Riding the Nova Express


William Burroughs and the (Post) Modern Experiment

by William Weiss

… Consider an animal cell over which is running a river of cellular fluid, perhaps lymph or plasma. A virus particle appears in the flux and is carried over the cell surface. Both the cell surface and the virus particle are thick with spikes that reach out into the streaming fluid. When the spikes of a virus and an animal cell touch, they bond, and the virus is drawn down onto the surface of the cell like a piece of flotsam snagged with a boathook. Some viruses, when they reach the cell membrane, pass directly through the cell wall like a ghost; others are engulfed, eaten, enfolded by the wall as though they were a delicacy of some kind.

Once inside the cell the number of ways a virus can go about its business explodes. Building complex parts in a cell, including complete copies of viruses, is in some ways just like building a machine on a factory floor; it requires tools — the biochemical equivalent of ripsaws, drills, soldering irons, screwdrivers, rolls of tape and the like. For example, MIT molecular biologist Jonathan King … and his colleagues were the first to determine that the “tail” of one type of phage is assembled inside a cell. First a “scaffold” protein is made. Then, building-block proteins are added one at a time until a “measuring tape” protein determines that the length is right. With the structure complete, the scaffold protein detaches, to be used again. Some viruses, like the herpes virus, come in with a hardware store of their own; others, such as the tobacco mosaic virus, make use of the cell’s tools almost exclusively. Nobody knows why this difference exists or what it means.

Some viruses, when they enter a cell, are not infective — they have only one strand of nucleic acid and require two. Yet, for reasons that are still a mystery, the host cell immediately and obligingly repairs the virus allowing the infection to begin. And finally, in what is certainly the ultimate in hospitality, there are hosts that integrate viral genes right into their own DNA so that thereafter, whenever the host cell replicates, a copy of the virus is made too. This type of virus is known as a retrovirus… AIDS can result from one member of this family. The gene responsible for feline leukemia is thought to have entered the cat gene line millions of years ago as an infection by one of these retroviruses …

— Fred Hapgood, “Viruses Emerge as New Key for Unlocking Life’s Mysteries,” Smithsonian, 10.87.

Language is a virus from outer space. 

— William Burroughs

William Burroughs, Nova Express, 1964, Grove PressBurroughs is (not) writing, in Nova Express, a science fiction / detective story. In order to engineer the construction of a particular text that will stand ready to submit to whatever the hybrid genre “sci-fi / detective” requires to define itself, Burroughs has to exploit specific strategies of containment. Such a procedure constitutes, in many ways, a species of fiction itself, for, as we have been informed (by Barthes, Derrida, Jameson, et. al), the text is a tissue. (Any construction that Burroughs achieves in the way of genre or allegory is always, as we shall see, in tense opposition to the deliriums of cut-up, parody, and irony.) It would seem, though, that the readers of science fiction and the readers of detective stories have come to expect certain things. This is contingent upon a conditioned mode of perception. Burroughs is aware. (We deliberately simplify by not considering what it might be that “makes” a novel, or what the readers of satire or autobiographical fiction have become comfortable with.) The Burroughsian sci-fi / detective landscape functions simply as a psychological tuning apparatus (as, in its way, does Stelarc’s — we shall meet his art shortly — exploitation of the gravitational landscape). The idea is to place the reader in a familiar context where he might exhibit behaviors that will facilitate Burroughs’ ends. We are being conned, set up. And once hooked, the reader immediately finds himself awash in a vicious Burroughsian parody of the genre(s). (Burroughs’ singularly distorted representation of familiar constructs has effects beyond reinforcing his infamous brand of gallows humor. Parody relies on certain distancing and differencing properties to assert itself, properties in many ways not unlike those of allegory. Later in this text, Nova Express’ articulation in/of space will be described in terms of the figure “matrix.” Nova Express [un]folds out in a number of directions attempting to establish a radical space which “knows” time. Parody participates in this unfolding.) But Burroughs’ primary destination in the engineering of the novel is a variegated allegorization of the complex relationship between man and language. It is here that the real power of the book lies: 

Let me explain how we make an arrest — Nova criminals are not three-dimensional organisms — (though they are quite definite organisms as we shall see) but they need three-dimensional human agents to operate — The point at which the criminal controller intersects a three-dimensional human agent is known as “a co-ordinate point” — And if there is one thing that carries over from one human host to another and establishes identity of the controller it is habit: idiosyncracies, vices, food preferences … a chain smoker will always operate through chain smokers, an addict through addicts … a single controller can operate through thousands of human agents, but he must have a line of co-ordinate points … 1

