To me, the year 2014 somehow feels more recent than a decade ago. Perhaps it has been the chaos of this last decade – Brexit, Trump, Covid, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and other horrors seem to have sped up the passage of time. Yet here we are in the very futuristic-sounding 2024, celebrating the 110th anniversary of the birth of William S. Burroughs.
I recently wrote about the last ten years of Burroughs Studies, commenting upon the various publications and events related to the man of the month, but what about the future? Where do we go next?
Despite what Burroughs may have believed, there is no way to see into the future, but Beatdom will publish a new book about Burroughs later this year, so that’s a starting point. It also appears that there will be a movie version of Queer (finally!) and there is a very exciting new book coming soon from Cambridge University Press. We’ll post more about these in the next few days.
Personally, I am enthusiastic about the future of Beat Studies and in particular the sub-category of Burroughs Studies. I have been heartened to see a diverse array of approaches taken to studying his word and areas of focus. It has been nice seeing him gain a certain respectability, yet of course those who have chosen to write about him have often steered clear of the dull, circular modes of academic thought and expression used to study so many other great writers. An example of a book I really enjoyed is Thomas Antonic’s Among Nazis. It began to expose an area of Burroughs’ life previously hidden from us, and I would love to see more studies of Burroughs’ life and work that take this sort of approach, digging up heretofore unknown information from untapped resources.
But enough about what I think. Let’s speak with some more interesting and knowledgeable people. I recently asked a few Burroughs experts what they thought may, should, or is bound to happen in the next decade. Here’s what they had to say…
Oliver Harris is a prominent Beat scholar and has written and edited many books about Burroughs, including assembling various texts by Burroughs himself. He is also the president of the European Beat Studies Network and is a professor of American Literature at Keele University.
Given that Dr. Harris knows more about Burroughs than almost anyone alive, I asked him what he thought about the future of Burroughs Studies. This is what he had to say:
Burroughs Studies? The phrase sounds odd to my ears, maybe because I started out on the Burroughs path way back in 1984, before there was even a biography—just one, difficult, critical book in English by Eric Mottram, and two in French. Burroughs was an outsider to academia and that was part of the attraction, for me as for many others. He was risky, he was disturbing, he was our dirty little secret. Why, Burroughs didn’t even fit into the Beat Generation—and back then there was no such thing in academia as Beat Studies, either; too disreputable, and so left to enthusiasts and amateurs who meant well but lacked rigour. Fast forward 40 years and, yes, BS definitely does exist and I have to admit to helping bring it about, building on the early books by Jennie Skerl, Robin Lydenberg and Tim Murphy in particular. My contribution has been more in terms of scholarship and editing than criticism, changing the oeuvre by doing archival legwork, because it frustrated me to see everywhere entirely false assumptions about how his work came about. I also always had one eye on the emerging problem called Burroughs Studies: how to give his work the rigorous treatment it deserves without assimilating it into the blah blah blah jargon and dubious respectability of mainstream criticism, how to preserve in form as well as in content what makes it so far out and so fascinating. It’s what I was getting at in the title of my one semi-traditional critical book, William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (2003). I remember once liking the phrase “The study of water need not itself be wet”; but my work has always been a little damp and has got metaphorically wetter and wetter because I like my Burroughs to have one foot in and the other foot outside academia. For me, it’s professional but it’s also personal. The way I put it in Two Assassins (2023), which is as much a memoir as a critical study of Burroughs and Hassan Sabbah, it’s “the paradox of seeking out the secret in the hope of preserving it.”
I’ve looked back in order to look forward because what I hope is that new critical work on Burroughs keeps in sight the need to be innovative and imaginative, to take personal risks, to be creative, at the same time as it needs to give his work the rigour it deserves. I saw inspiring evidence of this first-hand at the CUT-UPS@2023 conference in Paris last year, which brought together poets and musicians, artists, collectors and publishers as well as scholars and critics. I want to single out the poets because their contributions to “Burroughs Studies” are in many ways the most oblique, but also the best proof that, even at 110, Burroughs has legs—and legs that go in surprising directions. Here was a young British-Indian poet reading out her erasure poetry, and a pair of French feminists presenting their cut-up collages, and keynotes that included a queer indigenous Canadian poet. I couldn’t have seen any of this coming forty years ago. In terms of criticism, I want to see more about magic and science, technology and ecology, because there’s some really interesting work going on in those under-explored, topically-urgent, cutting-edge directions. I also hope more people will follow the example set by Jed Birmingham on Reality Studio, of disseminating lesser-known work by Burroughs, and writing about it with passion and style as well as authority. And lastly, I hope there’ll be new, better translations of Burroughs for non-Anglophone readers. I can only speak about French editions, but francophone readers of Naked Lunch and the Cut-Up Trilogy in particular are really missing out on what makes Burroughs’ work so ferociously funny and so strangely haunting—two of the more subjective reasons why it feels alive and well in 2024.
