Dawn of the Information Age
William S. Burroughs is most familiar to us today as a Beat-era outlaw turned prophet of the Information Age, a media legend celebrated by the cyberpunk authors of the 1980s and hailed by the Internet visionaries of the 1990s. Perhaps Burroughs’ greatest achievement, however, was his Nova science fiction trilogy, one of the true watersheds of late 20th century aesthetics. The Soft Machine (1960) invented the concept of cybernetic science fiction, The Ticket That Exploded (1962) pushed cybernetics to its functional limit, while Nova Express (1964) is very much the founding text of the information culture.
Burroughs’ vocation as an artist was heavily overdetermined by his identity as a gay man in a deeply homophobic society. Like French playwright Jean Genet, Burroughs’ personal commitment to gay liberation would translate into an abiding sympathy with the other progressive movements of the post-1968 period. Unlike Genet, however, Burroughs was the Harvard-educated scion of an upper-crust Middle Western family, who survived on his family inheritance (the legacy of a grandfather who invented the Burroughs adding machine). As a wealthy rentier, Burroughs was the purest product of US capitalism imaginable; as an artist, he was its inveterate foe. Interviewers were constantly struck by the contrast between Burroughs’ formal demeanor – he dressed, walked and talked like a conventional 1940s Midwestern banker – and the incandescent fury of his writing. In fact, Burroughs spent much of his life either on the run, in overseas exile, or in recovery, battling a lifelong heroin addiction.
Contrary to popular mythology, this addiction was not the primary source of his creative inspiration. Thanks to a fortuitous constellation of class background, personal biography, and Cold War geopolitics, Burroughs had the motivation, the opportunity and the sheer cash-flow to document the zero-hour of the information culture. Economically, the 1960s marked the zenith of the US Empire, the moment when US chemical, automotive and energy firms pioneered globalization by investing heavily in Western Europe and the Pacific Rim. Politically, the 1960s witnessed the high tide of anti-colonial uprisings and national revolutions, from Vietnam to Cuba. In a very real sense, the Nova trilogy documents the historic collision of First World consumerism and Third World revolution.
This is a point often lost on first-time readers of Burroughs, who are either appalled or swept away by what seems to be a noisome tumult of scatology, decay and chaos. Paradoxical as it sounds, one of the most consistent features of Burroughs’ work is its extraordinary formal precision and narrative subtlety. Consider this monologue by Inspector J. Lee in the opening pages of Nova Express:
Listen to my last words anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever –
“Don’t let them see us. Don’t tell them what we are doing –”
Are these the words of the all-powerful boards and syndicates of the earth?
“For God’s sake don't let that Coca-Cola thing out – ”
“Not The Cancer Deal with The Venusians –”
“Not the Green Deal – Don’t show them that –”
“Not the Orgasm Death –”
“Not the ovens –”
Listen: I call you all. Show your cards all players. Pay it all pay it all pay it all back. Play it all pay it all play it all back. For all to see. In Times Square. In Piccadilly.1
This is no disjointed harangue, but a passage combining remarkable simplicity and extreme complexity. First, the verbal repetitions between words/world, anywhere/any world, and pay/play are counterpointed by the mysterious capitalized terms, which refer to various conspiracies of the Nova Mob. Second, the passage moves from acoustic to visual registers, from injunction to evidence, and from the realm of global commercial and power elites to a democratic viewing-space, where the rule of those elites can be contested. If the slightly dated references to Piccadilly and Times Square were replaced by contemporary websites and the capitalized terms by hyperlinks, it’s not difficult to imagine this passage on a world-class web log, denouncing the latest global corporate scandal.
To grasp the true measure of Burroughs’ contribution to the information culture, however, we need to return to the first installment of the Nova trilogy, The Soft Machine. What immediately distinguishes this text from the Beat culture of the late 1950s, with its existential outlaws and rebels without a cause, is its explicitly non-American location. Whereas Naked Lunch’s most insistent refrain is the line, “Selling is more of a habit than using,”2 The Soft Machine will situate this critique of US consumerism within a larger geopolitical context.
