Turgeon Raine Jewelers
For Adam Parfrey, Publishing the Unabomber’s Book Is All In a Day’s Work
“America’s most dangerous publisher” lives in Port Townsend and enrages readers worldwide.
By Ellis E. Conklin
published: November 24, 2010
“I enjoy having my hands in the soil,” says Parfrey of his move to bucolic Port Townsend.
Parfrey got into publishing to print
Parfrey got into publishing to print “unfit” news and literature.
On a brilliant, sun-dappled October afternoon, Adam Parfrey, one of the nation’s most provocative publishers, is in his front yard frolicking with his dog Loki—a beast of an animal, half malamute, half King Kong, named for a Norse god connected with fire and magic.
As the doggie play continues, a young hiker approaches Parfrey’s home, a cavernous grey-painted dwelling with dark-purple shutters and bookshelves that climb toward 14-foot ceilings. Outside, the leaves are a crunchy red and gold, and the moldering scent of fall has fully settled in. It was the bare-knuckled beauty of Port Townsend’s windswept outskirts and a romantic impulse to live off the land that persuaded Parfrey to relocate his unconventional, pot-stirring publishing house from Los Angeles three years ago.
The man, wearing tan knickers and toting a satchel he’s been using to gather mushrooms, stands near the gate, a stone’s throw from the chicken coop, greenhouse, and outdoor garden where Parfrey—when he’s not riling the cultural establishment with grisly tomes of unrepentant necrophiles, Satanists, the most explicit pornographers, and insidious murderers—tends to his brussels sprouts, berries, and tomatoes.
“I enjoy having my hands in the soil,” Parfrey says—a key reason he left his Silver Lake bungalow in the low-lying Hollywood Hills, not far from the home Howard Hughes built for his girlfriend in the 1930s. “I guess you could say it keeps me grounded—literally.”
At last, the blue-eyed, blond forager comes bounding onto Parfrey’s spread, four lush acres that unfurl along a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The scene is straight out of The Sound of Music. One expects any moment that the knickered lad will belt out a chorus of “Edelweiss.”
“I am a permaculturalist,” he announces. “I tend to the land so the land can grow itself.” Then, as if completing a magic trick, he plucks from his bag a matsuki mushroom the size of a catcher’s mitt and proudly hands it to Parfrey. The publisher, now an avid farmer as well, takes a knife to the ‘shroom and keeps half. He thanks his visitor and bids him farewell.
Encounters like this can happen at the drop of an incense stick in Port Townsend, where ex-hippies, New Agers, and, presumably, young Germanic-looking permaculturalists rule the roost. Situated on a natural harbor, the city, with a present-day population of 8,800, was once known as the “City of Dreams,” as hopes ran high that someday Port Townsend would boast the largest harbor on the West Coast. That never happened, but today grand Victorian mansions dot the uptown bluffs that rise above the city’s bustling spine, Water Street. The brick warehouses and three- and four-story brownstones that back up to the wharves of Admiralty Inlet have been turned into an eclectic stew of cafes, saloons, and clothing boutiques. There’s a delightful eccentricity to the place; as the bumper sticker taped to the storefront window of the PT Shirt Company reads: “We’re all here because we’re not all here.”
For years, Port Townsend was the home of Loompanics Unlimited, a publishing house founded by Mike Hoy. It was known for its rare and weird books, addressing assaultive topics such as drugs and anarchy and putting out how-to guides on, for example, manufacturing counterfeit IDs. It was Loompanics, in fact, that first put this Olympic Peninsula seaport on Parfrey’s radar screen. (Loompanics went out of business in 2006.)
“Every other neighbor we have probably was involved in a radical socialist experiment in the 1960s or 1970s,” observes Parfrey’s wife, Jodi Wille, an accomplished rock-band photographer and documentarian, whose abiding interest in cults and subcultures brought her into Parfrey’s curious orbit.
For his part, Parfrey blithely declares: “I’m not here for the scene.”
Indeed, Parfrey has more serious fish to fry, though he does find time to attend meetings of the local mycological society, mushroom enthusiast that he is. For more than six years, Parfrey carried on an intense written correspondence with the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski, which would culminate in Parfrey’s announcement this past June that he would publish a book by him.
Parfrey’s decison to reacquaint the Unabomber with the general public comes as no surprise to those who’ve collaborated with the maverick publisher over the years. His reputation is well known in the industry, running the gamut from dangerous sensationlist to fearless visionary.
There’s a reason, after all, that Parfrey calls his relatively small nonfiction publishing concern Feral House. Its apt motto: “Refuses to be domesticated.”
Parfrey is a soft-spoken, unassuming man, with a grey-speckled beard and brown tufts that sprout from a receding hairline. He stays fit with a little foraging himself and an occasional round of hot hatha yoga (“I sweat my pants off”). He’s polite, bright as hell, and as cautious as a diamond cutter when choosing his words. He was once sonorously described by Salon as “equal parts P.T. Barnum, Rod Serling, and Hegel.”
The son of Hollywood character actor Woodrow Parfrey (who played Dr. Maximus, one of the three “See No Evil” orangutan judges in Planet of the Apes), the 53-year-old Parfrey, the iconoclastic force behind Feral House, has long relished putting into print publications that no one else dares touch.
“I want people to question things—that not everything is in The New York Times, which, as they say, is ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’ I wanted to include the unfit,” Parfrey says with a mischievous grin.
Or, as he wrote in the preface to the second edition of Apocalypse Culture, the seminal 1987 anthology he conceived and edited before starting Feral House (and which would put him on the map as the enfant terrible of the publishing world): “The reader of Apocalypse Culture will soon begin to notice a preponderance of materials from individuals who have the audacity to consider themselves their own best authority, in repudiation or ignorance of the orthodoxy factories of Church, University, or State.”
Jim Nichols is vice president of sales at Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. Based in Minneapolis, the company represents nearly 100 independent publishers throughout the world, with Feral House a prized client. “Adam is a fearless champion of free speech and opinion,” declares Nichols. “He’s pretty unique in the industry. I can’t think of anyone who approaches his style of publishing. His books definitely get noticed.”
Among the many audacious individuals Parfrey has given voice to is Peter Sotos, a world-renowned pedophile who in the mid-1980s put out a short-lived magazine named Pure, a depraved compendium of serial-killer lore and the “sublime pleasures” of child abuse. Parfrey included an interview with Sotos in Apocalypse—which has sold 100,000 copies, by far his most successful title. At one point, Sotos is asked by interviewer Paul Lemon what he finds admirable about rampant killers.
“I don’t find everyone who kills, beats, or rapes [as] someone admirable,” he replies. “I’m interested and respectful of those who view and understand their instincts . . . My tastes run very similar to Ian Brady [who killed five children in England in the mid-1960s], and I enjoy his work because it is 100 percent honest and self-conceived. He fucked and tortured little Lesley Downey every way imaginable before smashing her tiny skull in half. I find fuckups like Charles Manson and Ed Gein terribly boring and laughable because they had no idea of what they really wanted.”
There’s also a chapter devoted to Karen Greenlee, who had a keen taste for dead men in their early 20s. She made headlines in the mid-’80s when, as an embalming assistant at a Sacramento mortuary, she drove off in a hearse and wasn’t heard from for two days. Instead of delivering the body to the cemetery, Greenlee spent some quality time with the deceased.
“Sure, I find the odor of death very erotic,” she’s quoted as saying. “There are death odors and there are death odors. You get your body that’s been floating in the bay for two weeks, or a burn victim, that doesn’t attract me much, but a freshly embalmed corpse is something else . . . When you’re on top of a body it tends to purge blood out of its mouth, while you’re making passionate love. You’d have to be there, I guess.”
Parfrey himself weighs in with a few curious incantations to this “exhaustive tour through the nether regions of today’s psychotic brainscape.” In one piece he issues a fanciful mediation on the case for self-castration, writing that nowadays “symbols of the castrated penis, the tie and bow tie, are the mandatory accoutrements of diplomatic wardrobe.” In another article, titled “Aesthetic Terrorism,” he states: “The onslaught of Muzak, ad jingles, billboards, top-40 tunes, commercials, corporate logos, etc., all fit the terrorist dynamic of intrusion and coercion.”
With a wry grin, Parfrey confides, “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said that Apocalypse Culture changed their lives.”
Asked why and how, an awkward silence ensues before he finally volunteers, “Let me think about how I want to say this. I think it is that the culture that was provided them in school and so on was expanded [in Apocalypse] and torn apart.”
Exhibiting boundless fascination with the taboo, Parfrey has published more than 100 books since Feral’s beginning in 1989. The business, with two employees and a handful of distributors in New York, Canada, and Europe, occupies nearly half of his Port Townsend compound. Some of his titillating titles include The Devil’s Notebook, The Satanic Witch, Lords of Chaos, The Carnivals of Life and Death, and SuicideGirls—as well as The Compleat Motherfucker, a history of the mother of all dirty words, and Shit Magnet, a book chronicling “one man’s miraculous ability to absorb the world’s guilt.”
Another title that has enjoyed relative popularity was 1996’s Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook—grotesque black-and-white photos, primarily of dead, naked crime victims, from the collection of Jack Huddleston, an overwrought Los Angeles homicide cop in the 1940s and ’50s. In the introduction to Death Scenes, novelist Katherine Dunn (Geek Love) reveals that Huddleston “started out terrified and ended up liking it, fascinated, an aficionado.” With one horrific photo of a hanging victim, Huddleston includes the heartless caption “A little throat trouble.”
“What’s unique about Adam is that he treats all the so-called lunatics with respect,” notes Michael Moynihan, the Vermont-based author of Lords of Chaos, about the “bloody rise” of the early black-metal scene in Northern Europe. “Once you get past all the media demonizing, some of his stuff is very consequential—not just mad ravings.”
Sean Tejaratchi, a Los Angeles graphic designer who has created nearly 40 book covers for Parfrey, says the offbeat publisher is captivated by those whose worldview may seem inexplicable to most people. “Adam likes unique viewpoints which people feel very strongly about. It is the quality of that view that he’s attracted to, no matter how weird it may be.”
Seattleite Charlie Krafft, a ceramic artist, has happy memories of 1992, the year Parfrey, “my good buddy,” published Cad: A Handbook for Heels (“The Forgotten Lore of the Red-Blooded American Male”). “It was this oversized paperback magazine, a pre-feminist men’s magazine,” recounts Kraft. “It was politically incorrect and had a lot of soft-core porn in it.”
Cad brims with stories on burlesque, exotic music, and tiki culture, as well as essays on the history of rum and the secret to a perfect martini. “Cad was the most proscribed book I ever published,” Parfrey told Modern Drunkard Magazine in a 1996 interview. “It was banned in Canada . . . Some bookstore owners screamed at my distributor sales reps, ‘We nailed this door shut long ago! Get this book the fuck out of here!'”
Parfrey was also asked to share a particularly memorable drinking story with Modern Drunkard, which described him as “America’s most dangerous publisher.” He recalled an evening “guzzling up a storm” with Boyd Rice, a subcultural icon who first gained national recognition in 1975 when he, then 19, was whisked away by Secret Service agents as he tried to present First Lady Betty Ford with a skinned sheep’s head.
Recalled Parfrey in the interview: “I forgot the joke I told, but Boyd was laughing so loud and so hard that we all joined in and kept at it for like five or 10 minutes. Then I noticed the bar pianist clutching at his chest and spilling forward onto his face, suffering a massive heart attack. I was trying to call Boyd’s attention to this, but all my faces and finger-pointing made him laugh even louder and harder. I think that must have been the last thing this pianist heard as he was dying: our drunk voices laughing and screaming as loud as can be.”
In essence, what Parfrey does is publish books that explore the marginal aspects of culture. And in many cases—at least back when his interests were almost exclusively transgressive—he sheds light on subjects that society prefers to leave unexplored, carving a niche catering to those of us with an unseemly obsession with life’s darkest, most depraved sides.
Still, he bristles at being pigeonholed as an “underground” publisher. “That term diminishes the reality of what I do, which is to publish and write about things that perhaps little is known about in order to show another dimension,” explains Parfrey. “I do not try and shock people. That’s never been my intent, but rather to share aspects of culture that I find interesting.”
Later, his expression turns gently ironic, and he adds, “Werner Herzog once told me there is no such thing as counterculture. It’s all part of the culture.”
Between 1978 and 1995, Ted Kaczynski, a Harvard-educated mathematician, sent 16 package bombs. All of them exploded. Three people were killed and 23 others injured. The first bomb went to a materials-engineering professor at Northwestern University. It was followed by explosives mailed to a computer-store owner, an advertising executive, a timber-industry lobbyist, and a behavioral geneticist. One of the handcrafted devices was planted in the cargo hold of an American Airlines Boeing 727, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing.
In 1971, two years after quitting his job as an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Kaczynski moved to a remote cabin near Lincoln, Montana, and lived as a recluse. It was the embittered Kaczynski’s contention that humanity evolved under primitive, low-tech conditions, and that only a violent collapse of the modern era’s daunting techno-industrial system could restore man to his natural state.
Caving to his promise to “desist from terrorism” if given a wide platform for his views, The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed in 1995 to publish his so-called manifesto, in which he conceded that the bombings were extreme but necessary to end technology’s evils.
Now incarcerated at the maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, Kaczynski, 68, lives on “Celebrity Row” with such incorrigibles as World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef and, before his 2001 execution, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Kaczynski has corresponded with several people during his confinement, including Parfrey, whose provocative essays about imminent global catastrophe, and the kinds of agitative authors he’d published, had not gone unnoticed by the Unabomber.
Beginning in 2003, Parfrey and Kaczynski exchanged dozens of letters, leading Parfrey to publish the “collected writings” of Kaczynski under the title Technological Slavery.
