el hombre invisible knew the medium was the message

Marshall McLuhan, “Notes on Burroughs”

  1. Today men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment. The human nervous system itself can be reprogrammed biologically as readily as any radio network can alter its fare. Burroughs has dedicated Naked Lunch to the first proposition, and Nova Express (both Grove Press) to the second. Naked Lunch records private strategies of culture in the electric age. Nova Express indicates some of the "corporate" responses and adventures of the Subliminal Kid who is living in a universe which seems to be someone else’s insides. Both books are a kind of engineer’s report of the terrain hazards and mandatory processes, which exist in the new electric environment. 
  1. Burroughs uses what he calls "Brion Gysin’s cut-up method which I call the fold-in method." To read the daily newspaper in its entirety is to encounter the method in all its purity. Similarly, an evening watching television programs is an experience in a corporate form—an endless succession of impressions and snatches of narrative. Burroughs is unique only in that he is attempting to reproduce in prose what we accommodate every day as a commonplace aspect of life in the electric age. If the corporate life is to be rendered on paper, the method of discontinuous nonstory must be employed. 
  1. That man provides the sexual organs of the technological world seems obvious enough to Burroughs, and such is the stage (or "biological theatre" as he calls it in Nova Express) for the series of social orgasms brought about by the evolutionary mutations of man and society. The logic, physical and emotional, of aworld in which we have made our environment out of our own nervous systems, Burroughs follows everywhere to the peripheral orgasm of the cosmos. 
  1. Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible. Thus, Nature was succeeded by the mechanical environment and became what we call the "content" of the new industrial environment. That is, Nature became a vessel of aesthetic and spiritual values. Again and again the old environment is upgraded into an art form while the new conditions are regarded as corrupt and degrading. Artists, being experts in sensory awareness, tend to concentrate on the environmental as the challenging and dangerous situation. That is why they may seem to be "ahead of their time." Actually, they alone have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact with the environment of their age. More timid people prefer to accept the content, the previous environment’s values, as the continuing reality of their time. Our natural bias is to accept the new gimmick (automation, say) as a thing that can be accommodated in the old ethical order. 
  1. During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks. 
  1. Burroughs disdains the hallucinatory drugs as providing mere "content," the fantasies, dreams that money can buy. Junk (heroin) is needed to turn the human body itself into an environment that includes the universe. The central theme of Naked Lunch is the strategy of bypassing the new electric environment by becoming an environment oneself. The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his "content." He programs the sensory order. 
  1. For artists and philosophers, when a technology is new it yields Utopias. Such is Plato’s Republic in the fifth century B.C., when phonetic writing was being established. Similarly, More’s Utopia is written in the sixteenth century when the printed book had just become established. When electric technology was new and speculative, Alice in Wonderland came as a kind of non-Euclidean space-time Utopia, a grown-up version of which is the Illuminations of Rimbaud. Like Lewis Carroll, Rimbaud accepts each object as a world and the world as an object. He makes a complete break with the established procedure of putting things into time or space: 
That’s she, thelittle girl behind the rose bushes, and she’s dead. The young mother, also dead, is coming down the steps. The cousin’s carriage crunches the sand. The small brother (he’s in India!) over there in the field of pinks, in front of the sunset. The old men they’ve buried upright in the wall covered with gilly-flowers.
But when the full consequences of each new technology have been manifested in new psychic and social forms, then the anti-Utopias appear. Naked Lunch can be viewed as the anti-Utopia of Illuminations:
During the withdrawal the addict is acutely aware of his surroundings. Sense impressions are sharpened to the point of hallucination. Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life. The addict is subject to a barrage of sensations external and visceral.
Or to give a concrete example from the symbolist landscape of Naked Lunch:
A guard in a uniform of human skin, black buck jacket with carious yellow teeth buttons, an elastic pullover shirt in burnished Indian copper […] sandals from calloused foot soles of young Malayan farmer […].
The key to symbolist perception is in yielding the permission to objects to resonate with their own time and space. Conventional pictorial and literary perception seeks to put diverse objects into the same time and space. Time and space themselves are subjected to the uniform and continuous visual processing that provides us with the "connected and rational" world that is in fact only an isolated fragment of reality—the visual. There is no uniform and continuous character in the nonvisual modalities of space and time. The Symbolists freed themselves from visual conditions into the visionary world of the iconic and the auditory. Their art, to the visually oriented and literary man, seems haunted, magical and often incomprehensible. It is, in John Ruskin’s words:
the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connections; of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character. (Modern Painters)
The art of the interval, rather than the art of the connection, is not only medieval but Oriental; above all, it is the art mode of instant electric culture.
  1. There are considerable antecedents for the Burroughs attempt to read the language of the biological theatre and the motives of the Subliminal Kid. Fleurs du Mal is a vision of the city as the technological extension of man. Baudelaire had once intended to title the book Les Limbes. The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film. Later in The Human Age Lewis explores the psychic mutations of man living in "the magnetic city," the instant, electric, and angelic (or diabolic) culture. Lewis views the action in a much more inclusive way than Burroughs whose world is a paradigm of a future in which there can be no spectators but only participants. All men are totally involved in the insides of all men. There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure. 
  1. The Burroughs diagnosis is that we can avoid the inevitable "closure" that accompanies each new technology by regarding our entire gadgetry as junk. Man has hopped himself up by a long series of technological fixes: 
You are dogs on all tape. The entire planet is being developed into terminal identity and complete surrender.               
We can forego the entire legacy of Cain (the inventor of gadgets) by applying the same formula that works for junk—"apomorphine," extended to all technology:
Apomorphine is no word and no image—[…] It is simply a question of putting through an innoculation program in the very limited time that remains—Word begets image and image IS virus—         
Burroughs is arguing that the power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences:
Shut the whole thing right off—Silence—When you answer the machine you provide it with more recordings to be played back to your "enemies" keep the whole nova machine running—The Chinese character for "enemy" means to be similar to or to answer—Don’t answer the machine—Shut it off— 

