Purple Magazine
— The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

electronic heroin



Paul B. Preciado is one of the foremost philosopher-writers on the topics of identity, gender, and sexuality.
His books include Countersexual Manifesto and An Apartment on Uranus, and he recently published a major work called Dysphoria Mundi. This year, he also directed a film, Orlando, My Political Biography, about Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel and his own transition.

In 1970, in a prophetic and unfortunately naive instruction manual for media sabotage called The Electronic Revolution, American writer William S. Burroughs urged citizens around the world, from New York to Mexico City to Paris, to switch the flow and use tape recorders and video cameras against state military and cultural powers. Although poet John Giorno portrays Burroughs as a psychedelic, secular saint, it’s difficult to choose as a critical companion a misogynistic, gun-loving, accidental-murderer homophobic queer. But despite these traits (misogyny, homophobia, the aestheticization of weapons, and the exaltation of violence), which, serious as they are, remain conventional for a cis white man in postwar North American culture, the consumption of peyote and heroin transformed his brain into an experimental factory from which some of the most prodigious literary and political inventions of the century emerged. Burroughs must be read today as a key thinker of the age of electronic media intoxication.

For Burroughs, addiction is inherently human and started with the written text. He formulates an unusual theory of language that we are perhaps better able to understand today, in the age of the coronavirus. Where does language come from, Burroughs asks. Why can’t we stop talking to ourselves, even when we are silent? Whereas it is generally thought that speech precedes writing, Burroughs, on the contrary — as Derrida will do in philosophy almost at the same time without having read it yet — affirms that writing came first and that it is only afterward that we began to speak as humans. Burroughs begins by reversing the order, or rather reminding us that where there is order, there is imposture, hierarchy: someone is pretending to evade the fact that everything is a relationship. The difference between animal language and human language is not, for Burroughs, in speech: we all speak, each in our own way, some with guttural cries, others with beautiful melodies; the difference lies in writing.

Writing is, according to Burroughs, articulated time. Stop for a moment and experience the strangeness of what happens when you read. The written words, like the ones you are browsing now with your eyes, are images (drawings, inscriptions) that your gaze transforms into moving sequences. Cinema before cinema, a kind of abstract alphabet-based film, retro-projected from your retina to your brain. But how did we start writing? Or better: where does writing come from? Why are we, at least in appearance, the only animals that write? Burroughs’s gospel answer, preached from heroin’s pulpit, was that writing is an unhuman-made virus that came from outer space and infected the body. The reason writing could not be recognized as a virus, he claims, is because “it has reached a state of symbiosis with the host.” Like the virus, writing is an entity that defies the boundaries between the living and the dead, between the organic and the inorganic: neither bacterium nor pure organism, language penetrates the body and usurps the characteristics of life. The virus of writing is, for Burroughs, a small unit of word and image biologically activated to act as a communicable viral entity.

It is not a question of supporting Burroughs’s idea according to which we would have been contaminated by an extraterrestrial agent (although this supposition is not more far-fetched than the assertion of a god or a spiritual force that would have made us animals gifted with writing), but of understanding the functioning of power differently by thinking of language as a virus that colonizes our nervous system. Describing language as a parasite, Burroughs imagines signs as a living organic material circulating within the human body, and from the human body to machines, and vice versa. The human body is, for Burroughs, a “soft machine” constantly threatened by the parasites of language: “The soft machine is the human body under constant siege from a vast hungry host of parasites with many names but one nature, being hungry, and one intention to eat.” Together with the conceptual artist Brion Gysin, Burroughs formulates two central intuitions for contemporary philosophy. The first is that communication is contagion. Burroughs’s theory of the performativity of language is viral: writing (and by extension, speaking) does not consist in transmitting information but in contaminating. Language is always an infection. This is why it is so difficult to stop the inner voice that, like a feverish Kafkaesque bureaucrat, continues without pause to write on a biochemical keyboard in our heads. Hence the importance that Burroughs attached to meditation practices and the ingestion of peyote or ayahuasca, all strategies for “stopping the typewriter” installed in our neuronal system.

The second insight stems precisely from his experience of more than 50 years as a heroin addict: addiction is the organic model that Burroughs proposes to think about the relationship of the contemporary body with power. We do not enter into a relationship of submission or obedience to power but into a relationship of addiction. According to archaic Roman law, the addictus was the insolvent debtor who, for lack of payment, was delivered as a slave to their creditor, who could decide to lock them up, sell them to another buyer outside the city, or even kill them. The addictus pays their debts by their dependence on the creditor and paradoxically retains their status as a citizen even if they lose their freedom. Debt and addiction, instead of autonomy and will, are the two forces that shape contemporary bioelectronic subjectivity.