A few years ago, Burroughs fans were treated to a fantastic new book by Casey Rae: William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It explores many of the links between Burroughs and musicians like Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan.
Here’s what he had to say about the future of Burroughs Studies:
In the next decade of “Burroughs Studies,” it would be interesting to see further exploration of the elements of conspiracy, pseudoscience, and propaganda that often intertwine with his works. Researchers should critically examine Burroughs’ fascination with alternative worldviews, dissecting the influence of conspiracy theories and “magical thinking” on his gestalt expression, including his attempts to undermine control systems through occult means. Understanding how Burroughs engaged with propaganda and countercultural movements may also shed light on the current socio-political climate that in many ways seems to echo his darkest visions.
Moreover, scholars and enthusiasts might investigate the ways in which Burroughs’ literary output intersected with and influenced current conspiracy culture, as well as how his own experiences informed his personal skepticism towards mainstream narratives. An interdisciplinary approach—including the worlds of film, music, and fringe metaphysics—will be essential in unraveling the intricate tapestry of Burroughs’ creative and cultural contributions within the context of contemporary attacks on the so-called Citadels of the Enlightenment.
Over the past decade, we have seen new approaches to analysing Burroughs’ work and one of those was the application of ecocritical theory. Chad Weidner, in The Green Ghost, examined Burroughs’ work in terms of its ecological messages.
Here, he has chosen to discuss whether or not Burroughs is still relevant today:
Does William Burroughs still matter? In an age of digital immediacy, sleek interfaces, and immediate connectivity, it’s easy to dismiss Burroughs, the enigmatic invisible man of the Beat Generation, typewriter close by, as a relic of a former era. His world was one of analog gears and vacuum tubes, when the mimeograph was part of idea dissemination, and the clatter of typewriter keys served as the soundtrack to literary creation. However, dismissing Burroughs as a fossil from the Analog Age ignores the continued relevance of his work. William Burroughs remains relevant, bridging analog and digital eras with his influence on digital culture, avant-garde art, and modern narrative techniques.
Burroughs wasn’t content to dabble in the written word only, and too many forget his real interest in media, tape recorders, and the capacity to disrupt mainstream language. His cut-up experiments resonated with and contributed to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. I still find his cut-up manifesto Minutes to Go truly fascinating and a weird manifestation of a most Burroughsian twist of the historical avant-garde. By chopping and rearranging film and tape, Burroughs anticipated the hyperlinked, non-linear pathways that define today’s information experience. Burroughs forces us to reconsider our own consumption of narratives and information.
Burroughs’ influence pervades contemporary culture, touching everything from punk rock to postmodern literature and avant-garde cinema to streaming media. Generations of artists, musicians, and filmmakers have been inspired by his form and content ranging from Patti Smith to David Bowie and even Kurt Cobain. Burroughs’ spoken word performances and collaborations are kind of a weird blend that foreshadows today’s podcast culture and audio art scene. It’s quite uncanny.
The book-movies he created, visionary texts that leap off the page and flicker with film’s dynamism, are as relevant today as they were then. His ability to blend and bend genres and art forms and anticipate the fragmentation and nonlinearity of modern narratives is peculiar and explicit. Burroughs anticipated the many complexities of the digital age, splintered attention spans, the mosaic of multimedia interaction, and the layering of information that increasingly fragments human perception. In a world cluttered with noise, Burroughs’ disruptive genius still slices through the static.
Regina Weinreich is the author of The Beat Generation: An American Dream and Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics. She has contributed to many essay collections about the Beats and helped to organise the 50th anniversary celebration for Naked Lunch in 2009.
She has shared her thoughts on Burroughs at 110:
Burroughs was always ahead, part of the fun of knowing him. In the ‘80s it was AIDS, a virus that seemed to migrate through centuries once unleashed—such viruses were already major motifs in his fiction. That’s one example.