Merely to be in the presence of any machine, or replica of our body or faculties, is to close with it. Our sensory ratios shift at once with each encounter with any fragmented extension of our being. This is a non-stop express of innovation that cannot be endured indefinitely:
We are just dust falls from demagnetized patterns—Show business          
It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is an indelible as it is lethal. To end the proliferation of lethal new environmental expression, Burroughs urges a huge collective act of restraint as well as a nonclosure of sensory modes—"The biological theater of the body can bear a good deal of new program notes." 
  1. Finnegans Wake provides the closest literary precedent to Burroughs’ work. From the beginning to end it occupied with the theme of "the extensions" of man—weaponry, clothing, languages, number, money, and media in toto. Joyce works out in detail the sensory shifts involved in each extension of man, and concludes with the resounding boast:    
The keys to. Given!               
Like Burroughs, Joyce was sure he had worked out the formula for total cultural understanding and control. The idea of art as total programming for the environment is tribal, mental, Egyptian. It is, also, an idea of art to which electric technology leads quite strongly. We live science fiction. The bomb is our environment. The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the extension division of the university. The university has become a global environment. The university now contains the commercial world, as well as the military and government establishments. To reprogram the cultures of the globe becomes as natural an undertaking as curriculum revision in a university. Since new media are new environments that reprocess psyche and society in successive ways, why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself? Such is Burroughs’ vision. 
  1. It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home. Burroughs is not asking merit marks as a writer; he is trying to point to the shut-on button of an active and lethal environmental process.
Marshall McLuhan, "Notes on Burroughs," The Nation (28 Dec. 1964): 51719. Copyright © 1964 by The Nation magazine/The Nation Company, Inc.

on 9-11, some more from el hombre invisible…

On the seventh anniversary of 9-11, William S. Burroughs’ darkly comedic vision of worldwide terrorist anarchy seems sadly appropriate—and perhaps necessary: Burroughs gives us a much-needed measure of distance so we can look at our current plight from a fresh perspective.

From William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine:

It was a transitional period because of the Synthetics and everybody was raising some kinda awful life form in his bidet to fight the Sex Enemy—The results were not in all respects reasonable men, but the Synthetics were rolling off that line and we were getting some damned interesting types by golly blueheavy metal boys with near zero metabolism that shit once a century and then it’s a slag heap and disposal problem in the worst form there is: sewage delta to a painted sky under orange gas flares, islands of garbage where green boy-girls tend human heads in chemical gardens, terminal cities under the metal word fallout like cold melted solder on walls and streets, sputtering cripples with phosphorescent metal stumps—So we decided the blue heavy metal boys were not in all respects a good blueprint.

I have seen them all—A unit yet of mammals and vegetables that subsist each on the shit of the other in prestidigital symbiosis and achieved a stage where one group shit out nothing but pure carbon dioxide which the other unit breathed in to shit out oxygen— It’s the only way to live—You understand they had this highly developed culture with life forms between insect and vegetable, hanging vines, stinging sex hairs —The whole deal was finally relegated to It-Never-Happened-Department.

