“Giving Away the Basic American Rottenness”

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as an Historical Document

by A. D. Parkinson

Naked Lunch contains a very powerful critique of consumer society in postwar America. Postwar capitalist society is presented by Burroughs as being essentially anti-humanistic and degrading to human life, with unethical characteristics which are inseparable from the whole. Naked Lunch portrays a “control society”, an idea elaborated by Gilles Deleuze, and the mechanisms which accompany this, primarily a manipulative mass media. Burroughs depicts a society where man uses material goods and technology to escape from his inner self, where man is reduced to a state of undignified savagery and where man’s environment serves to numb and suffocate him. Burroughs portrays a Spenglerian divide between city and country, and in the countryside we see manifest the racism and injustice inherent within society. Those who profit from this society do so through continuous misrepresentation, dishonesty and exploitation, and any distinction between “crime” and “business” becomes almost illusory.


Naked Lunch is a vicious attack on a society that hides barbaric, oppressive rituals beneath a façade of rationality and a reality that is perpetually misrepresented in the media:

If civilised countries want to return to Druid Hanging Rites in the Sacred Grove or to drink blood with the Aztecs and feed their Gods with the blood of human sacrifice, let them see what they actually eat and drink. Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon.1

Burroughs is comparing capital punishment in America to the “Druid Hanging Rites in the Sacred Grove”: the one, central to America’s “modern”, rational penal system; the other representative of the irrational, the mystical. Suggesting that civilised countries “feed their Gods with the blood of human sacrifice” is implying that those things for which men are sent off to die in the modern world are no more reasonable causes to die for than sacrifices to mythical Gods. The “long newspaper spoon” illustrates the way in which the mass media is used to “spoon-feed” people information and facts, whilst really informing them: people are essentially detached from reality by this newspaper spoon. This idea of the newspaper spoon, the way in which the media bends reality so that people don’t see capital punishment and other practices of contemporary America as cruel and barbaric, is at the crux of Naked Lunch. Mass media in Naked Lunch represents attempts to bend and shape people’s perceptions of reality, and ultimately to control people.

The mass media is very distinct to the economic context in which it operates. The labour force was changing markedly in the postwar period. By 1956, half of the American labour force was employed in services, trade or government.2 People had more money to spend; the income of the average American in 1956 was 50 percent greater than during the “high plateau” of 1929.3 During the 1950s, the American economy became a major importer of consumer goods, surpassing Great Britain’s import levels.4 In this, Gilles Deleuze identifies the economic setting for the rise of control societies, a development from Foucault’s disciplinary societies:

This is no longer a capitalism for production but for the product, which is to say, for being sold or marketed. Thus it is essentially dispersive, and the factory has given way to the corporation.5

Corporate concern shifts from enforcing efficient production to securing effective consumption, a consumer society is born, and the mass media creates the environment for this. In Naked Lunch, the “Senders”, one of the parties of Interzone, are representative of this mass media. The greatest danger of the Senders is that they at first appear to be just another neutral element, with technologies that could be used for good or evil.6 However, ultimately they aspire to control, and “Control can never be a means to any practical end… It can never be a means to anything but more control… Like junk…”7 In his depiction of the coercive forces present in the seemingly innocuous elements of society, Burroughs presupposes the methods of Michel Foucault’s writings on control in societies, which consider apparently neutral organisations such as hospitals and schools, and in these institutions find a concentration of political forces.8 When the Senders assemble at the National Electronic Conference in Chicago, the speaker talks of “biocontrol… control of physical movement, mental processes, emotional reactions and apparent sensory impressions by means of bioelectric signals injected into the nervous system of the subject.” This reads like a blueprint for the mechanisms of postwar control society; physical movement controlled through constant supervision, mental processes instrumentalized so that thought becomes but a tool for the processes of capital,9 the sensory impressions coming from the mass media, chiefly television. The way in which the mass media presents reality is crucial to the functioning of consumer society, something particularly visible in 1950s America. The number of families with televisions rose from a mere 8,000 in 1946 to 46 million in 1960 — approximately 90 percent of households, and families spent an average of 5 hours a day watching television.10 Television was a product for consumption, and a method for encouraging more consumption. It affected the way people communicated with each other, and the way they spent their leisure time. Children associated with each other less, watching television shows alone, whilst family televisions were shown to reduce conversation and socialising. Attendance to cinemas dropped dramatically, as perhaps one would expect, though more importantly, “going out” decreased in general.11

Historian Dr. Lawrence Wittner sees television in 1950s America as central in shaping people’s perceptions of the world around them:

On news programs events were reported anecdotally, individually, amusingly. Institutional problems were ignored, controversial problems left unspoken, and the day’s events viewed as a hopeless jumble, interesting but purposeless, by a cheery, fatherly commentator; implicitly, the viewer was assured that the nation was in good hands.

