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tearing the rag off the bush again
Old Bull Lee Waves the Black Flag: Politics in William S. Burroughs?s Naked Lunch PDF E-mail

Politics are bountiful in most of American novelist William S. Burroughs’s canon. Whether they are of a strictly political nature or psychological, sexual, or psychosexual ones, his prose seeps with power struggles between both individuals and groups. However, in respect to politics qua politics, only in Naked Lunch does the author forthrightly address the political spectrum as a whole. Understandably, given that the text is a work of fiction atop the story’s surreal nature and atmosphere, the various institutions found within are symbolic representations (and, intuitively, assessments) of various political ideologies. Yet it is not the affiliation which the author vicariously aligns himself by way of his literary alter ego that the reader finds most revealing, but Burroughs’s implied proposition that all political philosophies except one are fascist in their underlying intent.

Approximately two-thirds of the way through Naked Lunch, Burroughs pauses to formally introduce the three prevailing, warring political factions found within his novel: “Liquefactionists,” “Senders,” and “Divisionists.” All three groups share the concurrent agenda of obtaining absolute control. On the Right stand the Liquefactionists. Liquefactionists attempt to garner power by way of eradicating (“liquidating”) everyone who is not a party supporter. The Liquefaction sect is countered by the Leftist Senders. The latter’s itinerary is to assume power through telepathy, i.e. brainwashing. In short, Senders set out to eliminate any and all divergent thought. Interestingly, though there is no visible violence being enacted, the result is the same: abolition of incompliant individuals through forced conversion. Lastly are the moderates, the Divisionists. They seek to procure power by through sheer number for they are capable of self-division. Thus, they hope to ultimately suffocate all non-Divisionists via perpetual replication.

How does any group hope to seize absolute control considering each is a party proper composed of numerous members? In respect to the Liquefaction party, “except for one man, [the Liquefactionists are] entirely composed of dupes, it not being clear until the final absorption who is whose dupe . . .” (147; 136). As such, Burroughs leaves his reader to assume a “Last Man Standing” dictum, which is to be instituted after the world has been purged of all rival party members, lies within Liquefactionist protocol. At first it would at first appear as if the Divisionist need not worry about the threat of intraparty homicide for, once Divisionists blot out their adversaries, “one person in the world [will remain, albeit] with millions of separate bodies” (149; 137). Unfortunately, the Divisionist’s program is a paradoxical one for it necessitates that replicas alter their appearance lest they visually disclose their schema to the masses. Because of this inherent obstacle, physical disparities¾there are no mental differences between Divisionists because they “recharge with the Mother Cell” periodically (149; 138)¾automatically generate suspicion in that Divisionists cannot determine who is a copy and who is not. Burroughs implies that, like the Liquefactionists, this inevitably forces a “Better Safe than Sorry” credo with the group as murder of anyone other than oneself becomes the only means by which to assure that Divisionism has prevailed. Senders mentally enslave those unlike themselves. Hence, it is fair to assume given the product of such being akin to that of the Divisionists, that the same member battles will ensue should the party succeed in disposing of alternative perspectives.

It is often stated that mainstream politics differ only in action, not in vision. The three predominate parties found within Naked Lunch reflect this attitude as the objective for all concerned is the acquisition of control while only their methods differ. However, what is not as apparent is the various coteries’ real world counterparts. What are the Liquefactionists, Senders, and Divisionists symbolizing? Obviously, given the Liquefactionist’s modus operandi of literal physical extermination, the association is representative of totalitarianism. Discerning the other two alliances’ equivalents is a bit more difficult considering that Divisionists and Senders are essentially the same in respect to installation of policy. The two only differ in that the former esteems for control through physical means whereas the latter utilizes mental avenues. Considering that the Divisionist’s goal is absolute control and that its application is physical multiplication, we can presume the syndication intends to distribute its members worldwide, which is the definition and stratagem of imperialism. On the other hand, Senders want each newborn to have a miniature radio receiver surgically implanted at birth. These devices will then be linked to “State-controlled transmitters” (148; 136). Thus, Senderism is analogous to state-run socialism whereas Divisionism is comparable to capitalistic, democratic entrepreneurs. The latter is further reinforced by the author’s observation that “only a very few Senders know what they are doing and these top Senders are the most evil and dangerous men in the world” (147; 136). Hence, as capitalism permits power to be accrued by the few via the financial exploitation of the many, only a handful of Senders are in true control at any one time due to their capacity to manipulate the masses. However, though it is tempting to conjecture that, given the analogy, the Final Sender will be the one who finally acquires control over all other Senders in the same manner that larger corporations slowly monopolize the market (thus not validating that the regime inherently be a democratic one), Senders have limited power for they can never “receive” or “recharge” (147; 137). Therefore, it is only a matter of time before one Sender remains. This individual will then become the obvious choice for leader in that he will be the only one the populace will be able to elect by (however ironic given how the person arrived at the political forefront) general, i.e. democratic, will (147; 137).