Indeed, what most impresses contemporary readers of The Soft Machine is its ecological conscience – the forthright depiction of the environmental, cultural and social devastation inflicted by unchecked marketization, everywhere from the cynical economic monopolies of Trak, Trak, Trak3 to the fictionalized Latin America of The Mayan Caper.4 In the following passage, Burroughs transforms a routine visit to an impoverished Third World oil town or mining camp into a veritable science fiction extravaganza:
Through customs checks and control posts and over the mountains in a blue blast of safe conducts and three monkey creatures ran across the road in a warm wind – (sound of barking dogs and running water) swinging round curves over the misty void – down to end of the road towns on the edge of Yage country where shy Indian cops checked our papers – through broken stellae, pottery fragments, worked stones, condoms and shit-stained comics, slag heaps of phosphorescent metal excrement – faces eaten by the pink and purple insect disease of the New World – crab boys with human legs and genitals crawl out of clay cubicles – Terminal junkies hawk out crystal throat gristle in the cold mountain wind – Goof ball bums covered with shit sleep in rusty bathtubs – a delta of sewage to the sky under terminal stasis, speared a sick dolphin that surfaced in bubbles of coal gas – taste of metal left silver sores on our lips – only food for this village built on iron racks over an iridescent lagoon – swamp delta to the sky lit by orange gas flares...5
Much of the power of this passage derives from the pointed, telegraphic sentences bounded by hyphens, or what Burroughs termed his “cut-up” technique. In some cases, these were based on actual lines of newspaper and magazine texts, cut up with a scissors and rearranged in various patterns; however, Burroughs heavily edited the results to maximize their rhythmic impact.
What makes this hideous landscape of trash dumps, gas flares and slag heaps so compelling, on the other hand, is the eerie transmutation of machines into quasi-living things, and living things back into machines – or what amounts to a cybernetic neocolonialism. As a rule, the cybernetic technologies of the 1960s operated on the basis of mechanical or hydraulic (as opposed to electronic) systems of feedback and control, and many of the baroque homoerotic fantasies of The Soft Machine revolve around semi-automatic machines and uncannily lifelike capital goods. Mining tailings turn into glowing excrement, the mutant crab boys prostitute their semi-human bodies, while the “sick dolphin” – most likely a diesel-powered boat – reads like the hallucinogenic scansion of Marlow’s steamship in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But where Conrad denounced the horrors of Belgian colonialism from the standpoint of a compensatory British identity, Burroughs has no corresponding belief in the civilizing mission of the US Empire. What is most striking about his vision of neocolonialism is its inherent multinationalism. Witness Johnny Yen’s striptease in Celluloid Kali:
The lights dimmed and Johnny pranced out in goggles flickering Northern Lights wearing a jock of undifferentiated tissue that must be in constant movement to avoid crystallization. A penis rose out of the jock and dissolved in pink light back to a clitoris, balls retract into cunt with a fluid plop. Three times he did this to wild ‘Oles!’ from the audience. Drifted to the bar and ordered a heavy blue drink. D noted patches of white crystal formed along the scar lines on Johnny's copy face.
“Just like canals. Maybe I’m a Martian when the Crystals are down.”6
While “Johnny Yen” hints at a 1950s Japan which was still a subaltern or Second World industrial economy, the references to the crystal and Martians suggests an alien broadcasting or radio technology. By contrast, Johnny Yen’s patron, a nameless doctor, seems to be a vaguely Mephistophelean black-market organ-grafter or surgical specialist. The entire scene suggests a properly neocolonial division of labor between the local hired help and the manager of an overseas assembly factory.7
What marks The Soft Machine as the first classic of the information culture is its capacity to turn these cybernetic narratives against the framework of the Cold War media culture. One of the clearest examples of this is Burroughs’ uproarious punning of the media and military jargon of the US Empire: Inspector J. Lee is clearly an anagram for “jailee”, informant Uranium Willy is a reflexive reference to Burroughs’ own first name, while the “heavy metal boys” refer to the artificial elements produced by atomic fission (the code name of the first atomic bomb was Fat Boy). More subtly, Burroughs will begin to transform the social history of monopoly capitalism into a nightmarish natural history: Cold War client regimes turn into gangster conspiracies, IMF-World Bank technocrats into loan sharks, and multinational corporations into drug-pushers. (The Ticket That Exploded will refinee this strategy, transforming the 1950s culture-industry into the lethal amusement parks and floating casinos of the Garden of Delights or “G.O.D.”, a kind of biologic shopping mall where hustlers peddle all manner of biochemical cons and swindles).