Virus defined as the three-dimensional co-ordinate point of a controller — Transparent sheets with virus perforations like punch cards passed through the host on the soft machine feeling for a point of intersection … What does virus do wherever it can dissolve a hole and find traction? — It starts eating — And what does it do with what it eats? — It makes exact copies of itself … A vast tapeworm of bring down word and image moving through your mind screen always at the same speed on a slow hydraulic-spine axis like the cylinder in the adding machine.2

The basic nova mechanism is very simple: always create as many insoluble conflicts as possible and always aggravate existing conflicts — This is done by dumping life forms with incompatible conditions of existence on the same planet — There is of course nothing “wrong” about any given life form since “wrong” only has reference to conflicts with other life forms — The point is these forms should not be on the same planet — Their conditions of life are basically incompatible in present time form and it is precisely the work of the Nova Mob to see that they remain in present time form, to create and aggravate the conflicts  that lead to the explosion of a planet that is to nova — At any given time recording devices fix the nature of absolute need and dictate the use of total weapons … 3

What scared you all into time? Into shit? I will tell you: “the word”. Alien word “the.” “The” word of Alien Enemy imprisons “thee” in Time. In Body. In Shit. Prisoner, come out. The great skies are open. I Hassan i Sabbah rub out the words forever. In you I cancel all your words forever. And the words of Hassan i Sabbah as also cancel.4

It is a peculiar movie which Burroughs wants to exploit. He wants to exploit exploitation. Look, Inspector J. Lee is Burroughs (and he is not): “One of our agents is posing as a writer. He has written a so-called pornographic novel called Naked Lunch …”5 (As Paul De Man makes clear in his essay, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” a self-conscious author “disrupts the fictional illusion” and ensures the integrity of an allegorical truthing phenomenon.6) The good inspector tells us, in so many words, that language is control. Who wants to control? The Nova Criminals. Who are they? Liars. Parasites. What is their motive? They want TIME and BODIES for more lies. (“I would like to sound a word of warning — To speak is to lie — to live is to collaborate …”7) With what do the Nova Criminals hope to gain control? With the Board Books: “We had the plan, what they call the Board Books to show us what is what on this dead whistle stop: Three life forms uneasily parasitic on a fourth form that is beginning to wise up. And the whole planet absolutely flapping hysterical with panic. The way we like to see them.”8 (Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, written some forty years ago and feeling for a point of intersection here, indirectly suggests that what we have in the Nova Mob may be the allegorization of the collective will to dominate the individual and ultimately all that which cannot be explained or annexed by the Enlightenment. The Nova Mob is perhaps the fear and bad conscience of the Enlightenment. Language is merely an instrument of reason [and self-preservation]. The self, “the reference point of reason,” thus becomes the perfect host for the virus.9) And so you’re reading this static-gun-movie-projector-virus-mechanism science fiction story that has some Inspector character doing his ironic damnedest to turn you on to the fact that you are being manipulated into a construct in which there is a Nova Mob using language/image to push the planet into unstoppable nova:

“Recollect when I was traveling with Limestone John on the Carbonic Caper — It worked like this: He rents an ampitheatre with marble walls he is a stone painter you dig can create a frieze while you wait — So he puts on a diving suit like the old Surrealist Lark and I am up on a high pedestal pumping the air to him — Well, he starts painting on the limestone walls with hydrochloric acid and jetting himself around with air blasts he can cover the wall in ten seconds, carbon dioxide settling down on the marks begin to cough and loosen their collars.”

“But what is he painting?”

“Why it’s arrg a theater full of people suffocating — ”      

So we turn the flops over and move on — If you keep it practical they can’t hang a nova rap on you … 10

This passage is most ironic for it is, of course, the author-reader relationship which is being stripped down. (De Man believes that allegory and irony — I would add parody as well — are very similar in that they both reveal truth by forcing the self into an intimate examination of its screaming predicament in the toothy maw of Time. Allegory establishes itself in the homonymity between two ontologically and temporally distinct sign systems. It prevents the self from identifying with that which the self clearly is not by insisting upon a distance and a difference from its own origin: allegory inhibits the virus from making exact copies of itself in the host. Associated with the phenomenon of irony, there is an inevitable and instantaneous fall of the self from its cocky self-assurance, an existential tailspin, a quick glimpse of the self engaged in fooling itself into sleeping soundly in a room which is floating on nothing but maya.11) The fact that signification is being contracted to off signification is the novel’s crowning irony.

