Naked Performativity: Examining the Work of William Burroughs

“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all”

— William Burroughs,


William Burroughs (1914-1997), the eccentric, the sardonic humoured, and the rebellious; he is a writer who took all traditional forms of literature and threw them into the garbage. Or rather, cut them into fragments, mixed them all around, and glued them back together in complete and utter random selections of prose. This is the technique in which he composed Naked Lunch, along with the help of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) in 1957, and published in 1959. Considered to be “literature of risk” (Charters 103), it tells the story of Burroughs’s alter ego, William Lee, as he narrates his narcotic-fueled life of chosen criminality. Street life and crime are common themes throughout these texts, along with other works ranging from novels, poems, and letters of correspondence that take the form of various mediums—novels, poems, audio lectures, short films, etc. These two correlative themes are represented through an array of eclectic personas. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is useful in examining Burroughs’s work to underscore the performative acts that his characters, and himself, take on as a way of elucidating that identity is formed through bodily acts to suit the needs of a discursively constructed self.

Butler’s theory of performativity is typically applied to theories of gender. However, it can also be applied more broadly to the context of identity. She writes that social reality is an illusion that is created “through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign” (“Performative” 519). She relates this back to illocutionary speech acts—words that actively do something, rather than just representing it (“Performative” 519). These speech acts change the existence of that which they proclaim, and thus make tangible changes to reality, as outlined by John Stearle (“Performative” 519). By repeatedly citing social ideologies, we are thus constructing a socially enacted reality. The act of performing these conventions and norms results in a seemingly naturalized appearance; they are fictionalized embodiments constructing our reality (“Performative” 520). The repetition of this discourse then becomes a performative act. That is, “a repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts” (Gender Trouble 45). As such, by participating in the enactment of a fictionally created reality, we are allowing it to stand as the construction of our identity.

In utilizing Butler’s theory of performativity for the methodology, it is important to make clear its differentiation from performance. In distinguishing between them, Butler articulates an imperative distinction; whereas “performance presupposes a preexisting subject, performativity contests the very notion of the subject” (“Gender” 33). That is, performance requires a subject (performer) for a physical enactment; wherein performativity, the identity is constructed as an affect of discourse—nonexistent prior to repetitive acts.

Burroughs frequently cites performative acts in his various forms of art. He constructs his character’s identities—or rather, his own, as Junky and Naked Lunch draw from real life experiences—based on repeated sets of acts. An assortment of Burroughs’s works, created using a variety of mediums spanning over the entirety of his career, will be examined. A wide variety of these works will be included to show the prevalent commonality of themes throughout his work and to show that literature is not exclusive to these themes for a discussion of performativity.

In discussing the performativity in Burroughs’s work, this paper will begin with Junky, his first published novel. Junky was written in 1950, but was not published until 1953 under the pseudonym “William Lee” and titled, Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (Charters 103). It details the trajectory of his life, leading to his first encounter with heavy narcotics, and describing the early years of his “criminal life” (Charters 102). It was intended to be “a factual book about his drug experience,” written under the influence of his Harvard friend, Kells Evans, and heavy doses of morphine (Charters 103). It reads like a long string of events and characters that are lacking any sense of solidity; rather, they are performing sets of repeated acts that form the daily routines of their lives. Burroughs narrates through the main character, William Lee, describing a conglomerate of junkies that he encounters and is acquainted with while navigating the subcultures of New York, New Orleans, Kentucky, and Mexico City. All of the characters have a fixed routine in which they enact, as a means for sustaining life on the street, be it through working as a lush, a pigeon, or a pusher. Dispersed throughout the novel is an exorbitance of the various routines that a junky may employ: “the what-happened-to-so-and-so routine” (Burroughs 124), “nostalgic routine” (Burroughs xxxvii), “gallstone routine” (Burroughs 17), “conversation routine” (Burroughs 39), “crucifix routine” (Burroughs 100), “let-me-warn-you-about-Nick routine” (Burroughs 42), “strong-arm routine” (Burroughs 43), “getting-off-junk routine” (Burroughs 54), to name a few. Some are general routines that can be adapted to any junky, while others are specific to a particular character. The repetition of acts comprising each of these routines can thus be viewed as performativity. Each character is specifically utilizing a routine to best suit their individual needs for a particular situation, forming a socially constructed, and hence fictional, identity.

