Cutting up Politics (Part 2)
by Oliver Harris
VIRUSES WERE BY ACCIDENT?
From the very outset, Burroughs fully understood the affective value of cutting up for the cutter; but it took him some time to understand the value of the resulting texts for someone else. This delay had farreaching consequences for his novel-length texts, and from the wholesale revisions he made to The Soft Machine it is evident that Burroughs had only then learned what Kurt Schwitters, referring to his comparable collage methods, had discovered four decades earlier: ‘I cannot write 500 pages of Merz’ (Schwitters and Hausmann 1962:5). Or to be more exact, Burroughs learned the equal truth of the corollary; that it was barely possible for anyone to read such a text. While developing entirely new functions in his trilogy, he therefore also sought to approximate key features of the physical experience of cutting up—such as the uncanny sensation of recognition—in the temporal experience of reading: ‘When the reader reads page ten he is flashing forward in time to page one hundred and back in time to page one—the déjà vu phenomenon can so be produced to order’ (3M 96). But the very length and complexity of his cut-up novels that enabled them to achieve astonishing affects also meant that they could not model the material process of their making for their readers to apply—and this failure had consequences for the politics of method at work in those texts.15
Significantly, the first edition of The Soft Machine lacked any polemical or methodological instructions. The injunction to cut is a refrain that runs much more explicitly throughout the other texts in the trilogy, but it is displaced in two significant ways. On the one hand, it is tied to the representational science fiction narrative of the Nova conspiracy, and on the other, it is shifted polemically away from textual applications to media higher up the technological scale—particularly tape recorders in The Ticket that Exploded. While the second move accurately reflects Burroughs’s own multimedia development of cut-up methods, in a sense it also compensates for the effects of the first, which risked turning the technique from a practical method into an essentially rhetorical element located within a purely fictional narrative.16
In Minutes to Go, where there is no narrative scenario, the exemplary function of Burroughs’s texts is the key to determining their politics. While the input is clearly calculated rather than arbitrary— Rimbaud had specific aesthetic and visionary associations; the newspaper articles focused on cancer, genetic research and viruses— the content is secondary, in the sense that its choice is already determined by the method. Burroughs chose strategically the material for his chance procedures, so that they might mechanically generate results that were indeterminate and yet desired. Thus his focus on recent DNA research, which now appears uncannily prescient: ‘As to the distant future say 100 years Dr. Stanley sees the entire code being cracked “We will be able to write out the message that is you”’ (MTG 61). This prophecy, in which the determinism of the genetic code coincides with the determinism of language, confirms the political value of the random factor introduced by cut-up methods. Since these methods materially short-circuited any pre-codified expression, this thesis must itself appear in cryptic form, as a code message arrived at by chance; hence the open question posed in the title of one of Burroughs’s texts: ‘VIRUSES WERE BY ACCIDENT?’ (MTG 15).
In Minutes to Go Burroughs minimized direct political reference, and in his correspondence he expressed an anxiety that anyone should mistake the politics of his texts. In another letter to Hazelwood concerning publication of The Exterminator as a sequel to Minutes to Go, Burroughs was emphatic:
Important to indicate that these pamphlets are to be considered abstract literature observation and mapping of psychic areas. Not political propaganda or if so entirely by accident. I do not subscribe to any of the sentiments expressed necessarily […] Do these plots really exist? How in the fuck should I know? Just a writer is all. Just an artisan. Not running for office.17
The question, ‘Do these plots really exist?’, anticipates by a quarter of a century the skepticism expressed in The Western Lands (‘It seemed real at the time’); in other words, even at the time Burroughs felt the need for a certain equivocation. Given the urgency of these plots and the urgency with which Burroughs promoted cut-up methods, this might seem paradoxical. But the final phrasing (‘Not running for office’) indicates Burroughs’s immediate recognition of the inappropriateness and danger of his own temptation to adopt a didactic and polemical mode of address. This recognition is emphasized in Burroughs’s call to arms in Minutes to Go—‘ANYONE CAN RECORD WORDS—CUT UP/ your own hustling myself’ (MTG 60)— where the last phrase, taken from the ending of Naked Lunch, insists on the association between practicing the method and resisting authority—especially the authority of the master presumed to know and offer the truth. This recognition would also be structured into the stunning overture to Nova Express, where Burroughs’s didacticism—‘I order total resistance’—has to cancel itself out—‘I offer you nothing. I am not a politician’—and has to be framed rhetorically as a letter delivered by his fictional persona, Inspector Lee (NE 6). The secret meaning of the couplet cited in The Exterminator now becomes clear: the emphasis in ‘Where I come I kill both friend and foe’ declares the dogmatic ego, no matter what its intentions, always fatal.
