William Burroughs: Paranoia as Liberation Thanatology

Interesting that shamanism is coming up a lot lately. I’ve been reading about it in connection with schizophrenia, Michael mentioned it today, a few others recently, and I was given book on Psychomagic, too. If there is a reason why so many of us are looking at psychopathology- if we’re right to suspect that ‘generalised lunacy’ is here- then it seems like we’re also looking to the shamanic as a way out. Yes, a way out. I’ve been considering the left recently and it seem to come all too often to a game of hope and moral blackmail. The dream floats free of the dreamer and comes to dominate him. To escape the limits of reality.

I’m wondering if the best we can hope for is in fact the very evasion of control that has so often been cast as the ultimate irresponsibility. To every answer comes the question of how you feed 10billion people. The answer is you don’t because you can’t because to the unconscious the demand is that you- yes you Mr Hickman- get out there and distribute the loaves and the fishes. More leftist melancholy ensues, rhapsodising itself into the ultimate agonies of masochism, “radical victimology”. First task of control evasion is to evade the snares and traps of perpetual moralism.

Ballard said that he couldn’t get Burroughs; sexuality, drugs, and paranoia separated them. Ballard said Burroughs was an authentic paranoid. It’s trite but you got to ask it any, don’t you? The meaning of this paranoia. Clinically paranoids are marked by a cognitive deficits involving poor information gathering in relation to decision making, exacerbated by an over-active agential attribution system. It’s not wrong but it’s not enough. In Hegelese:

“The isolated person is thus, like the structureless mass of people,
object and not subject of the process of history. The heteronomous, the
controlled, the persecuted, the delusional paranoid is handed over
defenselessly to the objectively murderous relations of production of in
the hegemonic social “order.” Thus paranoia is a realistic expression of

Burroughs was all about this paranoia and it must be placed with his escapological aspects. Paranoia finds power everywhere and couples things up in an infinite and “bizarre” spiral of connectionism and interactionism such that the fear that you’ve irradiated my meal bespeaks Fukushima and the realities of everyday poison and the noxiousness of an irradiated psychosphere and the distrust of “the powerful” and it keeps connecting like an unending sentence that can’t and won’t ever abbreviate itself until a network or a spider’s web of conspiratorial energy is dispersed through the entire social fabric and and but it gets overinterpreted so that the psychiatric profession has been able to reabsorb the key insight and neutralise it.

Except that in tracing the capillary web of power it also comes to the startling conclusion that Baudrillard would make about Foucault’s theorisation of power: it is visible insofar as it disappears. It’s gone. It’s vanished. The paranoid has his nonspecific floating “They”- the conspiratorial plural- in order to reflect this still strange and probably still offensive news. Seeing that there is nothing to see and seeing it everywhere the paranoid is capable of following a path of disappearance. He is on the look out for shadowy corners in which to hide.

On the ‘immanent materiality of the ideal order itself’ I doubt there is anyone quite as up for it as Stirner, who as you might know is connected to Lacan through post-anarchism. Whatever. The materiality of the ideal can be spoken about but is it in terms of its effects or what? Lacan’s claims on the origin of knowledge in the paranoiac knowledge of objects: the idea that knowledge itself is persecutory. Isn’t it true? Isn’t it the case that consciousness itself is the very urgrund of all our persecutions?

To know thyself is to be lacerated by self-hate and to wrap it all up in self-love. That is why the phobia of negative thinking. The negative chatter in one’s own mind- I’m lazy, I’m a liar, I’m a hypocrite, I’m thick, my mind is arid, I have nothing important to say, I’m a bad lover, a bad father, a bad worker, a bad colleague, a bad communist, a bad whateverthefuckandIcan’tevendecideanything- is always treated as a persecutory enemy and identified as something to be dissolved, to be dissipated, to get some cognitive distance and disidentification from. Well it’s actually the opposite: this is the intimate paranoia that detects the defects in carrying this hallucination that you are a self at all. It’s not going away by wishing it away. You’ve got to get right in there. Disidentification, sure…but mind how you go. Why reject the dissatisfaction? Accelerate it to the point that it collapses the system of the semiology of negative self-attribution.

Simone Weil starved herself to death in solidarity with others. She might not be everyone’s favourite person to talk to about it, but for what it’s worth she had this much to say: “Turn all disgust into disgust with the self”.

They used to talk about getting out of your head. Jodorowsky has a psychomagical ritual for that. There are drugs for that. There are psychopathologies and ecstatic dancing and religious and mystical experiences to seek out for that. Oh dear. The postmodern shaman comes back around. I almost said temporary autonomous zone but I stopped myself. How do you feed 10billion people? You don’t just walk off, that’s for sure.

