- Wising Up The Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs
Timothy S. Murphy provides a convincing argument for the prominence of Burroughs in the American literary canon. Employing the major works of Bruno Latour, Theodor Adorno, and Antonio Negri, Murphy constructs an amodern trajectory that amplifies the “failure of modernist ends” and contests the inadequacies of Lyotardian/ Baudrillardian postmodernisms which offer “no way out of the system of domination that constitutes the present social order.” The amodern Burroughs, then, attempts to “wise up the marks” in order to release an addicted populace from the physiological, linguistic, and social control of blighted market networks. Murphy constructs a Burroughs [End Page 507] whose commitment to social change spans from Junky to the puzzling Nike commercials featuring William Burroughs.
But what, precisely, constitutes the amodern? Murphy offers two useful quotes to describe this potentially explosive term, but the direct connections between Burrovian texts and amodern conventions are often equivocal. The amodern program, Murphy argues, entails an Ellisonian “plan of living” outside of the western cultural arena where “[n]othing is true, everything is permitted.” Burroughs and other amodernists, by functioning from interstitial regions of the social matrix, make the invisible lie visible and “further the production of subject-groups that can extend the differences that already fissure the capitalist socius into irreparable cracks.” Murphy’s approach falls short under the rubric of amodernism because he does not make clear the connections between chapter 1, “Invisibility and Amodernism,” and Burroughs’s texts. Instead, Murphy completes Wising Up the Marks by cataloguing Burroughs’s audio and video collaborations.
But Murphy hits the mark in his readings of Burroughs the cut-up activist and contestant against the postmodern impasse. His reading of the Nova Trilogy—The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express—effectively depicts a Burroughs at the height of his stylistic capabilities, and his apt historicization of the cut-up experiments aids in a much greater understanding of this influential technique. As Murphy explains, the cut-up technique distorts language and time by “cutting-up” texts, splicing them together, and reproducing them in a variety of new arrangements. The reproductions of cut-up texts presumably allow readers momentary “atemporal” and “averbal” freedom, and the resulting cognition of time/word control systems purportedly prompts a desire in the reader to take the role of agent.
Author-shedding processes like cut-up had been used earlier by William Faulkner, Tristan Tzara, and a variety of visual artists, but Burroughs realizes the social possibilities of cut-up in the chapter of The Soft Machine entitled “The Mayan Caper.” Though Murphy emphasizes that time control in Burroughs’s cut-up texts is “based initially on his analysis of the Mayan calendar and caste system,” he does not explain the centrality of “The Mayan Caper” to the Nova Trilogy. The Mayan section of The Soft Machine provides a guide to the trilogy and a reference point from which to decipher The Wild Boys. Perhaps Murphy’s [End Page 508] rare mention of this chapter can be attributed to his attempts to avoid the Burrovian proclivity toward violence.
Burroughs’s vivid descriptions of armed insurgency and anarchy, like those of addiction and homosexuality, only accentuate his suspect, amodern status. Literary agents and saboteurs like Inspector J. Lee occupy the amodern Interzone for the possibility for organized rejection of the culture industry described by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text much-cited by Murphy. In evading Burroughs’s misogynistic behaviors, NRA membership, and other “intolerable” deeds, Murphy circumvents a central point in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Horkheimer and Adorno sought to show how western culture created prototypical human-behavior models from which one may not deviate without becoming a pariah—like Burroughs. It is precisely Burroughs’s intolerability that makes him amodern. Unavoidably, Burroughs was fascinated with the idea of insurgency. In his dreams of wild boys and saboteurs, “Rock and Roll adolescent hoodlums storm the streets of all nations. They rush into the Louvre and throw acid in the Mona...