by Roberta Fornari
William S. Burroughs wrote Blade Runner, a Movie in 1979. Although this short novella does not represent a turning point in his career, it is exceptional for the sharpness of its apocalyptic vision and the novelty of its presentation technique. Critical works and essays on Burroughs’s corpus, however, have not often mentioned Blade Runner, despite the fact that its futuristic vision provides an unusual showcasing of Burroughs’s political engagements, which often remain buried in other texts. From this point of view, Blade Runner is a good example of how (science) fiction goes beyond the writer’s simple presentation of facts and enters the realm of social commentary. The book/film projects the raw facts of the contemporary American political and health care systems into a possible future, in which uncontrolled diseases, overpopulation and the breakdown of law and order provide the context for a struggle for freedom. In this future, middle class, bourgeois lifestyles are attacked by anarchic values that often become individual or collective violent interventions against an established rule; violence appears as resistance to social control and as a means of liberation for both masses (selforganized groups or gangs) and individuals in order to give human beings a chance to achieve a radically new form of freedom.
In this essay I will present the background and history of Blade Runner as an example of an innovative fiction-movie form and discuss the political, social and ethical implications of Burroughs’s presentation of violence, which will be shown to be highly ambivalent, both stylistically and in terms of actual political content. Stylistically, many of the descriptions of violence in Blade Runner make use of divertissement,1 a technique of textual variation that tends towards playful purposes and mockery, aiming to subvert the reader’s expectations of conventional and stylistic clichés. The informal collective violence presented in Blade Runner is often resolved through comedic slapstick interludes that invoke divertissement. These scenes, in which disorder prevails, rather than any logical, political and ideological opposition aimed at changing social values, also provide the clue to Burroughs’s ‘politics’ in Blade Runner. I argue that Burroughs’s purpose is to present a revolution that is not oriented toward the establishment of a new form of the State or society, but one that is against established social order per se, as a precondition for a radically new form of freedom and independence. The target of revolt is therefore not simply the prevailing social order, but also all forms of coercion and discipline, all forms of superimposition and moralistic values that undermine individual freedom. This critique of order and control, a key feature within all Burroughs’s works, is complemented by a strong utopian element, signaling a sometimes-tense interplay between his radical individualism and his recognition of the urgent necessity for humanity to find new methods of emancipation. The tension between these elements is also present as a stylistic feature in his refusal to use linear order and traditional storyline, so that the prominent meta-textual theme, exemplified in the ‘characters’ quest for freedom, comes to reflect, in various ways, the author’s own struggle against control.2 In Blade Runner, much of the violence and the struggle for freedom involves social forces implicated in global change, including the attempted superimposition of oppressive laws and arbitrary order and the chaos engendered by such impositions; therefore the book also functions as a prophetic announcement of the emerging conflicts surrounding globalization and its critics.
BLADE RUNNER, A MOVIE: HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
Written in 1979, in the form of a screenplay and definable as a ‘fiction film’, Blade Runner utilizes Burroughs’s typical satirical style and addresses the problems of health care, medicine distribution and the transformation of the urban social environment into an anarchic zone, as a result of the government’s inability to deal with social problems and needs. Following three defeated Health Care Acts in the early 1980s, social riots erupt as a consequence of the administration’s mistakes in coping with the problems of an overpopulated New York. Violence and social conflicts give rise to the future scenario within which the story takes place: New York looks like the aftermath of a nuclear attack—‘Whole areas in ruins, refugee camps, tent cities. Millions who have fled the city will not return. New York is a ghost city’ (BR 6th section). Beginning with the first lines of the story, the extra-diegetic narrator tells the facts to a projected character, B.J. (a ‘character’ also featured prominently in The Ticket that Exploded), in the immediacy of the present tense. He explains that this film is about different aspects of human life and social systems, and in particular about ‘overpopulation and the growth of vast service bureaucracies. The FDA and the AMA and the big drug companies are like an octopus on the citizen’ (BR 1st section). The narrator then turns to his ‘listener’, B.J.:
[Y]ou are asking me to tell you in one sentence what this film is about? I’m telling you it is too big for one sentence—even a life sentence. For starters it’s about the National Health Insurance we don’t got. (BR 1st section)
The distinctive performative voice in Burroughs’s novels, together with the cinematic quality of the prose, transforms the text into a series of metamorphic images of an imminent reality not far from our own. The use of cinematic technique in one of the only Burroughs works presented directly as a film script has to be understood in the context of his other experiments with such imagery.
