Burroughs, Dadaism, and the Language Virus

First off, I will get this out of the way now: I love me some William S. Burroughs, I think he was one of America’s greatest literary geniuses.  While Ginsberg and the rest of the Beats sought to open people’s minds, Burroughs literary works aimed to blow them apart.  His more expirimental works would push, or downright annihilate, every conceivable boundary in the literary world.  While on the surface appearing to be some of the most obtuse and abstract works in the English language, closer reading reveals some of the most insightful and in depth commentary on the human condition ever committed to page.

To give credit where credit is due, many of Burroughs’s ideas can be traced back to Dadaism, which is when the artistic community first began to expiriment with pushing the boundaries of meaning.  For instance, the poetry of Hugo Ball used what was essentially glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, to audially convey emotional meaning without using language.  While one could argue that his poetry was meaningless, this is only because it escapes a linguistic definition.  In kind, one could label  Duchamp’s Fountain, the famed urinal labelled as a Fountain, as a simple joke; yet it has a deeply metatextual meaning in that there are no essential differences between a fountain and a urinal, rather the only difference is the linguistic definition we have applied.  It is possible to start at this point and arrive at a concept that is core to understanding the philosophy of anarchy.  This concept being that there is no such real thing as a government, there are no different kinds of people; there are simply institutions constructed from words and enforced with brute strength.

In his more philosophical musings, Burroughs would perceive language to actually have a pernicious effect on humanity.  When he would claim that ‘language is a virus from outer space’ what he was rather allegorically saying was that the language of humankind is not a natural, biological thing.  Many of his more obtuse works were, in addition to many other things, expiriments in just how far away from anything resembling our reality a literary narrative could be, and still come across as such.  Frequently the gratuitous sex scenes that pervade his work are more about just how alien and weird, or graphic and forbidden, a literary sex can be while still being sex.

In considering the deeper ramifications of the fluidity and power of meaning (or definition) I like to consider animal language.  Language for animals is generally more emotive, and while it can be argued that our language is more refined; there is, I think, an elegant honesty in the language of animals.  I find this in the way their communique relies more on tone and timbre for expression.  In the past, both horribly cruel expiriments and evidence from feral children would indicate that lacking outside influence this would also be true of humanity’s natural form of expression.  However, across the globe, humankind begins at an early age to teach that this form of communication is vulgar, crude, or offensive.  Instead, we are trained from an early age to define reality with the words we are taught, and not to question their definitions, essentially constructing the lense with which we view our entire reality.  In this way, even our thoughts are infected with the ‘language’ virus; as I doubt most people can imagine thinking without words, let alone remember a time when they didn’t do so.

The human language, of course, is more than some weird set of non-natural boundaries that we impose on our surroundings; rather it is also a tool that we can use to construct and shape our reality.  Words can be used for the negative, such as using falsehoods and rhetoric to mislead a country into war, or for the positive, such as using reasoned argument to break down hundreds of years of stereotyping and discrimination.  In other words, language can imprison us or it can set us free, but we can only utilize it if we recognize that it is a tool for us to use.

The key to this is understanding when language is being used to intentionally deceive us from reality; of course this is getting more and more difficult all the time, as both our government and mainstream media lose their obligations to the truth.  In my opinion, the greatest possible solution to this dilemma is the internet, and we have begun to see this already in the beneficial effects of social media on social uprisings against hostile governments.  While it may be tragic to some that we live in a world where first party video on youtube is replacing  other traditional news outlets in regards to reliability, I feel that this is merely another stage in the evolution of human communication.

Now that people can freely share and corroborate eachother’s information; often with visual evidence, the need for a traditional corporate press is dwindling.  The lack of reliance on corporate press is the reason totalitarian governments fear the free speech capabilities of the internet: all totalitarian forces require the control of information, and whether it is corporate or state controlled is irrelevant as long as both are controlled by the same interests.  Free speech is the enemy of the state, and for the committed anarchist  it is the most powerful weapon to have.


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