What is missing from this catalogue of horrors is, of course, the resistance to all these things, that is to say, a cybernetic subject capable of navigating the marketplace of cybernetic technologies, and rebelling against the Cold War media culture on its own terrain. Burroughs’ first move here is to assemble snapshots of the Hollywood producer and the pornographic or blue movie into a kind of rough mediatic template:
The examiner floats up from the floor, swims down through heavy water from ceiling, shoots up from toilet bowl, English baths, underwater takes of genitals and pubic hairs in spermy water. The goggles lick over his body phosphorescent moths, through rectal hairs orange halos flicker around his penis. In his sleep, naked Panama nights, the camera pulsing in blue silence and ozone smells, sometimes the cubicle open out on all sides into purple space. X-ray photos of viscera and fecal movements, his body a transparent blue fish.8
The narrative effect is like watching the retinal after-images of Paul Klee and 1940s film noir dissolve into the free-flowing surfaces of 1950s animation stills and the phosphorescent trails of Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism, that supreme American embodiment of late visual modernism. Rather than simply playing off the painted surface against the filmic screen, Burroughs asks us to imagine the revolutionary possibilities of the three-dimensional “purple space” hinted at above, or what amounts to the radical expropriation of the entire universe of extended cultural reproduction. One of the first examples of such a guerilla raid on the hegemony of Hollywood is the dialogue between pilot K9 and Uranian Willy in the fragmentary chapter by the same name. Although Burroughs will recycle much of this material in the Uranium Willy chapter of Nova Express, one passage is worth quoting in particular :
Pilot K9 caught the syndicate killer image on a penny arcade screen and held it in his sight – Now he was behind it in it was it – The image disintegrated in photo flash of total recognition – Other image on screen – Hold in sight – Smell of burning metal in his head – “Pilot K9, you are cut off – Back – Back – Back before the whole fucking shithouse goes up – Return to base immediately – Ride music beam back to base – Stay out of that time flak – all pilots ride Pan Pipes back to base.”
It was impossible to estimate the damage – Board Books destroyed – Enemy personnel decimated – The message of total resistance on short wave of the world.9
Here some sort of WW II fighter mission, interspersed with photo stills of the gangster film, is simulcast over a pirate radio broadcast and anchored by the frenetic rhythms of a late 1950s sound-track (the Pan pipes hint at Charlie Parker’s limpid thirty-second notes). This is a remarkably prescient anticipation of the very first arcade videogames, with the proviso that the “penny arcade” refers not to a landscape of electronic machinery, but to mechanical juke boxes and pinball machines.
What remains problematic about the passage is the reference to short wave radio, a niche hobby as opposed to a global broadcasting network. Similarly, K9 disintegrates the specific image of the syndicate killer, but leaves the larger battle over the image-culture unresolved. The reason is that Burroughs is still in the process of constructing a cybernetic subject capable of simultaneously accessing a given mediatic form and technological body. The single greatest expression of this subject is located near the end of The Soft Machine, in a terrific line where Atomic Age post-history crash-lands into Stone Age prehistory:
“Explosive Bio-Advance Men out of space to employ Electrician in gasoline crack of history... cross the wounded galaxies we intersect, poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading – Migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history, explosive bio-advance out of space to neon…”10
The key here is the phrase “bio-advance out of space to neon”, which brackets the neon-lit streets and rebuses of 1920s Surrealism and the rocket launches of the 1950s space program from the standpoint of a cybernetic biology. Put another way, the electrician sparks the “gasoline crack of history” much like a sparkplug triggering an internal combustion engine.
This particular cybernetic subject, then, is still construed in terms of hardwired electronics rather than software codes. The corollary of Burroughs’ single most famous comment, namely that the word is a virus, is that the Burroughsian word is dependent on a cybernetic body or biochemical host of some sort. This is most apparent in the following fantasm of the petrochemicals industry, which not coincidentally was a pioneer in the field of cybernetic processing and controls:
It was a transitional period because of the Synthetics and everybody was raising some kinda awful life form in his bidet to fight the Sex Enemy – The results were not in all respects reasonable men, but the Synthetics were rolling off that line and we were getting some damned interesting types by golly blue heavy metal boys with near zero metabolism that shit once a century and then it’s a slag heap and disposal problem in the worst form there is: sewage delta to a painted sky under orange gas flares, islands of garbage where green boy-girls tend human heads in chemical gardens, terminal cities under the metal word fallout like cold melted solder on walls and streets, sputtering cripples with phosphorescent metal stumps – So we decided the blue heavy metal boys were not in all respects a good blueprint.11
Here, a series of increasingly risque Cold War puns (“Sex Enemy”, “the metal word fallout” and “blue heavy metal boys”) converges into the triple pun on “blueprint”: at once architectural design, blue-movie text, and high-tech innovation-rent. At the same time, Johnny Yen’s role is replicated by a local labor force of androgynous boy-girls, charged with operating semi-automatic processing machines (the literally and figuratively cultivated human heads).
This is an admittedly baroque gloss of the Satanic mill, reprised in terms of the overseas branch plant. What glimmers at the margins of such passages is the presence of a new kind of subjectivity, namely the highly educated, scientifically literate service-workers of consumer capitalism who are charged with designing everything from synthetic fabrics to nuclear devices. These service-workers are locked in struggle with an entity which is not identical to the US national security state, but structurally related to its mode of social organization. This entity can be nothing less than the Cold War multidivisional corporation, typified by DuPont, a firm which pioneered the use of corporate basic research, innovated synthetic fabrics such as nylon, and provided the management expertise and chemical engineering processes for the Manhattan Project. (It is no accident that DuPont was one of the earliest champions of globalization, and set up numerous overseas branch plants throughout the 1950s.)