Furthermore, he writes the “escapist tales of violence and exploitative sex… channelled the interests of weary viewer into an unreal world where he could act out fantasies of personal power and freedom.” The job of the mass media was to create the optimum environment for consumerism. Television thus served to maintain the status quo, and perpetuated the process of consumption. It shaped people to be docile, unquestioning, and primed for purchasing: commercials filled 20 percent of the airtime.12 Adverts by the American Television Dealers and Manufacturers Association in 1950 suggested that children without televisions were social outcasts, and quoted a psychologist saying, “Children need home television for their morals as they need sunshine and fresh air for their health.” The adverts were highly criticized, and one can certainly see a somewhat elitist middle class rejection of television as a “dumbing down” of culture. However, these adverts do clearly illustrate the fact that there was a profit-motivated drive to present television as something essential to the normal functioning of the individual, that to be without television was to be incomplete.13 Far from simply being a neutral force, specific interests were directing television. The Defence Department’s director of research told a senate committee in 1961 “We cannot consider our communications system solely as civil activities… we must consider them as essential instruments of national policy.”14

The Hollywood movie industry was another major feature of postwar consumer society, as both an element of mass media and a product for consumption, and the content of Hollywood movies is viciously parodied in Naked Lunch. In the “Ordinary Men and Women” section, there is a sketch about an homosexual relationship, presented in an overtly Hollywood style which is as Murphy describes it, “a dead on parody of Hollywood romance clichés,” the irony being that the moral content of the production is in sharp contrast to anything that Hollywood would permit in the 1950s.15 In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt School of Social Research consider the commercial movie as something which “forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.”16 Burroughs’ homosexual love story subverts this, for its moral content is completely incompatible with the moral codes of fifties America. It mocks the attempts of the film industry to enforce a moral code upon American society, and it is clear from looking at the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s that there were attempts to control the moral content of Hollywood productions. Those who had been blacklisted for suspected involvement with the Communist Party — a sign of moral weakness — were unable to get work, unless they went through the purging rituals of naming names. Freelance blacklisting organisations also emerged, such as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and the American Legion.17


In the consumer society of the fifties, man’s attention was focused on trivialities such as gadgets as a source of fulfilment in life. In Naked Lunch, Dr Benway tells us “Western man is externalising himself in the form of gadgets.”18 Benway’s voice is echoed by Herbert Marcuse, of the Frankfurt School, who asserts that “People recognise themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”19 Consumer culture thus alienates man from his true identity. In Naked Lunch, “an American Housewife” complains that her kitchen gadgets are malfunctioning and attempting to get “physical” with her. The housewife seems confused and disorientated, whilst the gadgets are a dark and sinister force: far from creating a situation of domestic bliss and happiness, the kitchen gadgetry has left the woman isolated, detached from reality, and threatened by hideous physical attacks. We are also introduced to K.E., “the hottest idea man in the gadget industry”:

“Think of it!” he snaps. “A cream separator in your own kitchen!”

“K.E., my brain reels at the thought.”

“It’s five, maybe twenty, yes, maybe twenty years away… But it’s coming.”

“I”ll wait, K.E. No matter how long it is, I’ll wait. When the priority numbers are called up yonder I’ll be there.”

Like the adverts sitting between the news reports on a television broadcast, we have amongst the depravities of the novel people discussing a cream separator gadget as if it is something of deep significance, of life changing importance and true benefit to the human race. Burroughs clearly highlights the absurdity of postwar America’s preoccupation with consumer goods with this contrast.2

One much quoted and analysed routine in Naked Lunch is that of the talking asshole, appearing in the “ordinary men and women” section. Dr. Benway tells us,

Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk? His whole abdomen would move up and down you dig farting out the words. It was unlike anything I ever heard.

The man becomes something of a vaudeville carnival performer, doing some novelty ventriloquist act,

After a while the ass started talking on its own…. [it] would ad-lib and toss his gags back at him… Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up.