Burroughs’s position was not produced by the cut-up project out of nowhere, of course. In the early 1950s he had already precisely deconstructed the prophet and the agent—the two key personae he would conflate in the figure of Hassan i Sabbah, the presiding genius of the cut-up project: recall the ‘Wisdom-of-the-East routine’ in Queer (where the holy man’s answer is also ‘How in the fuck should I know?’ ), or the entire ‘Prophet’s Hour’ routine in Naked Lunch (102–6); and recall the conspiracy scenario of agents and counter-agents sketched in his letters to Ginsberg (‘But it is difficult to know what side anyone is working on, especially yourself’ [LWB 269]), which returns in Naked Lunch as ‘all Agents defect and all Resistors sell out’ (186). Such critiques of unilateral authority and undivided agency underwrote the case Burroughs made to Ginsberg in April 1958, more than a year before he took up cut-up methods, that ‘the answer is not in Politics’:
The main thing, as Bill says, is that any government, or person, who tries to put down a story saying that they are Right (& the enemy wrong)—is already putting down a big Maya con. Any attempt to force people to agree with you, or propagandize an opinion, is already an invasion of ego. (Ginsberg and Orlovsky 1980:158)
MILLIONS OF PEOPLE CARRYING OUT THIS BASIC OPERATION
The politics of Minutes to Go turn on the claim to be modeling and advocating precisely such an available technique, offering a liberating means for individual production rather than selling a product for mass consumption. Perhaps, then, we should take seriously Burroughs’s invocations of the Communist Manifesto noted by Timothy S. Murphy—or to be precise, not the calls in Naked Lunch (‘Paregoric Babies of the World Unite’ [NL xlv]) or in The Western Lands (‘You have nothing to lose but your dirty rotten vampires’ [WL 7]), but, because of its alliance with an available technology, his call in the 1967 edition of The Ticket that Exploded: ‘Carry Corders of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your prerecordings’ (TE2 167). Here, Burroughs seems to come surprisingly close to literalizing Hardt and Negri’s position that the ‘real revolutionary practice refers to the level of production. Truth will not make us free, but taking control of the production of truth will’ (2000:156). Indeed, the cut-up method appears to fulfill their concomitant claim for the true nature of revolutionary political militancy, namely that it is ‘not representational but constituent activity’ linked ‘to the formation of cooperative apparatuses of production and community’ (2000:423).
This ambition to dissolve the gap between the writer as sole active producer of meaning/truth and the reader as passive consumer is based, therefore, on strictly material and pragmatic grounds. Rather than functioning analogously, as in the Tel Quel model whereby the texte reflexively offers ‘the materialism of an open play of the signifier’ as a critique of authorial expression (Hutcheon 1980:127), cutup methods fulfilled absolutely literally the terms of Walter Benjamin’s critique of the productive relations of literature, made in ‘The Author as Producer’:
The crucial point, therefore, is that a writer’s production must have the character of a model: it must be able to instruct other writers in their production and, secondly, it must be able to place an improved apparatus at their disposal. This apparatus will be the better, the more consumers it brings in contact with the production process—in short, the more readers or spectators it turns into collaborators. (1934:98)
The promise of the cut-up method, promoted freely according to the ‘Open Bank’ policy announced in Minutes to Go (MTG 43), is therefore material and literal—as Gysin put it in the title text: ‘the writing machine is for everybody/ do it yourself’ (MTG 5).
But in what sense, if any, did it work?
Timothy S. Murphy is surely right to observe that ‘the most compelling measure of success of the Nova trilogy’ turns on effects that last ‘only for a moment’ and only for ‘a small group of readers’ (1997:139). However, this assumes that Burroughs’s constant, urgent promotion of cut-up methods as a mass tool is of no relevance, that it belongs in a separate dimension outside the textual economy of the trilogy. On the other hand, when this dimension is taken into account for Burroughs’s cut-up novels (as distinct from his mass of short, exemplary or polemical magazine texts), the result is a worrying literalism, whereby the trilogy’s science fiction scenario models a revolutionary success that can be duplicated by readers recruited to cut-up methods by these novels: ‘Burroughs’s readers are clearly cast’, as Robin Lydenberg puts it, ‘as revolutionary cadets in training’, so that Nova Express is ‘an advanced seminar review of what the reader should have learned’ from the two previous novels (1987:96). In which case, where are all the cut-up revolutionaries?
