crutch and pogo-stick the tourists storm the frontiers, demanding with inflexible authority asylum from the "unspeakable conditions obtaining in Freeland," the Chamber of Commerce striving in vain to stem the debacle: "Please to be restful. It is only a few crazies who have from the crazy place out broken." (41-42)
If this passage presents difficulties of interpretation--since the "crazies" are now located in "all nations" (41), where exactly is "asylum" located?--it is because Benway has dissolved all national collectivities into a permanent revolution of forms, a postmodern frontier in which "Rock and Roll adolescent hoodlums ... shit on the floor of the United Nations and wipe their ass with treaties, pacts, alliances."
This vision of unregulated fluidity and heterogeneity is very far removed from the imperial power/knowledge formations that critics such as Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt have identified in European travel literature. Thus, one might plausibly argue that Burroughs's "focus on disruptive codes" (Edwards 171) not only erodes Orientalist binaries, but also subverts the master narrative of what Time owner Henry R. Luce famously called "the American century" (qtd. in Edwards 3). In Edwards's view, if the mainstream media tended to view Tangier and Morocco more generally as a degenerate, lawless space of Cold War intrigue, Burroughs
queers the American media's queering of Tangier by producing an antidote to the 'pure voice' of America: a series of broken signals imagined as illegible doodles that suggest a future community that might oppose the global culture of control associated with McCarthyist America as global force. (179)
But it is difficult to locate such a "future community" in Burroughs's early work. As we have seen, Burroughs's relationship to postwar American power was complex: he enjoyed what might be called an unregulated market of experience in the periphery of the world system, and his narratives extol a creative individualism enabled by this free global space.
In this view, while Burroughs's frontier libertarianism involved a critique of American foreign policy, his work nevertheless represents a globalized form of middle-class privilege, which entails a stake in the extension of the market system. Patricia Limerick has called attention to this aspect of frontier ideology, pointing to the way pioneers in the Old West tended to blame recalcitrant nature, hostile Indians, and especially the federal government for their hardships: "In effect, Westerners centralized their resentments much more effectively than the federal government centralized its powers" (44-45). "For Limerick, this makes the frontier an empire of innocence," as pioneers thereby disavowed the rapaciousness of their own economic activity. Burroughs's postmodern frontier works in a similar fashion. His stateless, perfectly mobile human being, whom in The Soft Machine he dubbed a "naked astronaut" (158), serves as a trope for a globalized empire of innocence, in which the middle-class traveler is not only blameless regarding the world's ills but actively oppressed by conspiratorial forces. For Burroughs, these oppressive forces include third-world nationalist movements and governments, which threaten to limit the traveler's ideal freedom. In short, if Burroughs's travel literature undermines the Orientalist binaries of civilization/savagery and adult/child, it accommodates American power by depoliticizing important political issues and transferring them to the logic of the global marketplace.
Indeed, in Burroughs's libertarian world, neocolonial children often behave like adults. Greg A. Mullins argues that during Burroughs's stay in North Africa, sex came to replace drugs as the primary way of transcending the boundaries of conventional selfhood: "The promiscuous mixing occasioned by sexual tourism became, for Burroughs, a metaphor for understanding Tangier as a space where national, religious, and cultural interests could be blurred and where unrestrained and proliferating desire could supplant bounded identities and ideologies" (69). Mullins's model of hybridity accords with my own reading of Burroughs's, but I would stress that such touristic desire was based on what we might call a globalized class privilege. For example, the political parties that sought to incorporate Tangier within the Moroccan nation in the 1950s were harsh critics of the absolute license enjoyed by tourists. In Pratt's terms, while Burroughs may have resisted the homogenizing "imperial eyes" of colonialism through a vision of sexual intermixture, Interzone was nevertheless a "contact zone," a social space where "cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination" (7). Such a perspective on third-world tourism does not entail the uncritical embrace of nationalist movements; as Said observes, they are capable of their own "despotisms" and "ungenerous ideologies" (Culture 54). Nevertheless, the Moroccan nationalists remind us that the global market was not free for everyone, and in some cases involved highly asymmetrical social relationships.
