Some Disparate Mentionables

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by Roy Pennington

This text was first published as an appendix to William S. Burroughs, Mayfair Academy Series More or Less, published by Roy Pennington’s Urgency Press in 1973. See also Roy Pennington on Mayfair Academy Series More or Less.

Burroughs cites scientific experiments and philosophical argument with gay abandon thru out his work. It is not clear why he does this. Whether they are crucial to the coherent development of his ideas, or whether they are used to give his work a superficial authenticity, by cashing on their academic status. They may even be just a literary device not intended to be taken “literally.” (e.g. I feel when Burroughs tells us to take his comments about films (p. 85) literally, as well as the well known comment by Gysin about the writer having to “handle” his medium, that in fact there is still no reason for us to take his injunction literally either.) Certainly, they are presented uncritically and incompletely. Let’s try and clear up the mess, ‘cos if there’s someone I can’t stand it is someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about. At the risk of being pedantic, let me make myself clear —

On Burroughs’ Naïve Use Of Quotation Marks:

Semantics is the study of the meaning of “meaning.” As such it is riddled with an obvious double-bind… that in talking about language it becomes what it is talking about, and this is as impossible as the eye that sees itself seeing. This is not so debilitating when one studies solely the observable aspects of language (phonemics and morphology). But such studies are irrelevant to the basic problem of how and why language is possible at all — the daily miracle that these squibbles and gibbers can suddenly cohere into signs with significance for us over and above their physical appearance.

One way out of the impasse of having to use precisely the thing whose being is under scrutiny, in order to scrutinize it, is to use quotation marks. E.g. when we ask what the meaning of the word “rose” is, or what the relation between that aural and visual stimulus and its appropriate non-physical meaning we have to state this meaning or the relation in such a way that the question is not just placed one stage further back on to the meanings of the words used to state that meaning. Etcetera ad inf. Ad naus. Quotation marks are supposed to give the semanticist a kind of objectivity that allows him to separate the word from its meaning and to point at it without using it. Hence when Korzybski says “Whatever a rose is, it is not its label” he is merely stating an immense technical tautology. Nobody ever said it was, my good Count, so what’s all the fuss about?

The fuss focuses on the exact status of this strange thing “meaning.” And as any good well-bred linguistic philosopher who did his homework knows, “that all depends.” It all depends on the type of the word being analyzed. A basic distinction between concrete words with objective reference (e.g. “rose”) and those with sense is quickly drawn. The former have their meaning given by ostensive definition (country simple pointing). The latter by their relation to other words (e.g. the meaning of “to” is given by its context). Now these abstract words have no meaning until they are actually used, and what’s more, if they have no theoretical connection with any concrete words then they only have abstract meaning, which is really no meaning at all. They are just pawns in an intellectual’s chess game. Hence Burroughs’ derision of religion and other such control systems with in-built protection afforded them by their own carefully prescribed words. Have you ever tried to talk with a scientologist? (Have you ever tried to talk with anybody?)

But what Burroughs fails to mention is the very possibility of the concrete words. At first sight it may seem clear that a “rose” means that flower clutched between the lips of a grimacing senorita. But for this to be so, a line must be drawn from the word to the object by the primordial gesture of an index finger. He takes this gesture as a fait accompli, but I shall make it clear that it has immense and imponderable power.

For when I do so point, man looks at the rose whilst the dog will look at the finger. Unless this response has already been beaten out of him. If this primitive indication is to work the finger must first attract attention to itself and away from anything else that may be occupying your partner. But then it must reverse this attraction i.e., distract the attention away from itself and redirect it to what it is aiming at. Otherwise, like the dog, we would remain looking at this fleshy glove stuffed with blood and bones and not at its target. READY AIM FIRE is a single motion. But even more incredibly the finger must remain lurking in the back of one’s mind, or else one won’t know where to look! And this is not just a question of visual gymnastics, keeping one eye on the finger and the other on the object. The finger must do two contradictory things: it must point at what it is not (its target) and also somehow point at itself as a pointing finger, rather than a finger in a curious position. In technical terms: IT MUST NEGATE ITS OWN ECCEITY. Not easy, nor a particularly savory kind of self-abuse.

And it is this suicidal tendency that Korzybski is really talking about when he says “a rose is not a rose.” Thus the problem of language is not the superficial conundrum that it can only be interrogated in its own terms. Such authoritarianism is as nothing when compared with the sheer possibility of language alone. And the sense of quotation marks themselves still remains unexplained as a technical device for pointing at a word. What the Count is really getting at is the danger of reification or hypostatisation: not the confusion of a concrete word and its object, but between concrete words and abstract words, such that words with only theoretical meaning are inadvertently given concrete reference, just because they look and sound like proper nouns. “Nothing must be something, or else what is it that it is not?” This creates artificial realities. E.g. God is confused with people, the ether with an all-pervading gas, electricity and water, and above all, the mind with the brain.

But these problems cannot be avoided by picture writing. The experiment with the rose and the label “rose”, in which subjects tend to identify the card as the real rose rather than the flower itself, is only partly true. Beside the technical difficulties of presenting the experiment in an unbiased way (very difficult since language is the sole means of doing this) the conclusion that if we think in pictures we will be operating in a clearer manner is misleading. An image of a rose is no closer to the real rose than the word. If this were so how could Burroughs hope to convey it using solely language? No, the meaning of a word is not an image or a nebulous entity floating around in our heads. The word is its meaning. (e.g. I do not read “anger” in an angry face, I see it straight away) and true speech is “thinking out loud”, such that thought and language are no longer distinguishable. And what does Burroughs think our thinking consists of?