There are many features in Burroughs’s texts that have a cinematic influence and create a cinematic impression: the use of the present tense (a rhythmic verbal device typical of script descriptions and offscreen voices); the particularized descriptions of movements and acts that are veritable close-ups and long-shots (the shooting scenes in The Place of Dead Roads, the riots in Blade Runner which remind us of the similarly depicted riots in Naked Lunch); and the continuous back and forth focus on different single parts of the body, as if a camera eye was the observer and the writer only the ‘recording medium’ in the process. Through fragmentation and montage-like associations, these cinematic devices translate into words and give movement to the stillness of written language.
Burroughs worked directly with film as well as with sound recording in various media projects during the 1960s. These experiments shed light on his work with verbal language as well as on his interest in the relationship between images and words. Burroughs’s work with Brion Gysin, Ian Sommerville and Antony Balch in London and Paris led to the short features Bill and Tony, Towers Open Fire, The Cut-Ups and William Buys a Parrot, based to some extent on his written works (‘Towers Open Fire’ from Nova Express). The written works created in those years are understandably the most difficult to read in terms of linear order, but they are also the most cinematic in terms of the immediacy of their imagery and the resulting dreamlike effects. The Nova trilogy and The Wild Boys, written with the cut-up method, blend science fiction and utopian fantasy with repeated images of violence, challenging conventional moral codes and requiring the reader to ‘take sides’ in the wild boys’ conflict. The use of cut-ups interrupts the process of easily connecting episodes and story lines, forcing the brain to create new connections and associative lines—as in a movie with a hectic montage.
The coupling of cinematic style and technique with a satire of social conventions is well exemplified in Blade Runner, which is very loosely based on The Bladerunner, a mainstream science fiction novel published in 1974 by Alan Nourse. In an interview, Burroughs declared: ‘The idea of the underground medicine was in the book, and I got the idea from that. Then I got in touch with Nourse and he said he would be glad to have the name used because he considered it good publicity for his book’ (Skerl 1980:116). Whether the operation is a postmodern recycling process of sci-fi material or ‘solidarity between two writers’ is not important here. It is relevant, though, that Burroughs used the idea developed by another writer, transforming the story into a form that is not a movie and not exactly a script; it works as fiction but, as is often the case in Burroughs’s stories, the fiction’s political elements and implications are dreadfully similar to reality.
Nourse’s book, as well as many other science fiction works (Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson, for example), deals with the future of medicine and health care as a dystopia. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, public authorities establish a system to limit population growth. National health care is free on the condition that people affected by illness agree to be sterilized. Many people reject these draconian measures and an illegal medical system is created; doctors and nurses perform underground operations. The central character of Nourse’s story is Billy, the bladerunner, who smuggles medical tools and equipment and serves as a vital connection between doctors and the people who need operations because they have been disenfranchised from the officially sanctioned system.
In Burroughs’s version, the idea of underground medicine is drawn and transformed into a piece of avant-garde art and pamphlet-style divertissement, which calls attention to the general condition of humanity. The setting is New York, transformed into a sort of Interzone after riots erupt in the early 1980s against the Medicine Acts; New York City is divided into areas either patrolled by police or left, in their absence, to gangs or less-organized groups of local citizens.