“The letters from him were extremely focused,” Parfrey recalls. “None of them were particularly revealing, other than to show his obsessive-compulsive behavior. I knew that he had published his work The Road to Revolution in 2008, in Switzerland [by Xenia Press], and that he was very unhappy with how that turned out. So I knew he was looking for [another] publisher.
“I had read his manifesto when it came out, and I found that there was more than just madness to him,” adds Parfrey. “I know he’s a killer and sociopath, but I found myself in agreement with a lot of what he’s written, and that his message is worth explaining.”
Parfrey was initially contacted by David Skrbina, a University of Michigan philosophy professor who also had corresponded at length with Kaczynski. The Unabomber found a kindred spirit in the professor, a pioneer in the field of ecosophy—or “deep ecology”—which emphasizes the interdependence of human and nonhuman life. It was Skrbina who convinced Kaczynski to produce a revised book, based on his prison letters and newly written essays.
For a time, Kaczynski and Parfrey haggled over what to call the book, a paperback with a 3,000-copy first printing. “He suggested Technological Suicide, and I said I wanted a new title,” remembers Parfrey. “Then he finally said Technological Slavery, which is exactly what I wanted in the first place.”
When news first surfaced in late September that Parfrey had published the Unabomber’s work, the Los Angeles Times reported that he and Skrbina had fretted over the moral issue of giving a convicted murderer this kind of vehicle to promote his beliefs. Absolutely untrue, says Parfrey, specifying that he and Skrbina “didn’t agonize over this at all. I wanted to publish it and I did.” (Kaczynski is forbidden by the so-called “Son of Sam Law” from profiting from his crimes, and will not receive a cent in book royalties.)
Recalls Skrbina: “Yes, I had concerns, obviously, about the crimes and the murders, but I was looking purely at arguments about technology that he was raising, and I said we [have] got to separate that.”
“There’s been no real anger at all,” adds Parfrey, citing the lack of negative reaction Technological Slavery has elicited. “Maybe that’s because a lot of his concepts don’t seem so weird to a lot of people.”
In fact, a number of contemporary critics of technology and industrialization agree with Kaczynski’s message, if not his violence, including John Zerzan, a leader of the primitivist movement in the U.S., and Herbert Marcuse, a renowned German political theorist who died a year after Kaczynski embarked on his bombing spree.
Then there is Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, who in April 2000 wrote in Wired magazine: “I am no apologist for Kaczynski. His bombs killed three people during a 17-year terror campaign and wounded many others. One of his bombs gravely injured my friend David Gelernter, one of the most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time. Like many of my colleagues, I felt that I could easily have been the Unabomber’s next target. Kaczynski’s actions were murderous and, in my view, criminally insane. He is clearly a Luddite, but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument.”
Kaczynski, notes Parfrey, was not at all happy with Technological Slavery’s final cover design, an FBI reconstruction of the homemade package bombs. Parfrey says the cover was a collaborative effort with Bill Smith, an artist who has designed covers for LA Weekly, Seattle Weekly’s sister paper in Los Angeles.
Asked what troubled Kaczynski, Parfrey smiles and confides, “He said it was in bad taste.”
Parfrey studied history and theater at the University of California at Santa Cruz and later at UCLA before dropping out and using what he had left in tuition funds to head to San Francisco and bankroll two issues of an avant-garde tabloid he called Idea Magazine. It was the early ’80s, and Parfrey was heavily into punk rock, with notions of perhaps one day becoming a screenwriter or director, when an improbable bout of Dumpster diving led to a career in cutting-edge publishing.
Wandering down Sixth Street in San Francisco one day in 1982, Parfrey noticed that three large Dumpsters filled with hardcover books were being emptied into a dump truck behind a Goodwill store. “They were tossing away all the books, and I went in and asked the manager of the store, and he said they were only keeping the books that were shiny and new,” recalls Parfrey.
He rented a cheap pickup and began to sort the books, and for the next couple of years he was a wholesaler of used books in the Bay Area. He made enough money to buy a plane ticket to New York. “I worked at Strand Bookstore, but we [he and his first wife] lived mostly hand-to-mouth,” recalls Parfrey. “We got a woodstove, and we’d go out looking for used furniture and then bring it back to burn for heat.”
Parfrey managed to land on his feet, co-founding Amok Press with Ken Swezey in the mid-’80s. It was right up Parfrey’s literary alley, this catalogue of extremely unusual and hard-to-find books. With $5,000 in profit from Amok, Parfrey started Feral House.
Parfrey gained recognition of a positive kind in 1992—the year Cad made its madcap debut—when he published Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. In 1994, it was made into a well-received Tim Burton movie, Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp. Wood was known for making poorly produced genre films such as Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Parfrey also has been forced to weather some difficult times. It comes with the territory. As he puts it, “I don’t go looking for controversy, it finds me.”
It certainly found him in 1998, when he published The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror by investigative reporter David Hoffman. It made a number of searing allegations, centering on Hoffman’s contention that the government, working with militia groups, had advance knowledge that the Alfred P. Murrah Building would be bombed the morning of April 19, 1995.
“We got sued,” Parfrey says matter-of-factly.
The lawsuit was filed by a former FBI official named Oliver “Buck” Revell, who didn’t take kindly to Hoffman’s allegations that he was a co-conspirator in the bombing. Forced to ingest a heaping portion of crow, Parfrey, as part of a settlement, was ordered to destroy all copies of the book, including those in his distributor’s warehouse, in order to avoid “further dissemination of inaccurate statements.”
In an open letter, Parfrey wrote: “It is now my understanding that Mr. Revell had nothing to do with any alleged CIA drug smuggling, so-called ‘death squads,’ or malfeasance involving the Oklahoma City bombing, before or after.”
“It was a bad mistake,” Parfrey says. “But I didn’t have legal insurance and there was no way I could afford the cost of defending myself.”
Parfrey moves across Feral House’s inner sanctum, a vast, airy room, with most of his fringy titles carefully encased in bookshelves. The controversial publisher wears the slightly bemused look of a man who knows the world is full of chaos and irregularity. “I don’t think it is obsessive or crazy to look at things forthrightly,” he says of those who may criticize him for publishing material that hints of conspiracy. “You can call it exploitive, or you can dismiss it. But what is it? Why are people interested? Why do they want to know?”
One morning last month, Parfrey settles at a wooden table at the Salal Cafe on Water Street, where breakfast is served all day. The cozy eatery is bright, its walls festooned with watercolors, but empty save for a couple of women.
Parfrey orders bacon and eggs and glances at a Page 1 profile in the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader of Paul Richmond, a candidate for city prosecutor who supports an “enlightened” approach to marijuana prosecution. Parfrey, at heart a libertarian—he jokingly calls them “pot-smoking Republicans”—intends to vote for him.
The Salal, just down the street from the Nifty Fiftys Soda Fountain and the Boiler Room (a nonprofit performance space and cafe that boasts of having the “Best $1 Cup in Town”), is one of a few Port Townsend haunts favored by Parfrey. He makes an occasional foray to hoist a few at Sirens, a dimly lit pub atop the old C.C. Bartlett Building that offers a king’s view of Admiralty Inlet, and frequently stops at William James Bookseller, where a first edition of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion goes for $300.
Parfrey buys rare and used books here, and sells some Feral titles to owner Jim Catley. “I don’t know him well, but he likes my store,” says Catley, who has run the musty shop for 23 years. “He lies low and keeps to himself.”
Parfrey is a regular, too, at Colinwood Farms, buying organic produce and sometimes paying a visit to Chelsea Clancy, a farmer and onetime neighbor. “Yeah, me and my boyfriend Sam used to live near him for a year,” recalls Clancy. “Sam had bought some of his books, like Apocalypse [Culture], and when we met him, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re neighbors.’ He’s such a wealth of information, and a lovely man, too.”
Digging into his food, Parfrey begins to unspool memories of his rather exceptional childhood. He and his brother Jonathan were raised by a couple of bohemians: a father who took to the Broadway stage and a “very smart and imposing” mother who taught speech at New York City’s left-tilting New School for Social Research. In the early 1960s, Woodrow Parfrey left the stage and New York behind and brought his young family to Hollywood. He appeared in film and TV, most notably The Man From U.N.C.L.E. As a member of Clint Eastwood’s informal repertory company, he played small parts in The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, and Dirty Harry.
“My father also worked with Ronald Reagan on Death Valley Days in the early ’60s,” adds Parfrey. “And he told me once how he went out to lunch with him one day, and that Reagan told him that the communists were planting bombs under his [Reagan’s] car.”
Parfrey grew up in Malibu, two blocks from the beach, in a home often filled with his dad’s buddies, most of them hard-drinking actors and directors. “There was so many of them around all the time that I thought every father was an actor,” Parfrey says with a chuckle. “I remember once Jason Robards boozing it up with my father. They’d be making runs to the liquor store. So I was waking up the next morning, getting ready for school, and there was Robards still drinking, and going”—Parfrey imitates the actor’s deep voice—”‘Get back in your room, kid, it’s too early to get up!'”
The elder Parfrey fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. Most of his regiment died of starvation. He weighed just 60 pounds when he was liberated. Appropriately enough, decades later he played the role of a prisoner in the 1973 classic Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Cutting the fat from his bacon, Parfrey says, “He never wanted to talk about the war. He hated the Germans and the Nazis. That’s why we never had a Volkswagen or a German shepherd.”
In the late 19th century, no other port city in America, aside from San Francisco, had a more rough-and-tumble waterfront than Port Townsend. So salacious was it—feral, one might say—that the odor of whiskey is said to have permeated the soil along Water Street to a depth of 10 feet. (Sounds like a certain Malibu household in the ’60s.) The only things more plentiful than booze were prostitutes—”soiled doves” and “demimondes,” as they were euphemized.
That’s hard to envision now as a few tourists drift past the stately Palace Hotel and head for a hot cup of java at the weathered Lighthouse Cafe. An early November mist has enveloped the town, bringing a cold fog that clings to an elegant stone structure on the corner of Taylor Street and Water. It’s Port Townsend’s first stone building, the Eisenbeis, built in 1873, back when the soiled doves were the city’s truest artists. Some of them plied their naughty craft at the old Delmonico Hotel and Restaurant, the most memorable business to occupy the Eisenbeis.
Beneath it lies the Undertown, where locals idle in conversation over coffee and croissants. To get to it, one must descend a steep stairway with green iron handrails and navigate a darkened 100-foot-long concrete tunnel. Inside the cave-like cafe, the walls are brick and stone. One room leads to another, all neatly lined with paintings for sale.
Dressed in a dark pea coat, Parfrey appears toward the front of the serpentine place. After collecting the coffee he’s ordered, he offers some small talk about the election, saying nothing really surprised him, not even Harry Reid pulling it out in Nevada.
Asked if there’s anything he’d draw the line at publishing, Parfrey quietly begins, “When I was in L.A., there was this Jewish I guy I knew who went to Auschwitz under the pretense that he was doing Jewish studies, but really he was into the whole Holocaust-revisionist thing.” The son of a POW who hated all things German, Parfrey adds, “No, I’m not going to get into that world.”
If there’s one thing Parfrey would most like to stress on this cold afternoon, it’s that Feral House’s nonfiction offerings, whether wacky, inflammatory, or highly educational, are not something he publishes on a whim.
“These are not finished products when they come to me; they are collaborative efforts. In fact, I’ve often been the co-writer on them and probably should have listed myself that way,” says Parfrey. “What I do is try to give readers something that is interesting, something they might not have explored before. That’s what floats my boat.”
Naked Lunch: Naked Arena of Ontological/Hauntological  Addiction
In “Afterthoughts on a Deposition” of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs remarks “the junk virus is public health problem number one of the world today.” He refers less to the actual ill effects of opiates upon the individual’s health than to the “anti-drug hysteria” that “poses a deadly threat to personal freedom and to the due-process protections of the law everywhere.” The war between drug addiction and anti-drug hysteria manifests Burroughs’s idea of human body as the “soft machine”, an arena, where all sorts of power, or to put it in Burroughs’s terminology – virus, act upon. His idea of human being as “soft machine” also indicates people’s addictive nature. For Burroughs, in addition to junk, sex, power, and language are all viruses that control human body and mind and block people from freedom. Though evil, the virus is also charged with the ultimate power of subversion. For him, the evil virus is “The Algebra of Need.” On the one hand, it manifests the cannibalistic structure of capitalism where pyramids of power and wealth feeds on people’s total need. On the other, it indicates people’s internal need for the other, the injection of a foreign body. It breaks down the myth of man as a whole. It is, as Avital Ronell in Crack War points out, “excentric and depropriative” which is something “animated by an outside already inside” (19). Driven by the “excentric and depropriative” virus, the host or addict delves into the journey of exploring his/her “fractal interiorities” because it is an uncanny presence that manifests something inside that must be encrypted but repeatedly and compulsively recurs, remaining ungraspable, and causes ruptures. (Ronell, 5 & 15) In most of Burroughs’s fiction, junk always manifests this hinge mechanism of undecidability. It causes “total possession” that concerns nothing and thus drives the host or addict into abjection. It is also something that Walter Benjamin calls the “profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspirition” (Benjamin, 179). Through this intense and immediate experience, the senses are sharpened and the sensuous-material experiences are transformed into forms of awareness. (Burger, xlv) It is a revelation of experience that conjures up the specters from the past that haunt both human existence and the controlling hegemony by causing radical ruptures in them.
