August 29, 2004


(Back, back, back.... like Case re-descending into the cool green black of the Matrix...

My addiction to the net should be frightening I spose.... I kept it under control last week when I had only limited ability to jack in, but it really did feel like a part of my body was missing (and only from the POV of anti-cybernetic organicism could that appear to be metaphorical....) Again, like Case... 'trying to reach the console that wasn't there....'

To anyone who has emailed me during the period of my holiday: thanks, I will reply in the next day or so without fail... To those I promised to send things to but didn't --- SORRY ---- holiday preparations and other matters made things v. hectic prior to my departure to Wales --- will sort out v. soon ----


Now, back to bizniz....

I agree with more or less everything John says in his post on Burroughs below, but I see no reason, given all that, to disqualify WSB from the ranks of the Cold Rationalists.

On the contrary.

It's certainly the case that Burroughs' great tempation was Romanticism (much the same is true of Beckett, incidentally, who also always seemed to have to rein himself in from doing nothing but turning out passages of luminous lyricism). But it is the tension between Burroughs' own personal proclivities and the rigours of the impersonal Spinozist program to which he submitted himself that make his writing so powerful and so astonishing.

It was Burroughs' assiduous and unflinching purging of any tendency towards Romanticism in himself that I found most unsettling when, as a sentimental Romantico-subjectivist teenager (it's the rare teenager who isn't a sentimental Romantico-subjectivist after all!!), I first encountered his work. Burroughs' pitiless interrogration of his own passions and passivity; his continual 'breaking of the frame' to upset any sense either that his writing was an expression of a substantive self OR that it was a representational 'window on the world'; the sudden petering out of narrative lines or their 'descent' into hyperbolic farce... all of these tendencies were part of a deliberate (and deliberated) move from Romanticism to NeuroMancy (cybernetic sorcery) = Spinozist Neurobotics.

I've always read Burroughs through Spinoza and Spinoza through Burroughs.

Burroughs' own addiction gave him an insight into 'artificial need' as the basic motor of the Human Operating System. With Spinoza, Burroughs recognized that the human organism has a marked (pun absolutely intended) tendency to seek out and identify itself with parasites that debilitate but never quite destroy it. (One of the many paradoxes of the Control virus that Burroughs so carefully delineates is its need to keep its victims alive: no control without something to be controlled, no parastitism without a host. Hence the slow death of hollowed out anthrobotic zombiefication so endemic amongst us TMHs...)

Spinoza gives absolute philosophical legitimation for Burroughs' claim that the entities that drive human beings into destruction and self-destruction are NO METAPHOR alien occupying forces. Spinoza's famous argument about suicide was that, strictly speaking, it was impossible. An individual entity is defined simply by its tendency to persist in its own being (what Spinoza calls its 'conatus'). If something is acting contrary to its own interests, then it has been overtaken by forces external to it. 'Your planet has been invaded....'

What makes Burroughs a Cold Rationalist is his ruthless Spinozistic commitment to three propositions: (1) contrary to PoMo subjectivo-Fuzz, there are human interests (2) these interests are being blocked by alien occupying forces and (3) human freedom consists in first of all enumerating and then eliminating these forces (i.e. in dealing with the causes of human servitude). Being free is not in the first instance about doing what you 'want' to do, since the human organism's defaults tend towards repetitious-compulsive controlled hedonic circuits (the penny arcade picture show). For WSB, most sex was indistinguishable from pornography, and both, like drug addiction, were induced in the organism by Control. (Here Burroughs converges not only with Spinoza, but with Foucault...)

Somewhat cheekily, I'm going to quote from my thesis to back this up:

'Alongside drug addiction, pornography serves as one of Burroughs’ chief examples of a control process. Pornography assumes a privileged position in Burroughs’ cut-up texts because it exemplifies the process he calls “image addiction”, exposing the mechanisms by which desire is simultaneously artificialized and channelled. What Burroughs derives from psychoanalysis - and his study of scientology* - is principally the idea of the subject as a recording - and recorded - system. The “reprogramming” of the human nervous system - the major theme, as McLuhan says, of Burroughs’ Nova Express - is a neo-Spinozist model of the production of sad passions. Like addiction, pornography is an ostensibly participatory process which commensurates the organism to exogenous - and arbitrary - stimuli. For Burroughs, the consumer of pornography, like the addict, is ultimately himself consumed, locked into ever-more predictable circuits of dead affect; desire learns to love its own repression by allowing itself to be looped into the desolate repetition of mechanical stimulus-response patterns.

