Nova Express is not only the creative summit of Burroughs’ oeuvre, it is also one of the first classics of multinational culture. By mobilizing huge swathes of the Cold War media culture and pastiching a variety of modernist texts (among others, Beckett, Joyce and Kafka), Burroughs not only overturns the cybernetic framework of The Ticket That Exploded, he also opens the door to thirty years of information culture. Just as the software innovations of the 1960s mini-computer foreshadowed the evolution of the software culture for decades to come, everywhere from programming languages to videogames to network switching protocols, so too will Nova Express overdetermined the trajectory of the post-Cold War media culture, everywhere from mundane advertising campaigns to sophisticated cultural theories. In this respect, Burroughs’ achievement is best understood in the context of two other key aesthetic innovators of the 1960s, namely Irish director and actor Patrick McGoohan and African American musician Jimi Hendrix.
McGoohan’s epochal 1967 TV series The Prisoner practically invented the field of multinational video, by fusing the materials of national television, the Western European auteur film, the James Bond blockbuster and Samuel Beckett’s theatrical modernism. For his part, Jimi Hendrix transformed the materials of jazz modernism, blues, rock and R & B into the basic vocabulary of multinational music, a.k.a. hip hop. Both artists excelled not just as performers and composers, but also as studio engineers and producers.1 Something similar applies to Burroughs, whose editing and production skills are nowhere more evident than in Inspector J. Lee’s scorching anti-manifesto, which outline the precise roles of the Nova Mob and the Nova Police:
“All that they [the Nova Mob] offer is a screen to cover retreat from the colony they have so disgracefully mismanaged. To cover travel arrangements so they will never have to pay the constituents they have betrayed and sold out. Once these arrangements are complete they will blow the place up behind them.
“And what does my program of total austerity and total resistance offer you? I offer you nothing. I am not a politician. These are conditions of total emergency. And these are my instructions for total emergency if carried out now could avert the total disaster now on tracks:
“Peoples of the earth, you have all been poisoned. [all italics in original] Convert all available stocks of morphine to apomorphine. Chemists, work round the clock on variation and synthesis of the apomorphine formulae. Apomorphine is the only agent that can disintoxicate you and cut the enemy beam off your line. Apomorphine and silence. I order total resistance directed against this conspiracy to pay off peoples of the earth in ersatz bullshit. I order total resistance directed against The Nova Conspiracy and all those engaged in it.
“The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals. In Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are and what they are doing and what they will do if they are not arrested. Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs, flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the earth to come out. With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly –
(Signed) INSPECTOR J. LEE, NOVA POLICE2
This remarkable vision of an interstellar liberation movement facing off against a biologic neocolonialism does a number of unprecedented things. First, the biochemical or drug-steered body is evoked in the context of a worldwide mass media. Second, neocolonialism is diagnosed as a global condition, requiring truly planetary forms of resistance. Most important of all, the nascent cybernetic subjects first glimpsed in The Ticket That Exploded march off the assembly line and into the streets, carrying the banner of the Frankfurt School’s Great Refusal in one hand and a tape recorder in the other.
What is not clear, however, is how that cybernetic subject relates to the geopolitical conflicts of the 1960s, or what would motivate such a subject to follow the Inspector’s advice and turn against the system in the first place. The aporia dwells in the heart of Burroughs’ term,“peoples of the earth”, which could mean anything from Hardt and Negri’s revolutionary multitudes to xenophobic splinter nationalisms. At certain points, such ambiguities detonate into open clashes between the multinational and neo-national:
All nations sold out by liars and cowards. Liars who want time for the future negatives to develop stall you with more lying offers while hot crab people mass war to extermination with the film in Rome. These reports reek of nova, sold out job, shit birth and death. Your planet has been invaded. You are dogs on all tape. The entire planet is being developed into terminal identity and complete surrender.3
The potentially explosive mediatic puns on “tape” (electronics), “develop” (photography), and “terminal” (the computer) is short-circuited by the all-too-quick recourse to Hollywood’s latest Roman Empire costume epic. This is basically a paranoid transcription of the national security state, the embryonic version of the suburban legends of Area 51 and alien abduction tales of the 1990s, which perceived elite conspiracies where they ought to have detected genuine social contradictions.
