We Live in a William S. Burroughs Future


William S. Burroughs, by Charles Burns

I haven’t played my vinyl in months, and my CDs only get played in my car. One of the jokes of my life is that I distinctly remember myself at sixteen saying, “Steely Dan is music for people in their forties.” Then, early in my forties, I had an epiphany, “Hey, I kind of like Steely Dan.” Now I listen to those inscrutable yacht rock sophisticates on my Amazon Echo.

The name of the band Steely Dan was a reference to the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, which featured a sex toy with a name that would later denote a stylish, jazz-inflected pop band that wrote songs about grad school. Naked Lunch, on the other hand, is a brutal hallucination of a novel. It is rough, written while the author was struggling with heroin addiction after killing his wife in a “William Tell” stunt gone awry. The novel is homoerotic, necrophiliac, pederast-glorifying, and drugged to the gills. There are aliens, conspiratorial syndicates, quack surgeons, and hustlers occupying a setting that is both Tangiers and a liminal plane called the Interzone. The novel was compiled by two of Burroughs’s closest friends, themselves canonical American authors, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The book was widely banned, the subject of an obscenity case, vilified, celebrated, hated, championed, and turned into a film directed by David Cronenberg. After I finished reading Naked Lunch, I remember sitting in silence in my junior year of college room, feeling gutted.

Burroughs, like Ginsberg, was an out gay man living in a period when gay men were far less safe than today. He grew into icon status, appeared in cameos in Gus Van Sant movies, and his scraped-up voice cropped up in techno songs. When Kurt Cobain became famous, he sought out and visited Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Burroughs had a thing for guns and loved his cats.

Philip K Dick is getting another upswell of deserved attention as Blade Runner 2049, a sequel based on an adaptation of his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, pumps people into movie theaters. Burroughs is like Philip K Dick but transgressive in addition to being paranoid. The future we occupy–wired, malignant, fake newsworthy–is precisely the future Burroughs predicted. He was obsessed with systems of control, starting with the most controlling force in his life, opiates. Burroughs warned us to resist becoming addicted to being under control. Drugs, police states, surveillance, bigotry–all methods by which we surrender our autonomy, all floating in the bloodstream of this author’s prose.

Consider, for instance, that I have been having conversations with a machine intelligence agent via a black cylinder on my credenza which transmits my utterances to something we call the cloud. Burroughs would have smashed the Echo with a crowbar. He lived on a family fortune earned from his grandfather’s invention, an adding machine, that’s part of the technological lineage that led to our smart phones and the Internet of Things. Spending that fortune on heroin and literature, this discomfited prophet of paranoia chose to warn us against giving ourselves to the machine.

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