by Dennis McDaniel
"The scion of a well-known banking family once told me a family secret. When a certain stage of responsibility and awareness has been reached by a young banker he is taken to a room lined with family portraits in the middle of which is an ornate gilded toilet. Here he comes every day to defecate surrounded by the family portraits until he realizes that money is shit. And what does the money machine eat to shit it out? It eats youth, spontaneity, life, beauty, and above all it eats creativity."
—William S. Burroughs (Job 73–4)
This anecdote from The Job reveals the important role of the grotesque in the work of William S. Burroughs. For Burroughs, the grotesque reveals the residue of the control system that too few recognize and from which too few profit. As Burroughs suggests, one of the most salient aspects of economic globalization is the sacrifice of the imaginative impulse to the profit motive. Burroughs’s characterization of global control systems has proved to be prescient. Benjamin Barber, in his seminal analysis Jihad vs. McWorld, asserts that, as multinational conglomerates merge, cultural products are increasingly homogeneous and increasingly Americanized. ‘Music, video, theater, books, and theme parks’, Barber argues, ‘are all constructed as image exports creating a common world taste around common logos, advertising slogans, stars, songs, brand names, jingles and trademarks’ (2001:17). Reminiscent of Trak Services in The Soft Machine, the giants of the global economy preach free enterprise as they undermine variety and competition:
The very idea of a genuinely competitive market in ideas or images disappears and the singular virtue that markets indisputably have over democratic command structures—the virtue of that cohort of values associated with pluralism and variety, contingency and accident, diversity and spontaneity—is vitiated. (Barber 2001:89)
Burroughs attempts to fight these ‘command structures’ through the concept of the grotesque, understood as a satirical imagery that plays on the exaggeration of certain features of its object in order to demonize or otherwise undermine it. The concept is double-edged, and has been used against both minorities and majorities. Leonard Cassuto traces its origins within European culture to the inability of the majority to account for the differences that minorities embody: ‘both off-color humor and anomalous human bodies somehow threaten, in varying degrees and different ways, the shared beliefs about what constitutes the “human”’ (1997:7–8). By using the grotesque, majority cultures can represent minorities as ‘a constant intrusion on order, an anomalous agent of chaos’ (1997:9). Contemporary readers are well aware of how xenophobic propaganda caricatures, often produced to prepare citizens for war or racist legislation, depict the African-American as dark, big-lipped and bulgy-eyed, the Jew as big-nosed, the Arab as demonically bearded and swarthy, or the Asian as buck-toothed and grossly bespectacled. Modern power structures rely on the defective, deformed ‘Other’ as a means of justifying and maintaining their power. As Burroughs notes, ‘[t]he police have a vested interest in criminality. The Narcotics Department has a vested interest in addiction. Politicians have a vested interest in nations. Army officers have a vested interest in war’ (Job 61). The control addicts feed on the unruly. But the grotesque has also been used as a means to destabilize and subvert hegemonic powers, and it is in this sense that Burroughs deploys it. Burroughs’s work recognizes the power of the grotesque to combine, as John Ruskin describes it in his chapter ‘Grotesque Renaissance’ in volume 3 of The Stones of Venice (1853), the ‘fearful’ and the ‘ludicrous’ (1913:345). These elements, as Philip Thomson has more recently pointed out, exist together as an ‘unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response’ (1972:27). Wolfgang Kayser’s important study of the grotesque reveals its power in the context of the postmodern world. He argues that, as opposed to the glorification of the body in popular media, the grotesque body alienates, disturbs and unsettles, revealing ‘the estranged world’ in which items are loosened from their familiar meanings. Kayser finds that, as readers encounter the grotesque, they can no longer live in their customary world with the assurance that their known categories still apply (1968:184–5). This use of the grotesque as a dramatization of the absurd and nihilistic is especially characteristic of the late twentieth century. The grotesque destroys the old world or renders it ugly and revolting, while alleviating the nausea through humor. This sense of the grotesque appropriately follows the dropping of the atom bomb and the holocaust, which brought about what Jeffrey Nuttall calls ‘bomb culture’. Hiroshima, Belsen and Vietnam introduced us to horror, and their impact demanded that people grow callous (Nuttall 1968:118). To Nuttall, ‘morality, pain, and compassion—the whole business of identifying with other people and thus sharing and helping their discomfiture—had to be dissolved in [in many cases sick] humor’. The bomb, thereby, aggravates ‘sick’ humor, which in turn makes the presence of the bomb livable (Nuttall 1968:119). Finally, Tim Libretti argues that American proletarian literature of the 1930s used the grotesque because, as a means of subversion, the grotesque ‘challenges the fetishized consciousness of bourgeois life that comprehends the world as permanent, natural and unchanging by virtue of the operation of commodity relations’ (1995:176).
