Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 5: Junk, Soma, and States of Exception

July 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Perhaps nothing seems so mundane and so simultaneously sacred as that which we ingest and put into our bodies. During the 1960s, the United States Food and Drug Administration had attempted to keep one version of American citizenship safe while psychedelic citizenship attempted something different. This tension appears in William Burroughs’ writing as the binary between the junky state and the soma state. The Drug Enforcement Administration was created in 1973 by Richard Nixon, “in order to establish a single unified command to combat ‘an all-out global war on the drug menace’” (United States Department of Justice).

In a way, this was a heavy blow to aspirations of a soma state, but perhaps the true nature of the conflict inspiring the war on drugs – which still continues today – is that the spiritual qualities underpinning the lifestyle choices that motivated performance culture are unable to be discussed within the public frame of a secularization narrative. Ironically, Nixon’s “unified command” occurred just before the public became widely aware of CIA’s MK-ULTRA projects.

In 1978, discussing ways to solve the problem of addiction, William Burroughs told Victor Bockris and Raymond Foye, referencing Gordon Taylor’s The Biological Time Bomb, “Any sort of selective distribution of a medication to prolong life would run into, uh, social difficulties . . . our creaky old social system cannot absorb the biologic discoveries that are on the way” (106). When Bockris points out that this “points toward a much more controlled society,” Burroughs counters, saying he agrees with Timothy Leary, “Washington is no longer the center of power.” Because the government cannot compete with private wealth, Burroughs believes the government will have no “monopoly on scientific discovery.” He predicts, “they’re going to legalize marijuana, and sooner or later they’re going to come around to some sort of heroin maintenance” (107). He points to growing feelings of futility within drug enforcement and says, that the sooner there are less restrictions, the necessity for the DEA will be eliminated. But how does this fit into arguments appealing to religion?

In “Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” an addendum to Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs says,
I have heard that there was once a beneficent non-habit-forming junk in India. It was called ‘soma’ and is pictured as a beautiful blue tide. If ‘soma’ ever existed the Pusher was there to bottle it and monopolize it and sell it and it turned into plain old time JUNK.

Burroughs associates junk with the crassest of globalized consumerism, and his characters, William Lee and Clem Snide move through differing personas in and out of being agents of the State and deliriously high junkies…his narratives move geographically around the world, broken and cut-up spatially and temporally. Junkies clearly detorritorialize the world. Yet toward the end of the book, Naked Lunch is itself referred to as a “blueprint, a How-To Book” (203). The reader “can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” essentially becoming a manual for divination in deterritorialized space:

Black insect lusts open into vast, other planet landscapes….Abstract concepts, bare as algebra, narrow down to a black turd or a pair of aging cajones….
How-To extend all levels of experience by opening the door at the end of a long hall….Doors that only open in Silence…. Naked Lunch demands Silence from The Reader. Otherwise he is taking his own pulse….

Appearing in ficto-poetic form years before either Leary’s version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Kleps’s catechism, or Ram Dass’s Remember Be Here Now, Burroughs presents his own avant-garde psychedelic guide. Like Artaud, Burroughs had traveled to South America to experience Yage and Ayahuasca. He describes the drugs as producing “blue flashes” in the appendix to Naked Lunch (230). Earlier in the novel, Burroughs, in a rare moment of almost reverence strews images:

Pictures of men and women, boys and girls, animals, fish, birds, the copulating rhythm of the universe flows through the room, a great blue tide of life. Vibrating, soundless hum of deep forest – sudden quiet of cities when the junky copes. A moment of stillness and wonder. Even the Commuter buzzes the clogged lines of cholesterol for contact. (74)

The list avoids the syntactic completion by avoiding “be” verbs. Here Burroughs aligns the silence of “The Reader” with the experience of “Blue Tide” through a collapsed, perennial space of humans, animals and cities and the “Commuter” – Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  This associative performance, like Kleps’s performance in The Boo Hoo Bible, is psychedelic aesthetics in action. Collapsing identities of reader and author and character and State, Burroughs pushes toward a new citizenship beyond geography, time and space, but he masks his Soma state well with seedy digressions and soupy plotlines. As a narrator explains:

The President is a junky but can’t take it direct because of his position. So he gets his fix through me….From time to time we make contact and I recharge him. These contacts look, to the casual observer, like homosexual practices, but the actual excitement is not primarily sexual, and the climax is the separation when the charge is completed. (66)

The necessity for the sexual encounter is because, if it were done by “Osmosis Recharge, . . . it will put the President in a bad mood for weeks, and might well precipitate an atomic shambles.” The president has formed “an Oblique” habit. He has sacrificed all control, and is dependent as an unborn child ”(66). As a result, the “Oblique Addict” ingests and consumes and “suffers a whole spectrum of subjective horror, silent protoplasmic fury, hideous agony of the bones.” The bones of the skeleton, the inside kills the addict, “straining to climb out of his unendurable flesh.” The State at this point is preserved by the sacrifice of the junky in communion with the President.

