“Giving Away the Basic American Rottenness”

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as an Historical Document

by A. D. Parkinson

In Wising up the Marks: the Amodern William Burroughs, Timothy Murphy does an excellent job of placing William Burroughs’ work alongside the variants of Marxism presented by the Frankfurt School of Social Research:

by the time he assembled Naked Lunch… his position had begun to take a form that resembled in several important ways the generalized critique of Anglo-European culture undertaken by the similarly exiled members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research [which] sought to expose the novel constraints on and forms of exploitation of the populace that had arisen in both fascist dictatorships (like Nazi Germany) and mass republics (like the U.S.) as a result of their common reliance on the rationalist heritage of the Enlightenment.

Both the Frankfurt School and Burroughs perceive an “ethical crisis” in western societies which was particularly manifest by the time of the Second World War. Both also see failings and weaknesses inherent in post-enlightenment republics and both reject the resurrection of old philosophical or religious traits as a solution to either of these problems. Central to the critique of the Frankfurt School is the reduction of human thought to the status of a mere “tool”. Thought is instrumentalized — “subordinated like a tool to whatever end it is expected to serve” — and the “ends” of thought are not questioned. The manifestations of this in fields of science are shown in Naked Lunch: science in Naked Lunch is always shown as something dominated by other forces and other interests, and scientific thought and practice is increasingly instrumentalized.1


Writing as an exile in New York in 1946, Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt Schoolmakes a distinction between objective and subjective reason. Subjective reason “is essentially concerned with means and ends, with the adequacy of procedures for purposes more or less taken for granted… It attaches little importance to whether the purposes as such are reasonable.” Subjective reason dissolves all moral structures, the “reasonableness” of an action is judged in so far as how well it promotes the subject’s well-being within the status quo, without considering the “reasonableness” of the status quo itself. Horkheimer considers that subjective reason has replaced objective reason as the dominant mode of thought, as around the time of the Enlightenment, objective reason became incompatible with the prevailing rationality. Objective or classical reason, of the virtuous republics, operates within a larger moral framework, where concepts such as “good” and “evil” exist; “It aimed at evolving a comprehensive system, or hierarchy, of all beings, including man and his aims. The degree of reasonableness of a man’s life could be determined according to its harmony with this totality.” In a classical sense, a reasonable action was a virtuous one which furthered the common good, but in modern society, any greater sense of right or wrong is little more than “unconscious memories”, and nothing beyond self interest can govern a rational man’s actions:

Since ends are no longer determined in the light or reason, it is also impossible to say that one economic or political system, no matter how cruel and despotic, is less reasonable than another… no rational agency would endorse a verdict against dictatorship if its sponsors were likely to profit from it.

In Horkheimer’s semantics, thought is “instrumentalized” as it is dominated by subjective reason.2

Similarities between the views of Horkheimer and Burroughs emerge when we consider Horkheimer’s critique next to Burroughs’ considerations of ethics in his Letters:

There are 2 bases for any ethical system. (1) Aristocratic code (2) Religion. Liberals reject both which leaves them with exactly nothing… A man without code or religion has no other reason other than mere preference to consider any interests other than his own. Why should “he think in time” beyond his own life [or] hesitate to expoit anyone?

Like Horkheimer, Burroughs perceives an absence of an objective moral structure which used to exist in the reason which underpins society. Essentially, liberalism without any objective moral code or religious rules can not have anything other than Horkheimer’s subjective reason as the basis for actions: the subject cannot be expected to do anything beyond considering his own well being and self preservation within given circumstances.3

The work of the Frankfurt School in the forties and fifties is certainly a product of their coming to terms with the National Socialist rise to power in Germany, the consequences of which they escaped only through emigration and exile. Horkheimer views Hitler’s regime as evidence of a failure in democracy, a failure which he seeks to explain through considering how democracy has been deprived of the rational foundations of ancient republicanism, it being something that will only work in certain conditions. Burroughs, too, saw the Nazi rise to power in the context of the malfunctioning of democracy and highlighted the importance of remembering “Hitler was voted in by a majority.” Burroughs saw also the weaknesses of democracy in America, writing to Allen Ginsberg, “Liberals have always been suckers for Communist or Fascist undercover moves.” Although this in Burroughs’ mockingly reactionary tone; his Texas drawl which is part parody of the conservative South, it certainly points towards a real concern that a liberal democracy was vulnerable to being dominated by more sinister forces of control.4