Throughout his work, Burroughs challenges the cultural hegemony of the West by rendering its cultural products grotesque. The grotesque bodies and deformed and deconstructed sounds and images in Burroughs’s work represent the West’s failed experiments at colonizing and controlling the world through word and image. Like the escapees from Benway’s Reconditioning Center, Burroughs’s grotesque images and sounds run amok despite the efforts of censors and arbiters of taste. They mock those whose consciousness and identity are privileged due to money and power.
This chapter will explore Burroughs’s use of the grotesque in his various artistic endeavors as part of his effort to resist the cultural homogenization imposed through the mechanisms of globalized capitalism. I situate Burroughs’s use of the grotesque in the context of late twentieth-century oppositional art and culture that uses the grotesque to challenge the standardized consciousness imposed by multinational corporate enterprise, and I connect the uses of the grotesque in Burroughs’s writings, shotgun art and tape experiments with grotesque contemporary art and British punk culture of the 1970s to reveal consistencies in their resistance to popular modes of thinking and feeling. Burroughs’s taste for the grotesque has been his legacy to the oppositional art movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
These movements share Burroughs’s understanding of the subversive power of the grotesque; how it blends disgust and humor and thereby awakens and stimulates awareness and moral reproach; how it undermines both the ideal and the real, distorting both. That the grotesque has become a hallmark of avant-garde art and radical popular culture owes much to Burroughs’s writings and sensibility. Burroughs had often stated his admiration of the emancipating randomness of twentieth-century art, and, in collaboration with Brion Gysin and Ian Somerville, based his cut-up experiments on the montage style of modern art. In turn, contemporary artists, in their use of dissected, fractured and deformed bodies, reflect Burroughs’s influence. Similar lines of influence and sympathy can be drawn between Burroughs and punk.
Burroughs’s satirical ‘Bugger the Queen’ anticipated The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, a parodic commemoration of Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee. When The Sex Pistols were verbally and physically attacked for this song as it hit number one on the British charts, Burroughs wrote them a letter in support. Burroughs came to be known as the Godfather of Punk: ‘They were his children’, remarks the Burroughs insider Victor Bockris (1981:xii). Burroughs himself characterized punk as an ‘interesting and important phenomenon’ (Bockris 1981:128). The punk phenomenon grew out of the economic recession of 1970s Britain, and the punks’ characteristic deglamorization resisted the commodified images upon which the new economy drew. Reduced to irrelevancy through unemployment and despair, British punks of the 1970s played ‘with the only power at their disposal: the power to discomfit’ (Hebdige 1988:18). The impulses to deform, disconnect and destroy that characterize the grotesque in Burroughs, contemporary art and the punk scene bring about a new art and new forms of cognition, free from official control, radically unmarketable and hence fully liberated.
THE GROTESQUE BODY
Burroughs’s principal means of producing the grotesque is through an emphasis on the body, especially on what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘the material body lower stratum’, with its most unsavory functions and in its most humiliating positions. Bakhtin argues that the grotesque body challenges the liberal humanist’s concept of identity. The grotesque body is blubbery, hairy, odorous and obtrusive, exceeding healthy limits and expunging muscular definition. The grotesque body’s superfluousness mocks the gravity of classical statuary’s heroic poses. Bakhtin states that the grotesque stresses ‘those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world’ (1965:26). The nose, lips, tongue, fingers, breasts and nipples, penis, feet and toes, and the body’s solid, liquid and gaseous issues are the raw materials of the artist of the grotesque (26). As Bakhtin’s account suggests, the grotesque body is imperfect and out of control. Nauseating to behold, it defies attempts to transform it into a commodity. Likewise, the grotesque body challenges the capitalist vision of the free individual; Georges Bataille states: ‘Man willingly imagines himself to be like the god Neptune, stilling his own waves, with majesty; nevertheless, the bellowing waves of the viscera, in more or less incessant inflation and upheaval, brusquely put an end to his dignity’ (1929:22).