What prevents Burroughs’ text from veering off into Cold War potboiler fiction, on the other hand, is its careful cataloguing of the secret resistances, non-identities and antinomies of the national security state. Each bust of the Nova Mob takes place by mobilizing the mediatic politics of a specific service-industry: thus the reporter who accompanies The Intolerable Kid,4 the traveling salesmen running the Fish Poison Con on a quack doctor,5 or Winkhorst and the Lazarus Pharmaceutical Company, whose advertising campaigns subtly counterpoint the faith healing pitch of the sinister Death Dwarf.6 It is during the interrogation of the Death Dwarf, in fact, that we learn that the Nova criminals are neither white-collar criminals nor agents of the national security state, but represent something beyond both these terms, namely a rapacious interstellar colonialism.7
Most shocking of all, the Nova Police are not a utopian carbon copy of the gendarmes of the US Empire. They investigate without passing judgement, document rather than execute, and defuse conflicts rather than exacerbate them. Like the militant civil rights movements of the 1960s, they are peace-makers rather than peace-keepers. Unlike those movements, however, their authority is derived not from a politics of juridical space, but from a politics of corporeality:
What scared you all into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: “the word”. Alien Word “the”. “The” word of Alien Enemy imprisons “thee” in Time. In Body. In Shit. Prisoner, come out. The great skies are open. I Hassan i Sabbah rub out the word forever. If you I cancel all your words forever. And the words of Hassan i Sabbah as also cancel. Cross all your skies see the silent writing of Brion Gysin Hassan i Sabbah: drew September 17, 1899 over New York.8
Here, Burroughs triangulates between the cinematic spectacle of Empire and the manifesto of the Third World revolutionary, by setting the multinational word in motion towards some sort of national language or linguistic sphere. While this word is clearly a proxy for the ubiquitous corporate icons, logos and brand-names of the consumer culture (“word begets image and image is virus”),9 the juxtaposition of sky-writing and the photograph of turn-of-the-century New York suggests a kind of cultural airspace, whose true referent is probably the stiletto glass boxes of Manhattan’s corporate office towers, the architectural epitome of global finance capital.
What mediates between the corporate icon and the corporate skyline, on the other hand, is the mass media headline, relayed here by a sequence of exquisitely Derridean puns. First, the “word” is being erased forever, while the word “forever” is being erased; second, the pronoun “thee” dismantles the existential discourse of the Alien, the Other, and the Enemy; third, Hassan i Sabbah and/or Brion Gysin open the skies to a new kind of sky-writing, etc.10 The result is an aesthetics of word-fragments and strobing images, the rough equivalent of the earliest psychedelic light-shows and experiments in electronic musical feedback. Whereas the drumbeat motif of The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded (“Word falling – photo falling – Breakthrough in Grey Room”) depicts the postmodern rush of consumable texts and images from the standpoint of the cutting room or editing studio, this passage mobilizes a set of specifically temporal registers: Time, Body and Shit are evidently metaphors for writing-time, bodies of text or written code, and the scandalous, excremental consumption of this signification.
The leap from multinational form to content, on the other hand, does not take place until the fifth and final subsection of the second chapter, entitled Shift Coordinate Points, which splices an image and information war (“K9 was in combat with the alien mind screen – Magnetic claws feeling for virus punch cards – pulling him into vertiginous spins”)11 into clips of Burroughs’ childhood memories of growing up in St. Louis, along with glimpses of Kiki, one of his Third World lovers. The passage continues:
K9 moved back into the combat area – Standing now in the Chinese youth sent the resistance message jolting clicking tilting through the pinball machine – Enemy plans exploded in a burst of rapid calculations – Clicking in punch cards of redirected orders – Crackling shortwave static – Bleeeeeeeeeeeeeep – Sound of thinking metal –
“Calling partisans of all nations – Word falling – Photo falling – Break through in Grey Room – Pinball led streets – Free doorways – Shift coordinate points –”12
The Burroughsian pun “in the Chinese youth” needs to be read as expansively as possible, as the constellation of two complementary narratives, one neo-national and the other multinational. The former projects an emancipatory neo-nationalism, somehow encompassing Mao’s Red Guards, the Taiwanese and Hong Kong textile workers slaving away in export-processing factories, and the Chinese immigrant communities beginning to mobilize for their cultural space in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver, all at once. The single most striking expression of this neo-nationalism was, of course, the Hong Kong films, and one can argue that the guerilla raids on the Board Books anticipate the Bruce Lee blockbusters, which launched a similar guerilla raid on the toolkit of the Hollywood action-adventure canon.
The multinational thread, on the other hand, is associated with cybernetic organisms and what seems to be a veritable eco-system of high-tech gadgets. The computerized pinball machine gives the game away: this is the direct predecessor of the 1970s videogames, which were typically designed by US firms and manufactured by a variety of East Asian contractors. All this is confirmed by the third chapter, Chinese Laundry, which rewrites the ethnic small business or retail outlet into a multi-cultural resistance base, i.e. a front for the Nova Police’s first organized sting against the Nova Mob. It is at this point that we are introduced to Uranian Willy, the first genuine cyborg of 20th century aesthetics:
Trapped in this dead whistle stop, surrounded by The Nova Guard, he still gave himself better than even chance on a crash out. Electrician in gasoline crack of history. His brain seared by white hot blasts. One hope left in the universe; Plan D.