The Frankfurt School and William Burroughs both rejected attempts to resurrect old systems of thought as solutions to present day problems. This certainly separated Burroughs ideologically from the Beat authors such as Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. Burroughs rejected the Buddhism that Kerouac was immersing himself in, saying that “my conclusion was that Buddhism is only for the West to study as history… it is not, for the west, An Answer,”5 In a distinctly Spenglerian manner, Burroughs sees Buddhism as relevant for a certain time, a certain place, something which functioned as a part of certain distinct social and ethical structures which were absent from postwar America. In a similar manner, Horkheimer writes of the revival of “cheap brands of past philosophies such as Yoga, Buddhism,” which are not “solutions”, they are simply “filling a gap… they transform the surviving remnants of mythological thought into workable devices for mass culture.”6 When old philosophies and their accompanying moral structures are adopted in the West, they become mere commodities that provide escape from reality. Burroughs wrote to Kerouac,

the California Buddhists are trying to sit on the sidelines and there are no sidelines. Whether you like it or not, you are committed to the human endeavour.7

In a similar vein, Horkheimer sees the “streamlining [of] old ideologies” as a “compromise with existing evil,”8 and Herbert Marcuse, in his One-Dimensional Man, asserts that “Zen, existentialism, and beat ways of life… are no longer contradictory to the status quo and no longer negative” and in fact they “are quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet.”9


The subjective reason of capitalist society dominates scientific thought, practice and research. Horkheimer and Adorno wrote of the “self-oblivious instrumentalization of science,” as it unquestioningly integrates itself into the economic system, responding to the demands of capitalist society and its moral values and attitudes.10 As Horkheimer writes, “science… is above all an auxiliary means of production, one element amongst many in the social process.”11 Marcuse warns us that “the traditional notion of the “neutrality” of technology can no longer be maintained”: it must be viewed within society’s political and economic framework.12 In Naked Lunch, Burroughs demonstrates science as an area in which subjective reason is the dominant mode of thought. Science and technology in Naked Lunch are always recognised as powerful tools, often in the wrong hands, whilst scientists are often working away regardless, dedicated to the research process. Burroughs is always aware of the wider economic context in which science operates, and the wider implications of technologies.

In one scene of the novel, the doctors Shafer and Benway embody scientific research underpinned by subjective reason:

SCHAFER: “I tell you I can’t escape a feeling… well, of evil about this.”

BENWAY: “Balderdash, my boy… We”re scientists… Pure scientists. Disinterested research and damned be him who cries ‘Hold, too much!‘”13

Shafer is suggesting that their investigation is not completely detached from moral decisions, and that they have a responsibility, but Benway dismisses this by saying that they are “pure scientists” ñ as though they were engaged on some pure, selfless quest. The very idea of disinterested research is somewhat ironic; all that Benway is disinterested in is the way in which the research is used. When Benway is describing the humiliating methods of control which he implements, he remarks:

Well, as you can plainly see, the possibilities are endless like meandering paths in a great big beautiful garden. I was just scratching that lovely surface when I am purged by Party Poops…14

Benway is in love with the scientific process, and the possibilities it opens up, uttering phrases like “Cancer, my first love…”15 He is not concerned about who will be in possession of these control systems, he is concerned solely with the challenge of their erection. He is symbolic of science and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, supposedly detached from any consequences, and a fetishisation of the medical practices and procedures. However, this is not the case, and Benway’s antics constantly have implications for the unfortunate humans involved. As Murphy writes, “[Benway”s] work is constantly focused on the technology, the means, of control without apparent regard for the ends his work serves.”16 This is the epitome of Horkheimer’s subjective reason.

Medical doctors are seen as being just as vulnerable to this formalisation of reason. Horkheimer and Adorno write of the way in which “Doctors have so much professional contact with dying people that they become hardened.”17 The “ends” or intentions of the doctor need not fall outside his own self preservation, in terms of his career. The very body of the patient is objectified by the doctor, and becomes a mere amalgamation of scientific processes and little more than a focal point for the doctor’s skills. This is reflected in Naked Lunch, with the ubiquitous Benway appearing in the guise of a medical doctor:

“They have no feelings,” said Doctor Benway, slashing his patient to shreds. “Just reflexes.”

Doctor Benway is thus emotionally detached from his work:

NURSE: “I think she’s gone, doctor.”

DR. BENWAY: “Well, it’s all in the day’s work.”

The human body becomes merely an object where scientific curiosities may be observed, as Benway ponders:

What would be the result of administering curare plus iron lung during acute mania? Possibly the subject, unable to discharge his tensions in motor activity, would succumb on the spot like a jungle rat. Interesting cause of death, what?

The iron lung and the curare are two tools of modern surgery, but they are not being used by Doctor Benway for any objective good. The idea of the surgical process dominated by subjective reason is extrapolated to its logical extreme, when the idea of the surgeon as an artist emerges:

“Now, boys, you won’t see this operation performed very often and there’s a reason for that… You see it has absolutely no medical value… I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning.”

