Monday, August 03, 2015

The Law of Levity is Allowed to Supersede the Law of Gravity

Cover to R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey (1968)

   It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. 
All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways.
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1955)

Now this almost goes without saying: but why S, M, L, XL? Why this huge, unwieldy mess of a thing, poorly bound, weighing more than the stack of National Geographics you use to hold up the end of your musty couch? Would it not make more sense to devote a special issue to Delirious New York (1978), that most provocative of texts, one whose historical and theoretical contours are, at least in retrospect, a bit more clear? Yes, for one could then chart a sort of intellectual course for Rem Koolhaas, plot his stints in screenwriting, studio work at the Architectural Association in London, the oft-quoted “Exodus, Or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” and furtive intellectual encounters with Oswald Mattias Ungers—such tacking and jibing among meridians and parallels, useful materials for scholars, historians, theorists, and practitioners to consult in order to make sense of the work of Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture. And yet when confronting S, M, L, XL, we are—how best to put it—slackjawed?

As a guest theme editor for this issue of the Journal of Architectural Education, I regret to inform you that our only response to “Why S, M, L, XL?” is “Why Not?” It sounds rather defeatist, does it not? As if we are scuttling any serious discussion of this text in favor of some other agenda. But rest assured that we are not. This issue of JAE is something altogether different. Sure, there are essays, design proposals, reviews. Look more closely at the contents, however. There are a lot of personal reflections. There is even an article about space stations! Seriously: what is this thing you are holding in your hands? For starters, it is not an issue devoted to an issue. There are no considerations on historical themes here, no ruminations on the meaning of inchoate terms like “Crisis”, “Utopia”, or “Design +”—which only remind us, is not this the very essence of a theme, to articulate some kind of putative outline for an idea, cast it off into the world, and let others respond to it? If this is so, then an issue dedicated to S, M, L, XL makes all the sense in the world because it makes no sense. 

Imagine, if you will, being in that most antiquated of spaces—a bookstore for chrissakes!!!!—during the mid-1990s. At least for American audiences, the appearance of S, M, L, XL coincided with the appearance with a slew of other “big books.” We are not talking here about texts like Bernard Tschumi’s Event Cities (1994), Diller and Scofidio’s Tourisms of War (1994), or even the various oversized, overbound issues of El Croquis. Here, we are reminded of big books redolent with big ideas, of tomes that are worlds onto themselves, heavy, oceanic: the publication of a new, unedited two volume translation of Robert Musil’s unfinished The Man Without Qualities (1995), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). Yup, these books are big. Did you read them? Probably not. Do you want to? Well, should you find yourself in some kind of summer party at MoMA-P.S.1 feigning ennui while scanning the crowd for some seemingly more important person to talk to, or if you are pouring yourself a cup of stale, catered coffee in between sessions at a symposium where architecture students and faculty rhapsodize on the state of the field of architectural history, eyes locked on each others’ name tags, beguiled by institutional affiliations and academic pedigrees like moth to candle, you will probably say something like, “I own it, but have only read part of it.” You are now doing Rem Koolhaas and the Monacelli Press a huge favor because you are, in essence, equating S, M, L, XL to those other monuments to money spent capriciously on unread reams of paper—that is to say, add it to your shelf along your pristine copies of Moby-Dick, or the Whale, Ulysses, or Gravity’s Rainbow. Tell people you are a BOOK OWNER, and not a BOOK READER. Stack them up and use them in lieu of an ottoman or a floor jack should you find yourself in that most intractable of situations—on a deserted, two-lane blacktop with a flat tire and with a copy of S, M, L, XL. Build a house with a tiny setback from a major arterial street. Now use copies of the book as insulation from street noise. Yeah!