He was not out of The Security Compound by a long way but he had rubbed off the word shackles and sounded the alarm to the shattered male forces of the earth:
THIS IS WAR TO EXTERMINATION. FIGHT CELL BY CELL THROUGH BODIES AND MIND SCREENS OF THE EARTH. SOULS ROTTEN FROM THE ORGASM DRUG, FLESH SHUDDERING FROM THE OVENS, PRISONERS OF THE EARTH COME OUT. STORM THE STUDIO –
Plan D called for Total Exposure. Wise up all the marks everywhere. Show them the rigged wheel of Life-Time-Fortune. Storm The Reality Studio. And retake the universe.13
The pun on “word shackles” negates the culture-industry of the Pax Americana (Life, Time and Fortune magazines, as well as the Hollywood studio system) by means of a new collectivity, the prisoners of the Earth – in this case, the gay liberation movement which would indeed take to the streets five years after the text’s publication, in the landmark Stonewall uprising. Almost as an afterthought, Burroughs stumbles upon the mediating code between the kinetic energy of the railroads and the informatic energy of the new electronics technologies. This is the embryonic form of the video-still, the literary version of the newly-invented instant replay:
The grey smoke drifted the grey that stops
shift cut tangle they breathe medium
the word cut shift patterns words
cut the insect tangle cut shift
that coats word cut breath silence
shift abdominal cut tangle stop word
He did not stop or turn around. Never look back. He had been a professional killer so long he did not remember anything else. Uranian born of Nova Conditions. You have to be free to remember and he was under sentence of death in Maximum Security Birth Death Universe. So he sounded the words that end “Word” –
Eye take back color from “word” –
Word dust everywhere now like soiled stucco on the buildings. Word dust without color drifting smoke streets. Explosive bio advance out of space to neon.14
Here some sort of video subject (“eye” = “I”) resolves the multinational word or icon into its informatic form (“word dust”) and mediatic content (“color”) respectively, by means of a drastic compression of the cut-up technique (in fact, the opening paragraph reads like the reflexive cut-up of a cut-up). Admittedly, this brief glimpse of a video landscape is just as quickly recontained by recourse to the film noir cliches of gangster dialogue, neon streets and so forth. The cyborg subject is still operating within the confines of the cinematic panorama or existential gaze, a complicated way of saying Burroughs does not have a full-fledged set of video registers at his disposal (not terribly surprising, given that McGoohan would not invent the field of video until 1967).
Where Chinese Laundry truly shines, however, are the moments when the cyborg subject crashes into the cinematic object, jolting a postmodern logic of zones loose from a modernist logic of positions. This is most palpable in the episodes of open struggle between the Nova Police and the Mob, where the guerilla conflict between antagonistic images, symbols and data explodes into ferocious informatic combat. The secret agent is upstaged by the informatic agent, the prescient model for the hackers and system administrators of a later era, everywhere from the Regulator who bails out Uranian Willy, to the Technician who assists Pilot K9 on a hacker run through a primordial cyberspace matrix:
“Pilot K9, you are hit – back – down”
The medics turned drum music full blast through his head phones – “Apomorphine on the double” – Frequency scalpel sewing wounds with wire photo polka dots from The Image Bank – In three minutes K9 was back in combat driving pounding into a wall of black insect flak – The Enemy Installation went up in a searing white blast – Area of combat extended through the vast suburban concentration camps of England and America – Screaming Vampire Guards caught in stabbing stuttering light blast –
“Partisans of all nations, open fire – tilt – blast – pound – stab – strafe – kill –”
“Pilot K9, you are cut off – back. Back. Back before the whole fucking shit house 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 –”
The Technician mixed a bicarbonate of soda surveying the havoc on his view screen – It was impossible to estimate the damage – Anything put out up till now is like pulling a figure out of the air – Installations shattered – Personnel decimated – Board Books destroyed – Electric waves of resistance sweeping through mind screens of the earth – The message of Total Resistance on short wave of the world – This is war to extermination – Shift linguals – Cut word lines – Vibrate tourists – Free doorways – Photo falling – Word falling – Break through in grey room – Calling Partisans of all nations – Towers, open fire –”15
Where the Bond blockbusters displaced the epic struggle of post-WW II decolonization to the margins of the First World war film, Burroughs presses the war film into the service of anti-colonial revolution. This is just the first in a series of stunning reversals, wherein the Nova Police slowly learn to crack the codes and reverse-engineer the media tools of the Nova Mob’s empire of total control. We first glimpse The Soft Typewriter, for example, inside the control system for one of Minraud’s hydroponics labs, designed to cultivate Death Dwarfs.16 Later, K9 calls in Technicians who turn the Typewriter’s mixing and editing functions to positive ends, enabling both the arrest of Mr. and Mrs. D. (“The error in enemy strategy is now obvious – It is machine strategy and the machine can be redirected”).17 Much later still, The Writ or legal injunction calls the malefic Gods of Time-Money-Junk to account for their crimes in the halls of the Biologic Courts.18