In order to maintain his drug habit, Lee enacts many routines that sporadically change depending on his junk needs and the level of danger of his current situation. While in New York, he partners with Roy and they form a routine for “working the hole” as “lush-workers” (Burroughs 28). That is, they “specialize in robbing drunks on the subway” (Burroughs 131). Every night Lee and Roy would meet at “about eleven o’clock” (Burroughs 28) and each would strategically enact a specialized role to support the actions of the other:

We would ride along, each looking out one side of the subway car until one of us spotted a “flop” sleeping on a bench. Then we would get off the train. I stood in front of the  bench with a newspaper and covered Roy while he went through the lush’s pockets. Roy would whisper instructions to me … and I would move to keep him covered. (Burroughs 28)

They maintained this routine, despite that “often, [they] were late and the lush would be lying there with his pockets turned inside out” (Burroughs 28). Unwilling, and unable, to obtain socially acceptable employment, Lee and Roy continue this “sustained set of acts” (Gender Trouble xv) in a desperate attempt to earn a few dollars to support their junk habit.

After a particularly scary night of lush-working entailing a subway fight, “crawl[ing] into the bushes at the side of the road” (Burroughs 33) as they “cut” (Burroughs 32) from the police, Lee is “through as a lush-worker” (Burroughs 34). He then decides to “push junk,” aware that “there isn’t much money in it,” but he will at least have “a good supply on junk on hand and that gives a feeling of security” (Burroughs 34). This sense of security is needed for Lee, for independent subjectivity is retroactively constructed through the repetition of social enactments (“Performative” 521). He quickly slips into a new daily routine with his “shmecker” customers:

I went to Tony’s bar every day and ordered a Coca- Cola. Tony would tell me how many caps he wanted, and I would go into the phone booth or the W.C. and wrap his caps up in silver paper. When I got back to my Coke, the money for the caps was there on the bar  like change. I dropped the caps into an ashtray on the bar and Tony emptied the ashtray under the bar, taking out his caps. This routine was necessary because the owner knew  Tony had been a user and had told him to stay off the stuff or get another job. (Burroughs 37)

Lee recognizes the necessity for discrepancy in this particular routine for the safety of himself. He performs this set of repetitive acts to suit his individual needs for the moment—earning money to sustain his junk habit and hiding from “the law” (Burroughs 39).

While sustaining his junk habit in New Orleans, Lee falls into a different set of acts to that of his peddling routine in New York. His life becomes mundane and lacking in sociability, as his only concern is coasting from one fix to the next:

So I drifted along, scoring through Pat. I stopped drinking, stopped going out at night, and fell into a routine schedule: a cap of junk three times a day, and the time in between to be filled somehow. Mostly, I spent my time painting and working around the house. Manual work makes the time pass fast. Of course, it often took me a long time to score. (Burroughs 62-3)

Although Lee’s daily routine of scoring is drastically different from that of his junk-pushing employment in New York, he still maintains a repeated set of enactments. Lee simply adjusts his performativity to suit his needs for the ephemerality of the present moment, occupying himself with manual labor for no other reason than to pass the time more quickly between fixes. Both routines have formed his identity, for the discursive construction of it is fictional, and can thus be easily changed or adjusted.

As Lee has definitively chosen a life of criminality, his social interactions are primarily concerned with individuals who share correlative motives. Not only does he employ routines to “change the appearance of things to suit his needs” (Burroughs 8), but his customers utilize this technique as well. Chris is one such character, using a con routine to convince Lee to give him a heroin cap “on credit” (Burroughs 41). However, in recognition of his own untrustworthiness, and to further aid his cause, he specifically tells Lee, “This is not a routine. I’m positively getting a check from my aunt this afternoon. Look at this” (Burroughs 42):

            He pulled a telegram from his pocket. I glanced at it. There was some vague reference to a check. He went on explaining about the check. As he talked, he kept putting his hand on my arm and gazing earnestly into my face. I felt I could not  stand  any more of this sweet con. To cut him short, I handed him one cap before he could put it on me for two or three.