Burroughs’s images of pained and distorted bodies are the source of much of the offense that his work has produced, and certainly much of its power. In the excerpts of the obscenity trial transcript, Norman Mailer finds that the humor in Naked Lunch has close affinities with the grotesque: ‘[I]t is the sort of humor which flourishes in prisons, in the Army, among junkies, race tracks and pool halls, a graffiti of cool, even livid wit, based on bodily functions and the frailties of the body, the slights, humiliations and tortures a body can undergo’ (NL xviii).
Burroughs’s use of the body to effect horror and humor has its most direct precedent in the satirical style of Jonathan Swift. In A Modest Proposal (1729), Swift uses the grotesque to protest the mistreatment of the Irish poor. The implied author straightforwardly and benevolently argues the ease, inexpensiveness and effectiveness of ending poverty by having tenants breed infants to be sold as food to their landlords. In A Modest Proposal, the humor arises from the dissonance between the ghastly images of slaughtered children and the professed and felt kindness of the voice describing them. The ironic glee with which Swift’s voice describes a young child as ‘a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled’ or in a ‘Fricasie, or Ragoust’ (Swift 1729:504) still reads today as profoundly unsettling. In the ‘Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness’, Burroughs claims that he adopts Swift’s technique in Naked Lunch to ‘reveal capital punishment as the obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is’ (NL xli). Like Swift, Burroughs most offends the reader who refuses to accept the body stripped of its pretensions and contrivances. Only a Naked Lunch will wise up the marks: ‘[L]et them see what they actually eat and drink. Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon’ (NL xlii). For both writers, savagely satirizing their readers’ sense of their moral selves by depicting bodies in the grotesque manner most effectively counteracts the forces of unjust social control.
Naked Lunch portrays a number of grotesque characters, including Placenta Juan the Afterbirth Tycoon and the infamous ‘talking asshole’. However, the characterization of Pantopon Rose supplies, perhaps, the sharpest image of Burroughs’s depiction of the grotesque body. In the throes of her addiction, and without a vein to strike, Rose takes desperate measures:
[Rose] seized a safety pin caked with blood and rust, gouged a great hole in her leg which seemed to hang open like an obscene, festering mouth waiting for unspeakable congress with the dropper which she now plunged out of sight into the gaping wound. But her hideous galvanized need (hunger of insects in dry places) has broken the dropper off deep in the flesh of her ravaged thigh (looking rather like a poster on soil erosion). But what does she care? She does not even bother to remove the splintered glass, looking down at her bloody haunch with the cold blank eyes of a meat trader. (NL 10)
Burroughs’s description of Rose’s body and her disregard of the harm she does to it evoke our horror and laughter. The description produces horror by depicting unsanitary instruments prodding diseased wounds, junk-sick flesh begging for satisfaction, self-mutilation, streaming gore and ghastly excrescence. Rose’s body, horrifying in its abused, scarred condition, is simultaneously human, insect and mere meat. However, the pitiless distance of the narrator simultaneously undercuts and accentuates the horror. This disinterest is shared by Rose, who ignores her ravaged body to feed her ‘insect’ hunger, losing the dropper into the recesses of her flesh and looking like a ‘poster on soil erosion’. Robin Lydenberg has noted that such bodily corruptions ultimately disgust the reader in order to provoke ‘an emetic purging of his cultural inheritance’ (1987:143).