While the Typewriter clearly anticipates the personal computer, it functions here as a species of dedicated hardware or consumer electronics. In part, this is because the cyborg subject is defined as a kind of biologic computer, whose information-processing capacities can be radically altered by contact with other life-forms, hallucinogens, image and word-viruses and so forth. This is nicely captured by Burroughs’ rewriting of Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA in 1954 into the pervasive biologization of information:
“We found that simple binary coding systems were enough to contain the entire image however they required a large amount of storage space until it was found that the binary information could be written at the molecular level, and our entire image could be contained within a grain of sand. However it was found that these information molecules were not dead matter but exhibited a capacity for life which is found elsewhere in the form of virus. Our virus infects the human and creates our image in him. We first took our image and put it into code. A technical code developed by the information theorists. This code was written at the molecular level to save space, when it was found that the image material was not dead matter, but exhibited the same life cycle as the virus. This virus released upon the world would infect the entire population and turn them into our replicas, it was not safe to release the virus until we could be sure that the last groups to go replica would not notice. To this end we invented variety in many forms, variety that is of information content in a molecule, which, enfin, is always a permutation of the existing material. Information speeded up, slowed down, permutated, changed at random by radiating the virus material with high energy rays from cyclotrons, in short we have created an infinity of variety at the information level, sufficient to keep so-called scientists busy for ever exploring the ‘richness of nature’.”19
Readers with even the most cursory scientific knowledge of viruses or subatomic physics will quickly spot the scientific fallacies and howlers of this passage, but the whole point is that by getting the science utterly wrong, Burroughs somehow gets the aesthetics utterly right (in the same sense that any science fiction TV series worth its salt ought to break at least three laws of physics per episode).
What is really at stake here is the social history of computer hardware in the 1960s, namely the transition from sprawling mainframe computers to minicomputers. Whereas mainframes were available only to the largest corporations or secretive military labs (they were essential in building the H-bomb), minicomputers were the true spawning-grounds of the information culture. The very first programmed videogame, Spacewar, the first telecom switching protocols, as well as popular programming languages such as C, were all developed by university researchers on minicomputers. Put another way, the development of software tools outran the development of hardware during the 1960s.
The clash between hardware and software is outlined in the fourth chapter of Nova Express, Crab Nebula, where the Insect People of Minraud, a rigidly hierarchical species of vat-grown superbrains, battle it out with Agent K9, who responds with a series of tape-recorder cuts designed to identify, quarantine and neutralize the Minraud virus attack.20 Minraud, with its armies of Death Dwarfs, Crab Guards and banks of mainframe computers, is of course a fairly obvious satire of the high-tech defense labs and research facilities of the US military-industrial complex, and it should as no surprise to learn that the crucial weakness of the latter is also the Achilles heel of the former: this is its dependence on an intricate bureaucracy of censorship, coercion and control. Instead of fighting Minraud on its own technological-military grounds, K9 attacks the mind screens of the controllers, forcing them to reflect on their role in the society they appear to dominate, but which in reality dominates them, too. The Crab Guards, for example, occasionally desert Minraud and help prisoners otherwise slated for extermination to escape, while individual controllers become haunted by the knowledge of their terrible isolation and end up joining the resistance movement.21 It is a testament to the greatness of Burroughs’ text that it neither condemns the agents of the total system, who are as unfree as the prisoners they process, nor privileges the author’s own biographical alienation above the suffering of any other oppressed collectivity, but transforms each into an index of the other. By reconfirming Adorno’s insight that everyone in late capitalism is, whether conscious of the fact or not, an agent of the total system, Burroughs opens the gateway to the potential global solidarity of the future.
This gateway glimmers in the middle of Nova Express very much like the first moment of the counter-culture, i.e. as a seemingly innocuous rupture or rift in the prevailing monopoly-national consumer culture, which suddenly explodes into a frenzy of multinational content. Rather than following the modernist logic of the positional breakthrough or the localized avant-garde innovation, the counter-culture outflanked the containment systems of the Cold War propaganda bureaus and culture-industries by materializing in a vast range of locations, from Paris to San Francisco to Mexico City to Prague, all at once.