This first, embryonic attempt to name a multinational corporation in the language of its own production-lines will be considerably expanded in the second volume of the Nova trilogy, The Ticket That Exploded. Though Burroughs himself was critical of the result, dismissing it as a secondary work comprised of archival material and routines excised from The Soft Machine, the text does represent a significant advance over its predecessor. On the level of form, the mechanical transpositions of the cut-up are infused with an updated content, or what amounts to the hot-wiring of the international sign-systems of late modernism onto the chassis of an exuberant 1950s mass-culture. Roughly analogous strategies were pursued by the cinematic auteurs of the late 1950s, who began to incorporate multinational materials into international cinematic forms: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), for example, careens wildly between the detective story and the action-adventure thriller, while keeping just one step ahead of its closest mass-cultural analogue, the James Bond spectacular. Similarly, the opening sequence of The Ticket That Exploded depicts a hectoring Hollywood director and a rabidly imperialist war movie gone haywire, who are both upstaged by the bickering between a harebrained scriptwriter and B.J., evidently some sort of film producer. But where we might expect an earnest battlefield report or, at the very least, the iridescent image-war of Alfred Bester’s The Stars, My Destination (1956), Burroughs launches us instead into the hallucinatory vistas of winds of time:
The two beings twisted free of human coordinates rectums merging in a rusty swamp smell – spurts of semen fell through the blue twilight of the room like opal chips – The air was full of flicker ghosts who move with the speed of light through orgasms of the world – tentative beings taking form for a few seconds in copulations of light... The blue metal boy naked now flooded back into his memory as the green boy-girl dropped spaceship controls in swirls of poisonous color... 12
Cinematic time falls into video space: the green boy-girls we glimpsed earlier now begin to reappropriate the media technology of their masters. The result is like a series of recorded fairy tales, played at fast-forward speed: a meeting with the Nova Police, one of the great unheralded primers of the New Left,13 is followed by a garbled biological murder-mystery, an uneven pastiche of Joyce, and finally Bill&Iam’s prison-break, which describes a brief and terrifying self-deprogramming and an all-out assault on the guard towers. There are also a number of entertaining intermezzos, most notably the carnivorous Happy Cloak, a clever recombination of the drug narrative with the existential textile which was borrowed from a Henry Kuttner short story;14 or, further afield, the self-demolition of a Cold War surveillance technology (“A tape recorder gasps, shits, pisses, strangles and ejaculates at his feet”),15 courtesy of the Demolition Squad charged with disposing film reels from the Garden of Delights.
Only the Joyce pastiche falls resoundingly flat, highlighting one of the little-known limitations of the cut-up. This is its tendency to short-circuit or otherwise disrupt non-mediatized narratives. This was not yet an issue for the modernist works of the 1930s, where the whole point was to reassert the primacy of a crisis-stricken national-monopoly form over whatever international content was handy (e.g. the Fascist populism of Celine’s gutter-lingo and telegraphic insults, Eisenstein’s Bolshevik close-ups and Stalinized panoramas, or the polyglot grammars of Finnegan’s Wake). The global spread of Hollywood and US consumerism after WW II, however, quickly put the crisis of international form back on the front burner, driving many late modernist artists to create explicitly anti-commercial forms (Beckett’s Endgame is the most famous of these, but one could also point to the elusive narrative multiplicity of Kurosawa’s Rashomon).
Probably the most concise way of phrasing the problem is that The Ticket That Exploded is an attempt to reconcile 1960s mass-cultural forms with a vocabulary drawn from the 1950s mass-culture. Where the experiment miscarries, flashes of 1940s narrative bedrock suddenly become visible. The religious cults and street hustlers of in a strange bed, the Top 40 music chatter and sexist asides of do you love me?, and the hackneyed media collage and dial-tone manifesto of in that game? are hardly the most egregious offenders here. In fact, wide swathes of the last hundred pages of the novel are a sargasso sea of detritus, occasionally enlivened by passages of superb editing, but markedly inferior to the frenetic innovations of first eleven chapters.
That said, those eleven chapters do make the whole enterprise worthwhile. The operation rewrite and nova police chapters are practically miniature masterpieces in their own right, thanks to their canny fusion of the anti-colonial revolutions and the postmodern culture-worker, and the transcription of cybernetic concepts of feedback and recursion onto geopolitics. For the first time, the Nova Police are described not as a glorified UN peace-keeping force, but as a kind of transnational guerilla movement, located halfway between the national security states and a plethora of multinational communications, scientific, educational, and media infrastructures.