Needless to say, Burroughs makes no distinction between pornography and “ordinary” sexuality; on the contrary, for Burroughs, all sexuality needs to be understood on the model of pornography. Sex is a recording, to be re-cut, spliced together and replayed. It is all purely technical, a question of habituation to stimuli that could be anything; the body is slaved into idiot compulsive-repetitive behaviours by the triggering of what Burroughs calls “images”. The “image”, for Burroughs is essentially a particular neuronic stimuli, around which associations cluster. Repeat the image and you repeat whatsoever is associated with it. Where Freud privileges one particular image, or set of images - what Deleuze-Guattari call the family photo - so as to freeze desire into familial representations , Burroughs realises that, in principle, any image can function to capture desire. Sexuality operates in Burroughs less as a primary instinct than as a reprogrammable stimulus-response circuitry. “You see sex is an electrical charge that can be turned on and off if you know the electromagnetic switchboard.” (NE 140) Burroughs’ work endlessly insists that pornography operates not as a representation of sex, but as its deterritorialization (out onto the technical machines), and complementary capture. Sex escapes into recording technologies that sample and loop repetition-compulsions before feeding them back into bio-behaviour that increasingly functions as their idiotic replay. As with Spinoza, Burroughs presents a version of behaviourism that operates through rudimentary techniques of associationism:

The operation is very technical - Look at photomontage - It makes a statement in flexible picture language - Let us take the statement made by a given photomontage X - We can use X words X colors X odors X images and so forth to define the various aspects of X - Now we feed X into the calculating machine and X scans out related colors, juxtapositions, affect-charged images and so forth we can attenuate or concentrate X by taking out or adding elements and feeding back into the machine elements we wish to concentrate - A Technician learns to think and write in association blocks which can then be manipulated according to the laws of association and juxtaposition - The basic law of association and conditioning is known to college students even in America: Any object, feeling, odor, word, image in juxtaposition with any other object, feeling, odor, word or image will be associated with it - Our technicians learn to read newspapers and magazines for juxtaposition statements rather than alleged content - We express these statements in Juxtaposition Formulae - The Formulae of course control populations of the world - [NE 171]

Association is not a cognitive process, but something physical; all cognitive narrativization is always derivative from a more primary zone of bodily affect. But rather than all stimulus being ultimately attributable to bio-sexuality - as a certain crude psychoanalytic reductionism would insist - Burroughs shows that associationist collaging can flash-cut any random image into a neuronic series and libidinize it. “Flash from words to colors on the association screen - Associate silently from colors to the act - Substitute other factors for the words - Arab drum music - Musty smell of erections in outhouses- Feel of orgasm- Color-music-smell-fell to the million sex acts all time place -”[NE 172] The body, then, emerges as a set of nonorganic recordings, triggers and replays.'

NE = Nova Express

On the cut-ups: while I agree that the later books are more enjoyable, I get more out of the earlier novels, especially the Nova trilogy. The cut-ups work best if you hear them read aloud I think....

But the main difficulty with the cut-up lies in Burroughs' equivocal account of it. On the one hand, Burroughs presents the cut-up as a strictly accurate representation of how reality operates (this is more or less how Ballard celebrates it in his essay, 'Mythmaker of the Twentieth Century', and how Burroughs describes it in the incredibly informative Paris Review interview). On the other hand, Burroughs presents the cut-up as a randomizing, ludic and aleatory disruption of the Pre-Sent control program of the Reality Studio.

However much Ballard might have admired Burroughs, it is he - in the Atrocity Exhibition - who implicitly produces one of the most effective critiques of this latter notion. Ballard shows how the ludic collage, far from being disruptive of power, is how power itself operates in Societies of Control. Surely, in these post-MTV times of ubiquitous nanospliced micro-editing and obligatory random juxtapositions, it is clear that the cut-up, far from being radical, is Kapital's preferred expressive mode. As ever, the threat to power lies not in the irrationalist aleatory but in the machinically consistent.

* Burroughs' interest in scientology is fascinating, and not only because of scientology's hyperstitional miraculation of itself as pulp religion. What little I know about scientology and dianetics suggest that they are in effect pulp Spinozism. Hubbard's notions of Reactive Mind and engrams are pure Spinoza...

More to be said about magic and sorcery, but sorcery is Cold Rationalist, that goes without saying, surely.... :-)

Simon R: posts in reply to yr comments on Blissblog coming soon: 'Why God does not improvise (against Deleuze-Guattari's Vitalism)' and 'The Outer Child'...