Burroughs does not critique such asymmetry, instead reserving his sharpest satire for officials and agents of the law who would place limits on the tourist's desire. In Naked Lunch, the Party Leader is one of the few characters who is not only clownish, but evil, in part because he wants to restrain sex tourism. Looking down on Interzone's Market from a balcony with other members of the Nationalist Party, the Party Leader remarks that what his country needs is "ordinary men and women going about their ordinary everyday tasks" (110), an expression of a commitment to conformity. When a "street boy" climbs over the railing, instead of expelling him, the Party Leader attempts to reason with him about his trade. "What do you think about the French ... the Colonial bastards who is sucking your live corpuscles?" he asks, to which the boy responds, "Look mister. It cost two hundred francs to suck my corpuscle. Haven't lowered my rates since the year of the rindpest when all the tourists died, even the Scandinavians." Clearly the boy is a prostitute who services tourists, one of whom is an American.
"Uhuh ... Well I got a date with a high-type American client. A real classy fellah." P. L.: "Don't you know it's shameful to peddle your ass to the alien unbelieving pricks?" "Well that's a point of view Have fun." P. L.: "Likewise." Exit boy. "They're hopeless I tell you. Hopeless." (112)
This pivotal scene upsets the common model of Burroughs as a defier of oppressive social orders, suggesting that he himself could impose such an order on others. If we pay careful attention to the sociohistorical context of his fiction, narratives of resistance against all forms of domination start to appear equivocal--not, obviously, committed to the direct extension of Western territorial control, but rather to the global extension of a free-market ideology. It is easy enough for contemporary readers to be amused by the dissolution of the Freeland Republic., that culturally homogenous nation in the industrial core of the world system, but Burroughs took the same oppositional stance toward governments in the periphery. Harris writes that Burroughs received a "political education" during his travel in South America (Introduction xxx), linking The Yage Letters with Che Guevara's tale of the road. The Motorcycle Diaries (xxviii). In a similar fashion, Edwards likens Burroughs to Frantz Fanon, arguing that his "sympathetic attitude toward Maghrebi independence" was complicated by a concern for just forms of postcolonial government: "the problem (as Fanon also sensed within the Algerian revolution) is whether that which will follow revolution will replicate the established order" (172). In my view, Burroughs's attitude toward revolution has little in common with Guevara's, or with Fanon's concern for a national "collective consciousness" based on "enlightened and coherent praxis" (144). On the contrary, when Burroughs narrated a revolt against oppression in a third-world country, he cast the figure of resistance as a heroic tourist, enabled by technology such as the instant camera and tape recorder.
For example, The SO Machine's central chapter, "The Mayan Caper," recodes a Central American revolution as a lone individual's battle against a unified system of control. In 1944 Guatemala contested neoimperialism when the First successful revolution in the country's history overthrew the dictator Jorge Ubico. After several years of factional conflict, the minister of war, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, won the presidency with 65 percent of the popular vote. Arbenz's land reforms drew hostility from institutions such as the American corporation United Fruit, which dominated Guatemala's infrastructure and owned almost half its land while enjoying a virtually tax-free status. Predictably, United Fruit began to push for US intervention against a "communist" regime, which included a mass-media campaign as well as lobbying in Washington, D. C. Arbenz successfully resisted a counterrevolution engineered by the CIA in 1954, but lost the support of the army when he attempted to form a militia from Mayan workers and peasants; he was then ousted in a coup that installed a new dictator. As the historian Walter LaFeber concludes, "Guatemala had fully returned to the system. Its industrial and agricultural diversification stopped. The coffee oligarchy and UFCO were reestablished" (125).