Contrary to what is too easily asserted today, our difficulty in getting out of cybernetic capitalism — at least for the moment and in the majority of European or North American countries — does not derive from a form of fascist political subjection, total deprivation of freedom, or daily political terror but from a relationship with electronic addiction. Within capitalist heteropatriarcal-cybernetic reproduction societies, we are not full citizens but rather addictus perpetually in debt and dependent on forms of consumption and distribution of energy: glucose, alcohol, coffee, legal and illegal drugs, tobacco, but above all, information, language, signs, moving images, electronic data…

Burroughs’s definition of communication as contagion and power as addiction are essential for understanding the mutation of technologies of government in pharmacopornographic capitalism, but also the new forms of antagonism and dissent. After the Second World War, the technologies of war were transformed into techniques of production and management of the body and communication. ARPANET, a computer network created to decentralize communication in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States, gradually became the Internet: both a new global market and a virtual agora for communication. Later, marketing and surveillance technologies will progressively mutate into a large everyday AI-controlled network: algorithms will enter through light, portable technologies directly under our skin. On the other hand, medical, biochemical, and genetic techniques driven by warfare research would be used to modulate and produce affects, desires, specific forms of sexuality, or for regulating the capacity to produce and reproduce in the forthcoming cybernetic context. The large-scale marketing of the pill (the hormonal compound intended to separate heterosexuality and reproduction has been the most produced and consumed pharmacological product in the world from 1960 onward), the miniaturization of the machine and its transformation into a connected digital technology, the invention of the notion of gender and of assisted reproduction techniques outside the womb, as well as the transformation of pornography into digital mass culture, are some of the symptoms of this pharmacopornographic mutation, which is still in progress today and of which the political management of Covid-19 has constituted a new decisive stage.

If Burroughs’s work seems crucial for understanding contemporary epistemic and political mutations, it is not only because of his headache diagnoses, but especially because of his proposals for our participation in the mutating present. In The Electronic Revolution, he imagines an army of young boys hiding tape recorders under their trench coats and sneaking into the bedrooms and toilets of politicians to film unmentionable sexual scenes, record their burps, farts, and above all their lies, and then broadcast them cut up, chopped up, and mixed with the cries of pigs in slaughterhouses producing a magma howl as foul as it is liberating, in order to short-circuit the insidious flow of cultural communication. For Burroughs, these acts of sabotage had a therapeutic, almost organic purpose; they were intended to heal the social body — we would rather say the somathèque: mass communication had generated a form of contamination against which it was only possible to fight by an intentional hijacking of the registration and broadcasting machines. This electronic guerrilla was, according to the author of Naked Lunch, intended to release the virus contained in the word and thus promote social chaos.

For Burroughs, the task of the writer and the activist (he makes no distinction between the poet and the philosopher, between the revolutionary and the conceptual experimenter; we are all either contaminators or artists in the face of language) was to work with language as an inoculation, a vaccine. We are sick of language, and we can only be cured by an intentional detour of the semiotic living machines that inhabit us. In a similar way, Derrida spoke of the pharmakon. Burroughs’s proposal is to vaccine us by injecting us with fragments of language: it is a matter of fortifying the organism against the most harmful forms of language — the words of politicians, the media, the military, psychiatrists, advertisers. To this end, Burroughs invited his fellow citizens to critically reappropriate the machines of inscription (in his time, tape recorders and the first portable video cameras), to turn the semiotic machines of power against themselves.

A few years after releasing his text, Burroughs, whose mind was as radiant as his fantasies were paranoid, concluded that his call for electronic rebellion had failed and that CIA agents had probably been the only avid readers of his manual.

Today, at last, the electronic revolution announced by Burroughs in the 1970s is taking place. But those who wear tape recorders under their trench coats are no longer the young white bourgeois boys. The trench coats have fallen off, and the telecom and tele-consumer industries, eager to expand and globalize their clientele (their addicti), have distributed powerful new recorders, choppers, and sign disruptors among bodies that, until now, were not even allowed to use recording machines — women, children, racialized people, queer, trans, migrant bodies, disabled, working poor…

In the second decade of the new millennium, the miniaturization of the computer functions allowed the invention of a new political symbiont associated with a small, relatively accessible mass consumption device: an aggregate of the functions of a tape recorder, a portable video camera, but above all a sign production and distribution machine connected to the cybernetic network of the Internet, the smartphone has become the “long-range weapon to scramble and nullify associational lines put down by mass media” of which Burroughs dreamt. The individual body was an anatomical object of the 15th century; the Internet, a virtual space characteristic of the end of the 21st century. For a while, an ontological breach separated them. They were heterogeneous modes of existence: analog versus digital, organic versus inorganic, carbon versus silicon, glucose metabolism versus electrical energy consumption. The smartphone would become the portable electronic bridge that would unite them, creating a new form of fucked-up cyborg existence: the telebody.

The trans cyborg insurgency has begun.

What VNS Matrix activists called the “virus of the new world disorder”was not SARS-CoV-2 but their own insurgent imagination propelled by the Internet, heralded in the texts of Monique Wittig and Ursula K. Le Guin, by the cyberfiction of Pat Cadigan and Octavia E. Butler, fueled by techno and hip-hop music, by beats and sweat, by voice and electricity. The cut-up of Darnella Frazier filming and posting on the Internet the assassination of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police surpasses all of Burroughs’s lysergic conjectures.

In Hong Kong, as “private” cell phones were becoming portable self-surveillance cameras through facial recognition, tracking, and geo-location applications, users began to hack facial recognition apps to film the faces of the police officers who were assaulting them and publicly exposed their identities. Then, in jolting waves, the whole world started to cry out: thousands of digital addicts, dysphoric bodies armed only with cell phones, left the glittering darkness of the Internet, got out of their urban cybercages, and dragged themselves through the streets, hallucinating their erased untold history with dreams, with nightmares, expelled from the academies of the future unemployed, walking toward lonesome vertical farms, knowing they will have no retirement, seeking nothing of what had been promised to them by their elders, in rage, trembling, peacefully flipped their phones and filmed the police surrounding them.

Now the soft machines, addicted political symbionts in assemblage with pharmacopornographic and cybernetic technologies, are rising. The global cut-up is underway.



[Table of contents]

The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

Table of contents

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