Burroughs remarked in his autobiographic novel, Junky, that one reason he drifted into a life of “solo adventure” and addiction was that being an addict supplied the close-to-the-margin experience that his comfortable but banal bourgeois background had forestalled. (xi-xvi) He noted that he had learned a great deal from using junk because “Junk addicts knew the pointless of complaining or moving. They knew that basically no one can help anyone else. There is no key, no secret someone else has that he can give you” (xvi). Junk, for Burroughs, is a weapon to “punch a hole in the big lie” just like what he intends to achieve through his writing. Burroughs remarked in Nova Express that there is no true or real “reality.” “Reality” is simply a constant scanning pattern that we accept as “reality”. It is imposed by the controlling power that aims at achieving “total control” (Nova Express, 53). In his journal, “Final Words,” for The New Yorker in August 1997, Burroughs expressed the same idea. He noted that we make our own truth. “Nobody else makes it. There is no truth we don’t make.” What governments and corporations assert as truth is nothing but “lies”; such bodies are inevitable “self-righteous. They have to be because in human terms they are wrong” (36-37). Though Burroughs believes in human being’s addictive nature, to be the subject of total possession is not the mark of victimhood, but carelessness. In Burroughs’s world, there are no victims, just accomplices. Just as a critic Ann Douglas points out that in Burroughs’s fiction, “though everyone is complicit, everyone is also responsible, for everyone is capable of resistance.”
Having been “scoring” literature till now, I strongly share with Benjamin’s idea of literature as drugs. He notes that “The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flaneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug – ourselves – which we take in solitude” (Benjamin, 190). Ronell also points out that literature “is by no means an innocent bystand but often accused, a breeding ground of hallucinogenres, has something to teach us about ethical fractures and the relationship to law” (Ronell, 11). This thesis titled as “Naked Arena of Ontological/Hauntological Addiction” is for me to conjure up the specters of the avant-gardiste thinkers to stage a séance on the “Being on Drugs,” to put it in Ronell’s term, with her notion of hallucinogenres included. Both human body and text body are the arena where all sorts of power invade and act upon. For me, Burroughs’s fiction works as hallucinogen that produces the ecstasy of intoxication and Benjamin’s “profane illumination.” It functions as the inosculation, and the inoculation of the inhuman and eccentric other. In his fiction, Burroughs inosculates various kinds of texts, fragmentary utterances and quotations to embody the grotesque images so shocking and violent that causes spiritual and physical convulsion. Like a junk addict who injects junk to get the ambivalent pleasure of intensity and relief, Burroughs’s fiction affords its addict the immediacy and intensity of experience and pleasure. It impels thought but cannot be incorporated by thought, thus transforming its addict into perpetual a flaneur, whom, as Gustave Flaubert remarks, has “neither religion nor fatherland nor even any social conviction. Absolute skepticism” (Flaubert, 276). Burroughs believes that the best cure is always homeopathic.  Therefore, he aims to make his fiction into an inoculation that creates alerted antibodies to fight against “total control” and to reveal a different “reality.” Burroughs has long time been considered as an avant-gardiste artist. That is not only because of his special writing but also because of the radically political position he advocates in his writing and persists in his life. His writing embodies the Avant-gardiste aesthetics of Rausch  and shock, which “is aimed for as a stimulus to change one’s conduct of life; it is the means to break through aesthetic immanence and to usher in (initiate) a change in the recipient’s life praxis” (Burger, 80).
The body text of this thesis can be dissected into two main parts. The two parts are inosculated under Burroughs’s apocalyptic warning, “To speak is to lie – To live is to collaborate” (Nova Express, 7). I will devote the first part of the thesis to exploring Burroughs’s idea of language as “word virus” and then examine the special writing form of Naked Lunch and the effects it creates. In the second part, I intend to elaborate Burroughs’s notion of virus as “The Algebra of Need,” which manifests both as “total control” on human being, and as human being’s ultimate power and will to rupture.
Chapter 1. To Speak Is To Lie
Burroughs strongly shares with avant-garde skepticism toward language. For him, language is the ultimate virus. The “word virus” manifests the most deeply rooted form of addiction; it is always at work creating “reality” for the controlling power to render individual dependence on certain fixed meanings and images. When totally possessed by the word virus, the individual becomes manipulable and totally identifies with the controlling power. Burroughs’s project in Naked Lunch is to strip the references of language, to break down binary oppositions, to decompose its implied hierarchies, and finally to deconstruct it. He refuses to adhere to the conventional literary narrative and frames himself as a “recording instrument.” With random juxtaposition of junky underworld slang, citations from magazines and newspapers, and quotations from other books, Burroughs makes the novel into a literary version of collage and splicing cinematic images. He ignores grammatical rules, uses abundant capitals, italics, ellipses, and constantly repeats certain passages to create strong visual and audio effects. Obscene, disgusting, and grotesque images of sexuality, violence, and death fill out the whole novel. For many readers, the novel might appears as what Burroughs mentions in the beginning of the novel, “repulsive details not for weak stomachs.” (xv) All his writing strategies are aimed to reveal the theme: “to speak is to lie.” In this chapter, I intend to explore Burroughs’s idea of word virus and his special writing strategies for him to fight against the controlling hegemony embedded in and replicated through language, the “word virus.”
Chapter 2. To Live Is To Collaborate
Burroughs’s lifelong quest for the cure of virus and individual freedom resembles that of Nietzsche’s. Nietzsche remarks that the value of freedom “lies not in what one attains with it, but in what one pays for it — what it costs us.” He also suggests freedom is that “one has the will to self-responsibility” (Nietzsche 1968: 92). They both think that freedom is a never-ending warfare. It is the war of Nietzsche’s noble person who “will respect his enemy;” and instead of inventing an “evil enemy” to define him/herself as the “Good One,” the noble man “requires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction” (Nietzsche 1956:173).
Being a lifelong drug addict and a homosexual, Flaubert’s notion of “absolute skepticism” has never been foreign to Burroughs. He often claimed himself as an outside role who does not have a place called home or even a name as he mentioned in My Education: A Book of Dreams. This “absolute skepticism,” self-exile from fatherland and social convention, manifests Burroughs’s profound opposition to the sinister hypocrisy of the controlling hegemony, the forces of the state, and the anti-drug war hysteria that deprives individual freedom by usurping individual right of self-responsibility. This “absolute skepticism,” the constant questioning, resembles George Bataille’s “unemployed negativity,” a dynamic momentum that makes the mind constantly question and contest itself. (Reader, 69) It also resembles Maurice Blanchot’s “limit-experience” which is the ecstatic “loss of knowledge,” and “the grasping seizure of contestation at the height of rupture and dispossession” (Blanchot, 207). In this chapter, the theories of the aforementioned avant-gardiste thinkers will be elaborated on to explore Burroughs’s quest for freedom that require one’s will to “absolute skepticism” and “self- responsibility” through the perpetual combat with junk, the evil virus, “The Algebra of Need.”
 I borrowed the term from Jacques Derrida in the book of his most visibly political statement to date, Specters of Marx. Hauntology is an interesting term for Derrida to stage the logic of specters, ghosts, spirits, hauntings that would be “larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being” (10). Hauntology deals with kinds of non-being that haunt the “Rock-Bottom Reality” and frequent the space between the logic of binary opposition – such as: life/death; to be/not to be. For Derrida, the spell of hauntology will always already have haunted ontology. He points out that: “Haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony” (37). Therefore, attending to ghosts is political because it means attending to the “Other.” Attending to ghosts, a conjuration, according to Derrida, is “a matter of neutralizing a hegemony or overtuning some power” (47). Hence, at the end of the book, Derrida suggests that we should “learn to live by learning not how to make conversation with the ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet” (179). I extract here, Derrida’s notion of ontology and hauntology because it resembles Burroughs’s central concern of “evil virus” that I will devote my whole thesis to explore.
 This idea is made evident by Burroughs’s advocate of apomorphine as the best method for treating junk withdrawal in Naked Lunch. (222) His ideal cure for other kinds of virus is also, as I shall explore later in the thesis, based on the idea of homeopathy.
 It is the surrealistic concept of the ecstasy of intoxication. (Ronell, 11 & Burger, xliii)
Marinetti’s version of futurism would seem, on the face of it, to be utterly incompatible with women. Given his “scorn for woman” (Marinetti 42) and the belief that “Woman, as she has been shaped by our contemporary society, can only increase in splendor the principle of corruption inseparable from the principle of the vote” (Marinetti 74), it may seem quite impossible to separate futurism from a rabid and absolute misogyny.
In this paper I would like to attempt to dislodge, or at least complicate, the pairing of futurism and misogyny by an examination of Marinetti’s own writings on women and futurism, as well as the writings of Valentine de Valentine de Saint-Point, herself a futurist. Essentially, I will argue that both Marinetti and Valentine de Saint-Point approach the ‘question of woman’ with distinctive strategies that allow them to see futurism and women as complementary rather than antagonistic. These strategies involve sidestepping the dangerous opposition between the forces of gender by positing a more complete being, what Marinetti calls the ‘multiplied man’ and Valentine de Saint-Point sees created out of the ‘dynamism of lust’.
I will argue, in the final section of this paper, that the futurist strategy of androgyny attempts to fill the same gap that Mussolini and Italian fascism attempted to fill with the State. Thus, it seems that there were, as Victoria de Grazia notes, “a legacy of outlooks and institutions ready to be exploited, as would happen in the second half of the twenties, when the dictatorship tapped widespread antiemancipationist sentiment to legitimate its antifemale politics” (de Grazia 26).
Rather than seeing futurist discourse (or fascism) as straightforwardly misogynist, I would like to complicate that picture by questioning how women futurists, like Valentine de Saint-Point, evade this simple misogyny in favor of an elevation of a masculinized androgyny that is connected (theoretically and historically) to the rhetoric of completeness found within Italian fascist literature.
In the end, I will conclude that the androgynous ‘complete being’ (or complete State) allows the legitimation of ‘women’ (through an attempt to rhetorically eradicate gender) while at the same time maintaining an antiemancipatory stance that in actual fact reinforces traditional, patriarchal structures.
First, however, I would like to briefly illustrate what might be seen as an a priori stance against women in Marinetti’s work. He states that:
You will certainly have watched the takeoff of a Blériot plane, panting and still held back by its mechanics, amid mighty buffets of air from the propeller’s first spins. Well then: I confess that before so intoxicating a spectacle we strong Futurists have felt ourselves suddenly detached from women, who have suddenly become too earthly, or, to express it better, have become a symbol of the earth that we ought to abandon (Marinetti 75).
Here women clash directly with the stated aims of futurism. While Marinetti wants to “sing the love of danger” (Marinetti 41), he sees traditional women (i.e. those bound up in domesticity) as necessarily tied to the static ‘earth’. So it seems that the “aggressive action” (Marinetti 41) and “feverish insomnia” (Marinetti 41) that futurism is founded upon exclude at least traditional women from the very beginning.
However, Marinetti’s scorn is not limited simply to traditional women (who are more intimately involved in the family and the home), he is also extremely critical of ‘modern’ woman. He sees the role of the modern woman as an ‘important’ one, though for reasons that drastically differ from feminist/suffrage movements of the time. He states that:
We who despise the careerists of politics are happy to abandon parliamentarianism to the envious claws of women; inasmuch as to women, exactly, is reserved the noble task of killing it for good and forever (Marinetti 74).
Thus, Marinetti is all for female suffrage but only insofar as he thinks women will undoubtedly destroy the hated parliamentary system (and the family♥1) that futurism so radically opposes. So, the role of such women may be useful for futurist purposes, but they can never be anything other than vaccines against the dual diseases of parliament and family. He also sees the modern suffragette’s dream of getting the vote as stemming directly from the traditionally domestic setting:
It is plain that if modern woman dreams of winning her political rights, it is because without knowing it she is intimately sure of being, as a mother, as a wife, and as a lover, a closed circle, purely animal and wholly without usefulness (Marinetti 75).
Thus, while modern women may, in some sense, be a cure for the ills of home and government, they are too overly dependant upon traditional institutions to become truly futurist. There is, seemingly, no room for a futurist woman, modern or traditional.
This entire picture becomes complicated when we examine his “Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine” in which a more positive aesthetic/political project is laid out. In this short essay, Marinetti argues that we should move toward the “abolition in literature of the seemingly unchallengeable fusion of the two ideas Woman and Beauty” (Marinetti 90), which he sees as “a dominant leitmotiv, tiresome and outworn” (Marinetti 90). In its place he wants to “exalt love for the machine, that love we notice flaming on the cheeks of mechanics scorched and smeared with coal” (Marinetti 90). Thus, the futurist aesthetic entails the replacement of one relationship (beauty-woman) for another (beauty-machine). But, in the same essay, Marinetti describes this ‘mechanic’s love’ as “the minute, knowing tenderness of a lover caressing his adored woman” (Marinetti 90). Further he notes that,
One can say of the great French railway strike that the organizers were unable to persuade a single mechanic to sabotage his locomotive. To me this seems entirely natural. How could one of those men have been able to wound or kill his great faithful devoted mistress with her quick and ardent heart? his beautiful steel machine that had so often glowed with pleasure beneath his ardent caress? (Marinetti 90).
These are not merely careless slips of the tongue; Marinetti himself notes that, “This is no fantasy, but almost a reality that in a few years we will easily be able to control” (Marinetti 90). Marinetti argues both that we have to move beyond the pairing of woman and beauty and that we should see the machine-beauty relationship as a heightened, more futurist, version of this relationship. Thus, the rejection of women as such is not exactly clear; Marinetti oscillates between appeals to this relationship and a desire to reject it. What interests me here is that Marinetti himself is conscious of this apparent contradiction, yet he does not see it as contradictory at all: he argues that it is ‘almost a reality’. This seems to me to be an indication that the new (futurist) reality will be one in which traditional gendered relations will become androgynous. The relationship toward beauty will not be simply an amorous, ‘romantic’ relation. In this purely male-female relationship all we can hope for is “a kind of heroic assault leveled by a bellicose and lyric male against a tower that bristles with enemies who cluster around the divine Beauty-Woman” (Marinetti 90). Marinetti sees in this deification of the woman-beauty pairing a denial of the ‘real’ aggressive, will-laden world. So, instead of participating in such predetermined categories (Male, Female) Marinetti proposes a blurring of all such categories. He wants to see the machine as a mistress, but he also wants to be “able to create a mechanical son, the fruit of pure will, a synthesis of all the laws that science is on the brink of discovering” (Marinetti 75). Theoretically at least, Marinetti’s apparent misogyny is a stance against “Woman, as she has been shaped by our contemporary society” (Marinetti 74). That is, he is not against all connection with women as such, but against the traditional relationships in which this connection has been made static (wife, mother, etc.). His misogyny is, on this reading, of a very particular, historically contingent type.
