by Katharine Streip
METAPHORS AND COMIC PRACTICE
How are avant-gardes identified and what practices account for that identification? What are the criteria that enable us to identify contemporary avant-garde artists and what do those criteria say about both the cultural establishments that recognize movements or artists as avant-garde and avant-garde practitioners themselves?
William S. Burroughs offers an exemplary test case for these questions. In spite of its significance, his work still has not received academic canonization and continues to rest on the margins of American literary culture because of its fragmentary structure, the apparent contradictions of its cultural critiques and its outrageous humor. It is difficult to reconcile Burroughs’s humor with the aesthetic goals of canonical postmodernism or with any straightforward political critique. A crucial impediment to Burroughs’s reception is his humor. And as Burroughs remarks, ‘Much of my work is intended to be funny’ (1984:266). How does humor function as an avant-garde strategy? Humor as a strategic avant-garde tactic that both transgresses and aims at eliminating the separation of art from life has been under-theorized. This is not surprising, as comedy (and theorizing about comedy) continues, for the most part, to occupy a position within critical discourse which ironically parallels the position of ‘female’ in gender constructs: it is a genre and a practice viewed as superficial, minor, lightweight, trivial and disreputable. As Susan Purdie observes in Comedy: Mastery of Discourse, ‘the criticism of comedy is a site on which the assumptions a critic makes about what is valuable and possible in our general experience become especially apparent’ (1993:120). Laughter has traditionally been viewed with suspicion in Western cultures; even a subject such as sex, a great inspiration for joke work, can pose a challenge to laughter. For example, Burroughs writes in a letter to Allen Ginsberg ‘(Note that sex and laughter are considered incompatible. You are supposed to take sex seriously. Imagine a Reichian’s reaction to my laughing sex kick! But it is the nature of laughter to recognize no bounds)’ (LTG 80).
Humor within Burroughs’s work can be read as a social practice and as a formal and a performative strategy, a way to probe and to explore boundaries. Here, current work on theories of globalization can be useful in expressing the relation between Burroughs’s humor and the fictional landscape of his work. Just as modernization frameworks characterized social science programs in the period after World War II (Tsing 2000:454), today, globalization theories encourage us to imagine a new world in the making. I am particularly interested in the metaphors that inform the discourses of globalization, how they function to add to the charisma of the notion of an era of globalization, and how these metaphors in turn can illuminate Burroughs’s comic practice. For example, the effect of Burroughs’s humor within his work can be compared to the shifts in landscapes constituted by global cultural flows. These flows, identified by Arjun Appadurai as ethnoscapes (the moving landscape of people), mediascapes (the distribution of electronic capabilities to disseminate information), technoscapes (the global configuration of technology), financescapes (the movements of global capital) and ideoscapes (a chain of ideas composed of elements of the Enlightenment worldview) (1996:50–53), qualify the nature, depth and even the very existence of a global culture that is post-nationalist, postcolonial, postmodern and cosmopolitan. Burroughs’s humor as well shapes and qualifies the landscapes that he imagines in his fictions. Just as Appadurai’s global flows ‘give rise to a profusion of fluid, irregularly shaped, variously textured and constantly changing landscapes’ (Hay and Marsh 2000:2), Burroughs’s humor unsettles any stable reading of his fictional landscapes. Global interconnectedness suggests a world full of movement and mixture, contact and linkages, and cultural interaction and exchange (Inda and Rosaldo 2002b:2). As Jonathan Inda and Renato Rosaldo argue, this interconnectedness ‘implies a speeding up of the flows of capital, people, goods, images and ideas across the world […] suggest[ing] an intensification of the links, modes of interaction, and flows that interconnect the world’ and producing ‘a stretching of social, cultural, political, and economic practices across frontiers’ (9). In consequence, ‘while everyone might continue to live local lives, their phenomenal worlds have to some extent become global as distant events come to have an impact on local spaces, and local developments come to have global repercussions’ (9). A question that frames many discussions of globalization is that of whether globalization necessarily leads to a cultural homogenization of the world, ‘the installation worldwide of western versions of basic social-cultural reality: the West’s epistemological and ontological theories, its values, ethical systems, approaches to rationality, technical-scientific worldview, political culture, and so on’ (Tomlinson 1997:144). Tomlinson points out that cultural materials do not transfer in a unilinear manner, with what is called a hypodermic model of media effects (Morley and Robins 1995:126), but require the recognition of a context of complex reception. An appreciation of Burroughs’s exploration of boundaries through humor demands a similar recognition of the complexity of the context of reception. Although humor and globalization may seem metaphorically distant, as Appadurai insists, ‘[t]he imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order’ (1996:49).