Burroughs’ aesthetic dilemma has the most striking parallels to the central economic contradiction facing the post-colonial regimes of the post-Bandung era. The trading-rents which once accrued to colonial monopolies and landed elites could be nationalized, but not effectively deployed by nation-states practically denuded of managerial and professional talent by colonialism and expatriate flight. As Andre Gunder Frank observed, the most common result was that indigenous comprador elites simply stepped into the shoes of the former colonialists. Even in Latin America, where decolonization had taken place a century earlier, the most common result was technological and financial dependence on First World markets, ill-advised industrialization projects designed to enrich insider oligarchies rather than developing the national economy, and neocolonial debt dependency.16 Whatever the subjective or ideological aspirations of modernizing elites gathered under the banner of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, their objective class position could not, under the circumstances, be anything other than that of raw materials rentiers.
It is precisely the contradiction between the rentier state and national-revolutionary cadres, between the pernicious Mugwumps and Hassan i Sabbah, which drives The Ticket That Exploded towards one of its most remarkable narrative innovations. This is the refunctioning of the trope of the Third World’s alleged archaicism – its economic subalternity, vast peasant populations, and precapitalist social formations – into a trope of modernization. This has its first expression in the black fruit, where Lykin’s space-travels and Bradly’s psychedelic sojourns are serenaded by an anonymous fishboy and a well-informed tourist guide, respectively. Though these composite sketches are later inundated by a wave of hallucinogenic juxtapositions, the principle will be extended in all members worst a century, an adventure parody embellished by wild temporal swings between 1862 and 1962 (the peak of Victorian Britain versus the zenith of the US Empire). In particular, the telltale mention of an expatriate Dutchman and a Malaysian guide suggests the environs of former Dutch colony Indonesia, while the accompanying narrative recounts the displacement of a feminized heterosexuality by a emancipatory homoeroticism, or what amounts to the negation of a feminized colonial identity by a remasculinized national bureaucracy (a.k.a. the defeat of the Dutch by Sukarno and the Indonesian army).17 Burroughs’ text is remarkably explicit about the violence this process entails:
A young male face of dazzling beauty moved in and i was free of my body – The orchid girl floated over the pool toward me and i rushed her stuttering back sex words that tore her tentative substance like bullets – i caught a final glimpse of her agonized face eaten by caustic slime – A scream faded out in birdcalls and jungle sounds and lapping water – 18
The scream countermands the visual plenitude of the boy’s face, by naming the price every former colony paid in order to constitute itself as a nation-state in the first place: this is the relegation of local and regional identities, as well as competing nationalisms, to the jungle wastes. The humanization of the national is the flip side of the dehumanization of the non-national, something confirmed by the trajectory from Sukarno’s emancipatory nationalism to Suharto’s 1965 coup and subsequent genocide against alleged Communist subversives.
It is to Burroughs’ lasting credit that he neither censors nor fetishizes the ferocious violence of the peripheries, but identifies this violence in the context of the violence of the Cold War national security states. In this, Burroughs approaches the borders of Adorno’s vision of natural history in Negative Dialectics (1966), namely the total system’s threat of total self-destruction, apparent everywhere from the ecological devastation of the planet to the Cold War arms race.
Burroughs’ response to the nightmare of Cold War prehistory will be the utopia of the thermonuclear subject. The first version of this is undoubtedly Bradly’s biochemical time-travel in terminal street, something underlined by Burroughs’ self-portrait of his transmutation into a writer.19 Later versions include combat troops in the area, a partial rewrite of The Soft Machine’s Uranium Willy with expository details on the malign roles of Minraud, the Crab Guards, and the Scorpion Electricals, versus the beneficent Green Troops. The ultimate grounds of the thermonuclear subject, however, will not be Cold War geopolitics per se, but the electronic space outlined by writing machine. This space is one of the great anticipations of cyberspace:
Great sheets of magnetized print held color and disintegrated in cold mineral silence as word dust falls from demagnetized pictures – Photomontage fragments backed with iron stuck to patterns and fell in swirls mixing with color dust to form new patterns, shimmering, falling, magnetized, demagnetized to the flicker of blue cylinders pulsing neon tubes and globes – In metal booths brain waves wrote the flickering message passed back and forth, over and through shifting grills – The magnetic pencil caught in calligraphs of Brion Gysin wrote back into the brain metal patterns of silence and space – orgone accumulators flickering blue over swimming tanks where naked youths bathed in blue – sound and image flakes falling like luminous grey snow – falling softly from demagnetized patterns into blue silence – Metal heads reversed eyes felt tingling blue spark erections – Metal orgasms flickering rainbow colors – came in wet scenic railways of dream – Electrodes from the brain wrote out boys on roller skates in a shower of ruined suburbs – 20
All the hegemonic features of the information culture are at work here, ranging from seamless networks of information production to recorded media environments, and from orgiastic consumerisms to a suburban roller-skating (nowadays, roller-blading) youth culture. At first glance, this First World consumerism seems to have little enough to do with a nascent Third World subject, until one considers the fact that the entire display is, quite literally, a writing machine – that is to say, an instrument of global production. In effect, the brain waves and electrodes of unseen First World subjects are writing out messages which consist of Second World bodies, with the assistance of a Third World workforce (the “metal heads” who, though reduced to factors of production by the factory-narrative in question, are nevertheless able to genuflect on Expressionistic “railways of dream”). The result is surely the one of the most mind-bending descriptions of an electronics plant in the Third World ever written. It is as if the embodied labor congealed in the cheap radios, transistors, tape players, television sets and electronic goods being produced in the Third World export-processing zones of the day were somehow able to speak, if only for a moment, in a transnational language of electronic whines and scratches, welding arcs and machine-shop stamps, all set to the propulsive rhythm of the global assembly-line.