In the first full-length critical study of Burroughs, French critic Philippe Mikriammos commented on the success of cut-up methods by observing that the number who had experimented with them is ‘beyond any doubt, far greater than those who applied the method of Tzara’ (1975:63; my translation). True enough—but then Tzara’s promotion was a one-off stunt, while Burroughs campaigned fulltime with messianic zeal for an entire decade, and never entirely stopped for another quarter of a century. How many have experimented? It is, surely, impossible to estimate. What we do know is something much more limited; namely, the number and range of published works based on cut-up methods. Success has been judged most often, therefore, by citing the method’s fertile creative influence on a roll call of artists experimenting in various media, from Kathy Acker to John Zorn. This is a genuine measure of achievement, surely unmatched by any other writer. On the other hand, none of these figures took up the practice for long enough or in such a way as to become identified with it. In this regard, consider the fate of the cut-up community that formed in the so-called Beat Hotel. In his introduction to Harold Norse’s collection of cut-up texts, titled Beat Hotel, the German cut-up artist Carl Weissner stated: ‘All the other practitioners quickly faded away. But Harold Norse […] has remained one of the “Old Masters”’ (1983:xii). With due respect to Norse and Weissner, everyone who took up the practice faded away—except Burroughs.
Challenging Burroughs about ‘the advisability of using the cut-up method in fiction’, Paul Bowles recalled that Burroughs had replied that ‘“in the hands of a master” it became a viable technique’ (1972:349). Since there was only ever one master, since only Burroughs could make it work—consistently, productively—then we have to wonder not so much about the success of the method, but whether, as a creative practice available to others, it ever properly constituted one. Equally, the notion of an ‘Old Cut-Up Master’ is revealing, because it so flatly contradicts the politics of the ‘Open Bank’ policy. And where did Burroughs end up, a decade after Minutes to Go? With Electronic Revolution, another text that promoted a technology available to all.
In Minutes to Go, the cut-up method had been publicized in anticipation of further technological development: ‘be your own agent until we deliver/the machine in commercially reasonable quantities’ (MTG 5). After six years of intensive experiments, Burroughs in effect gave up on the cut-up writing machine and reinvested his key claims for the methods in a different technology: ‘As usual’, he noted in ‘A Tape Recorder Experiment’, ‘the tip off came from those who wish to monopolize and control the techniques by which so called “reality” is formed and directed’ (1966:20). In ‘The Invisible Generation’ (1966), this became another call to arms: ‘any number can play anyone with a tape recorder controlling the sound track can influence and create events’ (now in TE2 207). As before, the therapeutic claims for an individual practice—‘such exercises bring you liberation from old association locks’ (now in TE2 206)—coincided with the potential for producing a critical mass to achieve collective political action: ‘put a thousand young recorders with riot recordings into the street’ (now in TE2 210). In Electronic Revolution, the goal once again is to break the monopoly of the production of reality through the mass recruitment of cut-up guerillas, only now Burroughs concludes by envisaging a thousand-fold scaling-up of the scrambling exercises in ‘The Invisible Generation’: ‘Any number can play. Millions of people carrying out this basic operation could nullify the control system’ (ER 18).
Aside from the belated publication of The Third Mind in 1978, the cut-up project reached its terminal point with Electronic Revolution, and what that text ended up projecting was not a literary readership of millions, but millions in the streets wielding portable tape recorders, practicing non-literary cut-up methods for political ends. This was the Burroughs hailed by Timothy Leary as ‘the Nostradamus/Prophet of the electronic future’ (1987). In which case, it is tempting to conclude by invoking the ‘Political Manifesto’ of Hardt and Negri. Inspired by Spinoza’s materialist teleology, according to which ‘the prophet produces its own people’ (2000:65), they deduce that powerlessness can be turned into power by usurping the tools of the existing system: ‘Don’t the necessary weapons reside precisely within the creative and prophetic power of the multitude? […] The kind of arms in question may be contained in the potential of the multitude to sabotage and destroy with its own productive force the parasitical order of postmodern command’ (2000:65–6). Hardt and Negri’s terminology and analysis is foreshadowed by Burroughs’s Nova mythology, with its colonizing virus enemy that can be sabotaged precisely by taking literally the equation of power structures (the global order) with symbolic interpellation (the order of language), and reordering both at once: ‘I had only to mix the order of recordings and the order of images and the changed order would be picked up and fed back into the machine’ (SM2 92); ‘The counter move is very simple—This is machine strategy and the machine can be redirected’ (NE 74).
But for three pragmatic political reasons, we have to hesitate. Firstly, the mechanical simplicity of cut-up methods, which was so essential to their promotion, determines in the trilogy a political analysis and mode of action that is too simplistic: Burroughs’s proleptic declaration of victory—the ‘control machine has been disconnected by partisan activity’ (TE2 59)—too optimistically conflates success in the novels with the success of them. Secondly, there is Burroughs’s revealing parenthetical aside in Electronic Revolution, when he looks back at the experiments advocated five years earlier in ‘The Invisible Generation’: ‘(I wonder if anybody but CIA agents read this article or thought of putting these techniques into actual operation)’ (ER 15). In other words, not millions, not thousands, maybe no partisans at all—only Burroughs. Thirdly, the cut-up project evolved a theory of power that fully embodied Burroughs’s libertarian values—via Hassan i Sabbah’s last words: ‘Nothing is true. Everything is permitted’—but that can only gesture toward positive social justice. Thus, while ‘partisans are everywhere, of all races and nations’, as he put it in a 1964 interview, Burroughs undercut the potential formation of a collectivity through his definition of terms: ‘A partisan may simply be defined as any individual who is aware of the enemy’ (Mottram 1965:12; emphasis added). Even the strident ‘pay it all back’ demand of Hassan i Sabbah at the start of Nova Express has to be followed by a ‘word of warning’: ‘To speak is to lie’ (NE 7).