"Retroactive amnesia it out of every fucking mind screen in the area if we have to—How long you want to bat this tired old act around? A centipede issue in the street, unusual beings dormant in cancer, hierarchical shit-eating units—Now by all your stupid Gods at once let’s not get this show on the road let’s stop it."

Posted everywhere on street corners the idiot irre-sponsibles twitter supersonic approval, repeating slogans, giggling, dancing, masturbating out windows, making machine-gun noises and police whistles "And you, Dead Hand, stretching the Vegetable People come out of that compost heap—You are not taking your old fibrous roots past this inspector."

And the idiot irresponsibles scream posted everywhere in chorus: "Chemical gardens in rusty shit peoples!!"

"All out of time and into space. Come out of the time-word ‘the’ forever. Come out of the body word ‘thee’ forever. There is nothing to fear. There is no thing in space. There is no word to fear. There is no word in space."

And the idiot irresponsibles scream: "Come out of your stupid body you nameless assholes!!"

And there were those who thought A.J. lost dignity through the idiotic behavior of these properties but he said:

"That’s the way I like to see them. No fallout. What good ever came from thinking? Just look there" (another heavy metal boy sank through the earth’s crust and we got some good pictures. . .) "one of Shaffer’s blueprints. I sounded a word of warning."

His idiot irresponsibles twittered and giggled and masturbated over him from little swings and snapped bits of food from his plate screaming: "Blue people NG conditions! Typical sight leak out!"

"All out of time and into space."

"Hello, Ima Johnny, the naked astronaut."

And the idiot irresponsibles rush in with space-suits and masturbating rockets spatter the city with jissom.

"Do not be alarmed citizens of Annexia—Report to your Nearie Pro Station for chlorophyll processing— We are converting to vegetable state—Emergency measure to counter the heavy metal peril—Go to your ‘Nearie’—You will meet a cool, competent person who will dope out all your fears in photosynthesis—Calling all citizens of Annexia—Report to Green Sign for processing."

"Citizens of Gravity we are converting all out to Heavy Metal. Carbonic Plague of the Vegetable People threatens our Heavy Metal State. Report to your nearest Plating Station. It’s fun to be plated," says this well-known radio and TV personality who is now engraved forever in gags of metal. "Do not believe the calumny that our metal fallout will turn the planet into a slag heap. And in any case, is that worse than a compost heap? Heavy Metal is our program and we are prepared to sink through it. . ."

The cold heavy fluid settled in his spine 70 tons per square inch—Cool blocks of SOS—(Solid Blue Silence)—under heavy time—Can anything be done to metal people of Uranus?—Heavy his answer in monotone disaster stock: "Nobody can kick an SOS habit—70 tons per square inch—The crust from the beginning you understand—Tortured metal Ozz of earthquakes is tons focus of this junk"—Sudden young energy—I got up and danced—Know eventually be relieved—That’s all I need—I got up and danced the disasters—"

Gongs of violence and how—Show you something— Berserk machine—"Shift cut tangle word lines—Word falling—Photo falling—"

"I said the Chief of Police skinned alive in Bagdad not Washington, D.C."

"Switzerland freezes all foreign assets."

"Foreign assets?"

"What?—British Prime Minister assassinated in Rightist coup?"

"Mindless idiot you have liquidated the Commissar."

"Terminal electric voice of C—All ling door out of agitated—Ta ta Stalin—Carriage age ta—"

Spectators scream through the track—The electronic brain shivers in blue and pink and chlorophyll orgasms spitting out money printed on rolls of toilet paper, condoms full of ice cream, Kotex hamburgers—Police files of the world spurt out in a blast of bone meal, garden tools and barbecue sets whistle through the air, skewer the spectators—crumpled cloth bodies through dead nitrous streets of an old film set—grey luminous flakes falling softly on Ewyork, Onolulu, Aris, Ome, Oston—From siren towers the twanging tones of fear—Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries—Wind through dusty offices and archives—Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth—Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure—The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions—Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down—Biologic film went up . . . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens . . . just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic.


The Soft Machine by bradallen.