Put another way, Burroughs’ writing machine is something like a fantasmatic word-processor, one step further along the chain of electronic evolution from the electric typewriter. What is missing, to be sure, is the script or symbolic document by which these machines of textual reproduction are reproduced: mass media codes, or software. Burroughs’ provisional attempts at delivering such a script – everything from citations of Gysin’s calligraphy to Reich’s sex therapies – are notably unconvincing, and one can argue that the original cybernetic synthesis of The Soft Machine (put crudely, the brain considered as an analog telephone switchboard and the body as a petrochemical cracking-plant) begins to split apart in The Ticket That Exploded due to its own internal contradictions, namely the clash between increasingly autonomous surveillance and communications networks on the one hand, and disconnected mechanisms of hormonal feedback and control on the other.
This is perhaps the place to mention N. Katharine Hayles’ indispensable study of the ideology of cybernetics, How We Became Posthuman. Hayles quotes extensively from the tape-recorder sequences of The Ticket That Exploded, showing that, at a certain point, the extended reproduction of information became antagonistic to the positivist-mechanical, military-cybernetic and natural-scientific bodies in which the former was housed. The result was the creation of a post-humanist or informatic discourse of the body, in place of the traditional positivistic or humanistic ones. Hayles’ insight is confirmed by the flashes of a post-cybernetic subject faintly visible in substitute flesh, everywhere from hints of some sort of cybernetic recording and production studio (“Stroking music from hose attachments they turn virus punch cards to magnetic patterns”)21 all the way to the biological mutation of combat troops in the area:
The mold of his body cracked and he stepped free – a slender green creature, his hands ended in black claws covered with fine magnetic wires that extended up the inner arm to the elbow – He was wearing a gas mask to breathe carbon dioxide of enemy planet – antennae ears tuned to all voices of the city, each voice classified on a silent switchboard – green disk eyes with pupils of a pale electric blue – body of a hard green substance like flexible jade – back brain and spine burned with blue sparks as messages crackled in and out – 22
The cybernetic organism morphs effortlessly into Donna Haraway’s gender-bending cyborg, which detaches itself from the centralized grip of a broadcast station or control-program and begins its own autonomous scan of the media sphere.23 Taken together, the global innovation-rents of the radio transceiver, a tapped or centrally-monitored telephone network, and the B-movie science fiction reference to the little green men from Mars suggest the standpoint of the skilled radio technician or electronics specialist – not quite the university hackers and programmers of the 1970s, but no longer the Pentagon’s communications and electronics specialists of the early 1960s, either.
This raises interesting questions about Burroughs’ relationship to mainstream science fiction. Whereas the psychedelic sequences of The Ticket That Exploded hearken back to the baroque horror and pulp fantasies of R.E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, and the media satires are not too distant from the technological parables of Heinlein and Asimov, the various media guerillas and underground resistance movements have no such obviously American referent, unless it be to the telephonic (and time-traveling) youth-culture of Lewis Padgett’s Mimsy Were the Borogoves. Possibly Burroughs’ closest analogue was the Japanese monster spectacular of the 1950’s. The Godzilla narratives were not simply a catharsis of wartime destruction or a protest against the American H-bomb tests, something registered elsewhere by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki narratives, as well as the pacifism of Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain. The real issue was the bewildering and inexplicable prosperity of the Korean War boom, triggered by lucrative US military contracts. The leap from the superstitious villagers of Odo Island to Godzilla’s rampage through downtown Tokyo was the symbolic compensation for Japan’s lightning metamorphosis from a largely agrarian and village-based society into an predominantly urban and industrial one – a transformation which took a hundred and fifty years to complete in Britain and seventy years in America and Germany, but only a scant twenty years (1945-65) in Japan.