This social history of Central American revolution informs "The Mayan Caper," whose protagonist is under assignment by a TV program to deliver a spectacular tale of adventure. He travels to Mexico to study the ancient Mayans, who "lived in what is now Yucatan, British Honduras, and Guatemala" (86). According to Burroughs, the ancient Mayan empire was the ultimate totalitarian society, where subjectivity was molded by the power/knowledge system of a small caste of priests. They "possessed one of the most precise and hermetic control calendars ever used on this planet," he suggested, "a calendar that in effect controlled what the populace did thought and felt on any given day" (Job 28). After his study of ancient Mayan culture, the narrator has an operation in which his body is split in half and combined with that of a contemporary Mayan worker. A1though he claims that he thereby becomes a "composite being" "thoughts and memories of the young Mayan drifting through [his] brain" (90), what results is not so much a transcultural self as an empowered tourist who uses his hybrid qualities for subterfuge. He pays a "time guide" (91) to have himself transported backward in history, where he works in the cornfields of the ancient Mayan Empire, evading telepathic surveillance by "turn[ing] on the thoughts of a half-witted young Indian" (94).
In the narrator's strategic adoption of a Mayan persona, it is hard not to see an allusion to CIA skullduggery, implying that Burroughs has rewritten the ostensibly communist Arbenz regime as a pre-Columbian totalitarian one. However, if the story has elements of a Cold War allegory, that allegory is not directly aligned with the interests of Washington, DC; in fact, Burroughs equates the Mayan empire not with Second or Third World socialist governments, but rather with the "police organization" of Henry Luce, the owner of Time and Life magazine ("Art" 35). Instead,"The Mayan Caper"'s vision of freedom reflects Burroughs's conception of the global marketplace as a liminal space where the Western traveler can evade bureaucratic control. This autonomy involves the creative use of consumer gadgetry, as the protagonist goes back in time equipped with a "small tape recorder," a "transistor radio concealed in a clay pot" (91), and a "camera gun" (97) that can mix images with "radio static"--devices which do not really distinguish him from any traveling journalist or tourist, but which make him almost superhuman in the context of ancient Maya. In a parody of Fordist bureaucracy, the priests themselves do not know how their "control system" really works: "I undoubtedly knew more about it than they did as a result of my intensive training and studies--The technicians who had devised the control system had died out" (95). Burroughs's criticism of this regime is not so much that it enforced a rigid social hierarchy, but rather that it snuffed out individual creativity.
Accordingly, the ensuing rebellion does not involve group action on the part of the oppressed peasants, but rather the manipulation of the dominant symbol system by a resistant individual. The protagonist's "disguise as a mental defective" (94) allows him to carry on an affair with a priest, which gives him access to the calendars and codices that control the field workers. He then disrupts the routines of the agricultural society with "sound and image track rebellion" (96) that parallels the rampage of Benway's Rock and Roll adolescent hoodlums:
Inexorably as the machine had controlled thought feeling and sensory impressions of the workers, the machine now gave the order to dismantle itself and kill the priests--I had the satisfaction. of seeing the overseer pegged out in the field, his intestines perforated with hot planting sticks and crammed with corn--I broke out my camera gun and rushed the temple--This weapon takes and vibrates images to radio static--You see the priests were nothing but word and image, an old film rolling on and on with dead actors--Priests and temple guards went up in silver smoke as blasted my way into the control room and burned the codices--Earthquake tremors under my feet I got out of there fast, blocks of limestone raining all around me--A great weight fell from the sky, winds of the earth whipping palm trees to the ground--Tidal waves rolled over the Mayan control calendar. (97)
If this sounds like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), George Lucas's film is also an homage to the adventure serials of the 1930s and '40s into which Burroughs has arguably spliced himself. Despite the conclusion's demotic reference to liberated workers, the hero of "The Mayan Caper" is finally a lone frontiersman with his equipment belt.
The narrative thus displaces American power only to reinscribe it, erasing Guatemalan politics and history. For Mayan peasants and workers of the 1950s, the notion that the state is inherently panoptic and controlling is simply false. But Burroughs collapses the distinction between a US-supported dictator and a democratically elected nationalist willing to arm peasants to fight against a CIA-funded insurrection. "The Mayan Caper" flattens out the complexities of the struggle among United Fruit, the American government, and the Guatemalan government, fusing these institutions into a single system of control that is defeated by a heroic individualist. Burroughs's world-systemic hybrid resists incorporation into any larger collectivity or diachronic national narrative, but his subversive freedom is actually based upon the global power of the US economy, as his Mayan identity and his ticket to the past are bought with a "brief case of bank notes" (91) provided by the Evening News. Hence, the TV message that follows the narrator's trip, which is intended to disrupt the complacency of the Cold War audience, has no political content. Instead of jarring viewers into an awareness of how their buying patterns are connected to larger social and political forces, the message promotes a libertarian freedom that is impossible to distinguish from a self-help slogan: "I am here to tell you what I saw--And to tell you how such time trips are made--It is a precise operation--It is difficult--It is dangerous--It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply--But it belongs to anyone who has the courage and know-how to enter--It belongs to you" (85).