Anna Tsing makes an important point:
Globalization draws our enthusiasm because it helps us imagine interconnection, travel and sudden transformation. [F]low is valorized but not the carving of the channel; national and regional units are mapped as the baseline of change without attention to their shifting and contested ability to define the landscape […] We describe the landscape imagined within these claims rather than the culture and politics of scale making. (2000:456)
Burroughs’s work with humor insistently reminds us of the culture, politics and values that shape our responses. It represents both a seduction into laughter and a call for a critical stance toward the assumptions and fantasies represented by his comic practice.
VAMPIRIC EMOTIONAL POSSESSION
Burroughs’s use of the imagination and the effects of humor can be seen in the presence of routines, or comic monologues, throughout his work. Many of Burroughs’s routines originate in letters he wrote to Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s after the end of their love affair. Ginsberg describes these routines as ‘conscious projections of Burroughs’ love fantasies—further explanations and parodies and models of our ideal love schlupp together. I was somewhat resistant, so much of his fantasy consists of a parody of his invasion of my body and brain’ (LTG 6). Timothy S. Murphy also identifies these routines as a ‘means of seduction […] Through these routines, Burroughs hoped to win the errant Ginsberg back’ (1997:144). However, as Ginsberg points out, to ‘schlupp’ means ‘to devour a soul parasitically’. If the routines in Burroughs’s fiction establish a relationship with his readers similar to the relationship with Ginsberg as a recipient of his letters, we must ask, is Burroughs’s humor intended to seduce his readers? Is it aggressively meant to devour interlocutors, as his consciousness effectively takes over ours and sets off a laughter mechanism? Or does Burroughs mean to warn us of the potential for a kind of vampiric emotional possession through our reception of his entertaining and disturbing routines? Jamie Russell certainly views Burroughs’s routines as threatening because of their tendency to collapse boundaries: ‘Both fantastic and realistic, the routine is monstrous. Its schizophrenic oscillation between opposed registers (real/fictional, comic/terrifying, masculine/ feminine) threatens to overwhelm the teller, turning him into a mere ventriloquist’s dummy […] In this respect, the routine feminizes the receiver, throwing him into a camp hysteria that is likely to tear him apart, bringing about his psychic disintegration’ (2001:22). In the relationship set up by Burroughs’s routines, the comic, who should be the ventriloquist here, becomes transformed into a ventriloquist’s dummy (evoking the disturbing transfer of subjectivity between Burroughs’s Carny man and the talking asshole), while the receiver, possessed by laughter, also risks the loss of a stable self. Russell tentatively recuperates this potential psychic disintegration by ascribing the prestige of a survivor who has confronted the danger of self-loss and reveled in bawdiness to the appreciative audience of Burroughs’s routines, but the undermining potential for psychic dissolution remains.
In recognition of this psychic threat, Burroughs clearly does not offer a utopian presentation of humor. A haunting passage from Naked Lunch—the Sailor ‘laughed, black insect laughter that seemed to serve some obscure function of orientation like a bat’s squeak’ (NL 47)—suggests that for Burroughs, laughter is an involuntary, automatic reaction that we would not necessarily recognize as human in volition, but which can serve as a tool for orientation. As the passage continues, ‘The Sailor laughed three times. He stopped laughing and hung there motionless listening down into himself. He had picked up the silent frequency of junk’ (NL 47). Laughter is addictive and compulsive, and can be compared to involuntary physical responses such as sneezing, hiccupping and coughing, as we see in an incident in The Wild Boys: ‘The boys pulled their eyes up at the corners yacking in false Chinese. The effect was irresistibly comic. Then the boys laughed. They laughed and laughed laughing inside us all the officers were laughing doubled over holding their guts in. The boys sneezed and coughed. They posted themselves in front of the CIA man and began to hiccup’ (WB 132). The boys’ laughter collapses the boundaries between officers and wild boys as their laughter erupts from within the officers. The boys’ irresistible pranks prevent the officers from reasserting their autonomy, as they are literally possessed by seizures of laughter, hiccups, coughs and sneezes. The body takes over, the contagion spreads, the boys grab guns and in seconds hundreds of soldiers lie dead.