This is confirmed by the following passage, which evokes the sprawling complexity and spatial density of Second World export-platform cities such as Hong Kong or Tokyo:
Controllers of the Green Troops moved in now – Light-years in eyes that write character of biologic alteration – Vampires fall to dust – crumpled cloth bodies on the glass and metal streets – The Venusians are relegated to terminal sewage deltas – The Uranians back to the heavy cold mist of mineral silence – Dry heat and insect forms close round the people of Mercury – Consequences and alternatives flash on off – Accept Rewrite or return to conditions you intended to impose on this colony – No appeal from eyes that see light-years in advance – Explode substitute giving orders – Green metal antennae crackling static in the transient hotels – cutting virus troops with static noises – Galactic shock troops break through moving in fast on music poured through nerve circuits... Television mind destroyed – Love is falling from this paper punching holes in photograph... 24
The petrochemical bodily process is superseded by the biologic niche market, the Cold War intervention turns into a UN relief convoy, the Hollywood film is disrupted by a kind of favela theater, and the Cold War TV broadcast is jammed by roving teams of cybernetic media guerillas, whose electro-mechanical bodies are retrofitted with informatic sensors. This is closely connected with the juxtaposition of computer punch cards with grainy photographs or codices no longer bound to an immediate journalistic or photographic frame of reference: the resulting silicon cuneiform is a dead ringer for the computer program.
This moment calls to mind the science fiction of Stanislaw Lem, whose work spanned the realms of philology, philosophy and the notion of a properly informatic alien biology (i.e. species which exist solely as Boolean subunits). But where Lem grounded this contradiction in terms of Poland’s struggle for self-definition vis-a-vis the USSR, Burroughs’ narrative focuses on quite a different struggle: the battle between multinational programmers, service-workers and media technicians, and the multinational corporations spawned by the Pentagon contracts and consumer markets of the Cold War. The Nova Mob are not a petty criminal conspiracy or even a set of conspiracies, they are the historical culmination of all Mafias, the multinational power-elites of information capitalism:
In three-dimensional terms the board is a group representing international big money who intend to take over and monopolize space – They have their own space arrangements privately owned and consider the governmental space programs a joke – The board books are records pertaining to anyone who can be of use to their program or anyone who could endanger it... 25
As for what happens when the information guerillas begin to re-appropriate the coding tools of the multinationals through the very corridors and networks of electronic power, that is for Nova Express to tell.
1. Nova Express. (3-4)
2. William Burroughs. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1959 (15, 232).
3. More is at stake here than the denunciation of those mainstays of the US Empire, namely Hollywood, Coca-cola, oil and the overseas dollar economy, sprayed over the walls of the favela like graffiti:
Bradley was reading the sign nailed to a split-bamboo tenement – The sign was printed on white paper book page size:
Cut The Sex and Dream Utility Lines//
Cut the Trak Service Lines//
The paws do no refresh//
Clom Fliday Meester Surplus Oil//
Working for the Yankee dollar?//
Trak your own utilities// The Soft Machine (40)
This seems reasonably Marxist-Leninist, until we are informed that Trak is not an American firm at all. Does the last sentence signify a positive nationalization or a negative internationalism? Burroughs rejects both options, asking us instead to decode a nascent politics of multinationalization:
He [the Swede] dimed the Sex and Dream Utilities of the land. And he was shipped back to Sweden in a lead cylinder to found the Trak Service and the Trak Board. Trak has come a long way from a magic lantern in the Chink laundry. The Heads were donated to the Gothenburg Museum where the comparatively innocuous emanations precipitated a mass sex orgy.
Vagos Jugadores, sola esperanza del mundo, take it to Cut City. the black obsidian pyramid of Trak Home Office.
“The perfect product, gentlemen, has precise molecular affinity for its client of predilection. Someone urges the manufacture and sale of products that wear out? This is not the way of competitive elimination. Our product never leaves the customer. We sell the Servicing and all Trak products have precise need of Trak servicing... The servicing of a competitor would act like antibiotic, offering to our noble Trak-strain services inedible counterpart... This is not just another habit-forming drug this is the habit-forming drug takes over all functions form the addict including his completely unnecessary under the uh circumstances and cumbersome skeleton. Reducing him ultimately to the helpless condition of a larva. He may be said then to owe his very life such as it is to Trak servicing.”
The Trak Reservation so-called includes almost all areas in and about the United Republics of Freelandt... The Soft Machine (42-43)
That is, Trak is a Swedish firm, which exploits its own country as much as the Third World. Sweden was, in terms of its industrial structure, still very much a Second World country in 1961; and where the other Second World economies merged seamlessly into the project of the post-colonial comprador bourgeoisies, so too were the overseas holdings of Swedish firms ultimately indistinguishable from the social democratic developmental state itself.