Our politics are serious. They are singularly serious. They come together with techne and rationalism. Out at the fringes we’re talking about re-engineering the whole thing. Fuck nature- nature’s just waiting to be mutated. Can we even start with ourselves? The neurostimulatory experiments in authentic desubjectivation. Fuck, can we even just begin with survival today and tomorrow and the soft warmth of our fragile shit smeared bodies. I’m not against xenofeminism; I’m not against anything xeno.

The return of the weightiness of rationalism raises a fear for those who see psychopathology not as all breakdown but also as breakthrough, as Laing put it. Paranoia, to be beside one’s own mind. Is this the first reactive wave against the new rationalism? It isn’t a rejection but a warping and side-ways looking everywhere at once. The return of reason breeds new and wonderful monsters. A new irrationalism.

I am an escapologist: for my first trick I will disappear from my own head.

The Dark Fantastic: Literature, Philosophy, and Digital Arts


Consequently since my arrival five hundred thousand years ago I’ve had one thought on my mind: the escape plan…

– William Burroughs

Rereading Burroughs is like falling through the abyss on glass wings, one is never sure if the shattered reflections on the black seas below are of one’s own paranoia or just the truth of nature revealed as alien topology. The cartography of annihilation is always a smile hiding in the dark. Burroughs is that smile.

Naked Lunch still packs the stiletto poetry of the street, a free flow impressionism that sinks deep. Burroughs voice is brisk and driven, speed is the game:

The Rube flips in the end, running through empty automats and subway stations, screaming: `Come back, kid!! Come back!!’ and follows his boy right into the East River, down through condoms and orange peels, mosaic of floating newspapers, down into the silent black ooze with gangsters…

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20 responses to “William Burroughs: Paranoia as Liberation Thanatology

  1. Yea, I have to admit that my travels in the altered-states during the sixties and seventies is what awakened me out of my slipshod dream of life. Mushrooms, peyote, and acid: the triumvirate at that time opened as Huxley said after Blake – the “doors of perception”. And what a world it revealed! I knew that it was all connected to our brain even then, knew that we’d been like Blake said in his poetry and critical proems closed off in our little cubical of a mind through a long history of Reason. Reason is a Control device: a prison that locks us up in our small manageable worlds so we can cope with this technological wonderland of a hell we’ve all created together.

    The Shamans of the world were technologists of the spirit rather than of engineered bridges. They engineered bridges between our everyday lives in sociality and the dreamtime of the universe itself. The invent maps to help us negotiate these in-between states while traveling among them so that we’d not get lost in the cosmos. Paranoia as Guattari and Deleuze would testify too is what capitalism does to a Shaman: it brutalizes them and forces them into perverse relations with their natural born being.

    We know in ancient cultures that both women and men were sorcerers of various types: it was part healer, part alternate voyager. I spent years studying this history and lived it. Drums are a key as Mickey Hart of The Dead would discover in his Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion. So much about sound and rhythm in the magic that most never learn about. It’s not just drugs, or meditation, etc. Its knowing the beat of the heart, the earth, the universe: a beat and rhythm that puts one into what we used to call the “groove” – remember oh that’s groovy… silly now, but back then one knew what it meant.

    That’s always been at the back of my own world while still engaging with this other world of academic philosophy etc. Yet, when I read these men and women its as if all the things we learned back in the sixties and early seventies have fallen away, a whole generations knowledge lost. Of course most of it is because the propaganda machine worked overtime to provide disinformation about that culture, showing it as evil druggies who commit suicide, et. al. Junk academia … oh well want beat the bush on that score.

    Stanislof Grof who never quit experimenting with LSD and its derivatives wrote extensively about this area from a science perspective and toward a psychotherapeutic path. We’ve lost so much from earlier tribal knowledge on this score that we may never find our way back. Most of our religious experiences come out of this one way or another. I still affirm with William Blake that all the gods resided in the human breast: not out there… and it was through vision we awakened these realms while awake. The Gnostics and especially of the Ismaili Dervishes etc. keep this alive. India in Shivaites and others… it’s all there scattered like the fragments of a lost civilization. Yet, its our only hope as you suggest. If we don’t learn to touch that region of our being we’re doomed. I truly believe that. Keep it to myself most of the time. But it’s there.

  2. apart from the sheer aesthetic/literary qualities and pleasures I think that Burroughs gets much of the mood right but I worry (in terms of taking his work as more than art) that in some sense it is an escape in so much as it doesn’t capture the real alienation of the everyday, mundane, world that most of us dwell, and suffer, in.
    The un-canny is not other than the brutal simplifiers of ‘able’ bodied human-beings doing what we do exposed for us to attend to (like a post-modern building with see thru walls revealing the pipes and wires and all, or an injured hand with cut tendons now attached to wires to try and set and heal), the tragic banalities of evil as Germany has once again reminded us.