Burroughs’s narrative performs a collapse of subjectivity and objectivity typical to mysticism and psychedelic aesthetics. Like Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it is presented through a polysemus extreme materiality of biology, sex, bones and junk. Later in the novel, a narrator recalls a trip saying,
And I don’t know what I am doing there nor who I am. I decide to play it cool and maybe I will get the orientation before the Owner shows….So instead of yelling “Where Am I?” cool it and look around and you will find out approximately….You were not there for The Beginning. You will not be there for The End….Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative….(199)

Here Burroughs pushes to a state of exception: to life, death and knowledge. But he also converges the first and second persons, establishing the evangelical effect typical of psychedelic aesthetics. This state of exception where boundaries between personas collapse is the state that produces the writer or poet:

There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his eyes at the moment of writing….I am a recording instrument….I do not presume to impose “story” “plot” “continuity.”… Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function….I am not an entertainer….(200)

Here the writer becomes an object, an instrument – a machine. But this quickly establishes a different communion.

“Possession” they call it….Sometimes an entity jumps in the body – outlines waver in yellow orange jelly – and hands move to disembowel the passing whore or strangle the neighbor child in hope of alleviating a chronic housing shortage. As if I was usually there but subject to goof now and then….Wrong! I am never here….Never that is fully in possession, but somehow in a position to forestall ill-advised moves….

The narrator turned reader turned writer turned machine turned possessed body is repositioned as an advisor…as a new subject. That subject enacts interstitially with the State, but is positioned outside:

Patrolling is, in fact, my principle occupation….No matter how tight Security, I am always somewhere Outside giving orders and Inside this straitjacket of jelly that gives and stretches but always reforms ahead of every movement, thought, impulse, stamped with the seal of alien inspection….

The passage moves on to distinguish writers from junkies over the smell / lack of smell of death: “the death smell is unmistakably a smell and complete absence of smell.” The absence of smell is the death of organic life (201). What is the end of all of this associative transfer?

Burroughs has described what critics of liberalism (like the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt) see as a democratic nightmare, where public and State are completely indecipherable and left with no sovereign decision-maker. Rather than a decider, which conservatives pine for, liberalism brings an orgy of consumption at every level. Burroughs describes this in perhaps the most well-known image and story from Naked Lunch: The man who taught his asshole to talk. The talking asshole develops its own personality and teeth, eventually consuming the rest of the body from the bottom up and the inside out. This becomes Burroughs’ figure for bureaucratic democracy, and we get a slight glimpse of another way he’d like to be. The character Dr. Benway, to whom agent Lee has been assigned in Mexico, lectures the younger Schaeffer, justifying their work as “Pure scientists” (119). Benway says, “Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised” (121). As an aside, Benway then throws in:

A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of people who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its own existence. (122)

Not throwing democracy completely out the window, Burroughs’s character suddenly sounds quite a bit like Herbert Marcuse with perhaps a tinge of Edward Abbey. In any case, the vision requires a more balanced and shared reciprocity, as well as a rejection of false needs. The question becomes, how does one determine between true and false needs with this new citizenship? Burroughs’s work suggests more implicitly (but also more powerfully) that this would be a poetics that disrupts existing narratives, that in doing so a new poetics moves beyond the birth-death or being-toward-death narrative.

