Burroughs and Postmodernism

“I am also interested in the discontinuation of contractions. Medial letters are as valid as any others. I have already begun to revise my speech patterns accordingly.”
–Don Delillo, End Zone

It’s a rather minor bit of throw away dialogue from End Zone. But, to ask a leading question, is it really? Jack Kerouac famously rejected the standard seventeen syllable format for the haiku in favor of something which preserved the essence of the format while rejecting the letter of the law. In that vein, I would argue, Don Delillo, J.G. Ballard and Chuck Palahniuk have preserved the essence of the cut-up technique of William S. Burroughs while rejecting the rigid format of physically cutting up and repasting text.

The essence of the cut-up technique is Burroughs’ belief that language is a virus. You can take a virus and cut it up a thousand times and rearrange it and it will always come out the same way. Similarly, Burroughs believed that by cutting and repasting text the truth would come into a much more lucid view because our lives were so chaotic and because the language would rearrange itself naturally. I don’t consider it trivial that while reading End Zone I noticed a sign for a bar called The End Zone that I had passed 1,000 times and never noticed.

The cut-up highlights the disjointedness of post-World War II Anglo-American global culture. This basic theme is essentially what the postmodern transgressive “movement” (if we can use such a word — it is used here merely for practical purposes) has tied its collective hitch to. Consider briefly the linguistic stylings of Delillo, Ballard and Palahniuk. Strange, iconic characters who possess an overwhelming amount of factoids from the “white noise” of public discourse at their disposal. They seem to spout these trivias without any regard to situation or context. They flow forth from their mouths independently of character — indeed the rants of Gary Harkness, Tyler Durden or… James Ballard would be equally at home in the mouths of most any of the protagonists of the aforementioned novelists. What matters is not the specificity of the words but the representation of a world where we have been bombarded by facts, figured, statistics, charts, graphs and sound bites and they have now taken a deep hold in our psyche.

Fight Club is a cut up. High Rise is a cut up. End Zone is a cut up. Take the apocalyptic ramblings of Gary Harkness, cut them out and repaste them into the mouth of Brandy Alexander or whomever. I suggest that it would not significantly change the novel. Thus we see the cut-up theory of Burroughs in its most practical form. The static of the media integrated into our language, cut up and respliced into the mouths of the protagonist. Randomly. Chaotically. Cacophonously. You don’t need to cut and paste anymore, your brain does it automatically. The cut-up is sculpted into something much more meaningful than just a random blur of language.

Consider Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. Were this novel released today and without the Prophet’s name on it there is little doubt that it would fit nicely with the Delillo/Pynchon crowd. Burroughs did utilize strict cut up for this, however what is more apparent in this work is the essence of the cut-up. He jumps from character to character, changing perspective indiscriminately and without warning, throwing in his theories and readings on lost cities, drug use, homosexuality, black magic and pirates without strict regard for plot, story structure or narrative convention. The end of the novel degenerates into a series of tangled blurbs about the nature of war.

Burroughs was known for the past several decades as a sort of avuncular figure to the Beats. I submit that this interpretation will hold less and less truth as the years pass on. Literary criticism is always in a constant state of flux and this flux is largely due to the waxing and waning of an individual author’s broader social significance and influence. What context do we view Burroughs in today? The prose of the Beats has remained influential, however their relative optimism and particular brand of anti-establishment rebellion have been on the wane since the end of that most storied of eras, the 60s. Is Kerouac as important today as he was in 1965? Is Ginsberg? I would say no. However, Burroughs, long considered a mid-level cousin of the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance, whose most didactic praise largely came from bizarre occultist perverts (myself included) has seen himself reborn in the form of the postmodern transgressive novel. We see him not only in the cut-up technique but also in the themes and subject matter. Gay sex. Drugs. Black magic. Psychic warfare.

If there is any justice in this world, Burroughs will be an American Shakespeare for a culture that did not truly hit its stride until after the Second World War. Naked Lunch was not the great American Beat novel but rather an out of place artifact that appeared approximately 20 years before its time.

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