The upshot, to recall the terms of Burroughs’s own retrospective assessment in The Western Lands, is that the question of the reality of his deadly struggle is still overwhelmingly phrased negatively in terms of doing damage: ‘And now the question as to whether scrambling techniques could be used to spread helpful and pleasant messages. Perhaps. On the other hand, the scrambled words and tape act like a virus in that they force something on the subject against his will’ (ER 35). In other words, using cut-up methods to fight the virus of power means fighting fire with fire. A hybrid of art and science, the technique that Gysin called ‘Machine Age knife-magic’ (3M 51) was meant to be strong black magic, a radical tool for occult assassins wanting to throw a deadly hex.18
This is an essentially terroristic logic, one amply developed in the cut-up trilogy and embodied from the outset in the figure of Hassan i Sabbah, who not only appeared in Minutes to Go but whose imprimatur Burroughs intended to put on the titles of its planned sequels (‘Minutes to Go from Alamout’ and ‘Exterminator? Watch Hassan i Sabbah’).19 In ‘Comments on the Night Before Thinking’ (1961), Burroughs identified—and identified with—Hassan i Sabbah as ‘strictly a counter puncher’, an ‘Assassin of Ugly Spirits’ who made no attempt to ‘extend political power’: ‘[H]e reached out with his phantom knife and a general a prime minister a sultan died’ (1961a:32). But in the 1967 edition of The Ticket that Exploded Burroughs went beyond this apparently clear political identification, defining his ideal terrorist organization as
an equivocal group of assassins called ‘The White Hunters’. Were they white supremacists or an anti-white movement far ahead of the Black Muslims? The extreme right or far left of the Chinese? Representatives of Hassan i Sabbah or the White Goddess? No one knew and in this uncertainty lay the particular terror they inspired. (TE2 9)
This equivocation—is he siding with friends or foes, agents or counteragents?—is fundamental to Burroughs’s political identity. If it makes sense to call upon the framework of political philosophy, and the particular terms of Hardt and Negri’s manifesto—and that is a big if: ‘Just a writer is all’—then what Malcolm Bull says of Empire would apply to Burroughs’s project also: ‘You may be able to threaten the world with a Stanley knife, but you cannot build a new society with one’ (2001:6).
PRE-SENT TIME/WHAT WASHINGTON? WHAT ORDERS?
Inaugurating the cut-up project, Minutes to Go signaled a preoccupation with time—and not only in its title or in the recurrence of the word across numerous texts. This insistence on temporality begs the question of the urgency invoked by the text’s title. Of course, we could take this as calling upon the conventional avant-garde association between formal rupture and historical crisis, but the obvious context—the international resurgence of collage-based practices in the 1950s and 1960s—relates cut-up methods to the détournement of materials taken from a rapidly expanding consumer culture and global media industry, and in no way does this account for Minutes to Go’s injunction to read the method as a practical response to conditions of emergency. Alternatively, we might take the title to imply a countdown to nuclear doomsday, in line with a Cold War reading of the Nova conspiracy. But this context is conjured only by Gregory Corso’s poem, beginning ‘Bomb decade’ (MTG 32), and the effect is strikingly anomalous. No, the missing dimension is not historical but biblical time. Burroughs’s invocation of the Gospel according to St. John--‘In THEE beginning was THE word’ (MTG 59)—points toward a literal rendition of the apocalypse promised in the book’s title: a revelation of the future, the end of this world.
This context enables us first of all to understand the evangelical character of Burroughs’s promotion of cut-up practices; getting others to see what he had seen was indeed a kind of ‘missionary work’. Secondly, it allows us to interpret one of the key claims for cutting up texts: ‘this is the terminal method for/ finding the truth’ (MTG 5). In other words, we might see the activity as performing a version of biblical exegesis in the tradition of Christian eschatology: as a pre-millennial faith determines that history is written before it happens and all signs point toward the end of the world, so too the true meaning of contemporary events can be read through a literal interpretation of the prophetic Word. Burroughs’s observation that Minutes to Go ‘has turned out to be a prophetic book’ (Job 73) only confirms its original intention. Although the internal evidence is minimal—one of Gysin’s phrases declares, ‘We have seen the future’ (MTG 7); another cites ‘“AFTER THE GREAT AWAKENING”’ (MTG 9)—Naked Lunch had already established Burroughs’s mock selfidentification, both generally—‘This is Revelation and Prophecy’ (NL 208)—and specifically: ‘“Yes sir, boys, the shit really hit the fan in ’63,” said the tiresome old prophet can bore the piss out of you in any space-time direction’ (NL 204–5).