Now, cut-up, a technique used extensively in Nova Express and many of Burroughs’ other important works, is a mechanical manipulation of text specifically designed to circumvent the control systems, the strategies of containment, that catch like hooks in the moving meat of the signifying creature (for an interesting discussion of the physics of fishing, see Derrida’s “The History and System of Scripts,” Of Grammatology12). The irruption of a random element into the text is, of course, the introduction of delirium and the interruption of the virus mechanism. What Eliot lamented, Burroughs champions:

… Only by the form, the pattern
Can words or music reach
The stillness …
     … Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering, 
Always assail them …13

But even Eliot understood:

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies, 
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been… 14

Delirium, or the demonic, enforces humility — but not in men. It cripples the will to power of the logos. That is why we say that Burroughs “champions” chaos. The power of words over men is of the same genus as the power of fascism over men. In order for such powers to become manifest, to possess a body, we must desire it to be so. We must desire to be possessed. Indeed, this has been the great project of civilization — to convince men that they must be controlled, that they are unable to control themselves.

Consider the age of civilization. Consider the history of logos, the history of history: insignificant, even when only compared to the age of the hominids. The latest studies of human and pongidae DNA reveal that man separated, bifurcated from the apes only five to ten million years ago! (And rare: we were so very rare.) Before that there were countless generations of singular sentient creatures, ancestors who existed independent of the logos, old stones that cannot be deciphered. (Imagine antedating the logos!) The history of the fascism of the logos is thus the history of a Hitler — short, brutal and with consequences that have forever changed the planet.

Cut-up is a weapon of the resistance. It is resistance. And do not call it a symptom of a new romanticism. Remove either component from the yin yang and you have the sound of one hand clapping. We are terrified of the sound of our desire clapping. We haven’t much of a rapport with the unconscious anymore, with the howl of nature.

The backward look behind the assurance 
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror … 15

Patterns abound in nature. It is a commonplace to cite the sunflower, the conch and the Milky Way as examples of the vastly divergent entities the same pattern may inhabit. Pattern is essential to life. But there is no life in stasis, without motion and without mutation. This force is integral.

The detail of the pattern is movement
As in the figure of the ten stairs … 16

Cut-up is change, the inexorable. There is as much use in opposing change as there is in opposing death. Just as there is no triumph over entropy, except fleetingly, in the pattern which is forever new.

But I speak not to men. I make words against words. There can be no other way for art now.

Consider Foucault’s account of the spatio-temporality of language which a Classical order makes possible. Foucault develops the idea of a tropological space, language’s primary locus. Without such a space in which words and the thought they represent unfold according to the “logic” of rhetoric, the temporal dimension of language would not exist for there would be no common names upon which a predicative relation could operate.17 The disjointed space which cut-up engenders is a space where the possibility of predicative relations (and thus, time?) has been put into serious jeopardy. Words, which depend upon a precisely articulated sequence and difference for their ability to effect what Foucault calls the “simultaneity of representation,” find themselves cut loose, ambiguously differentiated and capable of an almost infinite array of behaviors. Where would Newton’s billiard game be if when he took a shot the balls refused to react, if balls disappeared and in their place came balls and ballistics belonging to other games, if the table itself dissolved and a basketball court took its place?

The earliest analogue in painting is Cubism (where collage first gained real currency — cut-up is only a violent form of collage). The real trouble began with Cézanne, though, who understood, in a way that no one had before, that there are no outlines around figures in real life — this is only a convention of painting. A kind of suffusion of forms in his work ensued. Then, of course, Braque and Picasso proceeded to fracture pictorial space and further develop Cézanne’s practice of rendering objects from different perspectives simultaneously. Stasis was out; space became continuous with its happening contents. Eventually the objects themselves “disappeared” in an iconoclasm which began to treat the painting itself as an object. (What was rendered obsolete was a Classically-ordered mimesis.18) John Berger, who argues convincingly that we live still within the Cubist “moment,” writes:

Cézanne’s incredible struggle was to find some system of order which could embrace the whole of nature and its constant changes. Against his wishes this struggle forced him to abandon the order of the static viewpoint, to admit that human consciousness was subject to the same dialectical laws as nature. And the Cubists continued from where he stopped, rejecting the Renaissance because they were aiming at the same end with quite different means. Even today the process is incomplete, the solution only partial.19

All of this makes Brion Gysin’s statement, “Writing is at least fifty years behind painting,” appropriate. Burroughs’ likening of the modern reaction against cut-up to the attacks Parisians once made upon Cézanne’s canvasses is also logical.