The author is not content to merely parody these political doctrines. In the course of his criticism, he satirizes them before offering a viable solution in the form of a revolutionary faction comprised of what he labels “Factualists.”

By definition, Factualism cannot be considered a party for its guiding philosophy is that of anarchism. Accordingly, no formal group can exist yet proponents of the theory’s ideals can. Logistically, Factualists stand in direct opposition to Liquefactionists, Senders, and Divisionists (151; 140) for anarchism’s underlying principle is the rejection of any and all controlling bodies. Consistent with its thought, Burroughs outlines in a series of singularly-focused bulletins that Factualism does “not reject or deny our protoplasmic core” but “striv[es] at all time[s] to maintain a maximum of flexibility without falling into the morass of liquefaction . . .” (152; 140). In other words, Factualists refuse to prohibit the right to liquefaction but denounce the inhibiting tyrannical application of such. Similarly, in respect to Senderism, Factualists concur that, “Emphatically we do not oppose telepathic research. In fact, telepathy properly used and understood could be the ultimate defense against any form of organized coercion or tyranny on the part of pressure groups or individual control addicts. We oppose, as we oppose atomic war, the use of such knowledge to control, coerce, debase, exploit or annihilate the individuality of another living creature. Telepathy is not, by its nature, a one-way process. To attempt to set up a one-way telepathic broadcast must be regarded as an unqualified evil . . .” (152; 140). However, though Factualism accepts the precepts upon which Liquefactionism and Senderism are based as legitimate perspectives while inhibiting their authoritarian implementation, it openly rejects Divisionism because an ethnocentric determination must be made via the movement’s protocol of “flooding the planet with ‘desirable replicas.’” The respective bulletin goes on to add that “It is highly doubtful if there are any desirable replicas, such creatures constituting an attempt to circumvent process and change. Even the most intelligent and genetically perfect replicas would in all probability constitute an unspeakable menace to life on this planet . . .” (152; 140).

What Burroughs ultimately presents in his political allegory is that totalitarianism, socialism, and democracy¾though their techniques differ¾have fascist consequences should their visions be attained. All three coalitions hope to conclude upon a single identity devoid of choice, option, or thought. Moreover, given the author’s addition that their missions intrinsically necessitate the elimination of all people except one, the various unions’ platforms are also nihilistic. Fascinatingly, and reflective of how many anarchists come to their political conclusions, Burroughs outlines the problems with the popular administrative ideologies before proposing the only other alternative. In so doing, not only does the author legitimize his argument, but he posits how anarchism can remedy the ethical complications of the opposing parties’ principles. He does so while remaining theoretically consistent as he judiciously highlights exactly which facets of the assorted modes of thought are ethically justifiable and which are not.

Intriguingly, Burroughs vicariously champions anarchism as he mediates the employment of the ideology. Two characters serve as figureheads and advocates of Factualism, William Lee and A. J. The former is the pseudonym under which Burroughs published his first novel, Junky. Lee’s political agenda is the eradication of oppression, which is obtainable through the distribution of knowledge. As such, Lee and his associate spend a large portion of Naked Lunch as whistleblowers to the Liquefactionist, Sender, and Divisionist causes. Thus, by alerting others to the ramifications of any of the three ideologies, the duo (and Burroughs himself) are therefore usurping the factions’ suppressive agendas. As such, long before it is confirmed at the close of the novel, the reader realizes that Naked Lunch is a postmodern tale of metafiction wherein the author is announcing his own political philosophy while explaining how it serves as a “blueprint” (203; 187) for action.

On citation: The first numeric listing is for Grove Press’s 1990 edition of Naked Lunch. This is included due to this version of the text being highly popular given that WSB gained a large readership during said time due to his work with the media. The second notation is for the same publisher’s restored text, released in 2001, which was edited by James Grauerholz and Barry Miles. At the time of this article’s composition, the latter is the most popular edition of the work.
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