- Introduction to Focus:Burroughs Now
"In the beginning was the word and the word was bullshit."— William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (1962)
In his short essay, "A Review of the Reviewers," the American pre-punk postmodern writer William S. Burroughs admits, "writing an honest book review is hard work." While sympathetic to the task of the book reviewer, Burroughs begins his "review" with an attack on critics who "constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards," but who themselves "seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism." Burroughs specially calls out professional literary critics Anatole Broyard and Philip Toynbee, who negatively reviewed Burroughs's Exterminator (1973) and Naked Lunch (1959) respectively. While they reviewed different books, one could easily switch Broyard's criticism with Toynbee's. It's easy to write a negative review, Burroughs concluded. So easy that he predicted a computer algorithm would eventually write them.
The longest run of negative reviews on Burroughs's work appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, where critics defended, or more often derided, his novel Dead Fingers Talk (1963). The initial review of the novel, written by John Willet, appeared on November 14, 1963 under the title "UGH." In his review, Willet asked if "there is a moral message" in Burroughs's text, and if so, "what if the moral message is itself disgusting." In the first review, Willet attacked the content of Burroughs's novel, and he concluded with a statement about the "probable impact on [the publisher John Calder's] reputation and indirectly that of the other authors on their list." This criticism continued throughout the fourteen-week correspondence, with critics like Edith Sitwell noting that she "does not wish to spend the rest of my life with my nose nailed to other people's lavatories." Using a similar analogy, Nicolas Bentley found that "the only direction The Naked Lunch … is likely to extend the boundaries of the novel form is towards the public lavatory." Most of Burroughs's contemporaries focused on the objectionable content in his work. Yet such criticism with its moral handwringing seems quaint now. As Burroughs noted in an essay published in Crawdaddy: "with the breakdown of censorship and the freeing of the Word, the New York Times has to print four-letter words used by the President of the United States." To read Burroughs as a writer that wrote four-letter words and obscene skits about talking assholes, as many of the early negative reviewers did, often overlooks the larger critique his writing makes on the developing communication technologies of the twentieth century.
Perhaps what we call obscene now is not the repression or censorship of speech, but its opposite: an incessant demand that we speak. Jean Baudrillard calls this new obscenity the "ecstasy of communication," in which "all events, all spaces, all memories are abolished in the sole dimension of information." If the production of information is what drives the post-industrial economy, then those that administer—or more importantly own and control—require more communication, not less. This "ecstasy of communication" is obscene in the sense that "there is a pornography of information … a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility." Burroughs seems especially aware of this ecstasy to communicate when he writes in his cut-up "novel," The Ticket That Exploded, how "modern man has lost the option for silence." "Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence," he writes, and "you will encounter a resisting organism forces you to talk." Burroughs, then, remains critical of what he calls the "word virus" and the institutions that use it to maintain total control.
Gilles Deleuze writes how Burroughs was one of the first writers to address the new societies of control. These societies, as Deleuze explains to Antoni Negri, operate "through continuous control and instant communication." We need new strategies or "new critical weapons" to combat the "universals of communication" that make control so effective. For Deleuze, this resistance includes "hijacking speech" and creating "vacuoles of non-communication." Burroughs details similar counter-moves in his cut-up novels and essays. As he writes in Nova Express (1964): "When...