I think very little post-modern criticism actually talks about the “text” as far as content, narrative, character, etc. but when dissecting or deconstructing a text like naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, you are forced to. Surprisingly, the signature cut-up method was not fully established in Naked Lunch. Naked Lunch is Burroughs’ most important book because it was produced during the period before he had fully absorbed Scientology and even the cut up method for that matter. Naked Lunch was the Beat manifesto that most effectively brings out the alienation of the writer, written in cosmopolitan Algeirs, largely a retrospect on heroin and capitalism, the schizophrenia of image culture, of the phantasmagoria of the simulacra – Burroughs’ anti-modern, anti-enlightenment novel says more about “the times” than perhaps any of the other major books taken to court for the infamous censorship trials of the late 50’s.
While it is important to talk about the peculiar world view of Burroughs, I think it is more important to lay out in clear terms what the intellectual ideas that shaped the novel were, even though Burroughs was not highly influenced by these ideas, mainly the work of the Frankfurt School, it sets a backdrop from which to conceptualize the often foreign and difficult to pry text.
Beginning with the factualist method: it is a revolutionary style, or technique that focuses on the power of words in forming cultural conceptions of reality. Naked Lunch manipulates the structure of mass-media dissemination, or inverts it from its priveledged position of power and control over information and through the inversion he wished to open up a private space of the mind, where analytic and mythic thought are allowed to flourish.
Reflecting on the production of Naked Lunch later in life, Burroughs believed that during the process, he himself was written, and that the various routines were largely documentaries of the epistemological process. Factualism, a technique invented by Burroughs, transcribes reality without transcending the writers’ material conditions, with the intention of connecting to the reader at every level of experience. Factualism uncovers levels of experience locked in the subconscious and dreams. Allen Ginsberg considered Naked Lunch, “an autobiography of the visionary panorama.” The Factualist approach is predicated on the philosophical belief that a macrocosmic world beyond the bounds of material reality is in existence, and must be understood in the immediate present.
This metaphysical universe sees no distinction between visible and invisible forces, and is essentially a creation of the imagination, where all of the facts of existence are shared and not ignored. Burroughs’s personal philosophy stems from a long tradition of anti-reason bound conceptions of cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology. Taken further, Burroughs was anti-western in all of its totality, “Naked Lunch, in essence is about emergent, spontaneous life vs. character armor, death, and the west.”
The theoretical influence of the anti-enlightenment Frankfurt School meshed with the sexual prophecies of Wilhelm Reich, indicate the range from which Burroughs pooled his theoretical constellations. Although Burroughs’s method would become highly influenced by Scientology, i.e. the “Cut up Method,” he held no particular doctrinal agenda when producing Naked Lunch. Much of the later aestheticization of the novel contained the production of the novel in terms of a junkies coming out manifesto. While these perspectives connect with more of the fundamental messages, they also ignore the liberating schema hidden within the structure of the novel itself.
The Dialectics of Enlightenment, by Horkenheimer and Adorno is an appropriate guide to the political content of Naked Lunch. According to the Dialects of Enlightenment, reason in a capitalist system or “culture industry” has been subordinated to serve whatever means it is expected to. Thinking has objectified itself to become automatic, similar to the “Sender” mantra, the culture industry supplies mass-produced commodities that meet the entertainment needs of independent consumers.
The individual is locked within a fixed system rendering all analytic, mythic or mystic compartments of thought superfluous. This instrumentalization of reasoning projects a world where the relationship of means to ends has been prescribed, consequently disallowing the consumer to interject any individual challenge, or genuine contribution to the given medium at work on the mind.
This “machine model of mass-consciousness” is what the text is attempting to fragment. The text transgresses the thought control model by prescribing reactions to the reader. Burroughs’s skeptical stance towards the one-way communication of the media is evident throughout. By dissolving the author to reader expectations, the reader’s reaction to the text remains dictated by the author. This technique becomes a parody of the culture industry’s capacity for strict control on the relationship between reader/author.