Posted by mark at August 29, 2004 11:44 PM | TrackBack

Nice one. I guess if we do disagree (I'm not sure), it would be here:

It was Burroughs' assiduous and unflinching purging of any tendency towards Romanticism in himself

I think he analysed it, but I'm not sure that he tried very hard to purge it. Have you read The Cat Inside? I'd quote from it, but couldn't bear to keep a copy in the house. Here he is writing to Ginsberg in 1954 instead:

'Kiki was here and hurt me so I am quivering all over. Oh, he'll come around all right because of the $. It hurts me to know that is the reason, at the same time glad I have that advantage. A Complete shambles of feeling... I simply can't take these deals lightly: if I do, it's no more than masturbation; if I don't, I get hurt like this. One learns nothing by experience but caution, if you want to learn that. I don't, because that way you defeat yourself, removing the pleasure with the pain so the whole maneuver is pointless.'

There is mountains of similar material. Obviously I selected this passage because of the reference to throwing caution to the winds. Try flushing that with D&G and Spinoza ;)

Actually, it leads on quite well to something else I wanted to ask you, which is the link (if any) between Cold Rationalism and asceticism.

Posted by: johneffay at August 30, 2004 08:35 PM

yeh, i think we should all exert a little k-pressure on Dark Prince of Cold Rationalism Ray to post something on Gnostic Xianity --- that would give an interesting spin to the ascetism discussion...

I think my phrasing in the bit you quote above was a bit unhelpfully ambiguous --- I agree with you 100% that as a biographical individual Burroughs was prone to what could often be embarrassing sentimentality --- his pathetic entreaties to Ginsberg are one eg of this --- also Queer, almost physically painful in its revelation of unrequited longing

Think tho we have to distinguish between WSB the subject and Burroughs the writing machine... it is the writing machine that is assiduous in its purging of romantic sentimentality --- course this has special power coz the pull on him of lurve at its most pathetically dog-like was so strong ---

What's interesting about Burroughs is that he completely took on board the 50s pathologization of homosexuality: i.e. that it is an artificially constructed disease (hence the absurd irony of his being classified as a 'gay' writer) but extended it to ALL forms of sexuality... genius.... that's why he's a Queer writer, not a homosexual writer... and I get this very strongly from the Nova trilogy, not so much from the later stuff...

his interrogation of the concept of homosexuality, of the thought that the homosexual, like the junkie, is a category _produced_ by Control suggests a strong affinity with Foucault --- I had a whole chapter on this in my thesis which got removed and is now forever lost I think :( - Deleuze makes a few suggestions about links between Burroughs and Foucault in Societies of Control, but frustratingly doesn't elaborate...

you know much more about Foucault than me john, what do you think about the parallels?

Posted by: mark at August 30, 2004 09:31 PM

Think tho we have to distinguish between WSB the subject and Burroughs the writing machine...

I agree but, as I said earlier, I think the writing machine includes, the letters, Queer, etc.

you know much more about Foucault than me john, what do you think about the parallels?

I think there are loads of parallels. In fact, I wrote an MA dissertation on Burroughs, Foucault, and disease. There's a very good article by Burroughs in The Adding Machine called 'The Limits of Control' in which he argues that control must operate against resistance, otherwise it collapses into mere utilization rather than the exercise of power. The whole thing could have come straight out of Foucault.

Posted by: johneffay at August 30, 2004 11:26 PM

So... not to be a bore, but is there anywhere where you posted the definition of Cold Rationalist? Because I don't see anything in this post to explain why Burroughs was a rationalist, other than that he agrees with Spinoza on three propositions, none of which have much to do with rationalism, big or small 'r', as it's commonly understood. I'm not trying to nitpick, just understand what you mean by this term.

I am rather dubious about this equation of Burroughs' sentimentality (which wasn't just about cats, but also his lovers; he could get extremely needy) with capital R Romanticism... bit of a reductive take on the latter, I think.

Posted by: that's all very well at August 31, 2004 01:11 AM

That's all very well...

Those three propositions just are Cold Rationalism --- given that Spinoza is the pre-eminent C Rist....

btw: 'as it's commonly understood' --- what has that got to do with anything?

incidentally, John, isn't this 'common understanding' (or misunderstanding) of rationalism one reason for rebranding Spinoza's rationalism as Cold Rationalism?

Agree with you about Romanticism not being equatable with small r sentimentality; it's worse than that LOL! Wordsworth counted himself a Spinozist, his formula of course was 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' --- that said, I have no doubt that Romanticism is more or less responsible for just about all contemporary cultural evils....

Will substantiate this big claim presently... :-)

btw, John could you be persuaded to post up yr dissertation on the Transmat site???