Eventually, the man’s mouth is sealed over, and only the eyes remain:

nerve connections blocked and infiltrated and atrophied so the brain couldn’t give orders any more…For a while you could see the silent, helpless suffering of the brain behind the eyes, then finally the brain must have died, because the eyes went out

The man is reduced to an “all-purpose blob”, fit only for consumption and basic metabolic processes. In the “talking asshole”, there is a metaphor for modern man’s slavery to the processes of service and consumption, and man is objectified as little more than a series of biological processes. The sealing over of the mouth is the result of the subsuming of the very essence of man to the formalised reason of his economic environment, as attempts are made to increase his efficiency.21

Burroughs invites us to examine the savage inhumanity of modern man. Talking of the rational viciousness of the baboon — “Baboons always attack the weakest party in an altercation” — Benway reminds us that “We must never forget our glorious simian heritage.” We see Burroughs’ belief that the various routines of everyday existence in 1950s society reduce man to a state of animal barbarity. The disorder of the “simopath” is mentioned:

A simopath — the technical name for this disorder escapes me — is a citizen convinced that he is an ape or other simian. It is a disorder peculiar to the army, and discharge cures it.

Burroughs also introduces us to the “Latah”:

Otherwise sane, Latahs compulsively imitate every motion once their attention is attracted by snapping the fingers or calling sharply. A form of compulsive involuntary hypnosis. They sometimes injure themselves trying to imitate the motions of several people at once.22

Eric Mottram considers Burroughs’ Latah to be a parody of “modern mass man under modern conditioning programmes of advertising and public induced morality”, and he is not unlike Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, who is in a state of slavery and servitude but is unaware of it, or Rousseau’s modern man, lacking independence and everywhere in chains.23 Other victims in Naked Lunch are the INDs — those with “Irreversible Neural Damage” — the unfortunate products of Benway’s control experiments, who beg to consume, without dignity or self-respect.We also encounter “Fats” Terminal, the ultimate consumer. He is a grotesque figure; “a translucent-grey foetal monkey, suckers on his little soft, purple-grey hands, and a lamprey disk mouth of cold, grey gristle lined with hollow black erectile teeth,” as his whole body is geared towards consumption. Through this surreal carnival of the grotesque, Burroughs is warning the reader that he believes the consumer culture of 1950s America reduces man to these various undignified, horrific states, whereby all true independence of action is lost.24


Man’s environment and the way in which man lives in this consumer society is presented as essentially degrading, almost inhospitable. Burroughs introduces us to his terrifying vision of suburban America in the first chapter:

Into the interior: a vast subdivision, antennae of television to the meaningless sky. In lifeproof houses they hover over the young, sop up a little of what they shut out. Only the young bring anything in, and they are not young very long.

The sky, embodying mankind’s ambition and higher potentials, is rendered meaningless as people remain in insular units with television sets. Burroughs attacks the anti-humanistic architecture of suburbia, calling the houses “lifeproof”. The young still have a spirit and soul, and are not so absorbed by the routines and processes of consumption, but “they are not young very long”, for the mass media and “the real world” will soon shape their values, attitudes and aspirations to suit the needs and requirements of capitalist organisation. 25

When Burroughs describes life in the Freeland Republic, he tells us “The citizens rushed from one bureau to another in a frenzied attempt to meet impossible deadlines.” Dr Benway has a machine called “the Switchboard” — “Electric drills that can be turned on at any time are clamped against the subject’s teeth; and he is instructed to operate an arbitrary switchboard, to put certain connections in certain sockets in response to bells and lights.” The drills punish mistakes, and the bells and lights speed up, until the reaction times of the subject are surpassed, and “the subject breaks down like an overloaded thinking machine.” The impossible demands of the switchboard are resonant of the impossible deadlines and pressures placed upon modern man. As corporations replaced factories as units of capitalist industry in America, an ideology of competition became dominant, and this is one of the key manifestations of Gilles Deleuze’s control society: 26

The factory constituted individuals as a single body to the double advantage of the boss who surveyed each element within the mass and the unions who mobilized a mass resistance; but the corporation constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within.27

In Naked Lunch, when Lee leaves the city and heads out into the rural districts, a true picture of the decadence inherent in society emerges. As affluence was concentrated in the suburbs, so was poverty in the inner cities and in rural districts. The Republican, reactionary Eightieth Congress at times seemed to attack rural America, cutting funds for rural electrification and crop storage.28 We come into contact with rural life and the lower levels of state bureaucracies in “The County Clerk” section of Naked Lunch. In the rural town of “Pigeon Hole”, which is hated by the “Urbanites”, is the Old Court House, which Lee has to visit. Oliver Harris but briefly alludes to an influence of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West on William Burroughs: in “The County Clerk” this influence is manifest in Burroughs’ description of the difference between city and country. Spengler writes that in a Civilization, a society on the point of decline:

the great intellectual decisions take place, not as in the days… where not a hamlet is too small to be unimportant, but in three or four world-cities that have absorbed into themselves the whole content of History, while the old wide landscape of the Culture, become merely provincial, serves only to feed the cities with what remains of its higher mankind… In place of a world, there is a city, a point, in which the whole life of broad regions is collecting while the rest dries up.29