Many readers have read only one book by William Burroughs, Naked Lunch. And many don’t realize that Naked Lunch is actually a kind of gateway or “prequel” to his Nova Trilogy, three experimental novels which, like Naked Lunch, were assembled from Burroughs’ “The Word Hoard,” a series of manuscripts Burroughs wrote in Tangier, Paris and London between 1953 and 1958. The Nova trilogy is comprised of The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Ticket That Exploded (1962). After their initial publication, Burroughs revised The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, while leaving Nova Express in its original form (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nova_Trilogy).

Here’s the opening section of William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine:
Dead on Arrival
I was working the hole with the sailor and we did not do bad. Fifteen cents on an average night boosting the afternoons and short-timing the dawn we made out from the land of the free. But I was running out of veins. I went over to the counter for another cup of coffee. . .in Joe’s Lunch Room drinking coffee with a napkin under the cup which is said to be the mark of someone who does a lot of sitting in cafeterias and lunchrooms. . . Waiting on the man. . . "What can we do?" Nick said to me once in his dead junky whisper. "They know we’ll wait. . ." Yes, they know we’ll wait. . . There is a boy sitting at the counter thin-faced kid his eyes all pupil. I see he is hooked and sick. Familiar face maybe from the pool hall where I scored for tea sometime. Somewhere in grey strata of subways all-night cafeterias rooming house flesh. His eyes flickered the question. I nodded toward my booth. He carried his coffee over and sat down opposite me.
The croaker lives out Long Island. . . light yen sleep waking up for stops. Change. Start. Everything sharp and clear. Antennae of TV suck the sky. The clock jumped the way time will after four P.M.
"The Man is three hours late. You got the bread?"
"I got three cents."
"Nothing less than a nickel. These double papers he claims." I looked at his face. Good looking. "Say kid I known an Old Auntie Croaker right for you like a Major . . . Take the phone. I don’t want him to rumble my voice."
About this time I meet this Italian tailor cum pusher I know from Lexington and he gives me a good buy on H. . . At least it was good at first but all the time shorter and shorter. . . "Short Count Tony" we call him. . .
Out of junk in East St. Louis sick dawn he threw himself across the washbasin pressing his stomach against the cool porcelain. I draped myself over his body laughing. His shorts dissolved in rectal mucus and carbolic soap, summer dawn smells from a vacant lot.
"I’ll wait here. . . Don’t want him to rumble me. . ."
Made it five times under the shower that day soapy bubbles of egg flesh seismic tremors split by fissure spurts of jissom. . .
I made the street, everything sharp and clear like after rain. See Sid in a booth reading a paper his face like yellow ivory in the sunlight. I handed him two nickels under the table. Pushing in a small way to keep up The Habit: INVADE. DAMAGE. OCCUPY. Young faces in blue alcohol flame.
"And use that alcohol. You fucking can’t wait hungry junkies all the time black up my spoons. That’s all I need for Pen Indef the fuzz rumbles a black spoon in my trap." The old junky spiel. Junk hooks falling.
"Shoot your way to freedom kid."
Trace a line of goose pimples up the thin young arm. Slide the needle in and push the bulb watching the junk hit him all over. Move right in with the shit and suck junk through all the hungry young cells.
There is a boy sitting like your body. I see he is a hook. I drape myself over him from the pool hall. Draped myself over his cafeteria and his shorts dissolved in strata of subways. . .and all house flesh. . . toward the booth. . .down opposite me. . . The Man I Italian tailor. . . I know bread. "Me a good buy on H."
"You’re quitting? Well I hope you make it, kid. May I fall down and be paralyzed if I don’t mean it. . . You gotta friend in me. A real friend and if."
Well the traffic builds up and boosters falling in with jackets shirts and ties, kids with a radio torn from the living car trailing tubes and wires, lush-workers flash rings and wrist watches falling in sick all hours. I had the janitor cooled, an old rummy, but it couldn’t last with that crowd.
"Say you’re looking great kid. Now do yourself a favor and stay off. I been getting some really great shit lately. Remember that brown shit sorta yellow like snuff cooks up brown and clear. . ."
Junky in east bath room. . . invisible and persistent dream body. . . familiar face maybe. . . scored for some time or body. . .in that grey smell of rectal mucus. . . night cafeterias and junky room dawn smells, three hours from Lexington made it five times. . . soapy egg flesh. . .
"These double papers he claims of withdrawal."
"Well I thought you was quitting…"
"I can’t make it.*’
"Imposible quitar eso."