Here is an excerpt from a CCNY panel on Burroughs and women titled “Gender Trouble:” Quoting my contribution from a transcript: I was on assignment to interview him when Cities of the Red Night was soon to be published. The interview came out in Omni Magazine. I came to the Bunker and pointed to the book’s subtitle as it appeared on my galley: “Well, William, it says right here, A Boy’s Book. What does this mean A Boy’s Book? Are you trying to separate the boys from the girls?” And he said, “Oh no, no, no,” and he leapt up and he pulled a manuscript out of a drawer, “Don’t you see, women are a biological mistake.” I said, “Oh, right,” remembering some ideas he had written that he took as fact, and then he added, “But so is everything else!” And he went into a whole anthropological discourse, citing Darwin, explaining all the different permutations and changes that occur in evolution and it was very, very persuasive.
“Well, what about reproduction,” I asked. And then he turned to me and he said, “You know the way women are used right now, you’re nothing more than flowerpots.” He went on. “Don’t you know, we’re just a few years behind cloning?” Suddenly I got what he was doing, which was really putting on one of his personae for the purposes of this interview. I was also putting his performance together with something that I noted at the Nova Convention, some of the more bizarre ideas he had put together with Brion Gysin. “We are here to go,” Gysin used to say. There is something out there that we’re all heading for and when we go we’re not going to really want our bodies, male or female. So, with that thought in mind, I took what he was saying as an ideology, an intellectual construct, a belief system, and left it at that.
But now, in 2024, we talk about gender fluidity. Burroughs was way ahead on this discourse. A re-examination of his work from that view may prove he was less “bizarre” theoretically, and more prophetic of our more evolved thinking.
Here’s what he had to say about the future of Burroughs Studies:
The Burroughs centennial triggered the publication of a great amount of literature, including Oliver Harris’ restored Cut-Up trilogy and his highly insightful forewords to the volumes, and Barry Miles’ Call Me Burroughs. And it is still ongoing, A Burroughs Tryptich, Battle Instructions, Making Naked Lunch: Two Appetisers, Oliver’s collaboration with Farid Ghadami Two Assassins, Chad Weidner’s The Green Ghost, numerous articles … I recently read Benjamin Heal’s “Burroughs and Jazz”, or just look at the articles on the EBSN website: “Burroughs’ Library”, “Burroughs Called the Law”, “Burroughs and Malcolm McNeill’s Lost Mayan Caper” …
It’s an avalanche to get snowed under and really difficult to keep up with, especially when you don’t dedicate your life to WSB. And it seems that this avalanche is far from being over. Needless to say, the more that gets published on a subject the more garbage you find among it. And having said that, the quality of most publications on Burroughs is still surprisingly high. (No need to mention the wimps.)
What was also surprising to me was that after all the publications on Burroughs’ life there are still gaps to be filled. One example is that Burroughs’ books are full of references to Wilhelm Reich, and yet nobody has really examined these connections and the importance of Reich for Burroughs any closer. Which is why I wrote “Genius and Genitality”: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/8/2/101
Another example: I was stunned by the fact that his time in Vienna 1936/37 had hardly ever been mentioned with more than the passing remark that he studied medicine there, and if so the information was full of factual errors, a result of sloppy research, maybe in combination with lack of interest and/or language barriers. That was the reason why I wrote Amongst Nazis. And I didn’t expect it would take me down another rabbit hole, the subject of which is WSB’s first wife Ilse Herzfeld, on which I continued my research after the publication of the book. I joined forces with Richard Byrne and so far we have collected a large amount of information on Ilse Herzfeld and her milieu – which is far from irrelevant to Burroughs scholarship. A very short glimpse of this research work has been published recently here: https://richardbyrne.substack.com/p/meet-ilse-burroughs
But there is way more to come and it will certainly be published in the next 10 years and of great interest for Burroughs scholars and fans. That’s the prospect I can share. There’s something else I’m working on right now with regard to Burroughs. This is a top-secret mission and at this point I’m unable to reveal anything. But revelation will hopefully happen soon …
Matthew Levi Stevens
Matthew Levi Stevens wrote The Magical Universe of William S Burroughs (2014). He has written for Beatdom several times.
A few words on what I would like to see in the world of ‘Burroughs Studies’?
