Davis Schneiderman and Philip Walsh, Eds. Retaking the Universe

Amanda Perez
University of Central Florida

Schneiderman, Davis, and Philip Walsh, Eds. Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization. London: Pluto Press, 2004. 328pp. $34.00 (pbk; also available in hardback) (978-0-7453-2081-6)

[1] The scholarship surrounding the works of William Burroughs often focuses on his literary accomplishments. Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization, steps away from the typical anthology of criticism and emphasizes the significance of the social and political elements in Burroughs's works and discusses their application to globalization. Editors Schneiderman and Walsh commissioned a group of contributors from a diverse range of fields and expertise. Together, these contributors create a collection that speaks to the theme of globalization and reasserts that the works of Burroughs are still relevant when applied to political globalization resistance techniques. Although each of the critics presents their own conjectures for how Burroughs fits into the globalization and resistance conversation, all tend to agree, as Jennie Skerl states in the "Forward," "that Burroughs's moral and political position is clear: he opposes the sociopolitical control systems of late capitalism in the era of globalization, and his writing is a form of resistance" (((xiii). Even though "Burroughs the icon and the oeuvre continue to resist easy closure," Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization, refreshes the theories, techniques and literary works of Burroughs and makes them easily accessible and relevant to the generation of scholars that finds itself enveloped by the media driven spectacle.

[2] The anthology presents itself as a guidebook not only for understanding what the connection between globalization and '(post)modernity' is and where Burroughs fits into that debate, but also for a better understanding of the effects of technology on the individual. To this end, the collection is separated into three sections; "Theoretical Depositions," "Writing, Sign, Instrument: Language and Technology," and "Alternatives: Realities and Resistances."

[3] The first section, "Theoretical Depositions," works to "establish the importance of reading Burroughs through the lens of a sophisticated oppositional politics beyond the tradition of the merely literary" (7). Alan Hibbard, in his essay "Shift Coordinate Points: William S. Burroughs and Contemporary Theory," outlines the ways in which Burroughs's ideas run parallel to such theorists as Saussure, Heidegger and Lyotard. Hibbard claims that Burroughs parallels such contemporary theorists because he "responded to the same cultural landscape that spurred and shaped so much of contemporary theory" and those responses "helped forge what became known as a distinctly new and innovative postmodern literary style" (13). Hibbard stresses that one of Burroughs's most important contributions to contemporary theory is the challenges he offers to the notion of the autonomous self. Philip Walsh, one of the editors of the collection, writes of the connection between Burroughs and the Frankfurt school in his piece "Reactivating the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Burroughs as a Critical Theorist." Walsh connects Burroughs and the Frankfurt School by illuminating their ideas on contemporary mass civilization and the dehumanizing structure of power. In another act of connection, Jason Morelyle's "Speculating Freedom: Addiction, Control and Rescriptive Subjectivity in the Work of William S. Burroughs" links addiction and control. Here, Morelyle contends that Burroughs's portrayal of junk and junk addiction sets up a hierarchy of power and control which directly relates to the subjectivity of the subject created in a control society. In order to combat junk addiction the addict needs to realize that "resistance in a control society emerges at the site of the subject" (83). The piece that ends the first section, by Jon Longhi, argues that the convergence of Burroughs, the Surrealists and psychoanalysis is seated in their treatment of dreams. Longhi asserts that it is from dreams that Burroughs credits many of his literary techniques and novels. According to Longhi, then, it is Burroughs's deep appreciation for his sleeping life in which he makes his most powerful political statements.