The first sections of the screenplay describe the background for the events of the text in 2014, the year in which the movie would supposedly take place. Events previous to 2014 generate the postatomic setting and are described by a voice that seems to emerge, by its language and rhythm, from a media broadcast (a more literary than cinematic device of telling a story): ‘This film is about America. What America was and what America could be, and how those who try to stifle the American dream are defeated.’; ‘This film is about cancer and that’s a powerful subject.’; and ‘This film is about a second chance for Billy the blade runner, and for all humanity’ (BR 1st section).
The use of the metropolis as the setting for the film narrative has interesting parallels. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the metropolis has been the protagonist in many movies, a place of alienation and political control (Metropolis; Fritz Lang 1927), a postmodern locus of mysterious implication (Blade Runner, Ridley Scott 1982; Brazil, 1984 and 12 Monkeys, 1996, both by Terry Gilliam) and a virtual creation for total control over human bodies and energy (The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowsky 1999). Although we cannot be certain if these directors read Burroughs’s work, they were undoubtedly influenced by the pervasiveness of the zeitgeist that he tapped into. Blade Runner’s New York becomes the ‘world center for underground medicine, the most glamorous, the most dangerous, the most exotic, vital, far-out city the world has ever seen’ (BR 1st section). It is the ‘real’ city, after all, that is not very different from the idea and stereotype we receive from movies: New York is a place where ‘everything is possible’, a city that has always presented its events (fictional and real) as absolutely exceptional, and Burroughs is certainly aware of the overlapping strains of fiction and reality. The difference is that in Blade Runner, the disenfranchised population of New York City possesses a clear narrative rationale for the riots and revolts: these events are precipitated by the discontent that follows the legalization and government distribution of heroin. What Burroughs calls the ‘United States Health Service’ took over distribution through government clinics, and built up an intricate bureaucracy of corrupt police and investigators, so that ‘“[m]any people who were not addicts got on the program and made a comfortable living selling off their allowance”’ (BR 4th section). In Blade Runner’s fictional world, any attempt to regulate or impose ‘order’ marginalizes a social group, making the National Health Act as dangerous in its social effects as any other Act:
Ironically, the high death rate was largely due to the government’s efforts to forestall the outbreak by strict weapon-control measures. The National Firearms Registration Act of 1982 debarred anyone with a criminal record or any record of drug addiction or mental illness, and all those on the welfare rolls, from buying or possessing any firearms of any description including air guns. This left the disaffected middle-class in possession of more firearms than any other group. (BR 4th section)
This situation pushes the Percival’s Soldiers of Christ, a racist and fascist group, to attempt to take over New York and ‘slaughter all ethnic minorities, beatniks, dope-fiends’, etc. As is usual in Burroughs’s texts, warfare and riots give way to a humorous images, in this case of ‘doctors, nurses and orderlies’ fighting against the rioters with ‘scalpels saws and bedpans’ and other ready-made weapons. The Soldiers of Christ are defeated, ‘split into small groups and, abandoning their holy crusade, take to raping, looting, killing in the middle class neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan ….’ (BR 5th section). The result of the battles is a city divided into an ‘anarchic’ lower side where it is possible to be operated on and to find any drug, and the rest of the city, almost empty and abandoned, with ‘shabby open-air markets and vegetable gardens in vacant lots. Some are crowded, others virtually deserted’ (BR 3rd section).
BLADE RUNNER, A MOVIE AS POLITICAL COMMENTARY
Blade Runner was written while Burroughs was living in New York, and has to be understood within the political context of American society at this time. If we choose to separate these fictional scenarios from the relevant political issues, we would miss the underlying ‘ideology’ of the novel: Blade Runner warns against every attempt to disrupt the ethical value of freedom and individual choice through ‘top-down’ political intervention. The urgent need for liberation and freedom from any superimposition, and above all political control, shows an ambivalence that I will try to follow step by step in its implications.
