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Canadian Review of American Studies/ Revue canadienne d'etudesam/mcaines Volume 29, Number l, 1999, pp. 89-111 Cultural Paranoia, Conspiracy Plots, and the American Ideology: William Burroughs's Cities of the Red Night Barbara Rose 89 During his self-imposed exile in Mexico City, William Burroughs was known locally as el hombre invisible: the invisible man. Yet this purposely nondescript identity, as Robin Lydenberg observes, was paradoxical (1991, 233). With the help ofJackKerouac, Burroughs was notorious before he was famous: he first entered Beat mythology not as a writer of experimental texts bur as a member of an underground world of drugs, guns, sex, and crime. The Beats, moreover, were in many ways a creation of the media, who hounded Kerouac, giving him literary celebrity rather than literary fame. Burroughs, too, became a sensational figure when Naked Lunch (1962) became a cause celebre. Because of the notoriety of his subject matter and the eccentricity of his techniques, he has until recently often been rejected as an American writer worthy of consideration. But his official status is changing as his novels increasingly appear on the university syllabus, more biographies are published, and a much publicized film is made of his most famous novel. It is precisely Burroughs's continuing reputation as a literary outlaw, however , that suggests he is more in the mainstream of American culture than some of his readers would like to acknowledge. In the early 1990s, the Beat 90 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadzerme d'etudes amertcames Generation joined the Pepsi Generation, writes Geoff Ward with some contempt, when their images again became fashionable; but this time they were not used to boost the circulation of Lifemagazine but to sell blue jeans: Pepe Jeans, dearly anxious to replicate the image and hence the sales of the market leader, Levi's 501s, are sponsors of a monochrome 1950sstyle ad in which a male model, bearing an uncanny resemblance to James Dean, alternates sulky and appealing poses for the camera as the voice-over intones the closing lines of a poem by Ginsberg from the Howl era ... Burroughs and Ginsberg are seen fleetingly at the start of this piece of commercial nostalgia, photographed thirty years ago in Tangier. (1993, 339) The advertisement may be tasteless, but it does suggest that Burroughs is a writer not at the culture's fringe. Nearly thirty years ago, Tony Tanner discussed Burroughs's early texts as participating in the "well-established American dream of freedom from conditioning forces" (1971, 134). Burroughs is not a peripheral figure, argues Tanner, but a writer squarely at the centre of American culture, specifically the American tradition of conspiracy-paranoia. Tanner's essay has been largely neglected by subsequent discussions of Burroughs's work most likely because of its uncomfortable implications: the paranoia so characteristic of Burroughs's novels might be, in the context of American society, conventional rather than radical. As this essay will argue, conspiracy-paranoia performs a recuperative function-an ideological maneuvre whose far-reaching consequences are not lost on Burroughs. Although certainly not unique to American culture, conspiracy-paranoia has not only a lengthy tradition in the New World, as both David Brion Davis (1971) and Richard Hofstadter (1965) make clear, but also a crucial function in the self-concept of America itself, as Michael Ragin (1987) emphasizes in his analysis of American political demonology. Conspiracyparanoia can be regarded as a subterranean element of the American ideology, what Sacvan Bercovitch terms the Myth of America, which conceives the New World as the predestined site of the millennium where history's utopian terminus will ultimately arrive. The "culture's controlling BarbaraRose I 91 metaphor," according to Bercovitch, is '"America' as synonym for human possibility" (1993, 367). But conspiracy theories are brought to bear when American exceptional ism is undermined: if the millennial plot fails to arrive at its telos, then a sinister counterplot must be the cause. 1 If knowledge is never merely "out there" to be gathered by the inquisitive and acquisitive individual, but is instead a product of social and power relations as Jean Foucault argues, then what can be known is ideologically structured, if not ideologically determined. In a provocative...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 89-111
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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