This moment is preserved in Burroughs’ text in the fault-line dividing the first four chapters from the last four: the former depict a series of positions, where the latter portray a series of spaces. The micropolitical and anti-colonial manifesto of Last Words, the initial diagnosis of the localized hustles and cons of the Nova Mob in So Pack Your Ermines, the Nova Police’s counter-strike in Chinese Laundry, and finally the direct assault on the national security state by the informatic rebels of Crab Nebula, all project a utopian subjectivity which clashes violently with some sort of repressive totality. In the four subsequent chapters, however, the cultural space or habitus becomes objectively revolutionary in its own right: From a Land of Grass Without Mirrors, for example, is a savage double-take on neocolonialism; Gave Proof Through the Night rewrites the sinking of the Titanic into the crash and burn of the Pax Americana; while This Horrible Case and Pay Color explicitly pun planetary-wide juridical and aesthetic revolutions, respectively. Monopoly-national time becomes multinational space, at the same moment that the cybernetic subject turns into a micropolitical one. Simultaneously, the existential manifesto is displaced by an embryonic Web-document, variously rendered as a flesh-writing or inscription on the body electronic, while the propaganda machines of the battling national security states are themselves upstaged by the recording machinery of an interstellar courtroom.
To make a long story short, the middle of Nova Express marks the transition from international aesthetics to its multinational successor. The very title of From a Land of Grass deftly offsets the cinematic vista of the American prairie or Argentine pampas, for example, with a mass-cultural icon notoriously unsympathetic to mirrors, namely the vampire; in the opening scene of the chapter we witness a young recruit, The Cadet, joining the underground resistance of a brutal boot camp called (global allegory, indeed!) World Trade School K9.22 The mention of K9 is not accidental: K9 is both an agent of the Nova Police, a place, and still later, in Gave Proof, the name of one of the lifeboats (“Passengers fighting around Life Boat K9”), that is to say an instrumentalized body or transport vehicle which shuttles between the realms of the monopoly-national and the global.23 Later in the same chapter, Burroughs satirizes one of the most idiosyncratic mass-cultural rituals of the Pax Americana of them all, namely the singing of the national anthem before sports events, only not on the grounds of the sports culture, but in the juridical realm of the Biologic Courts:
Corridors and patios and porticos of The Biologic Courts – Swarming with terminal life forms desperately seeking extension of canceled permissos and residence certificates – Brokers, fixers, runners, debarred lawyers, all claiming family connection with court officials – Professional half-brothers and second cousins twice removed – Petitioners and plaintiffs screaming through the halls – Holding up insect claws, animal and bird parts, all manner of diseases and deformities received “In the service” of distant fingers – Shrieking for compensations and attempting to corrupt or influence the judges in a thousand languages living and dead, in color flash and nerve talk, catatonic dances and pantomimes illustrating their horrible conditions which many have tattooed on their flesh to the bone and silently picket the audience chamber – Others carry photo-collage banners and TV screens flickering their claims – Willy’s attorneys served the necessary low pressure processes and The Controllers were sucked into the audience chamber for the The First Hearing – Green People in limestone calm – Remote green contempt for all feelings and proclivities of the animal host they had invaded with inexorable moves of Time-Virus-Birth-Death – With their diseases and orgasm drugs and their sexless parasite life forms – Heavy Metal People of Uranus wrapped in cool blue mist of vaporized bank notes – And The Insect People of Minraud with metal music – Cold insect brains like white hot buzz saws sharpened in the Ovens – The judge, many light years away from possibility of corruption, grey and calm with inflexible authority reads the brief – He appears sometimes as a slim young man in short sleeves then middle-aged and slim young man in short sleeves then middle-aged and redfaced sometimes very old like yellow ivory “My God what a mess” – he said at last – “Quiet all of you – You all understand I hope what is meant by biologic mediation – This means that the mediating life forms must simultaneously lay aside all defenses and all weapons – it comes to the same thing – and all connection with retrospective controllers under space conditions merge into a single being which may or may not be successful…24
The ingenious quotation of the indeterminate Mr. Knott from Beckett’s Watt frames one of the most lucid descriptions of the class fractions of multinational capital ever written: the Heavy Metal people of Uranus are bankers and business-people, the Insect People of Minraud are military-industrial electronics engineers and weapons designers, while the Green or Vegetable People are parasitic rentiers who subsist on the biochemical and cultural addictions of their mammalian hosts. All are called to account for the collectively irrational consequences of their individually rational actions, not by recourse to some external compulsion or transcendent authority, but by revealing their social roles and modus operandi to a multinational audience(signaled by “color flash and nerve talk” and mobile, portable TV screens). By raising the experience of his own global refugee status to a universal, Burroughs arraigns the metropole of the total system in the world-court of the periphery, decoding the hegemonic logic of consumer capitalism (the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form) as precisely the sort of natural history which the metropoles, via the ideology of neocolonialism, routinely accuse their dominated peripheries of blindly and savagely perpetuating.