Political control in advanced industrial societies is organized through institutional authority and political structure, which together come to form the State apparatus. In order to govern and administer the public sphere the State needs control and authority over the actions of individuals and groups. The State exerts power (more or less coercive) over individuals on whom rules are imposed, and makes use of bureaucratically organized police, armed forces, public administration, education, health care and environmental management systems. Political control in modern states therefore exhibits strong tendencies toward centralization and bureaucratization, tendencies that are accompanied by increasing diffuseness of authority and operational inefficiency, giving rise to contradictions. In Blade Runner, political control has become so diffuse that its limits and contradictions arouse a disruptive diverse response: ‘grassroots’ groups of people fighting against the Health Care Acts and producing ‘outlaw’ medicine instead of universal health care, a corrupt medical lobby defending its power, and scores of individuals who struggle to survive.
Helicopter view of Manhattan … Overpopulation has led to ever-increasing governmental control over the private citizen, not on the old-style police-state models of oppression and terror, but in terms of work, credit, housing, retirement benefits, and medical-care: services that can be withheld. These services are computerized. No number, no service. However, this has not produced the brainwashed standardized human units postulated by such linear prophets as George Orwell. Instead a large percentage of the population has been forced underground. How large, no one knows. These people are numberless. (BR 3rd section)
The implication of the term ‘numberless’ is double since it functions first, simply, as an indefinite term (we do not know how many people live underground) and, second, as a political referent: to be numberless implies the impossibility of being cured in a hospital or in any other health care structure. ‘So America goes underground. They all make their own medicines in garages, basements, and lofts, and provide their own service […] All you need is access to the medications’ (BR 1st section). The science fiction setting of underground laboratories, flooded lower tunnels giving rise to an ‘underground Venice’, and buildings ‘joined by suspension bridges, a maze of platforms, catwalks, slides, lifts’ (BR 1st section) is common to many of Burroughs’s works (especially the ‘Interzone’ of Naked Lunch). Such imagery is not so futuristic if we compare it to the appearance of cities in developing countries, or indeed to the emergence of ‘third world’ conditions in modern, capitalist societies. We should remember that the future imagined by Burroughs is the reality of the 1980s Ronald Reagan reforms that dismantled the New Deal and Great Society social welfare initiatives. Burroughs’s fictitious premises fit the reality of recent history:
By 1980, pressure had been growing to put through a National Health Act. This was blocked by the medical lobby, doctors protesting that such an Act would mean the virtual end of private practice, and that the overall quality of medical service would decline. The strain on an already precarious economy was also cited. Drug companies, fearing that price regulation would slash profits, spent millions to lobby against the proposed bill and ran full-page ads in all the leading newspapers. And above all, the health insurance companies screamed that the Act was unnecessary and could only lead to increased taxes for inferior service. (BR 3rd section)
In his article ‘William Burroughs and the Literature of Addiction’, Frank D. McConnell points out that science fiction is the least futuristic of popular genres, ‘attempting as it does a constant purification of the present through the neo-romance landscape of the future’ (1967:97). From this standpoint, Blade Runner represents an attempt to anticipate humanity’s future through the representation of the most dreadful risks in order to provide a ‘second chance’ for mankind to achieve a ‘stateless society’; Burroughs’s political utopia is therefore anarchic and anti-collectivist. In the story, Billy the bladerunner becomes the character who can travel back and forth in time, granting him a chance to correct his mistakes.