If one is tempted to read Burroughs ironically here, consider that Nova Express bases its apparently earnest vision of global rebellion upon the same market-oriented, hyper-individualist model. The first chapter's use of the loaded term "adolescent gooks" (22) does not lead to insight into the dynamics of imperialism and the history of a particular developing country such as Vietnam. Rather, Nova Express's central episode of resistance involves the Subliminal Kid "t[aking] over bars cafes and juke boxes of the world cities," projecting film and sound at "arbitrary intervals" so that "nobody knew whether he was in a Western movie in Hongkong or The Aztec Empire in Ancient Rome or Suburban America" (155-56). The result is the same kind of chaotic free play stimulated by Benway in the Freeland Republic, and by the tourist" adventurer in Ancient Maya: "The People-City pulsed in a vast orgasm and no one knew what was film and what was not and performed all kinda sex acts on every street corner" (157). Against Lydenberg's argument that Nova Express envisions "a new time and a new -space, a morning beyond the boundaries of the city, the body, and the page" (113), we can read the novel's climax in light of Fernand Braudel's assertion that "each time decentering occurs, a recentering takes place" (qtd. in McCormick 1). The only difference between the Nova Mob's scheme to turn Earth people into "Paralyzed Orgasm Addicts" (159) and the protagonist Hassan i Sabbah's liberation of his followers in sexual immersion tanks (164-65) is that the former involves bureaucratic control and standardization, while the latter privileges the creative imagination of a free individual. In both cases, all of Earth's culture is conceived us as manipulable fragments. From this perspective, what at first might look like resistance--to colonial cultural hierarchies, to state control and national homogeneity--looks like accommodation, a globalized form of American exceptionalism in which the marketplace transcends social inequality and class conflict.
Globalizing Burroughs: the marketplace and social justice
What is the cultural legacy of Burroughs's early avant-garde work? While the Retaking the Universe critics are surely right that Burroughs has stimulated an enormous amount of cultural creativity, such creativity has not necessarily been anticapitalist in its orientation. Writing in Wired magazine in July 2005, for example, William Gibson describes his excitement when he first learned about Burroughs's "cut-up" method, calling it a "recombinant" activity "all of us" engage in: we actively participate in cultural forms such as "genre-warping Ian fiction from the universes of Star Trek or Buffy, or (more satisfying by far) both at once, the Jarjar-less Phantom Edit (sound of an audience voting with its fingers), brand-hybrid athletic shoes." It might seem ironic that Gibson directly connects Nova Express's global call for resistance against "Fear Death and Monopoly" (15) to people deleting scenes that feature Jar Jar Binks's character from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But for the historian Thomas Frank, Gibson's cultural narrative would be unsurprising. In Frank's view, the '50s Beats can take credit for being innovators in their formulation of a socially contrarian doctrine of free self-expression, but he emphasizes that their rebellion was always bound up with the latest advances in consumer technology:
The works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs remain the sine qua non of dissidence, the model for aspiring poets, rock stars, or indeed anyone who feels vaguely artistic or alienated. That frenzied sensibility of pure experience, life on the edge, immediate gratification, and total freedom from moral restraint, which the Beats first propounded back in those heady days when suddenly everyone could have their own TV and powerful V-8, has stuck with us through all the intervening years and become something of a permanent American style. ("Why" 33)
Corporate America has since appropriated Beat sensibility as a. marketing strategy Drawing on Jackson Lears, Frank's The Conquest of Cool (1997) argues that the paradigm of 1950s advertising, which emphasized science and rationalism, has given way to marketing strategies that encourage consumers to think of themselves as rebels. As he summarizes it in "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," the "countercultural idea"
holds that the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism, technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian (31). ... [But] the countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new. (34)
For Frank, Burroughs's 1994 advertisement for Nike, in which he endorsed the Air Max 2 tennis shoe, is exemplary of this "confluence of capital and counterculture": "As expertly as Burroughs once bayoneted American proprieties, as stridently as he once proclaimed himself beyond the laws of man and God, he is today a respected ideologue of the Information Age" (36).