Such levity may be a little off-putting to audiences more accustomed to your garden-variety mandatory namechecking of continental thinkers and media theorists. Here’s an idea: let science fiction author R.A. Lafferty be your guide. Be on the lookout for that passage from his sadly forgotten Space Chantey (1968) when a spaceship pilot named “Big Fellow” claims, “As regards very small celestial bodies of a light-minded nature, the law of levity is allowed to supersede the law of gravity.”[1]  Which is to say that levity may be the only recourse when confronting a not-so-small thing like S, M, L, XL. Now “levity” also calls to mind the notion that “Comedy is Serious Business,” sometimes attributed to any of the members of Monty Python.[2] Yet “Levity” at once reminds us of the Book of Leviticus, the Biggest of all Big Books, an account of the post-Exodus (no, not the “Exodus” bound within a sundering wall, West Berlin-style, but rather Capital “E” Exodus, you know, that one, a staple of Sunday night family viewing, epic wanderlust courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston), edited and redacted on Mt. Sinai by Moses himself.[3] Inheritors of the name “Leviticus” are legion, from Primo Levi to Claude Lévi-Strauss, writers staking a claim to the world when facing its horrific maw. This is the kind of levity we read into Yossarian, the Army Air Force bombardier and antihero of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1963), a character whose various exchanges with bureaucratic structures, reminiscent of the Brothers Marx and Coen, are the antidotes to a surrounding world spinning out of control. Yossarian might as well burn some Thai stick and watch it all fall apart. Whereas your Michael Herrs and Ryszard Kapuścińskis bore witness in a dexedrine fog, its edges illuminated like St. Elmo’s Fire by tracer rounds cleaving meteoritic arcs in midair, here you may find Yossarian (perhaps navigator to Humbert Humbert’s automotive peregrinations) sitting on a Marin County hilltop and drinking Coca Cola in perfect harmony [4], holding hands with fellow travelers like Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas, Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Binx Bolling, Tyrone Slothrop, Rabbit Angstrom, and Ignatius C. Reilly.[5] Here are the modern updates to Herman Melville’s Bartleby, with levity now replacing recalcitrance as the most appropriate response to the travails of modernity.

It all begs an important question: is S, M, L, XL a “funny” book? Is it a knee-jerk reaction, a calculated response? If so, to what? Well, in considering the jumbled combination of image and text, the breakneck oscillations between excursus and pornography, yes, there is reason to, as Vladimir Nabokov urges in Pale Fire (1962), to scour the text and “note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint” and the “shadow of regicide in the rhyme.”[6] It is comically defiant in the way that Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), the bespoke assassin and pistol-bearing hermeneuticist of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), invokes Ezekiel 25:17 before not pulling the trigger, before choosing life over death: “I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”[7] It is a book of a time of transsonic stealth fighters sneaking across No-Fly Zones, of modems sensing each other, 56k analog call-and-response peaks and valleys groaning across a world still spun by telephone wires. The book is unexpected, and somehow, you know, just right, like Cass Elliot, John Phillips, et al harmonizing mellifluously in “California Dreamin’”—by far the most memorable sounds in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), here juxtaposed against the sodium-lit and steaming claustrophobias in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood. To paraphrase Laurie Anderson, “this is the record of the time.”[8] 

The essays, reviews, curatorial statements, and micro-narratives in this issue are only a first stab at a kind of revisitation of this time. Readers looking to this special issue of JAE as a kind of roadmap to the influence and legacy of S, M, L, XL will be disappointed. Indeed, there is much work to be done in locating this book within a galaxy of other approaches, from the history of architectural publications, to media and globalization theory, you name it! The authors featured here, all members of a younger generation of scholars taught by those who passed through OMA’s rosters (or who even worked on the publication of S, M, L, XL), are not so much staking new directions for understanding this work as they are asking difficult questions about the role of architectural publishing in our contemporary situation. 

So, how to read this issue alongside S, M, L, XL? Whether characterizing S, M, L, XL’s 1,376 pages as a moment of transition, as a “paradigm shift,” or perhaps even as an instance of metempsychosis, there is the ineluctable sense of a passing, that something has died only to be replaced by a Shelleyan monster or Lovecraftian “thing on the doorstep.”[9] There are many ways to invoke, prod, and understand this behemoth of a book by what appeared before it, and by what came in its wake. Caveat lector: be attentive to the wink and the nudge, choose your words as one chooses poison. Prick up your ears and listen to that other bard from the 1990s, Dean Wareham, crooning about mermaids and electrical storms, as if channeling Rem Koolhaas himself: “But I’m keepin’ all the secrets / And I have nothin’ else to say.”[10] 