Aside from any possible interpretation of the screenplay’s literary genre, Burroughs offers an acute and realistic vision. Solving the problems of health care and medicine distribution (especially in developing countries) has become not only a political necessity in terms of the economic satisfaction of public needs, but also one of the main points of contemporary political struggle in Western countries. The welfare state is the organ of a general redistribution of wealth among the population and is, above all, the expression of ‘big government’ that has mutated into ‘a set of despotic instruments of domination for the totalitarian production of subjectivity’ (Hardt and Negri 2001:324, my translation). As explained by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, ‘“big government” leads the great orchestra of subjectivities transformed into commodities and establishes borders of desire and lines along which the work is being divided in the globalized order’ (324, my translation). The activities carried out by bureaucracies, private institutions with public functions and private health care firms, are all exemplars of control structures foisted upon individuals in terms of their obligation to choose only from what ‘the market offers’. But this ‘market’ tends more and more toward monopoly practices supported by big government. In reaction, Burroughs’s extra-diegetic narrator in Blade Runner asserts a supposedly anarchic, hyperbolic position that in fact expresses the values of the traditional small-scale capitalist: ‘Is this freedom? Is this what America stands for? […] We have been taught that if you put a better product on the free market, the superior product will sell’ (BR 1st section).
This is not to imply, however, that Burroughs ever intended to offer a classical political position. His anarchic view has always tended to favor forms of rebellion that are far from any acceptable political solution in a sociopolitical context of organized collectivities. His micro-societies (as in The Wild Boys), his rebel groups and gangs, always border on acceptability (depending on the moral code of their opposition)—waiting to be recognized as ‘legitimate’ groups while they are opposed to mainstream society. One of the main problems in analyzing Burroughs’s political concerns lies in the fact that he always denies any political involvement, while at the same time proposing intrinsically political solutions.
In his novels, Burroughs was lucidly aware of the sociopolitical landscape of the times. He saw his works not only as literary fictions seemingly detached from reality and intended as ‘hallucinations’, but also as works of futurology, dealing with the political, social and economic possibilities of a world in which individuals’ lives are increasingly controlled through specialized systems. In this evergrowing control system, the imaginative tracks of a story or novel may disturb and subvert the existing order; therefore, for Burroughs, the act of writing is an anarcho-political act. This anarchic position is perhaps a constant point in Burroughs’s views of life, and the quasi-libertarian position represented in the struggle against power and control is a typical American vision (Tanner 1971). It is, indeed, an example of a distinctively American method of disrupting order and continuity in the name of personal and individual freedom, and is reflected in both Burroughs’s style and his theoretical principles:
This film is about the future of medicine and the future of man. For man has no future unless he can throw off the dead past and absorb the underground of his own being. In the end, underground medicine merges with the medical establishment, to the great benefit of both. (BR 1st section)
When Jennie Skerl asked Burroughs to comment on the idea contained in these lines, he explained: ‘A man has to get beyond his conditioning, or his future is going to be a repetition, word-forword repetition. I would say that for a great percentage of people, all they do is repeat their past. They really don’t have a future at all. And it’s only by a sort of break with the past that anything new and different will emerge—which is very rare—a very rare occurrence’ (Skerl 1980:117).
VIOLENCE AS FREEDOM—VIOLENCE AS DIVERTISSEMENT
Generally, the search for a new condition in Burroughs’s diegesis passes through the experience of rebellion, and more often violence. The most exemplary works in this respect are Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys and his last trilogy, Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands. In Blade Runner, the ‘spectacle of violence’ is supported by less serious manifestations, privileging satire and slapstick comedy. Consequently, political concerns seem to be overridden by the intrinsic fictional purpose of the story. Riots and rebellions become necessities in the overthrow of authority; individuals such as the bladerunners and the illegal doctors prefer to live in a destabilized underworld where it is possible to find drugs and weapons, to be operated on and, above all, to be free even if this freedom entails considerable risks of its own:
The transplant operation is performed in a subway operating room by a delco plant. The delco is heard throughout this scene, sometimes sputtering ominously as the lights dim. All the equipment is homemade, requiring continual readjustment and tinkering. Billy goes to fetch The Hand, best operating assistant in the industry […] The Hand is a Blues addict. The Blues is a metallic variation on heroin […] Blue is twenty times stronger than heroin. (BR 13th section)
The basic political element of rebellion is problematized by Burroughs, as he uses a stylistic divertissement through which ideological subversion is often denied or set apart from the seriousness of the subject matter in favor of a slapstick scene that reasserts the anarchic element essential for any (self) liberation. This ambivalence is the result of a profound political and stylistic anarchy on Burroughs’s part. All his works are rooted in this way of thinking, and denote the struggle against any superimposition of authority.