It is in this slippage between rejection and acceptance of a traditionally gendered relation (woman-beauty) that I think Marinetti’s desire for androgyny can be detected. ♥2 It is also the crack in the a priori misogynist façade that allows Valentine de Saint-Point to see herself as a futurist. Valentine de Saint-Point states that, “Humanity is mediocre. The majority of women are neither superior nor inferior to the majority of men. They are equal. Both deserve the same contempt.” This I think sums up quite nicely what Marinetti’s confusion of gendered relations only hints at. Rather than rejecting one or the other of either the purely female individual or the purely male individual, Valentine de Saint-Point wants to reject both as incomplete beings. She notes in typically acerbic futurist style, “An exclusively male individual is nothing but a brute; an exclusive female individual is nothing but weakness.” This desire for completion is described in more detail by Valentine de Saint-Point:
Women, like men, are not responsible for the fact that those who are truly young, filled with lymph and blood, are stuck fast. It is absurd to divide humanity into women and men: it is composed entirely of femininity and masculinity. Every superman, every hero, however epic he may be, every genius however powerful, is the amazing expression of his time only because he is composed simultaneously of feminine and masculine elements of femininity and masculinity – he is a complete being.
The futurist project, then, is not a desire to elevate ‘man’ to new and glorious aesthetic heights (to the detriment of ‘woman’); it is a drive towards a more complete being (what Marinetti calls the ‘multiplied man’. Described in this way, futurism can be seen as a reaction to the both traditional structures (like domesticity) and also to the reversal of those structures (for instance, the fear that feminism simply leads to a reversal of gender roles). Rather than subscribing to either of these seemingly incomplete modes of existence, futurism, like fascism later, attempts to occupy a more complete space in which no possibilities are ignored. By getting beyond superficial distinctions, like feminine/masculine, the true futurist is able to experience both sides of the dichotomy. The perfect example of this is, as mentioned above, Marinetti’s attitude towards the machine world: he sees technology as analogous to a (female) mistress, yet he also wants to bear a mechanical son (Mafarka). In this way he is able to occupy two spaces that would have been incommensurable if he accepted either modern (emancipatory) politics or the simplicity of tradition. Essentially, futurism desires the avoidance of rigid and strict limitations, regardless of their content. ♥3
Now I would like to move on to a comparative discussion of the above-mentioned androgyny in futurism and the idea of the State in Italian fascism. Just as Marinetti (and later Valentine de Saint-Point ) attempted to figure feminism and emancipationist political movements as emphasizing an incomplete vision of society, early Italian fascism would decry those movements for precisely the same reason. As we have seen, Marinetti was (on the face of it) virulently misogynistic, yet futurism was an attractive forum precisely because of the notion of the ‘complete’ being (the multiplied man). In almost exactly the same way, Italian fascism capitalized on the widespread feeling that something was lacking in modern life by attacking notions of emancipation as incomplete. Rather than the ‘multiplied man’ or the complete individual, fascism offered completion through service to the state. Though there are obvious and numerous differences between fascism and futurism, it does seem that both attempt to fill the perceived gap left by nineteenth century modern ‘decadence’. ♥4 Marinetti and Valentine de Saint-Point are eager to destroy the rigid, structural order of traditional Italy in order to question its relevance in an entirely new world that opened radical new possibilities for individuals. fascism’s move was to shift this new space from the individual to the State. Rather than exalting the completion of the individual through the rejection of withered half-experiences (male or female), fascism desired to eliminate these incomplete experiences through a loss of individuality in service to the complete, totalitarian state. Mussolini writes, for instance, that:
Against individualism, the Fascist conception is for the state: and it is for the individual insofar as he coincides with the State, which is the conscience and universal will of man in his historical existence… fascism reaffirms the State as the true reality of the individual. …for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State. In this sense fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people (Mussolini 221-222).
Here the emphasis on completion is obvious. While in Democratic/parliamentary systems, we are tantalized by a liberty that is merely an “abstract puppet” (Mussolini 221), within fascism we are given the real thing: a liberty directly stemming from the absolute completeness of the state.
So, in the fascist state individual differences are erased and completion arises through service to the state. Thus, emancipatory feminism, which exists outside the state and is antagonistic towards the state, is seen as a limitation upon liberty: rather than freeing the individual from traditional limits (i.e. domesticity), feminism helps to impose new limits (i.e. the limitations of the work place, of the parliament).
In conclusion, I would like to speculate that by filling the felt need for completion (both in different, though related, ways) futurism and fascism created a space in which women were both included theoretically, and ignored politically. Thus, while both futurism and fascism attempted to avoid the pitfalls of traditional and modern liberal projects, they end up reinscribing themselves within the social/political practices they have theoretically rejected.
Marinetti attempts to participate in both sides of seemingly opposed forces; the futurist desires to at once love the machine as a man loves a woman, and also to birth a mechanical son. Thus, Marinetti occupies both the space of masculine lover and feminine mother. Similarly, Valentine de Saint-Point attempts to see futurism as bridging the gap between feminine/masculine by encouraging an equal measure of both in the complete individual.
However, Valentine de Saint-Point herself seems (to me) to deny the possibility of this radical subversion of gender roles by allocating traditionally gender specific roles to futurist women. Rather than entirely reconfiguring modes of existence, as Marinetti’s ‘multiplied man’ would attempt, Valentine de Saint-Point describes old projects in new terms:
Because of the fatal tithe of blood, while men are warring and fighting create sons and act the role of Destiny among them in the name of Heroism. Bring them up not for yourselves, which diminishes them; let them find a wide freedom, a complete development. Instead of reducing man to the servitude of detestable sentimental needs, encourage your sons and your men to excel themselves. It is you who make them. You have complete power over them. You owe heroes to humanity. Give them to us!
Here, I think, we see Valentine de Saint-Point’s reliance on traditional patriarchal structures (ones that she and Marinetti both attempt to subvert). Rather than radically realigning the whole existence of the futurist woman, Valentine de Saint-Point wants a reinterpretation of current ways of existing. That the project of women lies in their relation to men is never questioned, merely resituated. It is for this reason that I think futurism, as much as it wishes to see itself as a radical break, necessarily relies on, and reifies, traditional patriarchal relations. Though Marinetti may androgynously pine away for his mechanical son Mafarka, that pining is necessarily founded on a political system wherein women firmly occupy the role of futurist son-bearing mothers, rather than as futurists proper.
While futurism seems to forget, or efface, its claims about overturning traditional structures, fascism manages to evade the problem entirely through the figure of the State:
fascism, in short, is not only the giver of laws and the founder of institutions, but the educator and promoter of spiritual life. It wants to remake, not the forms of human life, but its content, man, character, faith. And to this end it requires discipline and authority that can enter into the spirits of men and there govern unopposed. Its sign, therefore, is the Lictor’s rods, the symbol of unity, of strength and justice (Mussolini 223).
Thus, the fascist state does not reject traditional forms as such. Rather, it imbues them with new content, in light of their new relation to the State. In the fascist State, the form of the family, or motherhood, may not change radically, but (theoretically) the content of those forms radically differs in that they are meaningful only insofar as they relate to the state. In this view, tradition is not rejected (as in Marinetti) but re-organized.
It is here that I see the strongest connections between fascism and Valentine de Saint-Point’s futurism. While Marinetti rejects tradition whole, Valentine de Saint-Point (like Mussolini) wants to refigure traditional roles like motherhood and imbue them with new and radically different meanings. By avoiding the question of the political situation of women (or re-affirming its traditional answer) through a rhetoricc of completeness, Valentine de Saint-Point allows for an anti-feminist position that seems to escape the negative aspects of traditional roles. However, this escape is merely illusory: the promise of a newfound legitimation of women’s roles is chimerical. When this stance is actually taken up (as in the fascist political regime) women’s role are not made meaningful, but rather pushed in new and different directions based upon the instrumental whims of a hyper-patriarchal State.
1. This specificity does not, of course, excuse or evade Marinetti’s political condemnation of women. It limits his ‘scorn’ to all women before and contemporary with Marinetti’s writing: a suitably large group!
2. Marinetti, for his part, notes that “The immense Amore of the romantics is thus reduced solely to the conservation of the species, and friction of the epidermis is finally freed from all provocative mystery” (Marinetti 92). Here we note, again, that his treatment of traditionally gendered relations (here sex between male and female) allows him to de-gender, or androgynize them. Rather than rejecting sex, as such, he reduces it to “friction of the epidermis.”
3. Valentine de Saint-Point notes “…Feminism should be left aside, Feminism is a political mistake. Feminism is a mistake made by women’s intellect, a mistake which her instinct will recognize. Women should not be given any of the rights claimed by Feminism. To give women these rights would not produce any of the disorder the Futurists hope for, but on the contrary would create an excess of order.” Her position here does not differ terribly from Marinetti’s, outlined above.
4. That Marinetti saw his time as a considerable break with tradition is obvious: “We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! … why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday.” (Marinetti 41).
1. Victoria de Grazia, How fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945 (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992).
2. F.T. Marinetti, “Against Amore and Parliamentarianism” pp.72-75 in Marinetti: Selected Writings edited by R.W. Flint, translated by R.W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotellli (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1971).
3. F. T. Marinetti, “Destruction of Syntax – Imagination without strings – Words-in-Freedom” cited from the website “Bob Osborn’s futurism and the Futurists” found at: http://www.futurism.org.uk (originally printed in the journal Lacerba, on June 15, 1913 in Florence).
4. F.T. Marinetti, “Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine” pp.90-93 in Marinetti: Selected Writings edited by R.W. Flint, translated by R.W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotellli (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1971).
5. F.T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of futurism” pp.39-44 in Marinetti: Selected Writings edited by R.W. Flint, translated by R.W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotellli (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1971).
6. Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of fascism” pp.219-233 in Twentieth Century Europe, edited by John W. Boyer and Jan Goldstein (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).
7. Valentine de Valentine de Saint-Point, “Manifesto of the Futurist Woman” cited from the website “Bob Osborn’s futurism and the Futurists” found at: http://www.futurism.org.uk (originally printed on March 25, 1912 in Paris).
8. Barbara Spackman, Fascist Virilities: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Social Fantasy in Italy (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996).
This is the first serious critical study to contextualize the films of Burroughs, Balch, and Gysin within the analytical framework of the “structural film” as defined by P. A. Sitney and the other structural film movements occurring seemingly simultaneously around Europe and America. Barry Miles, in his study of the period The Beat Hotel, notes the presence of an important and influential figure from the Fluxus group within the “Domain Poetique” events, Emmett Williams. Miles also notes that George Maciunas attended a performance in Paris and categorized Gysin’s work as “expanded cinema.” The fact that these disparate groups would have met and exchanged ideas is an important and often undervalued detail.
The presence of these notable figures clearly lays the foundations for such a critical study as this.
While there are other excellent studies of these films, most notably Genesis P-Orridge’s fascinating account of how he saved the films from destruction in a rubbish skip (in Jack Sergeant’s book Beat Cinema), they remain descriptive of the content. It is to the memory of William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Anthony Balch that I humbly dedicate this study.
In this article I will examine the collaborative film work of William Burroughs and Anthony Balch, which brings to cinema an extension of Burroughs’ literary cut-up technique. This will be explored in terms of the various critical and experimental approaches regarding “structural” theory, which reached an Arcadia throughout the 1950s and ‘60s in experimental cinema, literature, music, and art.
I will inaugurate this study with a broad introduction to avant-garde film practice. Secondly, I will be elaborating on trends and critiques made in 1960s America, Europe, and England regarding the structural approach to avant-garde cinema and art. The following section will describe the techniques of Burroughs’ cut-up model, and introduce the films made with Anthony Balch, providing a section of illustrative analysis from the film The Cut Ups. In the final section I intend to use comparative critical frameworks offered by the theorists of the late 1960s to demonstrate the cut-up’s heritage of structural shot relations and Dadaist confrontation.
The Avant-Garde Film Practice
Any discussion of the debates concerning “avant-garde” cinema must also revolve around those of a broad context of “mainstream film.” These differences are many, and involve factors of industrial base, private-sector capitalism, and ideas of mainstream cinema as an “entertainment” and “narrative” medium. By a general gesture, the mainstream cinema is mainly dominant due to its reproduction of dominant ideologies within a social and economic framework. Cinema also works on the level of formal apparatus, and the hegemony of industrial and economic superiority in the mainstream is matched by a domination of formal and aesthetic “pleasures” in which the spectator is posited.
This form of aesthetic domination in the mainstream cinema relies heavily upon a “representation” of reality. This was achieved and solidified in the editing and filming practices of an Institutional Mode of Representation as described by Noel Burch1 that was born out of a period of intense formal experimentation in the early period of cinema history. There is emergent here a primary concern with the articulation of “narrative” and the representation of a spatially and temporally coherent film world in which psychologically motivated characters operate (Bordwell).2
The cinema of the avant-garde represents a number of different approaches to the mainstream and is informed by a contrasting set of ideological models. In terms of production, the avant-garde has a history of private sponsorship and state subsidy, as its relationship with the audience is usually one of artisanal self-expression rather than commodity-based economic exploitation. These forms of self-expression run from individualism (as championed by Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage) to collectivism (Surrealism to the various filmmakers’ co-ops the world over) .
