A Grenade with the Fuse Lit: William S. Burroughs and Retroactive Utopias in Cities of the Red Night

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In 1981, William S. Burroughs--often considered a writer of devastatingly apocalyptic dystopian vision--published "Cities of the Red Night," his first foray into utopian writing. This article examines Burroughs's conception of the "retroactive utopia." It highlights Burroughs's ambivalence toward utopian projects and invokes both his hope and his disappointment in the ability for utopian writing to engender political change.


William S. Burroughs is justifiably famous for his stark and uncompromising criticism of structures of social, economic, and political control in the United States in the late twentieth century. For all of his criticism, however, Burroughs did not offer any concrete positive alternative visions for social organization until the publication of Cities of the Red Night in 1981. Cities of the Red Night is an important literary intervention into the possibilities of utopia during the rapid expansion of the logic of late capitalism. Briefly, in Cities of the Red Night Burroughs develops the idea of the retroactive utopia as a way of conceptualizing utopia in a time when utopia, or at least left-leaning understandings of alternative social structures, are facing attacks from all sides. Burroughs imagines the retroactive utopia as a historical moment when there is a chance for a radical alteration in the social fabric. Cities of the Red Night uses Captain Mission, a seventeenth-century pirate, and his attempt to create a utopian pirate colony on Madagascar to imagine what might happen if this historical moment had been successful. By making the foundation of his utopian vision conditional on the overturning of the failure of an actual utopian moment, Burroughs wrestles with the ambivalent nature of utopian literature in relation to revolutionary practice in the late twentieth century.

In his essay "Postmodern Anus," Wayne Pounds examines the parodic and utopian impulses in William S. Burroughs's work, going so far as to describe the "building of utopia" as the telos of Burroughs's project. Pounds's essay, a vacillating yet favorable reading of Burroughs's oeuvre, asks an important question that it then fails to answer: "To put it country simple, the question is whether the boys' camp of Burroughs's earthly garden of delights is one any of us would want to spend a summer in--not to mention a lifetime. More specifically, it should be asked whether even the most charitably allegorical reading of the boys' camp utopia, with its sexist exclusionism, can save it from falling back into an unredeemed mechanism indistinguishable from the systems of control it is meant to subvert." (1) This question cuts to the heart of all utopian writing. Is it possible for any utopia to transcend its foundations, or do they always remain tethered to the past? Pounds measures out what he considers to be utopian and dystopian, though he is quite vague in his utopianism while incredibly specific in his

dystopianism--the books are utopian because they "do imagine utopia" and because of their "semiotic structure," while they are dystopian because of their misogyny and their linking "knowledge to destructive technology." (2) What Pounds's murky analysis misses is the ambivalence of utopia as a conceptual framework in and of itself. The brilliance of Burroughs's work is his understanding of the complexity of claiming utopian projects and universalizing political positions. In other words, Burroughs's texts engage with the difficulty of writing utopia within a historical context that shies away from totalizing narratives. Therefore, rather than attempting to schematically trace what is or is not utopian in Burroughs's later work, an examination of how the ambivalence of utopia becomes an encapsulating social and thematic category provides richer ground for study.

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