This division is particularly visible, as Lee leaves the urban zone of the vast metropolis of Interzone and enters the rural district: “The inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area of swamps and heavy timber are people of such great stupidity and barbarous practices that the Administration has seen fit to quarantine them in a reservation surrounded by a radioactive wall of iron bricks.”3 We see the “Administration” is attempting to spatially control the inhabitants. Spengler further describes the “parasitical city dweller” as being “deeply contemptuous of the countryman”31, as is seen when Burroughs leaves the Zone and the Urbanite customs inspector waves him through the frontier, saying “I hope you”ve got an atom bomb in that suitcase.”32

Here, the society is defined by its racism. The County Clerk himself regales Lee with an extensive anecdote, within which a black is burnt by some “city fellers” for allegedly looking at a girl in a nasty manner. Those responsible for burning leave without paying for the gasoline. Timothy Murphy analyses the scenario; “As befits an official of the judicial system, the Clerk’s anecdote is concerned with justice, but it is justice for the white entrepreneur and not for the black victim, whose innocence is so obvious that the tale becomes absurd.”33 Furthermore, Lee is only able to get served when he joins in with the racist sentiments of the Clerk himself:

The face of the state, or at least of the bureaucracy which is the state’s most tangible avatar, is the face of appalling racist violence presented in the guise of folksy humour. The very language of this bureaucracy is a racist and anti-Semitic code, and only those with the right credentials (and, it goes without saying, appearance) can negotiate its convolutions.34

Horkheimer and Adorno see racism as an inherent element in the capitalist system. They have written of anti-Semitism as partially a result of the displacement of the anger of an exploited work force. By this logic it is thus inseparable from capitalist development and the status quo; “The persecution of the Jews, like any other form of persecution, is inseparable from that system of order.”35 The rural area which Burroughs describes is still part of the state, it is in fact central to the justice system, suggesting that the racism too is central to the functioning of the state.


In his Letters, Burroughs describes an ethical crisis manifesting itself in business; “The line between legitimate and criminal activity has broken down since the war… My ethical position, now that I am a respectable farmer, is probably shakier than when I was pushing junk.”36 Murphy sees Burroughs as expressing a “collaboration between business, organized crime, and the state upon which capitalist rationality is based.”37 Certainly, this emerges when we look in Naked Lunch at the character of Salvador Hassan O’Leary. Hassan amiably claims “Shucks, boys… I’m just a blooming old cancer and I gotta proliferate.” He sports cowboy attire and a “disarming grin”, the friendly face of capitalism. As a businessman, not only does Hassan have subsidiary companies, he has subsidiary personalities: there is a constant need for misrepresentation and dishonesty to succeed in this society. Essentially, he is a cancer, and a parasite on society, making his money through exploitation, taking from society rather than contributing to it. His commercial activities are wide reaching:

He prospered and proliferated, flooding the world with cut medicines and cheap counterfeit goods of every variety. Adulterated shark repellent, cut antibiotics, condemned parachutes, stale antivenin, inactive serums and vaccines, leaking lifeboats.

He sells nothing of any real value and the goods he trades are somewhat detrimental to the health of those who purchase them.38

Hassan is demonstrative of the increasingly dominating effect of business in governmental affairs; “He looks sinister and enigmatic — his gestures and mannerisms are not yet comprehensible — like the secret police of a larval state.” The suggestion is that people have not yet recognised the power and influence represented by Hassan, his sort is not yet understood, but like “the secret police of a larval state” his power will grow. Through co-operation and collaboration with the police he is able to avoid charges for all of his illegal doings. Burroughs makes the association between capitalist enterprise, in the form of international finance, and shady, immoral activities, writing, “Salvador emits a thick screen of international finance to cloak, at least from the rank and file, his Liquefactionist activities.” The line between criminal and legitimate business is blurred, and the implication is that behind the legitimate legalities of international finance something sinister is at work, and it is being hidden from the population.39