Frank's argument returns us to the notion that Burroughs is not a critic of capitalism per se, but specifically of capitalism in its bureaucratic, Fordist form, which in the 1950s involved rigid bureaucracies devoted to standardized products and clonelike consumers. Much Burroughs criticism still views global capitalism as an imposer of standardized consciousness, but as David Harvey and many others have emphasized, this is not at all what capitalism looks like today. Indeed, from a globalized perspective, Burmughs's fiction can be read precisely as advocating a shift in regimes of accumulation--from Fordism to the decentered and fluid model Harvey terms "flexible accumulation," based upon "difference, ephemerality, spectacle, fashion, and the commodification of cultural forms" (156). Given the contemporary plethora of niche markets and "lifestyle" choices, especially since the rise of the Internet, perhaps it is only slightly hyperbolic to assert that mainstream culture is no longer the Bland New World of Fordism, but rather has come to resemble the playful world of Interzone. In this view, the creative self-expression that Burroughs discovered on the margins of the 1950s tourist industry has since become the dominant ethos of economic globalization.
For critics who call upon Burroughs to help us resist the control mechanisms of global capital, to make the above point is necessarily to discredit him. But I would question the terms of the debate, which presuppose that economic globalization is an unmitigated evil, and assume that consumer culture is bad without fully explaining why it is bad. There is a tension in the logic of globalization, expressed by Fredric Jameson when he writes
As far as taste is concerned, ... culturally I write as a relatively enthusiastic consumer of postmodernism, at least of some parts of it: I like the architecture and a lot of the newer visual work, in particular the newer photography The music is not bad to listen to, or the poetry to read. (Postmodernism 298)
To be sure, Jameson distinguishes mere taste from the more important critical tasks of analysis (which investigates "the historical conditions of possibility of specific forms") and evaluation (which "interrogate[s] the quality of social life itself by way of the text or individual work of art"). But taste can nonetheless slide into what sounds like evaluation--"food and fashion have also greatly improved, as has the life world generally" (298-99)--a position that doesn't eaily comport with his reminder
that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror. (5)
To discuss the contemporary implications of Burroughs's early work is precisely to explore this tension in Jameson. David Banash has shown that Burroughs was hardly squeamish about avant-garde art's imbrication in the marketplace (See Banash,"Advertising"). As he told the Paris Review in 1965, I see no reason why the artistic world can't absolutely merge with Madison Avenue. Pop art is a move in that direction. Why can't we have advertisements with beautiful words and beautiful images?" ("Art" 29). Burroughs here offers a perspective on his later Nike advertisement, one which goes beyond any debate about opportunistic selling out versus covert subversion. If the ad lacks the revolutionary gloss of Nova Express's opening chapter, its images of vigorous male athletes (accompanied by Burroughs speaking from a laptop computer) retain the emphasis on a multiracial, globalized force of youth. Moreover, as Murphy observes, "What is novel here is the fact that this is an overtly homosexual eroticism, a male gaze unabashedly objectifying (mostly) male bodies" (230). For Murphy, Burroughs's objectifying gaze exposes corporate duplicity:
[The ad] retrospectively reveals the homosocial desire underpinning even the supposedly "innocent"--that is, acceptably competitive and heterosexual--adoration middle-class boys have for sports stars. Burroughs's perspective on and in the ads brings to the surface the disavowed desire from which sports industries profit even as they and many of their customers deny it.
