William Burroughs: Paranoia as Liberation Thanatology


Consequently since my arrival five hundred thousand years ago I’ve had one thought on my mind: the escape plan…

– William Burroughs

Rereading Burroughs is like falling through the abyss on glass wings, one is never sure if the shattered reflections on the black seas below are of one’s own paranoia or just the truth of nature revealed as alien topology. The cartography of annihilation is always a smile hiding in the dark. Burroughs is that smile.

Naked Lunch still packs the stiletto poetry of the street, a free flow impressionism that sinks deep. Burroughs voice is brisk and driven, speed is the game:

The Rube flips in the end, running through empty automats and subway stations, screaming: `Come back, kid!! Come back!!’ and follows his boy right into the East River, down through condoms and orange peels, mosaic of floating newspapers, down into the silent black ooze with gangsters in concrete, and pistols pounded flat to avoid the probing finger of prurient ballistic experts.

The creatures that populate his universe are the eccentrics, misfits, broken women, junkies, all crazed and nefarious denizens of an alter-world below ours, a world of addiction and freedom – a realm where men love men and drugs seem to be a way of assuaging the effects of a fascist state that excludes them. One time lover of Allen Ginsberg the poet, a traveler into the lands of the deathvine, Yage. A tripper before tripping was even registered in the hippiedom days. The Big Daddy of the Beats. A word he hated.

I first came across his works in the Navy. Stationed in Norfolk shipyards. His work and that of Henry Miller were lying around the duty station. Spent my nights on the teletype with coffee and a copy of these books. Opened a world. Having grown up in the fantasy lands of West Texas in a reality studio of southern mythology and oil field populism I was thrust into Virginia, then California afterwards like a naked baby. Assigned to the Naval base in Monterrey I was caught between a beach world and club world serving officers in an old resort like post-graduate school.  Time on my hands I began to hop up to San Francisco and entered the late sixties world of drugs and music. Burroughs was one of those early guides. During this period I saw Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin, Baez, and many more at the Monterrey Pop Festival during that Summer of Love (’69). Of course living through it one didn’t think of it like that. Did the stupid thing. Went AWOL. Chased a girl to Seattle. Lived on the lame. Wandered into Canada. Came back, served time. The rest is what was left… the madness of my youth.

Working through his collected interviews is like meeting myself in a time-machine. There was a time when I read him till I was blind. Well not blind, but literally wandering in laughter and tears down dead alleys and forgotten dives. The man’s dead-pan humor always wakens in me that strange passion for the shotgun. Suicide is not an option. Only one’s life lived completely in its schizophrenic flux is the perfect suicide note to leave behind for those of earth’s blasted children.

For Burroughs America was already showing signs of its fascist tendencies toward control and corporatism:

I feel that the principle instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought, feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host. (p. 43)

Semiosis as alien disease: signifiers as parasites, material entities controlling thought-lines in the human host-machine. Made me think of Lacan’s notion of the materiality of signifiers:

You realize that my intention is not to turn them into “subtle” relations, that my aim is not to confuse letter with spirit … and that I readily admit that one kills if the other gives life, insofar as the signifier— you are perhaps beginning to catch my drift— materializes the instance of death. But whereas it is first of all the materiality of the signifier that I have emphasized, that materiality is singular in many ways, the first of which is not to allow of partition. Cut a letter into small pieces, and it remains the letter that it is— and this in a completely different sense than Gestalt theory can account for with the latent vitalism in its notion of the whole.2

Zizek would comment on this passage, saying, this uncanny “machine in the ghost”— what Lacan called the autonomy of the signifier with regard to the signified— points towards the most difficult and radical sense in which one should assert materialism: not only the “priority of being over consciousness,” in the traditional Marxist sense that ideas are grounded in the material social and productive process, and not only the material (ideological) apparatuses that sustain ideology, but also the immanent materiality of the ideal order itself.3

The Political Machine

For Burroughs the political-machine was based on total control through the elimination of affect; yet, there needed to be a body outside the machine of politics to keep the entropic effects of this production of dis-affection going, otherwise the machine would stop. The Bureaucratic regimes were the administrators of the political machine that kept it well oiled and lubricated, allowing it to put the public and even its own governmental hierarchy to sleep.  Burroughs was not kind to scientists either:

…if anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers, definitely scientists. Yes, I’m definitely anti-scientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as the real and only universe, the universe of scientists themselves – they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled – in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works – the mass media. (p. 44)

Of course for Burroughs what we call reality was already a constructed reality  – one put together by a as Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle would term by a new “science of domination: broken down into further specialties such as sociology, applied psychology, cybernetics, and semiology, which oversee the self-regulation of every phase of the process”.4

A lifelong preoccupation with Control and Virus. Having gained access the virus uses the host’s energy, blood, flesh and bones to make copies of itself. Model of dogmatic insistence never from without was screaming in my ear, “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”5

Burroughs in his early and late works believed he was providing the first initiative in a final wake up call for humanity. His word viruses, cut-ups, infobombs, interzone travels were proximate estimations of our slowly decaying reality matrix. He believed if we did not unravel the matrix it would cocoon us in a tissue of lies so pure we’d never escape. I think he is right. Of course I say that with a poker smile.

Followers of obsolete unthinkable trades, doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, officials of unconstituted police states, brokers of exquisite dreams and nostalgias tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, drinkers of the Heavy Fluid sealed in translucent amber of dreams.6

Alien traveler or lunatic pirate captain and leader of an ultimate break-out revolution from prison planet earth Burroughs was a time-bomb for those who know.

“The same may be true of the word. The word itself may be a virus that has achieved a permanent status with the host.”

Ultimately the word was the true escape hatch, the creative power of the artists in whatever medium:

“Yes, for all of us in the Shakespeare Squadron, writing is just that: not an escape from reality, but an attempt to change reality, so the writer can escape the limits of reality.”7

This sense of escaping the limits that have been imposed on us by the reality engineers of our social matrix was at the heart of his project. We still have much to learn from this escape artist. Burroughs was our post-modern shaman, a creature who pushed the limits of the word and his Word to the break-out point beyond which lies the interzones of our revolutionary future. It’s up to us to follow… the creative way. Eccentric, marginal, wild and alive.

LISTEN TO MY LAST WORDS anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever—      8

1. Burroughs Live. The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs (Semiotext(e) 2001)
2. Jacques Lacan, Écrits, New York: Norton 2006, p. 16.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 55-56). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
4. Debord, Guy (2011-03-15). Society of the Spectacle (Kindle Locations 707-708). Soul Bay Press. Kindle Edition.
5. Burroughs, William S. (2007-12-01). Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Burroughs, William S.) (Kindle Locations 2595-2597). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
6. William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch (Kindle Locations 510-513). Kindle Edition.
7. Burroughs, William S. (2007-12-01). Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (Burroughs, William S.) (Kindle Locations 518-519). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
8. Burroughs, William S. (2011-02-24). Nova Express (Burroughs, William S.) (p. 3). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

One thought on “William Burroughs: Paranoia as Liberation Thanatology

  1. Reblogged this on synthetic zero and commented:
    Interesting that shamanism is coming up a lot lately. I’ve been reading about it in connection with schizophrenia, Michael mentioned it today, a few others recently, and I was given book on Psychomagic, too. If there is a reason why so many of us are looking at psychopathology- if we’re right to suspect that ‘generalised lunacy’ is here- then it seems like we’re also looking to the shamanic as a way out. Yes, a way out. I’ve been considering the left recently and it seem to come all too often to a game of hope and moral blackmail. The dream floats free of the dreamer and comes to dominate him. To escape the limits of reality.

    I’m wondering if the best we can hope for is in fact the very evasion of control that has so often been cast as the ultimate irresponsibility. To every answer comes the question of how you feed 10billion people. The answer is you don’t because you can’t because to the unconscious the demand is that you- yes you Mr Hickman- get out there and distribute the loaves and the fishes. More leftist melancholy ensues, rhapsodising itself into the ultimate agonies of masochism, “radical victimology”. First task of control evasion is to evade the snares and traps of perpetual moralism.