            Next day he showed up with a dollar-eighty. He didn’t say anything about the check. And so it went. He came up short, or not at all. He was always about to get money 
from his aunt, or mother-in-law, or somebody. These stories he documented with letters and telegrams. (Burroughs 42)

Chris uses lies, as well as guilt, in his routine for obtaining drugs. He falsely promises forthcoming money, using gentle physical contact and persuasive facial expressions, in an attempt to gain Lee’s sympathy and guilt him into providing a cap without payment. Chris goes further by giving Lee the “let-me-warn-you-about-Nick routine” (Burroughs 42) to try to gain allegiance with him and make himself appear superior by comparison. He repeatedly uses this routine until his pushers eventually get tired of his empty promises and abandon him. Nonetheless, Chris’s performative acts sustain his individual needs and have come to form the construction of his identity, as he becomes commonly known for his routine.

Lee identifies another type of routine known as a “short con” (Burroughs 45). Kelly, an “unemployed cab driver” (Burroughs 45), whom he is loosely acquainted with, enacts this role. He earns “a few dollars peddling condoms and with a routine of hitting commuters for fifty cents” (Burroughs 45). The miniscule amount of money that Kelly earns for his short con is minimally sufficient for the maintenance of his habit. Yet he continually employs it as a means for fulfilling his individual needs, while subsequently constructing his identity.

Lee’s customers “came around every day, impudent, demanding, insufferable” (Burroughs 44). Consequently, the repetition of their performative acts made it easy for them to “attract heat” (Burroughs 38). That is, the police quickly followed in their decrepit tracks. As such, Lee simply changed his routine in order to continue sustaining his own need—junk: “I moved to another hotel and registered under another name. I stopped going to the Village and shifted all the Village customers to uptown meets” (Burroughs 48). Lee’s swift change in routines acts to exemplify the ease to which one can merely alter their performativity to better suit their transient need, for it is fictionally constructed for a “culturally sustained temporal duration” (Gender Trouble xv).

Throughout his life, Burroughs had “kicked [his] habit” (Burroughs 23) numerous times; despite that “[a] junkie does not ordinarily kick of his own choice” (Burroughs 107). Lee states that he only ever underwent this torturous process when he “couldn’t score for junk in any form and had to throw in the towel” (Burroughs 107). For this, he also utilizes a performative act:

I had a reduction schedule carefully worked out. It was supposed to take twelve days. I had the junk in solution, and in another bottle distilled water. Every time I took a dropper of solution out to use it, I put the same amount of distilled water in the junk solution bottle. Eventually I would be shooting plain water. (Burroughs 49)

Lee uses a routine of performative acts to sustain his junk habit; then simply switches his performativity to give it up. Sets of repetitive acts are relentlessly used throughout his daily life, regardless of his current situation and location.

In another instance, while living in Mexico, Lee uses alcohol to ease the “deteriorat[ive]” (Burroughs 107) affects of junk sickness saturating his body: “Every morning when I woke up, I washed down Benzedrine, sanicin, and a piece of hop with black coffee and a shot of tequila. Then I lay back and closed my eyes and tried to piece together the night before and yesterday” (Burroughs 106-7). Again, Lee merely replaces one substance with another and adopts a new daily routine to sustain it. The ceaseless repetition of performativity subsequently results in a naturalization of it on his body, and thus his life and identity  (Gender Trouble xv).

A profusion of performativity can be found throughout Burroughs’s writing, though the writing technique used to compose Naked Lunch can be viewed as a performative act as well. The novel began as “hundreds of handwritten pages” (Charters 103) that he had sent to Ginsberg between 1953 and 1957 (Source). Similar to Junky, it details Burroughs’s experiences as a drug-addict. However, this novel greatly differs in its form of compilation—it was composed using the cut-up method. Burroughs explains this technique in the documentary, The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation: “Take the enclosed copy of this letter, cut along the lines, rearrange putting section one by section three and section two by section four.” He first used this method in Naked Lunch; though Brion Gysin (1916-1986), a “grisly humour[ed]” (Charters 472) Beat writer closely acquainted with fellow Beats Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, previously used it to make cut-ups of various magazines. By 1957, Burroughs and Ginsberg had collaboratively decided that it was time to shape their combined five hundred pages of notes into a book. Kerouac began by typing the pages. They then printed the pages and shuffled them around. Burroughs, Gysin, and Sinclair Beiles (1930-2002)—another Beat poet—decided that no changes were necessary (Source).