But I'm not sure I see the hypocrisy; even a powerful corporation cannot change generations of prejudice overnight, although certain sectors of the economy have made fast strides nonetheless. For example, thirteen years after Nike's enlistment of Burroughs, Emporio Armani ran openly homoerotic advertisements featuring the global soccer star David Beckham, a married man who stated that he was flattered to be a gay icon. The blatant commercialism of this accommodation might seem crass, but to adopt a disparaging view would be to hold Beckham, Armani, and pop culture in general to high standards that Burroughs himself often disregarded. As Burroughs reminded us in 1983,
the past 40 years has seen a worldwide revolution without precedent owing to the mass media. ... Tremendous progress has been made in leading ordinary people to confront these issues which now crop up in soap operas. Gay and junky are household words. Believe me, they were not household words 40 years ago. (qtd. in. Banash, "Advertising") (7)
Burroughs, then, can be credited with helping to foster a cultural diversity that starkly contrasts with the monochrome mainstream of the 1950s. Yet at the same time, social conditions in America have arguably worsened since the 1950s, as income inequality is now at its highest level since the years preceding the Great Depression. How can it be that our world is getting so much better and so much worse? Jameson, I think, does not fully answer this question, perhaps because of the limitations of Marx's two-class model of capitalist society But if we consider that one of the major productive engines of late capitalism and postmodern culture is a globalizing professional-managerial class, then we might more fully explain the concurrent improvement and debasement of our life world. Dean MacCannell identified not the proletariat (wage laborers), but rather the salaried middle class as the world's revolutionary class, transforming the globe through its creative energy, mobility, and technology. (8) But while he imagined a Durkheimian collective consciousness emerging from this global mobility--a "gift of shared notice" (13), exchanged during leisure time, that would overcome the fragmentation of the division of labor--what has happened is just the opposite, as an empowered segment of this middle class, trading its services on the global market, has sought to secede from any collective. In a word, one of our major social problems in the twenty-first century is not too much state control but rather the antistatist ideology of many global elites, who envision negative liberty in a stateless cosmopolitan space. (9)
In this view, the pernicious aspect of capitalism's new global frontier might be symbolized by Nike's logo of an airborne man. While it obviously refers to the basketball star Michael Jordan, it also might serve to represent the sort of global picaro we see in Burroughs's four major novels of the 1950s and '60s. Both Nike's ads and Burroughs's narratives define a hyper-individualistic self liberated from a complex web of social relationships. Burroughs can thus be seen as contributing to the neoliberal ideology that defines the state's role as entirely limited to enabling and protecting multinational enterprise. In a word, a government must protect sweatshop workers from exploitation, or children from the sexual depredations of tourists, or peasants from the machinations of a corporation such as United Fruit. But Burroughs's vision of "complete freedom" on the "last frontier" allows no positive role for government, or indeed for any social bond outside of the workings of the global market. As he stated in his 1969 manifesto The Job, "To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, country talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk" (7). Such thinking not only deprecates the achievements of European social democracies and the American welfare state, but leaves the impoverished global South open to the exploitation of the North.
In attempting to think through Burroughs's early work from a global perspective, I do not mean to suggest that he will necessarily be discredited as readers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America become increasingly aware of, and able to respond to, his representations of them. As of this writing, Naked Lunch has just been translated into Mandarin Chinese for the first time, and who knows what syncretic visions his book will stimulate? (10) Nevertheless, we should not assume that Burroughs's work will be perceived only as liberatory, and we will risk paving an ideological one-way street if we do not balance our admiration for his innovative art with a critical view of its relationship to colonial history and global inequality. (11)
I am grateful to Michael P Clark, Richard Godden, and Marshall Brown for their insightful criticism of this essay. Tweruictli-Century Literature's reviewers Micheal Sean Bolton and Christopher Breu offered helpful suggestions for improvement. I would like to thank Oliver Harris for clarifying an issue regarding Burroughs's letters, and Rob Johnson for providing additional detail about Burroughs's South Texas farm.
Banash, David. "From Advertising to the Avant-Garde: Rethinking the Invention of Collage." Postmodern Culture 14.2 (2004), 3 March 2013.
__. "Globalizing William S. Burroughs," Review of Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization. Postmodern Culture 16.2 (2006). 3 March 2013.