Posted by: mark at August 31, 2004 01:46 AM

"as its commonly understood"=how we communicate with other people in the absence of any more intimate understanding of their private language.

I will assume that Cold Rationalism is your transvaluation then.

Posted by: that's all very well at August 31, 2004 02:20 AM

I'm a bit puzzled, it's not as if the term has been introduced without massive discussion here....

Call it a transvaluation if you like; though it would be more accurate to say that it is a _recovery_ of the original meaning of the term rationalism, after it has been distorted in the subsequent history of philosophy. Kant (and his poor progeny Romanticism) have done most to effectuate the 'common (mis)understanding' of the meaning of rationalism, with their double pincering of reason versus emotion.

Posted by: mark at August 31, 2004 02:44 AM

I haven't been reading long enough, I guess. Maybe you can point me to an archived post?

Posted by: that's all very well at August 31, 2004 03:01 AM

I’m a little bit suspicious of CCRU terminology
But what is “cold rationalism?”

Doesn’t Burroughs’s work fit more into the rubric of “Cold and Cruel Romanticism.”? Although, Having written that, his work tends towards the Sadean rather than the Masochistic?

I’m very intrigued that other people have noticed indications that Beckett + Burroughs = …say Novalis. If Burroughs had spent less time in Scientology and more time reading Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. [As Lautreamont recommends.]

Posted by: tom kohut at August 31, 2004 04:28 AM

It's not Ccru terminology accept in the sense that it involves Robin Undercurrent and myself...

Perhaps ppl could tell me what they mean by Romantic ---- I know what John effay means by it ---- not so clear what others do and what their investment in it is --- I would certainly make a case for the Nova Trilogy in particular to be not only not Romantic but anti-Romantic...

The Cold Rationalist Anti-Capital group are Ray Brassier, Nina Infinite Thought + above 2... it is Ray and Nina who have done most work in laying out the position....

Posts here where it has been chewed over (see also comments, especially anything by Nina)

Posted by: mark at August 31, 2004 06:57 AM

incidentally, John, isn't this 'common understanding' (or misunderstanding) of rationalism one reason for rebranding Spinoza's rationalism as Cold Rationalism?

You've got a point; rationalism means different things to different people. However, I think that most of the problems people are having here are coming from the 'cold' epithet. The suspicion is that it isn't really doing any work. As you said yourself, 'reason just is cold'.

On the other hand, I was reading your thesis last night (honest!): Perhaps it would be helpful to cache 'cold' out in terms of the Gothic?

btw, John could you be persuaded to post up yr dissertation on the Transmat site???

It's in Claris on a Mac without a PDF writer, so I'd have to hand convert it into HTML (I'm very big on footnotes - [blush]). Consequently, I'll have to decline.

Posted by: johneffay at August 31, 2004 11:39 AM

> Perhaps ppl could tell me what they mean by Romantic

The sumblime, due to extremes of beauty or fear. I've never had even the vaguest inkling as to what that was supposed to be about, but then I've never read Edmund Burke (or gone to Alton Towers).

Sympatheic imagination. A small hack of the empiricist doctrine of the association of ideas, claiming that poetic genius brings together ideas according to their sympathies: this is the truth in poetry, even when it is fanciful. (Personally, I tend to be poetry blind/deaf, and share Mark's loathing for Wordsworth in particular. But I'll note there is a certain parallel between the association of ideas in romantic imagination and, in Spinoza, the assocation of people in society.)

Organic form (vs fixed forms of classicism). That form could emerge in the process of making is easy to grasp, but if you wanted to sell the idea you might not pick your examples from literature. (Maybe gothic cathedrals, which may have collapsed on occasion, but at least didn't ramble on about nothing in particular.)

Posted by: rx at August 31, 2004 12:58 PM

I don't loathe Wordsworth... I think there's a case for seeing The Prelude as a Spinozist work.. though I haven't read it since I was an undergrad --- and that's a very long time ago....


that's no excuse.... bruce or myself will happily convert from claris to html...

as for cold and gothic, yeh maybe.... I just want to turn 'cold' around... this from my interest in Kubrick primarily ... but also Atwood, Irigaray, G Jones... all of them seem to be 'cold' but in an incredibly positive way... will post on this again soon....

Posted by: mark at August 31, 2004 11:49 PM

> > I... share Mark's loathing for Wordsworth

> I don't loathe Wordsworth

My mistake. As penance I'll go and look out The Prelude (not saying I'll read it, mind).

Posted by: rx at September 1, 2004 09:53 AM