Yet both avant-garde and mainstream cinematic expression represent a whole array of different aesthetic and ideological imperatives. A useful analogy would be that “while mainstream cinema by and large perpetuates the realist imperatives of the nineteenth-century literary, dramatic, and visual traditions to which it is heir, the cinema of the avant-garde draws its inspiration from developments and tendencies within its newer context — modernism in the arts.”3
Many of the experimental imperatives of avant-garde cinema are initiated or continued in other artforms, such as painting, photography, music, and literature. These often slowly gain “acceptance” and bleed into the various mainstreams of expression in each of these categories. The avant-garde is also often reactionary to the notion of a mainstream and very often represents an attack on the ideologies that this ostensibly middle-class mode of expression represents.
The first “avant-garde” in cinema, located in Paris in the 1910s, is known as the “Impressionist movement.” This was concerned with cinema as an artisanal operative, instigated by Louis Delluc and Marcel L’Herbier via the publication Le Film. The films of this period were concerned with individual “artistic” imperatives over the emerging capitalist entertainment of cinema.
More intense and overt challenges to the concept of an artistic mainstream were founded by gestures throughout art, poetry, writing, and film in the form of Dada and Surrealism. Dada was born in Zurich in the 1910s and was essentially a polemical assault on the accepted notions of a mediocre bourgeois society. Irrationality and provocation were the main thrusts of this attack, which later mutated into Surrealism. The Dadaists’ approach to cinema and literature focused on perverting the logical and coherent concepts of narrative, which can clearly be seen in the films of the period, from Man Ray’s purely graphic Retour a la Raison to spatial and temporal corruption in Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. As Man Ray said, the aim (of Dada and Surrealist cinema) is “deliberately to try the patience of the audience.”
Rather than completely destroying narrative, the avant-garde has had a variety of different approaches, from Godard’s gestures of “counter cinema”4 through the feminist perspectives of Constance Penley5 to the various forms of Dada hostility. It is into this reconsideration of narrative that the recent “structural-materialist” films of the ‘50s and ‘60s fit. They operate in an arena of the “independent” and harbor a concern with the connection of an avant-garde cinema with similar gestures in other areas of the arts. In the case of William Burroughs, the cut-up technique is an extension of a literary concept, and in the case of the New York-based Fluxus group, cinema represents extensions of “concept art.” Throughout this history of alternative cinema there is evident this spirit of extension and collaboration, from Surrealism and Dada, which also began as literary endeavors, through to the Fluxus group and the French Situationists who work throughout various mediums in the spirit of “expanded arts.”
I will concentrate on the areas of structural materialist cinema and its connections with other experiments in the expanded arts. I maintain this approach as the cut-up techniques championed by Burroughs are presaged and peered by various similar experiments in this arena.
Introduction to the Structural Film
This section is intended to delineate a general background to the underground film developments of the 1960s that maintain a concern with structure and consequently the materiality of the medium.
P. A Sitney, an American film critic for Film Culture, first identified the area of avant-garde filmmaking known as “structural film” in 19696. His basic definitions are a useful introduction to these concepts . Before this in America there only existed the catchall category of “underground film,” which defined all independent cinema outside of the mainstream.
Prior to the emergence of the structural trend, the underground was dominated by a strain of filmmaking known loosely as “mythopoetic film,” exemplified mainly by Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and Stan Brakhage. Sitney argued that the emergent structural trend, whereby the whole shape of the film is simplified and predetermined, was dependent on a governing mathematical/thematical structure that dictated the form and content of the film.
Sitney went on to actually attempt to define salient features of the structural film (a point of contention with many later English film critics)/ These were “a fixed camera position, the flicker effect, loop printing. and re-photography of the screen.”7 Many of these categories are perfunctory, as processes such as “re-photography of the screen” appear in many nonstructural films as a purely aesthetic device.
Using a heuristic (rule-of-thumb) definition, the structural film has no narrative agents or poetic/symbolist content (if these exist, they are subservient to the domination of structure), and formal devices such as the cut or zoom are used as theme for the film.
“These works are basically exploring the whole reproduction process that underpins the medium, including the film material, and the optical, chemical, and perceptual processes.”8
The medium is thus conceptualized as an exploration of a visual system analyzing the reproduction process itself. Mainstream film analysis overtly foregrounds the rendering of “reality,” whereas “structural” film treats this approach as one of a plethora of possibilities. This allows for a broader definition, which Birgit Hein9 breaks down into three rough areas:
The film strip (This incorporates photographic processes and direct work on the film strip)
Projection using intervening light (perceived motion and animation)
The perceived image (the perceptual process based on the separate frames of a film)
Many early antecedents to these definitions are evident, such as work directly onto the film strip. This can be seen in Man Ray’s film Retour a la raison (1923), an extension of one of his “Rayogram” techniques in photography. (The film caused an uproar at a riotous Dada event — the coeur a barbe evening — by confronting the bourgeois audience with an abstract sequence rather than the expected feature film.)
Another early antecedent of a structural approach can be seen in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Sitney’s and Hein’s “structural” elements can clearly be seen. The reproduction process becomes a conscious theme; Vertov shows a film strip as “material” using photographic and editing techniques as manipulatory processes, such as inverting images, looping sections of the film, and animating (giving purely cinematic movement to) objects such as a movie camera on a tripod.
The development of a theory of structural film cannot be dealt with in terms purely related to cinematic developments; rather it is necessary to examine structural film in terms of contemporary problems (and their contexts) within other arts, in the same way that Man Ray’s film approaches can be paralleled with his techniques in photography.
American Structural Film
The structural film of America in the late 1960s was born out of, as previously mentioned, the mythopoetic underground cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s (Deren, Anger, Markopoulos, et al.). These filmmakers were in turn inspired by the Surrealist/Dadaist cinema of Europe in the 1920s such as Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou and Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poet. These were screened for the first time in America during this period by Cinema 16, a film screening group dedicated to presenting “alternative” cinema. A major connecting point between these two “movements” was the radical and formal rejection of the established film industry, and along with this, the idea that filmmaking could be an autonomous artistic activity.
MothlightStan Brakhage emerged from this psychological/surrealist tradition in ‘50s America, and created abstract “flicker” films such as Mothlight (1963) in which dead leaves and various found material were glued to the film strip. The film strip became as much the work as the projected film; however it was a gesture to represent what a moth may perceive, rather than a purely materialist gesture. This represents a shift important to the American structural/materialist film. Also, in much of his earlier work, Brakhage scratched onto the film surface, although again this was a symbolic gesture in that the abstractions in his work were incorporated to represent the phenomenon of closed-eye vision. Bruce Conner is also an important forerunner to the emergence of the American “structural film.” He utilized “found footage” from feature films, newsreels, and advertisements and edited them together under a unified film score soundtrack. In A Movie (1958), these features are clearly seen, constructing the film from footage which he did not shoot. Again, however, there remains the problem of the symbolic gesture in Conner’s film as it attempts to show an apocalyptic end to the world.
Robert Breer perhaps represents a closer affiliation to “structural film,” his work from 1954 onwards consisting of frame-by-frame collage and other techniques. His films do not belong to the poetic narratives of Conner and Brakhage and formally exclude literary content. His move into film was facilitated by his background as an abstract painter, and his interest as a filmmaker lay in investigating the threshold between cinematic and normal perception. He also makes a conceptual leap of regarding his films as “objects” and shows them often as loop installations.
Highly influential and important to the development of structural film were the works of the Fluxus group — headed by John Cage as a teacher of conceptual art practices, himself coming from an avant-garde music/composition background from Europe. George Maciunas has emphasized the importance of their work, expounding a theory against representationalism in art, semiotics, illusionism, and abstraction. In Maciunas’ essay “Neo Dada in the USA” (1962), he asserts that Fluxus embraced concretism and art-nihilism, which champion the unity of form and content: “A plastic artist who is a concretist sees a rotten tomato for what it is and represents it as such, without transformation, i.e., it is a rotten tomato and not a pictorial or symbolic representation which is confused and illusionist.” Films by the group include Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film, in which clear film is intended to gather dust and scratches; also, George Maciunas’ Ten Feet of Film with No Camera, which is rather self-explanatory. These precursors reflect structural film’s concentration upon the elements of light projection and film material. Although the film activity was marginal to Fluxus’ output, the films are still highly important in their conceptual position of using the film itself as theme.
Warhol’s static frame films are identified by Sitney as an influence on the structural aesthetic (in that they appear minimal, and deconstruct narrative) and ideology. His films echo some of Fluxus’ concerns in reducing film to single shots and emphasizing a purely mechanical reproduction process replacing the artist, as evidenced in Sleep (1964) and Empire (1967).
There is no dramatic action or narrative development, emphasizing again a conceptual break with the mythopoetic American underground. Various other filmmakers now became preoccupied with the materiality of film, exposed to the filmmakers previously mentioned through screenings in New York (via Cinema 16 and also Jonas Mekas’ screenings via the New York Film-Makers Co-op) and theoretical debates raised in such journals as Film Culture George Landow’s Film in which there appear sprocket holes, edge lettering and dirt particles etc. (1965) makes use of found film material, and a loop structure is used a la Breer.
Tony Conrad’s film The Flicker (1966) investigates perception through use of stroboscopic effects (alternating black and white frames) at various frequencies , portraying a sensual — materialist film experience. This work is also echoed in the films of Paul Sharits. In Piece Mandala (1966), colors are introduced into the stroboscopic high-frequency image, giving the impression of movement to the retina. These flicker experiments continue the experimental move of film into the realm of sensual human experience, reflected in the ‘60s through use of drugs and technological developments such as Dolby and stereo equipment that heightened the sensual experience of arts such as music (although Dolby sound systems were not extended into the cinema until the early ‘70s).
The new aesthetic of image as reality became more widespread, and by 1965 a “New Cinema Festival” held in New York and organized by the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque arranged “screenings” of dance and film material projections.
At this time, European developments in experimental “formal film” had been progressing along similar lines although independently of America. These developments were occurring foremost in Vienna, pioneered by Peter Kubelka’s Adebar (1957), in which there is mathematically strict rhythmic variation of a single frame. Kurt Kren was also working on what were (retrospectively) to be recognized as structural films in Vienna at this time. Both Kren and Kubelka were influenced heavily by “structural” musical approaches in Vienna such as serialist Anton Webern and Schoenberg. Terms such as “expanded cinema,” “object film,” and “action film” are applied to these Austrian films.
Vienna’s revolutionary anarchic group comprising the Austrian Filmmaker’s Co-op had a unique approach to film making linked closely with the “institute for direct art’. The films produced contain highly sophisticated editing techniques and documenting the “materialaktions.” These were performance art pieces whereby the human body is treated as the material and action against the body becomes the material for the film. The filmed and edited action is then transformed into a filmic “action.” The group worked closely with art, performance, and filmmaking (filmmaking was a more immediate concern than with Maciunas’ Fluxus group, for example). Conceptually the films and performance events sought to please or horrify the audience and were primarily a confrontational device.
Otto Muehl’s materialaktion was the basis for Kren’s film Mama und Papa (1969), the re-edited footage employing some techniques identified by Sitney in terms of “structural film.” These are loop printing and flicker effects achieved through frenetic re-editing of the material. An earlier Kren film, Anaaktionbrus (1964), employs similar techniques, black-and-white frames inserted into the filmed footage of Gunter Brus’ self-mutilation and attaining the flicker/disorientation effect.
“Kren worked in the Osternechische National Bank until he was sacked for running a “shit in” at the University; he is a short, loveable, old-fashioned type of guy who loves his beer and his films. He wrote about one of his films, “Next week I’ll finish a new film. It is very dirty being about eat-drink-piss-shitting. Many friends will hate me after having seen that film. Sorry, it had to be done.”10
This demonstrates Kren and other Viennese aktionists as posited in the tradition of Dadaist confrontation with a bourgeois element. This was very much in the same way that Fluxus, and even before them, Deren and Anger found inspiration and kindred ideas in the works of Dada and Surrealism. I would argue that this desire to challenge is inherent in the structural film with its endurance-test-like, explicitly anti-coherent films that in many cases embody visual and auditory overload on the audience.
The European materialaktion is a basis for many Austrian films that form part of the Film Co-op; however, Peter Kubelka is not in this group, his similarities existing only in terms of his approach to editing. The Austrian Co-op’s destruction themes arguably are a response to the conservativism of Austrian society.
In the 1960s, destruction (Viennese aktionists towards themselves and the audience, at the actions, and through frenetic editing practices) and deconstruction themes are applicable to the films in terms of narrative polemics and foregrounding the films’ techniques and the narratives’ visceral content.
English Structural Film
Another major influence on the evolution of the structural cinema came from the London Filmmaker’s Co-op in England. This was set up in October 1966, and began primarily from an interest in film rather than a need to expose indigenous filmmaker’s work. This Co-operative movement was part of the many liberating facets of “swinging London” in the mid-‘60s. Such venues as the UFO club in Tottenham Court Road were host to 24-hour events of live music, film, and light shows. The Co-operative really began out of the Better Books store, owned by concrete poet Bob Cobbing (who would undoubtedly have been familiar with Gysin’s work within sound poetry). This was the venue for poetry readings and dedicated underground film screenings. The Co-op’s film library was mainly composed of films from the new American Cinema (already mentioned in the previous section), but among the British filmmakers who supported the Co-op were Steve Dwoskin, Jeff Keen, Simon Hartog, Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice, and Fred Drummond. The majority of people involved in the project were not from a primarily film background, rather from a literary tradition of poetry, writing, and criticism.
The outstanding climate in the Co-op was therefore one of criticism, achieved through the Co-op’s own publication, cinim, and other independent journals such as Afterimage and Cinema Rising.