Yet Nova Express does not idealistically dissolve the First World into the Third, nor does it cynically gloss the Third World as a mere extension of social processes centered in the First. Rather, both of these things are set into motion in the context of a vastly enlarged Second World, a.k.a. a mediating semi-periphery. Our first glimpse of this latter is in the A Distant Thank-You subsection of the fifth chapter, where a group of expatriate adventurers attempts to purchase a forged exit visa from Willy the Rube, in order to escape the neocolonial zone they have been pillaging. Their mansion, a pastiche of countless historical periods, is set against a scenic landscape inhabited by the green boy-girls familiar to us from The Ticket That Exploded, as well as two new species: the Mongolian Archers and the peaceful, utterly benevolent Lemur People.25 Whereas the Archers seem to be the product of the most advanced bioengineering and weapons technologies, the Lemurs are symbols of an unspoiled, reconciled ecology. Unlike the boy-girls, however, neither of these species is under the control of the colonists in question; the former have a loose working arrangement with Willy, but nothing more, while the latter simply die in any sort of captivity, even the mental kind, i.e. are uncolonizable by definition (here, too, Willy has some special affinity or unique bond with these creatures).
The result is uncannily reminiscent of the work of quite another postmodern innovator, namely the cybernetic folktales of Italo Calvino’s 1967 Cosmicomics, which conjure up a Southern European literary postmodernism out of the Fiat-engineered collision of Italian neorealism and Northamerican science-fiction. In the specific context of the 1960s world-system, the Mongolian Archers are an exoticized anagram of the armed wing of the anti-colonial movement, i.e. the multiple insurgencies breaking out everywhere from Cuba to Vietnam, while the Lemurs incarnate the new space of a quicksilver cultural resistance beyond all representation, the domain of a planetary political unconscious worthy of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.
What makes the last third of Nova Express so intriguing is the degree to which Burroughs pushes the cyborg to its narrative limit. In terms of form, the cyborg was always a compromise between a monopoly-national media infrastructure and a multinational information aesthetics. In terms of content, it is the evolutionary link between the Cold War or thermonuclear subject of the 1950s and the micropolitical or telecommunicatory one of the 1970s (in fact, the cultural moment of the cyborg predates the arrival of the counter-culture).26 Burroughs’ utterly pragmatic solution is to retrofit the cyborg with psychotropic antennae, as it were, designed to cull a narrow set of informatic registers from an expanded range of mass-cultural and mediatic materials.
This is most evident in the dazzling slippage of medical-biological and legal-juridical terminologies in the seventh chapter, This Horrible Case, which contains some of the funniest sequences of Burroughs’ entire oeuvre. Heavily salted with quotes from Kafka’s The Trial (“Biologic Counselors must be writers that is only writers can qualify since the function of a counsel or is to create facts that will tend to open biologic potentials for his client”),27 the result reads like a bizarre fusion of Kafka’s nature theater of Oklahoma with the sentient robot of Forbidden Planet: the electronic body crashes into the hardwired software code, while cybernetic post-history crashes into biochemical prehistory. The result is the informatization of natural history, the literal and figurative nova express which ferries the cyborg subject into the realm of 21st century aesthetics.28
The social energies unleashed by this process radiate from the final chapter, Pay Color, like a newborn star. The chapter begins by linking the radical media underground (represented by the Subliminal Kid, a defector from the Nova Mob) to the utopian gender micropolitics of Hassan i Sabbah. The result is a revolutionary reconversion of economic mediations into cultural and aesthetic ones:
“THE SUBLIMINAL KID” moved in and took over bars cafes and juke boxes of the world cities and installed radio transmitters and microphones in each bar so that the music and talk of any bar could be heard in all his bars and he had tape recorders in each bar that played and recorded at arbitrary intervals and his agents moved back and forth with portable tape recorders and brought back street sound and talk and music and poured it into his recorder array so he set waves and eddies and tornadoes of sound down all your streets and by the river of all language – Word dust drifted streets of broken music car horns and air hammers – The Word broken pounded twisted exploded in smoke…29
In terms of form, this is a striking anticipation of the multinational musical studio, with its taped libraries of prerecorded sounds and electronic effects. In terms of content, the multinational Word, an anagram for the advertising jingle, slogan or musical lyric, furnishes the raw material for a drastic expansion of the auditory sensorium – the transition from the counter-cultural happening into the stadium concert. A few lines later, something similar happens to the cinema, as eight-millimeter home movies and billboard images of the Pax Americana are refashioned into the building-blocks of video:
Air hammers word and image explosive bio-advance – A million drifting screens on the walls of his city projected mixing sound of any bar could be heard in all Westerns and film of all times played and recorded at the people back and forth with portable cameras and telescope lenses poured eddies and tornadoes of sound and camera array until soon city where he moved everywhere a Western movie in Hongkong or the Aztec sound talk suburban America and all accents and language mixed and fused and people shifted language and accent in mid-sentence Aztec priest and spilled it man woman or beast in all language – So that People-City moved in swirls and no one knew what he was going out of space to neon streets –
“Nothing is True – Everything is Permitted –” Last words Hassan i Sabbah…30
The People-City signifies more than just a new type of global urban space, it also denotes a new type of corporeality, that is to say the utopian intersection of First World mediatic forms with Second World bodies. This is most evident in the Smorbrot subsection of the chapter, which details the joyous homo-erotic union of Chinese, Mexican, and Scandinavian youths, interspersed with references to Japanese tattoos, African American and Arab drum music, carnivals and high wire acts.