While the sources of Burroughs’s apocalyptic cut-up vision were diverse—from Spengler’s Decline of the West to Gysin’s knowledge of occult traditions—the point remains that this vision was far from anomalous.20 In fact, we can locate it within the cultural history studied by, among others, Paul Boyer in Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Here we find both local resonances—prophecy believers are, Boyer notes, very careful readers of the newspapers—and large ones. His conjunction of ancient belief and modern technology reads, for example, like a synoptic account of the Nova conspiracy: ‘In an age of computers, space travel, and genetic engineering, a genre of visionary writing […] shaped countless believers’ views of what lay ahead for humankind’ (1992:21). Above all, there is Boyer’s observation that a culture of biblical apocalypticism has informed American politics, especially from the Cold War onwards. In this light, the most striking resonance properly concerns the future—that is, the present post-Cold War world, in which George W. Bush’s American foreign policy has been drafted in theological terms as a global struggle between the forces of good and an axis of evil. Since the world stands, as I write (Present Time: 15 March 2003), on the brink of a war that would be as religious as it was geopolitical—sustained by an eschatological vision almost as much as by the doctrine of ‘full spectrum dominance’21—the prophetic force of Burroughs’s fiction can only seem grimly accurate. As he put it in Naked Lunch (referring to the ill-omened last days in the Mayan calendar): ‘The Ouab Days are upon us’ (NL 211).
From this point, and with uncanny precision, it would be possible to read the Nova conspiracy as a historical analysis disguised as prophetic fiction, to see in the Biologic Courts a version of the United Nations, in the Nova Mob an Imperial America, and in Hassan i Sabbah an avatar of Osama bin Laden, even down to conflating the assassin’s ‘phantom knife’, the cut-up artist’s ‘Stanley blade’, and the box cutters used by the 9/11 hijackers. Such a ‘retroactively’ prophetic reading would apply to Burroughs’s ‘Word’ the hermeneutic principles of religious fundamentalists who, for example, read Saddam Hussein as the Antichrist and the harbinger of Armageddon in both Gulf War I and Gulf War II.22 It would also take literally Burroughs’s status as a prophet—a status that critics usually acknowledge, but as if it had no bearing on their criticism. But an absolute literalism is entirely appropriate, for what Burroughs meant by a ‘precise intersection point’ does indeed work on this basis. Partly inspired by his reading of J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (1927), Burroughs’s obsessive activity of collecting cut-up ‘coincidences’ always assumed an element of apparently reductive literalism, such as finding the precise repetition of a name or a number. To read Burroughs in what he called ‘pre-sent’ time requires taking literally both the ‘intersection point’, defined as ‘a decoding operation, you might say, relating the text to external coordinates’ (3M 136), and his suggestion that some of his texts ‘have a long germination period seeds you might say’ (3M 122). Inverting our expectations of chronology and causality, this notion of the text as a seed projects its historical referent into the future. When this projection is recognized, our reading is necessarily predetermined as prophetic.
The specific seed I have in mind is found, with variations, in a number of Burroughs’s cut-up texts, but appeared for the first time in ‘Operation Soft Machine/Cut’, a two-page piece published in the fall of 1961. Needless to say, this ‘seed’ has been the answer from which I started, in expectation that it would reveal to me my own question.
The first text to use a three-column newspaper layout, ‘Operation Soft Machine/Cut’ presents in a condensed, often cryptic and elliptical form, material mostly made familiar in the trilogy of novels (the piece is billed as ‘from a work in progress’), while it recycles key elements from Minutes to Go—including its title, repeated as a refrain throughout. Starting ‘IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD. And the word is the virus instrument’, the text introduces the basic Nova conspiracy plot with an equivocation (‘Suspending disbelief that such an invasion deal has taken place HOW CAN it be re-written’ [Burroughs 1961b:76]) and identifies itself as a manual for resistance: ‘THE FOLLOWING PAGES ARE BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS FOR ANTI*TRAK AGENTS: Exercise in phantom positions of GUERRILLA WAR’ (76). This is followed by Mao’s famous ‘sixteen character’ formulation of military principles (‘Enemy advance we retreat. Enemy retreat WE ADVANCE. ENEMY ENCAMP we agitate. Enemy tire WE ATTACK’ [1961b:76]) and an unusually politicized economic context in which ‘THE OUAB DAYS’ are associated with ‘the dollar blight’. There are then sections on the dangers of the autonomous computing machine (citing Wiener’s cybernetics theory), the manipulations of the society of the spectacle (‘Word and image machine of world press and Follywood controlling and downgrading’ [1961b:77]), and an account of liberation through détournement (‘The dummy revolt flashed round the world when they took it to Cut City and talked out of turn and threw the word and image back’ [1961b:77]). Finally, there is an early version of Hassan i Sabbah’s opening speech in Nova Express and a closing, apocalyptic vision of ‘[a]gents who operate outside the lines saying most awful things totally un-top secret to top annihilating all’ (1961b:77).