(Note: This is a working draft of my introduction to the special issue of the Journal of Architectural Education dedicated to be published on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of S, M, L, XL. Alicia Imperiale and I are the special theme editors for this issue. Special thanks to the JAE editorial staff for involving me in this project. Extra-special thanks go to Alicia, for her comments and insight for the issue, and for taking me along as co-editor for this issue, which will be published later this month)


[1] R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey (New York: Ace Books, 1968), 111
[2] In preparing for this issue, I asked contributor Mimi Zeiger whether she would consider taking a photograph of someone throwing a copy of S, M, L, XL into the air: not so much a 90º translation of David Letterman dropping a watermelon off a midtown rooftop, circa 1989, but rather a moment inspired by King Arthur’s (Graham Chapman’s) reoccurring conversation about the “air-speed velocity of an unladened swallow” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
[3] Cf. Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues,” in Highway 61 Revisited, CBS Records, 1965, 33rpm, 180-gram vinyl (I think): “The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save / Put jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves / Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves / Then sends them out to the jungle.” Ok, now look at Footnote 5.
[4] A not-so-veiled reference to “Person to Person,” the final episode of Mad Men, when it is revealed (kinda sorta) that Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the show’s main character, came up with the famous Coca Cola “Hilltop” ad (1971) while weaning himself out of an existential crisis in a commune on a Marin County hilltop.
[5] Following Footnote 4, see Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Random House, 1977) and Ryszard Kapuściński, Another Day of Life (New York: Vintage, 1976). Aside from Humbert Humbert, the pathological narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), here I am listing the main protagonists from Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966), Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), respectively.
[6] Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York: Random House, 1962), 79.
[7] Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino (1994, Miramax Films).
[8] Laurie Anderson, “From the Air,” in Big Science, Warner Bros., 1982, 33 rpm.
[9] Not an altogether inappropriate simile, as it suggests that the book can be also used as a doorstop. Cf. Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich “The Thing That Should Not Be,” in Metallica, Master of Puppets, Elektra Records, 1986, 33 rpm, especially the lyric, “Drain you of your sanity / Face the thing that should not be.” (A reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos that might as well apply to S, M, L, XL).
[10] Dean Wareham, “Sideshow by the Seashore,” in Luna, Penthouse, Elektra Records, 1995, Compact Disc.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Follow The Light

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), The Annunciation (1899), Oil on Canvas, 57 x 71 1/4 inches (144.8 x 181 cm) Framed: 73 3/4 x 87 1/4 inches (187.3 x 221.6 cm)

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation (1898) is a study of illumination and intimacy. The angel Gabriel appears as a shaft of amber light, brightening the room where a young Mary humbly sits. We take in what others have already noticed. Mary appears all too young, free of any kind of religious adornment. The light casts a noonish shadow, shortened as if at vernal equinox. Hanging carmine and burgundy tapestry protecting against pockmarked walls; unkempt floor rug barely covering the cobbled floor; lapis lazuli gown issuing over a roughly-hewn wooden chest; clay urns; an oil lamp whose flickering barely registers against the glowing visitant: these are all known, and yet what is truly striking about the painting is the way it captures a moment of intense intimacy. Mary is learning that she will give birth to the Son of God, and Tanner’s choice of warm, gilded hues seems at odds with the actual moment, an annunciation as expansive and radiating as it is hushed and secretive.

Mary does not avert her gaze. She stares at a point above the glimmering, somewhere beyond the picture frame. Her eyes remain intelligent and searching, committed to an act of seeing familiar to us across various registers. All are premised on knowing more things, more people, more insights. As we “look down” on the offensive or “look askance” at a problem, we also “look up” words and “look up to” people: expressions that associate seeing with a specific vantage point. Or, the very objects and images that capture our sights reveal something different or surprising once we orient ourselves at various angles.