If there is a price to be paid for this dramatic step forwards, it is the obsolescence of the monopoly-era word and cinematic photo-image, which lose their power to scandalize or shock their audience, something subtly acknowledged by the neutralized “sound and image flakes”31 which fall, like Joycean snow, over the living and dead icons of a henceforth mediatized landscape. The great symbolic compensation for this loss is, of course, Hassan i Sabbah’s video sermon on the trinity of red, blue and green – the three primary colors, of course, of the pixels on a 20th century TV screen. At the zenith of the US Empire, Burroughs’ assemblage of Second World bodies fluoresces with properly hallucinatory splendor, radiating an unknowable informatic surplus (“Cortex winds overflowing into mutinous areas hearing color seeing”)32 which is more than just a fleeting moment of resistance against that Empire. It is also a priceless bequest to the far future: the messianic gift of multinational time, which opens the doorway to multinational space.
1. For an in-depth analysis of McGoohan’s work, see chapters 2 and 3 in my own The World is Watching, Southern Illinois UP: Carbondale, 2003.
2. William S. Burroughs. Nova Express. NY: Grove Press, 1964 (6-7)
3. Ibid. (13)
4. Ibid. (8-12)
5. Ibid. (23-25)
6. Ibid. (45)
7. This is also, it should be noted, Burroughs’ first explicit use of a biological narrative, which reconverts the national cultural space into a multinational or ecological niche, thereby subverting what E.P. Thompson called the exterminist logic of the Cold War:
“‘Reality’ is simply a more or less constant scanning pattern – The scanning pattern we accept as ‘reality’ has been imposed by the controlling power on this planet, a power primarily oriented towards total control – In order to retain control they have moved to monopolize and deactivate the hallucinogen drugs by effecting noxious alterations on a molecular level –
The basic nova mechanism is very simple: Always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts – This is done by dumping life forms with incompatible conditions of existence on the same planet – There is of course nothing “wrong” about any given life form since “wrong” only has reference to conflicts with other life forms – The point is these forms should not be on the same planet – Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the Nova Mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts that lead to the explosion of a planet that is to nova – At any given time recording devices fix the nature of absolute need and dictate the use of total weapons…” Ibid. (53)
The flip side of this biologization of culture is the informatization of identity, which Burroughs manages to sneak in via a wonderful parody of the FBI dragnet:
“The point at which the criminal controller intersects a three-dimensional human agent is known as a “a coordinate point” – And if there is one thing that carries over from one human host to another and establishes identity of the controller it is habit: idiosyncrasies, vices, food preferences – (we were able to trace Hamburger Mary through her fondness for peanut butter) a gesture, a certain smile, a special look, that is to say the style of the controller – A chain smoker will always operate through chain smokers, an addict through addicts – Now a single controller can operate through thousands of human agents, but he must have a line of coordinate points – Some move on junk lines through addicts of the earth, others move on lines of certain sexual practices and so forth – It is only when we can block the controller out of all coordinate points available to him and flush him out from host cover that we can make a definite arrest – Otherwise the criminal escapes to other coordinates…” Ibid. (56)
8. Ibid. (4-5)
9. Ibid. (48)
10. Though there is no direct evidence that Burroughs was familiar with Sartre’s oeuvre, it’s probably not an accident that the basic terminology of existentialism is employed here (the Other, the Alien, and of course the unconscious homage to The Words, Sartre’s classic autobiography). The flip side of Burroughs’ remarkable editing skills is a seemingly osmotic ability to absorb the most progressive mass-cultural materials of the 1950s and 1960s, while quoting, citing or pastiching everything from sci-fi potboilers to the classic modernists (e.g. Lautreamont on page 42, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland on pages 115-116; Kafka’s The Trial on pages 138-139; Joyce’s Dubliners on page 179; etc.).
11. Ibid. (30)
12. Ibid. (31)
13. Ibid. (59)
14. Ibid. (61)
15. Ibid. (66-67)
16. Ibid. (66)
17. Ibid. (85)
18. Ibid. (130)
19. Ibid. (49)
20. Consider this passage:
“Controller of The Crab Nebula on a slag heap of smouldering metal under the white hot sky channels all his pain into control thinking – He is protected by heat and crab guards and the brains now armed with The Blazing Photo from Hiroshima and Nagasaki – The brains under his control are encased in a vast structure of steel and crystal spinning thought patterns that control whole galaxies thousand years ahead on the chessboard of virus screens and juxtaposition formulae –
So the Insect People Of Minraud formed an alliance with the Virus Power Of The Vegetable People to occupy planet earth…” Ibid (71-72).