This, then, is the context for the text’s point of intersection with present time:
THESE ARE BATTLE
tourists/free door ways/ cut
word lines/shift tangle cut all words lines/ ‘I said the
Chief of Police skinned alive in Bagdad [sic] not Washington D.C.’
// CUT CUT ‘Cholera epidemic in
Stockholm’ // ‘Scotland Yard assassinates the Prime Minister
in a Rightist coup’ // ‘Switzer/
land freezes all foreign assets’
// ‘Mindless idiot you have
liquidated the Commissar’ // (1961b:77)
In a first approach to these lines, we can read them as terroristic applications of the cut-up principle of détournement: counter-subversive orders to assassinate and destabilize are turned back against those who issued the commands by a simple reordering of them. Phrased as reports of cut-up operations that worked, these bulletins do not sabotage the media’s representation of past events, but scramble the control machine’s orders for the future.
In a second approach, we should note how these lines return in other texts, because Burroughs updated them in a specific way. In the ‘Gongs of Violence’ chapter in the revised editions of The Soft Machine, they recur with minor changes followed by a significant additional line that identifies the focus of attention: ‘machine guns in Bagdad [sic] rising from the typewriter’ (SM2 161; SM3 153). Variants of this new line occur in several texts from 1964 and 1965 (‘Who Is the Walks Beside You Written 3rd?’ and ‘Old Photographer’ in The Burroughs File; ‘Introductions’, ‘In Present Time’, and ‘Formats: The Grid’ in The Third Mind). ‘Old Photographer’ is especially significant, not only because the line generates four new versions (including ‘empty oil drums in Baghdad’), but also because it is here that Burroughs developed his notion of the text as a ‘seed’ (BF 125). And so, while it is very likely that newspaper reports were his source material, it is very unlikely that Burroughs intended such phrases to function as cryptic historical references to events that had already occurred in Baghdad, such as the downfall of the monarchy in 1958, Iraq’s claim to sovereignty of Kuwait in 1961, or the Ba’th Party rebellion in 1963. They function instead as proleptic ‘references’ to the future, awaiting their point of intersection in the present. Primed by Burroughs’s thesis, and writing at a time when Washington is claiming it must attack Baghdad to prevent Baghdad from attacking Washington, I find in the report of an assassination intended for ‘Bagdad [sic] not Washington D.C.’ an intersection point that has an extraordinarily seductive potency. But what seduces me is not the uncanny illusion of prophecy—as if Burroughs knew more than he possibly could. The coincidence is not literally prophetic, but rather prophetically literal, a profoundly affective experience of intersection through which (in both senses of the word) I ‘realize’ Burroughs’s experiment with time.
In a third approach, we should note how Burroughs’s original lines recur in Nova Express, where they open the section ‘Will Hollywood Never Learn?’. Here, their immediate context plays on Burroughs’s equation of Time magazine with a machine for controlling the future rather than reporting the present (‘Insane orders and counter orders issue from berserk Time Machine’ [NE 62]), but they are also set up much earlier in the text by the Intolerable Kid: ‘I’ll by God show them how ugly the Ugly American can be […] They are skinning the chief of police alive in some jerkwater place. Want to sit in?’ (NE 12). This allusion to the Ugly American—the imperial fantasy identity of Burroughs’s persona in Queer, a novel set in ‘jerkwater’ colonial South American locales (Q 53, 105)23—crucially establishes a specific national frame of reference. Although the Nova conspiracy appears to subsume the Cold War conflict between America and Russia—and so to anticipate the kind of transnational global order of Empire mapped by Hardt and Negri—the specific context identifies the proper interpretation of the reordered war commands: the cut-up principle of cybernetic feedback coincides with what the CIA termed blowback—that is, the backfire of America’s imperial overreach. Rather than viewing contemporary terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda as alien throwbacks to a barbarian age, we can see them dialectically as the inner ‘truth’ of modern American policies of control, returned to sender as part of a self-feeding correspondence. In this sense, Burroughs’s power of prophecy, like his embrace of the Ugly American cold warrior identity, is better understood as an insight realized by the continuation of historical factors: ‘World politics in the twenty-first century’, wrote Chalmers Johnson, ‘will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century— that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post Cold War world’ (2000:238).