The critics Gidal, Le Grice, et al. developed their theories and subsequently (as a result of their theories) their films. Gidal and Le Grice were particularly concerned with the structural film and dedicated much of the Co-op’s criticism, screening, and filmmaking activities in this direction. Many of these criticisms developed in a political sense: “Activities were aimed against the capitalist, ‘bourgeois’ film industry itself, which was alleged to put forward a false reality in order to uphold its own consumer ideologies, and to work as a closed capitalist system for making money.”11
Ascetic structuralism was a major line of inquiry in the London-based structural movement. Films by Gidal such as Condition of Illusion (1975) and Room Film (1973) serve as suitable examples. These works vacate the content of the film and seek to eliminate the “illusionistic” nature of the image.
Another element of the English structural approach lay in “light play films,” which examined the nature of the projector, projection beam, and projection surface. This is essentially a three-dimensional cinema acknowledging sculpture and performance art. An example of this would be Tony Hill’s Source Point (1974), in which he holds a high-intensity light bulb between himself and the screen and places objects over and around the light source, projecting on the screen, walls, and ceiling. A third area of specialization are the “landscape films,” in which the shape and content are determined by factors occurring in the landscape. In Chris Welby’s Park Film, for example, the shutter is only released when a person walking through the park passes in front of the lens, structuring the editing around “natural” occurrences in that particular landscape. These areas of film asceticism are clearly anticipated in much of the work described by the Fluxus group around ten years previously. However, the critical faculties of the London Co-op are more highly focused in an ontological sense, criticizing and defining their own pure “structural” aesthetic as Sitney had previously done.
An Introduction to Burroughs’ and Gysin’s Cut-up Theory and Practice
I will concentrate this study on two films made between 1961 and 1966 by the English filmmaker Anthony Balch, the painter Brion Gysin, and the American writer William S. Burroughs. Certain techniques in these films clearly predate many of those claimed by the American and English structural/materialist movements. Curiously, they are omitted from the standard histories and lists of precursors.
William Burroughs was born in St. Louis in 1914. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and went on to study medicine in Vienna. He traveled extensively in his youth and at one point researched pre-Colombian civilizations in Mexico. In 1944 he became addicted to heroin. His writing career began in the early 1950s with encouragement from poet and friend Allen Ginsberg, and he gained the reputation of elder of the beat movement in New York. He subsequently lived in Paris, London, Tangier, and New York in the 1960s, which is the period on which I am currently focusing.
Brion Gysin, an American born in 1916 in England of a Swiss father and a Canadian mother, became a painter early in life and was in fact expelled from the Surrealist group in Paris by Andre Breton when he was only nineteen years old. He lived in Tangier as a restaurant owner for many years before relocating to Paris, where he met Burroughs in the late 1950s. (Gysin died in 1986.)
In Paris, September 1959, both Burroughs and Gysin were in residence at 9 Rue Git le Coeur (the famous “Beat Hotel”). It was there that Brion Gysin, while mounting some drawings, accidentally sliced through a pile of old New York Herald Tribunes, which he was using to protect his table. He observed that where a strip of text had been cut away, the print on the next page linked up and could be read across, combining different stories from other pages. Later Gysin showed the discovery to Burroughs. Having himself recently completed the avant-garde novel The Naked Lunch, Burroughs pronounced the technique a project for “disastrous success.”
Burroughs stated, “I felt I had been working towards the same goal … any narrative passage or any passage of poetic images is subject to any number of variations, all of which may be interesting and valid in their own right … cut-ups establish new connections between images.”12
Burroughs’ own literary work was in a naturally fragmented state; Naked Lunch appears very similar to the cut-up texts he and Gysin were to work on, even though it was written prior to their discovery. He felt that “anyone with a pair of scissors could become a poet,”13 echoing the sentiments of Lautremont, who said that “poetry should be made by all.”
Of course, this technique is not without its precedents. In 1897, Stephane Mallarme’s poem “Un coup de des jamais n’aborlira le hazard” (A throw of the dice can never abolish chance) distributed the individual words across 21 pages scattered and disjointed with the occasional blank page, giving “structure” an equal compositional value to content. Also, Guillaume Apollinaire in “Calligrammes” (1914) composed poems into typographical layout shapes. Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s random poetry from the 1920s bears a remarkable similarity to the cut-up technique in that he had cut-out phrases and words that he produced from a hat and read in random order. However if there were a patron saint of experimental poetry, it would be Quirinus Kuhlmann (1651-1689), who wrote the “variable poem” “The Kiss of Love.” Only the first and last words of any line are to be kept, along with any one of the thirteen in between, thus maintaining meter and giving millions of possible combinations (Kuhlmann was burned at the stake by the Lutheran patriarch of Moscow for his chiliastic beliefs).14
Despite the numerous experimental precursors to this literary technique, Gysin’s application of the montage technique to writing never received such a sustained and intense investigation as Burroughs and he were to achieve, first collaborating on a collection of cut-ups entitled “Minutes to Go” (1960) and later Burroughs producing three cut-up novels, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964).
Describing the discovery of cut-ups, Brion Gysin stressed, “The cut-up method treats words as the painter treats his paints, raw materials with rules and reasons of its own.”15. Because of his experience as a painter, Gysin was able to see the fundamental elements of literature as pictorial materials to be used like any other forms, shapes, colors, or textures. Burroughs and Gysin’s individual and collaborative efforts in these areas have extended into a vast range of media aside from literature such as tape cut-ups and importantly the technique was transferred to cinema.
The Cut-ups in Film
In Paris in 1960, young filmmaker Anthony Balch met Brion Gysin and subsequently Burroughs through his friend Jean Claude de Feugas. Balch was born in England in 1938 and learned film craft in the advertising industry during the mid-1950s. He subsequently worked as an editor, distributor, exhibitor, and director. (He died in 1980.)
Balch was familiar with Burroughs’ writings and the new ideas concerning the cut-ups, and he wanted to collaborate with him in order to find a cinematic equivalent for Burroughs’ writing.
The first of these experimental films was Towers Open Fire, shot between 1961 and 1962 in Paris and Gibraltar. Not released until 1966, it runs eleven minutes. The film was premiered at the London Pullman Cinema along with Tod Browning’s 1932 feature Freaks. It was later screened at the Times Theatre on Baker Street and the Piccadilly Jacey, which Balch programmed in the late 1960s. Interestingly, it was also screened as part of the International Times launch party (the spontaneous festival of underground film at the Cochrane Theatre organized by I.T. and the two-week-old London Filmmakers’ Co-op) in September 1966.16
Towers Open Fire is a collage of the main themes and situations or “routines” that appear in Burroughs cut-up novels of the period. The soundtrack accompaniment is a mixture of recordings made by Burroughs on a cheap Grundig tape recorder and resembles many of the cut-up tape experiments achieved in collaboration with Ian Somerville. The rest was done in a studio, with some Arab music used. The film depicts society as crumbling in the form of a stock exchange crash, shots of which were purchased from Pathé news. Members of “a board” are dematerialized, and Burroughs plays an omnipresent role in the film (not least as the victim of an “orgasm attack” in which he leaps through a window and shoots family photos with a ping-pong gun). There are also important scenes using facial projections in which a face has a light mask projected onto it.17
Also appearing in the film are early flicker experiments courtesy of Gysin’s “dream machine” (1962), a flicker machine that when viewed with eyelids closed reproduces alpha-rhythm flicker and reputedly causes 360-degree fractal hallucinations without the use of chemical stimulants. There is also a scene in which Burroughs’ friend Mickey Portman dances around in a comic, music-hall fashion, and looks up to the sky to see a dancing series of pink and blue dots. These were hand-painted by Balch onto clear leader for each print of the film. An important section of the film is the actual “cut-up” sequence. Filmed on a quayside in Paris, this sequence is the first filmic example of the cut-ups, and it lasts around 30 seconds. Initially Burroughs is seen walking along the quayside, and the original linear footage has been rearranged into a mathematically precise cutting ratio at 12 frames (or two cuts per second). This reveals arbitrary cutting with regard to what is happening in the sequence in terms of content motivation, but a mathematical “structure” can be deduced by the cut every 12 frames. The sequence goes on to become more frenetic, culminating in a cyclical segment (or loop) in which each frame is different and imperceptible (reminding one of sections of Man with a Movie Camera).
Following this brief exposition of what was to come, in The Cut Ups, instead of rendering Burroughs’ writing, Balch reinterprets it as a pure cinematic technique. After Towers Open Fire, Balch was to film a 23-minute silent documentary of Gysin and Burroughs at the Beat Hotel in 1961, the Muniria Hotel in Tangier and the Hotel Chelsea in New York in 1963. The film was to be entitled Guerrilla Conditions. The subject matter can be compared to Towers Open Fire as parts of Burroughs’ novels and documents of his life at that period. It also contains several sequences that are rumored to be Balch’s attempt at filming The Naked Lunch, an ongoing project that was eventually shelved as appropriate financing could not be raised. Guerilla Conditions was in fact never realized, but the footage was shot and it became the basis for The Cut Ups.
The Cut Ups was conventionally edited and then cut into four approximately equal lengths. It was then assembled into its final state by taking one-foot lengths from each of the four sections that were cut together with mathematical precision — 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 etc. Variations to this structure occur randomly when a shot change occurs within one of the already edited one-foot lengths.
Balch faced very difficult grading problems. “Twenty minutes with one change every foot was just too much, what we did was to have a graded fine-grain print made of the edited sequences and then chop up the fine grain and make a dupe negative from it, so the film prints at one light.”18 The film was cut into exact lengths by none of the actual artists. “The actual chopping was done by a lady who was employed to take a foot from each roll and join them up. A purely mechanical thing, nobody was exercising any artistic judgement at all.”19
The length of the shots, with the exception of the last, is always the same (apart from the shot changes within the one-foot sections). Balch experimented extensively with the speed at which the film was run. “I asked myself what was the shortest length that anyone could really take a scene in, shorter than a foot not everyone could see everything, longer than a foot and they’d have time to examine it.”20 (20). The film can also be shown at variable speeds. “I’ve shown the film at 16 frames per second instead of 24, and it is also very interesting.”21
The soundtrack was made by Somerville, Burroughs, and Gysin. They asked Balch how long the film was, and they produced permutated phrases to the exact length of 20 minutes and 4 seconds, including the final “Good. Thank you.” These permutated phrases are repeated and phased like a Steve Reich22 composition. There are four in all: “Yes, Hello?”, “Look at that picture,” “Does it seem to be persisting?”, and “Good. Thank you.”23
The Cut Ups was completed in 196324 but played much later at the Cinephone Academy Moviehouse in Oxford Street in 1966. Audience members are reputed to have walked out complaining that the film was “disgusting” and then were referred by cinema staff to the “U” certificate it had been granted. It ran for a fortnight and eventually had to be shortened from 20 minutes to 12 minutes because staff and manager couldn’t stand running it five times a day. Roy Underhill, the assistant manager at the time, told Balch that during the performances an unusual number of strange articles such as bags, pants, shoes, and coats were left behind, lost property, probably out of complete disorientation.
Towers Open Fire and, more importantly, The Cut Ups were not run in exclusively avant-garde establishments, as the London Filmmakers’ Co-op had not yet set up dedicated screenings. This enabled Burroughs and Balch to catch audiences unaware of what they were going to see. They would not be expecting such an outright attack on narrative logic — much in the tradition of the direct attack on bourgeois sensibilities that had been achieved by Dada and Surrealist filmmakers in the 1920s.
The big problem with filmmakers’ co-ops is that audiences go along expecting to be challenged and even outraged, thus negating any real potency to do so. The Cut Ups did achieve this on its release, as English audiences had not yet been exposed to much, if any, provocative avant-garde film practice.
This “misunderstanding” is reflected in reviews such as the Monthly Film Bulletin’s “a cinematic reductio ad absurdum, a mechanical and quite pointless exercise.”25 And regarding the soundtrack, “simple phrases repeated ad nauseam.”26 Ignored were the nihilistic aspects of the film and its confrontational approach to audience and language/logic as a control system.
In his book Here to Go, Gysin said that “Burroughs pushed Cut-ups so far with variations of his own that he produced texts that were sickeningly painful to read.” The Cut Ups recreates this in cinema; it too is almost “sickeningly painful” to watch and try to make sense of. This is a way of “deranging the senses” in the Rimbaud sense. In this context, Burroughs and Balch can be seen as modernists developing beyond Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Robbe-Grillet and revealing the actual structure of writing and cinema, while also creating new juxtapositions and fresh and hidden meanings in the texts. This predates the “structural film’s” concepts and does not pursue the political, Marxist positions of Gidal et al. of losing content. Rather, the cut-up creates new, poetic, crippled syntax and reflects a basic concern with narrative juxtaposition.
Wider Theoretical Debates and Contexts
Sitney’s original critical approach in identifying the trend of structural film is important in that it is the first real critical work that aspires to a recognition and delineation of the phenomenon specific to film. However, due to his incomplete knowledge of certain precursors in film and other arts, he paints a short-sighted definition of structural cinema, positing it within his own clique of the New York Film-Makers’ Co-op.
In George Maciunas’ “Comments on Structural Film,27 he presents a wider range of influence in other arts and a reappraisal of Sitney’s formulation, making several important gestures. The very semantic nature of the term “structural” is criticized, as it refers not only to simple , minimal structures, but as a general term that can be divided into complex (polymorphic) and simple (monomorphic) structures.
In “Expanded arts diagram,” 28 Maciunas proposed the category of “monomorphic structure,” which is applied to a single, simple form exhibiting essentially one structural pattern. He argues that this tends to border on concept art since it represents an “idea” and its material is concepts. The Cut Ups fits into this conceptual model as it exhibits the monomorphic structural pattern throughout. (Although I would argue that its currency and materials are not merely concepts, but the new juxtapositions and meanings that the shots acquire via the application of the structure.) Towers Open Fire represents a polymorphic structure; however the “cut-up” sequence of the film can easily be viewed as an independent monomorphic sequence.
