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  • William S. Burroughs and the Posthuman
  • S. E. Gontarski (bio)

William S. Burroughs was very much a product of, and his work a commentary on, his time, even if as a cultural Outsider. However, his vision of a dystopian future, his discourse of repetitions, his stochastic materiality, his critiques of the politics of drugs and surveillance, his foregrounding of what we today call queer theory, his media experiments, his depictions of the posthuman where human agency is attenuated, in short, his art, are sustainable beyond his time. His current reach exceeds his traditional designations as the Priest of the Beat generation of the 1950s, as a significant cultural agitator in the '60s counterculture and anti-war protests, as an icon of the punk and alt- rock of the '70s and '80s, through to our multimedia age and society of control. As human agency is superseded by media inflected desire, Burroughs's multi-media inflected, peformative art, and the contemporary critique that he initiated and helped sustain re-emerge as central to his oeuvre. With its rhizomatic offshoots, his cultural foresight, the broadening appeal of his media art, and his continuous critiques of control drive much of this renewed, contemporary interest in his work.

Of his initial media experiments Burroughs tells Daniel Odier in The Job (1969) that:

In 1968, with the help of Ian Sommerville and Anthony Balch, I took a short passage of my recorded voice and cut it into intervals of one twenty-fourth of a second on movie tape … and rearranged the order of the 24th [of a] second intervals of recorded speech. The original words are quite unintelligible but new words emerged. [Citing one Mr. French] "Imagine that the speech recorded is recorded on magnetic tape which is cut into pieces .02 [of a second] long and the pieces [End Page 8] rearranged into a new sequence." … This I had done in 1968. And this is an extension of the cut/up method [that is, Burroughs's initial aleatory print experiments].

While Burroughs's work with filmmaker Antony Balch might be seen as merely an extension or an extreme variant on the montage techniques of Sergei Eisenstein, the emphasis in Burroughs's case is on "extreme" since their experiments were almost incomprehensible, at least to the conscious mind, as one can see in Burroughs and Balch's 1966 film, The Cut-Ups. These techniques are thus not dissimilar from the neo-Dadaist sound poetry performed by Bernard Heidsieck and Henri Chopin. The appeal of these experiments was less to the rational than to what Burroughs and Gysin called "The Third Mind," and in 1978 they published a book under that title with material from experiments conducted between 1960 and 1973, including one called "First Cut-ups." The essay, "Playback from Eden to Watergate," was part of this larger project and was published as part one of what Burroughs subsequently called An Electronic Revolution, 1970-71, or alternately, "The Invisible Generation." These works were appeals to youth and the alternative, counter-cultural press to "disrupt the exercise of power" with such developing techniques. "Just pointing out," Burroughs deadpans, "that cut/ups on the tape recorder can be used as a weapon." When Gilles Deleuze asserts the "Superiority of Anglo-American Literature" (extending D. H. Lawrence's insights in Studies in Classic American Literature [1923]), he declares that

English or American literature [as opposed to that produced in France] is a process of experimentation. They have killed interpretation. The great and only error lies in the thinking that a line of flight consists in fleeing from life; the flight into the imaginary or into art. On the contrary, to flee is to produce the real, to create life, to find a weapon.

This is the "real" that Burroughs engages.

Many of these aesthetic experiments and their concomitant calls for revolutionary action are thus played against a backdrop of what might be called Burroughs's Dystopian Modernism or Speculative Fiction, both of which overlap Burroughs's other mode, Science Fiction. They were subversive, designed to counter growing systems to control the governed, resistance to which had been accentuated by Burroughs's participation in the 1968 Democratic National Convention and...


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