Laughter involves and expresses contradictory registers of emotion. D. H. Monro, Gregory Bateson and other reception-oriented humor theorists claim that a single, discrete emotion does not cause laughter, but rather an abrupt movement from one ‘emotional sphere’ to another (Monro 1951:249) or the interval of affective ‘oscillation’ created by this movement (Bateson 1953:6). This oscillation brings about the ‘sharp cold bray of laughter’ that an ass-like Le Comte repeatedly ‘emits’ in The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (128,137) and Port of Saints (38, 52, as well as the French Consul, 37). Because laughter is multi-referential, with shifting agendas, it can engage our awareness of the elements involved in its circulation through Burroughs’s work in its exploration of boundaries and social limits.
This oscillation of emotions informs definitions of the term ‘prank’, a comic practice specifically associated with Burroughs (if you search Google with the words ‘William Burroughs prank’ four out of the first five responses will describe the death of his wife Joan Vollmer, ‘killed in a drunken prank’. According to Burroughs, this ‘prank’ was both a case of possession [Morgan 1988:198] with tragic consequences, and the enabling source of his becoming a writer—‘I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out’ [Q xxii]). Is a prank a malicious act, a trick, a practical joke? Are there criteria for good and for bad pranks? V. Vale and Andrea Juno argue that
the best pranks invoke the imagination, poetic imagery, the unexpected and a deep level of irony or social criticism […] Great pranks create synaesthetic experiences which are unmistakably exciting, original and reverberating, as well as creative, metaphoric, poetic and artistic. If these criteria be deemed sufficient, then pranks can be considered as constituting an art form and genre in themselves.
Bad pranks, on the other hand,
are characterized not only by unoriginality but by conventionalized cruelty, these pointless humiliations do nothing to raise consciousness or alter existing power relationships. They are deeds which only further the status-quo; they only perpetuate the acceptance of and submission to arbitrary authority, or abet existing hierarchical inequities. Basically these include all pranks recognizable as ‘clichés’—those which contribute no new poetic imagery. (1987:4–5)
According to Vale and Juno, good pranks are both creative and critical and play an important role in the history of art, in world myths and in written literature. Bad pranks, on the other hand, are conservative and conventional. A good prank crosses borders: ‘[G]enuinely poetic/imaginative pranks resist facile categorization, and transcend inflexible (and often questionable) demarcations between legality and illegality, good and bad taste, and right and wrong social conduct’ (1987:5). Rabelais’s Panurge, the master prankster, provides a model here, in his challenge to boundaries in the world of the Renaissance, a period where laughter also responded to a new awareness of the global. And as Tsing reminds us, ‘[t]he idea that global interconnections are old has only recently been revitalized, muffled as it was for much of the twentieth century by the draw of nationally contained legacies, in history, and functionally contained social worlds, in anthropology; it seems unfortunate to lose this insight so quickly’ (2000:459). Comic practices can both articulate and respond to the shifting borders of globalization.