[4] While the first section grounds Burroughs in such theoretical depositions, the second section of the text, "Writing, Sign, Instrument: Language and Technology," applies Burroughs's theories to various methods of production. "Burroughs's Writing Machines" by Anthony Enns illustrates how writing machines such as the typewriter can only improve the human condition if the user is able to take control over the machine. For instance, Enns references the story of the creation of Burroughs's first book Junky. The first version of the text was written in longhand and then given to the wife of a friend to turn into a typed text. When Burroughs received the typed text he was disappointed with it and decided from that moment on that the only way to write was with a writing machine. The anthology moves from control over the text through writing machines to discussions of control while using the internet. In his essay "Totally Wired: Prepare Your Affidavits of Explanation," Edward Desautels tells the reader that in the interzone of the internet, the user cannot have a control free zone but instead must realize that the internet uses words and images to control the user; so, in order to resist the loss of control that occurs when completely wired, the user must learn to manipulate those words and images. Similarly, "New World Ordure: Burroughs, Globalization, and the Grotesque" by Dennis McDaniel explores a Burroughsian aesthetic of resistance to community culture, the grotesque. Davis Schneiderman, the other editor of the collection, extends the study of Burroughsian resistance by focusing on the use of time and space as a way to resist globalization. In "Nothing Hear Now but the Recordings: Burroughs's 'Double Resonance'" Schneidermen argues that it is Burroughs's sound recordings that help his works move beyond just words into a creative space, one which "always searches for opportunities to exploit formal processes as a means of scuttling the forces of commodification" (147). Schneidermen suggests that writing alone cannot resist commodification – one must also produce writing that resists commodification. While Schneiderman emphasizes sound recording technologies, Jamie Russell, in "Guerilla Conditions: Burroughs, Gysin and Balch Go to the Movies" continues the discussion of creative space and applies similar ideas to the ways in which Burroughs's films, particularly "Towers Open Fire," present themselves not only as art but also as "precognitions." Section II of the anthology ends with "Cutting Up Politics" by Oliver Harris, which offers the reader a detailed account of Burroughs's cut-up techniques. Harris also is the only contributor in the collection who asks the reader and the other contributors to consider whether or not Burroughs's techniques are successes or failures. Harris implies that since Burroughs was a master of the cut-up technique and "everyone who took up the practice faded away – except Burroughs," it is possible that the cut-up technique failed because it could not be duplicated by others (188). It would have been worthwhile for the rest of the anthology to address the proposal that Burroughs's most celebrated literary technique was a failure. With that fleeting statement, Harris places himself in opposition to the rest of the anthology, as if resisting the structure of power of the anthology itself.

[5] The third section of the book, entitled "Alternatives: Realities and Resistance," strays the most from the message the book seemingly intends to portray and instead moves towards creative pieces inspired by Burroughs's work. While the pieces in this section are creative, and certainly explore the possibilities "that arise from such combinations of production and theory" they do not further the overall purpose of the collection, which Schneiderman and Walsh state is to "situate Burroughs's work within the tenuous forces of the global field" (8). Opening "Alternatives" is John Vernon's "The Map and the Machine." In this reprinted 1972 article Vernon discusses the body within Burroughs's narrative. Ron Roberts's "The High Priest and the Great Beast at The Place of Dead Roads" illustrates the connections between "the 'High Priest' of beatnik and punk culture, and Aleister Crowley, the 'Great Beast' of black magic" (225). "Alternatives" then moves from discussions of Burroughs's placement in the context of other theorists and authors into close readings of Burroughs's work. Roberta Fornari, in "A Camera on Violence: Reality and Fiction in Blade Runner, a Movie," gives the reader a detailed background of the social and ethical implications in Blade Runner (Burroughs's science fiction novella, not the Ridley Scott film of the same name). "William S. Burroughs, Laughter and the Avant-Garde" by Katharine Streip suggests a way to explore the idea of boundaries in Burroughs by reconciling his work as humor, indeed, as classic comedy. The last chapter in the book, "Lemurian Time War," is a work of fiction that takes on the challenge that Harris presents in Section II – take the tools and create.

[6] Overall the anthology is engaging and innovative, with each section acting as a reference point for the reader; who influenced and was influenced by Burroughs (Section I), how Burroughs's work might be studied in the context of globalization (Section II), and creative responses to Burroughs's work (Section III). There exists, however, an imbalance in the anthology. While Sections I and II offer the foundation and justification for the title of the book, Section III does not fit, because the essays read more as close readings of Burroughs's work and do not speak explicitly to the topic of globalization. Regardless of this imbalance, Burroughs scholars will appreciate the importance of the collection, not only because it addresses the socio-political aspects of his work, but because it also opens the door for new inquiries into the discussion of globalization in Burroughs's work.