    Click to access Caputo.Essay.pdf

    • Not sure what you mean… his work was nothing but the mundane seen through the lens of paranoia. Of course his world was my world during the mid-century, so in that sense his work is of another era. So if you mean the mundane of our political era, of course it couldn’t speak to you. He used cut-ups, fantasy, surrealism, pop-art of his time to connect to the undercurrents of the politics of desire of the 50’s and 60’s cultural frame. His wasn’t an “escape” from reality per se, only an escape from our “official” reality as presented by the cultural monarchs. His work captured every aspect of our alienated condition if you open your eyes and see what he is doing.

      • Yes. The idea of escape from reality is the problem to begin with. I’m absolutely clear about one thing when it comes to paranoia, to voice-hearing, to seeing what others don’t see: these experiences are not an escape but an intensification of reality cut-off from inclusion in the real by “the continuity of knowledge” (Krishnamurti). The problem of exodus- where do you go?- is answered by the answer that was already there. You go inside. A process of involution that goes in by getting the inside back to where it already was, right there on the outside (Guattari’s image of the unconscious we drag behind us). The same again in PHD- all those phreenies in his stories who escape by getting out of the culture and into the immanence the culture tries to carve up. The Laurelleian idea I understand, though I’ve read almost nothing by him, it has percolated up from all the others. And from this it seems that psychiatry is really the decisional enterprise. What is real and what is not. What is true and what is false. Oh yes, sure, philosophize all you like…but even Descartes could get locked up if a petty medical bureaucrat wanted to.

        • Yea, it comes down to who ‘owns’ the official narrative of reality: normal/abnormal, etc. Those who own the narrative impose arbitrary boundaries on the normative worlds of the socius. If you situate yourself outside those boundaries you are deemed a threat to either yourself or society and must be policed by society. Yet, as we know during the 90’s many schiz’s were set free not due to their problems, but because the State could no longer afford their problems so all the half-way houses that housed the marginal were closed and hundreds of thousands of schiz’s were let loose to fend for themselves. It was at this time the narrative readjusted itself and autism came to the fore, a slow reinterpretation of the rules of their game to alleviate the economic pressure of earlier failed therapies, etc. At least that’s something that happened here in the states, not sure of UK and other Eurozone countries…

          • Yes, it’s the same here. Although also, maybe more so, the schiz became the bipolar. We talk in those terms because we’ve inherited those terms. They are someone else’s words, someone else’s decision. It’s just noise.

            Speaking of the gnostics, I am coming into contact with some practitioners soon. It’s a strange thing.

            • I’ve always felt that many of the counter-mappings of our cognitive architecture that we see in the counter-cultural framings that delve into the Occult, Hermetic, Gnostic, Magical, Paganistic… psychedelic…. etc. all stem from this need to find alternative paths outside the official world-view… We see this in Blake and the Romantics with their inversion of the Christian into secular appropriations of ancient Greek and other mythologies into atheistic systems of poetry… etc. We see it in Marx’s on inversion of Heglian spiritual dialectics into a redemption theory of sociality…. It’s as if society has always had two opposing views of reality: one that is monocultural and the other pluralistic or polyvalent. As you suggest the Gnostic opposed the alliance of State (Caesar) and Religion (Catholicism) during that age. Whatever Gnosticism is now it is just like the New Age pagans and magicals… a recreation or reinterpretation of a dead culture, a new mythology of the past, a fanciful repainting to an ancient practice into something for our own time.

              One notices in studying shamanism that these techniques dealt with ways of breaking down and remodulating the psyche of the practitioner. All the fantastic imagery is about this remodeling process of cognitive remapping of the unconscious and perceptual systems, rather than some literal spirit fest or belief system. This is where I disagree with dmf and many so to speak authors and experts on shamanism that he seems to take to heart. Even the fictionizer of this Castenada in his last work provided that truth: that it was about the reordering of our brain processes, a cognitive remapping from the cultural imperial view to another system of perceiving and experiential knowledge that was non-conceptual and non-representationalist. We are so bound to our Western conceptualism as if it were universal and that everything else is either crazy or non-sense that we’ve locked ourselves into this madness. But that’s my take, both personal and programmatic. More and more I’m becoming fed up with theory anyway, it’s a dead-end as far as I can see. The last theoretic to actually have an impact on politics was Marx himself, and we see where that led. The neoliberals used money, power, and a massive system of indoctrination through education, media, and propaganda to educe a passive and compliant consumer society. What we have now is a generation that no longer knows anything else. Amnesia has already set in to the point that people almost believe anything these days. And they all believe in ‘experts’… lol And, those of us outside the flytrap really are only talking to ourselves… and, what is that truly doing?