THE GLOBAL AND THE LOCAL
As an example of Burroughs’s appreciation of the circulation between the global and the local, we might look at a famous routine which speculates on the consequences that arise when body parts assume their own lives: states of consciousness, individual agency and autonomy, stable philosophical and theological values are put up for grabs. In a discussion of the global traffic in human organs, Nancy Scheper-Hughes points out, for example, that ‘[t]ransplant surgery has reconceptualized social relations between self and other, between individual and society, and among the “three bodies”—the existential lived body-self, the social, representational body, and the body political’ (2000:272). While these concerns may seem recent, the literature of talking body parts, expressing anxiety and humor over autonomous organs, can be traced back to the Old French fabliaux, anonymous narratives dating from the twelfth to the fourteenth century, short humorous tales written in octosyllabic couplets that present bawdy anecdotes, practical jokes and tricks of revenge, including such stories as ‘Le Débat du con et du cul’ (‘The Dispute between the Cunt and the Anus’) (Bloch 1986:105). Burroughs’s ‘talking asshole’ routine continues this legacy by probing the demarcations of the legal, of taste and of social conduct through humor.
A first version of this sequence occurs in a letter to Ginsberg dated 7 February 1954. Burroughs prefaces the routine with a description of how he procrastinates before he settles down ‘to write something saleable’—emphasizing how the routine itself is a commodity that explores commodification:
So finally I say: ‘Now you must work’ and smoke some tea and sit down and out it comes all in one piece like a glob of spit: The incredibly obscene, thinly disguised references and situations that slip by in Grade B movies, the double entendres, perversion, sadism of popular songs, poltergeist knockings and mutterings of America’s putrifying [sic] unconscious, boils that swell until they burst with a fart noise as if the body had put out an auxilary [sic] ass hole with a stupid, belligerent Bronx cheer. (LTG 17–18)
Burroughs clearly draws a connection between America’s putrefying unconscious, as expressed in the popular culture of movies and songs, and the routine of the chattering asshole that culminates in a brain assumed to be dead because there is no more feeling in the eyes ‘than a crab’s eye on the end of a stalk’. After the routine, Burroughs continues with a discussion of border crossings:
So what I started to talk about was the sex that passes the censor, squeezes through between bureaus, because there’s always a space between, in popular songs and Grade B movies, as giving away the basic American rottenness, spurting out like breaking boils, throwing out globs of that Un D. T. [undifferentiated tissue—a crucial part of the talking asshole routine] to fall anywhere and grow into some degenerate, cancerous life form, reproducing a hideous random image. (LTG 19)
Burroughs then significantly equates himself, or his humor, with the asshole who takes over:
This is my saleable product. Do you dig what happens? It’s almost like automatic writing produced by a hostile, independent entity who is saying in effect ‘I will write what I please.’ At the same time when I try to pressure myself into organizing production, to impose some form on material, or even to follow a line (like continuation of novel) the effort catapults me into a sort of madness. (LTG 20–1)
When Burroughs writes humor for consumption, according to this description, it is the asshole who speaks. Not surprisingly, critical analysis tends to eliminate the humor and respond to the horror of the ‘hostile, independent entity’ within the routine. However, both humor and horror are emphasized in the talking asshole routine as it appears in Naked Lunch. In the frame for the routine, Schafer, who is not listening to Doctor Benway talk, realizes the human body is ‘scandalously inefficient’ and wonders ‘why not have one all-purpose hole to eat and eliminate’ (NL 119). Benway responds ‘Why not one all-purpose blob?’ and starts the routine. In Benway’s description of the Carny act, the talking asshole is synaesthetic, like a good prank—you can smell the sound. It also moves the audience physically—to hear the ass talk fills the audience with the urge to excrete. The Carny owner of the asshole initially speaks for the ass, as a ventriloquist. His act is ‘Real funny, too, at first’, and then the asshole gains verbal independence and turns out to be an innovative comic—‘After a while the ass started talking on its own […] his ass would ad-lib and toss the gags back at him every time’ (NL 120). The asshole, or now commodified act, begins to consume as well; the subject or Carny man thinks this is cute at first and builds another act around the eating asshole, but the asshole is not willing to exist only as an objectified commodity, part of an act, and collapses the boundary between art and life (think of Peter Bürger, who defines the avant-garde as a series of tendencies aimed at overcoming the separation of art from everyday life, as attempts to dismantle the institution of art and the aesthetic as an acknowledged cultural sphere [Bürger 1984]; and recollect the commercial success of Joseph Pujol, ‘Le Pétomane’ [Lydenberg 1987:25–6 and Zeldin 1977:703–4]) by talking on the street, asking for equal rights, getting drunk, wanting love and kisses like any other mouth. Completely out of control, it talks day and night; the Carny man beats it and screams at it and sticks candles up it but the final words we hear from the asshole (and at this point, even before the eruption of the undifferentiated tissue, we must wonder who exactly is the real asshole here) are ‘[i]t’s you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don’t need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit’ (NL 120). The asshole has not only learned the lesson of economy and profit, but his understanding of efficiency is superior to that of his teacher. Soon the Carny man’s mouth seals over with undifferentiated tissue, and only the eyes remain—the eyes no longer signify consciousness, and might even assume the function of an asshole for the asshole, mediating between within and without (the only change in the routine in Naked Lunch from the original letter to Ginsberg lies in the description of how the brain is trapped in the skull, rather than in a shell, when it can’t give orders any more, emphasizing a mammal’s prison).