Contemporary British art shares with Burroughs’s work that irresolvable tension between the humorous and the horrible. The 2000 Sensations exhibition of the work of younger British artists shocked spectators through its frank, parodic renditions of dead, soiled and mutilated bodies in odd juxtapositions with bizarre combinations of media (perhaps most noticeably in Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung spattered Madonna, The Holy Virgin Mary, which incited thenmayor Rudy Giuliani to propose an end to all public funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art). Like Burroughs’s images of the grotesque body, these works, especially those of Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman, foreground wounding, disease and waste. Hirst’s most viscerally disturbing works are his bisections of livestock. In This Little Piggy Went to the Market, This Little Piggy Stayed Home, the nursery rhyme title mocks the condition of the piglet that has been split lengthwise with each half enclosed in its own formaldehydefilled encasement. The two encasements are placed side by side, with one side placed slightly ahead of the other to enable easy viewing of internal organs. As in Hirst’s other livestock works, this is no dummy, but a real pig with viscera revealed for public inspection. Similarly, Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided parodies the title of the Paul Simon song, ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, in that the art object so entitled includes a mother cow and her calf, both bisected with entrails exposed. On the one hand, by using (or abusing) farm animals as (damaged) spectacle, Hirst challenges the notion of farm animals as lovable creatures that have rights and deserve to be treated with dignity. On the other hand, by depriving these livestock of use value, Hirst’s artwork undermines the mission of the agricultural industry because this livestock, having been slaughtered by a sculptor, cannot be sold or consumed as food or clothing, but only as art. Conversely, Hirst’s presentation of packaged waste as art complicates modern art’s ‘ready-mades’. As in the livestock bisections, the titles of his ‘waste’ artworks balance the nauseating sight with snide humor. In I’ll Love You Forever, stacks of fluorescent yellow and orange infectious waste containers, labeled with appropriate warnings, are locked inside a bright blue cage, permitting viewing but not handling. The sight of biohazards disturbs the viewer, but the colorful display enchants and entertains. The title reflects the presence of the containers marked ‘Placenta’ and the sentimentality of preserving afterbirth as a parent would preserve an infant’s lock of hair. Hirst’s ‘waste’ artworks refuse commodification even after they have been made into art; if purchased, they must be kept out of the reach of children.
Unlike Hirst’s use of actual carcasses and waste, Jake and Dinos Chapman use lifelike mannequins in their work, though the effect of their postures of torture is no less startling. In Great Deeds Against the Dead, arguably a parody of Goya’s work of the same name, two hyper-realistic, naked male mannequins are harshly tethered to a bomb-scorched tree, one male hanging from a branch by his arms, which are pulled impossibly behind his back. The other mannequin has been terribly dismembered, his headless, armless torso hanging upside down by his legs, his severed arms hanging next to the torso, and his head stuck onto another upright branch. Both mannequins have had their genitalia excised. The seemingly intentional artificiality of the mannequins complicates the horror that the image of tortured figures conveys. For example, the artists made no effort to use human-like hair; instead, hair, eyebrows and mustache have a doll-like quality, giving the figure the appearance of a mangled GI Joe. The viewer’s realization that these are toys, not people, and that those who simulate war rather than those who actually plan or fight are the satire’s targets, mocks the apparent intentions of Goya’s original—to evoke the horror and degradation of war or to elicit compassion for war’s victims. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s works that use mannequins and toy soldiers strongly connect with the dirtied and disfigured children’s toys of recently deceased American artist Mike Kelley, whose work spoils the homogenized prettiness of dolls with human excrement. Scarred, impaled and diseased bodies also mark the resistance of British punk rock of the 1970s to the global commerce that, to the punks, tamed rock ‘n’ roll and put British youth on the dole. Punk uses the body to elicit horror and humor.
As with Burroughs, the grotesque gave British punks a material and mood by which they could dramatize the contempt with which the selfish, smug and corrupt Tory government of mid-1970s Britain had treated them. Cultural critic Greil Marcus describes this contrived ugliness of British punks of the 1970s: ‘they were fat, anorexic, pockmarked, acned, stuttering, crippled, scarred and damaged, and what their new decorations underlined was the failure already engraved in their faces’ (1989:74). Dick Hebdige suggests that through self-mutilation and body art, punks could embody a kiosk of revolutionary signs (1988:18). Degrading the body by cutting it, piercing it and making it bleed, as Sid Vicious often did on stage, celebrates the punk’s power over his or her body, a power that defies easy conversion into a commodity. As a declaration of independence, punks smeared shit upon themselves before others could.
