Burroughs Called the Law, A Report on Birkbeck College Law School’s Workshop on William S. Burroughs and Law – by Nathan Moore and Lucy Finchett-Maddock
On 25 April 2012, in a room in a Birkbeck College corridor, located within Bloomsbury, London, there came together writers, academics, thinkers and cultural critics from all over London and beyond. They were all there to hear and discuss thoughts on the late William Burroughs, and to consider his life and writings in relation to law. It was soon apparent that the academic and legal-leaning context of the workshop couldn’t contain the ideas, engagements, and discussion prompted by Burroughs’ work. Much of this was due to the variety of those attending: academics, enthusiasts, counter-informants, friends, archivists. The workshop had attracted such a broad range with the help of the visibility given to the event by the European Beat Studies Network, for which we were, and still are, very grateful.
The day began with three papers from Laurent de Sutter (Free University of Brussels), Thom Robinson (University of Sheffield), and Lucy Finchett-Maddock (University of Exeter). Laurent began with an extravagant mapping of Burroughs essays in his ‘Magic of Law: Random Remarks on William Burroughs’ Closet Jurisprudence’. With both flair and precision, Laurent extracted a jurisprudence of evolution from Burroughs’ work, encapsulating the cosmic war between the Johnsons and the Shits. At stake is the question of control, and the necessity for the Johnsons to not ‘seize’ control, but rather to allow it to exist, absorbing the Shits as simply another variety of life – obviously against the Shits self-conceptualisation of being always, and everywhere, right. Thom followed with his account of nostalgia within Burroughs’ work, having been researching Burroughs for his PhD thesis. Thom touched on the poignant centre of Burroughs’ work, tracing the connections between desperate unrequited love, loss, and memory. Lucy finished the session with a further account of the role of time within Burroughs’ work, particularly in relation to the thermodynamic property of entropy. Through the time-travelling dimension of memory, a negentropic tendency was shown to emerge, through which one could be made over, again and again, such that the loss implicit in time’s ending no longer dominated the subject. Subsequently, the role of time and space came into play as an interweaving theme within the discussions.
Following lunch (or should we say Naked Lunch), there were then two great papers and exchanges between Charlie Blake (Executive Editor, ‘Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities’; founder member, STD, ‘Semiological Terrorists of Desire’) and workshop organiser Nathan Moore (Birkbeck College, University of London). Once again accounts of time were central, along with the role that space played for Burroughs as a means of escaping the arrow of time itself, moving toward what Charlie referred to as the ‘avolutionary’, and thereby coming back to the concerns touched upon in relation to entropy. Nathan spoke of his recent work on the incompleteness of Pythagoras’ theorem, considering the ‘fold in’ technique as a mechanism of always leaving the page, the calculation, free and boundless.
Questions of law in relation to Burroughs’ work emanated from these discussions on law and time, and totality. How can we escape control, halt the endless march towards destruction, and alter the conception that there is such a thing as a closed system? Law is not a closed system, but it wishes to be. Burroughs traverses the system with his heroin addiction and his cut-up and fold-in tools. The room shifted to a discussion of the difference between Northern and Southern epistemologies, as well as what the implications for law might be considered as an informational system: what is the relationship between control and noise?.
Having mentioned cut-up and fold-in techniques, there then followed a wonderful rendition and improvisation on Burroughs’ collection ‘White Subway’ (subsequently reprinted as part of ‘The Burroughs File’). This involved the cutting up and folding in of a number of texts, cleverly and very effectively done so by poets Liz Adams and Jamie Wilkes. Both brought to light Burroughs’ techniques, those that had been in discussion all day, and allowed for a very guttural demonstration of how words being cut up and dismembered can affect a wholly alternate meaning.
Liz Adams is a poet and writer who has worked collaboratively with musicians and dancers, and is currently at work on a novel mapping London as a political tapestry. James Wilkes has worked with scientists, artists and musicians investigating topics such as brain imaging, camouflage, radio and woodland, and is the poet-in-residence at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL.
To our delight, we discovered that the original publisher of Burroughs’ ‘White Subway’ was present, Jim Pennington, who brought Burroughs in to the room proper with his accounts of the man’s habits and wants back when they worked together. As Burroughs himself stated, ‘there is no such thing as coincidence’ … . So too some other close acquaintances of Burroughs were in our company, which allowed for the mathematical dissection of his work to be touched with the nostalgia and subjectivity of meaningful personal encounters.
The day ended with a drink or two at a nearby local haunt – with an air of this not being the last time we would discuss Burroughs in light of law, in fact, with a definite atmosphere of very much wishing to reconvene.
The papers from the Burroughs workshop are being edited as part of a collection which is forthcoming. We look forward to seeing you at the next Burroughs Calls the Law event. Thank you again to Oliver Harris and Polina Mackay for introducing us to this website.