K9’s response is to diagnose the virus, find out how it operates, and then erase it:
“What does virus do wherever it can dissolve a hole and find traction? – It starts eating – and what does it do with what it eats? – It makes exact copies of itself that start eating to make more copies that start eating to make more copies that start eating and so forth to the virus power the fear hate virus slowly replaces the host with virus copies – Program empty body – A vast tapeworm of bring down word and image moving through your mind screen always at the same speed on a slow hydraulic-spine axis like the cylinder gimmick in the adding machine…
The counter move is very simple – This is machine strategy and the machine can be redirected – Record for ten minutes on a tape recorder – Now run the tape back without playing and cut in other words at random – Where you have cut in and re-recorded words are wiped off the tape and new words in their place – You have turned time back ten minutes and wiped electromagnetic word patterns off the tape and substituted other patterns – You can do the same with mind tape after working with the tape recorder – (This takes some experimentation) – The old mind tapes can be wiped clean – Magnetic word dust falling from old patterns…” Ibid. (73-74)
21. “Again at the window that never was mine – Reflected word scrawled by some boy – Greatest of all waiting lapses – Five years – The ticket exploded in the air – For I dont know – I do not know human dreams – Never was mine – Waiting lapse – Caught in the door – Explosive fragrance – Love between light and shadow – The few who lived cross the wounded galaxies – Love? – Five years I grew muttering in the ice – Dead sun reached flesh with its wandering dream…” Ibid. (81)
22. Ibid. (92)
23. Ibid. (123)
24. Ibid. (127-128)
25. Ibid. (111-112)
26. It’s one of the ironies of history that the cyborg, a progressive symbol in the 1960s, became one of the leading symbols of reactionary neoconservativism in the 1980s. As an ideology, Thatcherism ranked electronically-equipped military hardware above the consumer-driven software market; the Pentagon-controlled supercomputer was seen as the future of computing, not the PC. This was often conjoined to a technocratic disdain for mere human beings, e.g. the hollow boasts of MIT researchers flush with Pentagon contracts in the early 1980s, who claimed that hardware-driven AIs or artificial intelligences would do all our thinking for us by the end of the decade. In fact, this claim was class ideology through and through. US auto firms instituted a series of disastrous rationalization schemes, tossing vast numbers of workers out into the street and replacing them with hideously expensive and hopelessly inflexible white elephants, while falsely accusing Japanese car companies of unfair competition. Reagan’s firing of US air traffic controllers, the opening shot of an all-out war on the living-standards of ordinary Americans, was excused on the grounds that the air traffic control system was going to be automated anyway.
Both automation projects ended in abysmal failure. The US auto industry was rescued only by the dramatic devaluation of the US dollar and import tariffs, while the original project to computerize the air traffic control system was scrapped. By contrast, Europe and Japan pursued a relatively enlightened politics of productivity, emphasizing worker-centered systems of small-lot, high-volume production, continuous innovation, and total quality control (e.g. Volvoism, Toyotism). Japan invested heavily in civilian R & D and thereby wrested control over major segments of the computer market from US firms; France created Minitel, a messaging service which became one of the most important models for the Internet, and the EC and EU’s messaging standards enabled mobile phone firms such as Nokia to leave US producers such as Motorola in the dust.
27. Ibid. (137)
28. This frequently borders on self-parody:
“Electric defense frequently determined the whole civilization and proceedings – Especially when a case fear desperate position and advantage suddenly taken out of their hands – The case had simply reached incredible life forms – Even the accused was beyond altered pressure – The very top operation – The client of mucus and urine said the man was an alien – Unusual mucus coughing enemy “oxygen” up from the stairway – Speed up movie made such forms by overwhelming gravity supply – Flesh frozen to supply a shocking emergency case – Amino acid directs all movement – won code on Grey Veil…” Ibid. (141)
Somewhat later, Burroughs mentions the notion of amino acids as a form of code (DNA had been discovered in 1954, only ten years before Burroughs completed his text):
“‘c-Sequential choice i.e. flesh frozen to amino acid determines the next state according to’ –That is a ‘book’…
Ally information at the verbal level – Could he keep Form A seen parasitic? – Or could end be achieved by present interview? – Array treated as a whole replaced history of life? Word falling photo falling tapes being blank…
‘Clearly the whole defense must be experiments with two tape recorder mutations.’” Ibid. (145-146)
29. Ibid. (147)
30. Ibid. (148-149)
31. Ibid. (163, 175, 178)
32. Ibid. (166)