William Eggleston, Untitled n.d. from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74 (published 2003.) 1965-68 and 1972-74. Dye transfer print, 12 x 17 ¾ inches (30.5 x 45.1 cm.) Private collection © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

This is one reason why I find William Eggleston’s work so arresting. His dye-transfer color photographs of supermarket aisles, car lots, hairdressing salons, and gas stations in the American South are mundane and meticulous. The subjects may be humdrum; a considered look reveals that they are everything but. For example, in Untitled (n.d.), a woman talks to a friend at a diner. At least, this is what we think is happening. Taken at eye-level, the photograph frames the back of the woman’s head, a greying bulb of symmetrical whorls restrained by clear, flower-topped combs. Her pink gingham dress reveals even more than what we think. The clasp on the necklace was once aligned on the center of the back of her neck, now only slightly off from the zipper top stops. This accentuates the difference in the angles between neckline and shoulder: the woman is shifting, perhaps in mid-sentence, or even covering her mouth as she is laughing at her companion’s joke. The woman is seated along the same axis her companion, each holds their cigarette with their left hand, a mirroring suggesting the two are familiar, comfortable. In this image, there is conversation without content, and yet the setting, dimly lit with seafoam green booths and dark, ruddy brickwork, reveals an intimate communiqué inside a Tennessee diner, on any night, at any time.

William Eggleston, "Red Ceiling," or Greenwood, Mississippi, Dye transfer print, 12.625 x 19.0625 in. (32.1 x 48.4 cm), 1973 (prints in MoMA and J. Paul Getty Collection)

William Eggleston, Untitled (Blue Ceiling) 1970-1973, Dye transfer print, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm.)

Should we elevate ever so slightly and train our eyes towards the ceiling, we may see something like Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi (1973). Featured on the album cover of Big Star’s Radio City, the blood red ceiling in the photograph is remarkable because it is, for lack of a better term, so red. The photograph signaled Eggleston’s true arrival into the art-photographic establishment, announcing a new artistic potential for high-saturated, dye transfer color photography. Like his other works, this photographs captures many details, from the unfinished mouldings to the posters showing sexual positions. Eggleston took this photograph supposedly inside a brothel, and though there is much to parse here in that regard, I am drawn to the light bulb. This is not necessarily because it appears as a kind of power node or nerve center, an object that conducts electricity and life into the room with cords and wires, but rather the opposite, for the bulb appears dark, and the only light in the room is the one coming from Eggleston’s camera. In fact, we are so close to the painted ceiling that it reflects the camera flash. A similar flashing appears in Untitled (Blue Ceiling), and yet here, the effect is wholly different. Other than the obvious difference in color—the blue paint does not appear as garish as the red ceiling in Greenwood, Mississippi—the light bulb in the blue room also radiates cords, wires, and lanyards, and yet it is lit, adding a bit of ambiance to the camera flash even if it still creates the harshest of shadows. Were we to tilt our heads downwards, we confront Eggleston’s Untitled (n.d.), a photograph of a small motel room whose only source of light comes from the fluorescent fixtures mounted above the bed. We are also drawn into the light, a soothing glow that gives this room an intimate, tranquil aspect. In these three photographs, light emanates and suffocates. Through these attenuated vantage points in cramped spaces, the light announces something previously unknown.

William Eggleston, Untitled, n.d. from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74 (published in 2003.) 1965-68 and 1972-74. Dye transfer print, 12 x 17 ¾ inches (30.5 x 45.1 cm.), Private collection © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

René Magritte, The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) (1937)

Following the light, I note that the illumination in this last image of Eggleston’s recalls the glowing, bulb-like head in René Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) (1937). And my goal is not to use this image for invoking something like “enlightenment,” a term with its own historical and intellectual baggages. Rather, I use Magritte’s curious portrait of Edward James, with its head exploding into a burst of radiating light, to remind (at least) myself, that ideas propagate outward. Like light, they are reflected back onto ourselves or refracted in other directions. I would like to think that this propagating light is a metaphor for writing, a practice that has been all too absent from my life of late, and which I embrace again.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Centerville/Interzone, or: Map Ref. 41°N 93°W

(Figure 1) “Views of Centerville” (Source: L.L. Taylor, ed. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1913), n.p.)