The counter-narrative style of the novel consists of randomly assembled routines that unravel in a rapid progression of still images. This “mosaic of juxtapositions” approach to the page stems from Burroughs’s belief that like drugs, words were contextual and prevented people from transcending a particular reality. This distortion of conventional language structures that imposed, “permanent states of being,” is negated and meshed with a filmic prose.3 The dominant influence of film, television and video media on visual perception caused Burroughs to experiment with structures of imagery in the novel. Burroughs believed that fiction writing must ally its structure with film because the future dissemination of entertainment will consist primarily in images.
Anticipating a future of visual dissemination of information, it is important to recognize that the material text itself is intended to serve as an image. The intention is to induce a shocking reflex; open a space for the mind to exercise a private experience unencumbered by instrumental reasoning. Most criticism frames this technique as arousing bourgeois rigidity, and prudence, which has been obviously displayed through the politicized controversies, censorship etc. revolving around McCarthyism era purges of art.
The text, although transgressing the prevailing images and signals of the mass-media contains its most direct allegory of reality through the routine, “Parties of Interzone.” All of the political parties seek the reduction of individual difference to a single despotic identity. According to the narrator, the Senders are the most dangerous through their control over mental, physical and sensory impressions via bioelectric signals. This reduction of difference becomes synonymous for Burroughs’s concept of the “Human Virus;” a ubiquitous condition manifested within the mind, institutions, culture and language. The language of Naked Lunch counters this pervasive virus through composing hyperbolic images of, “poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, and insanity.” The intended, “image-sensitive” audience exposed to this barrage of counter-images is made conscious of commonly repressed scenarios, with the hope of sparking a revaluation of the core values intrinsic to those scenarios.
This “machine model of mass-consciousness” is evident in the first “Benway” routine. Benway, “a manipulator and controller of symbol systems, an expert on interrogation, brainwashing and control,” has failed in his controlling techniques of various junkies. The failures are arbitrary though because the control is not necessary when the collective norms and values have been internalized to the point that the controllers’ desired response is reflexive. The fact that Benway is developing new techniques of control on subjects outside of Annexia, (a futuristic allusion to the sedated, banality of state socialism in Western Europe) solidifies the success of internalized control.
The mosaic of disjointed images juxtaposed onto each other induces a liminal experience for the reader similar to the stimulation found in an impressionist painting. Each reader is given the autonomy to apply his or her own linearity and order onto the fragmented text. Burroughs refers to this aspect of the text as “intersection points.” The reader is encouraged to enter the text at any point to collaborate with the artistic experience of the novel. Once the reader has entered the text, the prescribed effect that entertainment has on the culture-industry mind is distorted into Burroughs’s Factualist universe.
The source of resistance to the culture-industry’s production of identical commodified images and molds of bodies, (represented by the despotic political parties) is embodied though the Factualist ideology. Ideologically, Factualism has been compared to Burroughs’s Libertarian political leanings; however, the Libertarian capacity of the Factualist party is restricted through a mere negation of the power of the opposing political parties.
Basing the political themes upon a capitalist system reveal further the metaphoric capacities of the text. Burroughs’s theory that all forms of addiction obey similar fundamental laws, is a clear metaphor of a capitalist system where drugs represent a commodity, the dealer represents the producer while the addict or user symbolizes the consumer. Both systems depend upon an objectification of the consumer/addict, where the individual becomes a mechanized instrument. To express these relations more intimately, the reader is placed in the role of the objectified consumer/addict, a world in which all reactions are prescribed.
Naked Lunch remains as relevant a treatise to the confines of mass-culture today as it was on the date of its publication. Naked Lunch’s fragmentary structure was altogether trying to blur the distinctions between nature and society, visible and invisible, and subject to object through negation. The negation was not prosaic political satire or empty obscenities. At the root of the text is a call for a more egalitarian social order free from past conditioning, based on a, “non-subservient model of human nature.” Indeed the elements of parody were the only way Burroughs could “achieve complete sincerity.”