British punks also displayed the grotesque body in fashion and in their interaction with performers. In England especially, clothing style indicates social class and, in Hebdige’s term, one’s ‘spectacular subculture’. Punk clothing and jewelry, especially as Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren designed such accoutrement, determined the course of British punk rock style. Indeed, McLaren established The Sex Pistols to boost sales of bondage wear in his King’s Road boutique, SEX. Rival designers were no less daring. As Jon Savage has documented, BOY (another Chelsea clothier) sold T-shirts stained with dried animal blood, images of the death’s head of recently executed murderer Gary Gilmore, and jewelry made of contraceptive packets and hypodermic syringes, while also displaying forensic cultures that contained simulated severed body parts in its shop windows (1992:324). As the ultimate expression of worthlessness, some punks wore trash bags. In their interaction with performers, punk audiences developed the practice of ‘gobbing’, or spitting on the musicians. Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of The Sex Pistols, inadvertently began this practice when, having a terrible cold, he discharged upon the audience, who returned the gesture. At once expressing disgust and fellowship, gobbing showed appreciation through disdain—indeed, through expectoration and contamination. A direct challenge to propriety, health codes and personal privacy, gobbing transformed the expression of appreciation into the transmission of disease.
Punk lyrics draw on the grotesque body as well. The lyrics of the song ‘Bodies’ by The Sex Pistols form a demonic dramatic monologue in which the singer confirms his bestiality in the very act of denying it, though the lyrics defy any definitive interpretation. Perhaps because ‘Pauline’ has had an abortion, the singer accuses her of being an ‘animal’ and a ‘bloody disgrace’. The chorus, however, suggests that the singer cannot distinguish his own identity. With the word ‘Body’ echoing in the background, the singer desperately asserts that he is ‘not an animal’, but the desperation of the statement and the continual repetition of the word ‘animal’ suggest otherwise. Perhaps because Pauline’s aborted fetus doesn’t appear to be human, or perhaps because it does, the singer describes it as a ‘screaming, fucking bloody mess’, a ‘throbbing squirm’, and most dismissively, a ‘discharge/Another loss of protein’. The baby is so deformed that the singer—could it be his child? Could it be the singer himself?—denies paternity. In his refusal of responsibility, he himself effectively becomes a ‘bloody disgrace’ like the mother. But his denial recognizes his own ‘bloody mess’. ‘I don’t want a baby who looks like that’, he claims, yet in the last words of the song, he becomes the baby, calling for his ‘Mummy’. By recognizing the grotesqueness of his own body, he substitutes for the aborted fetus, betrayed and lost.
British punk musicians and their counterparts in painting and sculpture, recognizing that the image of the perfect body sells food, pornography, cars, exercise equipment and even bodies themselves, follow Burroughs by distorting, defacing and distending the body. Like Burroughs, by ruining the body’s mainstream commercial potential, these artists resist global capital’s effort to profit from the body.