From the root of our national psyche, an Exhibit of sorts. The evidence is probative, sure, but what other admissible facts, what other morsels of conjured truth are there to be found? To our esteemed Jury of Peers, to this coterie of readers whose only task is to take in this skein of confabulation, let me assure you that this Exhibit is real, but only in the sense that it is something that occurs in space and time. Like Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom (Virag) in the “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), we levitate into air, beyond the stratosphere, holding our breaths as satellites and space junk whir by our geostationary lockstep. We peer into the cerulean and phthalo patchwork world below and there, a surface once familiar rendered now into a joining of parallel and meridians. Decumanus and cardo intersect somewhere in the glacial moraines of southern Iowa, among the hills the Sioux call paha.

Rivers of anthracite once flowed underneath this rolling, hummocky prospect like blackened veins. On the surface, railroad lines scored the land’s carboniferous circulatory system with iron spurs. Steam locomotives bear their bills of lading, emissaries of shipping lines that read like an abecedarium of Midwestern capital: Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul; Keokuk & Western; Iowa and St. Louis. Affluents of coal and iron join at the headlands of the Mystic Coal Bed, near a city founded in 1846, first as “Chaldea,” a riverine name, reminiscent of that alluvial flat where the Tigris and Euphrates once joined, now a settlement attracting a host of New Englanders, Central Europeans and Scandinavians, as well as profiteers seeking bounty from individual treaties with Sac, Fox, and Winnebago tribes in the wake of the Black Hawk War. Less than a year later, on January 18, 1847, a law issued by the first Iowa legislature proclaimed that this town, the seat of Appanoose County, be renamed Centerville (instead of “Senterville,” for the Tennessean William Tandy Senter, long admired by the city’s founder, the surveyor Jonathon F. Stratton). Stratton himself was an expert in all things Centerville, and in 1878, along with other early Iowans, became one of several sources for an oral, comprehensive history of Appanoose County.

Of these men, Colonel James Wells, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War, became known as one of Iowa’s most famous homesteaders. Around 1839, he built a cabin in “Section 16, Township 67, Range 16” in the County, a platted quadrant near the berm where the Missouri, Iowa & Nebraska railroad passed over the Indian River. And three years later, walking near a cabin owned by one “A. Kirkendall,” Wells spotted a man sitting at the base of a tree with his torso slumped forward. He approached the body and noticed a small, charred bullet hole rimmed with dried blood in the middle of the man’s forehead. He must not have been aware of the marksman sighting him from a distance before the fatal shot—Wells found a pencil and small, lined ledger book in the man’s hands with entries resembling “the notes of someone looking up lands; but as the township lines had not been laid, this seemed inexplicable.”[1] This was the county’s first recorded death, a plot line braided into a larger, malevolent act of fiction, for “It is barely possible that the man had been riding away a horse not his own, had been followed, captured and put to death, and that the entries had been made by his executioners, in order to lead possible inquiry on a false scent.”[2] Plot line is no different from plat line, as Wells’ homesteading is also a supreme act of fiction, a conjuring of something tangible from what once was a series of orthogonal lines on paper.

Such narratives could be skewed, literally. In his Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa (1913), L.L. Taylor, a former Justice of the Peace for the County, claimed that a “brief historical sketch” would suffice as a “fitting introduction to the history of the young and thriving state of Iowa.”[3] Yet the editor of the 1878 history of Appanoose County informed the reader, “In the absence of written records, it has often occurred that different individuals have given sincere, honest, but, nevertheless, somewhat conflicting, versions of the same events, and it has been a matter of great delicacy to harmonize these conflicting statements.”[4] For his own history of the County, Taylor included photographic plates (Figure 1), taken from the tops of buildings or at street level, of various locales within Centerville. Places like South Eighteenth Street and even the Shawville Mine appear devoid of people. The exception is the photograph of North Main Street, capturing a gathering of people and horses around a trolley making a slow jug-handle turn into the street, the only photograph that is not clipped or placed at an odd angle. These six “Views of Centerville” are distributed roughly into dual columns, yet some of the images are rotated and layered upon each other. It is far removed from the rough 4x4 grid of townships that give Appanoose County its fixed, quadrangular shape. These two images, map and photograph, offer competing narratives of Centerville. And yet the obsessive regularity of the Appanoose grid does not necessarily hint at any kind of veracity.

