discovered no oil, and pulled out several
years before. The Colombian rubber and co-
coa industries, totally dependent on Americ-
an investment, were drying up as well. Co-
lombians, however, refused to believe it; they
were still expecting the infrastructure of
roads, railroads, and airports that U.S. in-
dustry could be counted on to build to ex-
pedite the development, and removal, of a
Third World country’s material wealth. Bur-
roughs had no more sympathy for the losers
in the neocolonial con game than he did for
any other “mark.” “Like I should think some
day soon boys will start climbing in through
the transom and tunneling under the door”
was his derisive comment on Colombian de-
lusions about U.S. investment.
The literary critic Tobin Siebers, writing
about post-WWII literary culture, has specu-
lated that the postmodern disavowal of
agency, almost entirely the work of First
World, white, male writers and theorists, is
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both an expression and an evasion of racial
and economic guilt. Looking at the defining
phenomena of the twentieth century, its
holocausts, genocides, gulags, and unimagin-
ably lethal weapons of destruction, who
would want to advertise himself as part of
the group that engineered and invented
them? Postmodernism allows whites to an-
swer the question “Who’s responsible?” by
saying, “It looks like me, but actually there is
no real ‘me’”—no one, in postmodernspeak,
has a firmly defined or authentic self. In the
universe of total, irreversible complicity
postmodernism posits, the cause-and-effect
sequence of individual action and con-
sequence, motive and deed, is severed.
Where Burroughs breaks with the postmod-
ern position is that in his fiction, though
everyone is complicit, everyone is also re-
sponsible, for everyone is capable of resist-
ance. There are no victims, just accomplices;
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the mark collaborates with his exploiter in
his own demise.
“We make truth,” Burroughs wrote in his
journal shortly before his death on August 2,
1997. “Nobody else makes it. There is no
truth we don’t make.” What governments
and corporations assert as truth is nothing
but “lies”; such bodies are inevitably “self-
righteous. They have to be because in human
terms they are wrong.” For Burroughs as for
the postmodernists, identity was artifice, but
for him it was made that way, betrayed that
way, and can be remade differently. To deny
the latter possibility is the last and worst col-
lusion because it’s the only one that can be
avoided. Burroughs’ final trilogy is a com-
plex, funny, impassioned attempt, with one
always aware of the death sentence under
which it apparently operates, to “punch a
hole in the big lie,” to parachute his charac-
ters behind the time lines of the enemy and
make a different truth.
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As he explained it in Cities of the Red
Night, what Burroughs had in mind was a
globalization of the Third World guerrilla
tactics that defeated the U.S. in Vietnam. He
prefaces the novel with an account of an ac-
tual historical personage, Captain Mission, a
seventeenth-century pirate who founded an
all-male, homosexual community on Mada-
gascar, a libertarian society that outlawed
slavery, the death penalty, and any interfer-
ence in the beliefs and practices of its mem-
bers. Although Captain Mission’s relatively
unarmed settlement didn’t survive, Bur-
roughs elaborates what its “New Freedoms”
could have meant if it had: fortified positions
throughout the Third World to mobilize res-
Despite his scorn for those lining up to
welcome their destroyers, Burroughs did not
traffic with the racialized thinking that—in
historical fact—buttressed and excused the
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empire-building process, the definition of
Third World people of color as inherently
lazy, dishonest, incorrigibly irrational, and
unable to look after their own welfare. The
Western virtues of rationality and instru-
mentalism were largely suspect to Burroughs
in any case; he shared the so-called primitive
belief in an animistic universe which the
skeptical West categorically rejected. In Cit-
ies of the Red Night, Burroughs is explicit
that whites would be welcome in his utopia
only as “workers, settlers, teachers, and tech-
nicians”—no more “white-man boss, no
Pukka Sahib, no Patrons, no colonists.” As he
recounts the history of seven imaginary cities
in the Gobi desert thousands of years ago,
Burroughs explains that before the destruc-
tion of the cities by a meteor (itself a fore-
runner of late-twentieth-century nuclear
weaponry), an explosion which produced the
“Red Night” of the title, all the people of the
world were black. White and even brown and
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red-skinned people are “mutations” caused
by the meteor, as was the albino woman-
warrior whose all-female army conquered
one of the original cities, reducing its male
inhabitants to
“slaves, consorts, and
Burroughs’ cosmological myth resembles
the Black Muslim fable, embraced notably by
Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, about the
creation of a white race of “devils” by an evil
black scientist named Yacub intent on des-
troying the all-black world that has rejected
him. Yet Burroughs never signed up for the
fan clubs of the Third World revolutionaries
so compelling to young, left-wing Americans
in the 1960s; to his mind, heroes like Che
Guevara were simply devices for those run-
ning the “reality film,” a gambit designed to
leave the “shines cooled back . . . in a nine-
teenth century set.” Burroughs claimed to
belong to only one group, the “Shakespeare
squadron”; in the historical impasse in which
he lived, language was his only weapon.