Burroughs considered Naked Lunch “as a picaresque novel narrated by an altar ego, ‘William Lee’” (Charters 103). Correlative to the themes in Junky, Naked Lunch similarly articulates the minute details of Lee’s drug induced life, saturated in criminality. In it, “[t]he fragmentation of the text is like the discontinuity of the addict’s life between fixes” (Charters 103-4). It represents the switch from one repetitive routine to the next—the acquisition of junk and its method for infiltrating the body. Furthermore, Burroughs relates the cut-up method to the realities that form our daily routines: “Life is a cut-up. Every time you look out the window, when you walk down the street, you’re continually being caught by random factors. This is a fact of human perception and the cut-up simply made this explicit” (Source). He uses this method to underscore the naturalization of these random factors and experiences comprising our daily routines as we navigate through life. This naturalization can thus be related back to Butler’s theory of naturalization through repetition. The repetition in the physical process of typing and printing work of literature, precisely cutting it into several fragments, and then realigning these pieces in a discombobulated manner to produce a new text, can thus be viewed as a performative act.

The Junky’s Christmas also offers an interesting site for examining performativity in Burroughs’s work. It has been widely produced using diverse forms of media, such as text, audio recordings, and film; and has been published in numerous collections of Burroughs’s short stories, including Interzone (1989) and Exterminator! (1973). It was featured as an audio clip on the collaborative album, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, and is also known as The “Priest” They Called Him (1993)a collaborative recording featuring a melodic distorted guitar line that blends the musical syntaxes of Silent Night and To Anacreon in Heaven, as interpreted by grunge musician Kurt Cobain, and the narration of Burroughs. The Junky’s Christmas was also made into short claymation film directed by Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel in 1993. It illustrates the story of Danny, a heroin addict just released from jail and on the prowl for anything that he can steal and sell for junk money. He scours the city for potential items similar to the way that Lee and Roy scour the subway line for “lushes,” i.e., passed-out drunks, in Junky. Their lush-work is a repetitive routine enacted nightly, as Danny’s search for goods is a repetitive routine.

Additionally, Danny’s pretense of suffering from facial neuralgia at the doctor’s doorstep in order to obtain morphine can also be inferred as a routine, as earlier examples have shown that Burroughs’s characters commonly enact falsities to fulfill their individualized needs. The Junky’s Christmas exemplifies the repeated sets of acts that come to form our routines, thus becoming naturalized, and resulting in the construction of our identities.   

            A close examination of the extensive work of Burroughs elucidates the performative acts that comprise daily routines of his characters and himself. Butler articulates that performativity is formed through repeated sets of enactments, which then become naturalized on our bodies. Thus, it is a fictionalized reality. The performativity in Burroughs’s work, by means of his character’s actions and his methods of composition, acts as a means for sustaining an individual’s particular need for the transient moment. The repetition of these acts comes to stand for the discursive construction of one’s identity. On the performative acts that comprised his life, Burroughs writes: “When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all” (Burroughs 102), underscoring the consequent blurring of time and events that results from the performative acts that we employ in our every day lives.








Works Cited


Burroughs, William. Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk”. 50th Anniversary Edition. Ed. Oliver Harris. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.


Butler, Judith. “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Radical Philosophy: A Journal of Socialist and Feminist Philosophy 67 (1994): 32–9. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.


—. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1st ed. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.


—. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40, No. 4 (1988): 519-531. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Charters, Anne. “Brion Gysin” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1992. 472. Print.


—. “William Burroughs” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1992. 102-104. Print.


Cobain, Kurt, William Burroughs. “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him.” The ‘Priest’ They Called Him. Tim/Kerr Records, 1997. Vinyl.


The Junky’s Christmas. Dirs. Nick Donkin, Melodie McDaniel. Island Records, Palomar Pictures (II), VH1 Television. 1993. Film.


The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation. Dir. Chuck Workman. Beat Productions, Calliope Films, WNET Channel 13 New York. 1999. Film.


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Katie Oates


Katie Oates was born in southwestern Ontario in 1986. She’s a doctoral student in Art and Visual Culture at The University of Western Ontario, London, where she also earned her MA. She holds a BA in English Literatures and Art History from Carleton University, Ottawa. Katie researches the histories and theories of photography, American culture and literature, and the intersections between them.

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