Thursday, August 04, 2005
. . . and Junky Aesthetics
I just came across a long, elegant essay by Eric Griffiths about Burroughs in the July 22 issue of the TLS (archives for subscribers only). Though strikingly intelligent, it’s a disconcerting piece, apparently motivated by both thoughtful and sympathetic interest in the whole Burroughs oeuvre and by a stern sense of Burroughs’s moral failings. For Griffiths, Burroughs is less the satirist he’s sometimes taken to be than a Gulliver himself—fascinating and comic, but also a smug visionary
The main claim of the essay, though, is Griffith’s contention that Burroughs perversely (all senses intended) reproduced the major attitudes of the middle American world he seemed to have roundly rejected: an obsession with physique, medicine, and hygiene; a dedication to security; a fear of contamination; a fascination with control, in both its nefarious and ostensibly benevolent, reforming guises; an impatience with democracy. Griffiths calls him unexpectedly a “reactionary: he mirrored what he repudiated.”
I found particularly intriguing a brief note about the literary theory associated with Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique. Griffiths calls it a “positivistic superstition that words operate on the ‘nervous system’ in a quasi-pharmaceutical way” and implicitly associates it with Burroughs’s life-long, quasi-magical fascination with medicine and with his equally persistent interest in human conditioning and control.
There’s an interesting conundrum here and one that applies to more than Burroughs alone—for instance to Ginsberg, who, shaken by his confrontation with Burroughs’s cut-ups, developed his own interest in the materiality of language. In his early definitions of postmodern fiction, Ihab Hassan, taking Burroughs as one exhibit, interestingly described it as a “mentalist” literature, by which he meant it was a writing obsessed with consciousness and motivated by a “growing insistence of Mind to apprehend reality im-mediately” (Para-criticism, 122). Griffith’s description at first glance would seem to be the opposite: that Burroughs was attracted by a kind of vulgar materialism that aimed to reduce minds to brains.
But there’s clearly a connection here, and not just in the sense, emphasized by Griffiths, that like many of his contemporaries Burroughs was attracted to a vision of himself as a supreme intelligence, however imperiled, while he thought of others as slavish bodies. The vision of words acting directly on the brain, and the vision of minds operating immediately to comprehend and transform the world share a single appeal perhaps, in the way they each promise to do away with the problem of other minds. Griffiths suggests something like this as the central quality, and limitation, of Burroughs’s work. It’s interesting to consider whether it wasn’t shared by a number of his contemporaries.
<i.Cf.</i> Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Merry Pranksters.
For a counter-reading of sorts, see William Gibson’s gushy celebration in Wired, which hints at how Burroughs anticipated “sampling,” mastered the art of “appropriation,” and is the unacknowledged godfather of … fan fiction. No reactionary there! Ah, plagiarism, you are our true communal vision.
Isn’t the instrumental ontology of mind and ideas the only good mystery we still have?
I think that “How big is an idea?” is a perfectly good question that we will eventually solve.
It is curious how both the materialists and the non-materialists have so little to tell us about the connection of molecules to mind.
The scientists have been historically uncomfortable with the issue and have avoided it, (while continuing to talk in metaphor and having no explanation for why math “works” to predict the environment). As if one could explain the path of a baseball without knowing the mind of the pitcher.
On the other hand, those that choose to ignore the effect of molecules on the mind, procede to work harder and harder to ignore the obvious manifestations of the material basis of the mind. Have they never been on drugs? What do they make of death?
And as for “the positivistic superstition that words operate on the ‘nervous system’ in a quasi-pharmaceutical way” who can deny that “talking dirty” undoubtedly makes many a human limbic system pump?
Charles Taylor writes of how our notion of self is strongly bound up with notions of evaluation. True enough,but isn’t it equally true that everyone with a “brain” now “knows” that the mind is a thing?
Who out there has figured out how to be a thing that thinks it chooses?
Its not vulgar to be a materialist; its brave beyond our capacity. We have tinkered with the material basis of rats and fruit flies and dogs and wheat and nematodes in lots of ways that we don’t yet dare to do with ourselves.
Some of the fears( but not all of course) seem so inconsistent. If the mind isn’t a “caused” entity then apparently all the chemical tinkering in the world won’t affect it.
Of all the superstitions we have, the materiality of language is certailymy favorite.
A sidelight on Burroughs is that he was an anthropology student at Harvard and, I think, got introduced to the anthropological idea of “participant observation”, which was being introduced into American sociology about then in books such as “Tea Room Trade” (Homosexuals, still not gay), “Whiz Mob” (pickpockets), and “Street Corner Society” (neighborhood juvenile delinquents).
Being non-judgmental on the anthro-relativism pattern was part of the methodology, and this meshed with Burrough’s libertarianism and also his sexual deviance, as it was thought then to be.
He may have been a Kinsey subject, and I’m pretty sure that his buddy Huncke, a thief and street punk, was one.
So his life and writing were a kind of self-experiment.
Also there was the idea that “objectivity” was the road to truth and universality, and required liberation from every convention, so that crime was liberating, and unreadable writing too.
Funny—with the title of this post mirroring the one for the post about genre writing below, up until the third paragraph I somehow assumed that this was about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Reading the first and second paragraphs under that assumption is rather amusing.
John Carter, Hustler on Mars or maybe, Tarzan, King of the Junkies.
Didn’t mean to say that the quest for consciousness is vulgar materialism per se, Martin. Only that that particular example is.