- Storming the Reality Studio
William S. Burroughs
Geoffrey D. Smith and John M. Bennett, eds.
The Ohio State University Press
144 Pages; Print, $17.95
Transgressive queer masculinity is not having a good decade. Signaling the end of an era in queer theory, differences's 2015 special issue "Queer Theory Without Antinormativity" called transgression's bluff, reminding readers that an antinormative stance does not necessarily or intrinsically lead to something like freedom. While John Waters's famous slogan "Trash is my life; trash is my religion!" did important work to upend the binary division between product and byproduct, valued and wasted lives, such demonstrations are no longer required by a world choking on detritus and certainly no longer feel like anything to celebrate. More emphatically still, transgression relied on moral hygiene exhorted by polite society for its force. Without that, without at least the pretense of rectitude and right action, transgression simply becomes another kind of malevolence in a world full of such dangers, which is surely one reason why Waters's attack on political correctness and identity politics sounds to his own ear akin to that of conservatives like Bill Maher and alt-righters like Andrew Breitbart.
It is into this transformed political environment that The Ohio State recently released Bulletin 23: William S. Burroughs' "The Revised Boy Scout Manual": An Electronic Revolution. This is the first edition to bring together Burroughs's famously fragmentary excurses on aesthetic warfare into a single edited and annotated volume. As recounted by co-editor Geoffrey D. Smith, the manuscript appeared in two different, contemporary typescript copies, both with authorial annotations, with a similar but not identical text, as well a set of audio recordings, again with emendations all from the period 1969-1970. Most readers will be familiar with the text, however, through the 1982 Re/Search volume that reproduced a small section of the longer text as well as from Burroughs's more famous collections of essays and other writings, The Job (1969) and Electronic Revolution (1970). This edition addresses the proliferation of source material by footnoting variants where minor and including long excisions or substantial variants as supplemental materials. Smith, co-editor John M. Bennett, Antonio Bonome, and V. Vale's essays limn the conceptual, editorial, and aesthetic consequences and affordances of this strange textual history. None, however, discusses its kairos, the potency of bringing out a complete edition of this work in this period.
And yet such timing, however coincidental, seems fundamental to the interest presented by this volume. On the one hand, it comes at a moment when transgression no longer seems the necessary counter to a pervasive and restrictive public morality. The disquieting moments in the text of "The Revised Boy Scout Manual" (RBSM), while they have always been there, show up especially clearly without the justification of transgression. With its ugly moments of misogyny and its occasional attacks on effeminacy, its stereotypes about South America and its tropical fetishes, RBSM can be cringe-inducing (and indeed there is good reason to think it was always meant to evoke such reactions). The deeper disquiet of its timing, however, has to do with the way it anticipates the right's usurpation of the energies of transgression toward a new form of reality-construction. At least since Karl Rove derided those in the "reality-based community," power has operated according to constructivist logic. Rove explains:
That's not how the world works anymore. We're in an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously as you call it—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
"The Revised Boy Scout Manual" is a book about reality construction. Beginning with a catalog of "revolutionary weapons and tactics," the heart of RBSM is a general plan...