(Figure 2) Map of Appanoose County, Iowa (Source: Western Historical Society, The History of Appanoose County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, General and Local Statistics, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Appanoose County, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, &c. (Chicago: Western Historical Society, 1878), n.p.

Centerville, however, is a name that hints to space, location, and orientation. It is the middle of a grid, a town in the cartographic center of Appanoose County. (Figure 2) Centerville finds its kindred, toponymical spirit in Interzone, a name given by another Midwesterner, William Seward Burroughs, as shorthand for the International Zone in Tangiers, an exotic destination in our literary imagination that, like Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria, becomes a code for something illicit. Whereas Durrell’s Alexandria became a purgatory for lovesick expatriates, Interzone was something much darker, last stop in a circuit for dead-eyed junkies craving for pyrethrum (distilled from the crushed flower heads of the Dalmatian Chrysanthemum, T. cinerariifolium), seeking night passage across the rachial divides of the Hindu Kush and into the incense-filled foyer of the Hotel Massilia on Rue Marco Polo, marking their transit across the continents as if dragging a leadened spike across a map. Two such itineraries begin their convergence, gliding between the Galeries Lafayette and storefronts advertising passage across the Strait of Gibraltar, on to the Boulevard Pasteur and intersecting at the Hotel Rembrandt in the nouvelle ville de Tanger. It was there that Burroughs saw Carnet de Voyage au Sahara, a show featuring English painter Brion Gysin’s aquarelles made in the North African dune seas, among the seif and barkhan. The two met briefly, with Gysin describing Burroughs as trailing “long vines” of peyote plant and adorned by an “odd blue light” emanating from his hat.[5] Another convergence occurred in 1960 in Paris, where Gysin introduced Burroughs to the Dadaist penchant for composition via the “cut-up” and “fold-in,” a method of writing by literally manipulating physical scraps of text to conjure sentences, paragraphs, and even entire novels. Burroughs embraced the cut-up technique only shortly after he dispatched his first and most well known novel, Naked Lunch (1959), a dense, hallucinatory journey through the belly of America, via Tangier, that ends with an augur’s instructions to the reader, a channeling from a near-future: “You can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point.”[6]

In reaching this and subsequent “intersection points,” Burroughs transforms writing into a kind of autobiographical transport whose docket conveys grim spectra spanning everything from an addicts’ aphorism to a dopers’ needle. In a typical jeremiad, perhaps written under an oneiric haze of chloral hydrate, Burroughs channels his grandfather, William S. Burroughs I, founder of the American Arithmometer Company, invoking something of a junky’s notion of eternal return when he writes, “So listen to Old Uncle Bill Burroughs who invented the Burroughs Adding Machine Regulator Gimmick on the Hydraulic Jack Principle no matter how you jerk the handle result is always the same for given co-ordinates.”[7] Unlike grandfather Burroughs the First, famous for his hardline drawings, etchings, and centers rendered with sharpened styluses under the mirrored arc of a microscope, Burroughs opted for something more expansive: “In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas, […] a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed.”[8] This mania for maps and mapmaking would continue in The Ticket That Exploded (1962), a true “cut-up” novel, a science fiction nightmare where giant crabs roam the landscape at the behest of the nefarious, intergalactic enterprise known as the Nova Mob. In this novel, the autobiographical and cartographical collapse into a single line of text, a moment when Burroughs maps his family history onto his own fictions: “Word is an array of calculating machines from Florida up to the old North Pole—Image track goes with it.”[9] Indeed, Burroughs jettisons linear narratives in favor of something more like a film unspooling to the end only to spool back to the beginning in an ouroboros-like manner. The dead man slouched in front of Kirkendall’s cabin, trepanned in order to unburden a secret of Iowa history, who finds a parallel in Burroughs shooting his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken game of “William Tell” in Mexico City on January 6, 1951—a montage connecting, compressing, and circulating images from disparate histories. Yet as critic Mary McCarthy observed in her review of Naked Lunch, Burroughs “has no use for history, which is all ‘ancient history,’” a moment reminiscent of another doper, the nefarious Wimpe, salesman for Ostarzneikunde GmbH (a subsidiary of I.G. Farben) in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), divulging to the Red Army operative Vaslav Tchitcherine that his role is not to interpret history, but rather to “Die to help History grow to its predestined shape.”[10] Like Bloom and Dedalus, Burroughs levitates into outer space, a “planetary perspective” that reveals another form, one where history is a “sloughed-off skin” that “shrivels into a mere wrinkling or furrowing of the surface as in an aerial relief-map or one of those pieced-together aerial photographs known in the trade as mosaics.”[11]

