- Trafficking in the Void: Burroughs, Kerouac, and the Consumption of Otherness
Abjection—at the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion. . . . In abjection, revolt is completely within being. Within the being of language.—Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
Divulging his latest platform as crime-and-commie-busting director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover claimed at the 1960 Republican National Convention that “beatniks” were, alongside communists and liberal “eggheads,” one of the three greatest menaces to U.S. National Security (Morgan 289). Using “beat-nik” rather than “beat” to describe the group of writers, poets, and bohemians known as the Beat Generation, Hoover’s semantic slide—or push—seemed to implicate beat “niks” as petty communists who threatened to enervate America’s welfare. Both a terrible menace and a crude joke, the Beat Generation elicited similar disdain across a vast cultural front—from Hoover, mainstream culture, and “eggheads” alike.
Notorious for its resistance to conventional sexual and moral practices, the Beats’ literary solicitation of breaches and breakdowns [End Page 53] within the social fabric garnered obscenity charges for much of their written work. What these charges signified, according to the Supreme Court, was that their work itself was “patently offensive because it affront[ed] contemporary community standards” and that “the material [was] utterly without redeeming social value” (Burroughs, Naked Lunch viii). At issue was the imputation that the Beats radically and deliberately affronted firmly installed notions of decency and thus threatened to undermine the basic integrity of a nation that was already nervous about its internal security.
The broad aim of the following paper will be to examine this subversive element in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (1958, written in 1952), both of which faced obscenity charges or censorship in some form. 1 These two works confront, and seek to disrupt, what their authors considered to be a cultural environment in which individual identity had become inexorably bound up within stifling artistic, societal, and existential norms. Keeping in mind Judith Butler’s contention that “identity” itself operates not as a predeterminate ontological category but as a regulatory, and often oppressive, practice of cultural formation, I will argue that the two novels seek to “trouble” such regulatory practices within the context of the postwar U.S. 2 By casting the “self”—as the privileged signifier of narrative and cultural identity—into serious contention, they each attempt to drain identity of its fixity as a locus of coercive standards. In doing so, they also attempt to contest the very discursive practices of Cold War-era identity configuration themselves.
What troubles such efforts most immediately, however, is that the very idiom of dissent from these norms was prefabricated by a “liberal” intellegentsia with its own set of governing standards and expectations. Indeed, novels such as Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans were considered “obscene” by many of the “eggheads”—liberal intellectuals, literary critics, and scholars—in whose eyes their dissent was not formulated cogently enough to qualify their writing as truly “radical.” Both grotesque and stylistically discombobulated, this writing seemed so immersed in remonstrating the personal that it fell victim to a damning romance of the apolitical. Writers like Burroughs and Kerouac were little more than incoherent, and therefore obscene in the sense that they merely channeled the confusion of the society that distressed them (Jumonville 191). 3 Their confusion deviated distinctly from the [End Page 54] more lucidly formulated “pragmatism” of critics like Lionel Trilling, who argued that by introducing “alterity” and “conflict” as incorporable challenges to the mind of the individual, a true radical could be jostled free from the forces of conformity and repression which characterized Cold War normalcy. The Beats, however, scoured city streets in order to find alterity and conflict in the form of a racial, cultural, and ethnic minority, an anthropomorphized strategy of dissent by means of which incorporation and control became a calamitous impossibility.
However, any such means of evacuating a bankrupt subject position by identifying with the “otherness” of the American cultural margins ends up, as Burroughs and Kerouac realize with increasing distress, implicating themselves in the same process of normativity and...