In an interview with Larry McCaffery and Jim McMenamin (1987:171–95), Burroughs answered the question of his ambiguous presentation of violence--‘a combination of horror, black humor, grim fascination, maybe even sympathy’—which could be related to the literary experience of both the Marquis de Sade and Franz Kafka as analyzed in The Algebra of Need by Eric Mottram (1971). Burroughs’s response to the problem of presenting violence as an exorcism or a celebration is pragmatic rather than ethical. Nonetheless his fictional world is dominated by a strong moral conception of good and evil:
There’s a lot of violence in my work because violence is obviously necessary in certain circumstances. I’m often talking in a revolutionary, guerrilla context where violence is the only recourse. I feel a degree of ambivalence with regard to any use of violence. There are certainly circumstances where it seems to be indicated. How can you protect people without weapons? (McCaffery and McMenamin 1987:176)
In Naked Lunch, that ambivalence is exemplified in the words and acts of Doctor Benway, perhaps Burroughs’s best achievement in terms of satirical characterization and black humor. Benway’s psychological violence presents interesting parallels with the reality and fictional representation of violence in advanced industrial societies. Violence exerted by the agencies of the State—the police, the armed forces and other empowered institutions—acquires a legal status, particularly in its ultimate iterations in the forms of capital punishment and the legitimization of war, which allows it to escape the sanctions accorded to acts of violence on the part of non-state agencies. According to Ann Norton, and following Max Weber, we may distinguish four types of violence, further differentiated by two criteria: the conformity of the violent act to extant legal or customary forms, and the individual or collective nature of the act. The first criterion distinguishes those acts that are evidently rulebound, taking place within existing structures. The second criterion considers acts that manifest a conscious participation in collective identity. The types of violence, according to these distinctions, are formal collective, informal collective, formal individual and informal individual (Norton 1993:146). War is a form of formal collective violence, whereas riots and revolts may be defined as forms of informal collective violence with an awareness that ‘all collective action is political for it reflects the participation of individuals in a common, incorporeal, entity’ (Norton 1993:146). From this standpoint we can consider that violence may also be intended as reaction to authority, in the forms of riots or revolts, sometimes limited to groups in unique circumstances. This informal collective violence will be considered ‘illegitimate’ by public or established authorities since the concept and distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ is founded by the same authority that makes the rules. From this point of view, and according to Weber, only the State can possess a monopoly on violence. Weber’s analysis defines the State as follows: ‘A compulsory political organization with continuous operations will be called a “state” insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order’ (Mann 1986:55). Hannah Arendt, elaborating on this theme, notes that the type of violence exerted by the State or internal police actions, though labeled legitimate, should be subsumed under the euphemistic rubric ‘the exercise of authority’ (1969:4).
For fiction, the approach must be different, since language, style, visual appeal and ethical implications are involved. In this context it is important to point out that Burroughs’s approach toward violence as fiction contains a deep imaginary level of fantasy that is opposed to real circumstances. It is as if Burroughs’s texts, and Blade Runner in particular, signal: This is the world we live in, this is the total power that rules our lives—this story is the response, the ultimate attempt to free human individuals.
Fictional violence always expresses, in one way or another, the real violence of its social context, including the phenomenal violence reported by institutional media (television above all). The way in which accounts of violence are told and reported can be compared to the way in which violence is experienced and culturally approached. In Screening Violence, Stephen Prince explains how in some cases filmmakers cannot control the reactions of viewers to the graphic violence they put on screen (Prince 1999:1). In the case of textual violence, the impact is less ‘immediate’ and the response is more directly related to stylistic and literary devices. To read a violent scene is to pass through a process of making a mental image of that scene, a requirement that changes substantially in the sharp immediacy of cinema.