Language as he found it, however, was
rigged to serve the enemy, an ambush dis-
guised as an oasis—in the West, language
had become the “word virus,” the dead heart
of the control machine. Burroughs’ avant-
garde experiments in montage, the cut-up,
and disjunctive narrative were attempts to
liberate Western consciousness from its own
form of self-expression, from the language
that we think we use but which, in truth,
uses us. “Writers are very powerful,” Bur-
roughs tells us; they can write, and
“unwrite,” the script for the reality film.
Defending Naked Lunch during the ob-
scenity trial of 1966 as an example of auto-
matic writing, Norman Mailer noted that
“one’s best writing seems to bear no relation
to what one is thinking about.” Many post-
WWII writers showed a quickened interest
in the random thought that reroutes or
classifies the plan of a novel or essay, but
Burroughs came closest to reversing the tra-
ditional roles of design and chance. For him,
conscious intent was a form of prediction,
and prediction is only possible when the
status quo has reason to assume it will meet
no significant opposition. In his fiction, the
continuity girl, the person who keeps the de-
tails of one sequence of film consistent with
the next, has gone AWOL; there are no shock
absorbers. Jump cuts replace narrative
transitions; straight chronological, quasi-
documentary sequences are spliced with out-
of-time-and-space scenes of doom-struck
sodomy and drug overdoses. Lush symbolist
imagery and hard-boiled, tough-guy slang,
the lyric and the obscene, collide and inter-
breed. Burroughs’ early style was founded on
drug lingo and jive talk; he was fascinated by
their mutability, their fugitive quality, the
result of the pressure their speakers were un-
der to dodge authority and leave no records
behind. His later work elaborates and com-
plicates this principle. No one form of lan-
guage can hold center stage for long. Fast-
change artistry is all; sustained domination
is impossible.
The novelist Paul Bowles, a friend of Bur-
roughs’, thought the cut-up method reflected
an “unsatisfied desire on the part of the mind
to be anonymous,” but it also came out of
Burroughs’ need to work undercover, at the
intersections where identities and meanings
multiply faster than language can calculate
or record. The cut-up method was not a re-
fusal of authorship. The writer still selects
the passages, whether from his own work, a
newspaper, a novel by someone else, or a
sign glimpsed out a train window, which he
then cuts up and juxtaposes. You always
know what you’re doing, according to Bur-
roughs. Everyone sees in the dark; the trick
is to maneuver yourself into the position
where you can recognize what you see.
The first step is to realize that the lan-
guage, even the voice that you use, are not
your own, but alien implants, the result of
the most effective kind of colonization, the
kind that turns external design into what
passes for internal motivation and makes
what you are allowed to get feel like what you
want. In The Ticket That Exploded, Bur-
roughs challenged his readers to try and halt
their “subvocal speech,” that committee
meeting inside the head that seldom makes
sense and never shuts up, the static of the
self, the lowest idle of the meaning-fabricat-
ing machine. Who are you talking to? Bur-
roughs wants to know. Is it really yourself?
Why has Western man “lost the option of si-
lence”? The nonstop monologue running in
our heads is proof of possession, and the
only way to end it is to cut the association
lines by which it lives, the logic by which we
believe that “b” follows “a” not because it in
fact does, but because we have been
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