In his 1956 book The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills drew attention to the way in which corporate interests dominated political affairs. For instance, the three top policy-making positions in the country (secretary of state, treasury and defence) were occupied by a representative of the country’s leading law firm which did international business for Morgan and Rockefeller, a mid-west corporation executive who was director of over thirty corporations, and the former president of one of the very largest corporations and producers of military equipment in America.40 A myriad of important government posts and jobs within the governmental institution were held by the corporate elite, or those involved with them. In the postwar period, governmental and presidential action was beginning to be increasingly dominated by business concerns. President Eisenhower, in his farewell address of 1961, warned of the potentially dominating effect of the military-industrial complex. Howard Zinn considers business and government worked together in foreign affairs in morally dubious circumstances: when the legally elected President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala was overthrown by CIA trained mercenaries, his main crime may have been to appropriate 234,000 acres of land from United Fruit. Arbenz’s replacement gave the land back to United Fruit and established favourable taxes for foreign businesses, whilst simultaneously removing the secret ballot and offending against human rights.41


Naked Lunch functions as an acutely aimed attack on consumer society in postwar America. The sinister mechanisms of the mass media, manifest in television, distort people’s perception of reality. Man is reduced to a state of servitude, and becomes detached from his true self, whilst the environment stifles human potential and imposes control mechanisms. Burroughs, like various historians and social-political theorists, sees that inherent within this system is racism and injustice, and those who benefit materially from it do so through constant misrepresentation and deceit. There are increasingly blurred lines between government, the legitimate businessman and the criminal. Gilles Delueze considered that Burroughs was one of the first people to recognise changes in the organisation of capital in the postwar period, writing, “We”re moving towards control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication. Burroughs was the first person to address this.”42 There is certainly a compelling body of evidence which suggests that when Burroughs is discussing media and consumer goods in Naked Lunch,he is reflecting the reality of 1950s America, and the critique which he articulates in Naked Lunch certainly captures elements of an era.

1. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch: the Restored Text, James Grauerholz and Barry Miles (eds.), (New York, 2001), p. 205. In repetitions within chapters of reference to texts by Burroughs, they will be referred to simply by an abbreviated title, with the Burroughs’ name not mentioned, eg Naked Lunch, Letters etc.

2. Carl Degler, Affluence and Anxiety: America Since 1945, (Illinois, 1975), p. 174

3. Leuchtenburg, A Troubled Feast, (Boston, 1973), p. 4

4. Degler, Affluence and Anxiety, p.165

5. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, in OCTOBER 59, (Winter 1992), p. 6

6. Timothy S. Murphy, Wising up the Marks: the Amodern William Burroughs, (Berkeley, 1997), p. 88

7. Naked Lunch, p. 137

8. For a striking  example of this see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (London, 1991)

9. A point discussed in more depth in chapter II, “Science and Reason”

10. Lawrence Wittner, “The Rulers and the Ruled: American Society, 1945-60”, in A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America, Chafe and Sitkoff (eds.), (New York, 1983) p.85

11. Richard Dutsch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 242-6

12. Wittner, “The Rulers and the Ruled”, p. 85

13. Dutsch, The Making of American Audiences, p. 257

14. Wittner, “The Rulers and the Ruled”, p. 85

15. Murphy, Wising up the Marks, p. 90

16. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London, 1997), p. 126

17. Victor Navasky, Naming Names, (London, 1982), pp. 84-5

18. Naked Lunch, p. 22

19. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, (London, 2002), p. 11

20. Naked Lunch, p. 104

21. Naked Lunch, pp. 110-12

22. Naked Lunch, pp.26, 32, 25

23. Eric Mottram, William Burroughs: the Algebra of Need, (London, 1977) p. 50

24. Naked Lunch, pp. 28, 172

25. Naked Lunch, p. 11

26. Naked Lunch, pp. 20-22

27. Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, pp. 4-5

28. Leuchtenburg, A Troubled Feast, p.15

29. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, (London, 1926), p. 32

30. Naked Lunch, p. 142

31. Spengler, The Decline of the West, p. 32

32. Naked Lunch, p. 143

33. Murphy, Wising up the Marks, p. 94

34. Ibid., p. 95

35. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 170

36. William Burroughs, The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959, Oliver Harris (ed.), (London, 1993), p. 25

37. Murphy, Wising up the Marks, p. 87

38. Naked Lunch, pp. 130, 122, 132

39. Naked Lunch, pp. 131, 135

40. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, (New York, 1956), p. 232

41 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: From 1492 to the Present, (London, 1996), pp. 430-31

42 Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, (New York, 1995), p. 174

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