DISTORTING THE FAMILIAR
Burroughs’s grotesque bodies challenge commodification with their unresolved tensions and paradoxes. Similarly, Burroughs distorts familiar sounds and images to evoke horror and humor. The audiotape experiments that Burroughs conducted with Ian Somerville in the early 1960s exemplify how Burroughs distorts by deforming and recontextualizing. Burroughs and Somerville’s experiments with splicing, inching and cutting in tapes grew out of Burroughs and Gysin’s use of textual cut-ups and fold-ins. The cutting and splicing of texts and audiotapes echo the method of cutting textual and audiotape records to break control mechanisms (see The Soft Machine and The Ticket that Exploded). The raw material for many of the audiotape experiments consists of radio broadcasts, mostly news and commercials. By distorting these found, manufactured sounds, Burroughs and Somerville release them from any claim to rational meaning or to any historical verification, yet create awesome, even frightening melodies and rhythms. In ‘The Silver Smoke of Dreams’ (early 1960s), for example, two vocal tracks are blended and ‘inched’ back and forth across the tape head, distorting what may be recognized as a human voice reading English sentences (BTGR). What emerges is a new, uncanny voice—a third voice synthesized from two—that resembles an actual voice, having its timbre and tone, but speaking in a new rhythm and with new sounds. It becomes a convergence of voices that has no single identity; rather, the effect is fluid and indefinable, alien and nonlexical. The terrible distortion strikes listeners, but its odd misshapenness amuses them, like seeing their images in a funhouse mirror. ‘Inching’ distorts the voice by suddenly speeding it up and then slowing it down, contorting its pitch and timbre. Similarly, in recordings like ‘The Total Taste is Here, News Cut-Ups’ (early 1965), various unrelated radio reports and jingles are spliced together, and the effect is at first discomfiting. After continual repetition, however, the voices merge and the stories begin to gel, not into a logical whole, but into a range of voices (Best). The clashing news reports suggest alternate meanings or, at least, the problem of stabilizing meaning in the electronic age.
Punk rock also drew from this legacy of auditory and visual distortions of the familiar. In his book, England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage suggests that Burroughs’s audiotape experiments inspired punk’s effort to ‘play the media’s accelerated jumble of signals back at them’ (1992:231). The razor-sharp voice of Johnny Rotten, the poses that parodied the classic rock star look, the unexpected accessorizing of ties, jackets, torn shirts, vestigial safety pins and short hair, all combined to jam media signals. Jamie Reid’s Situationist International-inspired posters and record sleeves are emblematic of the confusion of signs that characterizes punk style. Reid’s design for a flyer promoting The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ defaces the smiling Silver Jubilee portrait of Elizabeth II by piercing her lips with a safety pin. The safety pin dishonors the Queen’s majesty by placing her in league with England’s ‘shame’, and simultaneously validates punk culture; it is an image both appalling and comical. Similarly, the graphic design of punk fanzines placed incompatible elements in conflict. The cover of the December 1976 issue of Sniffin’ Glue features a penciled caricature of sneering cover-boy Johnny Rotten, his jaw extended and broadened to grotesque size, glaring at the reader amid a background of drawings of conventional holly and tree ornaments (Perry 2000).
DESTRUCTION AS CREATION
Burroughs also effects the grotesque by destroying already manufactured items and celebrating the debris as art. His description of this process testifies to its unlikely randomness: ‘I picked up a piece of wood and blasted it. Then I looked at the broken piece of plywood where the shots came out and in these striations I saw all sorts of things […] I said, “My God, this is a work of art”’ (PG 13). This method, like portraying the grotesque body and distorting the familiar, counters mainstream market forces that prize wholeness, physical integrity and traditional bourgeois notions of the creative process. Burroughs’s shotgun art best exemplifies his method of destroying to create. In these works, the shotgun blast literally deconstructs an intact, artificial object, in many cases plywood, stripping away the layers that compose it and bringing about several paradoxes. The ‘made’ shotgun ‘unmakes’ another ‘made’ item, putting everything out of context and rendering all indeterminate. A building material that has apparently lost its value has actually increased in value due to its destruction. Similarly, a shotgun, a ballistic instrument, now renders whole, though the wholeness is as an art object defined by its lack of wholeness (or by the fact that it is full of holes). A killing machine now gives life, albeit through an explosion. Though Burroughs claimed that he never would have pursued painting without shotguns, an essay that Burroughs published before the shotgun incident entitled ‘The Fall of Art’ suggests some foreshadowing of the idea. In this essay Burroughs foresees ‘exploding art…A self-destroying TV set, refrigerator, washingmachine and electric stove going off, leaving a shambles of a gleaming modern apartment; the housewife’s dream goes up behind a barrier of shatterproof glass to shield the spectators’ (AM 61). In the future, Burroughs suggests, art will destroy the consumer’s paradise that post-World War II American industry promised to the suburban family and later to the world; ‘exploding art’ releases the creativity that the global consumer economy stifles.