Arnulf RainerA useful comparative film to use here is Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer. Maciunas also raises the point that Arnulf Rainer is not monomorphic (as Sitney implies through his usage of the term “structural”) but polymorphic in structure. Arnulf Rainer concentrates explicitly upon the various juxtapositions available from limited cinematic “units” (black frame, white frame). The Cut Ups does not rely on two basic units but on four film strips to which the basic structural pattern is applied.
These elements in the strips never “recur,” as do the black and white frames in Arnulf Rainer. This therefore provides a progression, reflecting the films’ concern with “content.” With a set number of basic units there are only a finite number of variations available. The Cut Ups operates on three levels of juxtaposition. The mathematical cuts on a vertical level (1-4 in the diagram) represent the “structure” and bring four reels of film into arbitrary connection with one another. A second occurs on the horizontal or linear frame-to-frame level of the original pre-cut film (1-24 in the diagram), giving also a linear progression (but only at this level). The third juxtaposition occurs with the soundtrack’s relation to the image. This further fractures the film as the permutated phrases overlap and phase to produce complex rhythmic ideas originating from simple phrases. These do not condone the rhythm of the visual cuts on screen, thus further embellishing the auditory/visual complexity of the film.
In Arnulf Rainer, Kubelka’s binary cinematic raw material explores the two basic cinematic units, varying the mathematical structure (making it polymorphic) as it is impossible to vary the frames any further than black or white. Kubelka is therefore embraced by the “ascetic structuralists” (Le Grice and Gidal) for emptying his film of content. In The Cut Ups, however, concern is placed onto the arbitrary relationships that the monomorphic structure brings to the frames of the already extant footage. This is the raison d’être of the cut-up project. Kubelka does state, however, that “articulation in the film takes place between one frame and the next, between one sound and the next, and between sound and synchronous image,”29 a concern shared with The Cut Ups. This leads into further and subsequent criticism of Sitney’s perspectives that were afforded via the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, strongly influenced by Film Culture and the New American Cinema that it championed. Filmmaker critics such as Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal, and Deke Dusinberre worked on taking the application of structure to film to self-destructive extremes in their films and theoretical writings. Ascetic structuralism, light-play, and structural “landscape films” offered intense development in structure above content of the films. The ascetic and light-play films seek to eradicate the film altogether, echoing moves already clearly anticipated in the Fluxus group, but instead taking a theoretical thrust that would bring them into collision with linguistic and ontological theory of Christian Metz et al.
Gidal’s and Le Grice’s theory works on the illusionistic nature of narrative and of “emptying from the cinematic signifier all semantic, associative, representational significance,”30 viewing content from political Marxist perspectives as a feature of dominant ideology used to manipulate and sedate the spectator. Gidal continues: “The structural/materialist film must minimize the content in its overpowering, imagistically seductive sense”31. This denies content and thus “representationalism,” occurring on a binary level in Arnulf Rainer, and thus disallowing all but the most basic visual relationships to occur between the images. In Christian Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier,” he states, “Basic to the constitution of the cinematic signifier is that it is absent: unlike the theatre in which real persons share the time and space of the spectator.”32 The projector and cinematic apparatus (even used in light-play films, which verge on performance art/theatre) project shadows and patterns of light — “representations” of a certain “reality.”
Burroughs and Balch are not involved in this line of enquiry, their approach being wholly different in that their concern is with content. They are not concerned with the imaginary status of the cinematic signifier, only with fresh propinquity of narrative elements. The results may often seem nonsensical, but they represent the new antirational meanings sought by the cut-up operative. This concern with relationships between units of meaning reflects Vertovian concepts of cinematic expression and Kubelka’s serialist musical heritage and its approach to film.
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, amongst his other films, articulates a concern with constructivist theories and, primarily with relationships between shots (or “intervals”) and making up “phrases.” “It is the interval between two frames which is the important element of the articulation of meaning.”33
The Cut-Ups’ concern also clearly remains in this tradition, bringing disparate elements into collision spatially and temporally with the effect of focusing attention onto the importance of the new relationships. Kubelka’s approach to cinema is informed by antecedents in Viennese serialist and minimalist music, such as Gerhard Ruhm’s one-tone music (1952) and Joseph Mattihas Haeur’s rigorous approach to twelve-tone musical structure.34
The “formal” film relies heavily on musical metaphor as this is the most highly developed of the formal arts. However, it is not representational (on a visual level), as cinema clearly is. Kubelka seeks to empty his films of representation, in the same way that John Cage emphasized the importance of silence/vacancy in his compositions of the 1950s. However, Kubelka’s films emphasize relationships between frames as highly important to the articulation of meaning. “Just as Webern reduced music and the interval to the single tone, so Kubelka reduced film to the film frame and the interval between two frames.”35 Arnulf Rainer is a film arranged into frame sequences (“phrases” in Vertov’s terminology) and achieves as many different relationships between the frames as possible by varying the structure.The Cut Ups can therefore be divided into two different approaches. The first approach is the concern with rigorously applying a monomorphic cutting structure to film footage and creating new arbitrary relationships between units, linking hitherto unrelated linear shots into a new spatio-temporal whole. The strongly rhythmic visual cuts play a particularly interesting role, especially when considered as anti-rhythmic elements in relationship to the soundtrack’s constantly shifting tempo. This can be related to minimalist music, hence the need for the full 20-minute duration, in its aim of “derangement of the senses” — relating to the meditative and thus to the repression of logic and coherence. This also ties in with a Dadaist tradition of confrontation and making the audience uncomfortable in order to transgress through entrenched barriers, which all avant-garde art practice attempts to achieve.
The techniques and ideas demonstrated in The Cut Ups and Towers Open Fire are highly important in portraying a more complete picture of a period of experimental filmmaking occurring during the 1960s. These films are unrecognized antecedents of a “structural” avant-garde cinema, yet also represent a unique ontological approach specific to the cut-up techniques of Gysin, Balch, and Burroughs.
1. Burch, Noel. “How We Got into Pictures: Notes Accompanying Correction Please,” Afterimage #8/9, Winter 1980/81.
2. Bordwell, David. Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
3. Drummond, Philip. “Notions of Avant-Garde Cinema” in Drummond, Philip, ed. Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film 1910-1975. Arts Council of Great Britain.
4. Wollen, Peter. “Counter cinema: vent d’est,” Afterimage #4, 1972.
5. Penley, Constance. “The Avant-garde and Its Imaginary.” An expanded version of a paper presented during the avant-garde event at the Edinburgh Film Festival, August 1970, from Camera Obscura.
6. Sitney, P.A. “Structural Film,” Film Culture, #47, Summer 1969.
8. Hein, Birgit, “The Structural Film,” from Drummond, Film as Film.
10. Dwoskin, Stephen. “Film Is: The International Free Cinema,” London: Overlook Press, 1975.
11. Dwoskin, Stephen. “Film Is: Britain.” Extract from Dwoskin, Stephen “Film Is..’.Ibid.
12. Miles, Barry. “El Hombre Invisible” p.118, Virgin Books, 1993. (These sentiments echo those of Cubist painter George Braque: “I am not so much interested in things as with their relationships with each other.”)
14. Green, Malcolm, ed. “Black Letters Unleashed!” London: Serpent’s Tail/Atlas Press, 1989.
15. Interview with Brion Gysin. Rolling Stone, May 1972.
16. Curtis, David. “Film: An Early Chronology,” Studio International Nov/Dec 1975.
17. A third collaborative film worthy of mention here is Bill and Tony (1972), in which Burroughs and Balch appear as talking heads, blacked out except for the faces. This film was designed specifically to be projected onto the human face, much like the sequences in Towers Open Fire. The film is based on a 1961 idea of Gysin’s in which he appeared “nude” on stage — in fact a photograph of his naked body was projected onto himself.
18. Interview with Anthony Balch. Cinema Rising #1, April 1972 p.12.
22. Steve Reich, American “minimilist” composer of the late 1960s. His compositions consisted of very simple, single lines of music, played repeatedly and gradually “phased” against one another to create complex rhythmic ideas. Reich was inspired by La Monte Young, who wrote similar ascetic pieces in the 1950s, however Reich is a better comparative analogy to use with regard to The Cut Ups due to his use of “phasing” and repetition.
23. This breakdown of one-foot sections of The Cut Ups proceeds in the order C1,R1;C1,R2;C1,R3;C1,R4;C2,R1,;C2,R2; etc.
24. Cantrill’s Filmnotes #43/44, February 1984. p.38. Interview with Brion Gysin. Gysin gives dates of the films contrary to the later dates supplied by the BFI (BFI Dates: Towers Open Fire1963, The Cut Ups 1967).
25. Monthly Film Bulletin. 1967. p. 62. Review of The Cut Ups.
27. Maciunas, George. ” Some Comments on ‘Structural film’ by P. A. Sitney” in Sitney, ed., Film Culture Reader. New York: Praeger, 1970.
28. Maciunas, George. “Expanded Arts Diagram,” Film Culture #43, 1966.
29. Kubelka, Peter. Extracts from an interview with Mike Wallington, Tony Rayns, and John Du Crane. Cinema #9, 1970.
30. Gidal, Peter “Theory and definition of Structural/Materialist film,” from Gidal, Peter, ed., Structural Film Anthology. London: BFI, 1976.
32. Metz, Christian “Le Signifiant Imaginaire: Psychanalyse et cinema” 1977.
33. Vertov, Dziga “We Manifesto” Kinofot #1, 1972. From “Petric, Vlada, Constructivism in Film — Cinematic Analysis: The Man with the Movie Camera. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. The Soviet constructivist avant-garde saw the artist as an engineer who constructed useful objects for the postrevolutionary society.
34. Weibel, Peter “The Viennese Formal Film” from Drummond, Film as Film.
35. Ibid., p. 109.
“Death smells.” That pronouncement, delivered by William S. Burroughs with the granite hauteur of a smirking Grim Reaper begins “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within,” Yony Leyser’s sympathetic documentary portrait of the formidable proto-Beat author of “Naked Lunch.”
“I mean it has a special smell, over and above the smell of cyanide, carrion, blood, cordite or burnt flesh,” he continues, reading this excerpt from his novel “Cities of the Red Night” as the camera studies a face that suggests the stone bust of a patrician zombie.
A little later in this documentary, “A Man Within,” there is a pungent video of Burroughs’s incantatory recitation of his 1986 “Thanksgiving Prayer,” a facetious rundown of horrors to be grateful for — “Thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through” — juxtaposed with a double-exposure of the poker-faced author and a rippling American flag and other patriotic symbols. Later there is an amusing deadpan rendition of Burroughs croaking Marlene Dietrich’s signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” in German, from his 1990 album, “Dead City Radio.”
Narrated by Peter Weller, who played a Burroughs-like character in David Cronenberg’s movie “Naked Lunch,” “A Man Within” is embellished with scratchy line drawing that evokes Burroughs’s skeletal vision of humanity. There is not a word or image wasted in a documentary you wish ran an extra half-hour beyond its condensed 90 minutes.
It is all either blood-chilling or hilarious. For those who celebrate Burroughs as one of the darkest and greatest of all comic artists, he is an extreme social satirist of Swiftian stature, whose quasi-pornographic images offer a stark, ghastly/funny photonegative image of the American body politic.
“A Man Within” is a kind of genealogy of hip that connects Burroughs, who was born in St. Louis in 1914, the wealthy Harvard-educated grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company, with many currents of America’s outlaw cultural tradition. He was a close friend and sometime lover of Allen Ginsberg, with whom he is shown in conversation — and an idol of punk rockers like the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, Iggy Pop and Sonic Youth. Foremost among his admirers is Patti Smith, who recalls having a crush on him and credits him as the source of pop-culture terms like “blade runner,” “heavy metal” and “soft machine.”
Besides Ginsberg, who died in 1997, another great friend and inspiration was Brion Gysin, the Surrealist artist whose application of the Dadaist cut-out technique to writing Burroughs enthusiastically adopted.
While burnishing the Burroughs mystique, “A Man Within” assiduously tries to humanize an author whom it is all too easy to view as an avenging nihilist, a black hole of icy misanthropic contempt. It goes into considerable depth about his homosexuality. A product of the pre-gay liberation era, he had a physical passion for Ginsberg that was mostly unrequited, and for most of his life relied largely on hustlers for sex.
His on-and-off heroin addiction and writings about drugs may have made him a hipster saint, nicknamed “the pope of dope,” but his message about heroin was a warning not to take it. He was obsessed with control, and for many years was controlled by his addiction.
Two family tragedies stalked him. In 1951, while playing a drunken game of William Tell in Mexico, he accidentally put a bullet through the head of his wife, Joan Vollmer, whom his friend, the poet John Giorno, says he loved deeply.
“I’m forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death,” Burroughs is remembered as saying. As a commentary, Burroughs is heard quoting from Edward Arlington Robinson: “There are mistakes too monstrous for remorse.”
In 1981, his son, Billy Burroughs, who had tried to emulate his father, died of acute alcoholism. It was the only time, Mr. Giorno says, that he ever saw Burroughs weep.
Two of the most articulate of the film’s many commentators include John Waters, who sees his own work in the same outsider tradition and who regards Burroughs “as almost a religious figure,” and the gender-bending musician and performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.
Late in life Burroughs softened somewhat, recalls James Grauerholz, his companion and executor of his estate. They moved to Lawrence, Kan., where Burroughs, an avid gun fetishist, took up visual art and produced “shotgun paintings,” made by shooting a can of spray paint placed in front of a plywood board.
His last words, scrawled in a journal shortly before his death in 1997, are among the most conciliatory he ever wrote: “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is.”