Finally, the original passage from ‘Operation Soft Machine/Cut’ encrypts a narrative into which we can insert Burroughs himself. In ‘I said the Chief of Police skinned alive in Bagdad [sic] not Washington D.C.’, we might identify the speaker as a senior CIA officer, the addressee as a covert operation assassin, and the scrambling of orders the work of Anti-Trak agents acting on Burroughs’s guerilla battle instructions. As is well known, during World War II, Burroughs went to Washington to join the OSS, the forerunner tothe CIA, but was turned down. ‘God knows what would have happened’, he later mused; ‘I could have wound up head of the CIA and I probably wouldn’t have written what I wrote’ (Lotringer 1981:539). Since what Burroughs did go on to write formed a kind of fantasy version of the career he did not enter, we are left with a paradoxical reading in which he both gives the orders to assassinate and cuts them up. Which side was Burroughs on? The only unequivocal answer is his warning against authority and agency that goes beyond the dialectic of ‘sides’: ‘Where I come I kill both friend and foe.’ This was the anti-political maxim of the cut-up project, Burroughs’s program for the cutting up of politics.
1. I say ‘supposed’ advisedly: Burroughs and Gysin—above all Gysin—were well aware that a new movement required a foundation story, and their often-repeated anecdotes should be seen as a creation myth rather than as a necessarily factual account.
2. In The Job, Burroughs’s ‘most interesting experience with the earlier techniques was the realization that when you make cut-ups […] they do mean something, and often that these meanings refer to some future event’ (28).
3. ‘“Professor killed, accident U.S.” This is an old cut-up from Minutes to Go (1960), waiting all these years for the place in the Big Picture jigsaw puzzle where it would precisely fit’ (WL 182).
4. For the most notable exception, see Murphy 1997:139–40, 144–5.
5. For a more detailed textual account, see my forthcoming article, ‘“Burroughs is a poet too, really”: the Poetics of Minutes to Go’ in The Edinburgh Review (forthcoming, 2004).
6. This chapter references multiple versions of two volumes from Burroughs’s Nova/cut-up trilogy—The Soft Machine and the Ticket that Exploded. For specifics on the different editions, please see the Abbreviations page of this collection.
7. The generally preferred term appears to have changed over time: whereas Lydenberg (1987) and Miles (1992) use ‘cut-up trilogy’, Murphy (1997) and Russell (2001) use ‘Nova trilogy’.
8. Letter to Jeff Nuttall, 20 August 1964 (Fales Library, New York University).
9. Most of the material published in Electronic Revolution also appeared in The Job.
10. Letter to Dave Hazelwood, 27 May 1960 (Bancroft Library, UCLA at Berkeley). After the actual date, Burroughs added ‘No Time’. This was one of several ways in which he marked the temporality of his correspondence throughout the 1960s, the most common form appearing in The Yage Letters, where his letter of 21 June 1960 is followed by ‘Present Time’ and ‘Pre-Sent Time’ (1963:59). Such epistolary dating practices formed an important parallel to the deconstruction of the time of writing and reading carried out by Burroughs’s formal cut-up experiments.
11. Letter to Allen Ginsberg, 10 November 1960 (Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, Ginsberg Collection).
12. Letter to Bill [Dobson?], 11 June 1960 (Department of Special Collections, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; The Ginsberg Circle: Burroughs-Hardiment Collection [MS 63 C: c:1]).
13. For the origin of this line, see LWB 298. 14. Letter to Dave Hazelwood, 26 July 1960 (Bancroft Library, UCLA at Berkeley).
15. Although his interest is aesthetic rather than political, Géfin has also addressed the ‘problematics of reading cutups without actual cutup experience’: ‘[T]he reader cannot be expected to duplicate the original collage experience […] by being exposed to the results of that primary experience’ (1987:95).
16. The problem of maintaining a consistent hold on the relationships between theory and method and between the practical and the rhetorical is revealingly illustrated by the self-contradictions in Todd Tietchen’s (otherwise very productive) article. For example, on the one hand, he relates cut-up methods to the détournement strategies of the Situationists and to the postmodern activism of ‘Guerilla Semiotics’ and ‘Culture Jamming’, and on the other he notes: ‘Historically speaking, cut-ups belong to the movement towards self-reflexive fiction that dominated much of American writing during the 1960s’ (2001:124). Equally revealing (see note 7) is the fact that Tietchen refers to the ‘Nova books’.
17. Letter to David Hazelwood, 24 June 1960 (Department of Special Collections, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; The Ginsberg Circle: Burroughs-Hardiment Collection [MS 63 C: c:3]).
18. The legacy of this occult political dimension is clearest in the work of Hakim Bey, in such texts as T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (New York: Autonomedia, 1991). 19. Letter to Bill [Dobson?], 11 June 1960, and Letter to Dave Hazelwood, 27 May 1960.
20. For other accounts of Burroughs’s relation to apocalypticism, see Frank Kermode (1967), Richard Dellamora (1995), Edward J. Ahearn (1996), and Peter von Ziegesar (1997).