Individual works testify to the power to create by destroying and the horror and humor that arise from the effort (see Sobieszek 1996). Sore Shoulder, the first work of shotgun art created by accident, reveals that the networks of fiber that compose plywood can be beautiful in their decomposition. In subsequent pieces like Screaming Ghost and The Curse of Bast, paint cans were placed as targets before the plywood, rendering absurd, even malevolent, the process of painting—painting becomes target practice. In these works, the grotesque aspect of the shotgun art consists in the tension between the destruction of new plywood and its simultaneous rebirth as art. The effects of shotgun blasts can evoke terror, and the residue of the impact suggests the awesomeness and power that can render human flesh as vulnerable as the plywood here. The rent portrait of Nancy Reagan in Burroughs’s The Curse of Bast and the exploded image of the fashion model on the recto of Mink Mutiny emphasize the menacing element of shotgun art. In other cases, the word is rubbed out, so to speak, by affixing newspaper texts and images on the plywood, which the shotgun then explodes. However, the fanciful existence of the artwork itself and the shattered images of celebrities both balance and offset the terrifying power of the shotgun blast. A shotgun blast producing art that could be exhibited in a gallery or a museum seems odd, if not ludicrous to bourgeois culture. Yet Burroughs claims, ‘I want my painting to literally walk off the goddamned canvas, to become a creature and a very dangerous creature’ (PG 34–5). In Burroughs’s shotgun art as well as his other work, the grotesque resists being incorporated into market forces, as destruction by its nature removes that fetishized quality of commodities, revealing the guts of the completed products and thereby the process by which they have been created.
Punk rock had been predicated on the impulse to destroy. Destruction and negation are hallmarks of the British punk ethos. ‘I wanna destroy passerby’, cries Johnny Rotten, taking the persona of the antichrist/anarchist. Marcus has interpreted the destructive impulse in punk as a reaction to global forces that left British youth with no future: ‘[T]he whole of received hegemonic propositions about the way the world was supposed to work comprised a fraud so complete and venal that it demanded to be destroyed beyond the powers of memory to recall its existence’ (1989:18). Punk negated all the lies that it could target: corporate rock, the celebrity system, hippies and the ‘love generation’, and Tory politics. Most importantly, the utter ugliness of punk negated its commercial potential, thereby freeing it to break images at will. From the debris of this destruction, anything was possible and everything was permitted. Though the British punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue was simple and intentionally sloppy anyway, publisher Mark Perry regularly defaced the magazine’s cover art with magic marker, defying consumers to purchase it. Working against the typewritten columns as well as the pictures, the magic marker traces blotted out words and made messages unintelligible. However, despite Perry’s efforts to destroy his own creation, sales increased rapidly after the first three issues. Chagrined at the prospect of popularity, Perry stopped publishing Sniffin’ Glue after the twelfth edition and in that issue’s editorial urged his readers to ‘STOP READING [Sniffin’ Glue] NOW AND BURN YOUR COPY’ (Perry 2000). Sniffin’ Glue, like British punk in general, in Marcus’s words, ‘was a moment in time that took shape as a language anticipating its own destruction’ (1989:82).
To its many critics, economic and cultural globalization, and the standardized, homogenized commodities with which it gluts the marketplace and the mind, has wrought sufficient destruction through the inequality it creates, the international terrorism it breeds and the creativity it kills. Burroughs, as well as other artists of the grotesque, challenge globalization by reducing or eliminating the exchange value of its commodities. The ultimate effect is not the annihilation of the market, but its liberation from those hegemonic powers that seek not choice but compliance. Through his use of the grotesque in the form of disgusting bodies, distorted images and creative destruction, Burroughs smirks at efforts to make him cooperate. Shotgun cocked, Burroughs crouches in the golden toilet bowl on which the scion squats, ready to make art where the sun doesn’t shine.
Bakhtin, M. (1965) Rabelais and His World, Iswolsky, H. trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968). Barber, B. (2001) Jihad vs. McWorld (New York: Ballantine).