(Figure 3) Dust Jacket to Traveller’s Companion Series No. 91, William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (Paris: Olympia, 1962) (Source: TRB Booksellers, Albany, NY)

(Figure 4) William S. Burroughs, “Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning,” My Own Mag, No. 4 (1964) (Source: Reality Studio: A William S. Burroughs Community,

“[C]ut the prerecordings into air into thin air”[12]:  so concludes The Ticket That Exploded with a statement that is not of the air, but all-too-grounded, a reminder that the authorial act, the committing of words to the page, is really no different than cutting and pasting them on the flat surface of a page. Stories, characters, and fictions may be communicated from hands to paper via a keystroke on the ribbon of an Antares or Hermes Rocket typewriter (or with a microphone that commits the author’s words as magnetized particles onto cellulose acetate, spun through a Nagra recorder’s tape head), yet they are a heaped into a jumble of words, sentences, and paragraphs that become something recognizable, something readable. What is a novel but a mosaic of words, a pact between author and reader that the stochastic jumble of text, the endless non-sequiturs, the breakneck changes in rhythm and pacing, will resemble something like a story, one that makes up for a lack of resolution with a relentless direction and energy? Narrative becomes a topographical construct, a bailiwick with its own features, courses, and jurisdictions. It is a world unto itself, its essence captured on the dust cover to Book No. 91 of the Traveller’s Companion Series of Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press (Figure 3), the 1962 first edition of The Ticket That Exploded. Here, an aerial photograph, presumably of a World War One-era French countryside, reveals a silvery, hoary ground of convex, concave, and cyclic polygons stitched together randomly. It covers only half of the dust cover, with a simulated tear delimiting the border between image and text, an allusion to cutting-up, and underneath, “The Ticket That Exploded” appears in red grease pencil with Burroughs’ name typeset in all caps. Aerial photography and cut-up writing here become literary equivalents for the first time, a terrain where two modernist tropes—the aerial regard surplombant and fragmented, multiperspective writing—intersect to create their own terrain. More evidence of this appeared in 1964, when Burroughs published a small single-page cut-up entitled “Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning” (Figure 4) for the experimental literary magazine My Own Mag. At the very top of the page, an admonition, also typeset in all caps, refers to aerial nuclear bombardment, while at the bottom, sentence fragments assemble into an 8x4 grid, “to be read every which way.” Yet the numbered columns point to a contradiction, one where the orthogonal arrangement of meridians and parallels results in something that is not regular, not ordered, but produced and fortuitous. This has always been the case with maps and aerial photographs, avatars for an incontestable way of looking at the world, an ironclad epistemology that is but a kind of highly-attenuated, high-altitude abstraction succumbing to all the vagaries and caprices of interpretation. As the sociologist Hans Speier noted in 1941, aerial views and maps are instances where science and technology “become subservient to the demands of effective symbol manipulation.”[13] An assembly of plats into an aerial mosaic, the identification of “Section 16, Township 67, Range 16” in Appanoose County—these may correspond to a cartographic reality, yet they are fictions that appease our desire to conjure order out of disorder.