Here the surgical process is practised devoid of any concerns to cure a patient, the surgeon is simply revelling in the immense skill and talent required for his job. Surgery becomes a means devoid of ends.18

Scientific knowledge is constantly instrumentalized by capitalism, particularly so in the post war period. Vannevar Bush, attentive doctor to the problems of twentieth century capitalism, presented a report entitled “Science — The Endless Frontier” to President Truman in 1945 which shrouded calls for increased funding for scientific research in the optimism-soaked language of “progress”, “new frontiers” and “our hope for the future”. Scientific research was intrinsically bound up with economic and military concerns, as the President was informed that “Modern war requires the most advanced scientific techniques” and warned that failure in research would result in a nation that was “slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade”. In raising these expectations, Bush was setting targets and objectives for scientific research. It would be expected that science would aid industrial progress and develop modern weapons, and the desirability of these ends is never questioned. Bush stated that “Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends”, capturing the subjective rationality at the heart of scientific progress as he envisaged.19


Naked Lunch makes us consider what it means to be a scientist, when science operates within the terms dictated to by the capitalism. Doctor Benway is in parts presented as another addict, addicted to the practising of surgery. When he lost his certificate, he resorted to desperate measures:

I managed to keep up my habits performing cut-rate abortions in subway toilets. I even descended to hustling pregnant women in the public streets. It was positively unethical.

Burroughs conjures up an image of a doctor driven to try and force his practices onto pregnant women in the street, essentially trying to prostitute his abilities, regardless of any ethical considerations, because it is his “habit” and he is dependent upon being able to practise. The metaphor of addiction is used frequently by Burroughs throughout the book: “addiction” explains how an individual’s actions can be determined by absolute need and a dependency on exterior forces, not unlike classical corruption or Rousseau’s perception of the servitude of eighteenth century man. Burroughs writes in the atrophied preface, “Because there are many forms of addiction I think they will all obey basic laws.” The drug addict will “do anything to satisfy total need…. A rabid dog cannot choose but bite.” The addict of any sort “has sacrificed all control, and is as dependent as an unborn child.” Science in postwar America sacrificed “control”, as it became a tool for other forces. The scientist has a habit insofar as the skills that he has learnt as a scientist are the skills by which he must make his living and he is dependent upon being able to practice medicine in order to stay alive and make a living within capitalist society.2

There is ample evidence that the direction of scientific research in postwar America was not controlled by the scientists, but by military and corporate interests, rendering the scientists “helpless addicts” in Burroughs’ terminology. It was revealed by President Eisenhower in 1960 that around one third of America’s scientists and engineers were engaged in military work. A massive amount of the GNP went to research and development, half of which came from the Government, the rest from private businesses and foundations.21 Furthermore, half of America’s research and development funds were going into military projects. It was not an option for any scientist wishing to retain a livelihood to dispute the morals of the arms race. Oppenheimer opposed the development of even more powerful hydrogen bombs, but it was still approved by President Truman. Oppenheimer was soon removed from a position of power and influence after “communist” allegations were made against him: at the heart of these allegations was a fear that he was not of the correct moral make up for his job, for he had questioned the ends of his research. In 1954, Albert Einstein criticised the position of scientists in America, saying were he young again he “would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher [and] would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.”22


One must not overlook the presence of the Cold War when investigating the themes within Naked Lunch. It was certainly an issue upon Burroughs’ mind; Ann Douglas considers the nuclear age to be the central theme of his work.23 Much scientific research was dedicated to developing a product which could potentially eradicate life on the planet. Burroughs wrote of the aboveground nuclear testing in the early 1950s,

Really, it is exasperating to sit helpless like in a nightmare while these life-hating character armadillos jeopardize the very ground under our feet and the air we breathe. Thirty more explosions and we”ve had it, and nobody shows any indication of curtailing their precious experiments.