Critics of Burroughs tend to read this routine as distinctly uncomic, presenting a destabilizing revolution of ‘lower’ over ‘higher’ terms. Tony Tanner, for example, sees the anecdote as a ‘parable of matter in a state of hideous revolt’, where lower forms of life devour higher forms (1971:117). For Tanner, the rebellion of body parts is hideous rather than funny. Alvin Seltzer, using terms offered by both the initial letter and Naked Lunch in both their subsequent discussions of bureaus as parasites, reads the routine as ‘a political statement of the evils of a democratic system. The talking asshole becomes an allegorical equivalent of bureaucracies that feed off their host’ (1974:346). Neil Oxenhandler interprets the tale psychoanalytically as ‘the struggle between the oral impulse and the anal impulse’, with a false victory for the anal impulse as the oral irrevocably returns (1975:144). Robin Lydenberg emphasizes language and the body and asserts: ‘In this bizarre tale, Burroughs dramatizes the problematic relationship of body and mind, and the role of language in that relationship; the arbitrary violence of language as a system of naming and representation; and the possibility of an ontology and an aesthetics based on negativity and absence’ (1987:19). At least Lydenberg does point out that the story is funny as well as frightening (23) and notes that ‘critical references to the story do not appear in the context of discussions of Burroughs’ humor’ (26). Wayne Pounds identifies the routine as a parody of the discourse of scientistic, behaviorist human engineering, a dystopic parody of Benway’s (actually Schafer’s) engineering utopia (1987:219). Jamie Russell argues that the routine ‘is a very obvious morality tale that warns against the mimicry of the feminine that is the basis of the effeminate paradigm and camp’ and shows how ‘the hideously comic image’ (48) makes it easy to overlook the importance of what Lydenberg calls the ‘novelty ventriloquist act’ (cited by Russell 2001:48).
That this routine can inspire so many powerful readings is remarkable, but read with attention to its humor, it can also provide insights into the dynamics of Burroughs’s comic practice. Although eyes often symbolize the intellect in the Western tradition, both eyes and asshole are also parts of the body. Cultural maps of the body assign very different values to assholes and eyes—collapse these differences and the resulting oscillation of emotions produces laughter. There are many links between the asshole and the eye in Burroughs’s work as he plays with corporeal hierarchies. Starting with an indiscriminate appearance of organs in Naked Lunch (‘In his place of total darkness mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth … but no organ is constant as regards either function or position … sex organs sprout anywhere … rectums open, defecate and close …’ [NL 10]), the connection becomes more explicit in the recording Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (1993), which describes its eponymous heroine thusly: ‘She had an auxiliary asshole in the middle of her forehead, like a painful bronze eye’ (SAA). The announcements ‘[a]nother installment in the adventures of Clem Snide the Private Ass Hole’ (NL 108), ‘I am a private asshole’ (CRN 35) and ‘I change my address, he gets a private ass hole to find me’ (WL 123) also identify the asshole with the eye and with detection. In Burroughs’s work, neither asshole nor eye is privileged—both represent the physical, both mediate between inner and outer. In The Western Lands, when mummification is posed as a potential vehicle for immortality, we are reminded that any preservation of the body must include the asshole and all its functions:
The young question the mummy concept:
‘To keep the same asshole forever? Is this a clarion call to youth?’
‘It stinks like petrified shit.’
‘Have you something better to offer?’ says a serious young Scribe […]
‘To reach the Western Lands is to achieve freedom from fear. Do you free yourself from fear by cowering in your physical body for eternity? Your body is a boat to lay aside when you reach the far shore, or sell it if you can find a fool … it’s full of holes … it’s full of holes.’ (WL 161–2)
Both eyes and asshole represent holes, physical vulnerability, concavities that facilitate physical survival.
DIALECTIC BETWEEN THE SERIOUS AND THE FRIVOLOUS
Burroughs’s ambivalence over the body’s fragility can be found throughout his later work: ‘I see myself streaking across the sky like a star to leave the earth forever. What holds me back? It is the bargain by which I am here at all. The bargain is this body that holds me here’ (WB 102). In the past, immortality was achieved through preservation of the body (mummies)—now the body can be seen as part of a greater, more insidious bargain:
Audrey felt the floor shift under his feet and he was standing at the epicenter of a vast web. In that moment, he knew its purpose, knew the reason for suffering, fear, sex, and death. It was all intended to keep human slaves imprisoned in physical bodies while a monstrous matador waved his cloth in the sky, sword ready for the kill. (CRN 309)
Escape from the body, a privileging of the mental or spiritual over the crude physical accidents and mortal contingencies of the flesh, should presumably bring liberation.
Here we return to the role of laughter in achieving, marking or qualifying this potential freedom, when Burroughs’s narrator observes:
The Duad is a river of excrement, one of the deadliest obstacles on the road to the Western Lands. To transcend life you must transcend the conditions of life, the shit and farts and piss and sweat and snot of life. A frozen disgust is as fatal as prurient fixation, two sides of the same counterfeit coin. It is necessary to achieve a gentle and precise detachment, then the Duad opens like an intricate puzzle. (WL 155)
How to escape the false values of disgust and fixation, how to arrive at detachment? And what does it mean when the Duad opens, when a river of excrement reveals itself to be a complex puzzle? Laughter offers a way of exploring the boundaries that limit us to the emotional polarities of disgust or fixation. Our reception of the metaphors that circulate within Burroughs’s humor—‘Jody can do a fake Chinese spiel that’ll just kill you—like a hysterical ventriloquist’s dummy. In fact, he precipitated an anti-foreign riot in Shanghai that claimed 3,000 casualties’ (NL 101)—determine whether we are in some way possessed by the joke, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, like a comic or an asshole, or whether we can discover detachment through the humor.
One can see an evolution in Burroughs’s relation to possession, frequently expressed through humor, from Naked Lunch (‘“Possession” they call it.… Sometimes an entity jumps in the body […] and hands move to disembowel the passing whore or strangle the neighbor child in hope of alleviating a chronic housing shortage. As if I was usually there but subject to goof now and again.… Wrong! I am never here.… Never that is fully in possession, but somehow in a position to forestall ill-advised moves.… Patrolling is, in fact, my principle occupation’ [NL 200]) to the questions that inform the late trilogy: ‘It is essential for immortalists to remember, do not take anything too seriously. And remember also that frivolity is even more fatal … so, what now?’ (WL 163). This dialectic between the serious and the frivolous culminates in a final glimpse of an old man who realizes that what he struggles against necessarily constitutes what he must struggle for:
I want to reach the Western Lands—right in front of you, across the bubbling brook. It’s a frozen sewer. It’s known as the Duad, remember? All the filth and horror, fear, hate, disease and death of human history flows between you and the Western lands. Let it flow! My cat Fletch stretches behind me on the bed. A tree like black lace against a gray sky. A flash of joy.
How long does it take a man to learn that he does not, cannot want what he ‘wants’?
You have to be in Hell to see Heaven. Glimpses from the Land of the Dead, flashes of serene timeless joy, a joy as old as suffering and despair. (WL 257–8)
In what seems like a joke, the longed-for Western Lands are squarely on the other side of a brook that bubbles like the asshole of human history. And instead of trying to frantically cross to that other side, or becoming paralyzed with disgust, here the narrator accepts that flow. I sometimes wonder if one of Burroughs’s final pranks on his audience is this insistence that the barren trees of winter, the suffering and despair that lead people in and out of their addictions, the control mechanisms that provide an unearthly solace and a taste of immortality, are for better or for worse, a necessary part of the landscape. Like a good prank, Burroughs’s humor reminds us not to dismiss the body. If we commodify the asshole, it will in turn commodify us.
Laughter for Burroughs is both an involuntary automatic reaction that we would not necessarily identify as human, and a potential tool for orientation. A good prank is creative, critical and raises consciousness. A good prank can inspire creativity, flexibility and resilience through laughter. A bad prank leads to frozen immobility where we are trapped, rather than liberated, by the oscillation of laughter. Although Burroughs frequently depicts laughter as hostile, even deadly (‘His loud, metallic laugh rings out across the dump, and the crowd laughs with him under the searching guns’ [NL 166]; ‘The onlookers snort and bray with laughter sharp as flint knives in sunlight’ [WL 71]), its absence in his work also signals mortal corruption. (‘He organized a vast Thought Police. Anybody with an absent-minded expression was immediately arrested and executed. Anyone who expressed any ideas that deviated in any way from decent church-going morality suffered the same fate. The American Moral Disease passed into its terminal stage. Laughing was strictly forbidden. Everyone wore identical expressions of frustrated hate looking for a target’ [POS 22–3].) Because ‘it is the nature of laughter to recognize no bounds’ (LTG 80), laughter marks a place where boundaries can be both acknowledged and crossed, where conventional feelings are questioned and challenged:
The door to another dimension may open when the gap between what one is expected to feel and what one actually does feel rips a hole in the fabric. Years ago I was driving along Price Road and I thought how awful it would be to run over a dog or, my God, a child, and have to face the family and portray the correct emotions. When suddenly a figure wrapped in a cloak of darkness appeared with a dead child under one arm and slapped it down on a porch:
‘This yours, lady?’
I began to laugh. The figure had emerged from a lightless region where everything we have been taught, all the conventional feelings, do not apply. There is no light to see them by. It is from this dark door that the antihero emerges.… (PDR 300)
The outlaw, the anti-hero, and the avant-garde can be said to share a sense of humor. Carl Hill, in his investigation of wit, observes how
Witz has come to be identified with the side of human reason. The split between accepted knowledge and the faculty that does the knowing, along with the increasing identification of Witz with the latter, marks Witz as the avant-garde of the intellect. It is in the paradoxical position of being both the builder and the destroyer of knowledge, tradition, and culture. (Hill 1993:4–5)
A study of humor as an avant-garde strategy of provocation and engagement can provide a ‘stranger’, more compelling framework for theorizing than such familiar categories as aesthetics versus politics or containment (the release and ultimate structural support of comic relief) versus transgression (or subversion). As John Limon points out, ‘if comedy performs a useful task for theory it is all in the reduction to nonsense of the distinction between containment and subversion models of art’ (Limon 2000:38). Burroughs’s practice of humor points to a globalization model that endorses interconnection and valorizes both flows and the carving of their channels, that maps the relations between the local and the global and explores the scales of values used to construct those relations.
Burroughs’s joke work, exploring the relation between local organs and global constructs, illuminates how globalization must be seen not just as a new era facilitating commercialism and scholarship, but also as something that has always been with us. As Tsing argues, ‘we can investigate globalist projects and dreams without assuming that they remake the world just as they want. The task of understanding planet-wide interconnections requires locating and specifying globalist projects and dreams, with their contradictory as well as charismatic logics and their messy as well as effective encounters and translations’ (2000:456). Any articulation of flows must remain conscious of riverbanks—those structures that shape and are being shaped through globalization. Burroughs’s humor urges us to recognize contradiction and mess, to appreciate the complexity of contexts of reception that lead, for example, to such profound (and profoundly different) responses to a ‘talking asshole routine’. Humor in Burroughs’s work offers a tool for orientation, to help us navigate even the flow made possible by the riverbank of the Duad.
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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'