Bataille, G. (1929) ‘The Big Toe’, IN Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, Stoekl, A. ed. and trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).
Bockris, V. (1981) With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, rev. edition (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996).
Cassuto, L. (1997) The Inhuman Race: The Racial Grotesque in American Literature and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press).
Hebdige, D. (1988) Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things (London: Routledge).
Kayser, W. (1968) The Grotesque in Art and Literature, Weisstein, U. trans. (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith). Libretti, T. (1995) ‘“What a Dirty Way of Getting Clean”: The Grotesque in Proletarian Literature’, IN Literature and the Grotesque, Meyer, M. ed. (Amsterdam: Rodopi), pp. 171–93.
Lydenberg, R. (1987) Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William Burroughs’ Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press).
Marcus, G. (1989) Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Nuttall, J. (1968) Bomb Culture (London: MacGibbon & Kee).
Perry, M. (2000) Sniffin’ Glue: The Essential Punk Accessory (London: Sanctuary).
Ruskin, J. (1853) The Stones of Venice, vol. 3 (Boston: D. Estes, 1913).
Savage, Jon (1992) England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (New York: St. Martin’s). Sobieszek, R. A. (1996) Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Thames and Hudson).
Swift, J. (1729) ‘A Modest Proposal’, IN The Writings of Jonathan Swift, Greenberg, R. A. and Piper, W. B., eds (New York: Norton, 1973). Thomson, P. (1972) The Grotesque (London: Methuen).
Retaking the Universe (William S.Burroughs in the Age of Globalization)
Part 2: Writing, Sign, Instrument: Language and Technology/New World Ordure: Burroughs, Globalization and the Grotesque /Edited by Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh
First published 2004 by Pluto Press 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, VA 20166–2012, USA
Carlos Castaneda - There's nothing to understand. Understanding is only a very small affair, so very small
Speculating Freedom: Addiction, Control and Rescriptive Subjectivity in the Work of William S. Burroughs
Joshua Carswell - EVALUATING DELEUZE’S “THE IMAGE OF THOUGHT” (1968) AS A PRECURSOR OF HYPERSTITION // PART 1
Joshua Carswell - Evaluating Deleuze’s “The Image of Thought” (1968) as a Precursor of Hyperstition // Part 2
Jose Rosales - ON THE END OF HISTORY & THE DEATH OF DESIRE (NOTES ON TIME AND NEGATIVITY IN BATAILLE’S ‘LETTRE Á X.’)
Jose Rosales - BERGSONIAN SCIENCE-FICTION: KODWO ESHUN, GILLES DELEUZE, & THINKING THE REALITY OF TIME
GILLES DELEUZE - Capitalism, flows, the decoding of flows, capitalism and schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, Spinoza.
Obsolete Capitalism - THE STRONG OF THE FUTURE. NIETZSCHE’S ACCELERATIONIST FRAGMENT IN DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S ANTI-OEDIPUS
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 1)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 2)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 3)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 4)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 5)
Steven Craig Hickman - David Roden and the Posthuman Dilemma: Anti-Essentialism and the Question of Humanity
Steven Craig Hickman - The Intelligence of Capital: The Collapse of Politics in Contemporary Society
Steven Craig Hickman - The Carnival of Globalisation: Hyperstition, Surveillance, and the Empire of Reason
Steven Craig Hickman - Shaviro On The Neoliberal Strategy: Transgression and Accelerationist Aesthetics
Steven Craig Hickman - Hyperstition: Technorevisionism – Influencing, Modifying and Updating Reality
Terence Blake - CONCEPTS OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (2)
Terence Blake - GUATTARI’S LINES OF FLIGHT (2): transversal vs transferential approaches to the reading contract
Himanshu Damle - Games and Virtual Environments: Playing in the Dark. Could These be Havens for Criminal Networks?
Himanshu Damle - Hegelian Marxism of Lukács: Philosophy as Systematization of Ideology and Politics as Manipulation of Ideology.
Nick Land - The unconscious is not an aspirational unity but an operative swarm, a population of 'preindividual and prepersonal singularities'