              • The sickness with theory- well, join a growing crowd. Why am I unable to feel compelled and to stick with a project? I’d thought, shit, it’s me, I’m just shit, and all that useless masochism with its velvet seductions. nah, it’s something there between this and the text…the text or the conditions of reading, well, there is a failure of any “libido” (whatever that stands in for) to be released. A failure of the text and the culture and the one who reads it to cohere. All kindling, no spark. Sick of theory, yep. What’s essential? neuroscience, psychiatry (I still gotta eat), and the practices that get outside of the trap.

                “Expert” is a word I dispise. In mental health the endless argument. Expert by expertise versus expert by experience. There is no expert. That’s the con. We want the expert or want to be the expert. We want to fail, to be trapped, to keep lashed: a generalised economy of victimhood.

                Well, that might be unfair too. I dont know. It’s maybe time to follow one’s own obsessions in the way that Ballard used to do…I loved that quote, but never understood/understand it from the inside.

                I’m quite prepared for the gnostics I’m going to see (via a Theosophical School, no less) are also con-men full of new age spiritual bullshit. i’m just putting my feelers out towards something unfamiliar.

                • I think that’s it – theory is masturbation, a sort of self-flagellating exercise in mental self-revelation. Like our old fan-boy Zizek: he’s become just a spokesman for hopelessness of late with his fail and fail better: always thought of that as a sort of earmark or watershed of stupidity maximalist adagio. I’ve been return to Pynchon, Vonnegut and Henry Miller of late for a little comic relief from the fly-trap world of theory. I keep telling myself: don’t be so cynical and pessimistic, people will wake up… but I’m beginning to think otherwise – that’s the sad thing. I look on what’s happening in the EU and realize the Left is dead, mute, silent, and useless against the stupidity of the elites governing them now. All one can do there is watch the elites murder each other and the rest of Europe in a process of cannibalism of the debt and austerity it is imposing on those passive masses that want fight back. Sad.

  3. about the shamanism thing, there seems to be some suggestion by many of the proponents that someone who doesn’t already live in a world that they experience as being full of spirits and underworlds and all could just adopt such beliefs or somehow engineer them with drugs or such, this seems pretty dubious to me.

    • Shamanism isn’t about otherworldly spirits, etc. as you suggest… we’re talking a very materialist mapping of the mind and earth in a form that is not bound by the discursive rationality of philosophy. Yet, some presume it to be like religion which is a false analogy. It’s neither animism nor New Age mumbo jumbo…. no matter what you may have heard. It’s pragmatic knowledge of plants, healing, and the altered forms of perception that escape the reasoning filters of the mind that our sociality has imposed on us.

      • don’t know what believers/practitioners you’ve known or studied but the folks i know here in the US and Mexico (and those my old profs used to work with in tundra and rain-forest) wouldn’t recognize such a naturalistic/de-animated account as being of the same kind as theirs.

    • That’s probably why I don’t speak of it on my blog more often because of the stupid association with New Age spirituality that some people confuse with shamanism as presented by new age gurus etc. These guys are con-men and women who seek fame and fortune not knowledge or self-experimentation. It’s like anything else one can describe it in discourse, yet what one describes is not the thing itself only its faded appropriation to the linguistic structures of social reason we’ve all come to share as this thing we call “human”.

      • well if yer going to insist on using a term in such contrary (to general/popular) use why not just give a working definition as well so folks know what you are referring too?

        • Why should I? You don’t get now… why would then? You think everything is reduced to “conceptuality” as if that is the ultimate prize… it’s not a conceptuality but a praxis… and, like shamanism for thousands of years it’s not something you can teach through words: it’s through the body… same way as my martial arts… through actual praxis: it’s a body practice connected to embodiment, not to our Western metaphysics since Plato… lol you want definitions rather than reality!

        • And, of course, you seem to think I’m in some alternate universe of thought that goes against you’re professors… not sure what universe you live in, either with this “folks”? Why are you always the one who is so contrarian? Always wanting to argue with people? What makes you some great expert? I never see any names … just generalizations…. not once do you ever post anything in detail, just blather full of hot air and steam… always throwing the ball back into my court to prove my side of the issue… I’m don’t need prove anything. That’s not what this is about… but you seem to make it into that every time.