4. This is conjoined to the first explicit mention of the cut-up method: “I started my trip in the morgue with old newspapers, folding in today with yesterday and typing out composites – When you skip through a newspaper as most of us do you see a great deal more than you know – In fact you see it all on a subliminal level – Now when I fold today's paper in with yesterday's paper and arrange the pictures to form a time section montage, I am literally moving back to the time when I read yesterday's paper, this is traveling in time back to yesterday – I did this eight hours a day for three months – I went back as far as the papers went – I dug out old magazines and forgotten novels and letters – I made fold-ins and composites and I did the same with photos –
The next step was carried out in a film studio...” The Soft Machine (81-82)
5. The Soft Machine (35)
6. The Soft Machine (69)
7. “The doctor reached out his abbreviated fibrous fingers in which surgical instruments caught neon and cut Johnny's face into fragments of light.
“Jelly,” the doctor said, liquid gurgles through his hardened purple gums. His tongue was split and the two sections curled over each other as he talked: “Life jelly. It sticks and grows on you like Johnny.”
Little papules of tissue were embedded in the doctor's hands. The doctor pulled a scalpel out of Johnny's ear and trimmed the papules into an ash tray where they stirred slowly exuding a green juice.” The Soft Machine (74)
8. The Soft Machine (136)
9. The Soft Machine (152)
10. The Soft Machine (178). It’s worth noting how Burroughs refines and streamlines this passage in Nova Express, transforming the typographic jangling of the original into the smoothly computerized hum of the following:
“Sliding between light and shadow – Muttering in the dogs of unfamiliar score – Cross the wounded galaxies we intersect – Poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading – Migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history – Explosive bio advance out of space to neon…” Nova Express (132)
11. The Soft Machine (157)
12. The Ticket That Exploded (7)
13. Witness Bill Lee’s meeting with the District Supervisor later in the same chapter:
The man who used that voice had no native language. He had learned the use of an alien tool. The words floated in the air behind him as he walked.
“In this organization, Mr. Lee, we do not encourage togetherness, esprit de corps. We do not give our agents the impression of belonging. As you know most existing organizations stress such primitive reactions as unquestioning obedience. Their agents become addicted to orders. You will receive orders of course and in some cases you will be well-advised not to carry out the orders you receive... the members of all existing organizations are at some point your enemy. You will learn to know where this point is if you survive. You will receive your instructions in many ways. From books, street signs, films, in some cases from agents who purport to be and may actually be members of the organization. There is no certainty. Those who need certainty are of no interest to this organization. This is in point of fact a non-organization [italics in original]...” The Ticket That Exploded (10)
14. ‘...you remember they make happy cloaks from a submarine thing that subdues its prey through a neuro-contact and eats it alive – only the victim doesn't want to get away once it has sampled the pleasures of the cloak. It was a beautiful garment a living white like the white of a pearl, shivering softly with rippling lights, stirring with a terrible ecstatic movement of its own as the lethal symbiosis was established’... quoted from Fury by Henry Kuttner Mayflower Dell paperbacks... The Ticket That Exploded (22)
15. The Ticket That Exploded (26)
16. Andre Gunder Frank. Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1979. Frank’s argument needs to be viewed in the context of Immanuel Wallerstein’s intriguing concept of the Second World as the ideologically diverse but economically homogenous semi-periphery of the world-system, a.k.a. that spectrum of raw materials and labor-intensive manufacturing economies ranging from the Soviet Union to the Middle Eastern oil monarchies, and from Brazilian state capitalism to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Wallerstein’s point is not to foolishly equate the Soviet Far Eastern republics with the South African bantustans, but to underline the structural impediments to accumulation inherent to all raw materials economies, i.e. falling real prices for oil or minerals and a lack of foreign exchange to pay for extractive and refining technology.
17. The Ticket That Exploded (96)
18. The Ticket That Exploded (101)
19. This occurs when Bradly visits the alleged shaman:
Came to a round metal chamber lined with switchboards and view screens – Embedded in a limestone dais was a grey foetal dwarf, his brain clearly visible under a thin membrane pulsed with colored lights as he controlled the switchboard –
“He make all music,” said the guide –
The dwarf turned his eyeless face to Bradly – Bradly could feel radar beams map his outlines – Words passed through his mind on silver ticker tape – The Ticket That Exploded (126)
20. The Ticket That Exploded (63)
21. The Ticket That Exploded (78)
22. The Ticket That Exploded (102)
23. Donna Haraway. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” Socialist Review 80 (1985) : 65-107.
24. The Ticket That Exploded (106)
25. The Ticket That Exploded (139)