In addition, movie images may be violent not only in content but also in their graphic representation of the violent act or event, depending on the director’s style and use of the camera eye. Writers often turn to satire and comedy in order to render violent representation more ‘acceptable’, as do movie directors, whose work can be hampered by both censorship and market forces. Since violence is often intrinsic to satire, it is also easier for an author to use satire as a vehicle for violence against established order without the risk of being refused or censored. The main risk, on the contrary, is the danger of misinterpretation or relegation to a genre below that of ‘serious art’. Satirical written works elicit greater acceptance and tolerance of violence because the satirical intent is tempered by a form of cultural mediation that reflects the rebellion against moral conventions. In satirical works violence often uncovers the writer’s beliefs and convictions, especially when the text’s subject matter deals with contemporary problems. Accordingly, there are two aspects to Burroughs’s use of satirical style: the first one aims at attacking arbitrary moral conventions that limit individual freedom in order to show the profound ambivalence of any form of violence, whether legitimate or illegitimate; the second one is that his satirical language can be defined, especially in some passages marked by a pamphlet style, as verbal or textual violence. As Mottram describes, Burroughs uses a language that fits with the world he experienced:
[A] loveless world whose control is entirely in the hands of capitalists, doctors, psychiatrists, con men, judges, police and military, whose aim it is to perpetuate mass infantilism, apathy and dependence […] [Nausea] tends to become horror of the obscenity towards which total power necessarily grows. (Mottram 1971:43)
In such a condition it is necessary to use violence to resist such totalizing iterations of power in order to recover individuality and independence.
The position taken by Burroughs against capital punishment is a perfect synthesis of both a violent style of writing and the violence exerted by ‘civilized’ countries. Its satirical intent, however, is not at all symbolic, but quite literal:
These sections [in Naked Lunch] are intended to reveal capital punishment as the obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is. As always the lunch is naked. If civilized countries want to return to Druid Hanging Rites in the Sacred Grove or to drink blood with the Aztecs and feed their Gods with blood of human sacrifice, let them see what they actually eat and drink. Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon. (NL xli–xlii)
The experience of being tortured, convicted or punished is significantly absent from Blade Runner; the scenes of violence are represented as riots and revolts in opposition to the forces of law and order. We can therefore read Blade Runner as concerned with the phenomenon of informal collective violence; riots and rebellion that may arise when public authorities, government and institutions are not present as social and democratic markers capable of improving living conditions, but when they are, on the contrary, overly intrusive in public privacy and inimical to individual freedom of choice. Blade Runner therefore addresses an ethical problem: The riots in the novella occur when the citizenry rebel against not only the welfare state and public authority, but also against the sterilization initiatives imposed upon those people who accept medical treatment. The resulting society becomes a chaotic city where power is totally corrupt, and authority has reached the worst of all possible conditions—arbitrariness.
The consequence of this arbitrariness is that the average person cannot influence the actions of bureaucrats and doctors, who remain free (a dreadful freedom that Burroughs describes as equally ambivalent) to perform any kind of experiment; the environment is as chaotic as the effect it produces:
Room changes and now contains a number of people, ticker tape machines, telephones, TV screens. These are highly-placed officials, bored and cynical. One is doing a crossword puzzle. Two are sniffing coke […] The bureaucrat is leafing through papers. He points to a graph on the wall. Now look at these cancer statistics. We are dealing here not just with an increase in cancer but with an increase in susceptibility to cancer… a breakdown in the immunity system. Why does a cancer or any virus take a certain length of time to develop? Immunity. Remove the immunity factor, and virus processes can be accelerated. (BR 14th section)
Burroughs is ambivalent on this point: is it even desirable to want a society where violence is the only way to obtain freedom and independence? What form will a society where everything is possible ultimately assume? Is there indeed as sharp a distinction between reality and fiction as Burroughs’s cinematic writing style implies? Are we really free once we have disrupted the regime of authoritarian order?