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(1.) In using the term "postmodern" to describe Burroughs's art and arguing that he largely shares in the postmodern flight from politics. I diverge from Murphy's important study of Burroughs's oeuvre, Wising Up the Marks. Murphy argues that Burroughs's career can be divided into a modern phase, in which he criticized state control and mass culture in Adornoesque fashion; a postmodern phase, characterized by the linguistic experimentation of the cut-up trilogy; and a late a modern phase, which hearkens back to Burroughs's early novel Queer (unpublished until 1985) in its imagination of revolutionary communities. Although Murphy's analysis is thorough and theoretically sophisticated, I find much of it unconvincing, especially his likening Burroughs's social critique to Marxist thought. On the contrary. I think Burroughs is best seen as a radical individualist who explored various articulations of this individualism throughout his career, and that he was creatively engaged with global capitalism, not opposed to it. Although the late trilogy is outside this essay's scope, I would make this argument about a work such as Cities of the Red Night (1981), whose eighteenth-century pirates defeat the colonial empires by being better businessmen than the Europeans, as the narrator Noah Blake makes clear: "[Captain] Strobe glanced through some notes: 'We can, of course, undersell Eastern opium ... and no doubt various other products such as tea, silk, and spices. But our most powerful monopoly is sugar and rum. Europe will pay our price for sugar" (105, author's ellipsis). This global business strategy is accompanied by a drug-fueled consumerism that, to risk hyperbole, comes off as an eighteenth-century version of Club Med: "My appetite was sharpened by hashish and I was the better able to savor the excellent repast: clams and oysters baked on hot coals with a dry white wine, wild turkey, pigeons, venison with a vintage Bordeaux, yams, corn, squash, and beans, avocadoes. mangoes, oranges, and coconuts" (105). Perhaps we could say that in his late work, Burroughs replaced the radical individualists of his early fiction with groups of such individualists--essentially like-minded creative thinkers, artists, and technicians, enjoying a kind of professional liberation outside state regulation. While this vision of liberation departs from the cultural logic of European colonialism, it is based upon the thoroughly American and middle-class ideal of the frontier, and represents an escape from politics and history. As Burroughs writes of the pirates' alternative society in the introduction to Cities of the Red Night,
Imagine such a movement on a world-wide scale [in the 1700s]. ... Any man would have the right to settle in any area of his choosing. The land would belong to those who used it. No white-man boss, no Pukka Sahib, no Patrons, no colonists. The escalation of mass production and concentration of population in urban areas would be halted, for who would work in their factories and buy their products when he could live from the fields and the sea and the lakes and the rivers in areas of unbelievable plenty? (xiv)
This is not Marxism but rather a radical articulation of the "safety valve" theory. an American theory much older than Frederick Jackson Turner, which Burroughs now pitches at a global level.
(2.) Burroughs's writing about his South American travels in 1953 appeared in various little magazines from 1958 onward, before seeing book form in The Yage Letters (1963). However, his concluding letter of July 10, 1953, which in effect announces the advent of Interzone, did not appear in The Yage Letters until the second edition in 1975 (that is, earlier Burroughs used his most important yage material for Naked Lunch). The following quotations from Ginsberg are from a journal entry that Ginsberg made in 1960, which was included in Harris's new edition of The Yage Letters, The Yage Letters Redux (2006). See Harris's "Not Burroughs' Final Fix" for an account of the extremely complicated publication history of this key document in the Burroughs oeuvre.
(3.) Of course "Old Bull Lee's historical periodization is different than that of Turner, who followed the US Census in claiming that the frontier closed in 1890.