Burroughs is an arch-materialist:

Having spent a lot of his time subjecting his metabolism to various drug assault courses, it is not surprising that he should believe that thought is entirely conditioned by the state of the cerebellum and body. He quotes behaviorist experiments on rats with a certain admiration and relish. And the implications of these for mind-control are obvious — and terrifying. If we can find out what your brain-state is, then we shall know what you are thinking, and sooner or later we shall make you think it just by feeding you the right chemicals. (The flaw in this reductionist concept of man is given by the impossibility of ever finding the brain-state that corresponds with telling a lie… it is if the subject tells you he is telling a lie… but even then he may be lying… ) Burroughs’ awareness of this danger is reflected in his pessimism. People for him are merely the manipulandum of various control systems mediated by language. A field of frightened sheep crying “no wolf no wolf at all.” They hide behind the verbal shields of mysticism, politics, or hack Utopianism and psychologism, and other such absurd secret societies designed to increase you word power and ability to get on with people. If you know the password.

Again, his concept of word-power is simplistic pyschologism. The control they exert is explained in terms of “association” and “conditioning.” Surely the totalitarianism of Aristotelian logic allegedly infecting Western thought has a much deeper basis than just childhood learning schedules. Eastern thought is no better. The power we are after is well illustrated by Gysin’s “The Word” (which is the goal of Gysin’s The Process): it cannot be written down because it would incinerate the paper, it cannot be mastered by merely changing one’s logical axioms. (How can you speak in glyphs?)

Mr. Burroughs, we are not rats, but the more you tell us that we are, the more we become so. “Man’s concept of man has almost succeeded in devastating his species” (Patchen). Fortunately man resists this attempt to reduce him to a bundle of quivering nerve cells. And Burroughs must know this from his junk days. The monkey on your back is not a pet. He fights to stay there. So who is he fighting? Perhaps his cynicism about power-freak man is a reductio ad absurdum argument designed to shock us into self-realization? Such satirizing can backfire, and Burroughs is in great danger, not only of being misunderstood, but also is at great risk of becoming one (power-freak) himself. At times he must feel very unsure of his inner freedom.

The use of technical terms, junk slang, and rhetorical questions is relevant here. Having professed complete doubt in the communicative efficacy of language, he is forced to portray his characters as either completely incommunicado, or else as relying on code-words, whose meaning is known solely to the initiated. The nods and winks that pass between hippies and scientologists indicate the deeper mutual reinforcement of lost souls. “We know what it is like don’t we?” The question is just not worth answering. If you don’t agree then you shouldn’t be here.

The sentry shouts “Halt, who goes there?” and hears “Amazing, far out I’m stoned” in reply. Here the “conversation” ends. The Grateful Dead are good. Say no more. But surely it is the possibility of being misunderstood that is the sole source of the urge to communicate at all. (Just as the lie is the keystone to human thinking). When birds of a feather stick together, they lapse into stagnant silence. Hardly the perfect bliss of rapport.

It is so easy to slip into using conversational words which everyone has agreed to understand beforehand to save themselves the effort of relating fully. The tendency to comprehend one’s emotions in physiological terms is just one such superficially comprehensive system. To dismiss the pain of a departed loved one as “withdrawal symptoms” which cold turkey will cure in time is true but tragic self-delusion nevertheless. You say these things to yourself just like you cuddle up in bed with your arms around you alone. It turns one into the cynical bastard that Burroughs exudes all the time. Again the use of minimal vocabulary of hippies etc. reiterates the essential solipsism of their experiences. If you say more than that you become boring. Burroughs is a loner wandering thru a world of isolated monads. All they have in common is the illusion of being together.  

For example, the fact that a cut-up text or tape (gradually) obtains meaning for us can be interpreted in two ways. Either it testifies to our remarkable propensity to stay alive and impose meaning on our surroundings. Or it shows that the initial text is as random as its cut-up, and the meaning we give to either is artificial and independent of the signs in themselves. The pessimism of this latter is what Burroughs prefers, though in fact both are viable. He would agree that Do-Easy Cut Ups are difficult to do well.

But there is a saving grace in his work that prevents its dismissal as the ravings of a self-obsessed old man, frightened of senility not death. Bulletin 23 is the closest he has ever got to presenting any endearing qualities. That domesticity has meditative properties is consolation for the tired house-wife. That Burroughs needs such consolation gives me the compassion to continue reading him, and the gaps between words where the true meaning of his work lies.

This is not a vindictive essay. It is an attempt to reconcile a dislike of a man who sees little beauty in his world and an admiration for a man who can turn sadistic fantasies of sodomy and gomorrarhy into sweet and harmless wet dreams. After all what else would stop me running amok with Ali by my side… ?

Well… mebbe I should… faint whirring on dying electric typewriter slowly… the meter needs more money… eskimos have more words for snow than we have for cars but does that imply they see or have more of either … innaresting theory for a man who talks to himself… for hundreds of years now there has been speech on this earth, but for most of that time nothing has ever been said.  

Written by Roy Pennington. First published as an appendix to Mayfair Academy Series More or Less. Republished by RealityStudio on 10 August 2009. See also Carl Weissner’s letter to Roy Pennington in response to this essay.

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