Burroughs’s ambivalence is perhaps the only viable position to assume in our civilization today, as marked by the postmodern loss of trust toward what Jean François Lyotard (1979) calls the ‘metanarratives’ and the inability to detect and understand the forms of power that regulate our lives. What Burroughs implies with his satirical style is that these forms of power are now decentralized; they have turned into an octopus-like structure disseminated across a globalized continuum. That is why he writes of ‘guerrilla’ action rather than conventional revolution or war, which often possesses a ‘legitimate’ consensus. Guerilla actions are generally illegal, and result from emergency conditions; they are self-organized, violent responses to the ‘legitimate’ violence of authority.
Authorized violence, as a ‘non-emergency’ condition, can more easily assume forms that comport to the commonplace scenarios of late capital: weapons, money, media broadcasting. In this scenario of global capital embedded in Blade Runner (as well as in all Burroughs’s works), the underground forces that use informal collective violence—as opposed to formal collective violence represented by the State, the police, and so on—need to be recognized, at least on the page, as a ‘legitimate’ presence with a legitimate right to be free from the imposition of an overly intrusive power apparatus. The freedom of the bladerunner is manifest in his ability to manage and organize his own life, yet his intervention is limited to local situations. His work does not have ‘revolutionary’ connotations; it is, after all, individual intervention, or, in some cases, limited to small groups.
The bladerunner is a rebel who follows a personal ethical conviction and fights against imposed order—but he is also alone, waiting perhaps to be followed by a multitude of other individuals. His freedom is also cast by Burroughs as a form of salvation: freedom to associate in ‘underground’ groups, homosexual and/or anarchic communities, and other autonomous networks outside the conservative and established social conventions. At the end of the novel, Billy achieves a meta-consciousness of his existence in a zone between the past and future, where he runs his blade haphazardly in and out of time, representing the possibilities of an undetermined future.
In conclusion, Burroughs’s representation of violence forms a multilayered tapestry of sociopolitical expression formulated through disruptive and often satirical linguistic techniques that reflect ambivalence toward the use of violence bound up with the necessity for people to fight against the machination of superimposed order. In Burroughs’s text, the disruption of the standard narrative story line, verbal language and linear methods of event presentation assume a hectic visual power, and the reading process approaches a ‘pure’ cinematic experience conveyed through words: Blade Runner is a novella written in the form of a screenplay, and as such it has the features of a virtual movie. Its scenes should be imagined as movie images, running on a ‘mind screen’ imbued with a capability of creative visualization. Burroughs’s aim, after all, is to free language, structure, and individual experience from any structural superimposition of the ‘reality film’. This project is carried out through the appropriation of film devices, transposed into destructured and meta-fictional narrative, that emerge freely during the production of the reality film. The page becomes a virtual space where ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’, because whatever rules limit conventional narrative are deliberately disregarded. There are no rules that limit fantasy and fictional possibilities.
Burroughs’s graphic vision of a future that extends the logic of control to such disciplinary extremes suggests its own antidote in not only the inability of control to become total, but also in the articulation of its possible expansion into the future. Burroughs’s fictional works are a form of resistance against a ‘civilization’ that harnesses human potential to the telos of the exploitation of labor, the alienation of consumption and the control of desire. It is to this concept of ‘civilization’ that Burroughs’s works—and Blade Runner in particular—offer violence as resistance and as liberation. Burroughs’s texts are the legacy of this vision, and in the age of globalization, both a warning and a blueprint.
Retaking the Universe/William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization
Edited by Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh
Designed and produced for Pluto Press by Chase Publishing Services, Fortescue, Sidmouth, EX10 9QG, England Typeset from disk by Newgen Imaging Systems (P) Ltd, India Printed and bound in the European Union by Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham and Eastbourne, England