        • I’ll try again… having become a martial arts expert from my early twenties on I learned early on that some things are never taught through conceptuality, but through actual bodily form itself in performance not reflection on the body. Buddhism and martial arts in certain traditions that grew out of that mixture of Taoist/Shaman world-views in Northern China mixed with Buddhism became fully pragmatic and praxis oriented over time to the point that what one learned was form not content. One enacted the forms through practice… the same applies to the mappings of shamanistic pathways. It’s not something one can teach through book knowledge ( obviously some have tried and failed miserably ) or conceptuality. It’s a physical relation between an expert Shaman and his pupil… and even in those traditions it’s not just any and all who can follow this path: the ancients knew that certain types of beings showed signs of vocation and could be taught, while others would never make the cut so to speak. So in that sense it’s not something just anyone can enter into and suddenly become a practitioner. I’m not going to sit here and give you some long rendition of this whole complex of knowledge since to me it’s a useless exercise in conceptuality. That’s one of those aspects I have problems with Western Philosophies: they think everything can be put into words… it can’t.

  4. There are ways into Shamanism within the Western tradition that y’know attempts to pervert it in various way, the Western I mean. Whether or not it is Shamanism how could I know, having never met or been a Shaman? It doesn’t really matter. The point with this is to find some other hook, or rather to get off the hook. Well, I don’t know. It might be the case that there isn’t actually a hook at all and we’re just generating them ourselves out of our love of victimhood. I’m not suggesting there is no suffering and no problems but I am suggesting that we already had the solutions and that it is the solutions that might be our real problems…and end to suffering, well who really wants that? What the hell would be left? “Faced with the insoluble, I breathe at last” (Cioran).

    When I say there are ways in I’m talking about the names that everyone already knows. Those good ole folks like Terence McKenna or whoever. But actually I’m thinking about Jodorowsky as I said in the slack commentary above. His idea of psychomagic, the idea that, well yeh sure you got your psychoanalysis and it’s interminable production of discourse that results in a flattening of the real into the words that can be said of it. Ah! You’ve got yourself into an Oedipal ordeal! You want to fuck Mummy or Daddy. You have repressed homosexual urges! Always licking your lips at the boys in the shower room after gym classes and feeling wrong about it the rest of the day.

    Okay. Great. Thanks Sigmund. Psychoanalysis says that the unconscious is structured like a language. Well, a bouncy castle is structured like a palace but we ain’t going to be moving in any time soon. We get caught in this endless proliferation of words. The philosophers got bored of hermeneutic commentary on this one’s words or that one’s words and yet in some way of other we still believe that, hey, knowing with the verbal and verbalising the knowledge is going to dislodge the blockages and let the anxiously guarded energies flow.

    Jodorowsky has it that this is just bullshit. Y’need some magic in your life. In a world dominated by culture- that is by the symbolic machines that produce all kinds of knowledge and this factory of semioexistential meaning production- what you need is natural hidden forces. They’re hidden because they’re obscured by that verbosity. I think isn’t this even a point made by Deleuze and Guattari- who I do not understand and have barely read (time! laziness! faithlessness! )- when they talk about asignifying sign-particles? Absolutely natural forces of ritual of incantation of the dramaturgical and aesthetic aspects of nonverbal/preverbal/averbal practices. The unconscious demands a sacrifice! What? are we getting out of that by soothing it with words? Jodorowsky writes that we need to give that sacrifice. He knows a secret that Freud never gave us: the unconscious is an idiot!

    Oedipal fixations got you down? Have it arranged that a performance can occur whereby you fuck your “Daddy” or “Mummy” and those dark desires get their way. Too much in the way of homosexual shame? Suck a strap-on strapped to an accommodating friend. How does the unconscious know the difference? It is mythic. That’s what it prefers.

    Well- none of this is especially practical although it is pure practice. I can’t imagine saying to one of my clients- here is a small live bird that is your addiction, now grip it in your hands harder each time you feel the urge to take a hit until you murder it and its blood trickles between the fingers. Obviously, no. HA! But why not? Because there is no specialism here, although Jodorowsky- like a guru would- claims one must have years in the theatre, in the arts, in poetry to undertake psychomagical consultations. All that is required is a life in which the imagination isn’t stultified by the “junk” information of everyday life.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be listened to. I struggle so much with philosophy and wonder whether I have been too indebted to verbal-textual ways of knowing. There is no time. There is so much endless backward cycling through the same. Like the antipsychiatrists before me I would prefer to go mad creatively. Whether it is liveable? A partner, a child, a job………..well, with the burden of the blackmail of responsibility who can ever live? We’re suffocating in here, inside our idee fixe, our obsessive-compulsions.

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