William S. Burroughs
A Man Within
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan. Written and directed by Yony Leyser;edited by Ilko Davidov; produced by Carmine Cervi, Mr. Davidov and Mr. Leyser;released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village.Running time: 1 hour 14 minutes. This film is not rated.
Reunifying psychology of forgiveness and atonement
ACIM postulates that reclaiming the awareness of unity, which it terms “salvation,” is the one viable solution to the only actual problem facing seemingly separated minds, the problem of believing they are separate from each other and from God. This awareness dawns through the process of forgiveness, making up an overall plan of atonement, two concepts that ACIM redefines from traditional Christianity.
ACIM proposes forgiveness as the solution because, it explains, seemingly separated minds in the world feel guilt and fear of God stemming from the mistaken belief that they have offended or attacked God by separating from Him. These minds close off from the awareness from love, and love’s absence is felt as fear. They instead engage in judgment against the illusory world and against others, allowing psychological projection of the fear and guilt felt inside them outward onto seemingly external forces and actors. They believe that what is really coming from inside them is instead coming at them from outside, and so believe that problems are myriad, random, and unrelated, as opposed to there being only one problem, centered on belief in separation. These minds invariably become angry at these perceived external threats and attempt to attack them and defend against them, when in truth, ACIM claims, anger is never justified, attack has no foundation, and real strength lies only in defenselessness. These minds are locked in a cycle of experiencing imagined victimization and seeking impotently for solutions outside themselves, which is not where the true problem is, inside themselves. The solution to all this, ACIM concludes, is atonement, achieved through forgiveness.
Forgiveness in ACIM is not the letting go of actual slights and injuries inflicted by others, but is instead the recognition that others have not and indeed cannot harm or wrong the mind of the individual perceiver. This unorthodox outlook is possible, ACIM explains, because it is the mind of the perceiver, rather than anyone or anything else, who actually determines all the experiences that he will receive, and also because his mind is still as God created it, meaning that the events that seem to befall him in the world do not actually affect or change him in any real way.
ACIM takes its title from its notion that forgiveness and atonement are accomplished with, and accompanied by, miracles. ACIM defines a miracle more broadly than does traditional Christianity, as essentially being any change of a mind away from fear and separation and towards love and unity, although ACIM’s definition does include traditional miracles like those found in the Bible, such as healing the sick and raising the dead.
Controversy and criticism
While less controversial than many new religious movements, ACIM has encountered controversy and criticism in several areas.
External critical views
ACIM has attracted attention in Christian apologetics and countercult groups due to its use of Christian terminology and concepts. Citing the philosophical differences between ACIM and traditional Christian doctrine, such groups have usually labeled ACIM as a heretical Christian counterfeit and demonically inspired. A similar view was voiced in an Internet essay by an exponent of The Urantia Book, who viewed ACIM’s de-emphasis of sin as specially benefiting, and therefore likely authored by, the Devil. Skeptical groups look askance at the material’s origins in channeling allegedly emanating from Jesus. Author James Hillman at one point made a statement to the effect that he “hated” ACIM, but such words may simply have been uttered in haste, as he later declined to elaborate on that statement when pressed by author D. Patrick Miller during research for the book, The Complete Story of the Course.
Foolish or subversive doctrine
In common with other spiritual doctrines asserting that the world is illusion and that internal thought rather than external physical factors determine what befalls each observer, ACIM doctrines can be viewed as foolish or dangerous to the adherent. ACIM denies such obvious and self-evident commodities as physical laws, sickness, tragedy and death, which denial most all rational quarters would regard as ludicrous. Rationalists may fear, for example, that ACIM’s premise that only defenselessness confers true strenth will lead adherents to harm through foolhardy strategies of utter pacificism in the face of aggression (see “turn the other cheek”). ACIM’s doctrines may also be seen as subversive to the proper functioning of a rational society. ACIM advises adherents to not bother attempting to change the world, but instead simply to change their thinking about the world. The concern may accordingly arise that ACIM will breed “discerning zombies” who retire from the politics of the world rather than remaining active within it. ACIM’s doctrines further run contra to certain core principles upon which societies have always been founded: ACIM would replace punishment with absolute forgiveness, and do away with the concepts of sin and guilt. The adept, according to ACIM, will never even see any attack or offense in the first place. It may easily be argued that human society as it has always been understood would crumble without retributive justice.
The impact of such doctrines appears limited, however, as very few ACIM adherents have taken these doctrines to heart in such a radical, literal way. ACIM has spawned a wide spectrum of interpretation from the radically literalist to the mildly allegorical, with popular ACIM proponents such as Marianne Williamson far more strongly aligned with the latter than the former. Current evidence does not suggest more than a small minority within the ACIM community adhere to literalist interpretations that would deny what is broadly known as “common sense” and attempt to apply ACIM doctrines to radical or subversive effect in the world. Further, there has been no compelling evidence to suggest that any of the few who do interpret ACIM radically have succeeded in producing any significant outcomes. This is perhaps not surprising, since “the razor’s edge” to be trod by any who would literally deny injustice, sickness and death in favor of miracles would be sharp and difficult indeed.
One group in particular, the New Christian Church of Full Endeavor, along with its teaching arm, Endeavor Academy, has generated pointed controversy both inside and outside the ACIM community. The group is headed by an American, Chuck Anderson, who is referred to by himself and his followers as “Master Teacher.” The group has established intentional communities in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin in the USA, Byron Bay in Australia, and Wusterwitz in Germany. These communities have come under criticism of cult behavior, including brainwashing and psychological and physical abuse of members. Ex-members of the Australian community for a time published a newsletter entitled “Holy Smoke,” detailing their claims of abuses occurring at that location. The larger ACIM community has hotly debated whether some of the more unorthodox doctrines of this group are in fact consonant with the teachings of ACIM.
Shallow or waning influence
In common with many other religious and spiritual groups, ACIM has generated a great deal of materialist by-product. Books, seminars, tapes and other merchandise have generated a substantial amount of revenue for popular ACIM proponents, with the accompanying charge that ACIM is actually “big business” driven by profit motive rather than any true spiritual insight. It may also be questioned whether ACIM has made any significant difference in the world: While personal testimonies from adherents are legion to the effect that ACIM has changed their lives and transformed them for the better, at the same time attacks, quarrels, and legal actions rage within the ACIM community, and there is little compelling evidence to suggest ACIM’s influence has rendered its group of adherents substantially less aggressive or more peaceful than any other group, spiritual or otherwise. Further, it is unclear whether the large initial circulation of the ACIM text can be followed by sustained, long-term significance in the spiritual community. The original channeler of the ACIM material has died, and no centralized church has grown up around the material to perpetuate its doctrines. It has been suggested even by as prominent a proponent as Hugh Prather that ACIM’s influence is on the wane.
Some Doctrinal Christian apologists have considered it heretical or counterfeit. Author and Yogi, Joel Kramer, states that the Course could be considered a classic authoritarian example of programming thought to change beliefs. Anton van Harskamp, a Dutch scholar of religion, says that the Course contains, “…endless variation on some universally meant insights in life…” that, “…brings readers of the book, [or] in any case this reader, [to] a mood in which bewilderment and boredom take turns”. Long time teacher of the Course, Hugh Prather, notes that some of the ACIM students that he knew personally had become, “far more separate and egocentric,” with some of them, “[losing] the ability to carry on a simple conversation”. He admits that he and his wife Gayle, “…had ended up less flexible, less forgiving, and less generous than we were when we first started our path!” However, he attributes these behavioral shortcomings to the ego, not to the ACIM philosophy. Throughout the cited article Prather expresses admiration of the tenets of ACIM. His conclusion of the article contains the following statement “A Course in Miracles can survive in the 21st century, in fact it can transform the 21st century, if those who see the Reality it points to choose to extend themselves beyond their ego boundaries and make the interests of another their own”. 
While less controversial than many new religious movements, ACIM has encountered controversy and criticism in several areas.
Some negative critical reviews
Some conservative Christian reviewers have expressed concerns that the doctrines of ACIM may incorporate some cultic tendencies. Citing the theological and philosophical differences between ACIM and traditional Christian theology and philosophy, such apologists have sometimes labeled ACIM as heretical, counterfeit, and as possibly even demonically inspired. 3 Some skeptical groups look askance at the material’s origins in channeling, allegedly emanating from Jesus. Some such reviewers hold that ACIM’s doctrines are subversive to the proper functioning of a rational society, as nowhere does ACIM encourage its students to actively attempt to improve or change the world for the better, and instead ACIM teaches that the material world is merely an illusion.
Noted psychologist and author James Hillman has described the philosophy of ACIM as fascist. He has claimed that: “The roots of fascism exist within… [ACIM] philosophy…. Everybody would make the world as he or she would like it. But trying to get the power to make the world that way is a form of insanity. This is also what Moussolini and Hitler had: omnipotent fantasy.” He has also described ACIM as, “Republican right-wing politics in the guise of spiritual reformation.” However when asked on numerous occasions to explain the basis for this claim, he has replied only that “I have no answers to your questions and do not have the interest to pursue them.” 4
Modern medical research has discovered that after certain physical portions of the brain have been removed the body can still commission functions related to the removed section. The theory of morphogenetic fields can account for situations like this, but as profound as that theory appears to modern consciousness, it lags far behind basic esoteric knowledge of the interior “wiring” of the body. In the west we have been exposed to books, such as Charles Leadbeater’s Chakras6, which describes specific energy centers of the body. A standardized, easily workable science of activating the chakras has not readily been available, however, many systems teach physical and mental techniques to stimulate these etheric vortices into action. Merely focusing on the chakras, while expanding awareness, does not constitute a thorough system for developing and integrating the higher bodies, though it is a step in the proper direction.
One researcher who has experienced the chakras subjectively through yogic practices, as well as through scientific measurement utilizing instruments of his own development is Hiroshi Motayama. He developed two instruments, the LadyGaga-02-big
AMI (Apparatus for Measuring the Functional Conditions of Meridians and their Corresponding Internal Organs), and the Chakra Instrument. The AMI was “designed to measure the initial skin current, as well as the steady state current, in response to DC voltage externally applied at special acupuncture points … these special points are ostensibly the terminal points of meridians where the Ki energy either enters or exits the body.” The Chakra Instrument was “designed to detect the energy generated in the body and then emitted from it in terms of various physical variables … it is designed to detect minute energy changes (electric, magnetic, optical) in the immediate environment of the subject.” The Chakra Instrument is used in a room shielded from light and electrical fields. Research with these instruments has indicated the reality of the meridians and chakras.6 Besides measuring energies in the electromagnetic and optical bands, the human body also emits minute vibrations in the 6-12 cycles per second range, and there are vital energies which have not yet been measured with scientific equipment. Our bodies are dynamos of activity on a broad spectrum of wavelengths.7
The chakras can be understood as specific nexus points along the subtle wiring system of the body, and have also been related to the ductless glands. They are energy connecting points, but also much more. They can be stimulated through concentration and through certain tones—seed syllables—which must be pronounced correctly in order to be activated. The throat chakra contains sixteen ‘petals’, the first seven are a musical scale, the eighth is called the venom of mortality—these eight relate to our sound relationship with the world through speech and music. The ninth through the fifteenth are the seed syllables relating to the seven chakras which can only be pronounced after proper training. The sixteenth is called the nectar of immortality. In Taoism it is said that the thyroid gland in the throat controls speech, and when there is tension in that gland one has trouble speaking, though the tongue itself is connected to the heart.
According to C. W. Leadbeater
“The fifth centre, the laryngeal (see above illustration), at the throat, has sixteen spokes, and therefore sixteen apparent divisions. There is a good deal of blue in it, but its general effect is silvery and gleaming, with a kind of suggestion as of moonlight upon rippling water. Blue and green predominate alternately in its sections.”
The Chakras, Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Ill. p.13
The Throat chakra would seem to rule the faculty of speech, being midway between the heart and the tongue. It is also associated with clairaudience (hearing spiritual voices), and with hearing sounds, words, and music, and with taste, smell. Another function associated with this chakra is taking in and assimilating of physical and emotional nourishment. On the gross level this manifests as sensuous desire and enjoyment for food. This chakra could be associated with the astrological sign of Taurus, which in current astrology is said to ruled by the planet Venus.
In Tibetan Buddhism, this chakra is associated with the dream state of consciousness. Both Tibetans and Taoists use this chakra to access the dream state and develop the faculty of lucid dreaming.
In the Heschyastic system though, the buccolaryngeal centre: “the commonest thought, that of the intelligence, expressed in conversation, correspondence, and the first stages of prayer.” [Eliade, Yoga, Immortality, and Freedom, p.410]
When this chakra is open and functioning well, with a strong flow of Chi, one finds it easy to express oneself, and one’s speech is clear and smooth. When it is blocked, not only does one find speaking or getting the right words out difficult, but one also feels an unwillingness to change.
When there is an insufficent flow of love or emotional nourishment to the Heart-chakra, the person may try to compensate by desire for physical nourishment through the Throat Chakra. Problems with gluttony or compulsive eating would then result. When there is also a negative functioning in the base-of-the-neck chakra (negative self-image) the result could be bullimia and anorexia.
Spokes/Petals: Leadbeater – 16
Colours: Leadbeater – Blue, Silvery, gleaming; Hills – Blue.
Associated Psychological states:
Open and Balanced: You are able to accept things as they are, and organise ways of working with situations. You have the power to make changes [Paulson, p.73], and you are able to take responsibility for your personal needs [Brennan, p.77].
Overactive: You are always trying to take control of things, and especially of other people’s lives [Paulson, p.73].
Weak or Blocked: You have an inability to accept things, and an inability to work with situations. You may have execessive egotism and prejudices [Paulson, p.73]. You tend to see the world as a hostile place, and expect hostility, violence, and humiliation rather than love and nourishment [Brennan, p.77].