(4.) Indeed, Johnson goes in the opposite direction, stating that Burroughs's post-Texas intellectual development was oriented toward a quasi-socialistic, communal ideal (79-80). As I argue elsewhere in this essay, I find this claim for the communal forced, certainly in regard to the early work, but also for the late work as well. Where Naked Lunch is concerned, the claim involves putting an enormous amount of weight upon a single passage, that which follows the Talking Asshole routine: "Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organisms. (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow ... )" (134). The passage has no clear program for such a cooperative, and it explicitly identifies the state, not capitalism, as the major embodiment of humanity's bureaucratic enemy. Something of this critical confusion finds its way into Johnson's otherwise excellent book, as he indicates that Burroughs's endorsement of communes in the 1980s was prefigured by his early profit-sharing plans in South Texas. "When he made a profit, Burroughs says in a letter to Allen Ginsberg, he shared it with the workers, a cooperative business practice that would have made the local farmers suspicious of him and even angry" (17). But this practice is only mentioned in Burroughs's May 1, 1950 letter to Ginsberg, and it is not clear whether it was a nice idea that was never put into practice, or whether it merely involved transactions with business partners such as Kells Elvins. Certainly profit-sharing did not involve the Mexican laborers who did the real work, as Johnson makes patent elsewhere: "it was thus all too easy for men like kens and Burroughs to act the part of landed gentry, complete with dark-skinned workers doing all of the real labor at slave wages" (162).
(5.) Timothy Melley associates Burroughs with many postmodern American novelists who, rather than deconstructing the self, seek "extraordinary individual autonomy" (4). This quest for extraordinary autonomy is arguably Derrida's as well, but certainly in Burroughs's case the goal is more obvious and straightforward.
(6.) Benway performed this subversive role throughout his career, which extends from "Twilight's Last Gleaming," where he performs surgery while smoking a cigarette (this story was written in 1938, although not published until 1964 in Nova Express), to his anachronistic advisory visit to the pirate-frontiersmen in Cities of the Red Night (1.04).
(7.) At times, Frank also identities this broadening of the cultural lifeworld as tremendous progress. Stressing that management gurus and advertisers anticipated the cultural ferment of the later Sixties, Frank sometimes seems to valorize the energy and innovation of these forebears, rather than associating them with the violence of "conquest." In his later One Market Under God (2000), Frank makes his criticism of the new American business model more clear: it is not commercial culture per se that he finds malignant, but rather the antistatist ideology of the new professionals, and especially the way ex-Sixties radicals have made a kind of unholy alliance with neoliberal icons who preach against the constraints of the American welfare state. Burroughs strikes me as the archetype of this convergence of free-market libertarianism with counter-cultural antistatism, even down to his taste in newspaper columnists; as Johnson explains, in the late 1940s he was a fan of the pundit Westbrook Pegler, a print-based predecessor of white male conservatives on today's radio and TV such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh (see Johnson, 103-104, 107-108).
(8.) See MacCannell, 17-38. This paragraph also draws on Robert Reich's The Work of Nations (1991), an illuminating analysis of globalizing professionals, or "symbolic analysts," and their politics.
(9.) Bruce Robbins's recent essays on this topic have been especially provocative, as he argues that the primary task of artists and intellectuals is to imagine (or, in Jamesonian terms, "cognitively map") forms of border-crossing empathy and human association that can enable the formation of a global welfare state. Robbins makes the valuable point that at the governmental level, society can benefit from the bureaucratic in that Burroughs relentlessly criticized (254-55). A few years after Postmodernism, Jameson also supported the welfare state in "Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue"; indeed the critique of antistatism seems to provide common ground for a wide spectrum of contemporary scholars.
(10.) (William, Burroughs) (2009).
(11.) To support this assertion, I will relate a (slightly traumatic) personal anecdote from my global search for an academic position. At a university in South Korea, I gave a job talk based upon material in this essay. Some members of the audience seemed nonplussed, and one respondent was genuinely disturbed by my presentation; in her view, the quote from a letter to Kerouac, in which Burroughs envisioned a Mexican "hacienda full of servants" (Letters 78), was "very strong," and she asked (here I paraphrase from memory): "I didn't find your talk convincing; can you really say that Burroughs redeems himself in the end?" I was dismayed, since I saw myself as going against the mainstream of Burroughs criticism by linking his narratives to the unsavory aspects of American-led globalization. But I think this audience response was a salutary lesson for me, as the nuanced points I wanted to make about Burroughs's life and art may have struck my Korean interlocutor as a sheer evasion of the fundamental, life-and-death implications of Burroughs's racist statements. If they are serious about viewing Burroughs as a liberatory revolutionary artist, I think critics need to take such responses into account.
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|Title Annotation:||William S. Burroughs|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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