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William S. Burroughs and engaged damage

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Damage can be identified as a strident signifier of twentieth-century art, exemplified by the use of damage in the processes of artistic facture. The processes of this facture have long been recognized in the methods of collage and post-collage transformations. This article addresses the work of William S. Burroughs, an artist who factured exemplary work from 1955 into the late 1960s for a major series of novels. The work for these novels may be characterized as raw and involved in engaged damage. It was work factured fifteen or more years before most of the work published in 1982 in RE/SEARCH, where the rawness is cleaned up. In contrast to RE/Search’s presentation, this article discusses Burroughs’ use of damage to engender new texts from existing texts, using visual as well as literary facture and practices, such as the use of multiple columns of text and image, which carries the intention that the writer and reader perceiving one column of text or image picks up another or more than one text or image from parallel columns as a kind of peripheral vision that has the potential to overlap or interfere with the primary column being read; this proposal develops into a theory of a consciousness. The prose is representation of transformed perception, memories and inventions. The general outlook is post-realistic with hints of menace and the future, a science fiction with a retrospective eye on the other watching the individual. Cleaned-up versions of Burroughs’ work from his period, using book publishers’ typesetting norms, can be seen in work for Burroughs’ first trilogy of novels. In addition, Burroughs’ use of accident in these texts may conceal a conventional worry about truth or veracity; as the text shifts from column to column, it is then regularized into a chopped and selected syntax in a parody, rather than a simulation, of a damaged filmstrip. These recurrences bring with them contrasted chreods, one from the concept of ‘a stream of consciousness’, the other from mechanical collage: the proprioceptive demands of empathy undermined by assemblage. A collection of the texts titled White Subway becomes a mimesis of consciousness and a demonstration of the context as it replays the tapes of a historical record. This is done overtly, with deliberate reference and allusion to the process of recording events and the damage in the process. Rather than knowing the outcome, Burroughs’ texts provide positive engagement with this damage.
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Keywords: art; assemblage; collage; damage; empathy; transformations

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Manchester Metropolitan University

Publication date: 2011-08-30

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  • The European Journal of American Culture (EJAC) is an academic, refereed journal for scholars, academics and students from many disciplines with a common involvement in the interdisciplinary study of America and American culture, drawing on a variety of approaches and encompassing the whole evolution of the country.
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