On the Association Line: A Narrative Revolution

By Bolton, Micheal Sean | Postmodern Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

On the Association Line: A Narrative Revolution


Bolton, Micheal Sean, Postmodern Studies


A Technician learns to think and write in association blocks which can then be manipulated according to the laws of association and juxtaposition.

-William S. Burroughs'

We are interested in a text as a place of encounter in which we continually create the future.

-Michael Joyce2

The ongoing and increasing interest in THE EXPERIMENTAL writings of William S. Burroughs certainly has much to do with their reputations as revolutionary works. His advocates frequently champion the novels as works that satirize, indict, and rebel against the institutionalization of modem society. For these critics and readers, the revolutionary character of these works most often amounts to the destructive or deconstructive qualities of Burroughs' themes and stylistic experiments. They view the novels as works of subversion and sabotage that seek to tear down political, moral, and cultural codes. Indeed, Burroughs often casts his narrators and characters as adversaries of various agents and mechanisms of oppression. A narrator of The Wild Boys announces just such a typically Burroughsian agenda, stating: "We intend to march on the police machine everywhere. We intend to destroy the police machine and all its records. We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems". 3 However, readings that consider only the subversive potential of the novels grasp only part of Burroughs' agenda. His subversions are precursors to a more ambitious goal. He is not interested only in destruction; he is committed also to change. In an interview with Conrad Knickerbocker, he proclaims, "I'm concerned with the precise manipulation of word and image [...] to create an alteration in the reader's consciousness".4 Burroughs' subversive themes and randomizing techniques do not amount to unmitigated attacks on conventions, as many critics suggest, but constitute part of a careful strategy for effecting transformations in his readers.

When sabotage is one's only goal then, as Timothy Murphy points out, "The revolutionary's only real task is a negative one, the destruction of historical authority, and his only real characteristic is also negative since he is merely an inversion of the good citizen". 5 However, Murphy continues, "Rupture is a necessary condition, but by itself is an insufficient condition for change". 6 Burroughs' novels, on the other hand, represent far more than narratives of subversion and social-political criticism, but are, in fact, narratives of transformation. Murphy views the novels as providing a "plan of living"7 through which to enact social and political change. I suggest that they allow for even more profound change in the consciousness of the individual reader. Through his narrative experimentation, Burroughs makes explicit the role of the text as a technology with which the reader interfaces and interacts. By altering the reader's position in relation to the text from that of observer to participant-observer, Burroughs' narratives transform readers' self-perceptions from the body-bound situation of liberal humanist subjects to the decentered and dispersed but integrated condition of posthuman subjects.

Due to Burroughs' revolutionary narrative approach, writing about his novels presents unique challenges for literary critics. These novels often seem so hopelessly fragmented as to be entirely inscrutable and, at times, even hostile toward readers. Assuming the aim of criticism to be to elucidate the importance or the relevance of a literary work to a readership, how does one convince readers that spending time with texts as fragmented and challenging as those of Burroughs will be valuable and relevant to them? It can often be difficult for the critic to make sense of these novels for him/herself, let alone to make sense of them for readers. One way that critics have frequently approached these difficult texts is by presenting the experimental forms and subversive themes as criticisms of modem social and political orders. …

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