(Figure 5) (Top) Wire, 154,, 33 1/3 rpm (EMI Records, 1979) (Bottom) Wire, Map Ref 41°N 93°W, 45 rpm (Harvest Records, 1970)

Buoyed above the Midwest in geosynchronous orbit, we once again peer below through our splayed feet at another series of lines, intersecting slightly north of Centerville, in Monroe County, Iowa, a point between Chariton and Ottumwa, on the asphalt surface of U.S. Highway 34, the Red Bull Highway, named after the 34th Infantry Division, the first Army unit deployed to Europe during World War II. There are even coordinates: 41°N 93°W, or simply, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” which is the fourth track of the second side of English band Wire’s 1979 album 154. (Figure 5) Recall vocalist Colin Newman’s words in the first verse, a reminder of what is underneath the North American grid:
Straining eyes try to understand
The works, incessantly in hand
The carving and paring of the land
The quarter square, the graph divides
Beneath the rule, a country hides [14]
With this evocation of the telltale Jeffersonian grid firmly in place, now listen to what is “beneath.” Now, carve and pare the Ampex tapes, cut the prerecordings into air into thin air acetate inscribed and sprinkled with magnetized particles corresponding to the peaks and valleys of an audio recording. Take out the strands of horsehair from your violin’s bow. Replace with a strip of tape, a recording of William S. Burroughs’ reading the words “LISTEN TO MY HEARTBEAT.” Replace your violin’s bridge with an amplified, magnetized tape head. (Figure 6) Push and pull the bow, collé, détaché, louré … until the author’s words become elongated and slowed down in sonic space. Now, listen as another singer, actually an artist, Laurie Anderson, also from the Midwest, enunciates, “Deep in the heart of darkest America. Home of the Brave. Ha! Ha! Ha! You've already paid for this. Listen to my heart beat.”[15] Landscapes become images. Images become words. And words recorded, cut-up, splice and reassemble to create a fictional America.

(Figure 6) Laurie Anderson, Tape-Bow Violin, from For Instants: Part 5, Amsterdam: De Appel, 1977 (Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York, Please Come to the Show: Invitations and Event Flyers from the MoMA Library, 

From Earth orbit down to the depths of “darkest America” lurking somewhere underneath its patchwork topographies, from handwritten plats and grids inscribed into the first county registers in Appanoose County, Iowa, and moving forward to a more recent past where dead authors come to life as voices bowed across electric violins, consider the lines journeyed, the paths traversed. We can use any number of devices to describe these spatial and temporal transits, from lines of longitude and latitude to timelines. These lines meet in locales recognizable because of names like Centerville or titles like “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.” We can even arrange these lines spatially, an ordered logic where lines marking changes in vertical altitude and passages from past to present to future time become vectors, and their intersecting planes form, of all things, a structure. And of this structure, let us give it a name. “Fiction” has a nice ring to it.



An earlier version of this essay appeared in Pidgin Magazine's "Fiction" issue from 2013. Many thanks to Nick Risteen for allowing this slightly odd piece of writing to see the light of day.

[1] Western Historical Society, The History of Appanoose County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, General and Local Statistics, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Appanoose County, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, &c. (Chicago: Western Historical Society, 1878), 334.
[2] Ibid.
[3] L.L. Taylor, ed. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1913), 1.
[4] Western Historical Society, Preface to The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, n.p.
[5] Brion Gysin, Let The Mice In (New York: Something Else Press, 1973), 8.
[6] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1992 [1959]), 203.
[7] Burroughs, Introduction to Naked Lunch, xviii-xix.
[8] Burroughs, “The Future of the Novel” (1964), in Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, eds. Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 294.
[9] Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1994 [1962]), 147.
[10] Mary McCarthy, “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 1, 1963), n.p. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), 715.
[11] McCarthy, "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe," n.p.
[12] Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, 217.
[13] Hans Speier, “Magic Geography”, Social Research, 8:1/4 (1941), 313.
[14] Graham Lewis, Colin Newman, and B.C. Gilbert, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” by Wire, in 154, EMI, 1979, 33 rpm.
[15] Laurie Anderson, “Sharkey’s Day,” in Mister Heartbreak, Warner Bros., 1984, 33 rpm. For her performance of “Late Show,” from her concert film, Home of The Brave (1986), Anderson played a tape-bow violin with a recording of William S. Burroughs’ saying “Listen to my heartbeat.”