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  • The "Limits of Control":Burroughs through Deleuze
  • S. E. Gontarski (bio)

There have been, of course, various remnants of disciplinary societies for years, but we already know we are in societies of a different type that should be called, using Burroughs' term—and Foucault had a very deep admiration for Burroughs—control societies.

—Deleuze (2007, 326)

American outlier writer, Beat associate and sometime expatriate, William S. Burroughs, published a second article in the mainstream monthly, Harpers, in November of 1973 entitled "Playback from Eden to Watergate" (#1482; 84-6, 88).1 Its title suggested not only grand historic sweep with a focus on contemporary issues but a change in creative (and, as it turns out, destructive, or at least combative) strategies, a shift in communication technologies from print to magnetic tape, a medium that Burroughs had been experimenting with and manipulating since the 1960s, often as part of a mélange of media: recording tape, celluloid, photo-collage and print. Burroughs had thought for a time that he might become a mainstream writer, as he wrote to Jack Kerouac on December 7, 1954: "I sat down seriously to write a best-seller Book of the Month Club job on Tangier," which he hoped would get "serialized in Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping." His writing and media experiments grew increasingly dissonant, however; such dissonance accelerated after his move to Paris through the meeting with French sound poet, performance artist and champagne scion, Bernard Heidsieck, who, with collaborator Henri Chopin, ran what they called Domaine Poétique. Soon after their meeting Burroughs and his collaborators, Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, participated in an event called La Bohème. When they met Heidsieck and Chopin, the poets had been doing what they called sound collages and assemblages, appropriating contemporary technology to their art and shifting their medium of expression from page to live body and so developing a separate, overlapping line of what became Fluxus in the U.S. and Britain. For Gysin their interests followed his in "sound being used as material"; as he described the encounter: "In La [End Page 65] Bohème we had some very strange things that we did along that line [like] reading poems off shuffled cards, along with tapes running and stuff like that. And they said 'Wouldn't you like to join in with us' …and we did and said it's got to be theatre" (Gysin ctd. in Miles 2000, 406).2

The Harpers essay had also grown out of an earlier mainstream commission. Esquire had published a cut-up photo-essay by Burroughs called "Tangier," or more fully, "Photo-optical, Cartographical & Literary Footnotes to a Survey of the American Socio-Intellectual Enclave in the City of Tangier," "Text and Captions by William Burroughs," in its September 1964, "Back to College Issue." The photo-essay anticipates Burroughs' deepening preoccupation with media and technology: "Research team spoke into a tape recorder which was then played [back?] through a sound spectograph [sic.]. The machine converted the words into pictures looking like contour lines on a relief map" (115). The magazine subsequently funded Burroughs' return to the United States from London, where he was living, to cover the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. He brought along the portable tape recorder he was experimenting with, and the novel contraption amused the suspicious customs agent at O'Hare airport. "In 1968," Burroughs tells us,

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. … Imagine that the speech recorded is recorded on magnetic tape which is cut into pieces .02 [of a second] long and the pieces rearranged into a new sequence…this is an extension of the cut up method," that is, Burroughs' initial creative methodology.

(1974, 178)3

While Burroughs' work with filmmaker Balch may seem merely an extension or an extreme variant on the montage techniques of Sergei Eisenstein, the emphasis in this case is on the extremity...


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