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  • Globalizing William S. Burroughs
  • David Banash
Review of: Schneiderman, Davis and Philip Walsh, Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization. London: Pluto, 2004.

Imagining the work of William S. Burroughs through emerging theories of globalization promises to keep an extraordinary and difficult body of multimedia excesses and provocations relevant for the new millennium. Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh have assembled an intriguing group of contributors, bringing together both established Burroughs scholars and many new voices, both critical and creative. In their introduction, Schneiderman and Walsh describe the aims and urgencies of this anthology:

These authors attack their material with enough energy to infuse the cogent issue—literary explication that moves beyond its own rarefied limits—with vital connections that present Burroughs’s work as a “blueprint” for identifying and resisting the immanent control mechanisms of global capital. Additionally, the editors come to this collection as children of Bretton Woods, of IMF and World Bank “structural adjustment” policies, of ballooning world debt, of globalizing “junk culture,” of a rapidly unfolding new imperialism, and a symbolic culture dominated by the logic of the commercial logo.


Hinting at the theoretical investments of the contributors, Schneiderman and Davis argue that “a key debate within globalization theory concerns the connection between globalization and ‘(post)modernity’” (3).

Jennie Skerl emphasizes the postmodern perspective in the “Forward.” She offers a concise but compelling reception history of Burroughs criticism. While readers and critics in the 1950s saw Burroughs as “a spiritual hero of an underground movement,” supporters and detractors of the 1960s argued the moral status of his work, yet both agreed that he was an apt reflection of a “sick society” (xi). After his popular reception by both academics and youth subcultures in the 1970s, the critics of the 1980s found in Burroughs a poststructuralist sensibility, for he seemed to be working through the same questions about language, power, and identity important to French theory. In the 1990s, critics Timothy S. Murphy and Jamie Russell “attempted comprehensive overviews” (xii) that situate Burroughs in the broad context of modernity. For Skerl, Retaking the Universe resolves at least one debate: “what is striking to this reader is the general agreement among authors in this collection that Burroughs’s moral and political position is clear: he opposes the sociopolitical control systems of late capitalism in the era of globalization, and his writing is a form of resistance” (xiii). What is perhaps even more interesting is just what globalization seems to mean to these Burroughs scholars. Skerl offers a concise formulation: “The essays in this volume read Burroughs within the context of theories about globalization and resistance. This perspective emphasizes Burroughs’s analysis of control systems, especially his theories of word and image control” (xiii). In essence, globalization means mediation. There are some interesting stakes in this perspective, for postmodern theory has been called into question often most adroitly by postcolonial critics who doubt its applicability to fraught questions of nation, gender, and capital. The Burroughs scholars in this collection seem poised to reanimate postmodern obsessions with media and representation in compelling ways made possible through the techniques and vocabularies of Burroughs, who always wrote from his global experience as an expatriate criminal.

“Theoretical Dispositions” is the first of three sections in the book, and, as the editors explain, it links “Burroughs’s articulation of global control systems that emerged in the post-World War II era with the dominant strands of twentieth century theory” (7). One might think that Burroughs’s major reception has been by readers so deeply invested in theory that this should be taken for granted. In a sense, this section provides a strong overview of Burroughs’s reception by academic critics of the past twenty years, especially in the first essay, “Shift Coordinate Points: William S. Burroughs and Contemporary Theory” by Allen Hibbard. As Hibbard notes, “Burroughs will continue to be a prime target of whatever new forms of the [theory] virus lie waiting to be born” (27). Timothy S. Murphy, perhaps the most influential of the newest generation of Burroughs scholars, contributes “Exposing the Reality Film: William S. Burroughs Among the Situationists.” He has discovered documents that put Burroughs in...

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