21. As former President Jimmy Carter noted in March 2003, the only religious leaders to support the attack on Iraq as a ‘just war’ were ‘a few spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention who are greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological, or final days, theology’ (9 March 2003, <www.bushwatch.com>).
22. ‘The Persian Gulf War of 1991’, notes Boyer, ‘triggered a wave of prophecy interest focused on Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and his plans for rebuilding ancient Babylon, whose end-time destruction is foretold in the Book of Revelation’ (1992:280); in March 2003, the Bush Watch website featured numerous articles on the same theme, one quoting the head of the Jerusalem Prayer Team, who believed that ‘a war with Iraq could be a “dress rehearsal for Armageddon”—the fulfillment of biblical prophecy’ (16 March 2003, <www.bushwatch.com>).
23. On Burroughs, Queer and the Ugly American, see Harris (2003), chapter 3.
Ahearn, E. J. (1996) Visionary Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press).
Benjamin, W. (1934) Understanding Brecht, Bostock, A. trans. (London: Verso, 1977).
Bowles, P. (1972) Without Stopping (New York: Ecco, 1984).
Boyer, P. (1992) Time Shall be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Bull, M. (2001) ‘You can’t build a new society with a Stanley knife’, London Review of Books, 4 October, pp.3-7.
Burroughs, W. S. (1961a) ‘Comments on the Night Before Thinking’, Evergreen Review (5)20, September, pp. 31–6.
—— (Fall 1961b) ‘Operation Soft Machine/Cut’, Outsider 1, pp. 74–7.
—— (1966) ‘A Tape Recorder Experiment’, Klactoveedsedsteen 3, May, pp. 20–1.
Burroughs, W. S., and Gysin, B. (1960) The Exterminator (San Francisco: The Auerhahn Press).
—— (1973) A Descriptive Catalogue of the William S. Burroughs Archive (London: Covent Garden). Compiled by Miles Associates.
Davidson, M. (1997) Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Dellamora, R. ed. (1995) Postmodern Apocalypse: Theory and Cultural Practice at the End (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Dunne, J. W. (1927) An Experiment with Time (New York: Macmillan).
Géfin, L. (1987) ‘Collage, Theory, Reception, and the Cutups of William Burroughs’, Literature and the Other Arts 13, pp. 91–100.
Ginsberg, A., and Orlovsky, P. (1980) Strait Hearts’ Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters 1947–1980, Leyland, W. ed. (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine).
Gysin, B., and Wilson, T. (1982) Here to Go: Planet R-101 (San Francisco: Re/Search).
Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2000) Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Harris, O. (2003) William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press).
Hutcheon, L. (1980) Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (New York: Methuen).
Johnson, C. (2000) Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (London: Time Warner, 2002).
Kermode, F. (1967) The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press).
Latham, R. (1993) ‘Collage as Critique and Invention in the Fiction of William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker’, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts (5)3, pp. 46–57.
Leary, T. (1987) ‘Cyberpunks’, <http://www.textfiles.com.drugs/leary002.txt>, 29 January 2003.
Lotringer, S. (1981) ‘Exterminating’, IN Lotringer, S. ed., Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960–1997 (USA: Semiotext[e], 2001), pp. 526–44.
Lydenberg, R. (1987) Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press).
Maynard, J., and Miles, B. (1978) William S. Burroughs, A Bibliography 1953–73 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia).
Mikriammos, P. (1975) William S. Burroughs: la vie et l’oeuvre (Paris: Seghers).
Miles, Barry (1976) ‘Introduction’, IN Burroughs, W. S., Le métro blanc, Beach M., and Pélieu-Washburn, C. trans. (Paris: Bourgois/Seuil).
—— (1992) William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, rev. and updated edition (UK: Virgin, 2002).
Mottram, R. (1965) Recontre avec William Burroughs, IN Hibbard, A. ed., Conversations with William S. Burroughs (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), pp. 11–15.
Murphy, T. S. (1997) Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Richter, H. (1964) Dada: Art and Anti-Art, Britt, D. trans. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965).
Russell, J. (2001) Queer Burroughs (New York: Palgrave).
Schwitters, K., and Hausmann, R. (1962) PIN (London: Gabberbocchus).
Tietchen, T. (2001) ‘Language out of Language: Excavating the Roots of Culture Jamming and Postmodern Activism from William S. Burroughs’s Nova Trilogy’, Discourse 23.3, Fall 2001, pp. 107–29.
Weissner, C. (1983) ‘Preface’, IN Norse, H., Beat Hotel (San Diego: Atticus), pp. x–xii.
Ziegesar, P. Von (1997) ‘After Armageddon: Apocalyptic Art since the Seventies’, IN Strozier, C. B., and Flynn, M. eds, The Year 2000: Essays on the End (New York: New York University Press).
excerpt from the book: Retaking the Universe (William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization)
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