Got up and fixed in the sick dawn flutes of Ramadan.
"William tu tomas más medicina?. . . No me hágas casa, William."
Casbah house in the smell of dust and we made it . . . empty eukodal boxes stacked four feet along the walls . . . dead on the surplus blankets . . .girl screaming . . . vecinos rush in…
"What did she die of?"
"I don’t know she just died."
Bill Gains in Mexico City room with his douche bag and his stash of codeine pills powdered in a bicarbonate can. "I’ll just say I suffer from indigestion." coffee and blood spilled all over the place, cigarette holes in the pink blanket… The Consul would give me no information other than place of burial in The American Cemetery.
"Broke? Have you no pride? Go to your Consul." He gave me an alarm clock ran for a year after his death.
Leif repatriated by the Danish, freight boat out of Casa for Copenhagen sank off England with all hands. Remember my medium of distant fingers?—
"What did she die of?"
"Some things I find myself."
The Sailor went wrong in the end. hanged to a cell door by his principals: "Some things I find myself doing I’ll pack in is all."
Bread knife in the heart. . .rub and die. . .repatriated by a morphine script. . .those out of Casa for Copenhagen on special yellow note . . .
"All hands broke? Have you no pride?" Alarm clock ran for a year. "He just sit down on the curb and die." Esperanza told me on Nino Perdido and we cashed a morphine script, those Mexican Nar. scripts on special yellow bank-note paper. . .like a thousand dollar bill . . .or a Dishonorable Discharge from the US Army. . . And fixed in the cubicle room you reach by climbing this ladder.
Yesterday call flutes of Ramadan: "No me hágas casa."
Blood spill over shirts and light, theAmerican trailing in form. . . He went to Madrid. This frantic Cuban fruit finds Kiki with a novia and stabs him with a kitchen knife in the heart. (Girl screaming. Enter the nabors.)
"Quédase con su medicina, William."
Half bottle of Fundador after half cure in the Jew Hospital, shots of demerol by candlelight. They turned off the lights and water. Paper-like dust we made it. Empty walls. Look anywhere. No good. No bueno.
He went to Madrid. . . Alarm clock ran for yesterday. . . "No me hágas casa." Dead on arrival. . . you might say at the Jew Hospital. . . blood spilled over the American. . . trailing lights and water. . . The Sailor went so wrong somewhere in that grey flesh . . . He just sit down on zero . . . I nodded on Niño Perdido his coffee over three hours late . . . They all went away and sent papers. . . The Dead Man write for you like a major, . . Enter vecinos. . . Freight boat smell of rectal mucus went down off England with all dawn smell of distant fingers. . . About this time I went to your Consul. He gave me a Mexican after his death . . . Five times of dust we made it, . . with soap bubbles of withdrawal crossed by a thousand junky nights. . . Soon after the half maps came in by candlelight. . . OCCUPY. . . Junk lines falling. . . Stay off. . . Bill Gains in the Yellow Sickness. . . Looking at dirty pictures casual as a ceiling fan short-timing the dawn we made it in the corn smell of rectal mucus and carbolic soap. . . familiar face maybe from the vacant lot. . . trailing tubes and wires. . . "You fucking-can’t-wait-hungry-junkies! . . ." Burial in the American Cemetery. "Quédase con su medicina. . " On Niño Perdido the girl screaming. . . They all went way through Casbah House. . . "Couldn’t you write me any better than that? Gone away. . . You can look any place."
No good. No Bueno.
You wouldn’t believe how hot things were when I left the States—I knew this one pusher wouldn’t carry any shit on his person just shoot it in the line—Ten twenty grains over and above his own absorption according to the route he was servicing and piss it out in bottles for his customers so if the heat came up on them they cop out as degenerates—So Doc Benway assessed the situation and came up with this brain child—
"Once in the Upper Baboonasshole I was stung by a scorpion—the sensation is not dissimilar to a fix— Hummm."
So he imports this special breed of scorpions and feeds them on metal meal and the scorpions turned a phosphorescent blue color and sort of hummed. "Now we must find a worthy vessel," he said—So we flush out this old goof ball artist and put the scorpion to him and he turned sort of blue and you could see he was fixed right to metal—These scorpions could travel on a radar beam and service the clients after Doc copped for the bread—It was agood thing while it lasted and the heat couldn’t touch us—However all these scorpion junkies began to glow in the dark and if they didn’t score on the hour metamorphosed into scorpions straight away—So there was a spot of bother and we had to move on disguised as young junkies on the way to Lexington—Bill and Johnny we sorted out the names but they keep changing like one day I would wake up as Bill the next day as Johnny—So there we are in the train compartment shivering junk sick our eyes watering and burning.