I think most of the items on my Longstanding Dream List are not so much ‘Burroughs Studies’ as items that are either raw material for or would result in further studies of various kinds . . .
Well, I’m sure it’s probably tantamount to heresy or high treason, but I for one would like to finally see what to my mind would be a correct, complete edition of Ah Pook Is Here – with William’s text and Malcolm Mc Neill’s artwork side-by-side, as I believe they had both originally intended.
Having got the hanging offense out of the way, the next item on my list would probably be a volume 3 for the Collected Letters, say 1974-1989? I’m sure it would be absolutely fascinating, and would be of particular interest to me because, as the years go by, it’s increasingly likely to include letters to, from, and about people and events that I have some personal awareness of!
Another interesting topic for examination would be Collected Literary Collaborations of William S. Burroughs. Everybody knows about And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks with Jack Kerouac, and of course The Exterminator and The Third Mind with Brion Gysin, but what about those juicy little titbits with Ian Sommerville and Michael Portman? And later on, at Naropa and The Bunker, Steven Lowe and Cabell Hardy? And of course, the work of James Grauerholz: in his own words, “The Man Who Un-Cut the Cut-Ups” (I for one would be fascinated to see the original draft of Cities of the Red Night!)
Lastly – and this really is more wish-fulfilment than anything – I would love for some documentary materials to surface from The Final Academy. I have never, before or since, attended an event that seemed so well-documented: I swear, every other person there was carrying a Polaroid camera, recording Walkman, Super 8 or video-camera – and that’s without the ‘official’ audio and video recordings being made by Psychic TV and Derek Jarman! I find it hard to believe that some of that material hasn’t survived, somewhere!?! It would be fascinating to see and/or hear after all this time.
Polina Mackay is the author of Beat Feminisms and the vice president of the European Beat Studies Network.
When I first read Burroughs, I was struck by the energy of his fiction, how it swept you along into this other universe of surgeons who removed tumors with their teeth and writers who lived in techno-interdimensional spaces. Kafkaesque in nature, with characters turning into giant centipedes every now and then, Burroughs’ work appeared to me as capturing a particularly postmodern moment, where a questioning of how systems of power and control converge to sustain injustice and inequality took precedence over literature that focused on the complex feelings of an individual. Although Burroughs was no socialist, as I discovered later, his writings seemed acutely aware of the societal issues that underpin the mess humanity is in. As I delved more into Burroughs, I discovered more things that I did not like. First and foremost, that he killed his wife and got away with it, that others in his literary circles – both men and women – saw this as a moment where his dystopic fiction bled into his life, or even as some poetic moment where the wife herself titled her head towards the bullet that killed her. I then started to see more clearly the misogyny of his works. He once joked that “women were a biological mistake” but, as we know, language has power and these kinds of statements can become instruments of hate in the right context. It was for these reasons that I was struck by how many female authors and artists were influenced by him and employed methods he had used in his writings in their own works.
I explored these intersections between Burroughs and women in my book, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism. Here I argue that female authors and artists, such as Kathy Acker and Laurie Anderson, adopt techniques like the cut-up method in the context of a write-back culture by women. In Acker’s parodies of the cut-up technique, for example, macho culture is repurposed to fit the needs of a younger female – and punk in her case – audience who parodically will not subscribe to one course of action. Surprising and unique, these women took Burroughsian discourses to a new level. My book suggests that their work is part of a Beat feminism, which comes out of appropriation, adaptation, and collaboration – the latter being just as important given the fact that Burroughs collaborated with many of these women, such as Laurie Anderson whom Burroughs joined in her tours in the early 1980s. Within the broader scope of works by female authors linked to the Beat Generation, such as Diane di Prima, ruth weiss, and Anne Waldman, who delve into themes of gender and sexuality against the backdrop of Beat counterculture, these contributions collectively form the essence of what can be described as Beat feminism. This kind of feminism is a transformative vision that uses the Beat focus on innovation to bring out the centrality of gender in Beat literature and, in later years, the significance of activism from a feminist perspective.
Where do I see Burroughs studies going next? I would like to see work that examines how Burroughs is still relevant today. In particular, I’d love to see more on Burroughs and environmental geography, analysis on how his fiction comments on the biodiversity of the environment, and lots more on how contemporary writers and artists take his methods in new directions.
You can see an overview of our month-long Burroughs celebration here.