Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Word Dust: William Burroughs's Multimedia Aesthetic

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Word Dust: William Burroughs's Multimedia Aesthetic

Article excerpt

William Burroughs is increasingly seen as a "multimedia" writer. This essay synthesizes his often contradictory claims about the relationship between writing and other media. Burroughs warns against the simple mixture of heterogeneous media elements, and urges us instead to attend to the vicissitudes of the material within the cross-media text.

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Like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp before him, William Burroughs was a controversial artist whose importance has grown since his death--despite the objections of many who question the value of his work. What has made Burroughs an increasingly essential reference point for twentieth-century culture are the links he insisted on between writing and other media. Burroughs has become an icon for writers, musicians, and artists across media--appearing in films, rock videos, and even shoe commercials. Timothy S. Murphy suggests that it might be that "Burroughs's career presents a new paradigm for the writer's active, shaping involvement with other mass media" (204).

Burroughs's work has attracted so much attention in recent years because it seems to answer a question that has become increasingly central to artistic work in all of its forms: what is the nature of a work that mixes several traditionally distinct media? Multimedia is, today, largely an economic buzzword, either the lynchpin appeal of the newest electronic gadget for the home or a general description of synergistic marketing that turns books into movies, movies into games, and games into books. And yet, behind these blatant market appeals is a broader question of what happens when media are combined, which writers and artists have struggled with for quite some time. In the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to see the combination of media as a movement beyond artificial distinctions toward a "common artwork" that Richard Wagner described as creating genuine freedom: "in every segregation of his [Artistic Man's] artistic faculties he is unfree, not fully that which he has the power to be; whereas in the common Artwork he is free, and fully that which he has the power to be" (4). Such idealism was carried over into early-twentieth-century movements like surrealism and futurism, which often saw the fusing of word and image--for example, in concrete poetry--as a great step beyond artificial distinctions between aesthetic experiences. By the middle of the twentieth century, artists and critics tended to place more emphasis on the way that such multimedia works disturbed art institutions. Dick Higgins's influential essay "Intermedia" nicely captures the balance between institutional critique and artistic idealism: his example is the "Happening," which "developed as an intermedium, an uncharted land that lies between collage, music and the theater. It is not governed by rules; each work determines its own medium and form according to its needs" (16). Is the point of such "intermedia" works to challenge categories, or to escape them? Digital media, easily able to comine text and audio, still and moving image, has brought the challenges raised by these avant-garde works into the home through desktop computing, while at the same time muting some of these theoretical questions in a broad enthusiasm for the proliferation of more media. If text is good, then text plus image is better, and text plus moving image or moving image plus audio commentary better still. Largely unasked, then, are questions about the nature of multimedia aesthetics that Burroughs seems to promise an answer for. Is the mixture of several media within a work inherently freeing? Does it escape or merely reconfigure media categories? Is our aesthetic response to these works the sum of several distinct responses, or does this combination produce something new? Without an understanding of such aesthetics, mass-market models based on the accumulation of versions of the same material in as many media as possible will continue to define multimedia. …

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