Burroughs is aware that no matter how cut up a virus is, it is quite good at reassembling itself. He often filters his texts through several cut-up procedures. Of course, in the end, cut-up may prove to be only the most provisional of measures. And always they’re screaming: “DON’T FUCK with the tissue, Dr. Frankenstein!” (The artist Stelarc suspends himself in the air by hooks inserted into the body. His is a stretched-skin suspension art. He claims that the grotesque, stretched epidermis achieved in such works is “proof of the body’s unnatural position in space.”20) But we are now well acquainted with Burroughs’ consuming desire to somehow gnaw his way back, like a trapped animal through its own flesh, to a bone of pre-recording:

The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals. In Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are and what they are doing and what they will do if they are not arrested. Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs, flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the earth to come out. With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly —

(Signed) Inspector J. Lee,
Nova Police21

“Now you understand about time? After a certain point you can’t go on feeding the past; too much past and not enough present because ‘present time’ is the point where the image virus of past time finds traction in the present host.”22 “To achieve complete freedom from past conditioning is to be in space … I would say our destiny, if we’re going anywhere, by and large our spiritual destiny is in space … “23 So, what of the weapons of the Nova Police? Of the good Inspector? How are they allegorized? E.g.:

… “First we would have to synthesize the apomorphine formulae [Apomorphine is a derivative of morphine and affects the hypothalamus in such a way as to stabilize the metabolism.] — As you know it is forbidden to do this.”

“And for very good reason is it not, Winkhorst?”

“Yes — Apomorphine combats parasite invasion by stimulating the regulatory centers to normalize metabolism — A powerful variation of this drug could deactivate all verbal units and blanket the earth in silence, disconnecting the entire heat syndrome.”

“You could do this Mr. Winkhorst?”

“It would not be easy — certain technical details and so little time … the disposal problem of radioactive waste in any time universe is ultimately insoluble.”

“But if we disintegrate verbal units, that is, vaporize the containers, then the explosion could not take place in effect would never have exist.”

“Perhaps — I am a chemist not a prophet …”24

Burroughs’ research into an apomorphine elixir, as bottled in Nova Express, consists of cut-up and a large measure of vintage allegory and parody cut with irony which has the effect of calling into question, moment by vertiginous moment, the very (un)reality of the allegorical and parodical matrix that serves as its ground. A number of oblique lines of tension are drawn by these devices and their contrasting modes of time truthing coexisting in and co-defining / destroying the sci-fi / detective genre space (the hook). Of course, accenting these very special potentials of “narrative time” and putting them to the specific task Burroughs does exposes the virus. Burroughs’ apomorphine solution blocks any crippling congealing of time or image by relentlessly exposing the con, and what is finally created is a wholly artificial mirror space or field (more precisely a mirror fashioned by artifice, reflecting only that which is virtually present, namely, the cognizant reader) wherein the wised-up self might observe itself ricochet from one ridiculous existential horror to the next, where what’s “next” might be anything from that which has already been introduced subliminally via cut-up to being suddenly possessed by the “I” of a character created novels ago in the Burroughsian corpus to some in-parody denouement. “To achieve freedom from past conditioning is to be in space…”

Nova Express is a cage that rattles itself. It is a construct that deconstructs itself. It is a (post)modern experiment that aims at liberating the body (Stelarc refers to that aspect of his self that participates in the stretched-skin suspension works as “the body”) from infection. It is quite simply one of the finest allegories and satires ever conceived.


1 William Burroughs, Nova Express (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 54.

2 ibid., p. 68.

3 ibid., p. 52.

4 ibid., p. 12.

5 ibid., p. 54.

6 Paul De Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality”, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 218.

7 Burroughs, op. cit., p. 14.

8 ibid., p. 17.

9 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1944), pp. 20, 21, 29, 40.

10 Burroughs, op. cit., p. 21.

11 De Man, op. cit., p. 226.

12 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 280.

13 T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 19.

14 ibid., p. 26.

15 ibid., p. 39.

16 ibid., p. 19.

17 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. 114-115.

18 I am indebted to the following works for some of the ideas contained in this paragraph: Alan Bowness, Modern European Art (Singapore: Hudson and Thames, 1972), and Yve-Alain Bois, “Kahnweiler’s Lesson”, in Representations, No. 18, Spring, 1987 (California: University Press).

19 John Berger, “The Cubist Moment”, Permanent Red (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing Inc., 1960), p. 172.

20 C. Carr, “Before and After Science”, Village Voice, 31 July 1984, pp. 77-8.

21 Burroughs, op. cit., p. 14.

22 Burroughs, “Who is the Third that Walks Beside You?”, The Burroughs File (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1984), p. 44.

23 Daniel Odier, The Job (New York: Grove Press, 1970), Preface.

24 Burroughs, Nova Express, pp. 40-41.

Written by William Weiss. Originally published in Massacre 4 (1993). Posted by RealityStudio on 11 March 2013.

2 thoughts on “Riding the Nova Express

  1. “It is quite simply one of the finest allegories and satires ever conceived.”


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