    Ballard said that he couldn’t get Burroughs; sexuality, drugs, and paranoia separated them. Ballard said Burroughs was an authentic paranoid. It’s trite but you got to ask it any, don’t you? The meaning of this paranoia. Clinically paranoids are marked by a cognitive deficits involving poor information gathering in relation to decision making, exacerbated by an over-active agential attribution system. It’s not wrong but it’s not enough. In Hegelese:

    “The isolated person is thus, like the structureless mass of people,
    object and not subject of the process of history. The heteronomous, the
    controlled, the persecuted, the delusional paranoid is handed over
    defenselessly to the objectively murderous relations of production of in
    the hegemonic social “order.” Thus paranoia is a realistic expression of

    Burroughs was all about this paranoia and it must be placed with his escapological aspects. Paranoia finds power everywhere and couples things up in an infinite and “bizarre” spiral of connectionism and interactionism such that the fear that you’ve irradiated my meal bespeaks Fukushima and the realities of everyday poison and the noxiousness of an irradiated psychosphere and the distrust of “the powerful” and it keeps connecting like an unending sentence that can’t and won’t ever abbreviate itself until a network or a spider’s web of conspiratorial energy is dispersed through the entire social fabric and and but it gets overinterpreted so that the psychiatric profession has been able to reabsorb the key insight and neutralise it.

    Except that in tracing the capillary web of power it also comes to the startling conclusion that Baudrillard would make about Foucault’s theorisation of power: it is visible insofar as it disappears. It’s gone. It’s vanished. The paranoid has his nonspecific floating “They”- the conspiratorial plural- in order to reflect this still strange and probably still offensive news. Seeing that there is nothing to see and seeing it everywhere the paranoid is capable of following a path of disappearance. He is on the look out for shadowy corners in which to hide.

    On the ‘immanent materiality of the ideal order itself’ I doubt there is anyone quite as up for it as Stirner, who as you might know is connected to Lacan through post-anarchism. Whatever. The materiality of the ideal can be spoken about but is it in terms of its effects or what? Lacan’s claims on the origin of knowledge in the paranoiac knowledge of objects: the idea that knowledge itself is persecutory. Isn’t it true? Isn’t it the case that consciousness itself is the very urgrund of all our persecutions?

    To know thyself is to be lacerated by self-hate and to wrap it all up in self-love. That is why the phobia of negative thinking. The negative chatter in one’s own mind- I’m lazy, I’m a liar, I’m a hypocrite, I’m thick, my mind is arid, I have nothing important to say, I’m a bad lover, a bad father, a bad worker, a bad colleague, a bad communist, a bad whateverthefuckandIcan’tevendecideanything- is always treated as a persecutory enemy and identified as something to be dissolved, to be dissipated, to get some cognitive distance and disidentification from. Well it’s actually the opposite: this is the intimate paranoia that detects the defects in carrying this hallucination that you are a self at all. It’s not going away by wishing it away. You’ve got to get right in there. Disidentification, sure…but mind how you go. Why reject the dissatisfaction? Accelerate it to the point that it collapses the system of the semiology of negative self-attribution.

    Simone Weil starved herself to death in solidarity with others. She might not be everyone’s favourite person to talk to about it, but for what it’s worth she had this much to say: “Turn all disgust into disgust with the self”.

    They used to talk about getting out of your head. Jodorowsky has a psychomagical ritual for that. There are drugs for that. There are psychopathologies and ecstatic dancing and religious and mystical experiences to seek out for that. Oh dear. The postmodern shaman comes back around. I almost said temporary autonomous zone but I stopped myself. How do you feed 10billion people? You don’t just walk off, that’s for sure.

    Our politics are serious. They are singularly serious. They come together with techne and rationalism. Out at the fringes we’re talking about re-engineering the whole thing. Fuck nature- nature’s just waiting to be mutated. Can we even start with ourselves? The neurostimulatory experiments in authentic desubjectivation. Fuck, can we even just begin with survival today and tomorrow and the soft warmth of our fragile shit smeared bodies. I’m not against xenofeminism; I’m not against anything xeno.

    The return of the weightiness of rationalism raises a fear for those who see psychopathology not as all breakdown but also as breakthrough, as Laing put it. Paranoia, to be beside one’s own mind. Is this the first reactive wave against the new rationalism? It isn’t a rejection but a warping and side-ways looking everywhere at once. The return of reason breeds new and wonderful monsters. A new irrationalism.

    I am an escapologist: for my first trick I will disappear from my own head.


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