Kathy Acker on William Burroughs

As I prepare to talk about William S Burroughs at the end of the month, I’ve been re-reading Kathy Acker’s essay “William Burroughs’s Realism”. You can find her essay in Bodies of Work (Serpent’s Tail, 1997). The following is a one-page summary of her three-page essay:

Some American writers have criticised American society in cultured tones. But this doesn’t work because America isn’t cultured. American society is insane because it has a view of the world that doesn’t match up to the world and it cannot change its view. American society is unaware of anything other than itself.

Burroughs does not use cultured tones to criticise American society. He writes in a way that exhibits discontinuity, mutation, twisting of time so that it becomes space. It is a psychotic writing, but American reality is now psychotic, so it is a writing for America in our time.

Then Acker compares an extract from Burroughs’s The Soft Machine to a story that a friend told her. Both Burroughs’s text and her friend’s story are fictional. But then Acker writes: “What is fiction is that which will become actual.” This is what Burroughs does: he writes fiction that describes the future. “Writing that seemed radical when it appeared today looks like journalism. In other words: today in the United States, we are living in the worlds of Burroughs’s novels. Pray that the wild boys will help us escape.”

Burroughs wrote the future, but he also offered us a means of escape. He did this––in The Wild Boys and in all of his books––by using language opposed to the language of the media:

“The language of our media who dictate our political and social actualities is that of (false) continuity and (always partially false) fact: simple declarative sentences, as little use of ambiguity as possible, no dwelling within verbal sensuousness. Burroughs fights this post-bourgeois language with poetry: images, dangling clauses, all that lingers at the edge of the unsaid, that leads to and through dreams.”

We need this language of dreams because without it we will die. This is what Burroughs tells us, and what Acker tells us again here, at the end of her essay. Burroughs is a “mad journalist” because he describes reality but he also twists it so that we have a means of escape through dreams.

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