As a public icon, Burroughs often seems so irreverent that it is difficult to see anything like religion or spirituality in his work. This is partly because, for him, drawing on Artaud and the perennial, he presents the world of spirit as being closer to immanence than transcendence. It is necessary for both Artaud and Burroughs to intensify the grotesque and the body as their spiritual practice. This is easiest to see in Burroughs’s invocation and critique of the European imaginary, which he does in Naked Lunch by way of reference to the anthropologist, Franz Boas. Occurring through a globalized montage of non-industrialized societies that Burroughs calls the “Yage state” (99) and sounding much like Artaud, he writes:

“All medicine men use [yage] in their practice to foretell the future, locate lost or stolen objects, to diagnose and treat illness, to name the perpetrator of a crime.” Since the Indian (straitjacket for Herr Boas – trade joke – nothing so maddens an anthropologist as Primitive Man) does not regard any death as accidental, and they are acquainted with their own self-destructive trends referring to them contemptuously as “our naked cousins,” or perhaps that these trends above all are subject to the manipulation of alien and hostile wills, any death is murder. The medicine man takes Yage and the identity of the murderer is revealed to him. As you may imagine, the deliberations of the medicine man during one of these jungle inquests give rise to certain feelings of uneasiness among his constituents. (100)

And so similarly, as Burroughs seems to suggest, the yage ingestion or psychedelic trip creates in its perennial and deterritorialized state the possibility for determining social justice. In the matrix of Naked Lunch, the perpetrator has been identified by the bureaucratic state through a sacrificial and excessive consumption of junk.

At least so far as psychedelic aesthetics are concerned, it makes sense to put Burroughs into more current anthropological findings. Michael Taussig, professor at Columbia University, devoted his early work to shamanism in South America. His book, The Magic of the State, employs what he calls ficto-criticism and uses a genre collapse as participant-observational writing method that transcends subject-object distinction. He describes a quasi-magical relationship between a colonial state enchanted by and inextricable from native religion. In more recent work, such as What Color is the Sacred and Beauty and the Beast, Taussig connects drugs, consumption, color and global commerce, pointing out hidden enchanted aspects of things typically thought of as completely mundane. Taussig notes that drugs and dyes were for years commercially equivalent:

If historically color has been categorized as a spice, as in the phrase, “the spice of life,” a phrase suggestive of a “rush” that takes us out of ourselves, like a drug, it is exceedingly curious that this association with color should have been forgotten in our usual understandings of the rise of the West to economic and military prominence. Color was every bit as important as so-called spices, if not a great deal more so, and indeed could be as highly valued as gold and silver. (What Color is the Sacred? 146)

Methodologically, Taussig has an implicit debt to psychedelic aesthetics and writers like Burroughs. His associative figuring allows him to see global economic relationships in strikingly new ways, ones the complicate more traditional readings of colonial and post-colonial. Without the lineage of psychedelic aesthetics’ playing on critiques of the European imaginary, Taussig may seem pretty far out there. Within it, he makes good sense.

Another more contemporary thinker dealing with these issues is Giorgio Agamben in his reading of Marcel Mauss on gift-giving in The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Agamben’s work shows an important relationship between the divine and sacrificial rites. He notes that Mauss was deeply influenced by the anthropologist Sylvain Levi, whose work on early Brahmin religion and sacrifice in The Rig Veda (which is the soma sacrifice) suggests that, “Indian sacrifice is not simply an effective action, as are all rites; it does not limit itself to merely influencing the gods; it creates them” (226). Rites are essentially poetic in the sense of making.

Through ingesting the divine one not only becomes divine, the act determines and makes the divine. It is a relationship similar to the economy Burroughs suggests as cooperative. Agamben says that “both sacrifice and prayer present us with a theurgical aspect in which men, by performing a series of rituals – more gestural in the case of sacrifice, more oral in that of prayer – act on the gods in a more or less effective manner.” This leads Agamben to an aesthetic notion that has been de-emphasized in politics – a fundamental relationship to “glorification over glory”:

Perhaps glorification is not only that which best fits the glory of God but is itself, as effective rite, what produces glory; and if glory is the very substance of God and the true sense of his economy, then it depends upon glorification in an essential manner and, therefore, has good reason to demand it through reproaches and injunctions.

We begin to see here the importance of understanding psychedelic aesthetics in relationship to not only citizenship but to a citizenship of postsecular re-enchantment. It is not merely nostalgia for religion or spirituality left behind by narratives of secularization, but the very substance of economic process itself. The affective qualities of poetic works are at the heart of politics and the economy. Insufficient attention to them is what creates Simon Critchley’s call for a return to poetry as a new foundation of “supreme fiction” in his recent book, Faith of the Faithless. Because of their re-enchanted qualities, works like Naked Lunch and The Boo Hoo Bible that display psychedelic aesthetics are fundamentally political-theological in nature and useful to Critchley’s call. Besides Burroughs and Kleps, a similar process was present, although to a lesser extent, in other writers’ work dealing symbolically with different aspects of the economy.

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