Burroughs is bitterly scathing of all those involved: the scientific research continues with apparent disregard for the potential consequences.24

One of the earliest ideas for a “plot” for the novel that became Naked Lunch was expressed in Burroughs’ fabricated blurb:

Suppose you knew the power to start an atomic war lay in the hands of a few scientists who were bent on destroying the world? […] This book is a must for anyone who would understand the sick soul, sick unto death, of the atomic age.25

Burroughs is aware of the nuclear scientist as something new, a symptom of a new age. Michel Foucault sees the birth of the atomic scientist as a seminal event in the politicisation of scientific fields, for the atomic bomb was at once a specific field of research requiring highly specialised scientific knowledge, and a social issue, a matter of life and death for the whole world; “since the nuclear threat affected the whole human race and the fate of the world, [the atomic scientist”s] discourse could at the same time be the discourse of the universal.”26 One of the endings which Burroughs considered for Naked Lunch involved the detonation of an atomic bomb which destroyed the world.27 In “islam incorporated and the parties of interzone” in Naked Lunch, we read “an anal technician mixes a bicarbonate of soda and pulls the switch that reduces the earth to cosmic dust.”28 It is crucial that the power is seen to lie in the hands of the scientists and technicians, not just of politicians and generals: “The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident, inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.”29

The scientist is at the mercy of the economic processes to determine what he can research, yet if he does not question this, he may be in possession of a great power. Dr Benway embodies this contradiction as both the helpless addict with his “habit”, and the mastermind enslaving Freeland. Although science may be directed by economic forces, it’s grand potentials for changing human life for the better and its exclusive nature transform it into an area of reverence. Benway is well aware of his social status and the reverence he can command; in “The Examination”, we are told, “[Benway] jerks a head towards his glowering superego who is always referred to in the third person as ‘The Man’ or ‘The Lieutenant.'”30 This echoes Horkheimer and Adorno’s warning that “often [the doctor] is tempted to appear as the controller of life and death.”31 The Party Leader of the Nationalist Party in Interzone tries to start a rumour that Benway is a black magician, illustrating the way in which science is revered by those who do not comprehend it, and how the modern scientist’s social position is therefore not unlike that of the witchdoctor. In some Spenglerian cycle, we see both parties as being honoured within the social hierarchy on account of their access to power unavailable to others, whether that be in God or science. Throughout Naked Lunch, scientific jargon is adopted often incorrectly amongst the general population and becomes little more than veiled superstition.32 The authoritative position that science and the scientist has in the modern world is placed by Burroughs within the context of the authority that the witch doctor or the Catholic Church had in other times and societies.


As has been shown, William Burroughs’ thought bears many similarities with that of the Frankfurt School, in particular the works of Horkheimer and Adorno. There is a shared perception of a crisis in the ethical and rational foundations of capitalist society, and the post-enlightenment, capitalist use of republicanism. Both the Frankfurt School and William Burroughs see this crisis in reason manifest itself when considering science and technology in the postwar period. Science made new demands off humanity, it required new sacrifices, and it was not always working towards or used in the best interests of humanity. The scientist in postwar America may have had as little control as the heroin addict, his skills and talents nothing more than tools for commercial and military interests, yet at the same time he was invested with a great and exclusive power.

1. Timothy S. Murphy, Wising up the Marks: the Amodern William Burroughs, (Berkeley, 1997), pp. 76, 80

2. Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, (London, 2004), pp. 3-4, 22

3. William Burroughs, The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959, Oliver Harris (ed.), (London, 1993), p. 67

4. Letters, p. 67

5. Letters, p. 226

6. Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, pp. 42-3

7. Letters, p. 227

8. Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, p. 45

9. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, (London, 2002), p. 16

10. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London, 1997), p. xii

11. Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, p. 41

12. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p. xlvi

13. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch: the Restored Text, James Grauerholz and Barry Miles (eds.), (New York, 2001), p. 110

14. Naked Lunch, p. 25

15. Naked Lunch, p. 158

16. Murphy, Wising up the Marks, p. 81

17. Appears in “Contradictions”, an appendix in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 238, as part of a fictional conversation between two young people, to demonstrate the absurd pressure upon philosophers to provide universal moral systems in response to those they criticize.

18. Naked Lunch pp. 118, 51, 110, 52

19. Merrit Roe Smith and Gregory Clancey (Eds.), Major Problems in the History of American Technology: Documents and Essays, (Boston, 1998), p. 431

20. Naked Lunch, pp. 27, 205, 201, 57

21. Carl Degler, Affluence and Anxiety: America Since 1945, (Illinois, 1975), p. 169

22. 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 89

23. Ann Douglas, “‘Punching a hole in the big lie’: the achievement of William S. Burroughs” in Word Virus: the William Burroughs Reader, James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg (eds.), (London, 1999), p. xvi

24. Letters, p. 254

25. Letters, p. 255

26. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Colin Gordon (ed.), (Brighton, 1980), p. 128

27. Letters, p. 329

28. Naked Lunch, p. 141

29. William S. Burroughs, Interzone, (New York, 1990), p. 71

30. Naked Lunch, p. 163

31. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 238

32. Mary McCarthy, “Burroughs” Naked Lunch“, in William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, Skerl and Lydenberg (Eds.), (Illinois, 1991), p. 36

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *